NAIROBI, Kenya — The chief justice of Kenya’s Supreme Court, David Maraga, is a Seventh-day Adventist who refuses to preside over a court case on a Saturday. Once accused of corruption, he went on live television and swore on the Bible that he had never taken a bribe.
Now Justice Maraga has become a household name almost overnight, with many calling him Kenya’s national hero. Some even want to rename a street in Nairobi, the capital, with his name.
On Friday his court invalidated last month’s re-election of President Uhuru Kenyatta, saying the vote had been tainted by “irregularities and illegalities” and sending the country back to the polls.
The decision has become an unlikely unifying force for a country that had been deeply polarized in the weeks before and after the election. Much of the division had been stoked by the candidates, Mr. Kenyatta and his opponent, Raila Odinga, who were accused of stirring ethnic tensions for electoral gains.
In Kenya, where courts have a long history of corruption and are often viewed as an extension of the government, the ruling was bold and stunning. It shocked even Mr. Kenyatta, who was so confident that the court would side with him that it was he who had urged Mr. Odinga to resolve the dispute by legal means and not in the streets.
Trust in the justice system has been so low that before the ruling, Mr. Odinga said he had little hope that the court would make a fair decision. His petition to overturn the vote, he said, was more an opportunity to publicize the opposition’s arguments that the election was a fraud.
But four of the court’s six justices voted to order a new election within 60 days.
The ruling was the first of its kind in Africa and a powerful reminder for democracies elsewhere of the importance of independent institutions. Kenyans celebrated what they saw as a victory for the country’s institutions, with many saying they were more interested in a clean and transparent process than in seeing their candidate win.
“We’re heading towards the right direction,” said one Kenyatta supporter, David Kiema, 25, who nevertheless supported the court’s decision. Kenya, he said, is “a mirror” for other countries to deal with similar controversies over elections. “They’ll say, ‘Kenya has done it, why not us?’ ” he said. “We’re one step ahead of others in Africa, and we’re proud of it.”
In Venezuela, Turkey, the United States and other countries, some elected leaders have portrayed institutions like the press or the judiciary as enemies of the people. Even among some of the most established democracies like Britain, distrust of institutions is rising, weakening social cohesion.
Kenya, East Africa’s most vibrant economy, could be moving in the opposite direction, as part of a small but growing trend seen in the rest of Africa. Last year, Ghana held a fair and peaceful election. This year in Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh left the country after finally bowing to the result of an election that ended his 23-year rule.
In 2015, Nigeria, Africa’s most-populous country, experienced its first transfer of power from one civilian government to another since independence in 1960, a process widely applauded across the continent.
Even in South Africa, a country where President Jacob Zuma’s governing party has been accused of seeking to weaken checks and balances, institutions have fought back — both the court system and ombudsman have called Mr. Zuma to account on accusations of using state funds to upgrade his homestead.
“There is a strong commitment among millions of Africans that they want to be able to elect their leaders and to participate in a democratic process,” said Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for the bureau of African affairs and a senior adviser at the Institute of Peace.
“The march of a democracy across Africa is not uniform; it is not always smooth, linear or rapid, but it continues,” Mr. Carson said.
Justice Maraga blamed the electoral commission for irregularities and absolved Mr. Kenyatta of any misconduct, a decision that many Kenyans said was driven by the desire to prevent the kind of violence and ethnic clashes that erupted over elections in 2007 and 2013.
Kenya’s disputed presidential election in 2007 set off bloodshed that left at least 1,300 people dead and 600,000 displaced around the country.
On Friday, the streets of Nairobi, were tranquil. People seemed to move at a more languid pace than normal, as if a big and tight balloon were being slowly deflated.
“He’s a hero, he’s history,” said Laban Busaka, 25, referring to Justice Maraga. “No one is above the law. That is the people’s wish and the people’s will.”
While there were some who were disappointed with the court’s ruling, many Kenyans said that having an independent judiciary was far more important than seeing their candidate win.
Caroline Wambugu, 23, who had voted for Mr. Kenyatta, applauded the court ruling even if that meant she had to stand in line again for hours on Election Day and face the possibility that her candidate could lose. “Now you can trust the courts and their handling of future elections,” she said.
Despite the initial euphoria over the Supreme Court decision and its reflection of the growing maturity of Kenya’s democracy, there were concerns that a new election could renew the possibility of postelection violence, some commentators said.
There is also a worry that whoever wins could see the judiciary as a threat and try to curb its independence, said Patrick Gathara, a political commentator. “We saw this after 2003, after then-President Mwai Kibaki started to roll back the freedoms that allowed him to get elected,” he said.
“It’s great that the court made a stand for its independence, but we need institutions to buttress it,” Mr. Gathara said, adding that two of the judges who sided with Justice Maraga sat on the Supreme Court in 2013 and rejected a similar petition by Mr. Odinga.
“With these reversals, you never know what happens five years from now,” he said.
In the days after the latest presidential election, Mr. Kenyatta’s government tried to shut down civil society groups. Just hours after his re-election was annulled, Mr. Kenyatta expressed his anger toward the court, saying that “six people” had ruled “against the will of the people.” Speaking to his supporters, he called Justice Maraga and the other justices “thugs” who had been “paid by foreigners and other fools.”
Despite those inflammatory remarks, Mr. Kenyatta has respected the country’s laws and not called on the security forces to thwart the court’s ruling, said Patrick Lumumba, the lawyer representing Mr. Kenyatta in the latest Supreme Court case.
“Ultimately it is his actions that should be given meaning,” Mr. Lumumba said. Kenya is well past the point of using the military to settle electoral disputes, he said.
“The Kenyan judiciary is maturing and continually doing things in the country’s best interests,” he said. “They make mistakes, so it will have its days that will appear to be politically serving, but that is a process of growth.”
Before the election, the government accused Justice Maraga of siding with the opposition.
At one point, Mr. Kenyatta tried to woo voters in Justice Maraga’s hometown by saying the government had given “their son” a plum job as chief justice.
To Mr. Kenyatta’s surprise, Justice Maraga fought back, accusing the president of “peddling” false claims. Those claims, the chief justice said, had a “corrosive effect on the perception of the independence of the judiciary.”
By NY Times