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Bomas: Theatre of Kenya's push for law reforms

By Allan Mungai | October 27th 2020

Guests follow proceeding during the launch of the Building Bridges Initiative report at Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi on November 27, 2019. [File, Standard]

If constitutional reform in Kenya was a religion, then the Bomas of Kenya, the site where the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report was launched to the public yesterday, would be hallowed ground.

Bomas, like Mt Sinai, where the 10 Commandments were given to Moses, Bomas is turning out into a symbolic venue of constitutional change in Kenya.

In March 15, 2004, after nearly a year at the Bomas of Kenya auditorium deliberating on a constitution, delegates, led by then Cabinet Minister Kiraitu Murungi, walked out of the venue with a draft constitution.

"We will not go back there..." Kiraitu said while pointing at the main auditorium with a band of loyalists who felt Bomas had been transformed into a forum for Raila Odinga to extract his Prime Minister promise of 2002.

The constitution-making process had begun way earlier with clamour from the civil society, which led to the assent of the Constitution of Kenya Review Act in 1997, which Parliament assented to and paved way for the law change.

Reform process

In 2000, President Daniel arap Moi set up the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) to guide the constitutional reform process and appointed Yash Pal Ghai as chairperson and Prof PLO Lumumba as general-secretary.

The commission consisted of 15 members nominated by the National Assembly and appointed by the President, plus the Attorney-General and the Secretary.

It was later expanded to 29 members after the civil society, religious and political groups were co-opted. The CKRC’s work began in May 2001, and Bomas One conference had barely started when Moi dissolved Parliament, knocking off-key representation of the conference.

When National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) won against Kanu candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, there was palpable hope that Bomas would proceed and a constitution would be achieved in 100 days.

In April 2003, well beyond the 100 days, the draft document began to be debated by the National Constitutional Conference (NCC), which met at the Bomas of Kenya, amid suspicion and mistrust.

The NCC now comprised 629 members, who included the 223 Members of the National Assembly; three representatives from each district (210); one representative of each political party (40); representatives of religious organisations (35), professional bodies (15), women’s organisations (24), trade unions (16), and registered non-governmental organisations (24); as well as members of CKRC, but without vote (29).

More than a year later, Mr Kiraitu and former Vice President Moody Awori staged that historic walk-out that Raila recalled in his speech yesterday.

"When we were in the final stages of completing the document, a group of delegates walked away because they did not agree to some of the provisions of that Constitution," said Raila, who was one of the delegates in Bomas then. "They went to court and stopped us."

As they left, the other group remained with the chairman Prof Ghai, and proceeded to finalise and launch the draft constitution amid pomp and dance. Politician Orie Rogo Manduli was among the notables who took to the Bomas floor to celebrate the draft.


But the celebrations were short-lived, for the courts turned the tables on the product. Another group from the civil society, led by Timothy Njoya, also had their qualms about the process and had filed their own case in January 2004, a case whose result would turn historic.

The Reverend Njoya, Munir Mazrui, Kepta Ombati, Joseph Wambugu Gaita, Peter Gitahi, Sophie O Ochieng', Muchemi Gitahi and Ndung’u Wainaina went to court to challenge sections of the Constitution of Kenya Review Act.

A reconstitution of Bomas leadership did not help much. The replacement of Ghai with Abida Ali Aroni found an already poisoned well and neither did former Attorney General Amos Wako's magic wand in Kilifi.

When the final draft, the Wako Draft, was presented to the people for vote in November 21, 2005, it was a resounding NO, prompting a shake-up of government, the booting of victors and the coronation of the losers.

Constitutional site

When giving his address yesterday, President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged that Bomas was a historic constitutional site.

“It is historic because we have gathered here to discuss constitutional issues," Uhuru said.

Other than constitutional reforms, Bomas was also used in 2013 and 2017 as the base by political parties to stage coups, make important decisions. It has also been used by the electoral management body as the national tallying centre after 2007.

It is in Bomas that Deputy President William Ruto last chanted the Orange slogan in 2008. It is also the stage politicians have honed their skills at constitutional debates or at political party conventions.

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