Senate Minority Leader James Orengo last weekend stirred up a heated political debate by suggesting Deputy President William Ruto is impeachable on account of gross misconduct — utterances that immediately raised political temperatures.
Backers of the Deputy President even claimed that ODM leader Raila Odinga is eyeing Mr Ruto’s job through the senator.
On Friday, the Deputy President broke his silence on the matter when he assured his supporters he is going nowhere until the end of his term with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“What we don’t want is politics of people masterminding things for their selfish interests,” Mr Ruto said during his tour of Vihiga County.
The reaction to Mr Orengo’s threat was not entirely unexpected, for as renowned novelist Chinua Achebe has observed, “an old woman (or man) is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned”.
In the context of Kenyan politics, “impeachment” and “vote-of-no-confidence” are the dry bones, whose mention is a source of discomfort to many, their political experience notwithstanding.
Mr Orengo has previously moved a vote of no confidence motion against retired President Daniel arap Moi and supported another against former Vice President George Saitoti, while Mr Ruto has previously survived a censure motion while serving as Agriculture minister.
In some way, Mr Ruto and Mr Orengo are “impeachment veterans”, which explains the heightened anxiety in the Deputy President’s camp.
A couple of days after the impeachment threat, President Kenyatta visited Mr Ruto in his Harambee Annex office, a development that the Deputy President’s handlers have fully exploited to demonstrate healthy relations between the two Jubilee Party leaders.
The follow-up press conference by Jubilee allied MPs was not only a statement of renewed confidence but a daring message to Mr Orengo and the Orange party to bring it on (impeachment motion).
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The excitement by the Jubilee allied MPs over the meeting, whose details remain hazy, is separately an indicator of how bad the situation in the ruling party has been, or is.
The impeachment sentiments have largely been interpreted by the Deputy President’s supporters as Mr Odinga’s plot to politically vanquish Mr Ruto.
Mr Orengo has however categorically disassociated his party leader from his actions, maintaining his sentiments are purely personal.
There are also indications that Mr Odinga is not happy about the Senate Minority Leader’s recent utterances.
Nonetheless, Mr Orengo is surprised at the panic his sentiments have drawn among legislators allied to Mr Ruto and particularly the speed with which they have rushed in defence of the 2022 presidential aspirant.
According to Mr Orengo, there is “unnecessary panic over almost everything”.
The vocal senator explains that a censure motion is just that and he, or any other legislator, has a democratic right to bring forth an impeachment motion against whoever they are strongly opposed to.
“Why is there panic over a Ruto impeachment? Is he untouchable? Must he be my president by force? If I did it against (President) Moi, who was then a very influential and authoritarian leader, under a non-friendly constitution, why would anyone imagine they will scare me from instituting impeachment proceedings against Mr Ruto?” Mr Orengo poses.
Impeachment motions, couched as censure or vote-of-no-confidence motions, have over the last half a century been moved in the National Assembly, targeting at least two presidents, two vice presidents and some Cabinet ministers.
Except for Dr Josephat Karanja, who served as VP under Moi, and then-Finance minister Amos Kimunya, the failure rate of such motions has been extremely high.
The separate moves against Dr Karanja and Mr Kimunya only succeeded because of the backing of the powers that be.
Dr Karanja, for instance, was hounded out of office by Embakasi MP David Mwenje for reportedly usurping the President’s powers.
And with the full backing of President Moi, Mr Mwenje alongside other vocal legislators subjected Dr Karanja to mob lynching in Parliament over his perceived arrogance.
His tendency of demanding respect and asking parliamentarians to pay him homage also earned him the unpopular “kneel-before-me-politician” nickname.
The one against Mr Kimunya was perhaps the most dramatic, with then-Ikolomani MP Boni Khalwale leading the onslaught.
In a captivating speech, which he poetically punctuated with the chorus “Kimunya Must Go”, Dr Khalwale put to task the Kipipiri MP over the controversial sale of the Grand Regency (now Laico) Hotel to Libyan investors.
