Profiling Kenyatta Nyirenda: The judge who defied Malawi’s government to stop Covid-19 lockdown

Judge Kenyatta Nyirenda’s father, a member of Malawi’s liberation movement and a committed pan-Africanist, named his son after Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. He could not have imagined that one day, his son would go on to help to draft Kenya’s current Constitution.

Judge Kenyattta Nyirenda
Placard for Judge Kenyatta

But Nyirenda’s impact in his own country, Malawi, has been even more profound. The parliamentary draftsman-turned-judge of the high court has presided over seminal cases, including the disputed presidential election in 2014. He made political enemies then when he ruled against the opposition — who were claiming that the election was rigged — on a technicality. This ruling allowed Peter Mutharika to ascend to the State House.

But now Nyirenda has found against the president in a couple of landmark judgments that have infuriated Mutharika’s administration.

First, Nyirenda controversially ruled in March that four Chinese nationals should be released from quarantine in Lilongwe. He said the emergency legislation used to detain them was archaic and invalid.

Then, last month, when Mutharika announced a national lockdown, Nyirenda ordered an injunction against its implementation until the government could come up with some way to protect the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

This ruling forced Mutharika to announce a nationwide minimum wage equivalent monthly cash transfer to poor households. It also forced him to create a Covid-19 task force that included opposition leaders, civil society and public health experts.

Nyirenda has come under fierce criticism from government officials, who said that if the virus spread quickly then “the nation knows who to blame”. Nyirenda has also been attacked for failing to be “patriotic” in the face of a national crisis.

But analysts and civil society groups have praised him for maintaining judicial independence.

Boniface Dulani, a senior lecturer in the University of Malawi’s department of political and administrative studies, said that Nyirenda is preventing possible abuses of power by the government.

Dulani added that this principle was even more important because the current government is “basically a caretaker government with questionable credibility” — a reference to another major court decision earlier this year which set aside Mutharika’s re-election last year on the basis of electoral irregularities. New elections are scheduled for later this year.

“Patriotism is no substitute for doing something legally,” said Dulani. “Courts make rulings based on law, not on sentiment. Justice Nyirenda thinks he is being patriotic, too, by sticking to the law … Justice Kenyatta Nyirenda is a hero because he has reminded us that if we are to fight the pandemic using a lockdown, we must do so under the dictates of the law, but government has opted to react by disregarding the court proceedings or calling the judge names.”

Gift Trapence, chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition — the civil society group that initially opposed the government’s lockdown plans — praised the judge. “Justice Kenyatta is an example of how independent our courts are. They make their own judgments based on law and evidence … Malawi’s judiciary is one of the shining stars of Africa because of the professionalism of its bench.”

Kalekeni Kaphale, Malawi’s attorney general, does not agree with this assessment. He has been scathing of Nyirenda’s decision to suspend the lockdown ordered by the government, and has demonstrated his disdain by failing to participate in inter-party hearings on the judge’s injunction.

However, he said the government would comply nonetheless. “We will continue with some restrictions, but not those under the lockdown injunction,” Kaphale said.

Nyirenda’s sister, Emma Kaliya, a prominent women’s rights activist, noted that standing up to abuses of power was in the family’s blood.

“Our father was involved in the fight for liberation, before Kamuzu [Hastings Banda] arrived in 1957. He was a small politician. Our family car was used to help the party activities as Kamuzu campaigned. During the state of emergency of 1959 he was arrested and jailed in Nkhata Bay.

“There was a massacre later on as people demanded his release with others. He was in prison for 11 months. He refused to co-operate with the colonialists and refused to renounce the fight against colonialism,” she said,

  • This story is part of a series called ‘On the Frontline’, first published in The Continent, which profiles some of the heroes on the frontline of Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Download your free copy of The Continent here.

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mavu
mavu
9 months ago

health literacy is an underestimation.
people like these need to know that being an expart in law does not mean he commands the same knowledge in health matters. this is an miscarriege of justice in fact its an ‘abortion’

Namarokoro
Namarokoro
9 months ago

He is an ugly man

Noxy
9 months ago

Kenyatta should not be praised on this Judgement rather be rebuked for putting in danger lives of people in Malawi.We should thank God that the other countries locked down and we are like protected from those countries that made such noble decisions.

Namatetule
9 months ago

He looks like a wizard just finished flying

nyopani
nyopani
9 months ago

Our Hero NYirenda. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Kuswa Kuswa
9 months ago

Malawi is the world’s laughing stock with the a stupid judge undermining efforts that have been effectively used used globally to halt community transmission of the corona virus. Clearly some idiot thinking that a ruling can control an epidemic. See what is going on in Tanzania, Somalia, Southern Sudan. Malawi is one more African statistic.

Richard Steel
Richard Steel
9 months ago
Reply to  Kuswa Kuswa

The good thing is that globally the efforts were used within the dictates of the Law of their Land(s). You do not just wake up and make an announcement that needs to be backed by Law. Globally, emergency parliamentary meetings were held to pass bills as quickly as possible, the bills were signed into law, as quickly as possible, and then directives were made based on those new or revised laws. What’s wrong with Malawi? A state president is not law, neither is a cabinet minister! Let’s learn to do things within the dictates of the Laws of the Land.… Read more »

Omex70
Omex70
9 months ago
Reply to  Kuswa Kuswa

I have never read any sensible comment from Kuswa Kuswa. This cadet has a big problem. Mwina wapenga poona kuti akutluka mboma soon.

Kuswa Kuswa
9 months ago
Reply to  Omex70

Iwe ndi wopusa wakumwa madzi ometera gevo.

ignatius
9 months ago

Mtumbuka weni weni woyipa mtima ndiye nthenda ndi iyi ikufalikra ponseponse not everything on earth is academic Mr.Dulani andi uyu oipa nkhope ndi mtima womweyi

Kaka
Kaka
9 months ago

Judge Kenyatta has one functioning eye that’s why he doesn’t fear Corona-virus.

kaukonde
kaukonde
9 months ago

Now it tell it why Emma Kalia looks very ugly. These people are ugly even in their hearts. Apart from looking at the law one should exercise logic

The one
The one
9 months ago
Reply to  kaukonde

inuyo okongolanu ndiyetu perekani judgement yanu tiwone

Mvithe
Mvithe
9 months ago

Mr Dulani, nthawi yakwana mwayambanso kubwebweta zanu zija, poti ndi mchere wanu. Masiku ano mwasowatu ku banki, koma posachedwapa muyamba kubweretsa tima cheke ku banki-malipiro a zi ntchito yaukambelembele . Dyera lanuli mudzachita nalo khunyu. Musamalilre.

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