• In 2010, Kenyans voted in a referendum to adopt the new Constitution, and whose implementation is still ongoing.
• Yet, the country is now again debating the hypothetical question of who may support or oppose what the unwritten text says.
The decision to hold a referendum in a democracy is controversial and polarising.
Who would have thought that in a society founded on the principle of representation, a simple but fundamental question posed to the population on their support or opposition to a key decision could be so divisive?
Yet, throughout history, great thinkers have generally been wary of the decision to turn to the people on big issues. The temptation to empower the public, and thus alleviate oneself from responsibility for tough decisions, will always be alluring for politicians, especially populists.
With one eye on the past and another on current affairs, we can see that the pure and decisive clarity offered tends to be a poisoned chalice. In 2010, Kenyans voted in a referendum to adopt the new Constitution, and whose implementation is still ongoing. Yet, the country is now again debating the hypothetical question of who may support or oppose what the unwritten text says.
This furore is a bright red flag for Kenya, and proof is no further away than in London. In 2016, UK voters narrowly voted to leave the European Union — Brexit. The question put to the British electorate was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
In theory, nothing could be simpler. Yet more than three years later, the UK remains locked in never-ending recriminations over campaign lies and perceived mandates for acceptable terms on exit from the EU.
The Brexit referendum was won on what has since been shown to be a major lie about healthcare spending, put in lights on a campaign bus. Some of the leaders of the exit campaign are rumoured to have been moved to support Brexit in part out of tax avoidance schemes, and they used their powers of charisma to poison British minds against immigrants at the expense of their country’s ability to secure basic supply chains.
If this can happen in the UK, it certainly can happen here.
In Kenya, it is simply putting things in the wrong order to say that you support a referendum without knowing what question you might be supporting. We can, however, oppose the idea flat out on its very merit.
A simple yes-or-no-answer question spawned misunderstanding, manipulation and understatement of the issues that have cost the country billions in currency and years in wasted time spent getting angry at one another, in a decision that the government was arguably elected to make in the first place.
We have free and fair elections, and while there are issues that need addressing in Kenyan politics, a referendum is the political equivalent of a hole in the head.
The President’s Big Four agenda is getting off the ground and in his words, this would be the least opportune time to change track and begin the inevitable political gamesmanship instead of fighting for the basic needs of everyday Kenyans.
There are many issues about the Constitution that will need changing over time. Devolution and representation, gender and inclusivity, and certainly financial management and oversight are high on the list. With a referendum, we risk having a complex national conversation hijacked by fake news, lies and half-truths. Even worse, future mistakes or corrupt choices can then be dismissed on the foundation that they were made “carrying out the will of the people,” who will certainly not be asked again what they think about these actions.
President Uhuru Kenyatta has publicly said he is focusing on the Big Four agenda to improve the lives of Kenyans instead of the referendum, and if the other leaders follow suit, then this matter can be put to bed.
What a blessing this is when one of the proposals for the referendum would be to limit the President term one? There could be nothing worse for the country than a President who is effectively a ‘lame duck’ from the day he is elected.
At least with Uhuru we have a leader who is determined and has the time to build a long term legacy. If I were to support a constitutional change, it might be that we could secure national unity heroes like Uhuru to be Prime Minister with no term limits, as in the UK. Unlike the UK, however, I will not be rushing to support a referendum.
Maoka Maore is MP, Igembe North