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Constitutional Crisis Threatens To Tear Kenya Apart

By Tervil Okoko, PANA, 16 July 2000

NAIROBI, Kenya (PANA) - Forget about the devastating drought that is costing the Kenyan economy over 500 million US dollars in lost revenue as a result of power and water rationing and the resultant famine affecting over three million of the country's total population of about 30 million.

Forget about the raging President Daniel arap Moi succession war, which is threatening to segment the country into tribal paddocks.

Put aside also the floundering economy, whose present growth rate is just about 1 percent per annum, and which is making life unbearable for an average Kenyan.

The real issue is that Kenya is facing a constitutional showdown of such a magnitude as the country has never witnessed before.

The current constitution is too old and has been overtaken by events. It was formulated at the Lancaster House conference in Britain just before independence in 1963. Therefore, critics say, it still smacks of colonialism.

This is why about three years ago, Kenyans decided that it was about time the constitution was reviewed. Immediately the governing KANU party government and the opposition embarked on talks, popularly known as Safari Park I and II, named after a Nairobi hotel in which they were held.

The talks soon came to the compromise that the constitutional reform exercise be people-based. This means that the views of the people countrywide would be collected and collated for onward transmission to parliament for debate and possible ratification.

And then came the bombshell about a year ago: Moi and his party big wigs, sensing heavy losses in the resultant constitution, scuttled the whole set-up and decided that the reform process be done by parliament.

The feeling among the Ufungamano (Church-led group) side of the divide is that the president has hijacked the exercise for his own political gain, wallowing in the comfort of the governing party's 122:100 majority in parliament should the exercise be taken over by the house.

It's an expensive exercise, bearing in mind our meagre financial resources, to go through the people in this important exercise, Moi had argued. And since they represent the people, the legislators are the right people to carry out the exercise.

The president has since sought and acquired the support of one major opposition party, the National Development Party ot NDP of Raila Odinga, a son of the father figure of opposition politics in Kenya, the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. KANU and NDP are currently enjoying a marriage of convenience.

Thus, the stalemate right now is whether the reform exercise should be people-oriented or be carried out by parliament. While Raila chairs a parliamentary select committee handling the reform process, the opposing Ufungamano House initiative, which is fronted mainly by the religious organisations, will hear none of it.

Right now, the Constitutional Reform Bill, which is meant to decide, nay ratify, the mode of reform, is due to be presented to parliament by the Raila body. But the Ufungamano group has vowed to boycott the debate, plunging the exercise into an abyss.

In a bid to break the stalemate, the Raila body last week announced that the case would be subjected to a referendum.

In these circumstances, Raila said, a national constitutional referendum will be the final authority to decided whether the new constitution drafted by the parliamentary reform commission should be adopted as the country's new law.

Raila was reacting to the declaration by 91 legislators that they would block any attempts to amend the constitution review act, which came into force in January 1999.

Owing largely to the stalemate there are fears that Moi will soon call a snap general election. A parliament-fronted constitution is intended to, among other things, extend Moi's term by at least another term after his second and last ends by the 2002 general election. And the president is sure to win a parliamentary vote owing to KANU's majority, now beefed up by NDP.

On 10 July, one of Moi's sycophant cabinet ministers announced the ruling party had launched a campaign for the head of state's return to power after the poll. To all and sundry, this meant that the president intends to use the constitutional reform impasse as an excuse to call a snap poll to extend his tenure.

In response, the official leader of opposition, one-time Vice President Mwai Kibaki, declared that his Democratic Party was ready for any eventuality, and that the president should not make the mistake to underrate the opposition this time around.

Compounding the president's woes is the fact that the opposition parties, minus of course Raila's NDP, announced this week that they would rally behind Kibaki to slug it out with Moi in case of any general election.

The constitutional imbroglio is causing concern even among the diplomatic corps in Nairobi. In June, during a workshop in the capital city on the state of democracy in Kenya, Swedish ambassador Inga Bjork-Klevby said the situation of two parallel reform groups could endanger the country's stability.

She noted that Kenyans were confused and the situation polarised due to the parliament-led and faiths-fronted processes.

The national consensus established in 1988 around the process has since been broken and there is a situation of polarisation and confusion, she added.

Apart from the possibility of a snap poll, the Ufungamano group has warned of an abrupt creation by a new government change in the country's political leadership to make sure a people-oriented constitution is not put into place before the 2002 general elections.

The group's steering committee, during stakeholders' plenary session late June, warned Kenyans to brace for stiff hostility from the government, including orchestrated instances of instability and civil strife, as a bag of tricks unleashed in Ufungamano's way.

The new constitution seeks to drastically reduce the almost absolute powers vested in the executive arm of the government, the presidency. At present, the president hires, and fires at whim the parastatal heads and top members of the civil service, including the judiciary. The new constitution also seeks to accommodate a coalition government should there be no absolute winner in a presidential poll.

Moi, by virtue of his over 30 continuous years in parliament, vast financial resources and political acumen, has been known to weather all manner of political storms. Kenyans are waiting with bated breath if he will weather this one, too.

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