Why Ruto’s likely 'No' stand on BBI heralds massive government shakeup

DP tore into his own government and BBI but still claimed he wanted consensus and win-win for everyone.

In Summary

•Talks of looming radical changes in the government has been in the air for months, but the President was said to have gone slow on the matter.

•Bid to impeach the DP, who holds a Constitutional office, had also been mooted by ODM and Kieleweke-leaning legislators.

Deputy President William Ruto speaks after meeting seven governors, 146 MPs and other leaders efforts to build consensus on the Building Bridges Initiative, at his residence in Karen, Nairobi, on December 2, 2020
Deputy President William Ruto speaks after meeting seven governors, 146 MPs and other leaders efforts to build consensus on the Building Bridges Initiative, at his residence in Karen, Nairobi, on December 2, 2020
Image: DPPS

Deputy President William Ruto’s likely opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative referendum backed by his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta, could trigger radical shakeup in government.

While saying he wants consensus and a win-win scenario, DP Ruto on Wednesday set out five "irreducible minimums" for his support of a referendum — conditions that are virtually impossible to meet.

First is that the referendum and 2022 General Election be held at the same time — a nonstarter. Four other points dismantle key aspects of BBI

This sets the stage for an all-but-inevitable 'No' campaign.

Ruto's apparent veering toward leading the 'No' campaign heralds a virtual bloodbath in government. And his supporters would suffer. 

The situation rekindles memories of 2005 when President Mwai Kibaki kicked out of government Raila Odinga’s camp that had opposed a draft Constitution at the plebiscite,

In a one-hour live press conference on Wednesday, Ruto stopped just short of saying 'No' to the drive.

He was backed by more than 140 politicians — governors, deputy governors, MPs and senators — in a display of numbers and political might.

“We care far too much for our country and fellow Kenyans to reduce this important exercise to a question of Yes and N0,” Ruto said at his Karen residence.

He tore into the BBI report that birthed the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and denounced failings of the Jubilee government, where he is second in command. 

Political commentators say Ruto’s stand on BBI, his blistering attack on his own government and open defiance of his boss are provocations that could prompt a massive and painful shakeup government shakeup.

Talk of looming radical changes in the government has been in the air for months, but the President has gone slow, after purging Ruto's allies in Parliament and elsewhere.

Impeaching the DP, who holds a constitutional office, had also been mooted by ODM and Kieleweke-leaning legislators.

In mid this year, there already was a bloodbath for Ruto’s close allies in Parliament. The President instigated the removal of his confidants from influential and powerful leadership positions.

This came when the DP’s men had increased attacks on BBI and the President’s handshake pact with Raila, which excluded Ruto.

“If he goes to the No camp, then he [Uhuru] will have a very good excuse to push him out. You cannot criticise the government that you are part and parcel of and oppose your boss and still expect to be in that government,” analyst Martin Andati  said.

Javas Bigambo described Ruto as a defiant man on a mission – hell-bent on opposing the drive dear to his boss.

“From every perspective and corner of thought, the DP’s statement was a dismissal of the ongoing proposed referendum and the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, 2020,” Bigambo said.

“Calling MPs and governors to his side for the press statement was trying to pull his weight and show the numbers he has as a single politician. He wanted to show his boss that he has a team that can easily spearhead the No campaign,” he added.

In his address and statement by his supporters, the DP assailed his own government for not putting in place adequate measures to assist millions of Kenyans ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ruto said the government has not guaranteed the safety of students in schools ahead of reopening in January but was hell-bent on splurging Sh14 billion on a plebiscite during the pandemic.

“We are haunted by the reality that we are yet to create confidence in our education system’s ability to make schools safe enough for our children to resume school because the myriad challenges facing the entire school system remain largely unaddressed,” the statement read in part.

Ruto said the pandemic has plunged the country into economic meltdown. Most ‘hustlers’ find themselves in a deepening financial quagmire - and yet government was keen on splashing billions on a referendum.

The Ruto team said Kenyans want the focus on the BBI redirected to “runaway corruption, heightened political intolerance, the securitisation of public affairs, as well as impunity and the flagrant disobedience of court orders by the Executive.

“Given the foregoing, it is legitimate to question the wisdom of expending Sh14 billion a year before an election that will cost another Sh42 billion,” he said.

Ruto and his team poked holes in the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, 2020, criticising even the proposed amendments that are close to the heart of his boss.

During the launch of BBI signature collection drive at KICC, Uhuru said the handshake saved the country from the brink of disastrous collapse. He made a passionate appeal to the political class and all Kenyans to support it and the referendum.

Ruto and his team, however, opposed the proposal to have the President appoint Judiciary Ombudsman, giving more power to the President over the Judiciary.

They also opposed the creation of 70 multi-member constituencies that they said will create a bloated Parliament of as many as 600 members - and burden the taxpayer.

They demanded holding the referendum alongside the general election,  essentially setting the stage for gruelling ‘YES / NO’ referendum campaign. That would mean the post of PM and two deputies - to be shared out - would be far from certain.

And it couldn't be used as a carrot to lure support.

Political observer Mark Bichachi said Ruto succeeded in creating a perception of being ‘sidelined’ in BBI as tactic to oppose the drive.

“The propaganda against BBI, it is Ruto who created it. I can’t make you my enemy and then blame you for being my enemy. Ruto has his own cross to bear and could find himself out of government soon,” he said.

In 2005, just two days after President Kibaki lost a referendum the had strongly backed to introduce a new constitution, he sacked the entire Cabinet in a move apparently provoked by opposition by some of his own ministers.

Raila, the then Roads and Public Works minister, was the de facto leader of the ministers who waged an unrelenting campaign against the document following disintegration of the Rainbow Coalition.

“Following the referendum, it has become necessary for me, as the President of the Republic, to reorganise my government to make it more cohesive and better able to serve the people of Kenya,” Kibaki said.

Bigambo said just as with the 2005 referendum that was done two years to the 2007 elections, and was opposed by tough politicians, the DP is leading the No camp.

“As Uhuru’s term nears the end, more politicians will be emboldened to adopt positions of key politicians in the political arena, and Ruto is right at the top of the game, going by his manoeuvres,” he reckoned.

Alego Usonga MP Sam Atandi, a proponent of the BBI, said the DP "is ripe for punishment" for constantly criticising and opposing his boss.  

“He has been undermining the President for a long time. Unfortunately the President has been treating him with kids’ gloves. It is upon the President to see what to do with him,” he said.

He added, “You cannot have someone who sits in your Cabinet where you make decisions and the following day he goes out and does the contrary.”

But Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei, Ruto’s ally, said the DP and his team were simply reminding the people who [Uhuru] appeared to shift his priority from the pertinent issues affecting Kenyans t o focus on the handshake.

“The priority of the government has changed since the handshake. If it is not about the handshake, then it is nothing else. They have prioritised handshake over service delivery and that is what we were reminding the President of.

“We were reminding him that you can’t promise Kenyans service delivery, then go for handshake and prioritise BBI over everything else. It is imperative that we remind the President that there are much more important things than handshake,” he added.