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October 22, 2018

SANG: Why Parliament is dead

Members of Parliament opposed to the finance bill sing a solidity song outside the chambers during the finance bill debate in the house. September 20, 2018. /JACK OWUOR
Members of Parliament opposed to the finance bill sing a solidity song outside the chambers during the finance bill debate in the house. September 20, 2018. /JACK OWUOR

When we adopted the 2010 Constitution, many did not realise that we had fundamentally altered the nature and character of Parliament.

We surreptitiously moved from the traditional Westminsterian tradition to Congressionalism, which emphasizes doing Parliamentary business through committees.

Westminsterianism, which was what we had since Parliament was founded in 1907, emphasizes on House business through debate, questions to government and the like.

And even though there are also committees, they do not wield as much power as they do under Congressionalism.

This is why you steal from the people of Kenya and your first stop is a Parliamentary Committee rather than going to court.

Although courts could still follow, I must say under our current type of MPs, you might just get away with it, depending on how you argue your case in the committee and what the report they produce will state.

POOR APGAR SCORE

The current style of Parliament was born in 2013, when we were first able to implement Chapter 8 of the Constitution (Articles 93-128), which establishes Parliament. But there was something wrong from the word go.

When the baby was born, it recorded a poor Apgar score and it declined further, five years down the line, to the point we wonder whether it is still viable.

To this day, we have not fully implemented the provisions of Chapter 8. The National Assembly, as currently constituted, is in gross breach of the Constitution and is illegal for not observing the appropriate gender balance and I still wonder why it has not been dissolved.

Besides, Chapter 8 had fundamentally shifted the way Parliament does business and committees were now the main thing. Many members, particularly those returning from the 10th Parliament, would be forgiven for feeling lost.

Many people have tried to explain why it is that the House is failing in many of its functions and seemingly abeyant to the whims of the Executive. Why is it not conducting the requisite oversight roles to ensure the proper checks and balances?

 Someone has opined it is probably because it is too big. With 349 members, 290 of whom are directly elected by us, even if the House sat for every day of the year, there are still those who would not find time to speak.

But that is not where the problem lies. We probably got it wrong on the kind of people who would occupy the office of MP. But then again, you would argue that the system itself maketh the man. And so here we are.

POISONED CHALICE

When the MPs increased their salaries, angry Kenyans called them “pigs” for being so greedy, a charge that not a single MP found it in themselves to deny. In short, the picketing with pigs outside Parliament never pricked its conscience.

I for one, never thought much of their high salaries: I only felt bad when we became an international laughing stock when we paid so much to our MPs relative to our GDP and in a country where flying toilets or open defecation is a reality.

I remember sitting in a meeting at a hotel near Parliament when a bunch of activists and civil society notables ran in for cover after engaging the police in running battles protesting against the huge salaries. 

Despite that, the MPs continued as if nothing had happened and nobody had said anything. But there is a God in heaven. They did not see the poison in the chalice they had just served themselves.

They went on to drink copiously from public coffers but then the poison went to work immediately. The very high salaries and perks associated with MPs attracted so much interest in their seats and they went to the polls facing very stiff competition from others waiting to join the gravy train.

The result was that we in Kenya have a tremendously high turnover of Parliamentarians. You would be lucky to serve one term let alone two. For three terms, you may have just exceptional leadership, like say Jimmy Nuru Angwenyi, who has returned to the House so many times. Every MP wants to be him but they can’t.

 Seeing their chances of returning to Parliament consistently tending towards zero, the “clever” MPs raised their ‘pension’ by 700 per cent. I say they are just digging their political graves deeper. They will never learn.

ANOTHER REICHSTAG

Despite the fact that we pay them very well — in fact they remain the highest paid legislators in the world in comparison to the national GDP and per capita income — that was not enough.

We thought we could buy them a modicum of independence with that kind of money but it appears we bargained so badly. If they could trade the health and wellbeing of Kenyans for Sh10,000 a-piece, what is it that they cannot do?

