If you wish to be modest about your accomplishments, then that is well and good. But that isn’t Dr. Smokin Charles Wanjala’s portion, at least going by one of his most spoken about moments of self indulgence.
During the funeral of his friend, the late Justice Lawrence Peter Ouna, Dr. Wanjala, like a man in a trance, eulogized the late judge in an encomium that was partly made up of Dr. Wanjala’s own academic credentials — an LL.B from the University of Nairobi, an LL.M from Columbia University and a Doctorate from the University of Ghent in Belgium, after which Dr. Wanjala spent close to 20 years teaching at the University of Nairobi. To Dr. Wanjala, it was befitting of a man of the late Justice Ouna’s stature to be eulogized by minds which had conquered Nairobi, Columbia, and Ghent. The mourners got the message. It was one learned friend eulogizing another, full credentials on display.
Dr. Wanjala had the bragging rights.
Alongside the likes of Prof. Kivutha Kibwana, Okech Owiti and the late Prof. Kichamu Akivaga, Wanjala had been among those who formed the constitutional-know-how brain trust which powered the agitation for Kenya’s new constitutional order. It was in the spirit of powering this push for Kenya’s Second Republic that Dr. Wanjala co-founded the Center for Law and Research International (CLARION), through which he and others accelerated civic education on the future of Kenya at a time when President Daniel arap Moi’s regime was ruthlessly cracking down on dissidents.
In the course of straddling between lecture halls and boardrooms where the new frontiers of Kenya’s clamor for a new constitution were hatched, Dr. Wanjala found time to publish, one of his seminal works being The Anatomy of Corruption in Kenya: Legal, Political and Socio-Economic Perspectives.
It therefore came as no surprise that in 2003, President Mwai Kibaki appointed Dr. Wanjala as the joint secretary to the Commission on Illegally and Irregularly Acquired Public Land, popularly known as the Ndung’u Commission—named after its chairman advocate Paul Ndung’u. Dr. Wanjala had dissected the anatomy of corruption in Kenya, and now the powers that be were putting him to use in various state roles in the fight against corruption. The commentator had morphed into a player in the field.
As proceedings of the Ndung’u Commission were underway, Dr. Wanjala was simultaneously serving as the inaugural chairman of the Public Complaints Committee on the Environment (PCC) within the National Environment and Management Authority (NEMA) from 2002 to 2004. And as if impressed by Dr. Wanjala’s work within the anti-corruption framework, President Mwai Kibaki appointed him as the Assistant Director of the now defunct Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC), where Dr. Wanjala worked alongside the current Court of Appeal judge Fatuma Sichale as his co-assistant director, and now retired Court of Appeal judge Aaron Ringera as chairman. The trio resigned in 2009 after a vote of parliament declared that President Mwai Kibaki had overstepped his mandate in extending the three lawyers’ five year term of office. Dr. Wanjala particularly—or shall we say typically—went out with a characteristic bang rather than a whimper, relaying an eight-page resignation statement to the press.
But the man who conquered Nairobi, Columbia and Ghent wouldn’t stay out in the sidelines for too long. After the struggles of Dr. Wanjala and others bore fruit in 2010 with the promulgation of a new constitution which instructed the establishment of a Supreme Court, Dr. Wanjala threw his hat in the ring in 2012, making the cut of five justices of the inaugural court out of a pool of 25 interviewees, who then joined Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Baraza at the apex court.
Dr. Wanjala was elected to represent the Supreme Court at the Judicial Service Commission, where he served as Chairman of the Commission’s Human Resources and Administration Committee. That same year, Dr. Wanjala received the presidential award of the Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear (CBS) [First Class], the fourth highest civilian award in Kenya for his distinguished service to the public.
Then came the 2013 presidential election petition, the first ever for the Supreme Court. The bench of six — Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Baraza had resigned from office a few months earlier — opted to unanimously uphold the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga – who was Dr. Wanajala’s comrade in the struggle – read the super brief decision, before the court retreated, promising a reasoned judgment later. The manner of delivery of the verdict was widely criticized, with the court’s decision to lock out the petitioner’s “smoking gun” due to late filing eliciting even more bile.
Five years later in 2017, Dr. Wanjala, now sitting under Chief Justice David Maraga, voted alongside four other justices to annul the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Maraga, a bible-wielding Seventh Day Adventist adherent, invoked the name of God as he struck down the election. It was unprecedented. The Supreme Court of Kenya officially entered the annals of jurisprudential history.
But after ordering a repeat election which the opposition boycotted, the court easily struck out the subsequent petitions against Uhuru Kenyatta’s reelection, possibly disinterested in annulling two presidential elections back to back. Justice Maraga made his exit, and in came Chief Justice Martha Koome, who led the court into the 2022 electoral cycle. Now a new petition sits at the court.
In between the 2017 and 2022 petitions, Dr. Wanjala wore his academic hat and was deployed as the director of the Kenya Judiciary Academy—successor to the Judiciary Training Institute which had been established to train judicial officers. Dr. Wanjala’s idea is that the school shouldn’t be a place merely for refresher courses, but a site for proper knowledge generation for a judiciary of the future.
But beyond the legalese, Dr. Wanjala seeks to use the academy to demystify the hallowed perception of the judiciary, and turn upside down the view that judges act as oracles of knowledge who are out of society’s reach, much as they may be beyond reproach like Caesar’s wife. Put simply, to Dr. Wanjala, the judiciary should be open and accessible, possibly a school of thought the academician-turned-jurist perpetuates at the Council of Legal Education, where he’s sat as the judiciary’s representative since 2019.
And as if Dr. Wanjala never leaves behind the no nonsense academic in him, the judge showed his hand during proceedings of the 2022 presidential election when he reprimanded a senior counsel who was side-chatting a colleague while court was in session thus: “You are a senior lawyer. You know how you should behave in this court.” And in moments when he still flexed his might, albeit in a less firm manner, Dr. Wanjala coyly reprimanded a litigant who was getting carried away with his submissions and had resorted to kindergarten rhymes. “Tread carefully. That language is alien to this court.”
The man with a hoarse voice can make you laugh, just as he can make you cry.
The same sometimes-serious-and-sometimes-not posture was evident when Dr. Wanjala interviewed for the post of Chief Justice in 2016, as he sought to replace Chief Justice David Maraga. Dr. Wanjala — knowing what he knew after sitting in two presidential election petitions, which is that judgements are bound to annoy half of Kenyans and make the other half very happy going by the voting patterns — joked that if he did have a choice, he would never want to preside over a presidential election petition.
But because the gods have an uncanny sense of humor, Dr. Wanjala has been party to three presidential petitions already, and counting. As he prepares to give his judgment on Monday 5 September, there’s no doubt that Dr. Wanjala already knows that by the stroke of his pen, the outcome will still be the same — half of Kenyans will either be extremely disappointed, and another half elated. With that out of the way, Dr. Wanjala will either annul or uphold the election. He’s done both before.