When David Maraga was interviewed last year for the position of chief justice of Kenya’s Supreme Court, he was asked by a panel if he had ever accepted a bribe in his judicial career. He demanded a Bible and swore on it that he had never taken a bribe and never would. Then he added that his goal as a judge was always to do “justice to all irrespective of their status in society.”
Those words probably did not mean much at the time to Kenyans, many of whom are doubtful about the independence of the courts and the rule of law. Yet on Sept. 1, Chief Justice Maraga read out a decision that shocked not only Kenya but the rest of Africa for its stark integrity. He announced the court was nullifying the Aug. 8 election of President Uhuru Kenyatta because of massive irregularities in the transmission of vote tallies. And a new election was ordered within 60 days.
Never before in Africa has a court of law blocked the election of a sitting president. In much of the continent, judges are under the thumb of authoritarian-style rulers who practice democracy at a minimum with little regard for the kind of equality that Maraga seeks. But Kenya’s high court has now set a model, one that builds on other recent successes in a continent only fitfully moving toward the practice of democratic ideals.
One success is Nigeria’s first peaceful transfer of power from one party to another after a 2015 election. In Ghana, an incumbent government was removed last year after a fair election. And in Gambia earlier this year, a president who sought to rule for life was forced to accept the result of an election he didn’t expect.
“More and more segments of Africans are demanding accountability, inclusion, good governance and the chance to make their choice and vote to count. This is what can lead to and guarantee peace,” writes Samuel Olugbemiga Afolabi, a Nigerian scholar, in a recent article in the Journal of Pan African Studies.
Kenya’s high court ruling was a bold stand, one originating in judges who see higher civic principles at work in a society still stuck in ethnic rivalry, wide economic disparity, and a propensity toward violence to resolve political disputes. The court may need to intervene again. The new election, set for Oct. 17, may not meet the high standards of the justices unless there is major reform of the electoral commission.
Many African countries are struggling to ensure the integrity of the voting process. They are being helped by a program at the University of South Africa, funded by the United States, that has trained hundreds of election officials from around Africa since 2011. A key point in that training is the guarantee of democratic ideals to all “irrespective of their status in society,” as Kenya’s chief justice said.