Kenya’s Court of Appeal has rejected a government bid to make fundamental changes to the constitution in a new blow to President Uhuru Kenyatta, who had initiated the controversial proposals.
On Friday, the court upheld a High Court decision in May that declared the proposed reforms illegal on the basis that Kenyatta acted unconstitutionally, limiting his ability to prevent his estranged deputy from succeeding him next year.
“The days of [an] unaccountable presidency are long gone,” said Patrick Kiage, one of the appellate judges, rejecting the government’s appeal.
Kenyatta had argued that the initiative would make politics more inclusive and help end repeated cycles of election violence in the East African nation, a hot-button issue that has divided the political elite.
Court President Daniel Musinga issued the judgment after more than 10 hours of a televised session.
“The president does not have authority under the constitution to initiate changes to the constitution,” he said.
“A constitutional amendment can only be initiated by parliament … or through a popular initiative,” he said, also announcing that Kenyatta could be sued in a civil court for launching the process.
‘About politicians and their search for power’
The proposed amendments, popularly known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), would have been the biggest change to governance since a new constitution in 2010.
The BBI has served as a lightning rod for the rhetoric of politicians jostling ahead of a general election due to be held in August 2022. Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have fallen out, and they and their supporters are at odds over the proposals.
Kenyatta argued that the constitutional overhaul would promote power-sharing among competing ethnic groups and was not intended to deny anyone the presidency.
The proposed amendments would have created 70 new constituencies and establish several powerful new posts: a prime minister, two deputies and an official leader of the parliamentary opposition.
Ruto’s Kalenjin ethnic community teamed up with Kenyatta’s Kikuyu in the last two elections to defeat former Prime Minister Raila Odinga from the Luo, another large ethnic group.
The amendments are partly designed to tame Ruto’s political ambitions to succeed Kenyatta by making it possible to weave an alliance against him, according to anti-graft campaigner John Githongo.
Ruto has been campaigning vigorously to inherit Kenyatta’s Kikuyu voting bloc in the central region – and some there have embraced his message.
“We don’t want BBI … This is about politicians and their search for power,” said Beatrice Kagure, a college student in the central town of Nyeri.
Friday’s ruling allows the electoral process to follow its planned timetable – subject to any appeal to the Supreme Court, the country’s highest.
But it means the nation’s key political leaders may have to rethink their strategies to build alliances before the vote, analysts said.
With its diverse population and large ethnic voting blocs, Kenya has long suffered politically motivated communal violence around election time, notably after a 2007 poll, when more than 1,100 people died.