How BBI avoided contentious issues by making big compromises

Wednesday November 27 2019

President Uhuru Kenyatta (C) in a show of unity with Deputy President William Ruto (L) and ODM leader Raila Odinga, during the launch of the BBI report at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on November 27, 2019. PHOTO | PSCU


By avoiding divisive and contentious issues, the Building Bridges Initiative report has created the impression of a compromise document; populist and devoid of the expected gerrymandering — that was the talk of town.


At the launch of the BBI Report on Wednesday, Deputy President William Ruto looked surprisingly contented — and he, together with former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, would occasionally cross their legs — a posture interpreted to mean either dominance, relaxed mood or both. At times, there were betraying body movements between the trio of President Kenyatta, Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga.

For President Kenyatta, in casual attire, he apparently had no official speech, opting to start off debate on the BBI document from a relaxed posture, leaning his weight on the lectern — at times with a double grip that signifies that a big moment had come.

Equally, unlike other times when he is easily provoked, President Kenyatta looked jovial — the most relaxed of the three.

More than anything, according to insiders, the President regards the BBI as a major part of his legacy which can help him right some of the shortcomings in the 2010 Constitution and help him enact laws that can tackle corruption that has bedevilled most of the premier Jubilee projects.



Before the release of the document, the political class had been divided on what the BBI report would recommend, with leaders torn between the DP’s Tangatanga camp and the Kieleweke camp which was supporting President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga’s handshake.

Two factors played out, according to insiders: the need for a document that captures the popular aspiration of all Kenyans and the desire to place a document that will not divide the political elites.

While opinion is divided on whether there is a need for a referendum, the win-win BBI report might easily find its way into the House with little challenge.

By proposing a hybrid of both presidential and parliamentary systems, the report appeared to take a middle-lane where both politicians and technocrats will complement one another at the Cabinet — to be chaired by an executive president. Also, more than before, women will have a larger stake in both the county and national leadership.


While there had been talk of a ceremonial president, and which was the fear of some, the document actually puts more power into the presidency with his appointment of principal secretaries not being subjected to approval by the National Assembly. While his term is limited to two terms of five years, the Prime Minister has no term limit, as long as he enjoys support from Parliament and the President.

The report recommends that “all Cabinet ministers should have a demonstrable record of integrity that allows them public respect and the high regard of public officers who will serve under them”.

At the heart of the handshake was the quest for a political formula that can do away with the winner-take-all model in the national Executive — and which has been blamed for post-election tension.

The BBI report identifies presidential competition as the “leading contributor” to divisive and destabilising elections.


“If we maintain the status quo, it will mean that every five years Kenyans will risk a crisis, ethnic division, and possibly even violence,” it concludes. “Despite the decentralisation of decision-making and resource allocation through devolution, there is still a strong belief across the country that winning the presidency will lead to an unequal allocation of public resources and service delivery, with the ethnic group of the winner taking a disproportionate share.”

Rather than retain the current presidential system, the BBI proposed a “home-grown” political system which retains the election of president through popular vote — and where the executive wing will be a reflection of the will of the people.

In the proposed system, “the Executive, under the authority of the President, shall have the power to determine the policy of the government in general, while the ministers under the leadership of the Prime Minister, shall be collectively responsible in the National Assembly for the execution of the affairs of the government.”


Initially, President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga had been accused of hatching a plot to help their families stay relevant in the political space. But the BBI has ruled out an extension of the presidential term — which could have become a poisoned chalice, and a reason to spoil the entire report.

The Tangatanga team had gone round the country arguing that the BBI was designed to introduce a “monarchy” where families of the former President Jomo Kenyatta, President Moi and former Vice President Oginga Odinga continued to dominate the national politics. It was out of this that they coined the “hustler” identity for DP Ruto — the odd man out in the race for the top seat.

Another bone of contention that had to be compromised and which could have ruffled feathers was on what to do with the huge number of constituencies and representation. While the rejected Punguza Mizigo initiative had attempted to address this issue, there was initially a promise — especially by Mr Odinga — that the BBI would address the matter through a referendum and there would be an expanded executive and reintroduction of the parliamentary governance system, among others.


But there was fear that a large size of the executive will not necessarily lead to delivery. The BBI captured this thus: “Even as a new structure of the Executive is under consideration, it is useful to remember that the very size and inefficiency of government is at the heart of the current debate. It is equally useful to bear in mind that a model that works for Kenya must entail cohesive and strong leadership that can offer decisiveness and democratic and accountable governance without the paralysis usually induced by bureaucratic infighting that arises where the constitutional parameters are ill-defined or open to multiple interpretation.”

The fear was that a coalition similar to the Kibaki-Raila one, crafted after the post-election violence, was not ideal for Kenya. The BBI says that the experiment brokered by the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed. “Even where the winner appoints members of different ethnic groups, including from the communities on the losing side, they are seen more as tokens rather than meaningful expressions of the political will of their communities,” says the report. “Kenyans told BBI that they want not just to see the ‘Face of Kenya’ in ethnic terms included in the high table of power, at the national and county levels, but that they want those who take seats around it to be politically and socially accountable to them.”


As a starting point, the BBI wants political parties to be the first reflection of the face of Kenya in ethnic, religious, regional, and gender terms. This will be sweet music to the major parties which do not wholly rely on single ethnic communities as their power-base.

By taking a political compromise where there were no real winners, the BBI might not face the same fate that befell earlier attempts to undertake similar surgeries on the body politic.