African Library: A Friend of the Court by M?roki Nd?ng’?

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A Friend of the Court
Author: M?roki Nd?ng’?

This novel (the author’s first) was published in 2004 by Focus Publishers Ltd in Nairobi. The title is a technical term in law, referring to a person who renders assistance (in the form of providing additional knowledge or a useful perspective) to a legal hearing or court case, without being personally directly involved in such a hearing or case. From this choice of title (applied to an especially unlikely, but prominent character in the novel), as much as from the fact that two of the three main characters are advocates and from the importance of legal information and court settings in this text, one suspects that the author probably has legal training or is in a legal profession, but (very much like the character Gareth Maitika) has a penchant for fictional representation, contextualisation and interrogation of matters that interest him. The writing style initially comes across as somewhat stilted and overly formal, while the “romantic” part of the plot (about two people obviously “meant for each other” slowly coming to acknowledge what the reader has gathered from near the beginning of the text) is rather obviously implanted, but when Nd?ng’? gets into his stride he tells a gripping story of tremendous political relevance to present-day Kenya and many other (particularly African) societies where state and party have been too closely intertwined for democratic practices to prosper and where the upright practice of the law in pursuit of justice is the citizens’ only defence against violent power abuse and manipulation of electoral outcomes.

The novel is set in and around Nakuru, capital of the Rift Valley province – a densely populated area with rich (and coveted) agricultural land and the scene (sadly) of terrible inter-ethnic violence, which has occurred especially since the first multiparty elections in 1992, with flare-ups particularly around election times and in the wake of disputed election results. It is widely suspected that the violence – whenever it occurred – was instigated by politicians who promised their followers the spoils of land cleared of its farming occupants, and assured them of protection from prosecution for such violent seizures (and the accompanying murders and maiming). Even now, two leading Kenyan politicians (the present deputy president, running for the presidency with a former minister of education, as the two announced at a rally in late November 2012 in Nakuru) are due for trial in the International Criminal Court on charges of having orchestrated the wave of inter-ethnic mayhem – including murder, rape and persecution – that occurred in the aftermath of the recent presidential ballot (2007). While it is clear that Nd?ng’?’s novel did little to prevent the recurrence (indeed, even escalation) of “electoral” violence first manifested around 1991/1992, it is as evident how courageous, topical as well as prescient a text we have in A Friend of the Court.

The novel opens in a dusty little office in Nakuru where Rosaly Gakeri – a native of this city, but until recently a hot-shot lawyer in a top Nairobi legal firm, with the promise of promotion to partnership – has decided to open up a practice. We are led to understand the complex of reasons that led to this seemingly professionally unwise decision, the most important of which is Rosaly’s determination to share the life of her only child, her son Davy, with her parents, who have been raising the boy for her. She was never married to Davy’s father (about whom we learn more later) and it took her years to come to terms with the fact that her love for the boy has been blocked by her sense of shame for the circumstances of his conception and the fact that she is a single, “unwed” mother. She is determined to make up for lost time with the now nine-year-old boy, a lively young chap who, since her return to her birthplace, is attending a local day school and no longer a boarding school. We are also informed, in the early pages of the text, that Rosaly– since her “scarring experience” – has become a woman who is extremely guarded; “her beauty … a bit forbidding”; her eyes “never relent[ing] in their wary regard of the world” (2).

Another bit of family history relevant to Rosaly’s conduct and choices in the course of the narrative is her father’s detention and torture, which occurred when she was a teenager. He had been asked by candidates who had insisted on remaining (at least initially) anonymous to lodge a legal case granting the right to register an opposition party as validated by their constitutional “rights of speech, assembly and association” (4). At the time, Kenya, although de facto a one-party state, was not yet such by law (as happened later). But the Special Branch, evidently on orders from the top, had not taken kindly to what was seen as provocation and questioning of the state authority. Nevertheless, when Rosaly’s father (although never before or afterwards politically active) had stated after his release that as a lawyer he had taken on the brief, aware of the risk, since he had wanted “at the end of it to be able to live with [him]self, to face [him]self” (5), this made an indelible impression on Rosaly. The man who had won and then broken the second-year law student Rosaly’s heart was almost the opposite kind of person to her low-profile, morally upright father. The flamboyant actor Rene Jean (the stage name of Patterson Rwanio, working on the sidelines also as a painter, composer and what-not) was discovered guilty of numerous infidelities at about the same time that Rosaly found out that she was pregnant. She was not in the least interested in his offer of paying for an abortion and cut him out of her life.

