A group of elders tried to mediate in the dispute between Supreme Court judge Philip Tunoi and his accuser Geoffrey Kiplagat in the alleged Sh200 million bribery scandal.
The two main players in the saga, that may have far reaching consequences on Kenya’s highest court, come from neighbouring villages in Elgeyo-Marakwet County.
Mr Kiplagat alleges he brokered the deal for the judge to rule in favour of Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero in an election petition filed by his rival for the seat, Mr Ferdinand Waititu.
Both the judge and governor have denied the allegations.
A committee set up by Chief Justice Willy Mutunga to look into the allegations Friday recommended that a tribunal be formed to investigate the judge.
Mr Kiplagat’s father, Mr Joseph Kibet Kiplelmet, told Saturday Nation on Friday that they have been family friends with the Tunois for more than 20 years.
The Tunois live in Kaptarakwa, about 35km from Eldoret on the Kaptagat road, while the Kiplelmets are in Chepkorio, less than 20km away.
Mr Kiplelmet said his son complained to him about being short-changed when he came to the village for a funeral in December.
But he said what concerned him most was not the Sh30 million his son claimed he had been promised, but the death threats he said he was getting.
He also claimed strange vehicles were trailing him.
“Together with a group of elders, we tried to contact the judge to resolve the issue but were unable to,” he said.
Mr Kiplelmet said he later learnt that his son had gone public over the issue.
“It was our wish that the issue did not go public as Justice Tunoi has been a family friend for many years,” said Mr Kiplelmet.
Mr Chirchir Masit, who was among the elders who tried to mediate in 2014, said they pulled out all the stops to get in touch with Justice Tunoi, including roping in a former Eldoret mayor, to no avail.
“Unfortunately, we were unable to meet the judge, who is a respected man in the community. The boy (Mr Kiplagat) later told us he had stopped taking his calls. I think that is when he decided to go public,” Mr Masit told Saturday Nation.
“We are very worried. Those he entered the deal with will be held responsible if anything happens to him. This issue should not be politicised as it touches on corruption and whistleblowers,” said Mr Masit.
The saga has divided the two villages.
“Justice Tunoi is a man the community respects. He is a good man and the whole village does not understand this,” said 63-year-old Rashid arap Chebii, who has known the judge since their childhood.
Though the 72-year-old Justice Tunoi moved to Chepkanga in neighbouring Uasin Gishu, former paramount chief William arap Baiyas said he kept in constant touch with the judge, who he described as an amiable man.
“Justice Tunoi would send money to tens of students here to continue their education. Though he did not frequent his Kaptarakwa home, he would send money for harambees,” said the 72-year-old arap Baiyas.
Mr Daniel Chebet, a 68-year-old former Eldoret Municipal Council employee, said Mr Tunoi was “largely a nice person.”
In Chepkanga, Justice Tunoi is described as a very private man who hardly interacts with his neighbours, unlike his accuser, Mr Kiplagat, who was a well-known radio personality and a parliamentary aspirant in the 2013 General Election.
“He (Tunoi) is a very quiet man. You rarely know when he is around. We once tried seeking an audience with him to invite him for a church fund raising but we could not get hold of him. He never picked our calls and I was told that is his way,” said a neighbour, Mr Ezekiel Kiyeng.
In Chepkorio, Lelmet, as Mr Kiplagat is better known, was described by neighbours as “an outgoing person”, a “cheerful go-getter” and “a man of the people.”
Ms Gladys Tapkele, who has known Mr Kiplagat for years, said he interacts with many people and is often cheerful.
“I used to listen to him read the news on the radio, (Kass FM) and his voice often reminded me of our childhood,” she recalled, “but this story doing the rounds has really puzzled me. I can’t believe Lelmet was involved in such a bad thing,” she said.
“He is a very hard working and ambitious man. We are surprised to hear people describing him as an extortionist,” said Mr Joseph Ruto, the Elgeyo-Marakwet ODM chairman.
“Why should he lose his life for assisting people as per their agreement? Si apewe tu haki yake (he should get his dues). Utafaidika nini ukiwacha mtoto akilia na unakunywa maziwa (What will it benefit you if you enjoy milk when the child is crying?” asked Mr Ruto.
Aged 72, Justice Tunoi belongs to the Sawe age group with Mr Kiplagat’s father. According to Keiyo culture, despite not being related by blood, Mr Kiplagat addresses Justice Tunoi as “father”. And as a sign of respect, Mr Kiplagat has to take instructions from the judge without question and expect no favour unless the older man deems it fit to do so.
Reports by Wycliffe Kipsang, Barnabas Bii & Patrick Langat.