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Why ‘when’ will make or break the clamour for referendum

By Vincent Achuka and Jacob Ng’etich | February 17th 2019
Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM) National Chairman Amb. Yusuf Nzibo (left) addressing a press conference in Nairobi. [David Njaaga/Standard]

Fears over changes in the political landscape after Kenya holds what could be a defining referendum in the succession of President Uhuru Kenyatta are emerging as the driving factor for the conflict on when the country should hold the plebiscite.

While it is now clear that the three main political axes are on the same page on whether Kenyans should hold a referendum, a debate over whether it should be held by the end of the year has become a hot potato.

With lessons picked from the 2005 referendum that gave birth to ODM, killed the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) and almost made President Mwai Kibaki a one-term president, politicians are cautious of the unknown that lies ahead once Kenyans vote for changes in the Constitution.

According to analysts, it is inevitable that there will be new political formations after the referendum that will set the agenda for 2022.

“Raila wants to be seen to be the one birthing this referendum so that should it pass he can emotionally connect with the voters, particularly if the issues will be of public and national interest,” says Dismas Mokua.

“It is in Raila’s interest that Ruto opposes the referendum and becomes the causality of his decision. If the referendum passes, Raila would get a lot of political capital.”

Officially, the journey to a referendum could start as early as next week when the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) starts verifying signatures collected by the Thirdway Alliance.


The party is set to submit the signatures to the IEBC on Thursday.

It hopes to amend Chapter 7 of the Constitution on representation, Chapters 8 and 12 on the executive and devolution, respectively.

It also seeks to introduce a single seven-year-term presidency and reduce the number of MPs to 194, down from 416 in both the National Assembly and the Senate.

“We write to inform you that the commission is ready to receive your draft bill and signatures on the February 21 at 10am,” IEBC chair Wafula Chebukati wrote to the Thirdway Alliance on Thursday last week. If approved, the IEBC will start the process of preparing Kenya for a referendum as asked by the Alliance.

But then the leading political heavy weights, led by President Kenyatta, opposition leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto, have referendum ideas of their own that they have been pushing for in recent months.

Each faction appears to have made it open the kind of changes they would want in case Kenya holds a referendum but they all don’t agree on when this should happen.

The understanding by those allied to Raila, who is pushing for a referendum this year, is to have it as early as possible so that there is enough time for any political realignments that may occur in the run-up to 2022.

Meanwhile, Ruto’s camp, which wants the referendum to be a question in the 2022 polls, is understandably not sure of what would happen in the political landscape once the plebiscite is held before the elections.

Then those from President Kenyatta’s camp, who also want the referendum this year, argue that it needs to happen once and for all in order to give the head of state time to concentrate on his Big 4 agenda.

Their argument is that prolonged campaigns for the changes in law could politicise the country during a period when the Jubilee government is supposed to be busy with the development agenda.

Building bridges

On Thursday while meeting public universities student leaders, Raila opened up about their push to have the changes take place this year and his position could easily be shared by Uhuru who has several times called for inclusivity in government.

“This will be the year of change for this country, you make a choice to be with us or not. Nobody will stop the change that is coming,” said Raila in the strongest indication of the resolve a year after they unveiled the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) on March 9, 2018.

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