The man who becomes Rosaly’s associate in her young Nakuru law firm is called Gareth Maitika, at 28 only a year younger than Rosaly, but, unlike her, newly qualified because he had “lost” three years during which he’d dropped out of school in defiance of teachers’ and maternal discipline and learnt (among other unconventional skills) to box, although he gave that up after a humiliating defeat by a huge opponent. Gareth, too, grew up in Nakuru, but dislikes life in Nairobi and happens upon the office which Rosaly has just hired when he goes around the city seeking suitable employment. Neither is particularly impressed by the other at first sight; their sense of comradeship will build up slowly as they, as colleagues, face the challenges to come and their feelings gradually deepen to love – over time and against emotional obstacles from both sides. Something they do not yet know that they have in common is a sort of connection with the third leading character in the narrative, “the famed gangster Donald Mwihoti”, who is known as a “car-jacker, bank robber, assassin for hire, enforcer, international smuggler … and more” (21). This unlikely, unsavoury character happens to be a distant cousin and a recent client of Rosaly’s – who had successfully defended him against one of the many charges for which he is in jail. Maitika will soon discover that this scary compatriot happens to be the same young man who had defeated him in his final boxing match.

Bored at the office, where no work has come their way yet, Gareth wanders down to court to see if anything interesting is happening. Just then a huge group of men is suddenly ushered into court, under guard. At this politically tense time, the early nineties, with “the first multi-party elections in a generation” (35) pending, but with no date announced yet, the men in the dock – among whom are Donald Mwihoti and his usual side-kick Stan Githukia – have been arraigned on orders from the ruling party (the UKD) who, increasingly insecure about their ability to retain control of the government (and preoccupied especially with the crucial and populous Rift Valley Province), have instructed the police to arrest and charge “all such persons who threatened the tranquil prosperity of the land” (36) – orders that can be translated to mean: “take care” of the incipient opposition to our rule by fair means or foul, but make it look legal. This is where Gareth and Rosaly come in.

What happens is that Gareth, attracted by the possibility of some interesting developments in the court, goes in to see what the men are charged with and makes eye contact with Donald Mwihoti, almost informally becoming his and his side-kick’s defence lawyer. The crowd of other men have, as is usual, been “softened” by torture to plead (meekly) guilty. Gareth warns his two clients not to do so, and on the day of the hearing he gets them off on the charges of incitement to public violence – or, more specifically, “promoting warlike undertakings against the State” (45) within the Rift Valley region. Oddly, when Gareth offered to get Don and his associate off the hook, the former had told him, “I’d rather have my life than my freedom” and stated, “This thing is big and there is nothing that anyone could do for me” (44) – all very mysterious and portentous.

Gareth does get both the men he represents discharged – on the date they stand accused of the above-mentioned misdeeds in the local area they were (as police documentation proves) in jail in Nairobi. Suspecting and stating in his court address the existence of shadowy political machinations at work in the whole affair, Gareth is nevertheless puzzled by Donald’s seeming ingratitude at being found innocent of the very serious charges. Walking home from court, he hitches a ride from two men coming past in their car, only to become an unwilling witness to further strange and violent events. The car he is in follows the police van with Don in it. The van has its way blocked by another car (during which the car Gareth is in lurks a bit behind), which seemingly is involved in a rescue (or kidnap?) of the two formerly accused and discharged prisoners (to be returned to jail to face other charges). But Don and Githukia do not seem to want to get into the “rescue” vehicle – whereupon Gareth’s driver and his other passenger shoot dead two of the three “rescuers” while Don himself “takes care” of the third; afterwards beckoning to the two men with Gareth to follow him as he drives off in the fake “rescue” car (the police guards were locked in the van before the shooting started). Shaken, Gareth is dropped off in town by the two men who are evidently Don’s “real” rescuers.

Gareth goes immediately to Rosaly’s parents’ home to inform her of what has transpired, since he had not, as he should have, consulted or informed her before appearing for Don and his associate – and also because he knows the following day’s newspapers will (as they do) report on his court role and the sensational “double kidnapping/rescue” after the hearing. Rosaly is not too pleased, but there is, of course, little she can do except to warn Gareth of how dangerous the men are.

