Kenya 2022: Fistfights over the political parties amendment bill

By Jeff Otieno
Posted on Tuesday, 4 January 2022 09:05, updated on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:15

Kenyan members of parliament maintain social distance amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 10 June 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

A fistfight in parliament just before New Year’s Day revealed the high tensions in the succession battle to replace President Uhuru Kenyatta. Will the deep-seated rivalry between Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto plunge the country into another bout of election violence?

When minority party leader John Mbadi delivered a sucker-punch on his colleague Bernard Koros, leaving him with a cut below his right eye, many Kenyans were left doubting whether the battle to succeed Kenyatta will end peacefully.

The incident took place on 29 December during a special sitting of parliament to debate the contentious Political Parties Amendment Bill 2021 that seeks to, among other things, redefine the words ‘political party’ to include ‘coalition party’.

Kicks and blows

“He charged at me when I told him to get out after voting and he even bit my finger. What was I supposed to do? I used my pseudo-military tactics to defend myself and in the process he was injured,” said Mbadi, the Orange Democratic (ODM) party chairman.

An angry Koros – a staunch ally of the deputy president – complained that he had been attacked by ‘the master of violence’. Following the debacle, Mbadi was thrown out of parliament for bad conduct.

Sobriety, debate, negotiation regrettably replaced by violence, din, chicanery. It’s [the] barrenness of ideas; [the] poverty of imagination.

The August House had been turned into a battleground after two groups sharply disagreed over the contents of the bill. Those allied to President Kenyatta and ODM party leader Raila Odinga – popularly known as the handshake duo – exchanged kicks and blows with allies of the deputy president.

Kenyans who followed the proceedings live on television expressed fear that the next general election may turn violent if the three politicians fail to tame their foot soldiers.

“Sobriety, debate, negotiation regrettably replaced by violence, din, chicanery. It’s [the] barrenness of ideas; [the] poverty of imagination. It’s not the national assembly, Raila, Uhuru or Ruto [who] lose. [It’s the] public [that] is robbed of deserved duty by MPs. Brawls instead of brains,” former legislator Kabando wa Kabando said.

While allies of Ruto accuse Kenyatta and Raila of shoving the document down their throats, their opponents blame them for sabotaging the government’s efforts to instil discipline in the country’s chaotic politics.

“All they want to do is amend the definition of political party as set out in our constitution so that Azimio la Umoja (united resolution), [Raila] Odinga’s campaign slogan can be transformed into a grand coalition political party,” says Uasin Gishu Woman Representative Gladys Shollei.

Growing list of regional parties

During the debate, allies of Kenyatta and Raila used their numerical strength to push through some of the amendments, despite resistance from Ruto’s supporters. They have vowed to ensure that the bill sails through in the National Assembly and Senate so it can be forwarded to the president for assent before the end of February.

The deputy president’s allies, on the other hand, have promised a battle royale in parliament and also in court. “The bill was brought to parliament by a notorious political party that has been luring small parties into coalitions in the past before defrauding them,” said Ruto, who was throwing a jibe at the ODM party.

Kenyatta and Raila have been encouraging formation of regional parties not only to counter the rising popularity of Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) party, but also to prepare ground for the grand coalition party, under the Azimio la Umoja banner.

The latest addition to the growing list of regional parties is the Democratic Action Party-Kenya, formed by Defence Cabinet Secretary Eugene Wamalwa and some legislators from Western Kenya. Others include the Kenya United Party (formed by West Pokot Governor John Lonyangapuo) and Upya Movement (founded by Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani). All the three parties have declared support for Raila’s presidential bid.

‘A bill to lock out the deputy president’

Apart from redefining the word ‘political party’, the deputy president’s supporters are also uncomfortable with the proposal that requires political parties to form coalitions at least six months before a general election.

They insist that the proposal is aimed at locking out the deputy president from coalition making, given that UDA is yet to conduct its elections at the grass-root level and for national officials. Ruto and his allies also argue that the bill creates an imperial registrar of political parties who will have sweeping powers in the registration and management of political parties.

