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Lawyer Miguna Miguna, originally from Kenya, has written a tell-all book about the current Kenyan government. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Lawyer Miguna Miguna, originally from Kenya, has written a tell-all book about the current Kenyan government. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

East Africa Politics

Ex-Toronto lawyer takes on Kenya’s PM Add to ...

He spent two weeks in the torture chambers of Kenya’s Moi regime before coming to Canada as a refugee. He rallied against Eurocentrism while a law student at Osgoode Hall. A poet, he once clashed with Pierre Berton over racism. And he was, until a public spat last year, at the right hand of Kenya’s current Prime Minister.

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Despite his epic life story, Miguna Miguna, 48, has no public profile in Canada, where he practised law for 13 years. But in his native Kenya, he is a household name, and a political storm is raging there over his controversial new memoir, which accuses his former boss, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, of dozing off in meetings and condoning corruption – allegations his office denies.

Mr. Miguna’s public feud with Mr. Odinga, who suspended him without pay last summer for alleged “gross misconduct,” has captivated Kenya’s boisterous media. The controversy hit a climax this month with the launch of Mr. Miguna’s 588-page book, Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya, and the appearance of a mob of protesters who burned him in effigy not far from his rural home in Western Kenya.

“I don’t live my life in fear. I’ve refused to do that. That’s what they want,” Mr. Miguna says. “I have learned a long time ago that the vaccination to this is to speak about it. If you hide and cower, they will come for you for sure.”

The battle between one of Kenya’s leading politicians and an outspoken former Toronto lawyer is more than a sideshow. Mr. Odinga is widely seen as a front-runner in next year’s presidential elections in Kenya, the first since polls in 2007 were followed by catastrophic violence that left more than 1,000 dead and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Four prominent Kenyan political figures, including two of Mr. Odinga’s potential rivals for the presidency, face charges before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for allegedly organizing attacks that followed the 2007 vote.

With his name in Kenya’s headlines every day, the towering 6-foot-4, Mr. Miguna, in bright, flowing African robes, sits thousands of kilometres away, in a mostly empty cafeteria on the campus of Seneca College in suburban Toronto. He is staying in the college’s dormitory with his wife and five children on what he says was a preplanned summer vacation.

His voice booms and his eyes bulge behind the glasses that have slipped down his nose as he pronounces on his falling out with Mr. Odinga.

Mr. Miguna says there was “no legitimate reason” for his suspension last August. The government alleged that he had repeated clashes with other officials and staff. Mr. Miguna also links his suspension to a newspaper article he wrote about Kenyan election officials and a spat over a pay cut. He was later offered a reinstatement, but refused.

He denies that he was forced to flee Kenya, and vows to return, despite receiving death threats. (He has since sent a letter demanding state security protection when he does.)

Some named in his book in Kenya have threatened to sue him, although the Prime Minister’s legal adviser has hinted that Mr. Odinga would not do so.

In a fiery speech at his book launch in Nairobi on July 14, Mr. Miguna appeared to taunt his critics, threatening to take more allegations, not in his book, about post-election violence to the International Criminal Court.

“Every single leader here, I can take to The Hague. Mark my word. I have it right here!” he told the crowd, slapping his hands together loudly, with TV cameras rolling, in footage on YouTube. “And I am saying, ‘Come, baby come!’”

His “Come, baby come” line quickly became a catchphrase for Kenyans, who now share satirical images on social media that use it as a punchline. One spliced Mr. Miguna’s head-shot, for example, onto a photo of a man trying to seduce a young woman.

Just days after the book launch, Mr. Miguna left for Toronto.

His life story, as told in his book, is a full one. He first came to Canada in 1988, a refugee from the Kenyan regime of Daniel arap Moi. While a student activist at the University of Nairobi, he says government agents kidnapped him, beat him repeatedly and kept him alone in a small brightly lit cell for two weeks. He was released and then fled on foot across the border into Tanzania.

He settled eventually in Toronto and attended Osgoode Hall law school, where he would publish poetry and take up activism again, participating in protests against the lack of non-white tenured professors and police shootings. He graduated in 1993.

According to his book, his writing – his first collection of poems was called Songs of Fire – and involvement with the Writer’s Union would see him clash with none other than bow-tied historian Pierre Berton, who disagreed with holding a conference that was supposed to exclude white writers. After articling with well-known Toronto lawyer and activist Charles Roach, Mr. Miguna started his own law firm specializing in refugee and criminal cases.

He kept up with developments in Kenya, and by 2006, he came to believe that Mr. Odinga, the son of Kenya’s first post-independence vice-president, and his Orange Democratic Movement could be a force for change. Mr. Miguna says he spent $50,000 of his own savings hosting Mr. Odinga and his entourage on a North American trip in 2006. Mr. Miguna then left Canada for Kenya permanently, and signed on to Mr. Odinga’s team for the 2007 campaign.

Incumbent President Mwai Kibaki would emerge the winner of the election, which was widely condemned as rigged, sparking the violence. Under a power-sharing agreement brokered by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, Mr. Odinga became Prime Minister and Mr. Miguna became Mr. Odinga’s advisor on “coalition affairs.”

But Mr. Miguna would soon sour on his boss. Mr. Miguna alleges Mr. Odinga appointed a long list of relatives to plum posts. And he says Mr. Odinga brushed aside the concerns Mr. Miguna raised about alleged corruption, including a scandal over corn imports and the use of funds from a World Bank sponsored youth employment program. Mr. Miguna alleges that other aides to Mr. Odinga appeared wealthier than their government salaries would suggest, able to purchase luxury cars and expensive real estate.

The allegations sparked a counterprotest last week organized by members of Mr. Odinga’s party, in which a group of demonstrators burned Mr. Miguna in effigy and staged a mock funeral. According to local media, police blocked protesters from approaching Mr. Miguna’s walled rural home in the Nyando district of Western Kenya.

The Prime Minister’s press secretary, Dennis Onyango, reached by phone, said Mr. Miguna’s allegations are unfounded and unworthy of discussion.

“The Prime Minister’s position is that he does not want to talk about those things,” he said.

Mr. Onyango provided an e-mailed statement that neither the Prime Minister nor any of his aides have been implicated in any corruption. Two senior officials were suspended but later “exonerated,” the statement says.

Mr. Miguna insists he will not give up his fight, and may even write another book: “What I refuse to accept is that Kenya should operate on different standards from Canada. ... I’m not saying this place is perfect. I’m not saying there is no racism. But I am saying, you cannot bribe a judge. You cannot bribe a police officer. If you do, you will be arrested. And that happens regardless of who you are. And that is a good thing.”

Follow on Twitter: @jeffreybgray

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