He is a hard man to figure out, and quite a study in contradictions. In 2017, he wanted to be president, then he didn’t. He appears arrogant, standoffish, a man hardened by his profession, but in his conference room, he is quite personable. And he listens to my questions, not cutting me off even once during the interview. When I requested him to clear his schedule for a sit down in a week’s time, he refused, adding that, “you don’t know what might happen between today and next week.” Instead, he asked me to get in touch with him on the day that I wanted to interview him and he made time. Sharply dressed in a blue shirt, red tie and grey slacks, he warmly greets me and settles in for the interview.
There is pride in his voice as he talks about his three children and his wife, Lady Justice Agnes Murgor. After the interview, he introduces me to his first child, Chero (short for Cherono), a lawyer who works at his firm. She’s quite engaging. The former DPP finds joy in the simple things such as the fresh crisp air in the countryside and long walks. With two of his children in university, he looks forward to family dinners where they can all reconnect.
At 58, Murgor isn’t thinking of retirement just yet. There is so much left to do to put the country right, he believes.
With your wife being Lady Justice Agnes Murgor, does pillow talk consist of court cases?
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The Lady Judge, whom I have a lot of admiration for, spends a lot of time writing notes even at home because she has a lot of work. She has a space in the house for herself where she works undisturbed. On my part, if I feel that I have to do any work, I have my own space. Mostly, we don’t talk shop. We can talk about a legal issues in the most general sense if it appeared in the newspaper. I will not talk about her work, and neither will she talk about mine. However, our eldest daughter, Cherono, who is a lawyer, might throw something at the dining table about work that she came across during the day. It will be discussed in a very general sense because there are other family members who are not lawyers. We don’t bore the household with law.
What are your other two children studying?
My son, Kibet, is studying communication. Our youngest daughter, Celeste, is doing International Finance. They are lovely children. We enjoy great family times together. When we’re all at home, we try and eat together, and that’s when we catch up with each other at the dinner table.
How often do you vacation?
We only have one big vacation as a family – Christmas and the New Year. We travel to the country side for Christmas. It’s not only a tradition, but I have siblings who have sons and daughters my children’s age, so it’s a great coming together. Whenever we can afford it, we go to Mombasa for the New Year.
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Where is your favourite place to be?
In the countryside. I go almost every weekend. I look at what is happening in my little shamba and come back energised. There are those who play golf over the weekend, some eat nyama choma and beer, others sit and socialise, I go and farm. When I retire, it will be to a quiet, busy country life and visit the city from time to time. I love the countryside, I love traveling. I love walking in the open spaces, and I am not at peace when I am in the city.
Is there an unfulfilled ambition that you’re working towards?
You know you are talking like I am 85 (Laughs). I still have time. Holding public office, in key areas, is something that I would certainly think of as an option in order to try and help the country. I don’t rule out public office, or doing anything in the public space so that I can help – but remember that being a lawyer in itself is also serving the needs of society.
What has been the most defining moment of your life?
I have many events, but the one that was a real game-changer was in 1982. I was in university and was caught in the wave of arrests that followed the attempted coup. I was locked up for six months. For six months you are lying in a cell for 24 hours, except for a few minutes of sunlight every day. The 100-watt light bulb never goes off. You think about your past life and your future, if you will get out. That leaves a deep impression on you. Depending on how you’re built, this can give you a very positive or a very negative outlook on life. You can be very bitter, angry and frustrated for the rest of your life, but in my frame of mind, it made me think positively. I said that if I ever got out, I’d make sure that everything I did counted and was geared to helping somebody else.
How do you deal with conflict?
Every time I come across a dispute, whether it involves me or people close to me, I always reach out for mediation, for dialogue. That is always my first approach, so much so that my adversaries take it as a sign of weakness. They always get surprised because I only give so much time for dialogue and negotiation. After that, I play hard ball. I enforce my rights. I am not physical at all, but if it is a legal dispute, I solve it. If it is any other dispute, I say, well, we’ll go and enforce our rights elsewhere.
Have you ever received threats because of a case that you were handling?
So many, so many. There was a shootout at my house when I was DPP and I had ordered the prosecution of some police officers. I had a police officer guarding my house and these people challenged him and he swore that he could tell that the men he exchanged fire with were police officers. He said that they knew he was armed and they still tried to force their way into the house on the pretext that I had invited them. They’d followed my official car – I wasn’t in it – and, after the driver had left, they went and said that, ‘Tulikuwa na mzee, amesema tukuje nyumbani.’ Those people obviously meant me harm because of the nature of my work. There are also lawyers whose stock-in-trade is threats, extortion and blackmail. And as we interact, they put themselves in the shoes of their clients and it gets ugly.
Do such instances make you rethink the career path you chose?
Not at all. Someone has to do it. Many people I talk to about this new appointment (at the ODPP’s office) think I lost my mind. They ask, ‘Why would you like to go back to that difficult place?’ All I tell them is, ‘Do we agree that corruption is about to destroy the country?’ They all agree. I ask them what they are willing to do about it, but most of them look at me blankly. I tell them that I’m trying. Noordin Haji says he wants my help, I will provide it.
Any assignments so far?
(Laughs) I’ll consider that confidential until you see me in court. However, if I am assigned a case, I will be there, as the prosecutor, arguing the case out with the defense.
What is your life mantra?
I believe in fairness and equality of genders and all communities. It think this is the foundation of any country. All the problems we have start when people believe they are more entitled than others and, on the other side of the spectrum, people feel that they do not have the same rights and privileges as others. Everybody should have a decent life, and by this I mean that the poorest mustn’t be so poor that they don’t see the meaning of life. On gender, I don’t believe in the one third-two third rule. I believe in equality.
What about the girl-child inheriting family property?
Women, whether married or not, should be entitled to inherit, just like the boys. Who knows what the future holds? You might, as a man, enable your son to inherit everything only at the very end to find that your daughter, who you gave nothing, spends the most time with you in your older years, making you comfortable.
What are you currently reading?
I have a book that I am trying to finish, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is based on the life of Abraham Lincoln. It is an interesting read, heavy on history. From time to time, I pick up a book that is recommended to me. My daughter has been asking me to read Michelle Obama’s Becoming. After she finishes reading her copy, I will certainly look into that.
IN HIS OWN WORDS:
Do you think we’ll see results coming from the DPP’s office?
From a non-existent office, to an office that is occupying the front pages of newspapers every week, that is already a massive difference. But, will we see convictions? Only time will tell because it takes years, sometimes, to finalise a case.
Would he run for presidency again?
I do not see the need to. My motivation at that particular time was that many Kenyans were frustrated and they said they wanted a candidate who would address these simple but critical issues. I offered myself, but it takes a huge psychological effort to put yourself in that space and make that decision.
Philip MurgorFormer DPP Murgor