Aden Duale confessions: By fair or foul means, State agenda had to pass


Defence CS Aden Duale, then National Assembly Majority Leader  consults with his minority counterpart John Mbadi on the Division of Revenue Bill,2019. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

In his new book, For The Record, Defence Cabinet Secretary ADEN DUALE reveals the tricks he used to ensure government business sailed through the House, including identifying rabblerousers in their ranks, and sending them on foreign trips before introducing controversial proposals, which they could have opposed.

As the pioneer Leader of Majority Party, I had to set up the office from scratch. There was no manual to look at save for a 26-word sentence in Article 108(2) of the Constitution, which reads: “The Leader of the Majority Party shall be the person who is the leader in the National Assembly of the largest party or coalition of parties”.

The role of parliamentarians had expanded to include making the Budget, vetting of Cabinet ministers, principal secretaries, top judges, and other top State officials. Therefore, I worked with the party whip Katoo ole Metito to create the committees of the House, all the time looking out for a balance: ethnic, regional and gender diversity, specific interests and strengths of individual members, and those of the coalition partners. We had to get the mix right for the effective running of the committees.

I vaguely knew that I was the representative of the ruling party in the House, the person who would drive the government agenda - perhaps be the Leader of Government Business, and also the spokesperson of the Jubilee Coalition in the National Assembly. I had to cultivate unity on voting for Motions and Bills, a role which required a good rapport with the minority leaders Francis Mwanzia Nyenze, then Kitui West MP, and his deputy Jakoyo Midiwo, then Gem MP.

In the new National Assembly with 349 MPs, the majority of them first-term lawmakers, I had to adapt quickly. The biggest headache was lack of an office to operate from. The construction of a new office block was way behind schedule, and so, in those first days, I had to work from my car as then Clerk, Justin Bundi, scrambled to get me an office. In the end, he got a room near the main entrance of the Parliament Buildings, big enough for two desks, three seats, a telephone and one computer. That became my office. I was lucky I got the space at the Main Parliament Buildings. Most of my colleagues had to do with office space at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, or in nondescript buildings in different parts of the city, next to salons, bars and noisy shops.

With two secretaries in the same room, I did not have the privacy required to engage members. I often asked my secretaries to step out into the corridors whenever I wanted to have a confidential conversation on legislative matters with an MP, or to call the President or his deputy. It was terrible office culture, but that is how unprepared the parliamentary bureaucracy had been when implementing the Constitution. It took eight months for me to get a better office. Parliamentary business would have suffered if I had waited for a cushy functional office. I got a lot done in those eight months between that tiny office on the ground floor of Parliament Buildings and my car.

In those days of scarcity, I had an acute understanding of what was needed to make the office functional. I needed secretaries, researchers, legislative drafters, public finance specialists and the usual supporting staff to help with routine office duties. Thankfully, that early on, Speaker Justin Muturi approved a quick trip to the US Congress, where I spent days in the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, studying how she led the democrats in the House of Representatives.

I then went to the House of Commons in Westminster, in Britain, and spoke to the leadership to get insights into how the parliamentary system worked. After that, I went to Paris, to the French Parliament. The whole trip was a learning opportunity for me, to understand how bicameralism worked, how to interact with a Speaker, and how to balance the needs of my constituency, the legislative agenda, public interest and the national interest. It took a bit of time for Kenyans to understand the shift in the parliamentary architecture, specifically the place of the Speaker, who is sponsored by the ruling party, presiding as an umpire.

As a pioneer holder of a constitutional office, I knew that I had to lay a solid foundation for all those who would come after me. If I failed to set up a robust infrastructure, I’d fail everyone. I also knew that if I joked with the role, the parliamentarians had the ways and means to collapse the government - they could frustrate budget- making, or remove a performing minister, or even impeach the President or his deputy.

I had to be very careful with what I did and make sure that it not only advanced the goals of the Jubilee Coalition but also pushed the public interest as it served the national interest. We had given promises in our manifesto, and if the actualisation of those promises needed a law to be enacted, I made sure all the Bills were approved. Out of the international trip to jurisdictions with functional bicameralism, I developed a plan to work with the key offices in Parliament.

I needed a one-on-one 10-minute sit-down with the Speaker before every session of the House. In these brief meetings, we discussed the agenda, the approach and the goal of the government. Prior to the meeting with the Speaker, I had longer meetings with the Clerk, and staff from the Directorate of Legislative and Procedural Services, the leadership of the Minority Party, to understand how to approach some of the new things in the dispensation.

In the House Business Committee, the team which determines the weekly agenda, I always sat next to the Speaker, who chaired those meetings. If I felt something needed to be given priority, I pushed for it, and even tapped at his foot, to ensure that he swayed the committee my way. I also did the same thing if I needed something to go to the bottom of the pile, forgotten, never touched. That was the job.

