Kenya’s Court of Appealhas had President Uhuru Kenyatta‘s bid rejected to change the constitution last week as the country eyes crucial elections due a year from now.
Kenya’s Court of Appeal argued that Uhuru had no right to do so and this decision marked the latest twist in a debate that has gripped the country since 2018.
There is also an increase the number of parliamentarians from 290 to 360, prompting fresh alliances with a view to dividing the spoils come election time in Kenya.
Even if Kenyatta approaches the Supreme Court, the verdict will come too late to let his planned transformation take shape before the August 9 vote, throwing the field wide open.
The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)came on the heels of a shock rapprochement between Kenyatta and his long-time foe Raila Odinga, who declared a truce with a headline-grabbing handshake in March 2018, following deadly post-election clashes in 2017.
The pact stoked speculation that Odinga would succeed Kenyatta, who would in turn become prime minister, with other politicians persuaded to fall in line in exchange for new posts.
He hopes to rise to the presidency next year, in an election that could see him pitted against the 76-year-old Mr Odinga, who – in a sign of the shifting political sands in Kenya – is now in an alliance with Mr Kenyatta.
The two have countered Mr Ruto‘s campaign by promoting the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), which revolves around constitutional changes aimed, they say, at improving governance.
This includes creating the post of prime minister. It fuelled speculation that Mr Kenyatta hopes to take the post in an Odinga-led government.
But in a major blow to the duo, the Appeals Court last week upheld a High Court ruling that BBI was illegal, saying that only parliament – not the president – could initiate the process of amending the constitution. The government has indicated that it will appeal against the ruling in the Supreme Court.
Mr Odinga, who has failed in four previous bids for the presidency, has described Mr Ruto’s proposal as “rubbish”, saying economic growth cannot be achieved without steps being first taken to guarantee political stability and good governance.
It left Deputy President William Ruto, whom Kenyatta had initially anointed as his 2022 successor, out in the cold.
The pair’s frosty relationship became evident this month when the president challenged his deputy to resign “if he is not happy”.
The doubts have now emerged about how long the Kenyatta-Odinga coalition will last, with the BBI on its last legs.
“The big question will be: will the alliance that is being built with Odinga be able to hold in the absence of the BBI?” said Nic Cheeseman, professor at Britain’s University of Birmingham.
“What positions will have to be offered to people so that they sacrifice their presidential ambitions and line up behind Odinga?”
For his part, Ruto, who has branded himself as a candidate for the common man, cheered the decision, calling it a victory for “the Hustlers” trying to survive in a country ruled by political dynasts such as Kenyatta and Odinga.
The 2022 election may spring yet more surprises, with experts saying that ethnic issues, which have traditionally played an important role in Kenyan politics, may no longer carry the weight they once did in a country with 44 tribes.
Ethnic affiliations will still matter at the ballot box, but they will not be “the main discussion” topic, said Kenyan political analyst Nerima Wako-Ojiwa.
“Young people do not necessarily identify with the tribal language used in the past,” she said, pointing out that Kenya will add six million more potential voters in 2022 compared to 2017 as youngsters come of age.
The battle for the youth vote will play a big part in determining the winner of next year’s race, she said, along with shared concerns such as reviving the Covid-19 battered economy and improving healthcare.
That could spell good news for Ruto, who belongs to the Kalenjin ethnic group but has tried to run a campaign that crosses tribal lines in a bid to attract the support of all Kenyans who feel economically marginalised.
“If it is (successful)… it’s a really big challenge to the established way of doing politics in Kenya,” Cheeseman said in a statement.
Kenyan presidential elections have always boiled down to a two-horse race.
These days Mr Ruto has been giving out wheelbarrows, handcarts and water tanks to the unemployed, which is endearing him to many young people.
He formed an alliance with Mr Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 elections, propelling the two of them to power.
The alliance was viewed by many as a union of convenience between two men whose backgrounds couldn’t be more different.
The pair has since fallen out, but Mr Ruto still remains in office, courtesy of constitutional provisions that secure the tenure of a deputy president.
The National Cohesion and Integration Commission, a state body mandated to promote national unity, previously warned that continuing with the “hustlers v dynasties” line risked deepening class divisions and plunging the country into chaos.
There is no doubt that Mr Ruto’s focus on the “Hustler Nation” has triggered debate about Kenya’s harsh political reality since independence.
Mr Ruto – who also rallied support in the last election under the “Hustler Nation” slogan – is now using it to promote a “bottom-up” approach to the economy, saying it will benefit the poor, especially the youth, who are bearing the brunt of the downturn largely triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The official rate of unemployment among those aged between 18 and 34 years is nearly 40%, and the economy is not creating sufficient jobs to absorb the 800,000 youths joining the workforce every year.
Critics have dismissed Mr Ruto’s “bottom-up” idea as full of “hackneyed clichés”.
“It only seems as if the plan is to dish out money to the common people. That doesn’t sound like a sound economic idea or plan,” says historian Ngala Chome.
Mr Ruto’s focus on this is strengthening his standing among the young and the poor. Candidates he endorsed have won three recent parliamentary by-elections.
“There is a shift in Kenya’s politics. People are now talking about the economy in a campaign in a way that they have not done before,” says Mr Chome.
There are still questions being raised over Mr Ruto’s claim that he stands for change.
Mr Chome sees Mr Ruto’s campaign as “a struggle between old and new money”.
“This new younger generation – that is now being referred to as the ‘hustler generation’ – is not proposing a serious relooking at Kenyan politics,” he says.