Willy Mutunga: A Humble Humanist

In the years around 1970, the University of Dar es Salaam was an arena for robust intellectual contentions. The main question was: What direction should post-Independent Africa adopt? On one side were Pan-Africanist, socialist students and staff and on the other, pro-Western, anti-socialist students and staff. They debated in the classroom, in magazines and also informal verbal exchanges in campus corners. It was an acrimonious but peaceful battle of ideas.

Tanzania had the Arusha Declaration and Education for Self-Reliance. It was the external headquarters of most African Liberation movements. With its solid pro-Western orientation, the Kenyan government gave but tepid support to the Liberation movements, and condemned socialism. The University of Dar es Salaam was adapting its curricula towards relevance and socialist ideas while the University of Nairobi sought to remain within the conventional Westernized mould.

There was a sizeable group of students from Kenya at the University of Dar es Salaam. Their political standing also varied from hardcore anti-socialist, to neutrality and to staunch socialist. Among the few academic staff hailing from Kenya, some ascribed to socialism.

For a Kenyan to espouse socialism and anti-authoritarianism in Kenya in those days was to court a harsh reaction from the state. Progressive academics and activists faced police harassment, detention and worse. The case of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is apropos. The kind of vibrant political debate occurring at the University of Dar es Salaam was but a dream for the University of Nairobi.

The danger of socialist mindedness extended to the Kenyan students at the University of Dar es Salaam as well. On returning home, they could be subjected to official harassment on the basis of slightest suspicion. Thus, in 1969, a Kenyan comrade requested that I take care of his books on Marxism and Maoism while he returned to Nairobi for the long vacation. If such books were found in his baggage, he would be marked down as a potential troublemaker, if not worse. Yet, these books were used for some of his courses.

Notwithstanding, a few Kenyan students courageously committed themselves to promoting social justice, democratic governance and egalitarianism in their nation and beyond. Land reform was a major issue in Kenya. In the struggle for Independence, thousands of freedom fighters had laid down their lives in order to attain autonomy and reclaim the rich, fertile land that had unjustly been seized from the people and handed over to white settlers. But the little land redistribution that was done after Independence mostly enriched a few African Kenyans from the ruling circles.

Among the Kenyan committed comrades at the University of Dar es Salaam I recall are Munene Njagi, Kabiru Kinyanjui and Willy Mutunga, the latter now a retired Chief Justice of Kenya and President of the Supreme Court of Kenya.

Willy, as I call him despite his former high office, was a good comrade and my friend. On top of excelling in his academic endeavours at the undergraduate and graduate levels, he assiduously undertook to deepen his knowledge of Pan-Africanism and socialism. Studying the works of scholars like Walter Rodney, he often participated in the progressive activities at the campus. His was always a gentle, humorous yet serious and probing presence. And, as others in this magazine elaborate, upon returning home, he launched himself into the thick and thin of the struggle for democratic governance and social justice, and thereupon suffered harsh repression from the state authorities.

I am blessed to have a compatriot like Willy. I admire his endeavours to reform the elitist judicial system in Kenya and write, in conjunction with Professor Yash Ghai and others, a new Constitution for Kenya. I see it as probably the most progressive national Constitution in Africa. However, the neo-colonial structure of the Kenyan state prevents the actualization of its fine clauses.

Though hobbled by my inability to travel, comrade Willy and I have kept in touch. We meet when he comes to Dar es Salaam. He comes home and we drink tea and ruminate. His visit when he was still occupying the high office was an interesting one. There he was, casually attired and dismounting from his official vehicle. A watchful bodyguard followed him, but Willy greeted me with a wide smile as if we were back in the good old days.

A humble personality, ever accessible to the common man, Willy, with his attachment to the ideals of equality and social justice, is a fine example of where humanity needs to go; an ideal model for lawyers, judges and leaders of our long-suffering continent. Unlike many who, lured by elitist rewards, readily ditch their student day ideals, Willy marches on. I salute you, my brother.

From left: Farida Hirji, Karim Hirji, Willy Mutunga


  • An award-winning retired Professor of Medical Statistics who has published many statistical and biomedical research papers together with articles on education, politics and other issues, six nonfiction books and one novel.

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