Kenya’s ‘Sonko leaks’: An act of vengeance or attempt to clean-up the judiciary?

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Wednesday, 8 December 2021 17:16

Nairobi's Governor Mike Sonko sits in a court room during a hearing after he was arrested on corruption-related charges, at the Milimani Law Courts in Nairobi
Nairobi's Governor Mike Sonko in Nairobi, Kenya. December 9, 2019. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

Former Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko has put the judiciary in the spotlight by posting a series of video and audio clips to prove long held allegations of grand corruption in the corridors of justice. Are the leaks meant to clean up the judiciary as he alleges, or are they a ploy by a man on a vengeance mission?

On 17 November, Sonko left many Kenyans dumbfounded after he posted a series of videos and audio clips on social media alleging grand corruption in the judiciary.

One of the video clips, now referred to as ‘sonko leaks’, showed High Court Judge Said Chitembwe discussing a court case involving a parcel of land with the former Nairobi governor and two other individuals, at his Nairobi residence. The clip, which went viral, raised questions on the integrity and independence of the judiciary.

Speaking to the Kenya Television Network (KTN) a few days later, Sonko said he would release more video clips on “the rot in Kenya’s judiciary” to help the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Director of Public Prosecutions investigate and prosecute corrupt judges.

“I have nothing to lose anymore. Even if I never get back into elective politics again, I need to finish this war for the 40 million Kenyans who do not have a chance at justice. If someone like me … someone with means can be cheated out of justice, what chance does the poor Kenyan have?” Sonko told KTN.

Coincidentally, the videos have been leaked when Kenyans, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, are questioning the integrity of the judiciary following a series of controversial judgements in high profile cases.

The former governor said he has recordings that go back months showing  “how justice within the courts goes to the highest bidder”. He said: “If you give a judge KSh100m ($1m), it is the one who will give KSh200m ($2m) that will win the case. It has nothing to do with justice.”

‘Sonko on a vengeance mission’

In an interview with the same television station, Justice Chitembwe admitted hosting Sonko at his residence, but denied any wrongdoing saying his intention was genuine. The judge said it was only after Sonko’s petition to stop the swearing-in of Anne Kananu as his successor , after he had been dismissed – that Chitembwe realised the former Nairobi governor was on a vengeance mission

Justice Chitembwe was part of the three-judge bench that dismissed Sonko’s application after the Senate impeached him last December on corruption allegations. “I regret having invited them (Sonko and his friends) to my house. I didn’t know they had ulterior motives. None of them was coming to give me any money as alleged,” said the judge.

That is what has become of our country; something like this happens and your name is tarnished forever.

Chitembwe said he first saw the video clips way back in July and contacted Sonko seeking to know why he recorded their conversation, “but he [Sonko] denied being behind it, [instead] accusing one of his friends and promised to ensure they are not circulated.”

“I have talked to some people who told me that Sonko vowed to have me removed for being part of a bench that dismissed his petition yet we come from the same county,” the judge said.

Petitions filed against Chitembwe

The Judiciary Service Commission (JSC), which employs judges, has since formed a panel to handle the matter and has asked Chitembwe to respond to petitions – filed by Sonko and other individuals – seeking his removal from office.

Chitembwe is not new to controversy. On 22 July, detectives cornered the judge along with his colleague, Justice Aggrey Muchelule, outside their chambers and forced them back to their offices for a search. They were later taken to the office of the DCI to record a statement before being released.

The arrest was condemned by all and sundry, including the International Commission of Jurists, Kenya Magistrates and Judges Association and the Law Society of Kenya, all of whom accused the government of intimidating members of the judiciary.

“That is what has become of our country; something like this happens and your name is tarnished forever,” Chitembwe said after the ordeal.

‘Money recovered from a woman’

The Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti, however, defended his officers saying they were acting on information received from a complainant about bribery allegations. Kinoti said detectives recovered KSh5.7m ($57,000) from a woman who, he claimed, was to deliver the cash to the two judges. Nonetheless, the judges denied Kinoti’s claims and accused security officers of unfairly targeting them.

It is not the first time Sonko has put public servants in the spotlight using technology. In 2014, while protesting the national authority’s demolition of houses, which were allegedly built on public land, Sonko, then senator of Nairobi, made a call to President Uhuru Kenyatta and put him on loudspeaker for everyone to listen in on their conversation, a move that angered State House officials.

In my view, there are certain things Justice Chitembwe should not have done as a state officer and specifically as a judicial officer.

In 2019, Sonko, then Nairobi governor, released a recorded phone conversation between him and then Kiambu governor, Ferdinand Waititu. Waititu is heard begging Sonko to help release his wife who had been arrested by the Nairobi county enforcement team for carrying out construction works on a storied  building without requisite approval. Sonko denies being involved in the arrest but promises to do everything possible to release her.

Women have also not been spared. One of the videos, for example, angered some women leaders who accused the former Nairobi governor of using unsuspecting female friends to settle personal scores. The video in question showed a woman indecently exposing her body part to Sonko during their conversation on corruption in the judiciary.

“The violation of a woman is wrong by every standard and I call on the Director of Criminal Investigations to take action against him (Sonko),” says Nairobi woman representative, Esther Passaris, urging security agencies to block Sonko’s social media platforms.

‘Sonko leaks not breaking news’

Passaris was speaking from experience. Back in 2019, the then Nairobi governor released a phone conversation between him and a woman who purported to be Passaris soliciting for KSh1m ($10,000). The Nairobi woman representative vehemently denied the allegations, insisting that the recorded voice was not hers.

Is Sonko’s new found war against corruption in the judiciary genuine or is it vengeance by a once-upon-a-time powerful man who fell far from grace? Notwithstanding, lawyer Suleiman Bashir says the ‘sonko leaks’ are ‘not breaking news’, adding that corruption in the judiciary is an open secret.

“The corruption in the judiciary is at an alarming rate. I know of a  number of lawyers who have submitted petitions to the Judicial Service Commission to investigate the conduct of some judges but the moment one walks out of that office the judge in question has already been briefed about the allegations against him,” says Bashir.

He accuses JSC of letting Kenyans down by turning a blind eye to corruption allegations in the corridors of justice. “Judges have a code of conduct. There is a certain kind of behaviour that is expected of a judge. […] there has been an embarrassment [in] the judiciary.”

Warungu Wangi, also a lawyer, does not understand why Chitembwe attempted to help Sonko and his friends pursue an alternative dispute resolution while the land case was still in court.

“It is high time that we have a proper inquiry on the judge, especially him being a member of the bench. A bench is always assumed to have judges of high integrity,” says Wangi.

Fred Okango, a political analyst, says the video clips have opened a can of worms by exposing the conduct of judges and denting public confidence in the judicial system. “In my view, there are certain things Justice Chitembwe should not have done as a state officer and specifically as a judicial officer,” says Okango.

Sonko dismissed

Some Kenyans have however dismissed Sonko as a man on a vengeance mission after his downfall. “If Sonko is clean, why must he entice other people into corrupt deals?” says Ken Simiyu after watching the video clips on YouTube.

If the court would have ruled in his favour and stopped the swearing-in of Anne Kananu, would Sonko have still gone ahead and released the clips?

Jonny Max concurs saying the aim of the former Nairobi governor is to go down with everyone he perceives as his enemy, after he was turfed out of office.

“If the court would have ruled in his favour and stopped the swearing-in of Anne Kananu, would Sonko have still gone ahead and released the clips?” Max says on Twitter. “The simple answer is no. He is not doing it for the love of the country as he alleges.”

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