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Parliament must keep the bar high to redeem image

By Ababu Namwamba | August 10th 2014

Edmund Burke, the celebrated 18th Century British statesman, was setting very high standards indeed when he said: “Parliament is not a Congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation with one interest, that of the whole; where not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a Member of Bristol but a Member of Parliament”.

Kenya’s Parliament has had quite a chequered history with a rather intriguing cycle from the heady post-independence decade when the likes of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Argwings Kodhek, Martin Shikuku, Jean Marie Seroney, Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki,  et al, lit up the House with stirring nationalist displays that would ultimately land virtually all of them in the furnace of the Biblical Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego proportions.

 This happened as the young nation veered off the democratic straight and narrow, landing violently into the ditch of autocracy, while riding on a wave of vile kleptocracy.

To the shadowy days of sham democracy and hushed dissent, when a neutered legislature was largely reduced to a marionette strung and manipulated from the mansion on the hill, when voting in the House became a mechanical exercise easily predictable long before Mr Speaker put the question, when even the most weighty constitutional amendments would be nonchalantly swept through in the twinkling of an eye.

And back again to the fiery multi-party House that followed the repeal of that ignominious section 2A of the Constitution in 1991. That class of ‘92 saw the return of battle-hardened libertarian warriors like Jaramogi, Shikuku, Muliro, James Orengo, Koigi Wamwere and Raila Odinga as well as the arrival of a new generation of soldiers of democracy that included Gitobu Imanyara, Anyang Nyong’o, Paul Muite, Kijana Wamalwa and Martha Karua.

 That illustrious cast, a very rare blend of wisdom of age and exuberance of youth, gave this country the template for democratic constitutionalism that has defined the very character of our Second Republic.

This full cycle closes, quite appropriately, with the dawn of a new dispensation, in which Parliament has been handed the pride of place in the shaping of the renaissance of the Motherland. Article 94 of the Constitution is emphatic that the legislative authority of the Republic, derived from the people, is vested in and exercised by Parliament.

“No person or body, other than Parliament, has the power to make provision having the force of law in Kenya.” But the Constitution also expects Parliament to “...represents the will of the people, and exercises their sovereignty” and to “protect (this) Constitution and promote the democratic governance of the Republic”.

These are weighty responsibilities and sky high expectations indeed, which pose a mega challenge to the institution of Parliament. The bar has risen to heights that would certainly have Burke nodding in approval. The people of Kenya and the Constitution have, as medievals would say, thrown the gauntlet at the feet of Parliament, which has no choice but to stand up to be counted.

As Parliament grapples with some truly mega national challenges, like helping to resolve the monumental land question, it must rise to the challenge of crystalising the image of democratic maturity and inherent integrity of the highest imaginable standards.

Rather than view public criticism as some kind of witch-hunt or inconvenient irritation, Parliament must instead grab the initiative and swiftly but effectively respond to the issues of concern — by radically transforming Parliament into a well-managed institution, with a reputation beyond reproach, as Caesar’s wife.

Otherwise it will remain a puzzling contradiction for the legislature, in playing oversight over other arms of state, to point at any speck in the eyes of others while its own vision is blurred by myriad mega logs.

Of Robert Green’s 48 Laws of Power, Parliament would be well advised to pay particularly keen attention to the 5th law: “So much depends on reputation - guard it with your life”, while Friedrich Nietzsche adds that “it is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation”.

The two Houses of Parliament must maintain utmost fidelity to the rule of law and uphold, without equivocation, high tenets of integrity and decorum in the conduct of any facet of their business.

There have been some really unfortunate incidents in recent times that have not only besmirched the character of Parliament but indeed demeaned its very authority.

Whispered impropriety in the recruitment of parliamentary support staff and utterly blind partisanship and jingoist politicking on the floor of the Houses masquerading as debate are among incidents that must be strongly condemned as being grossly out of order!


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