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Why the clamour for a referendum in Kenya is ill- timed and ill-advised

Weary Kenyans are entitled to wonder if the latest referendum push will be any different from the past two.

The Conversation Africa



Political manoeuvring in Kenya is picking up steam again. It’s most evident in the controversial clamour and debate for yet another national referendum ostensibly to help the country fix governance and constitutional weaknesses.

But will it?

The call for a referendum is coming principally from the party defeated in last year’s bruising electoral battle – the National Super Alliance. Their legal challenge resulted in unprecedented court annullment of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential win. This precipitated a rerun, with the outcome leaving a lot of big winners and sore losers. Kenyatta, the eventual victor, was confronted by a vanquished but defiant Raila Odinga hell bent on settling his political grievances on the streets and stoking political tensions.

It took a carefully calibrated show of unity between the two protagonists – symbolised in a “handshake” – to cool political tempers.


Odinga has mended fences with Kenyatta and in the event been treated as an elder statesman. He has recently been accorded responsibility to represent Kenya and the African Union on the international stage. But his legacy and “what ifs” still inform his political calculations.

A dyed-in-the-wool political animal, Odinga’s political aspirations remain after a fourth futile attempt at a presidential run. He might have been pressured into compromise but his frustration with the political setup persists.

Evidently, his National Super Alliance is seen as the main instigator of the constitutional review drive. For this it has been accused of seeking constitutional changes to accommodate Odinga with one eye on the 2022 elections.

What’s adding to the divisiveness of the review call is the fact that Kenyatta’s Jubilee camp is less enthusiastic about the idea. They see it as a potential distraction to Kenyatta’s “Big Four” legacy agenda. The president and allies would want key policy priorities – enhancing manufacturing, food security and nutrition, universal health coverage and affordable housing – to take precedence in his second and final term.

But Kenya is no stranger to referendums. The first one in 2005 ranged in focus from bans on abortion and same-sex marriages to equal rights for women to the presidency. This referendum failed to pass by 57% to 43%.


The second in 2010 created a two tier legislature, established an independent electoral commission, devolved governments and notably curbed presidential powers. With a 68% approval, this was a resounding vote of confidence in the new constitution structure.

Kenyans are therefore entitled to wonder: What will the proposed referendum resolve that wasn’t already dealt with in 2010. Or is this just a case the political class playing games?

Long list of reforms

As part of their reconciliation deal, Kenyatta and Odinga set up a team to collect ordinary citizens’ views on what needs to be fixed. Called the Building Bridges Initiative, it has brought together clergy, academics, senators, ambassadors and eminent personalities. It’s expected that the team will generate practical policy proposals for implementation.

Odinga is overseeing the initiative. He’s insisting that the consultative effort should lead to constitutional reforms. His view is that a public plebiscite is the best way for Kenyans to directly address the challenges facing its democratic system.

An array of issues have emerged from this effort.


At the core is the zero sum nature of Kenyan politics where winners take all and losers get nothing. This has led to calls that Kenya should fundamentally remodel its political system giving a stake to all political actors through a dispersed power structure. Such a structure would encourage and reward inter-ethnic accommodation and compromise.

For instance, Odinga and the National Super Alliance camp want the idea of a prime ministerial post re-explored. The position was created as part of the political settlement after the electoral violence in 2007 but was abolished five years later because it wasn’t constitutionally mandated. It is the view of proponents that this position encourages power sharing.

Equally, the growing cost of public administration that has seen a bloated public service as a result of political accommodation and alliance building has reached unsustainable levels.

Through the public consultative process and general debates up and down the country, more procedural and substantive issues have been broached. These include reducing the number of cabinet ministers, abolishing the senate, reducing the number of members of parliament from 416 to 194 and counties from 47 to 12. Others include strengthening devolution and reviewing the electoral and governance system.

These changes are being advocated because many believe the current system isn’t fit for purpose.


Quest for a referendum

There are indeed legitimate questions to ask about the efficacy of the current constitutional provisions. But is a referendum the answer? As yet, the case hasn’t been well made.

Lest we forget, Kenya’s most recent constitution was promulgated less than 10 years ago following the deadly electoral violence of 2007. It is therefore debatable if the constitution itself has been given time to shape the political landscape and herald in new behaviour.

Keeping Kenya in prolonged politicking has tremendous drawbacks. After a bitterly fought election and a tense aftermath, it appeared that finally the political protagonists were focused on delivering election promises. The referendum therefore is an unwelcome intrusion that is clearly ill timed, ill-advised and set to rekindle political divisions and communal conflicts all of which Kenya can ill afford.The Conversation

David E Kiwuwa, Associate Professor of International Studies, University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.