Brian Njagi Mwenda has been showing up as a lawyer in Kenya’s courts all year long, submitting briefs and defending clients, including one who was sentenced to about 21 years in prison.
But Mr. Mwenda was anything but a lawyer, the country’s top bar association revealed on Friday. It called on the police to arrest and investigate him. But there are many more just like him, the authorities say.
At a time when the country is wrestling with rising inflation, skyrocketing fuel prices and tax hikes, Kenya is seeing a surge in the number of unlicensed people acting as lawyers, officials say. It’s a scam that some in the country turn to during tough economic times, observers say, creating an influx of fake lawyers who feign legal expertise in order to make a fast buck.
Kenya’s Office of the Director Of Public Prosecutions said on Saturday that it was looking into four other cases of people pretending to be lawyers or fraudulently running law firms. It has also instructed the police to investigate Mr. Mwenda’s case. The authorities on Monday also arrested a woman named Sharon Adunya Atieno and accused her of forging documents in order to impersonate another lawyer with a similar name.
The number of fake lawyers has sparked a national debate about formal education and qualifications in a country with a large informal economy and where many are unable to afford university fees, with some expressing support for Mr. Mwenda.
Some said the situation illustrated the desperation facing ambitious Kenyans — they call themselves “hustlers” — who are striving to make ends meet.
Francis Atwoli, the secretary general of the Central Organization of Trade Unions, called Mr. Mwenda “brilliant,” adding that his story raised essential questions about equal access to education and jobs in Kenya.
“If, indeed, it’s true that Brian has been practicing law and successfully representing clients in legal matters, we strongly advocate for a fair and transparent examination to test his knowledge, skills and competencies in the field of law,” Mr. Atwoli said in a statement shared on X, formerly Twitter.
On social media, where some are treating Mr. Mwenda like a folk hero, a rumor circulated that he had won 26 cases, which Eric Theuri, the president of the Law Society of Kenya, rejected as “false and misleading.”
Mr. Mwenda could not immediately be reached for comment, but he denied the accusations in a video on X, adding that with time, he would be able to prove his innocence.
Mr. Theuri said in an interview that Mr. Mwenda began practicing law after stealing the identity of a lawyer with a very similar name, then was hired by a law firm and worked there until he bungled some cases and was fired.
Mr. Theuri did not disclose where Mr. Mwenda worked, but said that, in light of the new findings, lawyers at the firm were seeking a judicial review of the cases he had handled.
The law society became aware of Mr. Mwenda in late September, when the man he is accused of impersonating, Brian Mwenda Ntwiga, wanted to apply for a practicing certificate. When Mr. Ntwiga couldn’t gain access to the portal, he approached the bar association’s I.T. team who found out that details in the system including his email, profile picture and workplace did not belong to him.
Investigations then revealed that Mr. Mwenda had assumed Mr. Ntwiga’s account, requested a change in the email address tied to the account and then paid the fee to apply for a certificate. That application, however, was not approved because he did not provide the extra documents needed to approve the certification process, Mr. Theuri said.
Mr. Mwenda said on Monday he would surrender to the police but he has not yet been arrested or charged.
In his video appearance on X, he also said, “It should be inconceivable to anyone with a brain that I have this prowess to hack into portals.”
Mike Sonko, the former governor of Nairobi County, said he had assembled a team of lawyers who would support Mr. Mwenda in court. Mr. Sonko was impeached and removed from office in 2020 on charges including abuse of office. He called on the authorities to “have some mercy” on Mr. Mwenda, arguing that there were people in Kenya who had committed more egregious “blunders” and had gotten away with it.
Mr. Theuri, of the Law Society of Kenya, said he was “quite disturbed” by the support Mr. Mwenda had received, saying there was enough evidence to convict him in court. He also said that the law society was conducting many more investigations of fake lawyers and that he expected arrests in other cases soon.
“These fraudsters are a threat to the administration of justice,” Mr. Theuri said. “But, eventually, they all end up getting exposed.”
The bar association, he said, has also begun putting in place more measures to keep lawyers’ data safe, trace and arrest fake lawyers, and easily verify credentials.
But he acknowledged that getting rid of fake lawyers would be a task easier said than done.
“The challenge is that they keep reinventing themselves and they have spread across the country,” Mr. Theuri said.