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The four untruths Kenyans are being sold about a referendum

Sunday August 25 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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Why has Mr Raila Odinga, the man who viciously shredded and buried the reputation of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) in 2017, not been talking about IEBC and referenda?

Indeed, why has the former PM not been talking about a referendum lately when briefing about Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)? It has to do with what I told you here recently. 


BBI and its principals are seriously exploring the possibility of pushing change of the constitution through Parliament and avoiding a referendum. The reasons are obvious. One, Parliament is BBI-occupied territory. 

Two, avoiding a plebiscite will wrong-foot the Punguza Mizigo initiative of the Thirdway Alliance while saving taxpayers’ money. Three, a referendum is evidently a complicated matter. 

Call it track two and it is little talked about. However, on track one, Kenyans are being sold four untruths with Goebbel-isque frequency and Brexit-style bravado about a referendum on the Constitution. 


First, the culprits, led by governing Jubilee Party apparatchiks, pretend there exists only one change-the-constitution process. Zilch. Punguza Mizigo lives and has a social conscience. Second, it is claimed a BBI-triggered referendum is inevitable. 

Zilch. Neither plebiscite process is unavoidable or unpreventable; not by humans or providence, not because of consequence, and certainly not due to overwhelming public demand. 

Indeed, neither will end, in one fell swoop, the four crises of our time; rampaging youth unemployment, rising cost of living, runaway public wage bill and a rampant national debt. So, why a seeming stampede towards a plebiscite?

Chiefly because President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga publicly shook hands on their private contract on Kenya on March 9, 2018 and transitioned from arch-foes to bear-hugging buddies. 

A referendum may legitimise their contract. For ordinary Kenyans, a plebiscite is not an issue of day-to-day survival. But what it could achieve for them is worth listening to. 

Third, politicians are, therefore, saying a referendum will unite Kenyans. Zilch. A plebiscite is an election and, as Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta know from practice, when asked to choose, the people split. 


And it starts with them and their corners persuading electors to choose one idea over the other and manifests in the language they use to put their messages across. 

In 2017, Mr Odinga called the President a drunkard running a malevolent dictatorship.

Mr Kenyatta’s corner branded Mr Odinga a bloodthirsty devil-worshipping madman. 

The actions of the protagonists feed the division. Mr Odinga & Co in 2017 purported to announce the result of the presidential poll, thereby usurping the work of IEBC.

The division is supposed to be ended at the declaration of the results by the winners working actively to unite the electorate. But refusal to accept results perpetuates division. 

Mr Odinga has run in four presidential polls and boycotted a court-ordered re-run. Alleging rigging, he has never accepted the results of any one of them. That has divided Kenyans at every presidential election. 

In 2007 he ran on the infamous all-tribes-against-one strategy. Therefore a referendum cannot unite people President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga divide to get their votes.

Brits remain deeply divided since their 2016 referendum on exiting the European Union (EU). Kenyans are not Brits, but a botched plebiscite could keep them divided for a long time.  I warned against post-poll boardroom deals between politicians before the March 9 detente and remain critical of BBI. I regard Punguza Mizigo a treat for the people and fear BBI is a trick on the people. 

Last, BBI and Punguza Mizigo backers make a referendum on the constitution appear a simple matter. Zilch. 


In fact, the issue is not referendum. It is the rethinking of the constitution that births a plebiscite.

Punguza Mizigo identifies 16 issues that should drive change of the constitution. 

BBI is anchored on nine principles Messrs Kenyatta and Odinga deem crucial to reshaping Kenya’s governance. That’s complex in content, scope and effect. 

How about the referendum question and consequence of it? Brits were required to answer yes or no to exiting the EU. Nobody thought about the mechanics of how, or the ramifications of quitting the world’s largest trading block. 

So Brits voted 52 to 48 per cent to quit. Immediately afterwards, they began debating the meaning of quitting and significance of the closeness of their vote. 

For Kenyans, there are many areas of the constitution that need rethinking. 

They cannot be subsumed into a simple question requiring yes or no for an answer. 

Herewith a Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.