In April 1966, 27 Kanu MPs decided to abandon Kanu and form an opposition party. They were preceded a week earlier by Oginga Odinga, who resigned from Kanu and as vice-president of Kenya. In his autobiography, Not Yet Uhuru, Odinga narrates the sordid tale of abuse of Kanu’s internal democracy that led to the infamous 1966 Limuru Conference and eventually triggered his resignation.
It is a tale of mischief, impunity and rigged democracy. Yet pages 297 to 300 of Odinga’s book are an eerily prescient summary of the fate that would befall our various parties in the multi-party era. A wounded Odinga responded by writing the most scorching resignation letter a Kenyan President has received from a Cabinet member: “You have not given any consideration to me as your number two in State matters. I have a conscience and this in fact does prick me when I earn public money but with no job to do...”
Achieng’ Oneko resigned a week later as Minister for Information and Broadcasting. He was similarly scathing: “I have waited too long to be dropped from the Cabinet and have now decided to quit with no apologies or regrets to make.” The defectors joined the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Kenyatta hit out at KPU with a harsh rejoinder, “All the members of this sorry group have simply been bribed to try to betray our people into the slavery of a new colonialism, more grasping and implacable than anything from which we fought.” But Kenyatta saved his deepest scorn for Bildad Kaggia, who had defected in protest at plutocracy, and ridiculed him at a public rally, “What have you done for yourself?” This is the sorry background to Amendment Number 5 of Kenya’s Independence Constitution.
To stem Kanu’s bleeding, the President recalled Parliament and pushed through a retrospective constitutional amendment that forced all Kanu rebels to stand for re-election. To stomp out the incipient opposition, he personally campaigned against key Kanu dissidents, telling Nakuru residents, “Don’t give Oneko any votes, not even the ones that stink.”History records that Kenyatta’s success at quashing party hopping ultimately paved the way for the collapse of Kanu’s internal democracy in the dark days of the 1970s. October 15, 1975, was the culmination, when veteran politician Martin Shikuku was arrested within the precincts of Parliament and detained for declaring in the House, “Any Member who brands other members as rogues is trying to kill Parliament the way Kanu was killed.” Shikuku was detained together with Jean Marie Seroney, then Deputy Speaker, who had defended Shikuku by quipping, “A member cannot be asked to substantiate the obvious.”
This historical sketch, applied to the last two decades of multiparty politics, discloses a startling truth: it is not party-hopping that destroys democracy, but rather party-hopping that saves democracy from being destroyed by undemocratic parties. So don’t outlaw party-hopping to strengthen party democracy. Rather strengthen party democracy first, then you can minimise party hopping. Section 14(5) of the Political Parties Act 2011 went beyond the Constitution by declaring any advocacy of another political party to be equivalent to party hopping. This was a valid exercise of Parliament’s legislative power. The same Parliament could equally postpone this provision without violating the Constitution.There are valid similar arguments regarding academic qualifications for MPs and nomination or election of defeated party leaders into Parliament. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and the late Steve Jobs are the answer to the obsession with university degrees for all politicians.
Likewise John McCain, Gordon Brown and Mwai Kibaki to the uproar over defeated national candidates getting back into Parliament. Parliament may have been wrong to pass some Miscellaneous Amendments this past week. Let us not compound the mistake by usurping its legislative role and giving it to the Judiciary, to constitutional commissions or to civil society organisations. After all, MPs are our duly elected representatives; the others are not.
The writer is an Advocate of the High Court