The man who had shortest stint as CJ

At 39, Kitili Maluki Mwendwa became Kenya’s youngest - and first African - Chief Justice, but he also went down in history as the man who served the shortest term in office.

Three years after he landed the job, he resigned following accusations that he was part of a military plot to overthrow the government of founding President Jomo Kenyatta. MP Gideon Mutiso and the then army commander, Brigadier Joseph Ndolo, were also linked to the coup plot.

Mwendwa was born an “aristocrat” on December 24, 1929, his father having been a paramount chief. And in 1968, he was appointed the CJ after the retirement of the then acting Chief Justice Arthur Dennis Farrell. When he left the Judiciary three years later, he was succeeded by Sir James Wicks.

In the 1960s and 70s, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s administration appeared politically vulnerable and Mwendwa’s appointment was seen as part of a wider scheme to have the Judiciary play a part in fulfilling Kenyatta’s political ideals.

His predecessor, Mr Justice Farrel, was retired after he reduced the sentence of Bildad Kaggia from one year to six months. Kaggia, one of the Kapenguria Six, had been jailed for holding a political meeting without a licence. When he appealed, Mr Justice Farrel and Mr Justice Dalton upheld the conviction but reduced the sentence to six months.

The day he delivered the ruling, Mr Justice Farrel was sent packing while Mr Mwendwa was appointed CJ. Until then, anyone acting as CJ would have been confirmed to the position.

The then powerful Attorney-General, Mr Charles Njonjo, is said to have persuaded Kenyatta to appoint Mwendwa as CJ after a stint as the Solicitor General. He was seen as a good bet to Africanise the Judiciary.

Asked to comment on Mwendwa, Njonjo was then quoted in a local daily, saying he was an eccentric man who had a passion for vintage cars and drove at high speeds.

The man from Matinyani village in Kitui chose his associates carefully. However, although he would hobnob with presidents and rich businessmen, he would also be found in lowly places.

When he took over as CJ, the High Court had 11 judges who included Justices Farrel, Sir James Wicks, Chunilal Madan, Chanan Singh, Cecil Miller and Alfred Simpson.