The publicity does bring their fledgling firm its initial bits of business, however. Less pleasing is the fact that the Special Branch, led by a blustering bully – a “Senior Superintendent of Police attached to the Directorate of State Security” (77) – visits their office in full force after a few days. Rosaly and Gareth of course give nothing away regarding Gareth’s presence during the rescue of Don, but it is clear that the state has a baleful eye on them now.

When Gareth goes jogging that evening, Don makes contact with him. He wishes, he says, to make clear that he is in fact grateful that Gareth proved in court that Githukia and he could not have been involved in the events they and the other men were charged with on the night in question. What he adds, though, is that Gareth’s speculation in his court address concerning fearful, potentially violent events being planned for the Rift Valley was an accurate prediction. Now afraid of further involvement with Don, Gareth refuses to hear any more details and declares that he wants nothing further to do with Don or his activities, distrusting his allegations.

Next the Worthingtons, a small delegation of two white women – one elderly, the mother, and one middle-aged, the daughter – arrives at their office. Gareth had not told Rosaly about Don’s night-time warnings about ongoing incitements to mayhem in the Rift Valley, but the two women’s story lend credence to what Don had said. They tell of frightening pamphlets being spread in their area, telling people to vacate their land on pain of violent attacks; of crowds of marching, singing, armed, unknown men going past their farms at night and how the police are ignoring their appeals to have these acts of intimidation investigated and stopped.

“We’ve been to the District and then to the Provincial Police Headquarters – all with the same result. Lots of our neighbours have received such notices to vacate their farms. Each successive notice is so worded as to give the impression that the time draws closer by the day.” [When Gareth asks,] “The time for what, as you understand it?” [the reply is:] “A time of outbreak, of making a vow come true. And it can’t be far off; they’re marching like storm-troopers in broad daylight now without a care in the world.” (102)

The “storm-troopers” are all men strange to the area, it seems, but the women are able to supply the name of one chief instigator: Isaiah Wakanyugi – identified as “a minor UKD functionary at sub-branch level who occasionally g[ets] his name in the papers by issuing some scandalous statement fanatically supportive of his party” (103). The two women represent numerous fearful homesteads, clearly by no means all white-owned, as Gareth and Rosaly soon gather. Their legal advice is that they will draft and send a letter to the attorney general himself, mentioning the futility of prior appeals for protection, asking that the situation be investigated and giving him a fortnight within which to respond.

The firm gets more mundane, but lucrative, business in the interim, but Rosaly senses that Gareth is very disturbed about something. The reader knows that it is the confirmation the women’s visit brought of evil being planned that weighs on his mind. Yet only the “words of a felon” and those of people whom he regards as Kenyans of another kind than his own point to what may be impending. Nor do they hear anything from the attorney general’s office.

On a later night, Don yet again risks capture to visit Gareth (he is, of course, a man on the run from the police). Gathering that the latter is now more inclined to believe him, Don adds further details to his warnings of dire events in the area. These murders, arson and lootings will be identified as coming from alien sources and ethnic rivalries, when in fact they are state-instigated, giving the regime the opportunity to step in as “protectors”. Soon, Don has to make his escape when the Security Police pitch up; they have evidently got a whiff of the developing association between the advocate and the hunted criminal.

The fortnight’s grace to the attorney general’s having lapsed, the Worthingtons meet with Rosaly and Gareth. Even though the gathering of evidence that could be used in court would be an expensive and extremely time-consuming undertaking, Rosaly decides that their firm will take on the task pro bono publico (for the public good), and without being paid. And, adds Gareth, “Pro patria, for our country” (132). The Worthingtons offer the firm members free accommodation in their home for the duration of the investigation.

