President William Ruto was never a fan of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)– the constitutional change plan championed by President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga. Neither did he pretend he was.
During the launch of the report at Bomas of Kenya on October 26, Ruto articulately, amid jeers and boos, gave his reasons why he thought the proposals wouldn’t solve the problems the country was facing.
That speech, hailed as one of Ruto’s final acts of breaking away from Uhuru, became one of the defining moments of his campaign, one that helped pave his road to the presidency. He said BBI was not hustler-centric, tapping into his key base: the constitutional amendments proposed did not consider the millions of poor, unemployed Kenyans.
The BBI then became the central message of Ruto’s campaign: they want to create the position of Prime Minister to reward cronies, they want to burden the taxpayer, losers should remain losers; you do not need to have an office to do your opposition role.
The BBI flopped, credit to Ruto and his nationwide campaigns, and the relentless legal pursuit by members of the civil society, some of whom openly supported Ruto’s race for State House, against any changes to the order of things.
Two years later, you wouldn’t know that Ruto took such positions on the BBI from the memorandum he sent to speakers of the National Assembly and Senate Moses Wetang’ula and Amason Kingi respectively on Friday.
President Ruto is asking Parliament to consider introducing constitutional amendment Bills to set up the Office of Opposition Leader and Constituency Development Fund.
He also proposes an increase in the number of nominated MPs and asks Parliament to amend standing orders to allow Cabinet Secretaries to directly answer questions on the floor of the House as an oversight mechanism.
But the early sticking point has been proposals that come straight from the BBI.
The Office of Opposition Leader was one of the offices proposed by the BBI, alongside the Prime Minister which the proponents viewed as the solution to cure the ‘winner takes it all’ problem.
“The President will appoint the PM and the two deputies from the winning coalition. And then we will have the runners-up being the leader of the opposition. The question I am asking myself is, have we sorted out the winner-takes-all question?” Ruto posed at Bomas.
Yet, it has become apparent that Ruto was merely against the document for the political capital giving his constituency a cause to rally around would offer.
The BBI was the bane of hustlers, he said. In office, Ruto is bringing back the BBI through piecemeal initiatives.
Piece by piece, President Ruto has been implementing some of the key proposals in BBI. He has appointed his ally, Musalia Mudavadi as the Prime Cabinet Secretary, a prime minister by a different name, and is now keen on creating an office for the runners-up in the election.
President Ruto is urging Parliament to consider an amendment to Chapter nine, Part IV of the Constitution to establish the office of the Leader of the Official Opposition.
The position of the leader of the official opposition is necessary to actualise the promise of the Constitution fully.
The transition to the Presidential system, says Ruto, coupled with the exclusion of presidential candidates from simultaneously contesting parliamentary seats in a General Election created a novel political paradigm.
“The consequence is that the overall political leader of the minority side is effectively excluded from meaningful political participation, and left to rely on the minority house leaderships to perform the function of oversight,” he said.
Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza Coalition has also pushed through Parliament a Bill that seeks to change the manner Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) commissioners are picked.
The BBI had proposed to have two political parties (Majority and Minority) participate in the appointment of the IEBC chiefs. Ruto was against that. He said at Bomas that it would compromise the doctrine of fair political competition.
“How fair will a league where select teams appoint the referee and not all the teams be?” he asked.
Nonetheless,Members of the National Assembly have passed the IEBC (Amendment) Bill by Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wa which seeks to change the membership of the selection panel. The Bill, which is now in the Senate, proposes creating an official office of the opposition leader.
Part of Ruto’s opposition to the BBI was a referendum and the cost of staging one. His letter to Parliament is aware of that, as well as the decision of the court on the issue.
Ruto encourages the two speakers to consider his proposals since they wont require mobilisation for a referendum, or campaigning.
“The proposals set out above, in my considered view, satisfy this critical prudential safeguard,” he said.
Ruto uses the court’s decision on the BBI matter as guidance, to avoid putting his foot wrong by initiating the process himself like Uhuru did, thus the appeal to Parliament.
He acknowledges that “these opportunities call for measures to adjust the constitutional framework”.
“At the same time, I am mindful of the imperative to defer to the judiciary’s guidance, laid down through the constitutional court’s determination, that the president lacks legitimate authority to initiate changes to the constitution. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that as president, I can and indeed must engage authorised entities like Parliament,” he states.
But opposition to the changes proposed is already fomenting with lawyers and constitutional experts referring to the changes as backdoor constitutional amendments.
Law Society of Kenya President Eric Theuri saw the memorandum as an attempt to reintroduce BBI which he said should be resisted and condemned.
“The President is on a dazzling race to mutilate the Constitution even before the ink dries on the oath he took to defend it,” Theuri said.
Charles Kanjama, another lawyer, said the memo was a pared-down version of BBI and disappointing, and Ruto hadn’t been in office for 100 days.
“Does tenancy at State House fundamentally change a leader’s character & mindset, willy-nilly?” he posed.
National Assembly Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi said Azimio la Umoja would give its position once it had internalised the proposals and the impact they would have.
Opiyo also added that he did not want to speak on the proposals and their similarity to BBI.
“We will give our position as a coalition,” he said yesterday.
But other members of the coalition such as Homa Bay Town MP Peter Kaluma were vocal about the proposals.
Kaluma said Parliament agreeing to Ruto’s proposals would be giving him unfettered access to the tools to amend the Constitution.
“Never accept proposals to amend the Constitution coming from a new President! You would have granted him the key to do worse with the Constitution later if you do so. Bad leaders start by pretending they are after the public interest,” Kaluma said.
Saboti MP Caleb Amisi said that the office of the opposition leader could not be created without a referendum as Ruto had envisioned.
“In creating an official office of the opposition leader a referendum is sine qua non,” he said.
Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei, however, said that the proposals were welcome because they cured grey areas in the constitution but it wouldn’t mean that Ruto was ready to share his government with Azimio.
He said there were gray areas such as gender parity, specialised funds and a definitive government structure. “But this does not mean a handshake government,” he added.