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How handshake turned Uhuru past critics to cheerleaders

By Wilfred Ayaga and Moses Nyamori | October 15th 2019
President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga at Harambee House, Nairobi on March 9, 2018. [File, Standard]

The closing of ranks by MPs to raise the debt ceiling to Sh9 trillion is the latest pointer to how the political truce between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Opposition leader Raila Odinga has turned politics on its head, both in parliament and outside the House.

Yesterdays’ critics have become today’s cheerleaders as the March 9, 2018 handshake blurs political lines – almost turning the House into a one-party chamber where government business is railroaded without opposition.

MPs who spoke to The Standard on condition of anonymity for fear of flouting party protocol, said most lawmakers had been cowed by the camaraderie between the President and ODM leader. The two leaders control huge blocs in and outside Parliament, and it would be politically suicidal for most MPs to go against their wishes.

Former critics of Jubilee’s borrowing spree like Junet Mohamed, John Mbandi and Gladys Wanga, last week rallied led the National Assembly to raise the debt ceiling. This was the second time in under a year opposition MPs defied public pressure to push through government motion.

Last year in September opposition lawmakers helped the Government side push through new taxes in disregard to public protests against rising cost of living.

Dead opposition

With the Opposition in Parliament virtually non-existent, and the civil society neutered to the bones, the public is on its own.

Watchdogs committees appear to have abdicated their mandate to ensure robust oversight of government which punctures accountability while vetting processes have become routine rubber-stamping of executive nominees.

In the latest case, opposition MPs backed government push to raise the country’s debt ceiling to Sh9 trillion, a 360-degrees turn from their previous hardline stance against borrowing.

National Assembly Minority Whip Junet Mohammed, who only three years ago was part of MPs against Jubilee’s appetite for borrowing -especially the Sh250 billion Eurobond - cited the “renewed fight against corruption” as a reason for echoing government position.

 “When I realised that the war on corruption has serious political support, all the way from the President to the Speaker, I was convinced that this money will be spent in a good manner,” says the Suna East MP.

Homa Bay Woman Representative Gladys Wanga, an erstwhile fierce critic of the Jubilee borrowing spree, has become the foremost advocate for more government debt. She even bandies around statistics to back up her case.

“No economy grows without borrowing. In fact, if you look at the data from the American economy, in 2018, American borrowing was at 77 per cent of the GDP. That is a debt that is moving towards 100 per cent of GDP. If we measure our debt by the percentage to the GDP, it grows scarier and scarier.

“If our debt ceiling is not raised, it does not mean that we are not borrowing. We are borrowing domestically. We are competing in the local market….it had become very difficult for SMEs to get loans from commercial banks because they had to compete with the Government in terms of borrowing,” she says. Critics, including the World Bank, have warned against the appetite for loans, citing risks of debt stress.

MPs even ignored expert advice from the Parliamentary Budget Office which advised against the raising of the country’s debt ceiling, according to minutes of the committee on Delegated Legislation that considered the Treasury proposal.

PBO, an independent think-tank of economic experts that advises MPs, warned that raising the ceiling would undermine the country’s budget credibility.

“Currently, the country has surpassed some of the debt sustainability thresholds. This implies that the country is not generating enough revenue to cover the debt service requirements. The risk is the country will continue to borrow to repay the existing debts and not for development expenditure,” PBO said.

Last Wednesday’s events in Parliament mirrored the approval of the 8 percent fuel levy in September 2018.  As Kenyans protested, Opposition MPs joined hands with the government to push through the changes contained in the Finance Bill, 2018. This saw a rise in cost of fuel products and consequently a hike in the prices of basic commodities.

The curse of the handshake has replicated itself in House oversight committees which no longer churn out hard hitting reports.

No whistle-blowing

In August Parliament rejected a report prepared by a joint committee on sugar suspected to have been toxic or unfit for human consumption as it was not fully processed on the grounds that the team ignored its terms of reference.

The vote on the report that had indicted two Cabinet Secretaries was rocked by bribery claims that saw the Privileges Committee question 10 MPs, who alleged that their colleagues were bribed to reject the report. There are also concerns that Opposition MPs no longer blow the whistle on national crises such as loss of jobs and plunder of public resources by state officers.

By tradition, the House Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Public Investments Committee (PIC) are chaired by Opposition members.

Yesterday, Kimilili MP Didmus Barasa said the handshake has compromised the oversight role of Parliament and turned it into a conveyor belt where the executive calls shots.

Barasa, claimed that various parliamentary watchdog committees chaired by the opposition MPs have gone slow on Cabinet Secretaries and Principal Secretaries on misappropriation of taxpayers’ money.

“They are now covering themselves with the same blanket and have stopped holding state officers to accountable. I am a member of a ruling party but we need the minority to use the watchdog committees to expose rot in the government,” says Barasa.

“This handshake has reduced the value of Parliament because both the National Assembly Majority Leader and the Minority Leader are now singing the same tune on the floor of the House,” he adds.

Minority Leader John Mbadi disagrees, saying the handshake has made discussions on national issues more objective and inclusive.

Mbadi says he has developed a productive working relationship with the Leader of Majority, Aden Duale, giving room for minority views to be heard.

 “We started when we (opposition MPs) did not recognize that Parliament was properly constituted. At the moment, a lot of discussions happen between us. The leader of majority calls me and I call him and we compare notes. There are cases where we have quietly disagreed, but we have found a way to work it out. Our relationship is very friendly in terms of work,” Mbadi says.

“The voice of minority is being heard. We can make recommendations that can be taken into consideration. In the past, only executive views were discussed,” he observes.  

Nominated MP and face of Kieleweke wing of Jubilee party Maina Kamanda says the handshake has opened doors for Opposition figures to push their agenda.  

“Even those in Tanga Tanga, at the bottom of their heart know that the handshake has brought peace in the country. Unlike in the past even those in the opposition can access ministers and various government departments. Only one person is fighting the handshake,” says Kamanda, in a thinly-veiled reference to Deputy President William Ruto.

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