OTANI: Why Uhuru must block Raila’s referendum bid at all costs

Kenyans on 21 November 2005 rejected a proposed constitution in a divisive national referendum that saw the then President Mwai Kibaki humiliated after 58 per cent of Kenyans rejected the draft.

This was despite Kibaki leading the ‘Yes’ vote campaign backed by many government officials.

The “No” vote was backed by the Orange Democratic Movement that brought together then Roads minister Raila Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta (now President), William Ruto (now Deputy President), Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi, Joe Nyagah and Najib Balala who campaigned against the proposed constitution.

The Yes team was given the symbol of a banana by the now defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya, while the No team received an orange symbol, and this gave birth to the current ODM party.

The constitutional referendum split the then ruling National Rainbow Coalition into camps setting the teams on a heated collision during countrywide campaigns for and against the draft constitution that ran over several months, resulting in nine people losing their lives.

President Kibaki was then accused of trying to amass more powers to become dictatorial, with his opponents rooting for power-sharing between the President and a Prime Minister, even as the final draft taken to the vote retained sweeping powers for the Head of State.

Flash-forward, President Uhuru Kenyatta now faces a similar quandary as Kibaki did in 2005, with opposition CORD principals Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetangula trying to squeeze in a referendum to amend the constitution, arguing it will ‘okoa’ (save) Kenyans and better their lives.

Among the issues Raila’s brigade wants addressed, through the Okoa Kenya Referendum Bill, are the disbandment of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, increased funding for counties, devolution of security, making the anti-graft agency EACC a constitutional commission as well as poll, institutional and land sector reforms.

Okoa’s opponents may argue the plebiscite is dead in the water, especially after IEBC rejected the bid through a verdict that CORD fell short of the 1 million signatures required by law to back the vote and only managed to garner 891,598 signatures of validly registered voters.

However, CORD seems to be spoiling for a fight with President Kenyatta’s Jubilee government and IEBC combined, in what promises to be a bruising battle ahead of the 2017 general election, in which he is seeking a second term with his deputy William Ruto by his hip.

Before the rejection of the signatures by the poll body, Raila, Kalonzo and Wetangula were relying on IEBC approving their referendum push to start a whirlwind akin to the 2005 one that resulted in a hotly-contested bungled presidential election that nearly saw Raila kick out the incumbent Kibaki from State House, resulting in the worst post election violence the country has ever witnessed.

Claims by National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale backed by TNA Chairman Johnson Sakaja that the Okoa signatures were fake have only fuelled opposition’s suspicions about the poll body’s autonomy and they accuse it of working with the government to frustrate their referendum bid.

Now this situation poses a grave danger to President Kenyatta’s administration, with the election only seventeen months away. If CORD can regain its composure and revive its bid through collecting fresh signatures to meet the legal threshold, Kenyatta will have to deal with a CORD tornado through campaigns for the referendum close to the election and this will divert him from trying to implement his key pledges, most which are belated and have been beleaguered by corruption scandals.

Given the pressure the president already faces due to rampant corruption that is spiraling out of control, numerous pledges that remain unrealized, accusations of gradually eroding democratic gains through various pieces of legislations to empower the presidency, allegations of awarding cronies and favoring the two major tribes in appointments, a deputy president who is facing a growing revolt in his Rift Valley political backyard and a population that is continually growing skeptical, he has no room to entertain a national vote campaign that will focus the spotlight on his many weak spots.

A referendum will leave him too exposed and distracted, given his key point men like Aden Duale and Elgeyo Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen have been slowed down by graft claims after they were mentioned as alleged beneficiaries of the Ksh 791 million tender scandal at the National Youth Service by the former Devolution Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru, allegations that they have vehemently denied.

Kenyatta is also grappling with an internal revolt against the planned dissolution of Jubilee Coalition for parties to join the new Jubilee Party that he intends to exploit to seek a second tenure. This also comes after his Jubilee aspirant Philip Charo lost the Malindi parliamentary by-election to ODM’s Willy Mtengo despite a spirited campaign, as DP Ruto also faced an onslaught from independence party KANU and rebel jubilee leaders like Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto that exposed his nakedness.

Referendum-type campaigns are Raila’s forte, this will mean the Head of State will have to marshal his troops to ward off the bare-knuckle jabs the former Prime Minister will be throwing and this means he will have to divert all his energy, resources, time and focus to ensure the plebiscite flops, so he will not have time to deliver on his pledges on time to use them to seek re-election next year.

The only option President Uhuru Kenyatta has is to ensure the referendum doesn’t happen during his first or second tenures, by all means necessary, and this means he must employ the best advisors on constitutional, political, propaganda, social media and image matters to be able to block the probable murky, tumultuous, shark-infested waters that Raila threatens to flood his administration with.

If he lets Raila and his contingent revive the referendum train and get it on track he should brace himself for the biggest political battle of his first term before the next poll. Can he handle it?

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