Cliff Ombeta’s Paradox

Cliff Ombeta
Cliff Ombeta a criminal lawyer during a photo session at Sarova Stanley. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

When suspected villains, murderous, modern-day brigands, drug dealers and generally unsavoury characters get arrested, they almost always call one man; Cliff Ombeta.

He is a man who constantly sticks his head above the parapet. He attended Jamhuri High School, Highway Secondary School, Kamusinga Secondary School and Koelel High School, all which he was expelled. “I’m not problematic, I just don’t like being bullied; you can’t punish me if you can’t prove it. I challenge dogma,” he says.

In person, as JACKSON BIKO discovered recently over tea on a cold morning at Nairobi Serena, Cliff is trim, charming, highly personable, and dresses to the nines in his well-cut double-breasted suit and a wristwatch that shines like Sirius on a clear night.

It’s 1945, World War II has just ended. Adolph Hitler is in cuffs. Would you represent him; the greatest villain in history?

I would.


Where do you draw the line in the sand? Who wouldn’t you touch?

I draw the line where it comes to cases involving rape and indecent assault.

Is there a particular case that still keeps you up at night?

The Akashas. The truth is we had beaten the system and they were going to lose this case and the only solution they had was the kidnap. It’s a case that was unfair. I know that it’s a case that we could have won. They keep on saying that we bribed judges, we bribed magistrates, we bribed everybody and the Americans are going to come and look for us. That we interfered with the process …

As a criminal lawyer, does your profession train you to completely disassociate with your conscience? How do you reconcile your conscience defending people who you know are guilty?

First of all, my duty is not to judge. As a criminal lawyer, my obligation is to discredit a witness, an assertion, a fact or any kind of evidence that is brought or presented against our clients no matter how horrible, evil or repulsive they are. This is done within the bounds of the law. Not out of it.

It does not matter my personal feelings whether it’s true or not. I cannot judge the client, but in doing so, we cannot present false testimony. Factual guilt is not an issue for us, it has no role as we defend. This is not a moral issue once you assume the duty to defend.

Do you fear for your life?

I stopped fearing. I used to fear in the first few years. Then I did a lot of learning from S.K Ndungi who was shot at Jeevanjee Gardens. If you are afraid you can’t be a criminal lawyer.

People used to call me in the middle of the night with threats, telling me they know where I am. I would constantly look over my shoulders. If someone looked at me a little too long in a restaurant I’d walk out. I’d go to a bar and be alert, observing. You don’t know who is an enemy or a friend. Now I don’t fear. I’m used to it. Look, when it comes, it comes because anxiety can destroy you. It gives you ulcers.

How do you sleep at night?

I do a solid eight hours.

Is there anything that happened to you when you were younger that put you in this path of criminal law?

I wanted to be a cop initially because my uncle was a senior policeman. He used to come to pick my dad sometimes when they are going for ceremonies and he would be wearing the navy blue suit and the white shirt.

I wanted to join the forces because I loved the uniform. He looked good. Then I read Sidney Sheldon’s Rage of Angels where Jennifer Parker defended Michael Moretti, a mobster, and I changed my mind. I wanted to be a lawyer.

If you got yourself in a major pickle today, which lawyer would you call?

Kirathe Wandugi. We did the Akasha case together and quite a number of other narcotic cases. We have been threatened and harassed. He stood his ground. He is the kind of person I would want to have in my corner.

Does defending accused criminals and murderers change who you are? Are you the same person you were 15 years ago?

I’m 49 years old now and I’m the same person I was 20 years ago. I’ve always had a passion to do my work, but when done, I leave work behind, I go out, I work out, I love soccer, Arsenal to be precise though they always break my heart.

I love boxing, I love being fit. I have never drunk alcohol or smoked cigarettes in my life. I go dancing. I do full marathons, my best time is 3:17 in 2016. This year I did 3:50. I’m doing Berlin next year and Two Oceans next year.

What will you regret when it all comes to an end?

(Pause) I honestly can’t think of anything, apart from perhaps my work keeps me away from my children. }{They are 18 and 15 years old}. But I’m trying to compensate now. I do daddy things; school runs … I’ve been divorced five years now. I have never wanted to get into any other permanent relationship because it means going through the same circle again.

I don’t want to be married again. I also don’t want to have other children. I want to concentrate on the two I have. It’s also tricky dating now because you don’t know who is genuine, who wants you for Cliff the lawyer and not for me. Sometimes you end up pushing away genuine people. But I actually have a girlfriend from Rwanda.

Because you do what you do, do you find that you are a better judge of character?

Most of the time, 99 percent, I do not fail.

How do you charge your fees? Do you have a ratecard?

(Chuckles) No. It depends on the client; there are those who have money and those who don’t. There are those I tell my fees is Sh5 million and they pay upfront, in full. There are those who pay monthly. There are people who will do a small harambee to raise the money. Then there are cases that I don’t charge.

What’s the most you’ve charged on a case?

(Long pause) No, I can’t tell you that. (Laughs) But the Akasha case paid well, most narcotic cases do.

Who is your dream client?

(Pause) I already had my dream client; the Akashas.

Do you believe in God?

Yes, but I can’t say I’m totally religious. I know God favours me; everything that has happened including the protection is because he has favoured me. I’m a SDA member (Seventh Day Adventist) and I normally drop my children off to church but I never go in. If there is a church harambee, I participate but, … yeah, I struggle going to church.

Which of your personality traits do you least admire?

(Thinking). I’m an impulsive buyer. I sometimes spend what I don’t have.