The battle now goes to the 2022 elections

The undoubted highlight of the Building Bridges Initiative report seems to be the proposal to establish the position of the prime minister to be appointed by the president from among members of the political party that commands majority support in the National Assembly. A section of the media has likened this proposal to the position of the prime minister that resulted from the power-sharing deal in a government where Mwai Kibaki was already declared as the elected president, and which ended up being occupied by his challenger and leader of the Orange Democratic Movement Raila Odinga.

While the pathway to the proposed premiership is identical to the one in the mediation deal, the premiership of that time did not derive its legitimacy from a presidential appointment but from circumstances of having run for president in a contest with Kibaki.

Key members of the Jubilee faction aligned to Deputy President William Ruto have welcomed the prime minister proposal, pointing out that the position merely amounts to a renaming of the current position of Leader of Majority in the National Assembly.   
Whichever way one looks at it, the premiership that will result from the BBI proposals is not a strong one, as the president will retain the capacity to dismiss the incumbent, a power that the president cannot currently exercise over the Leader of Majority.

As proposed, the position is something similar to the existing super-minister arrangement that President Uhuru Kenyatta put in place when he appointed Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiangi, coordinator of government business in the Cabinet.

While proposing that Cabinet shall now be drawn from a mixture of MPs and people outside Parliament, the BBI report has left intact the term of office and the manner of election of the president, and also the term of office of the legislative bodies, thus avoiding a referendum which would have been triggered if there had been a proposal to change the character or term of office for the president.

Thus, BBI takes the country back to a mix of the parliamentary and presidential systems, as was the case before the 2010 Constitution came into force. 

The rest of the BBI report is a set of vacuous recommendations, none of them particularly new or original and all of them already largely ignored from previous reform seasons.

In a sense, therefore, the BBI will not lead to a major political realignment, as had been expected, and does not launch a process that will result in the annihilation of a political faction in Jubilee, as had been feared. What conclusions can be made from BBI proposals?

It seems that as originally constituted, the BBI process represented a meeting of the personal ambitions of President Kenyatta and Raila. The former craved political stability for the country after a bruising political season, and also an exit plan from power now that he had achieved his second term. The bruising political season had left the latter needing a break from battle, to recover.

Now unsure about continuing in the thankless role of leading the political opposition into an uncertain future, Raila has now found the handshake an attractive option as it would give him a chance to reflect and regroup.
While Uhuru craved political stability which a rapprochement with Raila would provide, the deputy president needed the support of Uhuru to achieve his presidential ambitions. Because the coming together of Uhuru and Raila was inherently against Ruto’s interests, the deputy president was left out of the deal. His choices now were to tag along or to fight the deal.

Raila’s early declaration that there would be a referendum ahead of the next election reflected not only the political ambitions that he and Uhuru now shared but also the confidence they had about achieving them. Contrary to that declaration, however, the BBI report does not recommend a referendum, but merely makes tame and underwhelming proposals that neither amount to reforms nor the feared gauntlet against Ruto.

It seems that Uhuru’s true preference would have been to hand over to a handpicked candidate while, as he recently confessed in Sagana, retaining some kind of public office himself. Fearful about the opposition that this proposal would attract, it seems that the idea has been abandoned and is now maintained only in the form of the tame premiership.
Secondly, the fear of a Ruto fight-back has proved a strategic constraint on what Kenyatta and Odinga could dare to propose. For example, the fear that any proposals touching on devolution would touch off opposition from Ruto and lead him into an alliance with political actors interested in devolution has resulted in the BBI report refraining from changing the devolution plan.

Thirdly, BBI report reflects that despite their intentions, the personal interests of Uhuru and Raila remain misaligned, leading to difficulty in deal-making between the two. For Raila, the BBI was an opportunity to shape a favourable political future. However much Uhuru wants to bequeath him that future, the president will eventually retire and Raila will have to fight on his own.

At the same time, there are limitations in what he can do from outside the state, which is where he is currently positioned. For Uhuru, the BBI was a chance to shape a post-retirement role. He is also limited in what he can do because while he desires a specific succession outcome, he cannot guarantee one. In the end, the fear of failure especially if this came so close to the next elections, has constrained the two into abandoning the ambitions that brought them together but because they had already promised the country so much, the current report is their face-saving exit from those plans.

Having alienated Ruto irreparably, Uhuru will probably continue to work with Raila and the two will try to hold out their half-baked report as what the doctor ordered for the country. But the BBI process has failed to deliver for them an outcome that would amount to the political annihilation of Ruto and a position in which there is consolidated support for their union from among their party ranks.

The BBI report means that Kenyatta’s plan for a soft landing after his presidential term has failed, and he will become hostage to the outcome of that election. The upshot is Ruto wins because the BBI does not irrevocably link Uhuru and Raila as he would have feared. The battle will now go to the ballot, in 2022, and will not be decided earlier, as Uhuru and Raila would have hoped.