Africa Practice
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Africa UpFront

Will Kenya manage to avert a 2020 referendum?

back to all insights |Published 27th Nov 2019

Today Kenya witnessed the much-anticipated public launch of the recommendations of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) seeking national reconciliation and power-sharing. BBI was set up in the wake of the March 2018 rapprochement between President Uhuru Kenyatta and perennial opposition figure Raila Odinga, following the turbulent 2017-2018 election period. 

Critically, the recommendations of the BBI report suggest that Kenya might not have to hold what was expected to be a national referendum on constitutional change in 2020. The position of prime minister might be re-established.

While a full analysis of the report’s provisions will saturate the local public sphere in the coming weeks, our preliminary assessment is that it does not seem to fall afoul of article 255 (1) of the Kenyan Constitution, which outlines the criteria that would require a referendum to vote on potential constitutional amendments. Rather than a referendum, the amendments proposed could go through parliament under article 256 of the Constitution, thereby avoiding a disruptive and heated referendum in the middle of the electoral cycle. Kenya’s next general elections are scheduled for 2022. Without a referendum, political temperatures should be kept low (by Kenyan standards), although the rhetoric around the proposed reconfiguration of the political system will intensify.

What this does imply is that any initiative to proceed with voting on the potential constitutional changes will have to wait until January 2020, after the December parliamentary recess. The BBI will thus be at the centre of public discourse in Kenya over the festive period. A tangible risk presented by this timeframe is for opponents of the BBI — notably Deputy President William Ruto and his associates — to elaborate a polarising narrative against the initiative and mobilise the electorate. 

No official steps forward were announced during the launch, but based on the above analysis, we can expect the national dialogue to continue over the next month before an official amendment process gets moving with the tabling of legislation in parliament. While a referendum is not completely ruled out, the forthcoming debate will detract political attention and resources from other key issues, such as the implementation of the president’s Big 4 development agenda.

Eugene Ngumi is a senior consultant in Africa Practice’s Nairobi office, where he leads various critical government stakeholder engagements on behalf of our clients. He has previously been involved in Kenyan politics, particularly within presidential campaigns.  With a postgraduate degree in African Politics from the University of London, he also helps clients navigate challenging contexts by providing in-depth, actionable analysis.

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