As a tense vote beckoned towards the conclusion of debate on the second reading of the Finance Bill in the National Assembly last Wednesday, House orderlies, on a subtle signal from the Sergeant-at-Arms, moved to the front of the Chamber and placed themselves strategically around the Table.
It is apparent that their instructions were to protect the Mace in the event that opposition members, sensing defeat, tried to disrupt proceedings as has occasionally happened.
From the front benches of the opposition side to the left of the Speaker, Minority Whip Junet Mohammed rose on a point of order to protest that his view was being obstructed as Majority Leader Kimani Ichung’wah made his final pitch in support of the contentious Bill from across the aisle.
Speaker Moses Wetang’ula obliged, and instructed the offending orderly to move aside so as to give Junet a clear view, but the slight shift still did not break the protective cordon around the Table.
Extraordinary measures to secure the Mace illustrate perfectly what was at stake around a highly contentious Finance Bill that has split the country and made the first budget of President William Ruto’s administration such a political hot potato.
The Mace is the overarching symbol of the authority and dignity of the House as well as the Speaker. According to a Kenya Parliamentary fact sheet, the Mace is an essential part of House regalia, rooted on traditions dating back to development of the English Parliament. It gives credence and legality to the Assembly and the proceedings, and without it no business can be transacted.
Grab the mace
The fact sheet gives instances from across the world, including England, Australia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Canada, Lesotho, Guyana and other Commonwealth jurisdictions, where interference with the Mace has halted Parliamentary proceedings.
In Kenya, it records June 1997, when opposition MPs repeatedly attempted to grab the Mace in order to disrupt the budget presentation by then Finance Minister Musalia Mudavadi, now the Prime Cabinet Secretary in the Kenya Kwanza government.
Another instance was in 2014 during debate on the proposed Security Laws (Amendment) Bill, when Nyando MP Fred Outa had to be wrestled to the floor by the Serjeant-at-Arms when he tried to stop the resultant vote by seizing the Mace.
Offences relating to the Mace include attempting to or removing it from its place in the Chamber during a sitting of the House, as well as disrupting the Speaker’s procession. These offences are considered to be grossly disorderly conduct and attract specified sanctions stipulated in the National Assembly Standing Orders.
But as it turned out, the fears were misplaced as no attempt was made to seize or remove the ornate wood, gold and ivory symbol of Parliamentary authority.
The vote proceeded peacefully and without a hitch, with 176 ‘Ayes’ and 81 ‘Noes’, giving President Ruto an important victory on the eve of the first budget proposals of his administration tabled in Parliament the following day.
The maiden budget speech from Treasury Cabinet Secretary Njuguna Ndung’u was all about economic data and projections, but it was also a significant political moment in Ruto’s first opportunity to present development plans reflecting the programmes and policies on which he was elected in August last year.
Shift budgetary allocations
During the 10 months he has been in office, Ruto has managed to shift budgetary allocations around to fund some of the priority items on his election manifesto, such as the Hustler Fund, but otherwise has largely had to work within the spending plans inherited from his predecessor, Uhuru Kenyatta.
It is probable that never in the history of Kenya have government budgetary proposals been subject to such close public scrutiny.
Initial fears that the Finance Bill could be shot down given fierce public opposition and apparent lack of enthusiasm from the Kenya Kwanza benches had a few days earlier forced Ruto to issue a stern warning to his MPs against defying the party line.
In the end, all the Kenya Kwanza MPs present, save for the defiant Githunguri MP Gathoni wa Muchomba, voted for the Bill. A number of opposition Azimio coalition MPs, beyond the Jubilee Party legislators who have long switched allegiance, also ‘crossed the floor’ to vote with the government side.
Given the political sensitivity of Ruto’s first budget, there might well be an inquest within Kenya Kwanza on the MPs who seemingly defied instructions by staying away.
