Sober and well-chosen words characterised the debate on the contentious amendments to the new election laws as senators took the unusual step to lower political temperatures that had threatened to split the nation.
The six-hour debate of the special Senate sitting was in stark contrast to a similar session held by the National Assembly last week that degenerated into fist-fights and exchanges of damning allegations even as pressure mounted on the President not to sign the bill when it lands on his desk.
Demonstrating sobriety and restraint while arguing Senate is the voice of reason and dignity, the senators from both Jubilee and Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD) eased political tensions by unanimously agreeing to give players a chance to ventilate on the key concerns elicited by the amendments to the Election Laws (Amendment) Act 2016.
Speaker Ekwee Ethuro directed Senate Legal Affairs Committee chaired by Busia Senator Amos Wako to collect views over the changes before making a report that will be presented before the House when it meets on January 4, 2017.
“Accordingly, I ask the Senate Committee on Legal Affairs to engage the public immediately after this First Reading. Next week on January 4, 2017 the committee should table its report,” directed Mr Ethuro.
“It is important that we give the public an opportunity to present their views,” added the Speaker.
CALL OFF DEMO
Ethuro said there was nothing greater than the electoral law dispute, which he said should be resolved in the most sensitive way as the country prepares for the August 8, 2017 elections.
It is unlikely that CORD will hold its mass street protest planned for January 4 as senators resolved to have another sitting on the same day. The Opposition may be prevailed upon to call its demo off to give the Senate time to decide how to treat the laws as amended by the lower House.
Some senators urged CORD to suspend the protests to allow the Senate to discuss the changes in the contentious election laws.
At the same time the Senate Speaker eased the tension in the country by ordering removal of police officers who have for days barricaded the roads leading to the two Houses, and further demanded investigations to find out who ordered their deployment in breach of the independence of the three arms of government.
Senate lived up to its reputation of being a House of sobriety and maturity at a time when the whole country waited with bated breath to see how it would address the issue.
Jubilee MPs unilaterally passed the amendments after their CORD colleagues walked out, alleging bias by Speaker Justin Muturi whom they accused of taking orders from State House.
But former Attorney General Amos Wako requested that his committee be given more days, arguing that they would not sit on Sunday and Monday because of the New Year holiday.
“I was very concerned when the sitting was to be curtailed just to meet this deadline. But through consultation we have agreed to give public participation room,” said Mr Wako.
Initially, Senate Majority Leader Kithure Kindiki opposed the postponement of the debate, arguing that the matter was urgent and exceptional.
Prof Kindiki said this in reference to protests by some senators, who argued that it was improper for the House to debate a bill from the First Reading and make a verdict in a single sitting.
“No bill may be considered for three readings in a single sitting. But in certain circumstances it can be done so long as Senate gives leave. In my view, the matter we are addressing ourselves to today is the most urgent matter in the country,” he said.
But he later agreed that the Wako committee should have a week to give room for public participation.
Kindiki said the Senate showed statesmanship and sobriety during the deliberations, stating that the matter was neither Jubilee’s nor CORD’s agenda.
“We must honour our country. This is a win for our country. Let’s restrain ourselves from comments that could jeopardise our peace. We have to stabilise our country and move forward as a united country,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Moses Wetang’ula argued the National Assembly had sent wrong signals to the country by engaging in fights and allowing police to put Parliament Building under siege.
Mr Wetang’ula urged the legal committee to live up to the expectation of the people of Kenya and proceed without regard to tribe and party interests.
He further asked Senator James Orengo and Kiraitu Murungi (Meru), who co-chaired the joint select committee to appear before the committee, to give their views.
He claimed some forces were determined to manipulate the electoral process by amending the laws to allow for manual voting that could facilitate rigging.
“Listening to my younger brother Kithure Kindiki, no one can fail to understand that he is a good man working for difficult people,” said Wetang’ula in reference to change of heart by the senator.
“When this matter was dealt with in the National Assembly it sent a wrong signal to the public. It is what has raised the temperatures in the country. Outside there people think there is a terrible thing going on in Parliament,” added Wetang’ula.
Senator Hassan Omar urged members not to be used by the Executive to make changes that are aimed at meeting individual interests.
“This is Parliament, we are neither Government nor Opposition. We are here because we are Parliament and Parliament can overrule the Executive,” said Omar.