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Kenya’s referendum progresses, but Kenyatta camp is increasingly divided

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Thursday, 11 February 2021 19:32

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto and an opposition leader Raila Odinga attend national prayers against the coronavirus disease at State House, Nairobi, Kenya 21 March 2020. Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

Kenya's national referendum – a key element in President Uhuru Kenyatta's alliance with oppositionist Raila Odinga – is making progress but also making some of Kenyatta's allies upset.

Two of Kenya’s 47 county assemblies have passed the referendum bill, as President Kenyatta and Odinga canvas for support ahead of the mid-2021 plebiscite.

The Siaya and Kisumu county assemblies, both controlled by Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement party, debated and voted for the bill in record time on 3 February and 9 February, respectively.

Building some bridges

Last October, Kenyatta said the constitutional changes would solve the country’s longterm challenges, warning that “constitutional rigidity is a recipe for war.”

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Known colloquially as the Building Bridges Initiative, the referendum bill intends to alter the structure of Kenya’s executive, reintroducing the position of prime minister and two deputies. It also seeks to add 70 more seats to the country’s parliament and send more money to devolved units, among other far-reaching changes.

Burning some others

Deputy president William Ruto, who would like to replace Kenyatta, sees the reforms as a way to boost Odinga’s chances, while weakening his own at winning the presidency in 2022.

Some of Kenyatta’s allies are also worried that the referendum will end up hurting him.

  • In January, a letter from senate majority chief whip Irungu Kang’ata to Kenyatta was leaked. Kang’ata wrote the reforms are unpopular in Mount Kenya – Kenyatta’s base of support – and do not respond to the needs of the population.
  • In February, National Intelligence Service boss Philip Kameru added his name to the list of people in Kenyatta’s inner circle who are opposed to the President’s political relationship with Odinga.

Referendum process

Kenya’s electoral body sent the referendum bill to the 47 assemblies in late January. By law, they have until April to debate and vote on the bill, which needs at least 24 counties to approve it before it can be submitted to parliament and then onto a national vote.

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To canvas for support among county assemblies, Kenyatta and Odinga separately promised members each a KSh2m ($18,200) car grant in late January and early February. The grants, which were approved on 9 February by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission, will cost the taxpayer KSh4.5bn.

Referendum connections

With just 19 months to the country’s 2022 elections, the current referendum process has big implications for the next polls.

For President Kenyatta, nearing the end of his last term in office, the referendum is a way of shaping the structure of the next government, as well as retaining influence once he leaves power.

Kenyatta has made it clear that he will be involved in his succession next year, while both Ruto and Odinga are laying the groundwork for presidential runs.

Referendums in Kenya tend to be a time of political mobilisation and reorganisation, without many of the pressures that come with elections. But this referendum is important for several reasons, more so as its success or failure will determine the structure of the next government.

Referendum complications

For Odinga, the three-year alliance with Kenyatta now complicates his attacks against Ruto because Ruto and Kenyatta are part of the same government.

“They [Jubilee Party] promised many things, saying in six months we shall give laptops, in six months we shall give a million youths jobs, in six months we shall build 47 modern stadia,” Odinga said at a rally in January.

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During a radio interview in early February, he tried to clarify that he was talking about Ruto – who has been building a campaign centred on promoting entrepreneurship – and not Kenyatta.

For Ruto, who has previously said that he cannot keep himself away from a constitution-making process, Odinga’s rapprochement with Kenyatta provides an easy defence against criticism to his time as Kenya’s deputy president but not out of the constitution-making process it has resulted in.

Bottom line

At the moment, the political rhetoric around the referendum process is mainly a Ruto/Odinga contest, possibly because it requires the support of politicians in county assemblies and the national parliament which are also plotting their 2022 moves.

It is unlikely this will change if the bill passes the current stage and the two-tier parliament – which is now controlled by MPs aligned to Kenyatta as well as Odinga’s allies – is presented to a national vote. A big question remains: Where will Ruto, long opposed to the entire referendum process, stake his political future?