OPINION: A female chief justice for Kenya? A first of many

OPINION: A female chief justice for Kenya? A first of many

By Patience Nyange

It is a beautiful time to be a woman. Women are having their moment. From Vice President Kamala Harris to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; from long-serving German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the new Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu: the world has gotten a taste of what women in leadership can do.

The UK has not only given us two female prime ministers, but all her ambassadors to G7 countries and other strategic embassies — including Nairobi — are all women.

As always, Kenya refuses to be left behind. If approved by Parliament, one of the three arms of government will be led by a woman: Lady Justice Martha Koome. She has been nominated to the challenging and important job of Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court and is set to be the first woman in Kenya’s history in this role.

Being the first in anything is a tremendous responsibility, for it sets the standard and the tone for those who follow. George Washington, the first president of the United States, established the two-term tradition by retiring voluntarily at the end of his second term. For over 100 years, all presidents followed his example, despite not being legally obligated to do so, until Franklin D. Roosevelt came along and died in office during his fourth term. Only then did an alarmed US congress mandate two-term limits by law.

Martha Koome similarly has an excellent opportunity to define the next generation of women in jurisprudence by what she does as Chief Justice. She is likely well aware that Kenyans are watching not just to judge her as an individual but as a representative of women. Perhaps this is a double standard since men don’t get subjected to the same pressure, but it is what it is, as they say.

However, it is also a great chance to permanently cement the position of women in the hierarchy of power, not just in law but across the land and in the imagination of the Kenyan people. As the highest-ranking female public official, excelling in her role will no doubt inspire girls across the land, and beyond, that they too can be Chief Justice, President, Speaker of the House and CEO in the corporate world. And one may argue that it will also teach boys to respect girls and women and produce a culture of meritocracy, where the gender you were born into does not unfairly skew leadership opportunities for or against you.

Martha Koome is not alone though, she has examples of great women  — even in the current government — to draw courage from.

Lands CS Farida Karoney is one such example. She may not be the most visible government leader out there, but she is arguably the most transformative. After working diligently and quietly for several years, she has eliminated criminalism at the Lands ministry by digitising all land transactions in Kenya. Land remains the most critical factor of production in this country and the source of many conflicts. In one fell swoop, Farida Karoney has not only stabilised the economy by creating the #ArdhiSasa system, but she has also potentially secured the welfare of many Kenyans.

So, with the nomination of Martha Koome to the presidency of the Judiciary, Kenyans can have hope that she too will transform the corruption-riddled and lethargic Judiciary as well. She has a lot on her plate. There are 40 judges who need to be appointed and an overwhelming backlog of unresolved cases holding up billions of shillings in investment, thus strangling the economy and holding back innovation.

But there is hope. While working in the Family Division of the High Court, Lady Justice Koome introduced a tool that simplified the process of filing cases in the family division. At the Nakuru Law Court, she introduced a case management strategy that considerably reduced the backlog of cases.

She also has considerable credentials in the human rights arena, including as a firebrand in the Second Liberation movement, and has proven a superb administrator. Her determination to take justice to all, including refugees at Kakuma, through mobile courts shows that she is innovative and willing to do whatever it takes to get results. I am hugely confident that the Judiciary is about to receive an incredible makeover.

Will justice be automated? Will high judges be appointed and deployed in sufficient numbers? Will the backlog of 700,000 cases sagging our courts finally be a story of the past, thus allowing innovation to be unleashed in our economy?

If you want something done, give it to a woman. Farida Karoney has given us #Ardhisasa. Will Martha Koome rise up and give us #Courtsasa? We hope so. Kenya has made that choice, and CJ nominee Koome may just be the right woman for the right job at the right time.

When Kamala Harris became the first US Vice President, she memorably declared that though she was the first female to hold the role and she won’t be the last.

Congratulations, Martha Koome. You are the first but surely will not be the last. Make us proud.

Patience Nyange is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters Degree in International Public Relations and Global Communication Management from Cardiff University. Prior to joining Cardiff University, Patience served as an Assistant Director at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR).

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