Kenya’s top court has declared controversial constitutional changes proposed by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his allies ahead of crucial elections in August, as illegal.
But its Thursday ruling left open the possibility for the reforms – popularly known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) – to be submitted again by parliament or through other means, so long as the president did not have a hand in the changes.
“The constitution amendment bill of 2020 is unconstitutional,” the Supreme Court said in a majority ruling, ending a nearly two-year legal battle over the proposals.
“The president cannot initiate constitutional amendments or changes through popular initiative under article 257 of the constitution,” it said.
The reforms would have expanded the executive and increased the number of parliamentary seats from 290 to 360, in the biggest change to Kenya’s political system since it introduced a new constitution in 2010.
The ruling was given by a seven-judge bench at the Supreme Court headed by Martha Koome, the country’s first female chief justice. The proposals were also rejected last year by the High Court and Court of Appeal, which said Kenyatta could even be sued in a civil court for launching the process.
The president had argued that the initiative – a hot-button issue that has divided the political elite – would make politics more inclusive and help end repeated cycles of election violence in the East African nation.
BBI’s detractors – including Kenyatta’s estranged deputy William Ruto – see it as little more than a naked grab for power by a two-term president who cannot run a third time.
The timing of the reforms has spurred speculation in recent years that Kenyatta is seeking to remain in power by establishing the post of prime minister as part of the BBI.
Ruto, 54, was initially anointed by Kenyatta as his successor but found himself marginalised after a shock 2018 pact between the president and his former foe Raila Odinga, who have a long history of opposing each other at the ballot box.
The pair’s spirited pursuit of the BBI since 2018 sparked speculation that Kenyatta may assume the new position of prime minister in a power-sharing arrangement if Odinga, 77, wins the presidency.
Earlier this month, Kenyatta, 60, endorsed Odinga, who will compete with Ruto for the country’s top job.
Analysts argue that Thursday’s court decision will jolt political alignments among smaller parties, which are weighing their options ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections barely four months away.
Already, fresh alliances are being created with a view to dividing the spoils come election time.