Two logical premises and one firm conclusion define the late Bethuel Kiplagat’s tortured tenure at the helm of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).
Kiplagat was a true Kenyan. True Kenyans do not resign from public offices. There was no way Kiplagat was going to resign. For three long years, the old man with a long, grey push-back hair kept everyone, including fellow commissioners, in suspense, and hoping against hope that he would resign from the commission and salvage the truth process.
Activists had firmly opposed his chairmanship of the truth commission on account of alleged links to several incidents of gross human rights violations and injustices during his time in Government.
They came in droves and in all sizes – from the minuscule but respected South African preacher Desmond Tutu to networked and well-oiled organisations like International Centre for Transitional Justice (New York) – all singing the resignation song.
Pay him off
Then Cabinet Minister Ibrahim Elmi offered to pay him off to step aside, while his Cabinet colleague Mutula Kilonzo said he wanted nothing to do with the whole commission over “incessant bickering”.
Kiplagat’s deputy Betty Murungi threw in the towel in protest. Another commissioner, Ron Sly, also resigned in a huff but rescinded it, yet amidst all that, old Kiplagat stayed put and smiled the pressure away. While activists protested against Kiplagat, a new crop of victims working with the commission suddenly emerged and defended him. Among them was ex-student leader Wafula Buke who tore into the formal civil society with unmistakable abandon.
“They are fake! If you gathered the entire civil society in this country, they will not even fit in that corner because they are just a handful, smaller than dini ya msambwa. They are the root of our problems. Their credentials as representative institutions are terrible, I respect Mungiki more,” Buke once told this reporter.
According to Buke, the ideal situation was to have a different person chair the commission, but “since we don’t control the process, and we have been demobilised by our own disorganisation over the years, we have to approach the whole matter with humility”.
Court cases were filed in quick succession and a tribunal formed to investigate the allegations against Kiplagat. In an anti-climax cleverly brewed, he announced that he was “stepping aside” to allow the tribunal to investigate him. He would later appear before his own commission and fend off the claims. The process leading to the appointment of the tribunal was itself a ping pong game of sorts. While the TJRC commissioners had written to Chief Justice Evan Gicheru to form a tribunal to investigate him, Gicheru had quietly written to Attorney General Amos Wako for an opinion on the quagmire.
Wako, a quintessential system operative, took his time as the commissioners fought and wasted the little credibility left of the commission. By the time the tribunal was appointed, very little was left to fight over.
The tribunal had a false start after the appointed chairman, former Court of Appeal judge William Deverell, rejected the job. A court case against the tribunal paralysed it a bit. By the time the tribunal wriggled out of the mess with a new chairman, the allotted lifespan of six months had lapsed.
In the end, none of these worked. Kiplagat, a steely man of impeccable resolve, was left standing firm on his original position. Without much ado, he strode into the commission offices and announced that he was “back with a bang”. The unbelieving commissioners resisted him but he stood his ground that nothing held him back from his constitutionally acquired office.
Starved of funding by a conniving executive, which stood by Kiplagat, the commissioners backed down in a deal brokered by Mutula’s successor at the Justice ministry, Eugene Wamalwa. Immediately they accepted Kiplagat, money flowed like water from a tap.
Kiplagat had beaten them hands down. He not only forced them to accept him, but joined them at the most crucial moment when they were about to write the final report.
And it came to pass, that the man who appeared before the commission as an accused, eventually wrote and signed the final report on the same matters he was accused of.
“Kiplagat cuts the face of an angel but he is a hypocrite and avowed apologist of the regime which tortured us. He cannot preside over the truth which he himself attempted to conceal during his heyday in power,” former Nyeri MP Wanyiri Kihoro summed him thus at the height of the crisis.