Celebrating Africa Day – Kenya Makes History by Appointing First Female Chief Justice
Africa Day, celebrated on 25th May every year, honours the founding of Africa’s first union of countries in 1963. Today the Charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) has evolved into the African Union (AU) with a vision of a prosperous and peaceful Africa led by its citizens.
The day not only celebrates the accomplishments of the AU in regards to protecting human rights and supporting development, but also highlights the diverse culture, the power, and potential of the continent itself.
Martha Koome – A Villager in the Truest Sense
One of the many achievements to celebrate this year is the appointment of Kenya’s first female Chief Justice. Martha Komme was appointed on 19th May 2021 as Chief Justice after she came in the top of the 10 candidates interviewed on live television by Kenya’s Judicial Service Commission (JSC).
Described as a ‘breath of fresh air’ (BBC, 2021) Koome being selected for this position is seen by many as a notable stride towards a fair and equitable justice system, particularly for women and girls. This is because Koome’s track record in forwarding gender equality is impressive, in particular considering the challenges she has had to overcome to reach her current position.
Koome grew up as one of 18 children from a polygamous family in rural eastern Kenya in Kithiu village, Meru County. She describes herself as ‘a villager in the truest sense’ (Star, 2021) who had to deal with the disadvantage of being female in a rural setting.
However, she overcame these difficulties to pursue a degree from the University of Nairobi graduating in 1986 before being admitted to the bar in 1987, and thereafter she achieved her Master’s Degree from the University of London. She has now over 33 years of experience in leading reform within the Justice system in Kenya. Her work has included taking a leading role in reform movements, providing leadership for multiple regional bodies, and providing strategic solutions for Courts across Kenya. As such she has won international accolades for her contributions.
Chief Justice Koome’s Pursuit for Gender Equality
She is particularly known for her work addressing inequality within the Judiciary system for women and families. This started when she noted that her colleagues often did not want to represent female clients. Subsequently deciding to prioritise these cases herself led to the realisation of the obstacles to achieving justice for women in cases concerning property rights and inheritance.
This experience drove her to push for reforms concerning the welfare of families, highlighting the inequalities in the system working against women in her work. Her activism in this area led her to help found the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), a premier women’s rights organisation in Kenya that offers free legal aid to women. In its 34-year history, FIDA has given legal aid to over 3,000,000 women.
Koome also played a role in Kenya’s 2010 constitution which outlawed discrimination against women and limited discriminatory laws on women’s property rights. The two-thirds gender principle established in the Bill of Rights within the 2010 constitution, requires the state to ensure that no more than two-thirds of its members are of the same gender. This has had a profound impact on women’s leadership in government increasing their participation and leadership in government.
The Future for Kenya’s Judiciary
Chief Justice Koome now faces several sizeable challenges including corruption and a Judiciary with a vast backlog of cases many consider would take over 5 years to clear. Although the Kenyan Judiciary has become more accessible and reduced the amount of corruption in recent years, there are still both high- and low-profile reports of bribery within the system. Underfunding has also delayed the appointment of 41 judges adding to the number of cases waiting to be heard.
However, Justice Koome not only brings her passion for women’s rights to her appointment as Chief Justice but also a proven record of strategically reforming the system. This includes managing the issue of backlog in regional courts. Add to this her unflustered and grounded approach means her appointment is indeed something to celebrate.
Nantulya, CK and Schwarz, B,. (25th May 2021) Interview: Africa Has Much to Celebrate on Africa Day, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/25/interview-africa-has-much-celebrate-africa-day
The University of Nairobi, (19th March 2021) Martha Koome is the new Chief Justice, https://www.uonbi.ac.ke/news/martha-koome-new-chief-justice
Nmarosi, (28th April 2021) LADY JUSTICE KOOME, SCHOOL OF LAW ALUMNA NOMINATED FOR CHIEF JUSTICE POSITION, https://graduateschool.uonbi.ac.ke/taxonomy/term/93
Omondi, F,. (19th May 2021) Martha Koome – how Kenya’s female justice overcame the odds, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-56918265
Kadida, J,. (27th April 2021) Martha Koome: How daughter of peasant rose to become Chief Justice, https://www.the-star.co.ke/news/2021-04-27-martha-koome-how-daughter-of-peasant-rose-to-become-chief-justice/
FIDA Kenya, (2021) Our History, https://fidakenya.org