President Uhuru Kenyatta on Wednesday appointed judge Martha Karambu Koome as Kenya’s first woman chief justice, making her the first woman to head any of the three branches of government.
Koome, 61, a calm but staunch women’s rights crusader, takes over the judiciary ahead of next year’s general elections and would likely play a decisive role in adjudicating any eventual election disputes.
She inherits a Supreme Court that in September 2017 annulled the presidential election results in a historic ruling under her predecessor David Maraga that strained its relationship with the executive.
The University of London-trained appeals court judge was seen as an unlikely candidate in a list of 10 including the lawyer who represented Kenyatta in the 2017 case.
Kenyatta gazetted her appointment hours after parliament okayed her nomination, setting the stage for her to be sworn in in the next few days.
Koome made a name for herself during the autocratic regime of the late president Daniel arap Moi when she represented political detainees including opposition veteran Raila Odinga.
She joined the judiciary in 2003 after practising as a lawyer for over a decade and in eight years rose to the Court of Appeal following stints at the environmental and family division courts.
In 2019, Koome was part of a five-judge bench that dismissed an appeal seeking to block the registration of an organisation to defend gay rights.
Koome argued that no one should be told whom to love, regardless of their sexual orientation.
As a chairwoman of a special taskforce on children, Koome helped review the East African country’s Children’s Act.
All eyes will be on the soft-spoken judge as she assumes office days after a High Court ruled that Kenyatta’s planned constitutional reforms, popularly known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), were illegal.
The government has said it will appeal the decision, if need be, all the way to the Supreme Court.
During her vetting, Koome promised to rid the judiciary of corruption and safeguard its independence.
“I am a judge who looks at society and Kenyans will feel safe with me,” she said.