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Justice is served
I bow and stride into the City Hall Magistrate’s court on a warm Friday morning in the center of Nairobi. Court is in session. A subdued silence inspires me to pay attention to the cases being mentioned. As I sit down on a cold antique bench, I am reminded of archaic British furniture. I am here to observe the wheels of justice grind along and more importantly soak up why the common man is so disgruntled by the country’s justice system.

There hangs a coat of arms patched high behind the magistrate and right below it is a wall clock that has stopped working. I assume its part of the décor.  

In hindsight those two are very symbolic of the state of the justice system in Kenya.

Let me explain, for one the coat of arms was predicated on the royal coat of arms, which appeared in every courtroom in England and its extensive empire. It demonstrated that justice came from the monarch. This is why lawyers and court officials bowed when they entered the courtroom; they were not bowing to the magistrate but rather to the coat of arms, to show respect for the Queen’s justice. 

In this courtroom, I saw the tradition ‘misappropriated’, which was indicative of who we are as Kenyans: every person who came in when the court was in session bowed. As soon as the court went into recess, people were walking in and out like it was a hotel lobby. The padded chairs were worn and torn but still standing owing mainly to the quality of wood used. The case files that were in circulation in the courtroom were dog-eared, greasy and dusty and they looked like they could magically disappear and appear at will.

case files in court registry
There was a palpable lack of trust and general sense of disorientation from the people in the courtroom, its like the justice system was an imposition that they had to go through despite the fact that they had lost confidence in it.

The court officials had ages ago sensed and understood this. They took advantage of the ignorance and fear to request for ‘tokens’. Bribes exchanged hands in eager anticipation of some level of assistance to lubricate the wheels of justice. 

All this happened as I sat quietly in a corner.
The economist  - Global anti-corruption efforts are growing in scope and clout.

A short walk away at the court registry I notice computers sitting indignantly beside stacks of court files. ‘Clients’ walk in and out of the tin house in a way that one would conclude there is some mischief adrift.  The officials happily converse in vernacular and from time to time walk out with ‘clients’ to converse in low tones. 

Bribes are exchanged in the guise of services rendered. Outside the registry, on the notice board, there is a large poster that has seen better days, some letters are missing obviously from the effects of wear and tear, but you can still tell it states, “This is a corruption free zone”. A number of inconsequential posters have since been super-imposed and one can almost sense the act was intended to diminish the power of the original poster. 

A short visit to a correctional facility in the city also left me shocked at the blatant levels of corruption present. At every level of interaction with the officials was the ‘inspiration’ to offer a small bribe to facilitate a faster process, since the “normal process” was deemed long and arduous. And they were quite elaborate on things they could assist the prisoner in getting if one could only part with a small token.

The World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index is an annual report in its fourth annual release that seeks to portray the rule of law in 99 countries around the world.

“The Index presents a portrait of the rule of law in each country through a set of 47 indicators organized around nine themes: constraints on government powers; absence of corruption; open government; fundamental rights; order and security; regulatory enforcement; civil justice; criminal justice; and informal justice.”

“The power of this diagnostic tool is in helping identify strengths and weaknesses in each country under review and encourage policy choices that strengthen the rule of law.”

“Kenya ranks 86th overall and occupies the bottom half of the regional rankings across all the major dimensions captured by the Index. In spite of improvements in the perceived ability of the legislature and the judiciary to act as effective checks on the executive branch (ranking 62nd overall, up 13 places), and relatively good marks in the areas of freedom of religion and freedom of assembly and association, the country presents a number of challenges. Corruption remains widespread (ranking 93rd globally and third to last in the region); regulatory enforcement is ineffective by regional standards; and the civil justice system, although on par with the regional average, needs improvements across many areas. Crime and vigilante justice are also areas of concern.”

The above statement from the Index report indicates what most Kenyans observe on a daily basis, when engaging the justice system. The justice system in Kenya is understaffed and inadequately resourced to meet the needs of the nation.

The court and the correction facility I visited are located in capital city they are as close to the axis of power as one can get. The situation becomes more appalling as one travels further from the center of power.

It is no surprise that the police and courts in Kenya are among the most corrupt institutions in the country. Poor remuneration and deplorable standards of living, I dare say, are the main reasons why corruption is so deep seated. With insufficient number of personnel serving a nation of more than 40 million people, it is no surprise when efficiency and high quality service becomes as foreign a word as chutzpah.

Zapiro on police problems

It does not help that the citizenry stand as one when deriding every effort that the justice system makes to exonerate itself.

As human beings the “innovation” most public servants in this system have come up with is centered on not worrying about the nation, but rather about ones own personal welfare. Since in retrospect how cruel is the nation as to allow public servants to live in such disgraceful conditions. Thus corruption flourishes and continues unabated.

If the justice system was to be adequately staffed, properly remunerated, treated with dignity and adequately resourced. The seed that is the benefits of our justice system will have found the right environment to germinate and flourish.

There is a lot that can be done with technology from automating the processes essential in the justice system to introducing technology in the capture, storage and archiving of information.

But to avoid this uptake of technology from becoming a mockery, there will be need to review and even reengineer the very way information flows through the justice system. Public servants and the citizenry will have to be educated and ‘indoctrinated’ in order to change their current ways. This will take time and it is a gradual process, but with consistency and patience the required results will be achieved. A case study here.

I believe it’s imperative to appreciate the effort that went into the National Council on the Administration of Justice (NCAJ) Strategic Plan 2012- 2016. If this plan is implemented and supported unequivocally by all members of the council there will be a marked improvement in the justice system in Kenya.

During the launch of the NCAJ Strategic Plan in June 2013, the Chief Justice Dr. Willy Mutunga mentioned a number of imperatives, which must be highlighted:

  1. The need for cooperation and non-competition among member institutions
  2. A common redress of individual challenges and inadequacies
  3. The need to overlook institutional sovereignty for the common good of the citizenry while avoiding narrow jealousies that may threaten or collapse the council.
  4. The need for members to be accountable to each other.

In closing, I would like to note that the current situation is articulately documented and well understood. What is lacking is a concerted effort, to overthrow deeply rooted vested interests for the sake of the nation. We require at the echelon of the justice system more than anything else virtuous leadership and exemplary management skills; persons willing to sacrifice self-interest for the good of the nation. 
We need a citizenry that is outraged and constantly lobbying for change in the current system. And indignant to the grinding political machinery that is at hand, there is no place for neutrality, when we are faced with a moral crisis of this magnitude.  

I believe what Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

I also believe what Robert F. Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

What do you believe?


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