The day Kenya’s lawyers elected Paul Muite chairman of their bar association, the Law Society of Kenya, plainclothes police kept their annual meeting under surveillance.
Over the previous weeks, Muite’s car had been stoned and smeared with human feces by people he is sure were government agents. His law firm’s clients were watched and questioned by authorities, and sometimes physically barred from entering his office.
During the trial of some clients charged with sedition and treason, he was threatened with contempt of court. His passport had been seized long before, after he returned from a trip to Washington to accept the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on behalf of a friend, Gibson Kamau Kuria.
So there was scant reason to expect Muite, in his maiden speech as leader of this country’s 1,500 lawyers, to be conciliatory toward a one-party regime showing increasing intolerance of dissent. And he wasn’t. Responding to government charges that growing agitation in favor of multi-party democracy in Kenya is undermining the country’s stability, he proclaimed:
“The greatest danger to public security is the Kenya government itself.”
People have been arrested and jailed without charge here for saying less. But as one of the country’s most prominent human rights lawyers, Muite would have surprised his colleagues by saying anything else.
Now, with his accession March 8 to leadership of the Law Society, known as LSK, he has set up a great political drama that could have long-lasting repercussions in Kenya. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say, as did the Nairobi Law Monthly (whose editor, Gitobu Imanyara, is himself currently being held without bail on sedition charges), that Muite’s chairmanship may place the society “on a permanent collision course with the government.”
Muite, an impeccable dresser who looks a decade younger than his 45 years, objects to that term. “ ‘Collision course?’ That emanates from the government and a few (legal) colleagues we perceive to be government proteges. It’s a subtle threat directed at the Law Society, whose purpose is to intimidate us into silence on issues the government does not want us to speak out on.”
Muite’s determination to continue speaking out has provoked considerable controversy since his election. In his keynote speech that night, he addressed foursquare the most troubling political issues in the country.
For example, he called on the government to register, or legalize, an opposition political party formed by former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, despite a 1982 constitutional amendment making the ruling Kenya African National Union, or KANU, the only legal political party. (The government later formally refused the registration, citing the 1982 provision.)
The next day KANU opened fire. “We are not amused and do not take kindly to the outburst of the newly elected leadership of the LSK,” said the ruling party’s secretary general, Joseph Kamotho, who warned Muite “to stop promoting hostilities toward the party and the state.”
Other government spokesmen suggested that Muite’s mistake was in raising political issues so bluntly. “Muite has every right as an individual to campaign for Odinga’s party, but not through the Law Society,” said Philip Ochieng, editor in chief of the KANU-owned Kenya Times and a leading ideologue of the one-party state.
“The tone has a lot to do with it,” he added--making the implausible suggestion that a polite approach might have provoked a different response from KANU. “If you go tactfully, you gain much more than going like a fox among the chickens. Muite is behaving like a student leader.”
The chairmanship vote was a landslide in Muite’s favor--385 votes to 88 for his opponent, an obscure rural attorney--but the domestic press subsequently gave great play to a succession of Law Society members disavowing Muite’s political stance and even urging that he resign.
Many of these are members of Parliament or otherwise attached to KANU, provoking one former Law Society chairman, G. B. M. Kariuki, to dismiss the anti-Muite campaign as “orchestrated” and “dishonest.”
By March 14, the opponents had succeeded in persuading a judge to enjoin Muite from speaking out on “political” issues and from chairing a Law Society meeting until a hearing later this month.
But Muite’s keynote speech was about as mild as he gets. During a recent interview in his downtown chambers, he bluntly termed the Kenya government a “dictatorship” of President Daniel Arap Moi.
“It’s a one-man show,” he said. Muite says this is not entirely the fault of Moi, who stepped up to the country’s leadership from the vice presidency in 1972, upon the death of President Jomo Kenyatta. “That condition is not reached overnight--it goes back to the previous regime. The former president may have been more benevolent, but under him there was a systematic weakening of institutions.”
In recent years, Kenya’s political stagnation has become more insidious. While two dozen military or one-party civilian states in Africa have moved, however gingerly, toward multi-party democracy in the last year, the Moi regime remains an implacable enemy of change.
Three outspoken advocates of multi-party politics, including two former members of Parliament, remain in jail without charge, where they have languished since the beginning of July. Moi has pledged to hunt down their supporters “like rats.”
When U.S. Ambassador Smith Hempstone suggested last year that in apportioning foreign aid, Congress would be looking more kindly on countries demonstrating some affinity for democratic principles, the official press uncorked a flood of vilification. (“Shut Up, Mr. Ambassador,” was one headline in KANU’s Kenya Times.)
The crackdown on dissent has frayed Kenya’s relations with some of its most important aid donors. Not the least of these is the United States, which put a hold on $10 million in military aid last year and froze this year’s development fund at $26 million, the same as last year. (Half the military aid was paid in January, in recognition of Kenya’s assistance in harboring some U.S.-trained Libyan foes of Moammar Kadafi who fled from Chad during a Libyan-assisted coup there, and in providing a staging base for an evacuation of American diplomats from rebel-beset Somalia.)
