The prime minister is back, its time to build an inclusive democracy

Wednesday March 18 2020

President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and ODM leader Raila Odinga demonstrate their commitment to national unity during the annual prayer breakfast at Safari Park Hotel on May 31, 2018. PHOTO | EVANS OUMA | AFP


Elections in Kenya are associated with the curse of conflict and violence rather than the blessings of democracy. By August 9, 2022, Kenya will have held 14 elections in nearly 60 years. So far, 77 per cent or 10 of Kenya’s past elections have been marred by conflict and extreme violence, which has left thousands dead and billions (perhaps trillions) destroyed. The big question is: will Kenya finally break the vicious cycle of electoral violence in 2022 and subsequent elections.


Evidently, the trouble with Kenya’s democracy is squarely a problem of a redundant and stifling national executive firmly anchored on a winner-takes-all dogma and a flawed science of public management, thus unable to foster a feeling of inclusion among communities and political constituencies.

As such, the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has proposed a semi-presidential system modelled along the Tanzanian prototype, which has a proven record of taming political tribalism, guaranteeing stability and fostering a sense of inclusion among more than 100 distinct ethnic groups and tribes in Tanzania.

The centre-piece of the BBI proposal is “the position of Prime Minister in the same model as used by Tanzania”.

This is not the first time Kenya is having a position of a Prime Minister. It existed between 1963 and 1964 and 2007-2013. The lesson from Kenya past experience is that a prime minister can exist in both presidential and parliamentary systems, but not guarantee an inclusive democracy.


Tanzania’s is an innovative semi-presidential system that provides for the presidency as one centre of power and accountability, embraces the best of the the ideals of scientific management where a Prime Minister runs the daily operations of government while avoiding the trappings of a dysfunctional imperial presidency.

The logic is not raw power. It is inclusion and the separation of the spaces of policy making and the rigor of policy implementation.

Kenya is not new to this sound science of public management. Here, our laws require that companies or parastatals must have a Chairman, presiding over the company and the board of directors or commissioners and steering policy making and oversight, and a managing or executive director responsible for the workforce and the daily implementation of policy.

However, Kenya veered off and befuddled the logic of science of sound public management at the national executive level after 1964.


The period between June 1963 and December 1964 was perfectly the age of monarchs. Kenya inherited a parliamentary systems fashioned after the Westminister model. As Kenya’s first Prime Minister, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta was the presiding and actual head of Government and head of the executive branch. He was an elected member of parliament, expected with other ministers to ensure the passage of bills through the legislature. And besides being head of government, Kenyatta also held other Ministerial roles or posts. These were enormous powers, already!

But the British Monarch, Queen Elizabeth II was the head of State, with Kenya as an extension of the British monarchy. While assumed to hold largely ceremonial powers, the Queen had more than just reserve powers. She had Royal Prerogatives that are constitutionally vested in the crown and may be exercised on the ground through governor-general without the approval of parliament or Prime Minister.


These residual powers of the monarch aroused the ire of Kenyan nationalists, who moved quickly to cut the umbilical cord with the British Monarchy and declared Kenya a Republic in December 1964.

Sadly, it is during this transition from quasi-monarchy to a republic that Kenya made its first false step, muddling up scientific management of the national executive. The founding fathers should have retained the Prime Minister as the official in charge of managing the civil service and executing the directives of cabinet and the President as the head of state. However, they also needed to anchored the Presidency on the tenet of accountability and one center of power to avoid “the Congo tragedy” where two centers of a bifurcated executive power led to a clash between Patrice Lumumba (Prime Minister) and Joseph Kasavubu (President), triggering the first Congolese civil war.

Instead, the architects of our republic erred by collapsing the powers of the Prime Minister and those of the Monarch into an one all-powerful presidency. This created a bloated executive, parodied by future generations as “imperial presidency”.

Predictably, the intervening decades became the age of authoritarianism based on a mongrel and exclusive executive. Changes to the constitution and one-party dictatorship simply entrench authoritarianism.


An all-powerful ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) alongside a stifling Provincial Administration tilted the balance of power towards absolute dictatorship, mirroring the age of “absolute monarchy.

The 1982-1992 decade was the age of extremes. KANU became the only party by law and the presidency, like the monarchies of old, claimed ‘divine’ and messianic powers. Expectedly, after 1989, the struggle for democracy in Kenya went hand in hand with the clamour for an inclusive national executive.

The position of the premier was at the core of the Bomas constitutional negotiation process after 2002. The Prime Minister position was the fault line in the November 2005 Constitutional Referendum that the Government lost.


But when the Prime Minister position was introduced through the Serena talks, it came with the poisoned chalice of two centers of power that marred the age of power-sharing (2008-2013). Fearing a Congo-like tragedy, the Naivasha process in 2010 scrapped the position and instituted a pure presidential system as a diarchy between a president and his deputy. In Kenya’s ethnically-divided polity, the pure presidential system became synonymous with an exclusive Mount Kenya-Kalenjin ethnic aristocracy as the bane of the new age.

Facing the future, the proposed Prime Minister position will restore a sober regime of scientific public management and an inclusive national executive as the cornerstone of a stable democracy.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is former government Adviser and currently the Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.