Here, too, Don makes a night-time appearance, taking Gareth into the forest to witness the whipping up of greed and bloodlust in the mysterious men who have been marching around the area. Sure enough, the one addressing them is Isaiah Wakanyugi – the man the Worthingtons had named. He tells the gathering that they may act with impunity, for their backs and flanks will be covered, as the reassurance soon to be brought to them by “greater” men than himself will prove to lay their fears of punishment or exposure to rest. Don also advises Gareth that, since the local farmers and their family members interviewed up to this point have not provided satisfactory evidence suitable for a court case, partly because the intimidation to which they have been subjected has made them afraid to speak out, they should go to his (Don’s) home area, where the people are braver, to interview locals. When they do so on their next and last day of evidence gathering, Rosaly and Gareth and Stellamarie Worthington meet a very, very old lady, who welcomes them and tells them her youngest son is a man they should speak to. This man, Njenga, is very hostile to what he sees as their intrusion, however, and he has no faith whatsoever in legal processes being able to protect them. He contrasts the two advocates’ safe city existence with the vengeance to which he and other locals would be exposing themselves if they testify in open court as to what is happening in their region. Despite this severe rebuff, Gareth goes after Njenga and explains to him how the legal route they advocate would unfold and how vital reliable evidence from men like him would be to a successful legal appeal to prevent or end the pending violence in the area. He also tells Njenga that soon “great” men are coming to address the secret forest gathering and that, if he and others could be there to observe this from hidden places, and later testify to what they witness, it would link the planned violence to the real instigators and expose the whole plot. While he gets no commitment from Njenga, the latter does become a tad friendlier. Gareth leaves him with a card and his contact details.

Not long after, Gareth gets a phone call from Njenga: he and other men had indeed (secretly) attended another meeting of the thugs’ army in the forest and witnessed the “great men” addressing and inciting the clandestine gathering. They are prepared to come and make their statements to this effect at the law firm’s offices. Though still hugely ambivalent about the suitability of the court route and the risk of reprisals, Njenga and three other men come to the city and give their affidavits to Rosaly and Gareth. Immediately after they have left, Gareth has what turns out to be a brainwave: the security police, he says, are likely to come and raid their offices to confiscate Njenga  and company’s crucial statements; he proposes to draw up fake statements and photocopy them and keep these in their office while the real evidence is safely hidden.

As Gareth predicted, the raid soon happens, but the security police fall for the trick and go off triumphantly with the fake evidence!

For Gareth, his understanding of Don’s motives deepens; he is told by Don how wounded and angry he was at being referred to as “scum” by Njenga when he accompanied them to the forest meeting to ensure their safety during that dangerous operation. Don also takes Gareth along on a reconciliation visit to his home, where Don’s wife’s initial furious rejection gradually softens. Don also has a little boy, it turns out, and Don has had to make arrangements for his small family to be moved to a safer area as he knows violence will soon be let loose on the area, so they had to be warned. As Don and Gareth drive away, they by luck spot a police ambush ahead of them and make a daring get-away. Two days later, the planned violence erupts. Gareth watches in horror the early morning broadcast on the only independent TV station:

The footage was graphic, gruesome. The burning and burnt houses were for real, the corpses of men hacked to death as they staged what little defence they could against hordes of attackers. Of men shot with arrows as they tried to spirit their families to safety. An exodus towards the relative safety of town centers was underway, the report said. (228)

Rosaly had previously shocked Gareth by saying that they could not lodge their case until there was evidence of actual attacks, but now that this has happened, they go immediately to court to institute a private prosecution against Isaiah Wakanyugi – they will bring in the “greater men” at a later stage of the proceedings. In the meantime, the state-dominated media deviously link the violence to “a secret terrorist organisation that had proven links to the criminal underworld” (229). Wakanyugi, meanwhile, defies the order to come to court, declaring (and this is recorded on independent TV!), “It might be that nothing has happened yet. More might be on its way, more of the same. And not in one place but all over” (237). Gareth soon gets a call from Don: as a “friend of the court”, he says, he with some help has effected a citizen’s arrest of Wakanyugi, knowing that he is due at court, and that they will be “delivering” the man to answer the charges that Gareth and Rosaly have brought against him! Gareth is still profoundly troubled, however, by the thought that arraigning Wakanyugi may not be enough to stop the bloodshed. And unfortunately, he is right.

The case proceeds, but Gareth knows they will need more, weightier evidence. He approaches a deposed minister, the former MP of the area, who has fallen out of favour with the ruling party. This is (as he correctly surmises) a man who could confirm cabinet involvement in the planning of the violence as a strategy for the party to retain political dominance despite facing election challenges. Gareth even goes to the bishop of their region – knowing that the politician goes to the churchman for spiritual guidance – to appeal to him to persuade the deposed man to expose his former colleagues in eventual court testimony.