There was also a damaging fissure with Norway after Oslo’s ambassador here attended a hearing for a prominent dissident accused of sedition and publicly expressed support for the defendant. Kenya summarily broke diplomatic relations with Norway, evicting all its diplomats and forgoing $26 million in annual aid. (In sympathy with Norway, Denmark slashed its aid to Kenya this year.)
For all that, a public debate over Kenya’s political direction continues to thrive. KANU let some air into the room after a week of anti-government riots last year, establishing a public commission chaired by Vice President George Saitoti to hear complaints from Kenyans around the country and to propose changes in the party’s procedures. The commission recommended some minor cosmetic changes in voting rules and other matters. One key change had been ruled out at the very start, anyway: repealing the 1982 constitutional amendment giving KANU its political monopoly.
What makes the lawyers’ role in this ferment interesting is that no other profession in Kenya has been under such sustained assault from the government over the last decade. It began in 1982, when the Moi regime rammed through Parliament a law making the terms of all judges and the attorney general subject to the president’s pleasure. That destroyed the judiciary’s independence at a stroke.
Lawyers were made subject to a number of commercial licensing laws that put them at the mercy of Kenya’s extensive bureaucracy. The government has also put pressure on lawyers in ways that are less formal, if not more subtle. In Kenya’s highly regulated economy, with close to 100 state-owned corporations, one word from a top KANU or government official can make thousands of dollars in legal fees disappear. Moi himself has said that government corporations should give their business only to “patriotic” law firms.
Muite’s firm, which was founded as Nairobi’s first all-African law firm in 1966 (he joined fresh out of the University of Nairobi Law School in 1970), has lost 90% of the business it had at its peak, he says. From 15 associates, it is now down to five.
Since political agitation became a fact of Kenyan life last year, Muite has remained perhaps the country’s leading unjailed dissident, deeply involved with the defenses of several of those detained. Last July, when the Moi regime arrested 27 opposition figures in less than a week, he spent several weeks in hiding, dodging police squads seeking his detention. The local press aired a rumor that he was hiding out in the American Embassy with his colleague Gibson Kamau Kuria, but in his case it was untrue. (Kuria did take refuge at the embassy and was later allowed to leave for the United States.)
When Muite re-emerged, he was summoned for a remarkable tete-a-tete with Moi himself. The president lectured the lawyer as if he were a wayward schoolboy--thus assuming the African leader’s familiar role of “teacher” of his people--telling Muite he needed to spend more time at home with his family, guiding his three small children.
But Muite remained well within the public eye. Most recently he has been serving as defense counsel for George Anyona, a former member of Parliament charged with sedition for trying to form a new party last year.
And he has spent considerable time addressing the customary arguments African leaders make in support of their single-party regimes.
One is tribalism. Like most African countries, Kenya is an amalgam of dozens of ethnic groups, some more politically active than others. KANU’s position has long been that legalizing opposition parties would be an invitation for their creation along tribal lines, a situation the party contends would lead to chaos and bloodshed.
Muite and others argue the opposite--that one-party government nurtures even worse tribalism. The Kenyan air these days is thick with accusations, for example, that the Moi regime has stocked the most important ministries and government corporations with members of the president’s relatively small tribal group, the Kalenjin.
Interestingly, the party’s response to these charges tends toward the argument that Kenyatta in his days showed even more favoritism toward his tribe, the Kikuyu. (It’s an appealing argument for many Kenyans, who regard the Kikuyu, the largest tribe in the country with 20% of the population, as overbearing and greedy.)
“I’m not playing down ethnic factors,” Muite said. “The question is, how do you deal with them? Most definitely not by pretending that you don’t have it in a one-party state. In the African one-party state, the party is manipulated by the man in the driver’s seat. That leads to his tribe occupying major public offices, and incompetence being promoted.”
In a multi-party state, he argued, it would be a mistake to assume that the tribe would always behave as a unit. “Even if parties were initially formed on a tribal basis, they’d be forced by the nature of politics to form associations with other parties. In a free-market system there would be competition for votes.”
Meanwhile, the uproar over Muite’s Law Society chairmanship has him fighting a rear-guard battle against those who argue that the bar organization should avoid any political involvement--a point of view not generally heard when previous chairmen pledged the society’s fealty to the concept of one-party rule.
“Silence has not helped in 25 years,” Muite said. “The mood in the country is one of realization that, unless people take a stand and speak out for peaceful change, the alternative is the sort of chaos that has occurred elsewhere on this continent. My hope is that there should be one country on the continent that’s an exception.”
Name: Paul Muite
Title: Chairman of the Law Society of Kenya
Personal: Muite was born to Kikuyu parents in Nairobi; his earliest childhood memory is of being moved with them into a communal village by the British colonial government during the Mau Mau emergency--largely inspired by Kikuyu nationalism--in 1954-55. He graduated from the Kenya School of Law in 1970. He and his wife, a doctor, have three children. Muite unabashedly considers himself part of the middle class, and maintains memberships in some of Kenya’s most exclusive country clubs.
Quote: “Those who one might describe as being somewhat more endowed in material things . . . ought to be in the forefront and most concerned with the direction in which this country is moving. They are the ones who have more to lose.”