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With census, referendum on the cards, 2019 political hot potato

Tuesday January 1 2019

Uhuru, Raila and Ruto in Kisumu

President Uhuru Kenyatta hugs ODM leader Raila Odinga, as DP William Ruto looks on, at Kisumu International Airport on December 13, 2018. Any referendum is likely to be a Ruto-Raila duel. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I would like to wish all family, friends, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances, readers, fans and critics Happy New Year. May you all have a wonderful, peaceful and prosperous 2019.

Now let’s cut the rituals and get a dose of reality: 2019, for most people, will be anything but happy, placid or rewarding. It will be a year of divisive politicking with noise levels almost unprecedented for midterm through an electoral cycle.

If campaigns for the 2022 presidential election started prematurely — even before President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto had settled down after securing re-election in 2017 — we can expected heightened decibels with the new year.


The General and Presidential Elections are not due until August 2022 but this year comes with a confluence of events intertwined with politics and providing fertile ground for early campaigns.

One will be release of the report and recommendations of the Building Bridges Initiative, most likely calling for far-reaching constitutional amendments that would require a referendum. The other will be the national population census — which is held every 10 years and is becoming increasingly politicised.


Ordinarily, both should be mundane events providing no reason for political tugs of war. The Building Bridges, championed by President Kenyatta and perpetual opposition campaigner Raila Odinga, was touted as a path to national healing and reconciliation and an end to politics that stoke ethnic animosity and violence, a re-engineering of governance structures to inculcate a new spirit of national unity and inclusivity.

It became anything but that when the DP saw it as a political scheme to elbow him out of the way and scupper his chances of stepping up to State House in 2022 under the Jubilee Party power-sharing and succession pact.


Because of that, any referendum out of the BBI is likely to be a Ruto-Raila duel — a loud, noisy, raucous and divisive prequel to 2022 which will destroy and reshape political alliances.

Then we have the census, also in the middle of the year. In Kenya, it is not just about counting the number of people, goats, cows, sheep and huts in the country. Rather, it has become a Nigeria-style competition between regions and ethnic groups for the numbers that then determine the political equation and access to national resources.

The 1999 census results were withheld for ages because not even the officials in charge could believe the numbers. The population data had to be recalibrated later before any meaningful numbers could be made available for planning purposes.

In 2009, population numbers for large swathes of the country — including much of the present Mandera, Wajir and Garissa counties of the vast former North Eastern Province, as well as Turkana County in the Rift Valley — were similarly scratched. They had all displayed population surges that defied all known logic and permutations, most likely the outcome of collusion between local leaders and census enumerators.


Population numbers matter even more now, in the devolved system. We have seen the furore after the Commission on Revenue Allocation released proposed allocation of funds to counties.

Some highly populated regions, especially in President Kenyatta’s central Kenya region, complained that they got a raw deal, while large but sparsely populated regions were not happy either.

The review of electoral boundaries at the ward and constituency level also follows numbers, and regional (or ethnic) blocs will each want as many representatives as possible so that they can have the critical mass to push for legislation critical to resource sharing.

Both the BBI and the census will clearly be heavily political.

President Kenyatta may be serving out his final term but he will be heavily occupied with his belated attempt at crafting a legacy while caught in the middle of what is bound to become an increasingly desperate battle between Dr Ruto and Mr Odinga ahead of their 2020 showdown.


He will also be fighting to remain politically relevant in a scenario where many of the central Kenya politicians who rode to Parliament on his coattails are jumping ship to secure their political futures under the DP’s well-resourced campaign machinery.

An early lame duck at State House might not only be powerless to craft a legacy built around the so-called ‘Big Four’ development initiatives but also at threat of losing dismally if the key Jubilee pillars — his central Kenya bloc and Dr Ruto’s northern Rift Valley — rebel against BBI and any resulting referendum.

For President Kenyatta, it might not be a happy and fulfilling 2019.

[email protected]; @MachariaGaitho