“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”
This opening line in one of the scenes of William Shakespeare’s play, "Hamlet", echoes through a newly published book, Presidential or Parliamentary Democracy in Kenya? Choice to be Made (2019) by Professor Peter Anyang Nyong’o, undoubtedly one of Kenya’s most prolific scholars, reformer, political activist, Cabinet minister, legislator and now governor.
The book, launched by the leader of Opposition, Raila Odinga, came through as an intellectual curtain raiser for the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report.
Notably, it is the third battle plan in the August 9, 2022 presidential election.
Deputy President William Ruto unveiled his battle plan on February 8, 2019, a slight tweaking of the post-2010 constitutional order.
In a speech he delivered at Chatham House in London, Ruto rejected the idea of an expanded executive with a prime minister and two deputies, proffering a presidential arrangement where a president and his deputy are jointly elected and the deputy serving as the Leader of Government Business in Parliament (becoming de facto ‘premier’).
He called for a strong opposition, with the leader of the party which comes second and the running mate assuming leadership of the Official Opposition in Parliament.
This arrangement, he argues, should be replicated with deputy governor at the counties.
Ekuru Aukot, a third tier presidential candidate in the 2017 Kenyan General Election, offers the second battle plan.
He is pushing a populist agenda that plays on the inexorably heavy costs of an omnibus constitutional order that seeks to redress systemic inequalities (women, youth and the disabled), historical grievances, development aspirations of grassroots communities and the strategic need to expand the middle class as a safety for democracy.
In July 2019, Aukot garnered over 1.2 million signatures in support of a bill to amend the Constitution, popularly known as Punguza Mizigo Bill, through a popular initiative. The bill is now the subject of debates in the 47 County Assemblies.
Prof Nyongo’s book is the equivalent of the ‘Communist Manifesto’ for the Raila Odinga front in the push for constitutional reform.
It rests on two doctrinaire planks that formed the basic recommendations the author made to the BBI team in Kisumu: introduce a parliamentary government headed by a prime minister to replace the current presidential system, ditch direct voting, and adopt proportional representation in the election of legislators at the national and county levels.
The book is a clear assault on the right to vote, an ideological response to Mutahi Ngunyi’s “tyranny of numbers”.
In many ways, the book evokes a deep feeling of déjà vu — we have been here before. Kenya is back to the vexed constitutional debates that polarised the country ahead of the two referendums in November 2005 and August 2010.
Then, as now, Prof Nyong’o was the lead intellectual crusading for a parliamentary order. Proverbially, the book is old wine in old wine skins, but served in a new wedding.
The author has shrewdly exploited the dalliance and pas de deux between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Odinga in the wake of the March 2018 ‘handshake’ to make another pitch for Kenya’s return to the parliamentary system.
But the book is a one-dimensional argument for the merits of a parliamentary system over presidential system, a disturbing approach to complex national dilemmas.
Kenya is not choosing between two ‘pure’ systems - presidential or parliamentary; it is addressing gaps and challenges posed by the current order.
Despite this, the book presents the parliamentary system as the panacea for “good governance” and stability while accusing the presidential system of denuding democratic ideals and creating post-election violence in “ethically polarised societies such as Kenya”.
Parliamentary systems also have their naysayers. The author’s model parliamentary democracies (United Kingdom, Japan, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium Canada and Australia) are part of 30 or so constitutional monarchies globally.
The big question is why Kenya should adopt a system that is evidently on the decline globally.
Today, the presidential system is the dominant form of government worldwide. The world’s two top superpowers - America and China - have presidential systems.
The third, Russia, is presidential, but with a prime minister. And 67 (32%) of 192 countries are presidential, including 19 out of 22 sovereign states in the Americas.
In Africa, only three (Ethiopia, Somalia and Mauritius) out of 55 states are listed as full parliamentary republican system — although South Africa and Botswana have presidents but in a parliamentary mould.
Obviously, Kenya needs to constantly reform and refurbish its democracy. But a frightful foray into the parliamentary system can be a dangerous and costly air-dive.
It is not the silver bullet for the woes that bedevil Kenya’s democracy.
Kenya is not a clean slate that needs a brand new software. But it is paying for its “original sin”: In 1964, the powers of Prime Minister and the British Monarch were collapsed into a new “imperial presidency” that blurred the line between ‘policy’ and ‘implementation’.
Previous governments have relied on powerful heads of Civil Service to bridge this gap.
The National Accord and Reconciliation Act (2008) created the post of a prime minister as one of two centres of power characterised by adversarial relations with the president.
The new Constitution abolished the premier position, but introduced a powerful position of Secretary to the Cabinet nominated by the President, but vetted by Parliament.
As a result of the dynamics of power within Jubilee, this constitutional post remained unoccupied and ineffectual.
In 2013-2018, Deputy President William Ruto doubled up as the de facto prime minister. Discernibly, today, Fred Matiang’i is filling the gap.
Ten years after the adoption of the new Constitution, the most urgent agendum should be to undertake a thorough audit of what has worked; what has not worked, and what need to be done.
But a radical doctrinaire push by the Nyanza eminence for an overhaul of the current order makes Ruto battle Plan the best choice, paving the way for his presidency in 2022.
Prof Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and currently Chief Executive Officer of Africa Policy Institute. He served as co-director and Strategist for the Government Secretariat ,managing the successful Constitutional Referendum on August 4, 2010.