When the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) announced the list of 11 nominees for appointment as Court of Appeal judges, Dr Kibaya Imaana Laibuta did not receive any special mention apart from the fact that he was the only advocate in private practice picked.
Yet, lost in the complaints by the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) for a second slot is an impending milestone.
Dr Laibuta will be the first totally blind judge in Kenya’s history should President Uhuru Kenyatta approve his nomination.
It is a feat that the CEO of United Disabled Persons of Kenya Anderson Gitonga, termed “a good beginning”.
“We are excited about it because this is what we have been lobbying for. It has always been our position that there be representation of persons with disabilities in all spheres as provided for under Article 54 of our constitution and Dr Laibuta’s nomination to serve in the Court of Appeal goes a long way in demonstrating that people with disabilities contribute positively in the community. It is a good beginning. We are not yet there but we believe we will do so progressively,” said Mr Gitonga.
Dr Laibuta, more remarkably, is the only non-serving judge nominated by JSC after intense interviews. Others nominated alongside him are Justices Francis Tuiyott, Hellen Omondi, Pauline Nyamweya, Weldon Korir, Mbogholi Msagha, Aggrey Muchelule, Jessie Lesiit, Mumbi Ngugi, George Odunga and Joel Ngugi.
Dr Laibuta lost his sight at age 22 while in first year at the university.
“It was purely a medical accident. I got treated for malaria, got treated with Chloroquine, got chloroquine poisoning and my sight went in two hours. The first thing you are confronted with is shock, unless the loss of sight is gradual and you know it is coming. When it is a sudden loss of total sight, you are thrown into shock, confusion, you are derailed from your normal course in life; be it school, college or work,” Dr Laibuta told Business Daily in a past interview.
At the time he lost his sight, he was a rugby player and had enrolled for a commerce degree, which he abandoned to study law because, “When you have no sight, it is very difficult to deal with statistics and graphs and things like that are common in commerce”.
LSK president Allen Gichuhi said even though it would be a big step to have the first totally blind judge on the bench, “This appointment is not about his disability. It is his intellect that is the most important thing”.
Mr Gichuhi added: “Dr Laibuta is a very capable lawyer, he is a lecturer, a publisher, even more amazing he is also a blind golfer. He is a man who has actually overcome his disability and we are very proud of that appointment. He has got the intellect to serve as a Court of Appeal judge.”
Dr Laibuta is well-respected as a commercial law expert and full-time practitioner in out-of-court conflict management and commercial dispute resolution.
LSK has for some years been using him in Continuous Professional Development (CPD) as a trainer mainly on arbitration “because he has written extensively on arbitration”.
“The feedback from his trainings has been positive and he has been a regular trainer at the CPDs,” said the LSK president.
Dr Laibuta served as a commissioner in the defunct Commission for the Implementation of the Constitution, which was established to ensure smooth implementation of the 2010 Constitution.
His former colleague and commission chairman Charles Nyachae remembers Dr Laibuta as an easy person to get along with.
“Though he has visual impairment, throughout the five years (of the commission) it did not present any significance issue at all because he has a very positive attitude towards what some see as a disability. A lot of times it did not even occur to us that he is visually impaired other than when we had to prepare documents so as to make them in a format he would be able to follow. His condition was never an impediment,” said Mr Nyachae, who at present serves as a judge of the East African Court of Justice.
According to Mr Nyachae, Dr Laibuta has over the years organised himself to a level where he is able to engage in any activity without hindrance.
“He had an aide for movement but other than that it wasn’t really an issue. He has a brilliant legal mind and for that, I think he is an excellent choice,” said Mr Nyachae.
Other than being on the brink of making history as Kenya’s first totally blind judge, Dr Laibuta has other firsts. He is an avid golfer and in 2016 spearheaded a golfing campaign dubbed ‘1,000 Holes Blind Golf Challenge’ to raise money for the construction of Kenya Society for the Blind Rehabilitation Centre and the eye-drop production facility to boost eye care and prevention of blindness.
“I guess I wanted to pick on something that I enjoy doing. And something that I would do fairly independently. I do not think anybody has fundraised locally by playing 56 tournaments,” the lawyer told Business Daily in 2016.
Dr Laibuta is a senior lecturer at Technical University of Kenya and holds a PhD in laws from the University of Nairobi and Master of Laws from the University of London. He was admitted to the Roll of Advocates in 1987.
The Judiciary has over the years had only a few judges with various disabilities.
Some of them include former judge Daniel Aganyanya and Isaac Wambilyanga, who were wheelchair-bound. High Court Judge Mumbi Ngugi, who is living with albinism and has low vision, has also been nominated to the appellate court alongside Dr Laibuta.