Without Cabinet Secretaries in the House, the big question was: How then were parliamentarians supposed to get responses from the Executive? I went to Uhuru and Ruto with a proposal that the parliamentary leadership had agreed on. We would have parliamentary liaison officers to deal with specific issues - questions, Bills, petitions and Motions to specific ministries.

The Cabinet Secretaries were instructed to have my number on speed dial to make sure that everything else became secondary whenever a request came from the august House. This directive was also cascaded to the principal secretaries and the top ministry officials. We told Cabinet secretaries that they still had to appear before parliamentary committees to respond to the specific questions.

The President and his deputy also agreed to give priority to my calls. I called the President any time of day or night, and if he didn’t pick the call because, say, he was in a meeting, he returned the call within 30 minutes. When there was a hot item on the agenda, the president picked my call on the first ring. There is a day we had conversations 51 different times! I had to tell him to leave me to do my job.

“Mr President, do you play golf?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, not knowing what golf had to do with legislation.

“Okay, now I want to ask you to go to your favourite golf course. Don’t call me again. I will call you. Please allow me to do my job,” I said.

For controversial issues, I often came up with a strategy that ensured they sailed through the House whenever the Opposition was “asleep.” One such tactic was to schedule important business for Thursday 3pm, knowing that most MPs would be travelling to their constituencies, or to a workshop or retreat in Naivasha or Mombasa later that evening, I would mobilise the quorum of 50 MPs, mainly from the Jubilee Coalition, and we would pass whatever needed to be passed. The Opposition lawmakers later caught up with the mischief but I was ready for them: I changed tact. I used to identify the rabblerousers in their ranks, and send them on foreign trips just when I was about to bring a controversial proposal, which I suspected they would oppose. While they were away, business went on.

We had a rapport with Speaker Muturi, MPs Nyenze and Midiwo. The only problem is that we would agree on how to resolve a given political impasse but the principals of the minority party, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy, who were non-parliamentarians, would often kibosh whatever deals we had struck. You’d speak to Nyenze and Midiwo, and they’d come back the following day to say their respective party leaders Kalonzo Musyoka and Raila Odinga had other ideas. In such times, I quickly called the President, who called the two, and they quickly dropped their demands. At other times, Nyenze and Midiwo would make my life difficult. I would just put a call through to Kalonzo and Raila, who would then call them back, and they often backed down. Sometimes, if the party leaders sided with their parliamentary leaders, I got Uhuru and Ruto on the line, and they called Raila and Kalonzo to smooth the way for legislation.

When these strategies failed, I negotiated with the party leadership. We worked very well with Midiwo. Often, the Opposition blamed their loss on “tyranny of numbers.” However, if Kenyans were keen and looked at who was inside Parliament when the votes were taken on some of these controversial issues, they would notice the Backbench was playing to the gallery.

To make sure that I had my finger on the pulse of the debating chamber, I pushed for the Liaison Committee, which brings together all the chairpersons of the committees, to meet every Wednesday. It was a tough time for me, because, by law, the committee is chaired by the Deputy Speaker. In the beginning, then Deputy Speaker Joyce Laboso was not supportive. She undermined my office. 

However, we got a working formula when Moses Cheboi took over in 2017 after Laboso left Parliament following her election as Bomet Governor. We put the committee chairpersons on their toes, pushed for quick delivery of reports on Bills, Motions, petitions and questions. If they were having difficulty with enforcing the summonses to government officials, they laid that on my doorstep and I sent out letters.

I had learned from former Head of Public Service Francis Muthaura that whenever there was an important issue in Parliament, you had to mobilise the parliamentarians personally. I wrote letters to all the MPs of the Jubilee Coalition and ensured they were personally delivered to their offices. I also had their personal mobile phone numbers. I used to flood them with text messages and reminders about the crucial pending business before the National Assembly and nudge them to appear for the crucial vote. Even with all those strategies, we sweated to get some legislation through.

The role exposed me to criticism for parliamentary overreach and missteps. I had to answer whenever a Jubilee Coalition member made a silly utterance or proposed a poorly-conceived Motion. For example, in May 2013, the Parliamentary Service Commission, under pressure from members, cornered the Salaries and Remuneration Commission to increase the pay packets of the Members of Parliament. One day, as I drove into Parliament, I met hundreds of protesters at the gate, with graffiti all over sows and piglets. The protesters had poured blood at the gates to Parliament Buildings, so the pigs huddled there licking the blood. It was an epic dilemma for the riot police officers: What do you do to bloody pigs obstructing the gates of Parliament? Arrest the pigs or the activists? One of the sows had my name on it. As a Muslim, it was horrifying and traumatic to see my name on a filthy and bloody pig, but activists were doing what they had to do, while the Parliamentary Service Commission had a duty to provide for the welfare of Members.