Uhuru and Raila handshake

President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga’s handshake in 2018, after the disputed 2017 presidential vote, has scrambled the political landscape and blurred the line between the ruling party and opposition.

| File | Nation Media Group

How 'Handshake' has changed power dynamics in parliament

It’s exactly three years since the “Handshake” was born on the steps of the Office of the President.

The day was March 9, 2018. President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga staged a public embrace that brought an end to years of bad blood between the two leaders and their supporters after the bitterly contested 2017 electioneering period.

While the gesture was a welcome move that was acknowledged globally, it caused quite a tremor in Kenyan political circles and power dynamics in parliament, namely, the National Assembly and Senate.

The structure of the Kenyan parliament under the new Constitution and the current presidential system of government is designed for the House to work in a bipartisan fashion. This ensures that it fulfils its mandate to legislate, represent and provide effective oversight on the Executive and Judiciary. 

But three years down the line, to some MPs, the “handshake” is a mixed bag. While minority whip Junet Mohamed (Suna East) says that the handshake has emboldened the bipartisanship of parliament, his Alego Usonga colleague Samuel Atandi is of a different opinion.

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“Without a doubt, the handshake has made parliament stronger from what it was hitherto,” Mr Mohamed, a close ally of the ODM leader, says.

Government sponsored motions

“The legislators are now able to look at things in a bipartisan manner as opposed to what it was before. During the first five years of the Jubilee administration, it was unheard of for a member from the minority side to second government sponsored motions or even chair a departmental committee,” Mr Mohamed notes.

However, Mr Atandi contends that parliament is worse off after the handshake than it was before. The first time MP does not hesitate to say that the biggest beneficiary of the gesture is President Kenyatta.

“For sure, the unbridled executive fiat has made Parliament become a rubberstamp. Everything the president wants goes,” Mr Atandi says, adding; “the collective mandate of parliament to play its role has become weak and there’s nothing it can do.”

Bolder executive

The Alego Usonga MP cites how the MPs have been frustrated, for instance, in their many attempts to have state officers removed from office.

“The case of the post handshake is that the executive has become bolder and energised as parliament plays second fiddle.

Gone are the days when Cabinet ministers would want to run out of their skins whenever summoned to parliament,” Mr Atandi says.

“But guess what is happening now? Cabinet Secretaries come to us in parliament like they are approaching their junior employees. Some go to the extent of lecturing us. We summon them over a public policy issue, for instance, but they change tables and we become their subjects,” he says.

“Speaker Justin Muturi has told us (committees) to exert our authority when dealing with the executive but it is not possible under this arrangement.”

Mr Atandi reckons that the worst instance of impunity and contempt of parliament by the Executive is when it went ahead to appoint Mwende Mwinzi as Kenya’s envoy to Seoul, South Korea against the recommendations of the National Assembly.  In its vetting report, the House passed a resolution that Ms Mwinzi can only be appointed Kenya’s envoy to Korea if she renounces her US citizenship.

Mr Mohamed, however, says that the issue of CSs looking down on MPs whenever they are required in parliament is what the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) seeks to address through the draft Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill 2020.  The Bill is currently under concurrent consideration by the National Assembly and Senate.

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“The BBI-sponsored constitutional change seeks to address this matter. When you have Cabinet Secretaries appointed from outside parliament, they always think that they are not accountable to parliament. But this is going to change,” he says.

But as Mr Atandi argues, the dawn of the handshake led to some casualties in the parliamentary leadership, thanks to the unified force of the Jubilee side supporting President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM legislators.

This happened as the executive went on the rampage. The independence of parliament became a cropper as the Executive maneuvered its way.

The first of the casualties was Elgeyo Marakwet Senator Kipchumba Murkomen and his Nakuru colleague Susan Kihika who were removed from their plum leader of majority and majority whip positions respectively.

Tharaka Nithi Senator Prof Kithure Kindiki would follow in quick succession.

He was unceremoniously replaced by Uasin Gishu Senator Prof Margaret Kamar as the Senate Deputy Speaker.

When he developed cold feet towards the BBI initiative, Murang’a Senator Irungu Kang’ata was promptly replaced by his Kiambu colleague Kimani wa Matangi as the majority whip in the House barely 10 months in office.

In the National Assembly, the writing was on the wall well before the purge came calling.

When the hammer fell, Mumias East MP Bernard Washiali and his nominated colleague Cecily Mbarire were replaced as majority whip and deputy majority whip respectively.

It did not end there. Garissa Township MP Aden Duale was also removed as the House leader of majority at a Jubilee party parliamentary group meeting that was attended by President Kenyatta.  Kipipiri MP Amos Kimunya replaced Mr Duale.

True to Mr Junet Mohamed’s argument that the handshake emboldened the bipartisanship working of parliament, some MPs from the minority side got the opportunity to chair departmental committees.

They are Homabay County Woman Representative Gladys Wanga (ODM, Finance and National Planning Committee) and her Busia colleague Florence Mutua (ODM, Education Committee).

Rarieda MP Otiende Amollo (ODM) also became the Vice Chairperson of Justice and Legal Affairs committee as did Homabay Town MP Peter Kaluma (ODM), who became Vice Chairperson of the Constitution Implementation Oversight Committee.

It was the same in the Senate as Nyamira Senator Okong’o Omogeni (ODM) became the chairman of the Senate committee on Justice and Human Rights.

Before the handshake, under the Jubilee administration, chairing a departmental committee was a preserve of the Jubilee MPs in the two houses of parliament.

The Standing Orders in the National Assembly provide that only watchdog committees Public Accounts (PAC), Public Investments (PIC) and Committee on Implementation (CoI) shall be chaired and deputised by membership from a party that does not form government.

This means that a departmental committee can be chaired by any of its members whether from the majority or minority sides or even an independent member.

The Standing Orders also state that the members of the Special Fund Accounts Committee shall elect a Chairperson and Vice Chairperson from among independent members nominated to the Committee.

In the absence of the independent members, the leadership of this committee may come from committee members nominated from a party other than a parliamentary party forming the national government.

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