Profiles

Philip Murgor at 60: Can he fit in CJ’s shoes?

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Senior Counsel Philip Murgor during the interview at his office in Ecobank Towers, Nairobi on January 12, 2021. PHOTO | KANYIRI WAHITO | NMG

Summary

  • There is something roundly enchanting about Senior Counsel Philip Murgor: his mild manner and piercing mind.
  • It is also his unrelenting spirit and an almost inscrutable gaze. Yet nothing quite compares to his ability to gel in different contexts in different seasons.
  • As he turns 60 this year, he tells me if his life was plotted in a graph, he would be thoroughly pleased with the results.

There is something roundly enchanting about Senior Counsel Philip Murgor: his mild manner and piercing mind. It is also his unrelenting spirit and an almost inscrutable gaze. Yet nothing quite compares to his ability to gel in different contexts, in different seasons.

As he turns 60 this year, he tells me if his life was plotted on a graph, he would be thoroughly pleased with the results.

“My career and social life have had a steady rise,” he says.

We met a day after Chief Justice David Maraga’s exit, making it difficult to skirt the subject of his scorecard and succession. How would he rate him? “CJ Maraga did his best. He was sincere in everything he did and attempted to do. I would give him 65 out of 100.”

The Senior Counsel observes though that it was Mr Maraga’s responsibility to resolve the publicly frosty relations between the Judiciary and the Executive.

At the core of the escalating tension between the two arms of government has been budgetary disputes and the appointment of judges.

I ask him how differently he would navigate the terrain if he were Chief Justice. “It’s important to avoid disputes that lead to institutional deadlocks,” he says, adding that he’d be alive to the realities that define this relationship. “I’d have handled the budgetary issue differently, by being more diplomatic but also firm.”

Is he diplomatic? Mr Murgor calls it a question of discretion. “There’s a time to shout from the rooftops and a time to be diplomatic. I’m diplomatic when I need to be and firm when the situation so demands.”

Born in Iten in 1961, he went to school in Nairobi and has worked in the city ever since. His first job was in public service as a public prosecutor. This decision was largely influenced by his background.

“My father was a provincial administrator. He worked in different stations in Kiambu, Kisumu, and later Eldoret. You feel obligated to work in the public sector,” he says.

Mr Murgor and his wife Agnes Murgor, a judge, later left public “when it became impossible to raise a family” owing to various hardships touching on pay and maternity leave.

The Murgors have two daughters and a son, aged 29, 26, and 21. “I have a wonderful wife and wonderful children,” he says of his triumphs at the social level. “We’re a simple family. My daughter was stuck in the UK for almost a year. She just returned home. That was the longest time we had to wait.” His eldest daughter is a lawyer. That makes three lawyers in the same household. Do they talk shop at home? “No. But sometimes we discuss topical legal news stories in the country.”

On his contribution to the country, Mr Murgor, a Master of Law holder from the University of Nairobi, cites major cases, including the Goldenberg, where he represented the government and the Central Bank of Kenya.

In these cases, Kenya recovered billions of shillings that had been stolen while the perpetrators were also brought to book. I’m curious to know what kind of feeling such roles and feats inspire in him.

“I had hoped this would give me a measure of satisfaction. But it didn’t,” he says.

First, because he feels he did not finish his work, and secondly because he thinks a lot more needs to be done “to make the country better.”

But it is his stint as Director Public Prosecutions ( DPP) that he is proudest about. “That’s where I made a mark in my career. I took over at a time when public prosecution in Kenya was considered dead,” he says.

He likens his tenure to fighting a war without shoes. “As DPP, I received instructions from the Attorney-General who was [technically] the public prosecutor.”

Even without constitutional protection, Mr Murgor took the difficult assignment in his stride and with zeal. 

But he would soon take a bullet for asserting himself in sensitive matters. “The President (Mwai Kibaki) couldn’t remove the AG because he was constitutionally protected,” he says. 

Mr Murgor left the stage in a cloud of confusion over who was responsible for his boot. Does he think the country owes him? “Not really,” he says with a chuckle, reclining in his chair. “I think I owe the country more service.”

Is public service thankless? “Public service shouldn’t be thankless. Doctors and teachers were respected members of the society in the past,” he says. He blames the change of attitude on capitalism. “We’ve become a very commercial society. [That’s why] we look at public servants [with disdain].”

“Public service can be more, should be more. It’s what drives a country. It should be facilitated for that purpose.” 

In the coming weeks, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) will start to recruit Mr Maraga’s successor. What should the JSC look for in a candidate and what should Kenyans expect? 

“Someone who can bridge the gap between the Judiciary and the other two arms of government to facilitate service delivery to the people,” he says, noting that the candidate must also inspire investor confidence.

“No investor will place his money in a country where the dispute resolution mechanisms or Judiciary do not function or are underfunded,” he adds. That person must also project independence, be level-headed, and experienced. Would he go for the post? In a measured tone, Mr Murgor replies: “Obviously, I’ve considered it.” 