Although Mr Kimunya arrogantly brushed aside the allegations, dramatically stating at a public meeting that “I would rather die than resign”, President Mwai Kibaki showed him the door and appointed Mr Robinson Githae, the current Kenyan Ambassador to the US, to the Finance docket.
So far, statistics of Kenya’s history of impeachment or no confidence motions do not point to a clear direction of the outcome.
There are indeed many factors behind the push for impeachments, including genuine reasons to punish those plundering the country’s financial resources, engaged in criminal activities and guilty of gross misconduct and violations of the Constitution.
But Dr Khalwale, the former Kakamega County senator, told the Sunday Nation he fears majority of the cases are a result of politicians keen at using impeachment as a weapon to fix perceived political opponents.
“My friend Orengo, who has the highest record of bringing up impeachment motions, often does it for one reason — politics. He did it against Moi and Saitoti, hoping to elbow them out of power, and now Ruto, with the hope of stopping the DP’s quest for presidency.”
The anti-Moi motion of October 1998, which seemed the biggest threat to the Nyayo regime, was defeated after a heated four-hour debate by the majority members of Moi’s Kanu Party.
Mr Orengo also supported Mbita MP Otieno Kajwang’s motion censoring VP Saitoti over the Goldenberg scandal.
That the motivation behind the motions could be politics is supported by the fact that the impeachment manoeuvres are in sync with the ever-changing political realignments.
One of the reasons Mr Orengo’s motion against President Moi flopped was that the Ford-Kenya legislator was unable to marshal the required numbers, including from Mr Odinga, then the party leader of NDP.
Mr Odinga had just defected from Ford-Kenya and was in political bed with Moi.
Today, Mr Orengo is an influential member of ODM and a key ally of Mr Odinga, leading to speculation that he may be pushing the former PM’s agenda to politically neutralise Mr Ruto — something the senator has denied.
Similarly, Mr Ruto, then-Agriculture minister, survived a vote of no confidence in Parliament after a major scare from Dr Khalwale, who accused him of mishandling the maize scandal.
Today, the legislator, who in the previous presidential campaigns continued to link the deputy president with various scams, appears to suggest Mr Ruto was innocent of accusations he levelled against him.
“Unlike Kimunya who decided to respond to my motion in rallies in his rural backyard, Ruto put a credible defence, and responded to my accusations blow-by-blow. I bet he convinced the House and absolved himself from blame,” says Dr Khalwale, a political foe turned ally of the deputy president.
The vote of no confidence dates back to independence time when the fiery opposition legislator Masinde Muliro of Kadu moved the first censure motion against founding President Jomo Kenyatta in 1964.
The politician was unhappy with Mzee Kenyatta for filling up most of the senior jobs in government with members of his tribe.
Elsewhere, the democratic exercise of impeachment, including of presidents, has been executed successfully and peacefully. In the US, for instance, the House of Representatives impeached two presidents — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — both who were, however, acquitted by the Senate.
Johnson was impeached in 1868 for violation of the Tenure of Office Act, specifically for removing from office Edwin McMasters Stanton, the Secretary of War, and replacing him with Major General Lorenzo Thomas.
Clinton faced two charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998, which stemmed from a sexual harassment lawsuit against the 42nd President by Paula Jones.
The 49-year-old Clinton also survived a sexual scandal involving him and Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old White House intern.
Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon bolted out of power in 1974 following recommendation by Justice Committee that he should be investigated over “high crimes and misdemeanours, primarily related to the Watergate scandal”.
Nixon decided to resign rather than face certain impeachment and the prospect of being convicted at a trial.
On the continent, South Africa has provided the best examples of workable impeachments, twice against sitting presidents Thabo Mbeki in September 2008 and Jacob Zuma in February 2018. The difference is in semantics.
In the South African governing party’s parlance, a president is “recalled” through a resolution of the National Executive Committee, which demands that he steps down.
If he obliges, a resignation in the South African constitution amounts to a “vacancy in the position of President”, and a deputy president automatically assumes office as President with all the responsibilities, powers and functions of the office for the remainder of the term.