A myriad challenges stand in the way of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) despite supporters’ upbeat mood.
On Wednesday, ODM leader Raila Odinga said that drafting the final report was at an advanced stage despite the coronavirus scare.
“Me and President Uhuru Kenyatta did agree to bring the people of Kenya together as one, to deal with ethnicity, gender inequality, exclusion, among other issues, and these cannot be achieved if one half of the population is excluded from nation building,” Mr Odinga said.
“We want all the issues raised by the women leaders captured in the final report,” said Mr Odinga even as the BBI debate continues to draw division with political leaders differing on the proposals.
But even as the leaders exude hope and confidence for a referendum, several queries have remained unanswered, including the availability of funds, a legal framework for the initiative, a fractious and image-battered electoral body to conduct the vote, and time running out.
On Thursday, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati said that there was still enough time to conduct the plebiscite “as long as the budget is available”.
Mr Chebukati said the commission would budget for the drive “when it becomes certain that it will take place”.
But with coronavirus slowing down the economy and dealing a blow to revenue collection, sceptics see funds drying up and starving BBI in the process.
Already, there is no provision for the initiative in the budget estimates for the next financial year.
However, proponents say the initiative can be allocated funds through a supplementary vote.
But given the vagaries of the coronavirus on the populace and the economy and with debilitating debts, such a vote will be hard to come by.
National Assembly Minority Leader and ODM chairman John Mbadi allayed fears that lack of a budget will not affect the drive.
“So we cannot stop holding a referendum because of a budget? So long as there is money, a budget can be made anytime,” he said.
Senate Majority Chief Whip Irungu Kang’ata said the budget will be set aside “in the coming financial year”.
He said that Kenya has had two referendums precede general elections and that as such, it will not be difficult to have another before the 2022 election.
However, he called for changes at the IEBC to ensure that the commission is ready to preside over the referendum.
“We want to see the final BBI report, but there is still debate on whether to go with this IEBC to the referendum and do away with it afterwards or change it before the vote,” he said.
He proposed setting up an interim electoral body to manage the referendum, pointing out the example of the Interim Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission which ran the 2010 referendum on the constitution.
Mr Mbadi said the issue of IEBC conducting the vote was still a matter for debate.
On the other hand, Senator Mutula Kilonzo Jnr said the BBI team should propose an implementation timeline for the report and not leave it to politics. He concurred with those proposing that IEBC should be overhauled.
Some proponents of the BBI drive also differed with the proposal by MP Jeremiah Kioni that the referendum be held alongside the 2022 election.
Mr Kioni is the chairman of the Parliamentary Constitutional Implementation Oversight Committee and has published the Referendum Bill, 2020.
However, a National Assembly committee has also come up with its own version of the bill. The Justice and Legal Affairs Committee chaired by Baringo North MP William Cheptumo is also keen on the BBI process.
Constitutional Lawyer Nzamba Kitonga said that since the bill has just been published, it will take some time for a referendum to be held.
“The road to a referendum is long and the publishing of the bill doesn’t mean it will happen in the next few weeks,” he said.
Further, Mr Mbadi, Mr Kilonzo and Ford Kenya Secretary-General Eseli Simiyu on Thursday said Mr Kioni’s bill is not practical.
Dr Simiyu said that if the bill is proposing to change some governance structures, which might involve elections, then it will be counterproductive to hold it at the same time as the next General Election.
“If, for example, the proportional representation as per the proposed BBI report is to be implemented, or restructuring of the executive, or having ministers elected from Parliament, then we cannot go to a referendum and at the same time hold elections, unless someone is saying that the new changes will take effect in 2027 after the next elections,” he said.
Dr Simiyu added that the Covid-19 pandemic was the main hurdle to the BBI referendum, but was quick to add that “there is still time”.
Mr Mbadi said the referendum is planned to be held either late this year or early next year.
“The referendum cannot interfere with the election calendar in any way. Elections will still be in August 2022 unless BBI changes the date,” he said.
“If Covid-19 doesn’t go away, we will have managed to devise how to live with it since life cannot stop;, we will have to live with it as we have always done with other infectious diseases,” he said.
Jubilee Secretary-General Raphael Tuju said the country needs a dispensation that brings all Kenyans together. The BBI and the referendum, he added, will enable Kenyans have an inclusive government structure.
Additional reporting by Kitavi Mutua
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