The day comes for Njenga and his three neighbours to testify in court as to what they had witnessed in the forest, but only two of the four men show up: one is thought to have been killed by the marauders as his home is somewhat isolated; the other refused to leave his family unguarded. But Njenga’s testimony (despite his earlier reservations) is strong and it reveals the most scandalous aspect of the case: that three government ministers, whom Njenga saw and clearly heard addressing the secret forest gathering, are implicated. Their personal fomenting of the violence – with the promise to the invaders that “the vacated farms would become theirs” (288) – is now part of the court record. Rosaly can now apply for the three ministers to be charged and brought to court to face these charges of incitement – a request granted to the prosecution.

The first bumbling attempt to thwart what is transpiring, flops: the increasingly frustrated Special Branch superintendent attempts to take Gareth into custody, but his attempt fails and all the other advocates support his resistance to such harassment. The security police had claimed merely to wish to interview him, but everyone was aware that they might try and incarcerate him.

Not very long afterwards, Gareth and Rosaly accompany the disgraced former minister and MP (now standing for re-election on a different party ticket) on an inspection of the area affected by the violence. Although the government has declared it a no-go area, the tour goes ahead and the politician blusters his way past police roadblocks. Soon, they find their terrible evidence: a burnt, still smouldering homestead and the burnt and hacked corpses of a woman, a man and a youth.

Then they see the most ghastly sight yet [sensitive readers should skip this passage below]:

By a storeroom on stilts lay the girl. The briefest sight of her broke the composure [Gareth] had tried to impose upon himself. The girl had been big with child. Disorderly slicings had been done to her belly. Its contents had leaped out of her in bloody viscosity all around her. The almost full term foetus, denied its sustenance, had been left to die on its own. No other indignity or injury had been done to her. In truth, none was needed. She had died slowly, the girl who resembled the other [dead] lady, very slowly. … (317-8)

It takes a sight as awful as this to remind one of the fundamental anti-life obscenity of ruthless power retention tactics. Gareth refers to it as “the threatened season of blood and iron” (318).

One flicker of life appears: the family’s little boy has been hiding in the potato field, where Gareth spots him and rescues him. But then they see more evidence of the invaders’ work. The police officer in charge is angry at their accusations and tells them he and his men are doing their best to contain or end the sporadic violence. As the convoy makes its way to where Don lived, they find only a burnt-down ruin, but there is one photograph: it shows Don in full battledress uniform and on the back he had written that it was taken at the end of his training for an elite police special forces unit!

In the nearby village a group funeral is in process: six local men had been killed by the marauders as they attempted to defend their family properties, and the very old lady Rosaly and Gareth had met when they first came to the region to gather evidence had collapsed and died when she saw her home of so many years destroyed. She was, of course, Njenga’s mother. Enraged by the horrors around them, and looking for someone to blame, Njenga comes up to Gareth and punches him on the nose, accusing him of falsely promising prevention of what has occurred.

Gareth, to his shock, is told by Rosaly to “stop whining”! These things happen in their line of work, she declares, and they had best get on with professional matters. Rosaly, who has all along sensed that Gareth has been having conversations pertinent to the case but not sharing things with her, his superior in the firm, at last bursts out and accuses Gareth of fancying himself a hero in a much messier and more awful situation than he had foreseen. Stung, he stalks over to her and, in turn, accuses her of having no normal human emotions – of being cold and unfeeling. They teeter on the brink of Rosaly’s dismissing Gareth from his job, but both sensibly go home instead.

That night, still intensely bothered by what Gareth had said about her (though aware of her own part in provoking his outburst), Rosaly goes to find Gareth at his usual drinking hole – The Last Man Standing. In what is an extremely amusing scene she finds Gareth, Don and the pub-keeper, all three very drunk and with Gareth acting out a singer’s performance. He ends up asking her to dance with him and just collapses afterwards, so that Rosaly has to ask Don to help get him into her car and home. He remembers nothing when he comes to the office the next day, but has to continue half-asleep most of the day. He recalls what Don told him before they became too drunk: that having joined an elite paramilitary police unit after running away from home, he got mixed up with the wrong crowd and implicated in crime. This in turn made him manipulable by rogue elements in the police and their political masters, so that he was used to commit further crimes, also further compromising himself while enjoying secret impunity.

