New bill big boost for Building Bridges Initiative referendum push

Monday, May 18th, 2020 00:00 |
Ndaragwa MP and CIOC chairperson Jeremiah Kioni. The Referendum Bill is sponsored by his committee. Photo/PD/File

Hillary Mageka @hillarymageka

The push for a constitution amendment under the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) has received a boost after gazettement of a bill that could pave way for a possible vote.

The Referendum Bill, 2020 by Ndaragwa MP Jeremiah Kioni, who chairs the National Assembly’s Constitutional Implementation and Oversight Committee (CIOC), is meant to guide the referendum process. 

The bill will be tabled in the National Assembly once it resumes its sittings on June 2.

The bill proposes that the country holds a referendum alongside the 2022 General Election to minimise costs and proposes measures to bridge the existing legal and constitutional gaps. 

The BBI proposes the expansion of the Executive, which requires constitutional amendment. 

Constitutional lawyers Senior Counsel Nzamba Kitonga and lawyer Bob Mkangi have thrown their weight behind the bill and called for political consensus among key players to decide whether the country needs a referendum or not.

On the contrary, West Mugirango MP Vincent Mogaka saying the plebiscite will not be conducted in the foreseeable future owing to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As Kenyans, we must put our house in order before 2022 if we are to have a national plebiscite,” Mogaka, also a lawyer, said. 

He said if coronavirus crisis persists, it will be difficult to conduct the vote.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) recently postponed by-elections in four wards and a constituency because of the pandemic.

Various groups, including BBI and the Punguza Mizigo nitiative, have also been calling for a referendum to tame the soaring public wage bill, open the door to a parliamentary system of government, strengthen devolution and redress electoral inequalities.

Outside parliament, the BBI Steering Committee has proposed change to  the Executive structure, treating Nairobi county as a special devolved region, change of county leaders’ appointment of deputy governors, and the proposal to appoint commissioners on part-time basis.

Makueni Senator Mutula Kilonzo Jnr said with a bill in place, there will be no shortcuts to making changes in law through Parliament, adding that any changes must be subjected to a people’s vote.

“You cannot amend the structure of government or change the functions of Parliament without a referendum,” he said.

Derail push

However, Kitonga and Mkangi observed that while the bill provides the roadmap of conducting a referendum, there are various challenges, including budget allocation, re-organisation of IEBC, boundary delimitation process and Covid-19 pandemic some of the issues that may derail the push for the vote.

The two urged Kenyans to scrutinise all proposed constitutional amendments to determine those that require a national referendum or Parliament to be enacted.

“We must separate what goes to Parliament and a national referendum, not all disputes need a referendum, some of them just need a law to be put in place by the government,” Kitonga told People Daily in an interview on Sunday.

“We need to have a committee in place to draft a document; circulate it to Kenyans so that they decide whether it captures the issues they won’t put in the proposed national plebiscite,” he added.

Kitonga,  a former chairman of the defunct Committee of Experts (CoE) that delivered the 2010 Constitution, insisted that while having a constitutional amendment is not a bad thing, an opportunity should be given to every Kenyan to vote on every question that will be presented for a referendum.

The clamour for a constitutional amendment has been defended by those who are pushing for it as a means of ensuring inclusivity and bringing to an end politically-instigated violence.

Mkangi, also former member of CoE contends that consensus among the political class will be key to a constitutional change and beyond.

He says Kenyans must avoid going into the contest a divided nation as it will spill over into 2022 elections.

“We must build political consensus around same issues and avoid going into the contest a divided nation as manifested in 2005 national referendum,” he advised.

Public confidence

Mkangi noted legal technicalities that are likely to hamper the national vote can be easily be dealt once consensus is built by the political class.

In the 2020/21 financial year, the third to be prepared under the Jubilee Government’s second term, the National Treasury has not allocated any funds to the IEBC to conduct a referendum.

He explained the issues of re-organistion of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and its guiding legal framework needed to be addressed by politicians.

According to him, the electoral body suffers from a deficiency of public confidence and trust.

 “To repair IEBC, we should decide to top up the commissioners do an overhaul of the commission,” he remarked.

His statements were shared by Kitonga who regretted that recruitment of more commissioners will not address the lack of confidence and trust in the polls team but will worsen the situation.

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