It turns out that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) is about to embark on another round of collecting views from Kenyans. The logic of extending the mandate of the team was that it needed to document Kenyans’ reactions to its recommendations. Reasonable people would disagree that this is necessary. Having spent months talking to Kenyans, the team ought to have enough material to synthesize the public’s preferred reform initiatives. Any other outstanding questions about the public’s position could be addressed with opinion surveys or focus groups. The point is that we do not need yet another expensive talk shop that will yield renditions of what is common knowledge.
But what is really behind the extension of the BBI’s mandate? There are two possible answers. The first is that this is all a cynical play by President Uhuru Kenyatta and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Having read the mood, the first BBI report was watered down so as not to generate any sustained opposition from Kenyans who are tired of politicking and the creation of state offices with specific people in mind. The idea, then, would be to generate a second report that is closer to the initial goals of the two principals. You may recall the rumors about potential institutional engineering to ensure that the “Big Five” ethnic groups were always accommodated in power. Thankfully, this idea was a non-starter among a majority of Kenyans who want the government to focus not on fattening a clueless political class, but providing essential goods and services for wananchi.
The second potential explanation is more charitable to Uhuru and Raila. It could be that they are genuinely interested in finding out what Kenyans really want moving forward, and that they were disappointed by what the BBI team eventually produced. As such, they have asked them to go back to the people and come up with more concrete recommendations regarding specific reform initiatives that Kenyans want. This supposition is plausible. It might be the case that the BBI team intentional self-censored the real desires of Kenyans, perhaps in fear of how the political class or the public might react. The men and women on the team do not operate in a vacuum, and must have been aware of the Kieleweke and Tangatanga politics surrounding the BBI process. Knowing this, Kenyatta and Odinga asked the team to spend more time thinking and come up with a palatable framing of what Kenyans want.
Both possibilities reflect poorly on Uhuru and Raila. First, having seen the quality of the first report, where is the evidence that the team will necessarily produce superior and workable recommendations on their second attempt? Second, much of what plagues Kenya is common knowledge. All we need to do is implement the recommendations of past commissions. Furthermore, the flaws with the Constitution have been apparent since the referendum campaigns of 2010. Reasonable people would agree that what is needed is a coming together of serious (non-partisan) minds to straighten out the knots in the document. For this to happen, we just need an honest political class able to see our problems for what they are, and willing to step onto the grand stage of history and do the right thing.
By extending the mandate of the BBI team, Uhuru and Raila have revealed their political cowardice. Kenyans have already spoken. If they do not like what they heard, they should come out and make a case for why we should go with their recommendations.
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