Two weeks after the electoral body approved 1.2 million signatures for a plebiscite to reduce the country’s wage bill, a cocktail of big egos, hubris and selfish interest has assembled to shoot down the proposals, signalling the arrival of a new kind of political struggle informed more by 2022 succession politics than the form, spirit and content of the bill.
At the heart of this drama is Orange Democratic Movement doyen Raila Odinga, who is proposing that the Uhuru Kenyatta-backed Building Bridges Initiative should have the final say on any amendment to the Constitution.
The Punguza Mizigo initiative is being pushed by a non-parliamentary party named The Thirdway Alliance, and, as such, is being treated with disdain by leading political figures and parties.
Other than Mr Odinga, others opposed the initiative are Mr Kalonzo Musyoka of Wiper Party, Mr Aden Duale (Majority leader in the National Assembly) and Ford-Kenya leader Moses Wetang’ula. They all cite different reasons for opposing their drive, but there is a commonality of purpose and motivation.
“The parties may see such referendums as prone to populism targeting ordinary Kenyans who may feel that their concerns are disregarded by the opposition and the government,” observes Prof Nyaga Kindiki, an expert in international education and policy.
That the driver of the push is a non-starter presidential aspirant in the form of Dr Ekuru Aukot is also fuelling the opposition. Dr Aukot garnered 27,311 votes in the last General Election, and observers think he has stolen the thunder from the big boys, with Mr Odinga’s camp thinking he might run away with the reformist agenda.
In Kenya, a referendum can be used to gauge political direction, and Dr Aukot can easily use the Punguza Mizigo drive to earn mileage in the counties.
During a recent meeting in Elgeyo-Marakwet, Mr Odinga rubbished the initiative and asked MCAs to banish it.
“Msisikie mambo ingine, ati ooh Punguza Mizigo, oh punda amechoka. Hiyo wakati yake bado haijafika. (Don’t listen to these issues about Punguza Mizigo; this is not the time for that,” Mr Odinga said.
While there is pep talk within political circles that both President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga have agreed to use the Building Bridges Initiative to push for further political reforms, the Punguza Mizigo drive could complicate their plot to restructure the post-Uhuru government in their own style.
According to Prof Kindiki, Dr Aukot’s party is trying to jump the gun and rise to power by positioning itself in the glaring political gap, which is increasingly emerging in Jubilee Party.
Wiper leader Kalonzo Musyoka says Dr Aukot’s bill does not meet constitutional requirements. “Where were the consultations and public participation?” he poses. “Those are a requirement of the Constitution for such a bill to be complete.”
Dr Aukot’s team used one-on-one sensitisation and public barazas to drum up support and collect signatures.
For the Wiper leader, however, the threat posed by the emergence of another political force could complicate his calculations for the presidency after a long wait. The same goes for the other parties in the opposition.
Mr Wetang’ula, the Ford-Kenya leader, terms the initiative as “out of order”, but still insists that his party supports reviewing the Constitution and improving it to serve Kenya in a better way and hold our country together as united”.
“The Punguza Mizigo initiative seems to be pursuing a narrow agenda of focusing on elective positions. When you talk of reducing the number of MPs in order to ease the financial burden on Kenyans, you are misguided,” he says.
These sentiments against Mr Aukot’s bill might appear to be random, but in the innocence of their arguments lies a more powerful and calculative force. Mr Odinga, for instance, would like to use BBI as his baby and therefore lay partial claim to reforming government structure.
“They (the BBI team) are about to finish drafting their report. This week they will be taking views from Nairobi, which is their final county, before they conclude the report and release it soon,” the former premier said.
He questioned how efficient the IEBC had become to verify one million signatures in less than a month after it rejected Okoa Kenya’s 2.5 million signatures after three months.
He said the Aukot initiative was taking the wrong trajectory on issues affecting the country. But Dr Aukot disagrees, terming the opposition of his bill by “the big names” as simplistic political competition”.
He accuses the likes of Raila, Kalonzo and Wetang’ula of not even having “read the bill and understood it, otherwise they would not oppose something that is meant to improve the lives of their own people.”
Dr Aukot argues that his bill is constitutional, done in accordance with Article 257, and not funded by any interested parties as alleged by some critics.
He takes a swipe at his opponents, saying, they only want a “monopoly of political relevance”.
He says: “They believe everything good should originate from them, yet these are the same people who have been lying to Kenyans that they will bring change. We have proven to them that we think independently.”
That view is supported by Prof Kindiki, who argues that “if this referendum succeeds, Kenyans will see The Thirdway Alliance as a key opposition party and ODM and Wiper parties will be rendered irrelevant”.
“This is likely to happen because any proposed referendum is likely to win sympathy from ‘Wanjiku’ or the masses, who feel oppressed by the system,” Prof Kindiki says.
On his part, Mr Duale is warning Garissa MCAs against passing the bill, saying, they will face the music should they. He claims that he knows the forces sponsoring cases in court against his bid.
His position appears to widen the divisions within the ruling Jubilee Party.
As Mr Duale vehemently opposes the bill, Deputy President William Ruto has been non-committal on his stand while two of his key allies, Elgeyo-Marakwet senator Kipchumba Murkomen and Malindi MP Aisha Jumwa, have backed it.