Kenya for the first time on Monday saw two judges sworn in to the country's Supreme Court, a new judicial body created as part of political reforms after the country's 2007-08 political violence.
The government was not able to swear in a full court, though. Rights activists obtained a temporary court order last week that blocked the appointments of five other justices for a lack of gender balance. The new constitution that Kenyan voters passed last year that created the court seems to indicate that at least three of the seven judges must be women.
President Mwai Kibaki, who swore in Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and Deputy Chief Justice Nancy Baraza, said the appointments marked a turning point for Kenya's judiciary. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the United States also praised the formation of the new court.
The court's most immediate challenge is to work through a backlog of nearly 900,000 cases. The judicial body will also have to overcome the unethical conduct of some lower judges and a weak administrative structure.
Kibaki noted that Kenyans had called for the overhaul of the judicial system after losing confidence in it, and Mutunga said the judiciary must earn back the public's trust.
"The judiciary must become an institution of service for the people," said Mutunga, 65. "I commit at the personal and institutional level of the judiciary to ensure that the courts are accessible to and for all, and that rulings, judgments and pronouncement from the judiciary quench the thirst of the just and uphold the deeds of the law-abiding citizens."
The U.S. Embassy _ long a strong proponent of political reforms in Kenya _ said in a statement that "history was made" with the appointments of the two judges.
"They will both now have important responsibilities in leading Kenya's judicial reform process to create an independent and accountable judiciary to provide equal justice for all and to strengthen the rule of law," it said.
Monday's appointments are part of reforms brought about by Kenya's new constitution, which requires all judges to be vetted to determine if they should continue to serve. The constitution was part of a reform package agreed on in a deal that brought peace to the country after intertribal fighting sparked off by the 2007 presidential election.
More than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 displaced after Kibaki was declared winner over opposition candidate Raila Odinga in a vote observers said was flawed. A peace deal mediated by Annan made Odinga prime minister.
A 2008 government report on what caused the fighting said one of the reasons violence flared was a lack of trust in public institutions, including the judiciary, which was seen as lacking impartiality and integrity and hence could not resolve the election dispute.
Annan on Friday welcomed the Supreme Court appointments, saying they usher in a new era of judicial dispensation.
"The expectations of the people are high. Kenya wants to see a fully independent, accountable and efficient justice system. These new appointments are a positive sign that reform in this sector is irreversibly under way," Annan said.
Mutunga and Baraza were selected from outside the current crop of judicial officers who applied for the jobs. The panel that selected the judges said it was looking for people of high integrity. The nominating process was broadcast live on TV.
Also appointed on Monday was Keriako Tobiko as director of public prosecution. His appointment has angered rights activists who say he is not qualified for the job. Prominent Kenyans have accused Tobiko of questionable work ethics, including asking for a bribe to drop a case against a government official.