To support or oppose? Ruto's BBI dilemma

BBI signature launch

Leaders and delegates at KICC Nairobi on November 25, 2020 awaiting the official launch of the BBI signatures collection by President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga.

Photo credit: Justus Ochieng’ | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The cancellation of the exercise initially scheduled last Thursday had been celebrated by the DP’s camp.
  • By yesterday, it was not clear whether Dr Ruto had been invited to attend today’s signature collection launch.

Deputy President William Ruto is walking a tightrope as President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga today oversee a crucial referendum step that effectively rules out amendments to the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) report.

President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga will launch the campaign to collect the requisite one million signatures of registered voters to back the draft constitutional amendment Bill and propel it to county assemblies for consideration.

The cancellation of the exercise initially scheduled last Thursday had been celebrated by the DP’s camp as signalling that the two leaders were bowing to pressure to amend the report to incorporate views of critics.

Sponsors of the draft Bill ask voters to sign off based on specific provisions in the proposed law, which essentially means once the signatures are collected, the door is shut on any attempts to revise the document as doing so would require fresh collection of signatures.

With the DP’s overtures for consensus on contentious issues seemingly rejected, it puts him in a Catch-22 situation — to either swallow humble pie and join the BBI march or press on with his resistance; setting up a contested vote.

If he were to opt to head a ‘No’ campaign, Dr Ruto would openly be inviting a bare-knuckled contest with his boss, who won’t hesitate to come down hard on his rebel deputy.

And were the DP’s team to lose the vote, it would seriously puncture the political invincibility he has projected with his hustler campaign. 

Contested referendum

But were the DP to lead a campaign that successfully defeats the government-sponsored draft Bill in the referendum, it would give his presidential bid huge momentum towards the polls.

But with the other side denying him the soft landing he would have wanted in negotiations, which he would have cited to prove to his supporters that his misgivings with the BBI report have been addressed to justify his U-turn to endorse it, the DP is in a dilemma.

By yesterday, it was not clear whether Dr Ruto had been invited to attend today’s signature collection launch. The Director of Communication in the DP’s office Emmanuel Talam referred the Nation to the BBI Secretariat.

BBI Secretariat’s co-chair Dennis Waweru was non-committal, only saying all Kenyans were free to take part in the process.

“We have not yet sent invites to specific individuals. The event is, however, free for all Kenyans.”

“Why do we even need to have a referendum if it is not contested?” He posed, saying the ‘Kenya Express’ had left the station.

But Dr Ruto’s lieutenants yesterday protested Mr Odinga’s continued push for an “us vs them” contest.

"BBI is the last bullet they have. So it can't wait while Kenyans are scared and ravaged by Covid-19 and declining economy. The reggae drums must be beaten," said Kandara MP Alice Wahome.

Political storm

“All Raila wanted and wants is a duel. A duel with the DP, and a chance to create a political storm. For the DP, he has a chance to face off with Raila as a rehearsal for the 2022 General Election, or postpone the duel by supporting the BBI fully, against his will,” argued political analyst Javas Bigambo.

If the DP chooses a contest with the President and Mr Odinga, Mr Bigambo argued, he may be forced to resign from office were his side to lose the referendum “for having occasioned an open political fight with the President.” “If not, he may remain in power, but he will be totally estranged,” he said.

Prof Hezron Mogambi of the University of Nairobi said the DP has been sent into a “tight political corner with zero options.”

“If the DP supports the BBI bandwagon, he runs the risk of losing the ‘hustler nation’ brand, which he has built in the ensuing BBI song,” he observed.

“He is clearly encumbered by the unfolding political game which may burn his fingers if he does not exercise caution and put him in a direct collision path with his boss, who still remains the undisputed kingpin of Mt Kenya, a constituency DP Ruto would badly need as a block if he were to win 2022 elections..”

Another political analyst, Mr Dismas Mokua, suggested the DP has only three options left.

“Employ the triangulation policy by embracing BBI proposals, own them and support BBI to the hilt; proactively oppose BBI and test waters ahead of 2022 or give the process a wide berth and let the BBI architects and civil society take positions as he enjoys steak in upmarket restaurants.”

He argued that by Dr Ruto giving the process a wide berth, he could thereafter take credit that his absence was necessary in order to avoid poisoning conversations.