NAIROBI-Since Kenya’s Supreme Court decision to nullify the result of last month’s presidential election, Chief Justice David Maraga’s name has been on nearly every Kenyan’s lips — be it in joy or anger.
“He’s an African hero!” shouted 25-year-old Joseph Omullo the day the shock ruling was announced, trying to make himself heard over jubilant crowds in the teeming shantytown of Kibera in the capital Nairobi.
An old woman nearby wept and hollered while holding aloft a five-day-old newspaper, a picture of Maraga on its cover.
“This is the first time we’ve seen justice in Kenya.” one man cried out.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had been declared the poll winner over main rival Raila Odinga, was not so laudatory.
While saying he would abide by the ruling, Kenyatta slammed Maraga and his fellow judges as “crooks” and said: “Maraga thinks he can overturn the will of the people. We shall show you”.
Maraga, the 66-year-old chief justice of Kenya’s Supreme Court, has remained stoic amid the praise and the criticism.
A fervent Christian who is married and father of three children, he says he is guided by two things: his absolute faith in God and in the law.
“I am a God-fearing person who believes in, and endeavours to do, justice to all irrespective of their status in society,” Maraga wrote in his application to replace Willy Mutunga as chief justice in October 2016.
The Seventh-day Adventist vowed to serve humanity and Kenyans “in obedience to God’s command and will, and guided by the Constitution”.
AN HONEST MAN
Born in the southwestern county of Nyamira, a few miles from Lake Victoria, Maraga practised law for 25 years before being tapped as a High Court judge in Nakuru, about 160 kilometres (100 miles) northwest of Nairobi.
He later moved to the High Court in the Kenyan capital then to the appeal courts in Nairobi and Kisumu.
“He is an honest man, not pretending … deeply religious,” lawyer Tom Ojienda, who interviewed Maraga before his Supreme Court nomination, told AFP.
“He was the best (candidate),” Ojienda added, “because he had a history that demonstrated the concerns of a man who worked for society”.
When the Supreme Court invalidated the results of the August 8 presidential election, Maraga declared Kenyatta’s victory “invalid, null and void”, pointing to widespread irregularities in the electronic transmission of vote results.
It was the first time a presidential election result was overturned in Africa.
In the majority 4-2 opinion — with one abstention — Maraga said the electoral commission (IEBC) “failed, neglected or refused to conduct the presidential election in a manner consistent with the dictates of the constitution”.
The court ordered a new vote be held within 60 days.
On Monday, the electoral commission said a new poll will take place on October 17.
“He had the courage to galvanise the other three judges…to take the decision to annul the election,” Ojienda said.
“Maraga is a courageous man, an honest man, a special man”.
DEGREE OF MORALITY
But even before the court’s September 1 ruling, the chief justice had shown signs of independence.
Following his nomination in 2016, Maraga said: “Corruption is a dark blot on the Judiciary”.
Earlier 2017, he hit back at Kenyatta when the president campaigned in Maraga’s native county to tell voters his government had given “their son” a job.
Maraga slammed Kenyatta’s “false statements” and the Supreme Court said the remarks could be “misconstrued to imply a political hand in the appointment of the Chief Justice”.
“This is unfortunate, erroneous and substantially misleading,” the court statement said.
Just before the elections, Maraga also said: “The emerging culture of public lynching of judges and judicial officers by the political class is a vile affront to the rule of law and must be fiercely resisted”.
Maraga, who cuts an athletic figure whether in robes or a suit, has been described as taciturn, but hides it well behind a perpetually amused and smiling expression.
As a practising Seventh-day Adventist, he does not work on Saturdays before sundown — a feat that has not seemed to hamper his judicial career or the legislative agenda.
In fact, Maraga held a hearing on the opposition’s legal election challenge on a Saturday at 7pm.
“Because of religion, he has a degree of morality that helped him make this decision,” Ojienda said.
Before announcing the court’s ruling, Maraga said: “An election is not an event, it is a process from the beginning to the end”.