Will he? “I’m leaving it open. I’m also consulting.” For him, turning 60 is a milestone that comes with more responsibilities. It is time to evaluate his career and contribution to the country.  “I hope to be in my prime between now and 70. I could do this in either private practice or the public service,” he says with effusive composure.

Away from the law, Mr Murgor has interests in animal and crop farming, which keeps him going during weekends. He rears dairy cows on his farm in Moiben in Uasin Gishu County and also grows fodder, maize, and barley.

Does he know how to milk? “Yes,” he replies emphatically. “I grew up on a farm. Milking was one of the lessons. But a machine does that now.”

From his frame, it is evident he likes to keep fit. Did he attain his fitness goals in 2020? He hesitates. “I did,” he says after a momentary pause. “I have moments when I exercise more than others. During the lockdown, I ventilated a lot, working out and taking long walks.”

He is a teetotaller and has no indulgences. “I avoid consumption of red meat. I enjoy vegetables and white meat.”

Whereas his family has travelled twice every year before, for work, to take time off and to meet friends abroad, the pandemic disrupted such travel plans in 2020.

A stickler to discipline, Mr Murgor does not camouflage his impatience for incompetence. “Some people have no interest to serve the country, which comes at a great cost. When one gets a public job, they should truly commit to service.”

For many years, he has advocated for the rights of the disadvantaged in society, including special-interest groups and women. He says the two-thirds gender rule in public service is not enough.

“I believe in gender parity. The two-thirds rule is a minimum. Kenya should strive to do better.” His office, he tells me, has more women employees than men. “Even my children, I teach them in that manner.”

I ask him when he has felt most vulnerable. He scowls almost imperceptibly, before steadying himself. “I’ve been threatened in my line of work,” he says, adding, “but that comes with the territory. Even as an advocate sometimes you take a position on a matter and it will come back to haunt you.”

Mr Murgor interned at the Superior Court of the US in Washington as part of a student exchange programme. His scope of practice covers criminal, constitutional, civil, and commercial litigations. 

Throughout his career, he has represented clients in criminal cases, including murder. He says a lawyer’s job is like a doctor’s.

“By the time a client consults a lawyer, they’re in a very vulnerable position. They will confide in you. It’s your responsibility to comfort and assure them.”

Trust, he adds, is paramount. “A client has to be sincere to be helped. The truth eventually comes out, and as a lawyer, I don’t want to be ambushed when that happens,” says the lawyer who has been in legal practice for 28 years.

Winning and losing cases is part of the job. When I ask him how he prepares for rulings in cases he feels he stands little chance, he goes for a cracker: honest lawyers do not promise a particular outcome to their clients. 

“When a client’s case is weak, you tell them as much, but you assure them that you’ll fight it nonetheless. Or you advise them to settle it in another way to avoid incurring costs in legal fees and a possible loss.” So, who inspires his work? Mr Murgor points at one of the many portraits hanging in his office of him with former US President Barack Obama. He met him in 2006 when, then Senator for Illinois, Obama had visited Kenya. 

“Obama is the epitome of servant leadership. He remains the standard by which you judge the performance of a president.”

Chalk and cheese is his phrase for the difference between Obama and outgoing US President Donald Trump. “Trump has been a total international disaster. Unfortunately, there are political leaders and professionals in Kenya who embrace Trumpism as a means to rule.”

At this level in his career, are there things he feels he has outgrown? “As a professional, you’ll never outgrow any legal problem. But as a human being, as you mature, you realise you have less time for useless exchanges. At 60, you’ve seen it all and you know when to say something and when not to,” he says. In recent years, Twitter has become an arena for sometimes embarrassing exchanges and even personal attacks between lawyers. This conduct, he laments, puts legal practice to ridicule and disrepute.

“Lawyers who are worth their salt should conduct themselves on social media in a manner that reflects seriousness. Think about how you portray yourself and the profession. Weigh your words before you speak. Speak only when you must.”

With a sluggish economy, Mr Murgor says it is become harder to remain in legal practice. “I don’t have any personal struggles, but it’s a difficult time to work in Kenya.”

The best way to visualise him is to imagine him in a pinstripe suit. He tells me his sense of fashion is conservative.

He used to play golf which he had “easily mastered” but the interest soon petered out as he found he “could not continue doing the same thing every day, without a specific objective.” He now concerns himself more with farming.

Strip him of his career, reputation, and family, and he says a decent and fair man is what would remain. “I tend to attract victims; people who have been wronged and not those who have wronged others,” he says.

In 2017, he vied for the presidency on a United Democratic Movement ticket. Is his political ambition still alive? “That moment passed,” he says with finality. He adds that he was driven by “the need to unite the country” and “to give Kenyans another option” away from the predominantly ethnic-fuelled politics.  His months-long incarceration as a first-year student at the University of Nairobi in the aftermath of the attempted coup of 1982 hardened him even as it broke some of his fellow detainees. “It shaped my career. I’m extremely resilient now.”

Ten years later, he represented the late former President Daniel Moi in an election petition in