Sunday, November 29, 2009

Why are politicians dead set against an executive PM?

Sunday Nation 29 November 2009

As the clock ticks towards the end of the stipulated period for comments on the harmonised draft constitution, it is becoming clear that any erudite discussion by ordinary Kenyans faces insurmountable obstacles.

Politicians are already tainting the debate with non-issues in order to obfuscate matters and leave them with the real power to decide what goes into the constitution and what does not.

One argument some have been repeating consistently is that the harmonised draft forces a presidential candidate to run around the country trying to garner 50 per cent plus one vote and 25 per cent of votes in over half the regions only to be rewarded with a practically useless post.

It is difficult to deal with this issue without asking a series of questions in return. For instance, why are people becoming so worked up about a hypothetical candidate who understands the constitution and chooses to follow its provisions to become a “popularly elected president”? If indeed everyone has an equal opportunity to become a leader in this country, why are these politicians so dead set against an “executive” Prime Minister?

Why are these politicians avoiding the issues that are making them fear these positions as proposed in the harmonised draft, and choosing instead to concentrate on the positions themselves? Is it not clear that their fears are driven by the individuals currently holding the positions and those aspiring to hold them, rather than the powers inherent in the positions themselves?

Would they still work themselves into a lather if all the top politicians in Kenya were to rule themselves out of contention at the next elections? Discussion on the executive chapter of the harmonised draft is fast turning into a farcical repeat (in reverse!) of the 2005 referendum, and already some politicians have threatened to campaign against it because it “emasculates” the president and gives the “unelected” prime minister too much power.

Politicians are making singularly uninformed statements such as “nowhere else in the world does a ‘popularly’ elected president not enjoy ‘executive’ power”. Whose interests are they fronting? People are even “popularly elected” to village cattle dip committees, and the only “power” they enjoy is to preside over cattle dip committee meetings.

This debate is clearly not about this draft constitution at all, but about contemporary fears and entrenched prejudices. The terms “president” and “prime minister” in this country have acquired the character of the individuals who have occupied those positions in recent years, and these are the perceptions currently driving the debate.

The prime minister and several other politicians have wisely decided not to trumpet their own opinions concerning the draft in the hope that their supporters will come to their own conclusions. It was, however, reported in the press that the president expressed support for the document. Supporters of President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga have chosen to ignore similar counsel and continue to engage in combat.

It is my considered opinion that discussion of any of the specific clauses in the draft constitution is useless in any case. As I have repeatedly argued before, what we need agreement on are the basic principles guiding this nation, and the rest will fall into place.

For instance, we may agree, as implied in the draft, that our tribes are bigger than the nation known as Kenya, and that our first loyalty shall be to our tribes and regions and only finally to Kenya. Conversely, we may agree that we aspire to a greater level of involvement in global affairs and do not desire to be tied down by petty tribal loyalties in our quest for a better life for our citizens.

These should form the basis of any constitution we write. If, on the other hand, we do not agree on any of those basic principles, no amount of debating the clauses in the harmonised draft will result in agreement, for the debate will continue to be duplicitous and full of multi-layered innuendo. The end result will be a rejection of whatever document is presented to Kenyans in a referendum.

Indeed the fact that politicians are already mobilising their supporters to reject the draft on trivial grounds illustrates an attitude that the constitution is about the personal needs of the politicians.

All those Kenyans who are allowing themselves to be led this way by a bunch of irredeemably selfish tribal chiefs should never again waste our time complaining about a “bad” constitution and poor governance after April 2009 comes and goes without any fundamental changes in the country’s constitutional structures.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine:

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