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Why national interest is at stake if BBI team ducks referendum route

Sunday October 6 2019


Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) committee meets with women's group Embrace Kenya at KICC, Nairobi, on August 8, 2019. The BBI is owned by the political class and anchored by Mr Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr Raila Odinga. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Twice in August I reported that plans were afoot for Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) to recommend change of the Constitution by Parliament rather than via a referendum.

That is now the currency of political discourse. If indeed Parliament is the BBI route, the fix is in. Here's why.

First, in my view, whether change is achieved through a plebiscite or parliamentary vote, the litmus test is the same: the Constitution is owned by the people and they should own the process of changing it and the proceeds thereof.


To those who argue that Parliament represents the people, I say bear this in mind: the framers made it difficult to change this Constitution because Parliament used to amend the previous document at a whim, thence mutilating and bastardising it.

Second, Parliament is the citadel of personal, tribal, corporate and political vested interests. These interests, which remain undeclared, are often driven by party leaders who own most MPs.


Most MPs are sycophants for party bosses and it is self-interest that drives sycophancy. This scenario will be amplified manifold times if ministers will in future be chosen from MPs and if MPs will choose prime ministers.

Mr Kenyatta's interest is a trouble-free second term to secure his desired four-pronged legacy. Mr Odinga's consuming interest is power which has eluded him umpteenth times. Interests have made these two bedfellows, turning yesterday's avid foes into today's rabid pals.

Third, BBI is not people-based. It is an issue from the marriage between President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga. Their handshake of March 9, 2018 was a public seal to their private, secret and exclusive contract on Kenya.


Fourth and last, a vote in Parliament changes and restricts the playfield. The calculation being that beneficiaries would be the tinkerers (sungura wajanja) at the expense of Wanjiku (owners) and seekers of genuine and people-based change (the constitutionalists).

In this regard, it is instructive that President Kenyatta made Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang'i chairman of the Cabinet and, therefore, de facto prime minister, without amending the Constitution.

With this move the President tested the waters and concluded that the coast was clear for the executive and legislature to tinker with the basic law for partisan political purposes.

Now skipping a referendum is, indeed, an attractive prospect.

One, it is saleable as saving public money in tough times. That, however, conceals the exclusion of the people from a process they should own.

Worse, it diverts attention from a fundamental issue: a full time premier is as different from Dr Matiang'i's current post as day is from night. He leads a Cabinet, but if BBI proposes introduction of a prime minister, the holder will lead the country.


Two, avoiding a referendum saves Kenya a divisive and poisonous campaign whose toxicity would feed into the General Election a few months down the road. BBI's call is to rid Kenya's politics of toxicity.

Three, drawing from the chaos in the politics and governance of the UK over Brexit, it is clear that a referendum can be a complex matter. This is especially so if, as in Kenya's case, the issues on the table for consideration for change are legion.

Last, ducking a plebiscite will scuttle Punguza Mizigo, the rival populist change process sponsored by Dr Ekuro Aukot's Thirdway Alliance.

Mr Odinga, in particular, and the political elite, in general, regard Punguza Mizigo as an inconvenient moral pinprick.


In Parliament, to fight a vote on the floor of either House, you must know how to arm-twist and cajole; sweeten and frighten; and, most importantly, how to count.

Is Parliament BBI-occupied territory? At face value yes: BBI is owned by President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga and so lawmakers of their parties should vote as instructed.

Unfortunately, Jubilee is a divided house thanks, one, to Deputy President William Ruto's naked ambition and premature campaign to succeed his boss. Two, Mr Kenyatta's equally aggressive political and administrative counter moves to clip Dr Ruto's wings.

Three, unlike Mr Odinga who owns the Orange Democratic Movement and can whip its MPs into line, President Kenyatta cannot get his Jubilee Party ducks in a row. All it will take for a vote to be lost is dissent by a minority. But will that happen?

MPs' insatiable lust for invading the public purse to increase their pay, perks and pensions, in life and in death, and introducing new entitlements, plus vested interests, will dictate Parliament's vote on the Constitution. Forget national interest or posterity.