Kenya’s Complex Legal Heritage

While it doesn’t quite live up to State of California v. O.J. Simpson, Kenya has just witnessed a remarkable bit of judicial theatre with the conviction and sentencing of a scion of one of the country’s most controversial white families. Thomas Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley) has just been given an eight-month sentence, on top of three years already served, for the killing of a poacher on his family’s estate in the Rift Valley.

The 12,000 square miles of the Rift Valley highlands were systematically appropriated by a group of white farmers in the post-WWII era, and have remained to some extent in the hands of families like Cholmondeley’s. That makes it difficult to tell whether the light sentence was bought by influence, or was a recognition of the real threat that poachers pose to the life and limb of law-abiding farmers, no matter what their color. The fact that Cholmondeley had a previous indictment for the accidental killing of a game warden overturned seems to have had no influence over the presiding judge. Nor, presumably, did the offer by Cholmondeley to compensate the family of the deceased poacher.

This trial may represent some kind of transcendence of the racial issue in Kenya, but it certainly does nothing to transcend the persistent issue of class. The black elite have as much to fear from — and are as resentful of — the underclass as the Cholomondeleys of the land do, and many Kenyans see a real double standard being applied in this case. Many have commented on the fact that a shoplifter is likely to get a harsher sentence than a twice-indicted killer.

When Kenya became independent, its first indigenous leader, Jomo Kenyatta, made a valiant effort to prevent retaliation against the whites who, in the wake of the Mau-Mau rebellion, had engaged in one of the most brutal colonial pogroms in African history. Despite that bloody legacy, including several thousand Kenyan dissidents hung by British colonial courts in the run-up to independence, Kenyatta said, “We do not forget the assistance and guidance we have received through the years from people of British stock. . . . Our laws are founded on British principles and justice.”

Cholmondeley should be grateful that the judge in his case seems to have taken more inspiration from Kenya’s African, as opposed to its British, legal heritage.