Raila Odinga, William Ruto allies clash on referendum push

ODM party leader Raila Odinga says a referendum will give Kenyans an opportunity to address long-standing issues. [File, Standard]

The clamour for constitutional change has been growing louder.

Various groups have been calling for a referendum for different reasons, including the need to tame the soaring public wage bill, open the door to a parliamentary system of government, strengthen devolution and redress electoral injustices.

The bid has gained momentum as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which was unveiled following the political truce between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leaders Raila Odinga, started collecting views from the public on areas of national concern and how they should be addressed.

Raila, who in April proposed that the country adopt a three-tier government that would see the formation of 14 regional blocs, has insisted the work of BBI would result in constitutional review through a popular initiative.

“The referendum will be the best thing for Kenyans as they will have the opportunity to address some of the long-standing issues,” Raila said recently in Kisumu, referring to the nine-point agenda the two leaders agreed needed to be resolved as part of their March 9 agreement to cease hostilities following the disputed presidential election. 

The advisers for BBI — political and religious leaders as well as scholars — are tasked with seeking solutions to ethnic antagonism and competition, lack of national ethos, inclusivity, devolution, divisive elections, safety and security, corruption, shared prosperity and responsibilities and rights.

“We have been receiving good responses from the public. Majority of Kenyans have been sending their responses through the online platform. The responses touch on the nine-point agenda of the ‘handshake’,” said lawyer Paul Mwangi, who co-chairs the secretariat for the unity initiative.

But it is concerns about the bloated wage bill and the alarming increase in public debt levels that have increased the burden of high taxes on Kenyans that are fuelling a popular campaign to overhaul the governance structure.

Senate Minority Leader James Orengo said there was a need for a constitutional review to introduce a parliamentary system of government that he argued was the best for the country.

Financial burden

“The current Constitution gives Kenyans a heavy financial burden that should be done away with. We need to have a parliamentary system and that can only be achieved through constitutionalreview,” Mr Orengo said.

ODM Chairman John Mbadi (Suba South) added: “There is need for a bi-partisan approach to electoral reforms, system of governance, devolution and Parliament. We believe the Building Bridges Initiative team is working to address the issues. We can only wait for their recommendations."

However, National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale said a constitutional referendum was not a priority for the ruling Jubilee Party.

“The Jubilee Party will not be involved in the debate about reducing the number of electoral seats until it gets direction from President Uhuru Kenyatta. Our prime focus is on the Big Four agenda,” Mr Duale said.

Last Thursday at a public meeting in Tana River County attended by Deputy President William Ruto, Duale led more than 10 MPs in rejecting calls for a constitutional referendum, which they claimed were driven by greed. 

“The terms of the service of the 14-member committee of Building Bridges does include the calls for a referendum,” said Duale.

In May, when he opened the third annual Devolution Legislative Summit in Mombasa, Ruto dismissed the push for constitutional changes despite prodding by Orengo.

“On the issue of the referendum, I don’t want to speak about it. Honourable James Orengo wants to drag me there, but not today. Let me say this, lazy people who cannot do things, those who lose elections will always want to use the Constitution as a bogeyman,” said the Deputy President.

But Jubilee appears to be divided on the referendum issue. At the weekend four MPs - Gichuki Mugambi (Othaya), Jude Njomo (Kiambu Town), Ali Dido (Saku) and Narok South’s Korei ole Lemein welcomed the drive for constitutional reforms to address the bloated wage bill by reducing the number of political representatives.

They blamed the current high cost of living on high recurrent expenditure.

“We thought the new Constitution 2010 was the best thing for us but it has proved too costly to run. This begs the question; do we really need 47 counties, senators, woman reps and over 350 MPs as well as nominated leaders? Have they brought any change?” Mr Njomo asked. 

According to Jubilee Party Secretary General Raphael Tuju, the initiatives by the party members had not been canvassed and agreed at the party level.

“I cannot pronounce myself on a matter that has not been discussed at the party level. Once the initiatives are discussed we shall make them public on whether to support or not,” said Mr Tuju.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) said it was aware of the clamour for a referendum but none of the groups had met the legal requirements to formally launch their bids.

“The commission is aware of various groups seeking a popular initiative but no one has brought the one million signatures or met the requirements, “said IEBC Communications Manager Andrew Limo.

Last week, High Court Advocate Kevin Macharia launched an initiative seeking to amend Article 43 to give every Kenyan powers to fight corruption.

Although, IEBC threw out Cord’s petition for failing to garner one million signatures, Thirdway Alliance Party leader Ekuru Aukot’s push is still on. Mr Aukot wants the number of legislators reduced.

Dignify opposition

“We warned Kenyans in our reports before the Constitution was passed that it would be costly to have that number of representatives. Articles 252 to 257 give Kenyans a mechanism to change the Constitution,” said Aukot.

The National Council of Churches of Kenya in May proposed that the Constitution be amended to dignify the Opposition. The Ufungamano Joint Forum of Religious Organisations wants the number of county governments reduced from the 47 to 16 economic blocs.

According to the clergy, the proposed changes will also see the number of MPs go down to 225 from 416.

Evangelical Alliance of Kenya (EAK) also supports the reviewing the supreme law.

“It is clear that it is very expensive to run a system of government like ours. Taxes will keep on increasing and unless we sit down together and agree to alter the structure of the executive and the legislature, we will continue to suffer,” said EAK Chairman Mark Kariuki.


Download the BBI Judgement by all seven Judges - Civil Appeal No. E291 of 2021