 It is still difficult to understand why MPs have to troop into State House or wherever their principals sit in order to take a position. In short, they are going to the House to apply the mind of their principals and not their own conscience.

On March 2, 1966 during a speech in the House, fiery Tinderet MP Jean-Marie Seroney castigated MPs for passing Government Bills without thoroughly scrutinising them. 

"We are supposed to be elected to represent what we consider to be the best interests of our people and to use our judgment as far as any issue is concerned, but here we are having a tradition being established which, the way I see things, is going to end up by the Lower House of Kenya being another Reichstag."

A half-century later, the MPs have done it again. Passing the tax proposals of the Executive means the current Parliament has just become another Reichstag, that German Parliament under Hitler which passed everything it was given, without even stopping to look at the grammar.

PARLIAMENT IS DEAD?

It is without a doubt in the minds of many Kenyans that Parliament and indeed parliamentarians, have behaved in a less-than-honourable way in the last few months. Today Parliament is characterized by allegations of corruption, rent-seeking, horse-trading and wobbly feet - genuflecting to the whims of party principals and/or the Executive.

Then there is the lack of quorum and failing to attend committee hearings. Today Parliament is anything but the bulwark of democracy it was meant to be and its supremacy is gone. The Kenyan Parliament has had a proud 111-year history as of last August.

However, a good number of the members of the National Assembly have never uttered a word in Parliament. In times past, every new MP looked forward to making their maiden speech in the House. Today, they never even bother.

Parliament watched as the Executive heaped debt on Kenyans and never raised a finger until the taxes began to rise in order to cover the debt exposure. Now they return to the House to try to correct the situation but that could be too little too late.

But other than the petroleum, nobody is speaking about taxing imports of Chinese goods, which are flooding the country and most of which is partly preventing industrialisation in Kenya.

President Donald Trump is currently proposing a raft of measures to fix the trade imbalance with China. Could our Parliament borrow a leaf? It seems we have MPs too busy with everything else and will not think creatively about what to do.

RENT SEEKING BEHAVIOUR

High MP salaries have not prevented them from rent-seeking. The typical day for an MP includes pushing papers from one office to another, making phone calls over this or that deal and attending meetings in which one tender after another is discussed.

Many are busy pursuing county or national government tenders or are lining up to benefit from their positions through influence peddling.  Then they wait for the next funeral to speak or to call for a press conference to issue a statement about this or that.

If not meeting party principals, they are meeting in State House or meeting the Deputy President and accompanying him to ‘tangatanga’, or better still, trying to get him to come over to their constituency to support this or that fundraiser.

After shouting aloud that their colleagues had been bribed or offered bribes to shoot down the Sugar Report, out of the MPs who appeared before the Powers and Privileges Committee on Wednesday, only one, Kimilili MP Didmus Barasa, came out clean that Wajir Woman rep Fatuma Gedi had offered him money to shoot down the report.

He said he was in the company of Sirisia MP John Waluke who, when his turn came, denied that he had been with Barasa. So, who is fooling who?

What angered Kenyans was that despite taking home such huge perks, their will could still be bent for so little. What plausible argument can be presented to help us understand how anyone would behave like this towards fellow Kenyans?

By shooting down the report, they also blew away Sh10 billion in lost taxes, not to mention leaving Kenyans with questions over whether contaminated sugar is to blame for the explosion of cancer.

PERILS OF BIPARTISANISM

After the handshake, we have seen the proliferation of sweetheart bipartisanism between Jubilee and NASA. This bipartisanism has seen Kenyans get the short end of the stick and has largely served the interests of the political class.

There is nobody to fight for the people when the taxes went up because the MPs are under a spell of “Tuko Pamoja”. I am afraid that the way things are, it would complicate the case for a parliamentary system of government and could even complicate the anticipated change of the Constitution.

An Igbo proverb goes, “The one who came to the toad's house and told the toad to bring him a chair - did he see the one that the toad was sitting on?” Enough said.

 

 

 

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