Parliament expansion plan seeks to create buffer zone, secure MPs

An aerial view of Parliament and buildings along Parliament Road, Nairobi. Some buildings in close proximity to the National Assembly may be acquired in expansion plan. [PHOTO: ELVIS OGINA/ STANDARD]

In the wake of grave concerns by MPs over their security, a multi-billion shillings plan by Parliament mooted about five years ago to expand facilities and secure the premises, has gained urgency.

Parliament's expansion programme will see the august House take over several multi-storeyed buildings within the proximity of the legislature.

The new zone, to be called Parliament Square, covers the area from Hotel Inter-Continental and Haile Selassie Avenue and between Uhuru Highway and Parliament Road. Access to this area, which covers several hectares, will be restricted. Plans to create Parliament Square got into top gear after the inauguration of the last Parliament.

The security of MPs has become a major source of concern following threats to major State security installations by terror groups, government offices on Harambee Avenue, and landmark buildings that dominate the city's skyline.

If implemented as conceived, Parliament will take over Embassy House, Ukulima Co-op House, Harambee Co-op Plaza, Ufanisi House, Protection House, Continental House, Juvenile Court building and Imani House. The other buildings include Professional Centre, Latptrust House, Baden Powell House, St John's Ambulance building and Parliament Police Station.

It is unclear if owners of the targeted buildings within the proximity of the Legislature will succumb to sustained pressure to dispose of their property. At least six of the buildings may have to be pulled down and replaced with new ones.

The project, mooted in 2010 by former National Assembly Speaker Kenneth Marende and former Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura, as it became evident Kenya would have a new Constitution, faces legal and socio-economic hiccups five years after inception.

The thinking behind Parliament Square is to situate the Legislature within the proximity of the Executive and Judiciary. As is it now, the three arms of government are scattered in the Central Business District.

The number of buildings to be acquired is still indeterminate, but National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi and a senior parliamentary staffer through the Parliamentary Service Commission on which both seat, confirmed the expansion of Parliament premises was already underway, although it is behind schedule, since it was mooted to accommodate a bicameral House, increased number of standing committees and MPs.

Visitors to the CBD area that houses MPs offices will have noticed the ongoing construction of a multi-storeyed building between the Police Station and Continental House.

The 20-storey Parliament Tower, estimated to cost Sh10 billion, will be connected to the National Assembly and Senate chambers by a drive- and walk-through viaduct.

The various acquisitions and constructions could cost around Sh100 billion, although the figure could vary significantly once the final valuations of the land and the properties have been established, according to our source in Parliament.

Muturi, who chairs PSC, which is implementing the project, says the total cost of the project has not been determined yet.

Another senior member of the PSC says evaluation of property is still ongoing and will take longer before the actual cost of project is determined.

"I have no idea of the budget of the project because I inherited it from my predecessor. What I know is that there are plans to buy more buildings to accommodate MPs and parliamentary staff," says the speaker.

He reveals the project that should have taken five years to compete since inception in 2010, faces legal impediments from property owners who are reluctant to offload their assets to Parliament.

He confirms that Ukulima Co-op House near Haile Selassie-Uhuru Highway roundabout, Imani House and Continental House have been leased to Parliament to accommodate around 50 parliamentary committees of the National Assembly and Senate. This does not take into account the needs of the joint committees.

Muturi says the deal with Professional Centre is still in abeyance, while PSC shied away from Ukulima Co-op House as a result of long-standing legal issues.

The Speaker disclosed that Imani House, owned by Anglican Church of Kenya, has signed a six-year lease with the National Assembly to house parliamentary staff, while proposals have been made to buy Ufanisi House or enter into a lease agreement with the proprietors.

Marende, who was instrumental in the conception of Parliament Square, says the concept is borrowed from the British House of Commons and United States' Congress.

Besides security, the other key drivers of the project are provision of parking and office space. Our source in PSC says parking challenges constitute the greatest threat to lawmakers' safety because of ease of access to Parliament Buildings.

The expansion of Parliament from the previous 222 MPs in the last Parliament to 416, consisting of 349 members of the National Assembly and 67 in the Senate, has piled pressure on the already strained space legislators and parliamentary staffs fight for.

The ripple effect of the expansion programme is already beginning to be felt as small business have been relocating from the area as the Parliamentary Service Commission embarks on rehabilitation of some of the buildings it has acquired, so far, through sale or lease.

Some eateries and entertainment spots frequented by visitors to Parliament are closing business. The scores of taxis that operate in the area will soon be forced to relocate as security threats to Parliament and MPs have become a major issue.

The import of modern infrastructure development is that the public will have limited interaction with MPs in these expanded premises. According to our Central Business District to three metropolises: Tatu City, Konza City and yet-to-be named city in Thika.

Regarding personal security of MPs and parliamentary staff, Muturi laments the presence of more than 500 licensed firearms on Parliament premises on any ordinary day.

"I am addressing the matter. In other jurisdictions, MPs and their bodyguards are expected to deposit firearms with the sergeant-at-arms. This is a major security threat in our polarised political establishment. Eventually, even taxis and restaurants that operate in the area will have to relocate," says the Speaker.

The presence of economy restaurants and bars in the vicinity of Parliament Buildings has been a cause for concern by parliamentary security machinery in the face terror threats.

Marende revealed further that terrorist threats to bomb Parliament Building after Kenya sent troops into Somalia to fight al Shabaab reinforced the need to create a buffer to keep off potential security threats.

"At some point, we received intelligence reports that al Shabaab was plotting to bomb Parliament when the House was in full session. Around that time, attendance in Parliament was low and that must have dissuaded the terrorists because they would not have had maximum effect as they had hoped," the former Speaker says.

This was in December 2011 when reports of al Shabaab's plot to assassinate former Deputy Speaker Farah Maalim and former Defence Minister Yusuf Haji, caused a scare in Parliament. The two, who are from Northern Kenya, had become targets for allegedly supporting the country's military incursions into Somalia.