In a contest of spruceness, Nelson Havi runs away with a medal. In a black suit paired with a blue shirt, a Law Society of Kenya (LSK) badge punched into his coat and a maroon striped tie fastened with sleek perfection, Havi looks his usual pristine self.
The new LSK president wears a Montblanc watch that cost him Sh600,000. One of his university lecturers Prof PLO Lumumba called him “the duke” to appreciate his sense of fashion.
“Light travels faster than sound; you’re seen before you’re heard. As a lawyer, you must be meticulous,” he says with his habitual winsome grin.
“The mind is always eager to pay attention to a presentable person.” And that attention is priceless in the legal practice. For two months, Havi traversed the country to meet lawyers in town halls to sell his agenda. He tells me this tough trail left him worn, bruised and with life lessons.
“I’m slowly returning to my routine,” he says.
To wind down, the 43-year-old exercises an hour in the morning and in the evening twice every week.
“I also read a lot of African literature, Shakespearean plays, fiction and religious mythology.”
Hiking with colleagues is his favourite expedition. Havi hopes to reconnect with his hiking party as soon as he has settled down in his new job. Besides these, he sketches, paints and is a satirical poet.
“In our current political environment, some things can only be said through satire. Sometimes people misinterpret what I write, but I target a very specific audience,” notes the counsel whose favourite genres of music are country and rumba.
It became clear that Havi would be winning the LSK poll as soon as results started streaming in. What was his family’s reaction? And what role did they play in his race? “My wife is a lawyer. We met as students at the University of Nairobi,” he says.
“She has been supportive throughout the campaigns. This victory was hers as much as it was mine.”
The father of two daughters and a son says that the race took him away from home for weeks, and that only a lawyer would have understood him. If his children would have their way, he’d never leave home for days. None wants to be in their parents’ profession, preferring the arts instead.
I ask him what his biggest flaw as a father is. “When you’re a father to a daughter, you understand what it takes to wear make-up. It teaches you to be patient. You also appreciate why it’s OK for your daughter to be moody at times.”
Marrying a fellow lawyer has been exciting, even though work issues hardly find vent at home, he says.
“There are times when I’m briefed and asked to obtain a court order within a few hours. The pressure sometimes forces me to work throughout the night. Who is better placed to understand my circumstances than a lawyer?”
To young unmarried men, Havi says that while marriage takes away some freedoms, it doesn’t cost one’s social life entirely. “My shoes have been shining like this since I got married,” he says, motioning me to peek at his glossy boots, the deft work of his wife.
“I don’t understand how she polishes them. She does it, not as a sense of duty, but for love.”
An adventurous persona, Havi is ever ready to take the plunge “even when everyone thinks it’s too risky.”
“The life expectancy is Kenya is 66 years. I don’t have much time left to build my legacy. At 34, Herod the Great had built three cities. In life, you have to proceed with urgency,” he says.
This urgency means even courting trouble if he has to. “If you can’t get into trouble, you can’t learn how to get out of it.”
So, what other boxes does he wish to tick in his life? First is an early exit from public life. “It’s my desire to enjoy family time while I’m still young. I also want to lead a healthy life and to die happy.”
A zealous collector of mementos, his office is adorned with various relics, notable among them the Statue of Liberty and a war trumpet from the 1800s.
Away from family and flair, I engage him on his new role. Other than his charisma, the mantra of a “brave new bar” propelled Havi to victory. This was his second stab at the presidency.
During his first attempt in 2017, Havi was blocked from running, on grounds that he hadn’t attained the requisite 15 years of practice. This left him with a bucket of ire to nurse.
But this is water under the bridge now, he says. “I made peace with that decision. I don’t hold grudges against anyone,” he says teetering.
So, does he feel vindicated by his election? Leadership is God-given, he says. “When I decided to run, I was confident that my manifesto would find favour with my colleagues. It did.’’
In an exercise where more than 60 percent of lawyers took part, Havi won with 46 per cent of the votes. Had he not been running, he tells me he would have voted for Charles Kanjama, owing to “his independence.”
I ask him what his slogan meant and how he hopes to mobilise a vibrant society.
“My desire is to monitor legislation, to defend the rule of law and to protect the environment of legal practice. Lawyers must feel safe while doing their work,” he says.
On the dwindling standards of legal practice, Havi observes that the Kenyan society is crumbling from various edges.
“We have an emasculated Legislature that can’t make laws that are good for the people. The Judiciary is weakened and can’t deliver justice. The public is in despair,” he laments. Worldwide, he notes, lawyers play a key role of providing direction to a country.
“Paul Muite, Gibson Kamau Kuria, James Orengo were very vocal in the 80s and 90s when Kenya was clamouring for multiparty democracy. Now we don’t have a crop of brave lawyers who are available to guide this country,” he says.
Promoting the rule of law and constitutionalism feature top on his agenda, and Havi understands the complexity of the issues at hand.
“The rule of law isn’t an inconvenience to leadership,” he emphasises. “It’s the fundamental tenet on which any successful democracy is anchored. Court orders, for instance, must be obeyed for the benefit of all.”
Without his family, his career and money, what would give meaning to his life? “My name,” he says without contemplating. “Whatever belongs to me constitutes what I am. But my values define who I am, which is more important.”
I ask him if he agrees with the position that the war against graft has been politically weaponised. Havi argues that the bulk of corruption cases in Kenya involve appointed and elected leaders, which allows their political opponents to use prosecution “as a tool to settle scores.”
He proposes a change of tack to enhance efficiency in prosecution of corruption. “The process of prosecuting suspects of theft of public money must be speedy. When you arraign 30 suspects and line up 300 witnesses, when do you expect to terminate the matter?” he wonders, explaining that this results in many acquittals.
Only the necessary witnesses should be presented to court, he adds. “The Director of Public Prosecutions must be rational if we are to convict perpetrators of graft.”
So, what gives him the thrust? Passion for service, he says.
Havi, who subscribes to the ‘Obamaism’ style of leadership, says that a leader must be humble and listen to people at all times. “They can make you emperor or prisoner at any time,” he says, quoting French statesman Napoleon Bonaparte.
On his promise to restore the society’s “lost glory,” he says that with his election, LSK has regained its esteemed place.
“You can look forward to a glorious term for the next two years. We’ll not relegate our role to activists. You’ll see us in action to assist the government in administration.”
With that, he stares into the distance, as though to size up the task ahead.