Referendum discourse is far from objective

President Uhuru Kenyatta chats with DP William Ruto during the burial service of National assembly Speaker Justin Muturi’s mother in Embu County. [Charles Kimani/DPPS]
In 2010, as Raila Odinga observes, Kenya had a unique opportunity to change its governance structures. We squandered that opportunity. Many change aficionados had, indeed, proposed, through the Constitutional Commission’s public hearings, that a presidential system would probably serve Kenya’s purposes better.

When a political stalemate emerged around the two governance systems, pitting the forces of change against the forces of impunity, politicians went to Naivasha ostensibly to broker a compromise.

There, in an abrupt about-turn, Raila surprised friends and foe alike by taking the wolves’ part to pitch strongly for Kenya’s current imperial presidency!

The then draft constitution had proposed eight counties, designed to replace the provincial administration structure inherited at independence from the colonial government.

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The Naivasha meeting, in addition to resolving to push for an imperial presidency, counter-proposed the current 47 counties. It had its way at the plebiscite even as economists argued that a devolved system with 47 counties would be expensive to run.

Now, before Kenyans can be invited to consider a third level of devolution gaining currency in political circles, it is imperative to conduct an audit to take stock of the gains realised , if any, from the utilisation of funding so far allocated to the 47 county governments.

New Constitution

In as much as the 'YES' side in the 2010 referendum led by Raila observed that there were certain aspects of the new constitution that would require the country’s attention post-promulgation, the key issues to be re-examined, to my memory, did not centre on the structure of the Executive.

That was always acceptable as long as top politicians believed the presidency was within their reach in the short-term. Otherwise, the drive for reforms would have begun immediately after 2010, but certainly before the 2012 elections, later pushed to 2013 for some indefensible reasons.

On the contrary, the constitutional review pledge was (largely) around the contentious issues that the 'NO' side of the campaign, then effectively led by William Ruto, currently opposed to any form of review, highlighted in their desperate efforts to derail reforms.

Among Mr Ruto’s and the naysayers’ pet concerns were a relatively inconsequential provision touching on abortion rights, a topic they discarded and have not raised again (at least in public) after the new constitution was passed.

While I appreciate Raila’s current submissions, which are informed by the position he took earlier in his book, one must forgive me for being unable to stop thinking that the new push to take a second look at the provisions on the Executive is motivated more by subjective experiences than by an objective need to address the country’s (mis)governance and ineptitude leadership.

In particular, I am not convinced that the parliamentary system is the unquestioned antidote for our propensity to kill each other every election cycle. This problem would be addressed by a judicious combination of factors; a genuine effort to strengthen our institutions to make them truly independent of executive meddling.

Specifically, the police, the public prosecutor’s office, the Judiciary and the various constitutional bodies (especially the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission and the Auditor General’s office, both of which should have prosecutorial powers) must be effectively independent.

Presidential system

These reforms can be achieved under the presidential system. To achieve institutional reforms, the current powers of the presidency must be shared.

But unlike Raila, who believes that these powers can only be shared by an executive prime minister, I take the view that some of these powers can be ceded to other offices in the current constitutional order including county governors, the police chief, various constitutional commissions and cabinet secretaries, among others.

Kenya needs a genuine effort to reform the electoral systems and practices to achieve credibility in the conduct of elections.

It does not matter whether we have a presidential system or a parliamentary system: if the electoral conduct is 'manipulable', political competition among parties intent on enjoying unbridled presidential and/or prime ministerial powers will continue to cause animosity.

Abject poverty

Citizens need empowerment. People who live in abject poverty, who have no education, no employment opportunities, who are unable to access financial services to exploit their entrepreneurship hunches, who live in terrible conditions and who have no hope in life are grossly unable of undertaking their civic duties, including the prime duty of making informed leadership choices.

Although the current constitution has a progressive Bill of Rights, citizens do not have a constitutional way of effecting the enjoyment of those rights. This is a lacuna that needs to be cured by any revisions to the Constitution.

In sum, constitutional reforms could address more pertinent issues to help strengthen our institutions so we can achieve a progressive governance system that is responsive to the developmental and welfare needs of Kenyans.

Kenyans no longer have the luxury of observing from the periphery as non-altruistic political interests, already responsible for our uninspiring dismal progress, take the reform centre stage.

Mr Kodongo is an economist based at University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa

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