Thursday, July 24, 2008



The Standard
July 2o, 2008
By Oscar Obonyo

In an apparent departure from the initial radical push for an all-powerful Grand Coalition Opposition, backbench architects of the move appear to have softened to mollify simmering high-level resistance.

The National Assembly (Parliamentary Opposition) Bill 2008, drafted by Budalang’i MP Ababu Namwamba and signed on July 9, further provides illuminating proposals designed to improve the overall office and position of Leader of Official Opposition.

And alive to the stiff opposition posed by the leadership of parent parties, Orange Democratic
Linturi Mithika (Igembe South), Kiema Kilonzo (Mutitu), Ababu Namwamba (Budalang’i), Rachel Shebesh (nominated) and Charles Kilonzo (Yatta) at the forefront, demanding for a grand opposition. Photo: File/Standard

Movement (ODM), Party of National Unity (PNU) and ODM-Kenya, the Bill seeks to allay fears that the opposition outfit will undermine the parliamentary strength of the main parties.

Says Section 12, subsection (1) of the Bill: “The Backbench Caucus shall not be a political party and membership thereof shall not in any way affect the membership of a member of the National Assembly in his or her political party.”

But because the current situation does not allow for the establishment of Official Opposition, the Bill bypasses this technicality through the formation of what it terms, the Backbench Caucus.

It proposes to entrench the new “Backbench Caucus” concept into the Constitution. Apart from the party consisting of the largest number of Members of Parliament in the opposition, the Bill states that the parliamentary reference of “Official Opposition Party” will also mean “the Backbench Caucus” as constituted under section 11.

However, these proposals remain just that — proposals. As Konoin MP Julius Kones explains, the publication of the Bill can remain on the queue forever — not because of a backlog of printing jobs but as a ploy to delay the enactment of a Bill.

“Once a Bill is published, the law requires that it must come to the Floor of the House within 14 days. This, in our case, is yet to happen and remember the publication can only be done by the official Government Printer,” he says.

Kones’ fears notwithstanding, the Bill reads well — at least on paper. It further tackles critical aspects of the Office of Official Opposition, which over the years have been overlooked. For instance, it addresses the possible crisis over the bona fide holder of the office, in the event of a tie in the number of MPs.

“In the event that there is a tie between two or more political parties in respect of the number of Members of Parliament, the party with the highest aggregate number of votes garnered by its Members of Parliament at the preceding General Election shall constitute the Official Opposition,” it says.

The Seventh Parliament, for instance, witnessed a prolonged impasse over the seat of Leader of Official Opposition between the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s Ford-Kenya and Kenneth Njindo Matiba’s Ford-Asili.

Political alliances

The was a tie in the number of MPs commanded by Jaramogi and Matiba and the issue was only resolved following a record 14 by-elections that created shifts in political alliances and tilted the leadership of official opposition in favour of Ford-Kenya.

Retired President Moi and leader of Kanu engineered the by-elections through defections. Some of the high-profile defections involved Ford-Asili’s Apili Wawire, Benjamin Magwaga and Javan Ommani, all of Western Province.

Among the proposals that are bound to raise eyebrows include that the Official Opposition enjoys given powers and privileges — a move that could ultimately change the direction of debate in the House.

“The Official Opposition shall be entitled to effective representation in the business of the National Assembly, including a 40 per cent representation on the House Business Committee and a representation of four members in the Parliamentary Service Commission enacted in the Constitution,” says the Bill.

The Bill further vests the Secretary to the Backbench Parliamentary Group with the responsibility of informing the Speaker, through written and signed communication, of subsequent changes of the holder of Leader of Official Opposition.

Although the Backbench Caucus is yet to officially identify its Secretary, the Budalang’i MP, who led the drafting team of the Bill, presently handles the group’s secretarial and co-ordination duties.

Namwamba also proposes that the National Assembly shall set aside a day each week —“Opposition Day” — on which business initiated by the opposition shall have priority.

Under special privileges, the Leader of Official Opposition, proposes the Bill shall, upon gazettement, name a Shadow Cabinet from among members of his party or the Backbench Caucus, move that Chairman of Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman Bonny Khalwale confirms is already under way.

“Among the things we undertook during our recent retreat in Mombasa was to identify individuals who would specialise in interrogating given ministries. In so doing, we would front some structured opposition to Government,” he told The Standard on Sunday.

Noting that the Opposition has been operating under loose and inadequate rules, Namwamba argues that there has never been any attempt “to clothe parliamentary opposition in fine statutory linen”.

“This Bill seeks to address these challenges, with the ultimate objective of strengthening the institutional foundations necessary to buttress the country’s budding democracy,” he states.

Political goodwill

But the task ahead is monumental. According to Assistant minister in the Office of Deputy Prime Minister and Ministry of Local Government Njeru Githae, it is unlikely that the grand opposition vehicle will make much progress — at least not with lack of political goodwill.

Virtually all members of the House Business Committee (HBC) who are mostly senior Cabinet ministers and ODM and PNU allied MPs, are highly opposed to the move.

Procedurally, it is the HBC that prioritises Bills that come to the floor of the House for debate and it is unlikely that they will be in a hurry to list the Parliamentary Opposition Bill fronted by the Namwamba-led group.

“Chances are that members of the House Business Committee will opt to place the Bill on the queue and from the way I understand the current situation, if they do that, then it may take another two or three years before it comes to the floor of the House,” says Githae.

Even if the Namwamba group gets past this hurdle, it will be too late in the life of the 10th Parliament, which would have devised “natural ways” of filling up the void.

However, Githae and Namwamba, who are lawyers, say the opposition forces marshalling a two-thirds majority — a Herculean task — can overcome this particular obstacle.

But an optimistic Namwamba believes once the MPs read through the entire Bill, they will endorse the document because “it offers Parliament an opportunity to seal a number of gaping holes in the institution of Official Opposition.”