Justice Onguto: Gifted counsel, budding scholar and first-rate jurist

BY Kibe Mungai

High Court Judge Joseph Louis Omondi Onguto, who died on February 28, 2018, was an accomplished legal practitioner, budding scholar, first-rate jurist and one of the most promising of the recently appointed judges. His death was both sudden and surprising because he was only 53 years old; he died after a training session at Parklands Sports Club Nairobi in circumstances that belied his long-term dedication to wellness of body and that of the mind.

By all yardsticks, Justice Onguto, who was appointed as a judge in July, 2014, leaves a rich legacy of diverse, sound, incisive and well-written judgements that compellingly suggest the possibilities of career growth that lay ahead of him, had he served until the retirement age of 70. During his long career as an advocate, Justice Onguto was well regarded by peers and colleagues; most of us simply called him Louis. Most probably, I first met Louis whilst a pupil at the law firm of Kamau Kuria & Kiraitu Advocates between 1996 and 1998.

The first impression I had of Louis was his broad smile, easy ways and generous spirit that helped create friendships with many. And so, around 2004 when I reluctantly acceded to a suggestion by my mentor Dr. Gibson Kamau Kuria, to try and join the LSK Council, I requested Louis to be one of my nominators and he readily accepted to endorse my candidature. Of course the bid was unsuccessful and when I met Louis later he chided me for seeking his endorsement for an enterprise I was not serious enough with.

Like Louis, I am a member of Parklands Sports Club (PSC), which has been the fastest growing sports club in Kenya over the last two decades. Until he became a judge, Louis was more into jogging more than he was a gym enthusiast. By coincidence, jogging is my favourite physical activity although I would go to the gym more often than Louis.

Discounting the setbacks I have recently encountered in my physical training, I like to comfort myself that I belong on the side of fit Kenyans.  In this regard, Louis was an undoubted member of this society of physically fit Kenyans. Around 2005, I used to meet Louis quite often on the jogging track. He could easily jog ten times non-stop around the 500-metre long track when it was a herculean task for me to do five laps.

Taught me physical endurance

For some reason, I carry an impatient streak that somehow manifested itself in my stride and on the jogging track. To my eternal gratitude, around 2006, Louis noticed that I was having an endurance challenge on the track and so he gently coaxed me to join him for a few jogging sessions. I happily obliged and, over the next two months, he showed me how to maintain a steady, patient and determined pace on the track, at the end of which I could do a 6kmrun without panting my heart out. Thanks to Louis’ help, I later joined a hiking group at PSC and, in 2016, climbed to Mount Kenya’s Lenana peak, its third highest.

Louis’ appointment as a judge in 2014 came as a surprise to me, albeit a sweet one, because it is not often in Kenya that an A-List advocate gives up private practise in his prime to join public service. Thinking about this, we ought to salute the likes of Justice Martha Koome, Sankale Ole Kantai, Joseph Nyamu, Fred Ochieng, Kathurima M’Inoti, Kairu Gatembu and Agnes Murgor, who all preceded Justice Onguto in leaving lucrative careers in private practice for the bench. 

Many a time, when a colleague joins the bench, it becomes somewhat complicated to relate with them. For Louis, it was and actually felt different, partly because of a genuine warmth of heart – exhibited in a broad smile without a hint of plasticity – and partly because of the maximum obeisance to his high office I felt was the need to call him “Judge Louis” henceforth whenever we met in private places, mainly at PSC. In 2016 and 2017, I noticed that Judge Louis was becoming a regular in the gym and so when I asked him why that was so, he told me, “…because of the many hours I have to sit as a judge, a couple of sessions in the gym are necessary to tone my muscles…”

Quite often, in the presence of a judge or holders of high office, people tend to stiffen up and get cautious. Again one of my fondest memories of Louis is that whenever he entered the gym the place would warm up; he got on marvellously well with the gym staff and whenever he saw me, he would joke, “push it harder Kibe, wacha kuregarega”.

Around December 2017, he observed that my weight was beginning to spiral out of control and so we agreed that at the end of the election petitions cycle in February, 2018 we would resume jogging together given its efficacy in checking weight. As it turned out this did not come to pass because Judge Louis died on the same day he delivered judgement in the election petition case he was handling, Hezbon Omondi vs. IEBC & 2 Others (2008) eKLR.

Reformist inclinations

During the prolonged 2017 electioneering season, I had a couple of long conversations with Louis as we sipped juice after training in the PSC gym. Evidently, the Judge was passionate and committed to his judicial duties and you could easily discern his reformist inclinations. Looking back, I get the distinct impression that Judge Louis felt like an outsider trapped in a conservative institution struggling to shake off idiosyncrasies of a closed society and to transcend the ethos of the ancient regime.  It is fitting that listening to his fellow judges during his requiem mass, the reformist bent of Judge Louis was well-acknowledged.

Friendship aside, part of the motivation for writing this tribute to Louis is to express my appreciation for his sound and well-written judgements that often call to mind Justice Aaron Ringera’s decisions in capturing and treating well the rival arguments of the parties. Personally, nothing annoys me more than juridically low-calibre and badly-written judgements from the superior courts.

To be sure, through their judgments, judges are the best ambassadors of a country’s legal profession. Therefore, it counts for something that my friend Louis belonged in the class of accomplished legal writers whose membership is worth mentioning in part: late Chief Justice C. B. Madan, Prof. Okoth Ogendo, former CJ Willy Mutunga, Aaron Ringera, Pheroze Nowrojee, George Odunga, Edward Muriithi, Joseph Nyamu, Philip Waki, Kiraitu Murungi, Wachira Maina, Isaac Lenaola, Richard Kuloba, Kathurima M’Inoti, Patrick Kiage, Prof. Jackton Ojwang, Maina Kiai, Samuel Kivuitu, Makau Mutua, Erastus Githinji, Prof. Ben Sihanya, Paul Mwangi, Prof. Yash Pal Ghai, Collins Odote, George Kegoro, Kethi Kilonzo, Charles Kanjama, Gitobu Imanyara, Ahmednassir Abdullahi, Njonjo Mue, Walter Amoko and, of course, Dr. Gibson Kamau Kuria.  There is no doubt in my mind that minus the judgements and writings of these legal minds, Kenya’s legal profession would be poorer and so I celebrate the contribution Louis has made in barely four years as judge.

Finally, even as I mourn his premature death and celebrate Louis’ legacy, I must express my profound regret – in retrospect – that in the polarised politics of Kenya and its social divisions over the last two decades, I did not get a convenient social opportunity with Judge Louis to extend our friendship to our respective families. That notwithstanding, so long as my legs remain strong enough to carry me on the jogging tracks, I will never forget what I now call the Louis Principle: keep the pace steady, patient and determined.  Certainly, this is a principle easily applicable beyond the jogging track. 

Fare thee well Judge Louis; thank you for the good memories, empathy and generous spirit.

The writer is a constitutional lawyer; Email: kibemungai@yahoo.com

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