Is parliamentary system Kenya's only antidote to political crises?

Former President Mwai Kibaki (centre) displays the constitution during its promulgation at the Uhuru Park grounds in Nairobi, on August 27, 2010. [File, Standard]

As the committee set up by Azimio and Kenya Kwanza coalitions get down to work to solve the current political stalemate, I would like them to ask and answer some key questions confronting our people today.

First, what type of political system do we need to help us avoid these periodic political crises that we have had after every presidential election since 2002?

Second, the 2010 Constitution under which we are governing ourselves today was meant to create a framework for good democratic governance in our nation, why has it failed us at every presidential election since then?

There are many other issues that this team should ask but unless they deal with these two fundamental questions, they will be building their proposals on quicksand. The political edifice will not hold even after they have written volumes and volumes of treatise on how to save Kenyans from the current quagmire.

Regarding the political system we need to end crises after every presidential election, I have always held that the root cause of our political problems is the authoritarian presidential system of government that Jomo Kenyatta handed down to us a few years after independence. The rain started to beat us then. The 2010 Constitution should have gotten rid of this presidential system. It did not, hence its failure to provide a framework for peaceful transition of power at every election since then.

Let us tell the truth and shame the devil; Kenyans did not freely choose the presidential system of government. The then opposition political party - the Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) - was banned, its leaders detained without trial, some killed and henceforth any leader critical of the government was either detained or killed.

The one-party system of government was rammed down our throats. It took decades of struggle from one generation to the other to finally arrive at the crisis of 2007/08 for the current constitution to be born. This constitution, let us accept, was a “cease-fire formula” to get us out of the 2007/08 political stalemate. Now we need to have a more durable constitution to stop such political stalemates after every presidential election in the future.

Aerial view of Parliament Buildings, September 11, 2018. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

The elephant in the house is not the people of Kenya who cannot all accept the president we elect to rule us. Not at all.

The elephant in the room is that, by the very nature of our society, we are engaged in the wrong exercise of choosing the wrong institution to deal with our problem of choosing an appropriate and acceptable political system under which we shall govern ourselves democratically. This system cannot possibly be a presidential one. This one has failed. It has to be a parliamentary one which we chose at independence but which was taken away from us by a few self-seeking individuals and social forces against our will. 

Majority party

I have written extensively about this since 1978. That was 10 years after the experiment with the one-party presidential system. But let it be noted that the issue is not simply to create room for the opposition in Parliament with the official leader of the opposition as head of the pack. The issue is to create a parliamentary system where government is formed by the majority party, or coalition of political parties, while the minority becomes the opposition and the government in waiting.

The leader of government, in this regard, will be a prime minister: the first among equals. The president will no longer be the one whose words become the law ex-cathedra, but one who consults his colleagues in the Cabinet, and implements the policies of the political party or parties in the coalition, so as to avoid “the one-man band” that we have today in the person of the president.

If we adopt this parliamentary system we shall definitely kill two birds with one stone. We shall have the opportunity of building strong political parties with ideas and policies on how to govern and build our nation. Such ideas and policies will become relevant during elections because it is on these that our people will choose which party or coalition of parties will govern better.

Secondly, we shall have a better opportunity to build more durable political parties and not the seasonal ones we form at every election with the sole purpose of winning the presidency. At the moment we have a terrible situation where we seek to capture the presidency so that this or that coalition of ethnic alliance can get their chance to share the spoils at the top.

A section of State House, Nairobi. [File, Standard]

Whether we like it or not, this is the truth of the matter. A nation cannot develop this way in modern times. I am not in any way saying that we ignore the people’s rights that must of course be part and parcel of our bill of rights in the parliamentary system of government. We are no doubt a nation made up of multiple ethnic communities who will be represented as such in the house of nationalities that our present senate actually is.

Any democratic system of government must always recognise, promote and defend the right of all ethnic communities/nationalities in national development and the sharing of the national cake. The presidential system of government is a notorious abuser of such rights as our history has shown and as the present government shows us on a daily basis.

Kimani Ichunug’wa, therefore, got it right when he was reported in the Star newspaper on the fourth of May as having said that the petition to establish a parliamentary system of government “is indeed timely since the petitioner seeks to enhance inclusiveness and promote unity in the country by providing for greater representation of different regions and communities in the country.” I would like to go further than that and suggest that the parliamentary system of government is the only safe guarantor of devolution today and in the future. Presidential authoritarianism is a parasitic creature: it tends to creep into every crevice of society so as to fill what it sees as a void, but what in actual fact it gobbles into its being.

The biggest weakness in our present constitution is that key institutions in the national government meant to provide sustenance for devolution can easily fall prey to presidential powers notwithstanding the lofty safeguards that they apparently enjoy in the constitution. A parliamentary system will give them more room to institutionalize themselves and to serve devolution much better. If we take this golden opportunity and adopt a parliamentary system of government today, we shall definitely say goodbye to electoral crises at every election in the future. Votes will be counted at the constituency level at every election, and the party or coalition of parties with the majority MPs will form government and give us a Prime Minister as the leader of government business in parliament. Our future will be safer under such a system of government.

Prof Nyong’o is Kisumu governor and former Cabinet minister