Why is President Ruto in a row with Kenya’s judiciary? A simple guide

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Nairobi, Kenya – In the past week, Kenyan President William Ruto has been locked in a row with the judiciary, threatening to disobey court orders restricting his flagship policies and accusing judges of corruption.

Speaking at a public function on Tuesday, Ruto said some unnamed judges are working with the opposition to delay key government projects like a housing fund and universal healthcare initiatives.

“It is not possible that we respect the judiciary while a few individuals who are beneficiaries of corruption are using corrupt judicial officials to block our development projects,” Ruto said.

The government suffered a major setback in November when a High Court in Nairobi declared a housing levy Ruto introduced unconstitutional.

According to the judges, the plan to raise taxes to construct affordable homes was unconstitutional and discriminatory, a declaration that angered the executive.

“We are a democracy. We respect, and we will protect the independence of the judiciary. What we will not allow is judicial tyranny and judicial impunity,” Ruto said on Tuesday, triggering a wave of outrage from Kenyans and judicial circles.

His remarks were the second time in three days that he commented on judicial decisions. In a national address in the final hours of 2023, he threw jabs at the judiciary, accusing it of making decisions against state policies at the expense of the public interest.

Here’s all you need to know about the unfolding situation:

A riot police officer fires tear gas at protesters during a rally in Nairobi called by opposition leader Raila Odinga against the high cost of living on March 27, 2023 [Patrick Ngugi/AP Photo]

How did it come to this?

The housing initiative was introduced by Ruto’s predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta at the beginning of his second term in 2018 as part of much-touted economic reforms.

Like Ruto, Kenyatta faced legal challenges after proposing to tax Kenyans to fund the project. A court blocked this bid in 2018, prompting him to partner with financial institutions and private developers.

By 2021, Kenyatta’s government said it had constructed about half of the projected 500,000 homes.

Since he took office in August 2022, Ruto has proposed several sweeping reforms. One was changes to the Employment Act to allow deductions of 1.5 percent of employees’ basic salaries and matching amounts by employers to fund low-income housing. Ruto planned to build up to 200,000 homes every year as part of the project.

Several Ruto reforms – including fuel subsidy cuts, planned privatisation of state assets and tax schemes – have met with legal challenges as Kenya struggles under the weight of crushing debt and a cash crunch.

Then there were the protests called by opposition leader Raila Odinga from March to July over the new taxes and soaring cost of living. Even today, Kenyans still complain.

Wilson Omondi, a 31-year old accountant in Nairobi, told Al Jazeera that tax deductions from his salary have become too much. “There are things I expect from the government like affordable quality healthcare, … but a house is not one of them, … [and] if the government wants to create jobs, let it build industries and improve the business environment. I don’t want to pay a housing levy for a house me or my children will never live in.”

All of this has frustrated the president, and the November ruling halting the implementation of the housing levy appears to have sparked his outburst.

Kenya's Supreme Court judge Chief Justice Martha Koome
Chief Justice Martha Koome listens as hearings commence on petitions challenging the result of the 2022 presidential election at the Supreme Court in Nairobi, Kenya, on August 31, 2022 [File: Ben Curtis/AP Photo]

The president’s remarks have raised fears among Kenyans of a return to the dark days of dictatorship with some even directly comparing him to his former mentor, ex-President Daniel Arap Moi.

Under Moi, who was president from 1978 to 2002 in what was for years a one-party state, extrajudicial killings were the order of the day. Ruto – whose favoured “safari suit”, beloved by past dictators, has only fuelled more comparisons to autocrats – began his political career as a youth leader in a group within the then-ruling party.

“The attacks by President Ruto towards the judiciary … bring back memories of the Moi era, where the president called the shots and he was the judge, jury and executioner – all powerful and controlling all arms of government,” Bravin Yuri, a political scientist told Al Jazeera.

There has also been opposition to Ruto’s reaction from Odinga, Chief Justice Martha Koome, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) the Judicial Service Commission.

In a statement on Wednesday, Koome warned of a risk of anarchy if the judiciary’s independence is not respected. “When state or public officers threaten to defy court orders, the rule of law is imperiled setting stage for anarchy to prevail in a nation,” her memo said.

The LSK called on its members to participate in a peaceful nationwide protest next week as its president, Eric Theuri, said Ruto, as “the foremost custodian of the rule of law”, should use the courts to challenge legal decisions.

The president, Theri added, ought to remember that he was a beneficiary of the judiciary’s rulings after the 2022 presidential election.

Odinga called Ruto’s attacks on the judiciary unacceptable and said his rival has crossed a line.

What happens next?

According to Faith Odhiambo, LSK vice chairperson, if the president has serious allegations against the judiciary, he should present them to the Judicial Service Commission to investigate

“The president’s remarks were suspicious, especially coming at a time when the Court of Appeal was hearing the case of the housing levy that [the executive] had appealed,” she said. “So it’s an act of intimidation to the judges who will be hearing those matters. What we are telling the president is that he should follow due process in this matter.”

She added that in addition to the planned protests, her organisation is considering suing Ruto.

In response to the criticism, presidential spokesperson Hussein Mohammed said on Wednesday that the president had promised to crack down on corrupt judicial officers as a believer in the constitution.

The statement did not clarify whether the president will respect orders already given by the courts.

Meanwhile, the appellate court on Thursday ruled that the government may continue collecting the levy until January 26 when the courts are to decide whether to grant a further extension or end the collection.

The content above is provided by Al Jazeera news.

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