We have come to a point where it doesn’t matter whether you are wrong or right, but which side of the political divide you belong. It is shameful.

Law Society of Kenya Chairman Nelson Havi and legislator Adan Duale have already hinted that the deputy president’s team is ready to move to court if the bill is passed, a scenario that seems likely, given the superior numbers that the ‘handshake team’ enjoys in the bicameral parliament.

“There was no adequate public participation in consideration of the amendment bill. Parliament will remain emasculated unless professionals get in and kick out the majority rent-seekers,” says Havi.

Duale echoes this sentiment. “They are setting a stage not to allow people to have free, fair and credible elections. We will go to court for legal interpretation if the document is passed,” he says.

For her part, National Rainbow Coalition-Kenya (Narc-Kenya) party leader Martha Karua advises the ‘handshake team’ to go slow and focus more on consensus building. “The handshake partners should engage the rest of the stakeholders so that we move together. The idea may not be bad because governments of the future are going to be coalitions.”

Karua further warns that history might repeat itself if her advice is not heeded. In 2017, Jubilee and ODM came together and amended electoral laws in record time, arguing that the changes would help solve electoral disputes. Despite their efforts, the presidential election held the same year, was still contested and then nullified by the supreme court, which ordered a rerun.

‘The bill has good intentions’

Criticisms by the Ruto camp aside, analysts believe the bill has good intentions and should not be discarded because of short-term political interests.

The document, for example, provides a formula for sharing the political parties fund among coalition partners. It is one of the sticky issues that have led to the collapse of coalitions in the past. The National Super Alliance that brought together ODM, Amani National Congress, Wiper Democratic Movement and Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-K) collapsed after the party leaders disagreed on how to share the funds.

To solve the problem, the bill proposes that 70% of the money be shared based on the number of votes secured by each political party, while the rest will take into account parliamentary strength and the number of legislators from special interest groups.

It also lays down grounds and procedure to be followed when removing legislators who have defected from their parent political parties but refuse to seek fresh mandate from the electorate.

After Kenyatta and Raila buried the hatchet in 2018, some Jubilee and ODM legislators openly rebelled and later decamped to UDA. Proponents believe the proposal will give political parties enough leverage to curb party hopping.

According to the bill, a person shall be deemed to have resigned from a political party if he or she forms a political party, joins in the formation of another political party, joins another political party or in any way or manner publicly advocates the formation of another political party.

If the document becomes law, political parties will have to submit an asset and expenditure declaration to the registrar of political parties. The written declaration will give details of all assets and expenditure, including all contributions, donations or pledges, whether in cash or in kind, made or to be made to the initial assets of the political party by its founding members in respect of the first year of its existence.

They will also be required to have a physical address and a website, a move aimed at curbing ‘briefcase’ political parties, which are often formed during election period to cash in on the rush for nomination certificates by candidates seeking to vie for various seats.

‘The bill will strengthen political parties’

“The proposals in this bill are quite sound. The bill is trying to breathe fresh life into the operations of coalitions in the country,” says lawyer Suleiman Bashir. He argues that the bill will benefit all political parties and not only ODM, as some critics say. “This bill will protect the interests of small parties unlike before when they were at the mercy of their bigger coalition partners,” he says.

Kenya African National Union’s secretary for political affairs Fredrick Okango says the document must be supported for its efforts to strengthen political parties. “Unlike before, this bill will enable us to go into an election with laws in place; laws that will secure the lives of Kenyans.”

However, legislator David Ochieng is disappointed with the behaviour of fellow colleagues, arguing that more than 80% voted for a document they did not understand. “The debate had nothing to do with the substance of the bill. They were voting based on who their leader is and that is why emotions ran high.”

“We have come to a point where it doesn’t matter whether you are wrong or right, but which side of the political divide you belong. It is shameful.”

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