Deputy President William Ruto was on Saturday categorical that there was no need for a referendum to change the laws even as his allies from central Kenya met to plot a parliamentary takeover of the process.
At the same time, allies of President Kenyatta and ODM leader and BBI co-sponsor Raila Odinga were sharpening their daggers, vowing that they would go for nothing less than a referendum.
The two hardline stances signal a showdown that will likely scuttle the nascent Building Bridges Initiative, whose drafters had hoped for bipartisan support.
“If there is a part which requires a referendum and I haven't seen it, then let them explain to us. Their goal from the word go was not the report but looking for a way to divide Kenyans to advance their politics,” the DP said at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Kangundo, Machakos County.
An Embu meeting, which brought together about 40 MPs from 10 Gema-leaning counties, resolved that they were opposed to a plebiscite, arguing that Parliament was competent to handle it.
The event was moderated by Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Mwangi Kiunjuri, who is keen to inherit the Mt Kenya political base from President Kenyatta, and Senator Njeru Ndwiga, as former President Mwai Kibaki’s private secretary Ngari Gituku played the role of a rapporteur.
Mr Gituku’s presence is quite telling for a man who has in the past remained apolitical.
It could either reflect Mr Kibaki’s leaning or that he himself is interested in gunning for an elective seat.
Speaking at Mountain Breeze Hotel after a two-day retreat, the MPs said Parliament had already formed various subcommittees to steer implementation of the BBI.
“Parliament is the sole body constitutionally mandated to pass laws. We strongly hold that any constitutional amendment in regard to the BBI should be parliamentary led,” they said in a statement read by Mr Ndwiga.
Mr Ndwiga said that if need be, the referendum should happen alongside the 2022 General Election so that it does not appear to benefit or sideline some political players.
Participants were from Murang’a, Embu, Meru, Kirinyaga, Nyeri, Tharaka-Nithi, Kiambu, Nakuru, Laikipia, and Nyandarua counties.
With President Kenyatta striking a cautious approach during the launch of the BBI report at the Bomas of Kenya on Wednesday, the group — by cleverly coming out to state its opposition to a referendum — is seeking to force Mr Kenyatta to reveal his hand.
Some of the MPs who attended the meeting were Kareke Mbiuki (Maara), Moses Kuria (Gatundu South), Rigathi Gachagua (Mathira) John Muchiri (Manyatta) Munene Wambugu (Kirinyaga Central) and Tharaka-Nithi Woman Representative Beatrice Nkatha.
On the other side, allies of Mr Odinga accused DP Ruto of setting a trap to either shoot down or dilute the BBI report through Parliament.
They said the push by DP Ruto’s supporters to make constitutional changes through Parliament is “mischievous” and a plot to derail what a majority of Kenyans are yearning for.
Speaking in Bondo on Saturday, the leaders, who vowed to craft a new working alliance, said they will work together to ensure Kenyans get the opportunity to give their views on the proposed constitutional amendments.
Drawn from Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua’s Maendeleo Chap Chap, the leaders reiterated that Kenyans should not be sidelined in the process.
Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) Secretary-General Francis Atwoli, who presided over the fundraiser in aid of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Secondary School, vowed to support the proposal to amend the Constitution while urging Kenyans to be wary of people who want to create confusion.
“It is unfortunate that the person who is expected to help President Kenyatta to champion for change and ensure a better Kenya is the one who is derailing the process,” Mr Atwoli said.
Siaya Senator James Orengo, a close ally of Mr Odinga, cautioned that the move will amount to subversion of the rights of Kenyans, who he said are entitled to directly make decisions on critical issues touching on their lives.
“It is suspicious that the people who were against proposals to change the Constitution have suddenly changed their mind and are now coming up with prescriptions on how to amend the supreme law,” he said.
Dr Mutua said that letting legislators alone to decide the fate of Kenyans will deny people an opportunity to make changes that will make the country better.
“Power lies in the hands of the people and not a few selected individuals,” he said.
He faulted a BBI proposal that a prime minister be appointed by the President, saying this was prone to abuse.
Instead, the President, Deputy President, prime minister and two deputy prime ministers should all be on the ballot, said Dr Mutua.
A day after the BBI launch, the DP appeared to have publicly toned down his earlier stance against a referendum.
The Sunday Nation established that, having been part of the Bomas delegation when the report was released, Mr Ruto was initially not keen to look like he was contradicting his boss.
The DP is said to favour the parliamentary route because of the perception that a majority of the lawmakers are inclined to his side as opposed to the President’s or Mr Odinga’s.
Multiple interviews with members of the DP’s inner circle revealed some of the reasons informing his opposition to a referendum.
One of his fears, they say, is hinged on losing the Central Kenya vote.
POWER OF STATE
Mr Ruto is betting big on the vote-rich region to inherit the presidency, and anything that publicly pits him against Mr Kenyatta (assuming Mr Kenyatta chooses to support a referendum) would hurt his bid. It is therefore a path fraught with many risks.
“It’s not possible that we politic during elections and continue with the same at the time we should be working hard to improve the lives of residents. We will not entertain the politics of creating positions for a few individuals at the expense of delivering services and empowering Kenyans. Those propagating this are power-hungry and selfish,” the DP said recently at Nangina Catholic Church in Busia.
If he takes on the establishment head-on, he may be punctured before the 2022 polls and in the end lose the momentum.
His handlers know that ‘the body count’ may be too high in opposing a well-oiled government campaign machinery.
The DP is also aware that the route would be too costly for his side, given that he is the main benefactor of a majority of the politicians doing his bidding.
And in the event the government throws its weight behind the plebiscite, he may not be a match as it is said that one cannot outspend the State.
He cannot afford to burn money on referendum campaigns yet the General Election is beckoning.
Another ally said that going against the grain would also embolden his detractors in government, including the civil servants he has accused of openly frustrating him.
He would be fighting from many fronts at such a critical time.
At the same time, the minority thinking among the same strategists is that a referendum would also offer him a perfect opportunity to test his 2022 machinery that he’s been painstakingly assembling.
It was recently tested in the Kibra by-election, where McDonald Mariga lost but DP Ruto is convinced that it was a win, having earned a significant number of votes in Mr Odinga’s backyard.
In the end, Mr Odinga’s and Mr Ruto’s State House ambitions may easily drown the BBI report and any of its aspects that may be beneficial to the country.
Concerns about a lame-duck syndrome taking the better of Mr Kenyatta any time from next year also looms large, with some politicians from central Kenya who are not happy with his lukewarm support for the DP expected to openly rebel.
Reporting by Justus Wanga, Charles Wanyoro, Victor Raballa, George Munene, Gastone Valusi and Anita Chepkoech