LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE

MCAs have spoken, what say the people?

In Summary
  • The grant got them out of their ambivalence and lethargy
  • That is what public office – elective or appointive – comes down to in Kenya. It’s never about the people
Mombasa MCAs celebrate after passing the BBI Bill on February 23.
BBI PARTY: Mombasa MCAs celebrate after passing the BBI Bill on February 23.
Image: JOHN CHESOLI

Have the people spoken? On the so-called Super Tuesday, county assemblies approved the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, 2020, sending it to Parliament ahead of a referendum.

Lawyers say that was the last hurdle for the Bill, which will significantly restructure the architecture of state power among a raft of other proposed changes. Parliament’s role is merely procedural.

The surprise came from Mt Kenya counties, a region that has been, at best, lukewarm towards the Building Bridges Initiative. Suddenly, the MCAs saw the light. What changed?

The framers of the BBI report from the word go knew MCAs would play a key role in the process and so they enticed them with sweeteners they wouldn’t resist.

The proposed Ward Fund gives MCAs control of public funds just like the National Government Constituency Development Fund that is in the hands of MPs.

You want politicians to wag their tails in deference? Feed their greed. President Uhuru Kenyatta and his partner Raila Odinga have invested time, energy and vast state resources to campaign for BBI.

Uhuru made direct passionate appeals, specifically speaking to Mt Kenya and its diaspora via vernacular radio stations. He wooed politicians and other leaders at Sagana State Lodge. Sent out Cabinet Secretaries and other high-ranking state officials to sell the document.

But for MCAs the clincher was the Sh2 million car grant Uhuru offered them in Sagana. That is what totally changed the conversation about the BBI. It is what made them see the light. That is what answered the most important question in a Kenyan politician’s head, namely, what is in it for me?

The President appealed to their self-interest, to their greed. The grant got them out of their ambivalence and lethargy. That is what public office – elective or appointive – comes down to in Kenya. It’s never about the people.

Uhuru’s clientelism won over the MCAs to support the BBI. The outcome was not unexpected. Whenever the political class gets the opportunity, their personal interest would always trump the public interest. The BBI, after all, is the fruit of a private pact between Uhuru and Raila.

The practice goes back to 1966 when President Jomo Kenyatta asked his erstwhile comrade in the freedom struggle and former detainee Bildad Kaggia: What have you done for yourself?

How does one explain this self-serving attitude that persists in public life to this day? The late professor of political economy Rok Ajulu wrote that one of the enduring legacies of colonialism in Kenya is “the role of the state as the driver of the process of accumulation, easily the single largest dispenser of patronage and resources”.

Clientelism is deeply entrenched in Kenyan politics. The President is the chief patron who uses state largesse to buy political support.

Public office is understood as an opportunity to “eat”. To get a place at the feeding trough, one must control the state or be close to those who do. That is the entire point of politics in Kenya.

Two outstanding examples from our political history illustrate this point. In 1997 when President Moi faced 14 Opposition candidates in that year’s election, he once again mobilised the provincial administration to campaign for him. The Eldama Ravine district commissioner was quoted as saying,

“As I am an employee of the Kanu government, my livelihood depends on the same system. Therefore I will not shy away from praying that President Moi [is] re-elected to enable me to remain the DC.”

Two years earlier in 1995, Moi had deployed similar patron-client tactics during a hotly contested by-election in Kipiriri constituency, Nyandarua county. The Kanu government poured state resources in the constituency and conducted door-to-door campaigns for its candidate.

Days to the election, Kenya Power was ordered to distribute electricity poles in the constituency, with the promise that area would be connected to the national grid.

But Kanu was roundly thrashed by the Opposition candidate Mwangi Githiomi. Immediately, Kenya Power collected all the poles that had been distributed to the constituency and took them away. Graders that had been dispatched to pave Kipipiri roads were hurriedly recalled.

Uhuru’s clientelism won over the MCAs to support the BBI. The outcome was not unexpected. Whenever the political class gets the opportunity, their personal interest would always trump the public interest. The BBI, after all, is the fruit of a private pact between Uhuru and Raila.

So, have the people spoken on the BBI Bill? Not yet. The MCAs have spoken. The voters will have their say at the referendum