BBI could still haunt politicians ahead of polls


President Uhuru Kenyatta and Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga reacts during the launch of the collection of signatures for the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) at KICC in Nairobi on November 25, 2020. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

The fate of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) finally comes to the fore on Tuesday when the Supreme Court of Kenya (SCK) starts its hearings. Whether or not it’s fate is sealed, the BBI ghosts could linger on to the polling day and even shape the presidential campaign.   

Even after initial setbacks by the High Court and Court of Appeal rulings in May and August, last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga, have continued to send signals on the possible revival of the BBI process or implementation of its proposals, irrespective of the initiative’s fate at the hands of the Judiciary.

While Raila has maintained that “reggae (BBI process) is on half time break”, Uhuru has particularly been critical of those opposed to the initiative. On Thursday, while hosting dinner for a section of legislators at State House, Nairobi, the president took a swipe at unnamed individuals for “demonising” the BBI as well as the Political Parties Bill.        

According to Murang’a County MP, Sabina Chege, there remains a lot of interest in BBI among the residents of Mt Kenya region, owing to a host of their interests in representation and allocation of funds from the exchequer to constituency and county kitties, which remain unfulfilled to this day after the initiative stalled in the courts.

Revisiting BBI

Nonetheless, the politician says whichever way the ruling by the SCK goes, the people of Mt Kenya region alongside other Kenyans who value the BBI proposals will hold to account those opposed to the initiative for standing in the way of the people.

“Time might not be on our aside now, since we are focused on the upcoming polls, but we shall remind our people who our enemies are and urge them to vote wisely in August, so we can have another opportunity to revisit the BBI agenda and access the goodies therein,” Sabina told this writer.

But maintaining that BBI is “dead”, Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei, says the initiative is history “that should be left to rest”. A fervent critic of the initiative, the vocal legislator opines that BBI was never about the people but interests of a few members of the political class and that if talk on the initiative is revived ahead of the August poll, “it shall be out of vested interests to make political capital”.

University of Nairobi’s political science lecturer, Dr Richard Bosire, however points out that the timing of the BBI petition hearings will doubtlessly make the Uhuru-Raila backed initiative a campaign issue. This is particularly the case in the densely populated Mt Kenya region where residents were destined to be the greatest beneficiaries, in terms of proposed creation of new administrative and electoral units as well as allocation of funds from the central government.

“Those who came out openly to oppose the initiative and even sponsored litigants to stop the process will have their time to reckon with. Now the chickens will come to roost and they will have some explaining to do to the voters,” says Dr Bosire.

The DP is among those who openly – and continue to do so – opposed the BBI process terming it a waste of government resources. Terming it a ploy to install Raila as Uhuru’s successor, Ruto has publicly fought off the initiative claiming it was “a waste of the people’s time” and a diversion of national resources. Instead, the DP says, Uhuru ought to have executed the Jubilee administrations’ so-called “Big Four agenda” – food security, affordable housing, manufacturing and affordable healthcare. 

Mobilisation tool

But noting that Mt Kenya has a huge voter population and is likely to be a battleground region this time around, Dr Bosire opines that BBI will be one of the key political tools for voter mobilisation.

While this approach is most discomforting to Ruto, the political scientist observes that some of Raila’s backers as well are particularly uncomfortable with the proposal of 70 new constituencies contained in the BBI.     

Among the seven issues identified by the Supreme Court judges for the hearing set for January 18, 19 and 20, is the determination of whether a disputed proposal to create an additional 70 constituencies is unconstitutional.

Ndaragwa MP, Jeremiah Kioni, is among Ruto’s accusers, who states that the Mt Kenya region lost Sh53b, which could have been allocated to local counties.

The legislator adds that the region further lost 30 constituencies, which could have helped in bringing more government’s funds through the National Government Constituency Development Fund kitty.

The DP has repeatedly defended himself from attacks by BBI proponents, arguing that increase of cash allocations to counties and creation of new constituencies can still be done through the right avenues – in Parliament and by the electoral body – and not BBI.

And arguing that Kenya is divided into two “main tribes” of the haves and have-nots or rather the so-called hustlers and dynasties, Nominated MP David Sankok separately argues that this year’s presidential campaigns will focus on this social class factor, rather than the BBI question. 

However, the MP concurs with members of rival parties that the existence of a strong perception that Mt Kenya region was destined to be the biggest beneficiary of the proposed new constituencies, a pointer to the fact that the Ruto allies had a huge task to explain the DP’s actions.

“Admittedly, we will have to undertake some public awareness, so that the residents of Mt Kenya get to understand that BBI is not a panacea to all their shortcomings. For instance, the additional constituencies are meant to benefit individual new MPs more than the masses,” says Sankok, a Ruto ally.

A dream deffered

Both Uhuru and Raila have maintained that BBI, which is a product of their symbolic handshake on March 8th 2018, is primarily aimed at promoting national cohesion and political inclusivity. According to the ODM boss, it’s not a matter of if, but when, some of the BBI proposals will be adopted.

Meanwhile, Uhuru gave an even more pointed message last month, during his Jamhuri Day national celebrations speech on December 12th. He stated that BBI was only but a dream deferred: “But one day, someday, it will happen, because the country cannot survive ethnic majoritarianism and exclusion just as it cannot survive unfair and skewed representation. This is a design defect that we must fix.”

But five days later, in what appeared to be a reaction to his boss’ remarks, Ruto termed the push for a constitutional amendment as “unwarranted”. Instead, the DP said Kenyans ought to focus on how to revive the economy and create job opportunities for the youth.

“As a nation, we don’t need to be told that we should change the Constitution, what we need is to know how we can empower the youth, women and small business people,” argued Ruto, during a campaign tour of Vihiga County.

In the event the SCK’s gives a ruling that sounds a death knell to the BBI process, it will hand the side allied to the DP, a fresh weapon for campaign. Another loss over the BBI will accord Ruto and his allies the much needed momentum to the finish line, with a rider that his opponents are serial losers.

Alive to this reality, Sabina, who is allied to Raila’s Azimio La Umoja Movement, hopes the SCK outcome will be favourable to her side this time around.

Constitutional lawyer and Rarieda MP, Otiende Amolo, however points out that there are no strict timelines for the SCK to rule on matter. The import of this is that a decision on the protracted BBI subject matter, could be offered before or much latter after the August polls.   

The lawyer, who was involved in the first two cases could not however be drawn into details of the merits of the case and its political implication.