Riots rock city over new constitution
Saturday 3 July is has dubbed by the media as “Kenya’s day of shame”. It is a day that Kenyans went to the streets to protest the government’s failure to deliver a new constitution on 30 June as earlier promised. In what was the first ant-government protest since president Mwai Kibaki took over power in December 2002, the protesters, waving twigs and white handkerchiefs and chanting “we want a new constitution” and “Mwai must go” engaged riot police in running battles which made the Nairobi city centre a no-go zone.
In scenes reminiscent of the early 1990s when Kenyans were clamouring for the re-introduction of multi-party politics, the police tear-gassed and baton-charged protesters ruthlessly, occasionally using water canons.
Ironically, the water canons were purchased during the KANU regime amid loud protests from members of the then opposition, most of whose members are now in government. The riots began in Nairobi and spilled over to the lakeside city of Kisumu, where two people were shot dead by police.
The protests were organized by a lobby group known as Katiba Watch, a motley collection of former delegates at the National Constitutional Conference and a few MPs from the opposition party KANU and the Liberal Democratic Party [LDP] – one of the key partners in the ruling National Rainbow Coalition [NARC]. They were joined by students from the University of Nairobi.
The rally, which was initially licensed by the government was cancelled at the eleventh hour, citing security reasons. It is for this reason that the organizers of the rally vowed to go ahead with it, leading to a serious confrontation with the police. Defiant MPs led crowds in numerous attempts to enter Uhuru park, the venue of the banned rally to demand the immediate enactment of a new constitution.
Several people were caught up in the ensuing melee, among them KANU MPs who were having their first taste of tear gas. They included former president Daniel arap Moi’s son Gideon Moi, who inherited his father’s Baringo Central constituency in the Rift valley.
The police action, however, did not go down well with MPs, 42 of whom issued a statement to condemn it. Said Langata MP Raila Odinga: “People should have been allowed to freely express their voices in a rally”, adding that dispersing the rally only meant postponing a problem.
The protests add to the list of controversies that have dogged the constitution review process Significantly, Kenyans may now have to wait longer for a new constitution, following a stalemate over the Draft Constitution adopted by delegates at the National Constitutional Conference, which came to a close on 15 March.
The National Rainbow Coalition [NARC] led by president Kibaki won the historic December 2002 elections on a series of reform platforms, which included the making of a new constitution, with a promise to deliver the document within 100 days of assuming office.
But as it were, the constitution making exercise was dogged with controversies, following disagreements between the two leading partners in the coalition – the National Alliance Party of Kenya [NAK] and the Raila Odinga-led Liberal Democratic Party [LDP].
However, following pressure from the donor community, the two factions promised to end their wrangles and deliver a constitution by June, but that was not to be. The main bone of contention in the Draft Constitution has been whether the country should adopt a presidential or a parliamentary system of government.
While LDP favours a parliamentary system, as provided for in the draft constitution and the controversial Memorandum of Understanding [MOU], that the two factions signed prior to the 2002 elections, NAK is rooting for a presidential system.
Amidst the sharp differences, the constitutional conference remained heavily politicized throughout its sitting. Ironically, the two factions have both shifted the stands they took in 2002 while presenting their views to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission [CKRC]. As the secretary general of the then governing party Kenya African National Union [KANU], Odinga supported a presidential system, an idea he abandoned soon after decamping to NARC.
On the other hand, Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Kiraitu Murungi- who is now leading the onslaught against a parliamentary system also took a different position in 2002. As the shadow Attorney General and Kibaki as the leader of official opposition, they presented a memorandum to the CKRC, proposing the creation of the post of an executive prime minister.
They proposed that the president be stripped of his powers, which would then be transferred to the premier. “NAK believes that the enormous powers vested in the presidency has transformed the Kenyan president into an authoritarian imperial monarch, exercising feudal powers”, said Murungi. He added: “NAK proposes that the powers of the president be drastically reduced and that powers of the head of government be exercised by a prime minister”.
But all that changed soon after NARC assumed power. Matters came to ahead on 15 March when the conference delegates voted to strip the president of his powers. The vote, which effectively made president Kibaki a ceremonial head, led to a walk-out by a section of the cabinet, led by Murungi.
Thus, a report on the consensus committee chaired by Catholic bishop Philip Sulumeti was thrown out by delegates, sparking off acrimony that degenerated into a shouting match between delegates with divergent views.
The committee was appointed by the plenary to iron out the differences between the two factions. The Sulumeti committee was also mandated to look at the chapters on devolution of power and report back.
However, the committee’s proposals did not go down well with the delegates. It had proposed a strong president who would be head of state and government, head of the cabinet, commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of the National Security Council.
. “Unless the Sulumeti report is adopted, we are withdrawing from the conference”, said Mr Murungi. “All ministers and MPs, please let us meet outside”, he added. And with that, a section of the cabinet walked out.
It does not help matters that president Kibaki’s appeal to MPs to reach a consensus on the issue has fallen on deaf ears. However, former delegates at the conference blame the impasse on him. “The buck stops with the president. He kept quiet for a long time as ministers close to him vowed to derail the review”, charged Mr Suba Churchill, a former conference delegate.
With KANU and LDP having rejected consensus initiatives, a new constitution still remains an elusive document to Kenyans.