alexa JB Ojwang, the wise man of Kenyan law - Daily Nation

JB Ojwang, the wise man of Kenyan law

Saturday September 12 2015

Judge who colleagues  describe as ‘an academic

Judge who colleagues  describe as ‘an academic enigma’ and ‘a scholar in a class of his own’ lands the Higher Doctorate in Law degree, the highest academic honours in law . PHOTO| FILE 

More by this Author

There are two additions to Justice Jackton Boma Ojwang’s collection of prized possessions in his Supreme Court of Kenya office in Nairobi – a red graduation outfit hung in the wardrobe and a copy of six-inch-high thesis placed on the table in front of him.

The two items are emblematic of Justice Ojwang’s latest achievement in close to four decades dedicated to law scholarship.

On this cool Monday afternoon, we are in the judge’s office to interview him on what was easily the highlight of the University of Nairobi’s 53rd graduation ceremony on Friday, September 4, 2015.

But for this knowledge devotee, every discussion has to proceed from a point of understanding of the subject. So, he hands us two foolscaps on which he has scribbled some notes explaining the “scheme of university awards in any typical academic institution” as one would to a five-year-old.

Media reports of the graduation had erroneously stated that Justice Ojwang’ had been awarded a second PhD in law, something he is keen to clarify.

“What I received is called a Higher Doctorate in Law (LLD),” says Justice Ojwang’, as he walks to the wardrobe to pick up his graduation gown. “They (the university) made this one specifically for me,” he adds amid peals of laughter.

A higher doctorate degree is awarded to recognise a candidate’s published work and merit in a particular field, with a substantial body of that work being adjudged original and contributing significantly to knowledge.

The award is widely considered a seal of authority in one’s academic discipline, and Judge Ojwang’ effectively becomes the wise man of Kenyan law with the Doctor of Laws now added to his 41-page CV.

He also joins an exclusive club of only four scholars awarded higher doctorate degrees in the history of the University of Nairobi and becomes the first one from the School of Law.

Prof John Ong’ayo Kokwaro, the botanist, was the first recipient of a higher doctorate at the university. Others are Prof Geoffrey ole Maloiy (in animal physiology) and Prof David Ndetei (psychiatry). Each holds a Doctor of Science degree.

Justice Ojwang had to pore over his published work over the 39 long years he has been a law scholar to enable him to put up a strong case for an LLD.

“At some point I began to think that there were some theories clearly emerging from my work over the years and got down to work on the thesis. Then sometime last year, I approached the university with the idea of enrolling for a higher doctorate and my application was accepted,” he says, flashing out his student ID card.


The conditions for enrolment included candidate Ojwang’ first submitting a summary of his work or synthesis of not more than 50,000 words and later six copies of the voluminous thesis.

In addition to the work of its internal board of examiners, the university sent out copies of the thesis to some of the most distinguished law scholars around the world for their review.

As is normal academic practice, he appeared before the board of examiners to defend his thesis, titled, ‘The Unity of the Constitution and the Common Law’ before he could qualify for the award.

Examiners agreed with him that the thesis depicts a common thread in his publications and research, and that his work significantly contributes to the knowledge of how judges use the common law to interpret the Constitution.

“The common law is the tradition or guiding principles inherited from the British that we judges use to determine cases and which we have improved over time. But how do we use it to give meaning to the new Constitution?

Remember that through our decisions, we judges make laws, and we can’t always wait for Parliament to pass laws for us. Law is for the people… anyone can walk into the court registry to file a case any time,” says Justice Ojwang’.

The thesis, in its current form,  he explains, is mostly useful as reference library material for students of law, legal scholars and other academically inclined individuals.

He intends to write a simpler book of between 200 and 250 pages from it to benefit the general public.

For now, the man described variously by some of his colleagues in the legal profession as “an academic enigma” and “a scholar in a class of his own”, is savouring one of the happiest moments of his life.

“That is for them (colleagues) to judge... But I love my academic work. It is hard, but if you enjoy it you can achieve what you set out to. Being awarded a higher doctorate is something that is very satisfying,” he says.

The passion, ambition and discipline demonstrated in pursuit of academic excellence sums up how he has navigated challenges in life since his tough childhood in his village in Migori.

Born in 1950, Justice Ojwang’ attended Anjego Primary School, where most of his school mates aspired to be teachers, policemen and other careers that were   popular in the rural areas in the then newly independent Kenya.

However, he says, it was while  at Homa Bay High School and later Thika High School for his secondary and Advanced Level education, respectively, that he started thinking seriously about the elite careers such as law.

“Law was a very popular career with students in high school. My teachers at Thika, most of them Englishmen, encouraged me to study law at the university,” recalls Justice Ojwang’.

Like him, a number of his school mates in Homa Bay or Thika ended up studying law and some of his classmates at the University of Nairobi between 1971 and 1974 served in the Judiciary.

They include the retired Justice Samuel Bosire, who was a year behind him at Homa Bay and retired Judge Aaron Ringera, also a year behind him at Thika.


From their University of Nairobi class of ’74, he worked in the Judiciary with the retired Justice John Riaga Omollo and later served alongside Justices Philip Waki, Mwaniki Githinji and Jeanne Gacheche.

But despite being appointed to the bench of the inaugural Supreme Court of Kenya in 2011, Justice Ojwang’ is a relative latecomer to the Judiciary, having been first appointed a High Court judge in 2003.

There couldn’t have been a tougher career decision for the law professor, who previously worked for 27 years at the University of Nairobi, holding various academic ranks and management positions – and still confesses his love for scholarship.

“I was at Cambridge (UK) for my PhD between 1978 and 1981. During that time, I would marvel at how things were very structured in industrialised societies,” Justice Ojwang’ told Saturday Nation.

“If one chose to be a scholar,  one would be encouraged and supported to focus on it. He or she didn’t have to run around looking for money. That is why they have some of the best scholars in the world. Therefore, I learnt from them and said ‘thank you very much… I’m returning to the Republic (of Kenya), to serve.”


Judge reviewed AG’s thesis

 Justice Ojwang’s illustrious career has seen him chair the board of examiners that reviewed Attorney-General Githu Muigai’s PhD thesis at the University of Nairobi. He was also the external examiner of law scholar Mutakha Kangu’s PhD thesis at the University of Western Cape in South Africa.

 His definitions of the various concepts of law, including ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ have  been widely cited.

 Justice Ojwang’ defines justice as a decision or pronouncement that takes into account the complaints of the plaintiff and the arguments of the defendant and uses them to make a legally sound ruling.

 He says justice can only be seen when both the accuser and the accused are appeased by the decision of the court, that the accused should feel the trial was fair. To Justice Ojwang’, injustice evokes feelings for discontentment and disenfranchisement, especially in