Nic Cheeseman explores the political battle underway in Kenya between county assemblies, the National Assembly, and the Senate. He asks what consequences these might have for Kenyatta’s pledge to provide domestic order and, in doing so, secure his own seat in power.
The new Kenyan political system, introduced under the 2010 constitution, paved
the way for a complex web of checks and balances between newly created branches of government. On the one hand, 47 counties were created, complete with their own assemblies and directly elected Governors. These units have often seen themselves as being in conflict with the national government over resources and political power. On the other hand, the new constitution resurrected the Senate, transforming Kenya into a bi-cameral system for the first time since the 1960s. Almost immediately, Senators
began to battle for supremacy and control over development funds with the Members of Parliament that populate the lower house – the National Assembly.
At times, this competition has worked to the advantage of the Jubilee Alliance government. Internecine struggles at the county level have served to deflect a range of political actors from the failings of the central government. Such struggles, for example, have been a valuable distraction for the government, which has struggled to provide national security and stem the flow of attacks by the radical Islamic movement al Shabaab. It has also taken other stories off the front pages, such as the allegations that police in the north-eastern county of Garissa flogged a group of young people with a rubber house and later posted the pictures on facebook – not the best way to win hearts and minds in an increasingly divided society. But in some cases the battles between Governors, Senators and MPs have also proved to be an embarrassing distraction. In a recent spat, the National Assembly supported the Division of Revenue Act, which effectively ‘hived off Sh 1billion from the Senate’s oversight funds to give to counties’. As a result, the total allocation of government revenue to the counties in 2015/2016 is estimated to be Sh 207.84 billion, or 37%. Senators responded by criticising MPs and threatening to veto legislation of particular concern to the National Assembly. In the resulting debate the importance of key national priorities, such as infrastructure and security, were lost.
Similar tensions rose to the surface during a visit by President Uhuru Kenyatta to
Nandi this week. In a speech delivered prior to the president’s own remarks, the
Senate Majority Leader, Professor Kindiki, sought to impress on Kenyatta the
need to restrain MPs, arguing that ‘The National Assembly should stop undermining the Senate by cutting its budget. We are not going to be frustrated and intimidated’. However, to Kindiki’s surprise, the president was not in the mood to humour his complaints. Instead, Kenyatta told those present to work more closely with rival leaders rather than issuing ‘meaningless threats’. Clearly frustrated by what he had heard, Kenyatta continued ‘The war of words between the Senate, governors and the National Assembly is uncalled for in the country. Leaders should stick to their mandate but not come here and issue threats to fellow elected leaders. The country must be governed through order.’
Kenyatta’s focus on order is nothing new. Kenya has long been governed by
leaders who have bought into what Attieno Odhiambo called the ‘ideology of order’. The precise formulation of this set of ideas has changed over time, but is characterised by the tendency of leaders to legitimise their authority on the basis that they generate order, and the associated claim that to some extent it is
appropriate to compromise human rights and civil liberties in the pursuit of this
goal. However, while President Kenyatta has often referenced the importance of
order, insecurity and political infighting have undermined the confidence of
many Kenyans in his ability to provide political stability. In response, the president has made a number of moves designed to foster domestic political unity, which he sees as a pre-requisite for stability. To this end, the Jubilee Alliance, which contested the 2013 elections as a coalition of two different parties, has been transformed into the Jubilee Alliance Party (JAP), and has pledged to run just one candidate for each elected position. This stands in stark contrast to previous practice, in which Kenyan coalition partners have frequently run candidates against each other for legislative positions, often dividing the vote. Along with Vice President William Ruto’s pledge not to support Kenyatta in the next presidential campaign, this move was designed to foster the impression that the government is rock solid. However, there is a long way to go until the next election, and there are a number of issues around which the JAP may struggle to maintain unity, most notably a number of seats in which both wings of the party will claim that their candidates should be given priority. Already, efforts to run a common candidate in a legislative by-election, and to create a stronger political structure at the local level, have been hampered by in-fighting between members of Ruto’s United Republican Party (URP) and Kenyatta’s The National
Alliance (TNA). Should the JAP fall apart, the president’s claim to be the provider of order and unity would become even harder to sustain.