Why Ruto stands to win big from proposed constitutional changes

A section of the National Dialogue Committee team upon resuming talks at the Bomas of Kenya on September 18, 2023. [Dennis Kavisu, Standard]

Agreeing to structured talks with the Raila Odinga-led opposition was the price President William Ruto had to pay for a ceasation of protests and the resulting calm he is currently enjoying.

If a petition challenging the ongoing bipartisan talks flops, President Ruto could end up reaping more than just peace and quiet.

For more than a week, the National Dialogue Committee (NDC), co-chaired by former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka and National Assembly Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah has held public hearings, which have tilted towards the inevitability of a referendum.

The NDC is considering matters that will likely require constitutional amendments on protected clauses, which eventually have to earn the electorate’s nod. Such include boundary reviews, changing the governance structure to include new offices as well as a possible extension of the presidential term.

Most of the proposals that will require law changes originate from Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Alliance, and their implementation could favour him in his quest for a more dominant hold on power, an agenda he barely had time to focus on months ago, when the opposition was on his neck with weekly protests. 

On Friday, Ruto set in motion his 2027 strategy, which involves forging his United Democratic Alliance (UDA) into a behemoth by winning over as many allies as he keeps friends.

Prime CS incentive

He has pushed to have Musalia Mudavadi’s prime cabinet secretary’s office entrenched in the law, a move that could potentially guarantee Ruto his ally’s support when he seeks re-election in 2027. And even if the two fall out before then, the said office is a formidable incentive in drawing in any other ally. Further, having a powerful PCS office in place could afford him more legroom if political dynamics change and he is forced to switch running mates.

“Both sides can plan with the position,” said Saboti MP Caleb Amisi. “We can also promise someone a prime minister position, which was not on the table”.

The proposal to entrench the PCS in the Constitution featured in a memorandum Ruto issued to Parliament last year. He also listed the creation of the office of the leader of the official opposition - which the president touts as one that would address the feeling of exclusion among poll losers - and new nominative slots for women.

Since he dishonoured his promise of having an equal number of women and men in his Cabinet and failed to meet the gender parity threshold with his appointment of principal secretaries, Ruto has tried to endear himself to women.

In the December UDA grassroots elections, the party has employed a formula that will ensure that chairpersons and deputy chairpersons of the grassroots offices will be of the opposite gender. The plan, as announced by East Africa Legislative Assembly lawmaker Hassan Omar, involves picking the best loser as the deputy. Such a person must be of the opposite gender from the person elected chairperson.

Ruto, undoubtedly, hopes to get big mileage from his party’s gender affirmative strategy as he does from the realisation of the gender parity rule.

Other proposals in the memorandum included the entrenchment of development, affirmative action and oversight funds in the Constitution.

All the changes would require the support of at least two-thirds of the Members of Parliament, the threshold for amending the Constitution. Despite Ruto’s near-absolute control of both Houses of Parliament, he would sweat to raise such numbers.

In the NDC process, where Kenya Kwanza adopted Ruto’s memorandum as its agenda, the president almost has an assurance that his proposals will sail through all stages. But that depends on whether the talks will last, and whether its final report will be a bipartisan one.

“We have made very good progress and we are within the timelines,” said National Assembly Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi.

But Amisi did not share Wandayi’s optimism in the talks.

“The talks are now a game of wits. Whoever is smarter will have their way,” Amisi argued. “We exposed them by stopping the protests and you see them failing badly. If we were on the streets, our people would still be dying.”

Political risk analyst Dismas Mokua read the openness of the committee as a sign that it would emerge with positive recommendations.

“The National Dialogue Committee has received high-quality recommendations. This content should inform and influence legislative interventions and policy reviews, provided such are aligned with national and public interests.,” said Mokua.

There have been calls from within the government and the opposition to have the talks halted. Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua has led such calls in Kenya Kwanza, with politicians such as Embakasi East lawmaker Babu Owino arguing that the talks were unnecessary amid the high cost of living.

“Bipartisan talks are very dangerous because they always sideline the people. They are always centred on the interests of the political class,” said Nyeri Town MP Duncan Maina. “The process should involve every sector of society, not just Azimio and Kenya Kwanza”.

Raila’s Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya, which essentially forced the talks with its protests, could also enjoy its wins, which include an audit of last year’s election and resulting electoral reforms. Appearing before the NDC, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission said the audit would not yield different results from those contained in its public portal, used to declare Ruto the winner of last year’s presidential election.

A significant proposal would see political parties have more say in the selection of electoral commissioners. The opposition coalition wants the Inter-Parties Parliamentary group formula of the late 1990s adopted.

Maina argued that Raila was pushing to benefit by pushing selfish interests by selectively targeting the IEBC and Political Parties Acts.

“Raila lost five years in the handshake and he failed to engage former President Uhuru Kenyatta on the IEBC because he thought it would be favourable to him. He is now pushing for a favourable IEBC. But who is representing the people in the discussions on IEBC,” Maina posed, as he faulted the demands for an audit of the election.

“He is pushing the false narrative of opening the servers. Why don’t we finish all the elections at the polling station and have the results of all six positions filled on a single form so that we insulate against claims that the presidential form is open to manipulation?” the Nyeri Town MP posed.

Amisi argued that fissures within Kenya Kwanza had set the coalition in a panic mode, ending up in a blame game against the opposition.

Azimio also fronted the cost of living as an agenda item. The opposition has consistently used the issue to drive the masses into anti-government protests and, among a significant section of Kenyans, has seemed the hero. For months, Ruto has argued that he has put in place strategies that will result in lower food and commodity costs.

He has insisted on the measures, such as a fertiliser subsidy programme and a questionable deal with gulf countries on oil importation, despite the depreciating shilling and rise in fuel costs, with the projected adverse implications on the cost of living that many Kenyans find unbearable.

Cost of living

Azimio has unsuccessfully called for the repealing of the Finance Act 2023. Last week, they had support from the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), which wants the law reviewed owing to the taxation burden it heaps on already struggling Kenyans.

“There are taxes after taxes. Is that burden shared fairly?” posed LSK President Eric Theuri.

“The global recession that has affected all countries is transient. We can’t legislate on a temporary phenomenon. Raila should be pushing for stimulus packages and austerity measures but he wants to make noise without offering tangible solutions,” Maina argued.

Amid skewed appointments of top State officials that have mostly favoured two ethnic communities, the opposition also pushed to have inclusivity included in the agenda. Initially, Kenya Kwanza dismissed Azimio as seeking a handshake arrangement, which Azimio dismissed.

Another significant victory for Azimio could be the enactment of stricter laws against party hopping, which could help the coalition contain the defections that have robbed it of its former majority status in the National Assembly. 

Wandayi said the talks were not about Raila or Ruto.