MPs, don't allow Ruto to meddle with Parliament's independence

President William Ruto. [PCS]

Last week, two settings involving parliamentary membership revealed troubling signals regarding Parliament’s independence.

The retreat organised by the President, and which involved Kenya Kwanza Parliamentary Group and the proceedings in the National Assembly culminating in the passage of the Affordable Housing Bill, 2023, provide easy justification for the sceptics of parliamentary independence.

The retreat in Naivasha was reportedly organised to allow the government to appraise itself, while refining its delivery roadmap going forward. Participants included the Executive, led by the President and his Cabinet; the Kenya Kwanza Parliamentary Group; and the Council of Governors. Certainly, it is in keeping with good governance culture to embrace consultation.

It however becomes unsettling when a consultative spirit paves way for an asymmetrical engagement. The sad reality with our situation is that reverence for the president is still characterised by a sense of fear and inferiority.

President continues to play an outsized role, over and above the bounds defined in the country’s laws.

It is particularly unsettling when members of another branch of government fall under the president’s outsized spell, thereby infinitely ingratiating themselves. This is partly what we saw unfolding in Naivasha as regards the President’s engagement with the Kenya Kwanza’s Parliamentary Group. The forceful demeanour and language he used on MPs, especially those appearing to express reservations with his policies, betrays inter-branch equality aspired for in the current constitutional dispensation.

The analogy of the exam leakage and the 2027 electoral cycle once more revealed the enduring legacy of brandishing the ‘re-election’ card by an incumbent president to neutralise the independence of thought by legislators.

Existing evidence clearly points to the disruptive consequences the high turnover rates of MPs has had towards the establishment of a solidly grounded independent legislature. Instruction to Parliament to slow down on summoning Cabinet secretaries further affirmed the president’s seniority over Parliament. It is plainly wrong for the Executive to define an engagement framework for Parliament.

Away from Naivasha, the extent of Parliament’s degradation was most evident during the processing of the Affordable Housing Bill, 2023, by the National Assembly.

At the time of taking the final vote on the Bill last week on Wednesday, a whopping 149 Members of the National Assembly were a no-show. How such a number, approximately 43 per cent of the National Assembly’s membership, failed to turn up for the processing of the Bill that has generated immense public interest is symptomatic of the suppressed independence of Parliament.

Processing of bills falls squarely within the legislative mandate of Parliament. Its execution is done in the relevant House of Parliament. Naturally, it requires that members are present in the House. Failure to turn up is an unacceptable dereliction of duty.

Commenting on the situation, the National Assembly Minority Whip Junet Mohamed attributed the absence of some members to intimidation by the Executive. Even though he presented no proof, it is not entirely inconceivable the extent to which the Executive would go to secure its legislative interests. Our history is replete with the unorthodox tactics the Executive has previously used to bulldoze its way into Parliament including the weaponisation of development. Patronage, clientelism and outright intimidation have been Executive’s favourite tools it has used to manage its relationship with Parliament.

The Minority side has sustained its criticism of the Parliament’s loss of independence, pointing to various manoeuvres instituted to frustrate their work. Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi has, for instance, voiced concerns around the shortening of debates on bills.

Specifically, for the Affordable Housing Bill, the minority side complained that their proposed amendments to the Bill were ignored and were never included in the National Assembly’s order paper.

The timing of the passage of the Affordable Housing Bill is not lost on observers either. While on a tour of Nyeri earlier in the month, the President came close to instructing Parliament to pass the Bill swiftly to open up employment opportunities for youths. The timing of the processing of the Bill coincided with the President’s indicated timeline. Appeal must be made to Parliament not to betray the Constitution by prostrating itself to the Executive.

Mr. Ogutu is PhD Student, University of Nairobi. [email protected]