Power imbalance between the two branches is largely a function of failure by parliamentary leadership to claim its rightful place in the country’s governance system.
We must not distort the sanctity of the presidential system as adopted by Kenyans.
In the January 15, 2023 edition of the Sunday Nation, the Member of National Assembly for Kikuyu Constituency, who doubles as the Leader of Majority in the National Assembly, Honourable Kimani Ichungwa, penned an article titled: CSs should face MPs in full House and not in committee sessions. Currently serving his third consecutive term and having previously served as chairman of the National Assembly’s Budget and Appropriations Committee, Hon. Ichungwa is an experienced Member of Parliament. His views, drawing from his robust experience, naturally invites serious reflection, particularly from anyone keen on legislative affairs. Having carefully engaged his opinion, we have suggested to share our thoughts, largely reflective of a contrary view.
Firstly, in his reflection, Hon. Ichungwa feels that having Cabinet Secretaries appear before the House is a desire that was ‘lost in translation’. We respectfully beg to differ. The existing arrangement captures fidelity in the implementation of the presidential system, both in letter and spirit, as Kenyans chose in 2010 when they overwhelmingly voted for the current constitution. Heavily borrowed from the United States of America, a defining feature of presidential system is the separation of powers doctrine. It generally limits individual’s belonging to no more than one branch of government. One is therefore not expected to belong to both executive and legislative branches of government at the same time in such a system. Requiring CSs to appear before Parliament would affront this key tenet. They are alien to Parliament.
The MP then argues that not having CSs appear before Parliament skews power parity in Executive’s favor, thus weakening checks and balances. Whereas it is true that the Executive in Kenya tips the balance at Parliament’s expense, it is our position that the problem lies elsewhere; and not in CSs appearing before Parliament. Relations between the US Executive and Congress aptly justifies this position.
One of the major ways Parliament exercises oversight is through parliamentary committees. Committees are widely recognized as arenas of legislative deliberations. They highly rank as among the most significant parliamentary oversight mechanisms. The views by Hon. Ichungwa seems to have unwittingly diluted this significant role of committees in Kenya’s context.
Hon. Ichungwa avers that CSs should face the people’s representatives in the plenary as a way of addressing executive’s manipulation of Parliament through corruption and abuse of office. The question that remains unaddressed though is how the plenary route will disrupt executive’s appetite to force its way in Parliament through manipulation and corruption. Memories are still fresh on the recent vetting of the CS nominees. Despite demonstrable strong reservations by the Committee on Appointments on some nominees, the plenary proceeded to approve them. In 2006, when Kenya was semi-presidential system (cabinet ministers were Members of Parliament and hence appeared for interrogation on the floor of the house), the then parliament was still accused of susceptibility to the executive and other external interests on the Tobacco Control Bill debate.
Hon. Ichungwa alludes to parliamentary committees not being as public and publicized as the plenary. Nothing stops Parliament from ensuring that committee proceedings are as publicized as those of the plenary. This will only require an administrative decision by the Parliamentary Service Commission. Not so long ago, the impact of publicizing committee proceedings was manifestly demonstrated. The Hon. Gumbo-led Public Accounts Committee that investigated the National Youth Service (NYS) saga was public, and the hearings were also publicized. The public watched in full glare of cameras the inquiry and appreciated the potential for committees to execute effective oversight over the executive. In the US, Congressional Committee meetings are open and publicized. Hon. Ichungwa has a golden opportunity as the Majority Leader to push for these reforms to open and strengthen committees.
Further, the Majority Leader raises doubt on the capacity committees’ leadership to competently provide oversight. The crucial question is why? Who comprises the committees and how are they constituted? Are they the same members he recommends will be better in the plenary! What makes him think that a ‘compromised member’ in a committee will be of integrity in plenary during CSs interrogation? Solution to committees’ inadequacies are best addressed by merit-driven constitution of the committees. In the US for instance, members are placed in committees based on their professional experience and academic background. This naturally enhances the capacity of committees to drive optimal oversight.
It is therefore our position that there is nothing wrong with the current system. Problem lies in its implementation. Power imbalance between the two branches in our case is largely a function of a parliamentary leadership that has demonstrably refused to claim its rightful place in the country’s governance system. For as long as the root problem is not addressed, having CSs appear before plenary will not restore the optimal parity. It would be akin to availing a wrong prescription to a right diagnosis. Improvisation of a system to address contextual dynamics should not be regarded as being infinitely malleable. We must not distort the sanctity of the presidential system as adopted by Kenyans. Any fundamental change should be with the express approval of Kenyans.
Elijah Ambasa and Alex Ogutu are PhD Candidates, Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Nairobi.