Eventually he is instructed to help organise the mayhem in the Rift Valley, but, being from the area, decides to turn against his evil masters. He had said to Gareth, “I’m as bad as they say I am, […] worse, as half the things I have done are not known. But I wasn’t always so. And I’m not as bad as the things that have been done to so many in the province, as those who do it … now you know” (341).

The next day brings the three accused ministers of state to the court. Out of the blue, Rosaly informs Gareth that, since she has to attend Parents’ Day at her son’s school, he will have to begin the cross-questioning of the ministers. Though initially terrified, Gareth does this very ably, trapping the first minister into claiming to have been back in Nairobi on the evening before the secret forest meeting took place. Rosaly, however, had engaged a private detective who obtained proof that the ministers’ aeroplane returning them from the Rift Valley visit landed only the day after.

Just then, the attorney general’s representative arrives and intervenes, claiming that the magistrate’s court does not have the authority to conduct a hearing at this level and that the matter must go to a higher (clearly, a more manipulable) court. Gareth argues (as he and Rosaly had agreed beforehand, expecting such a ploy) that a point in law is at stake, – viz the jurisdiction and suitability of the magistrate’s court – a point that the high court should pronounce on before the attorney general’s intervention can be validated. Gareth adds the point that when he had been requested earlier to act on the information provided to prevent the bloodshed in the region, the attorney general had failed to do so and that his fitness for office thus comes into question. The application from the prosecution to take the matter to the high court is allowed. The chief justice decides that a constitutional court of three judges must hear the matter. They will sit in a week’s time to hear the arguments.

The next day newspapers report “the killing of the land’s most wanted man, Donald Mwihoti … at a road block along the road leading to the Malaba border crossing point leading to Uganda” (361). Both Gareth and Rosaly had repeatedly warned Don to flee the country, but he himself had, half fatalistically, known the likelihood that at some points his enemies, furious at his desertion and his exposure of their dirty tricks, would catch up with him. Gareth privately mourns a man who might under different circumstances have been his friend. He had done what he could to redeem himself.

The day of the constitutional court hearing comes, and again Rosaly insists that Gareth plead the case. With two judges (including the one presiding) accepting their argument, the magistrate’s court can continue with the case. The three ministers are refused bail and the prosecution’s case is further strengthened when their former (now deposed) fellow minister testifies that he had been present at the initial meetings planning the violent invasions and dispossessions. “As the damning revelations began [Gareth]’s thoughts returned to a man who had been his friend for a short while” (382). He decides that he will compose a narrative based on all this. In it, this “arguable hero”, Don, could possibly be granted, or be shown to achieve, “a measure of redemption” (382).

Gareth and Rosaly have also, at last, acknowledged their feelings for each other, to each other. The revelations in the court have also immediately brought about some reduction in the levels of violence in the area.

But I wish to return to an earlier point to conclude my account of this significant novel with a part of Gareth’s plea to the constitutional court judges:

“The fear for all right thinking people is whether this … this lunacy in the form of political licentiousness will become a feature of every period leading to a general election. There is an even greater fear, my lords, and it is this: that the outrage that leads survivors to vow never again! might lead them to arm themselves to brave other pogroms. To arm themselves with the most dreadful weapon of all, that of vengeful memory. For it is then that the chaos and anarchy from which the nation’s leaders so proudly declare Kenya to be exempt will be here and perhaps to stay. And let note be taken of this simple fact: no single community should be condemned for warring against another or others. The thing in a man’s heart that leads him to do such vileness to his fellow men is independent of tribe, of creed, of race.” (369)

The truth and urgency of the words above are undeniable – and have been all too dreadfully fulfilled in Kenya and elsewhere. A novel like Nd?ng’?’s is, of course, never enough to stem the whirlpool of blood when power and violence entwine, but it is an immensely laudable call to conscience. The passion for justice may be a little bit hyped in this novel, but we could do with more such thoughtful and pertinent writing, making complicated matters accessible and refusing to allow us to say certain matters are out of our hands or beyond address.

Nd?ng’?’s novel is a thriller and a gripping reading experience, but it carries a moral and political charge of unexpected magnitude.

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