But in the meantime, Ruto will be satisfied that the Finance Bill vote last Wednesday showed he clearly has the numbers to secure handy passage in the rest of the budgetary process. What might still give him jitters, however, is that debate might simply move from Parliament to the streets.
In the wake of the defeat in Parliament, opposition leader Raila Odinga threatened to resume the public demonstrations that have made life difficult for the first months of the young government. Unpopular taxation measures – particularly the Housing Fund, the doubling of VAT on petroleum and other proposals that have fuelled perception of over-taxation and earned Ruto the moniker ‘Zakayo’ – present Raila a potent weapon to mobile angry masses against the government.
The version of the Finance Bill passed after hearings of the National Assembly Finance and Planning Committee chaired by Molo MP Kimani Kuria contained changes to some of the more controversial proposals, but those were mostly cosmetic and unlikely to mollify those reading oppressive taxation.
On the contentious Housing Fund, for instance, employee and employer contribution was halved from 3 per cent to 1.5 per cent of salary, but with a major catch: the amount will no longer be a saving contributors can claim if they choose not to benefit from government-built housing, but effectively a new tax. The upper limit of Sh2,500 monthly deduction was also scrapped. There are still concerns around whether the government can be trusted to actually build the promised houses and also safeguard the money raised given the sad history of corruption and mismanagement around funds such as NSSF and NHIF.
Ruto is aware of these issues, and as Parliament was voting, was pledging to personally ensure nothing was stolen.
“I know very well as a politician that if something goes wrong, I will be held to account politically. I must make sure nothing goes wrong,” he said during the launch of the Kenya Urban Forum, 2023 in Naivasha. He said he would make it his personal responsibility to ensure the monthly deductions from workers’ salaries to the Housing Fund are accounted for.
“Parliament is going to discuss the Housing Levy fund and how it will be managed. The oversight board will be representative of both the government and private sector. We are going to ensure that there is a proper accountable mechanism. He added: “In the board, for instance, we are going to make sure we have pension funds, Federation of Kenyan Employers on board, representatives of public servants, trade unions, government in its broader sense involved and counties to make sure this fund is accountable.”
A pledge to take personal responsibility is one thing, but the fact is that even such a hands-on president as Ruto is will not sit on the oversight or the fund management team. He will have to depend on the honesty and competence of the those entrusted with the onerous responsibilities, and therefore will also have to deal with perception that he tends to appoint people of dubious integrity to public office. There will still be room for negotiations as the process in Parliament proceeds.
In fact, worth noting is that Raila did not schedule resumption of demonstrations, but demanded dialogue on the still contentious issues. It might therefore be instructive that one of the key insiders in the Ruto government, Roads and Transport Cabinet Secretary Kipchumba Murkomen, had two days before the Finance Bill vote proposed a truce to resolve the impasse.
Murkomen, who spoke at the Kabunde Airstrip in Homa Bay County, recounted the history of Ruto and Raila previously working together, terming the president as a graduate of the opposition chief’s political academy.
Disrupt government agenda
His offer may well have been tailored to placate a fiercely pro-Raila audience, but it is was also recognition that the opposition boss still has the clout to disrupt the government agenda. It was this same reality that earlier forced Ruto at the beginning of April to offer Raila the olive branch. The outcome was that the latter suspended street protests and a bi-partisan parliamentary team was formed to seek a way around his grievances.
Talks jointly chaired by representatives from both sides proceeded in fits and starts, and are currently suspended as Raila added yet more demands, moving from initial issues around an audit of the 2022 presidential election he claims was stolen, to matters around the state of the economy. Taxation, inflation, petroleum, prices, cost of living, the deprecating shilling and may other issues round the economy and Ruto’s development plans will not go away in the immediate future.
With the budget delivered at a time of economic crisis, Raila has the perfect opportunity to distract Ruto from the urgent task of delivering on ambitious campaign promises while balancing the books.
That is the politics that will pre-occupy the President for some time to come.