The Senate on Wednesday shelved debate on the contentious amendments to electoral laws until relevant public views have been taken into account, raising hopes for a compromise on an issue that had threatened to ignite chaos in the country.
Speaker Ekwee Ethuro directed the Standing Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights to invite human rights lobbies, members of the public and other stakeholders to air their opinions and table a report in the Senate on January 4 — the very day that Cord had threatened to begin nationwide mass protests over the laws — so as to give room to the bi-partisan committee process.
This signalled the possibility of the Raila Odinga-led coalition shelving its plans to hold demonstrations against the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill 2016, which was gleefully passed by Jubilee Party Members of Parliament in a chaotic National Assembly sitting last Thursday, prompting a walk-out by their Cord counterparts.
Jubilee senators led by Nandi’s Stephen Sang, Mutahi Kagwe (Nyeri) and Kimani Wamatangi (Kiambu) asked Cord to call off the protests.
“As we discuss this, we cannot forget the cardinal rule of any democracy, that the majority will have their way and the minority might have their say,” said Mr Sang, the vice-chair of the committee. “Therefore, I plead with my colleagues, let us not go into this committee with threats that if our side does not win we will hold demonstrations.”
However, the head of the Cord secretariat, Mr Norman Magaya, said the coalition’s top leadership will meet today to deliberate on whether or not to call off the demonstrations.
“We will meet tomorrow to decide on that, although the developments at the Senate do not fundamentally change our position,” Mr Magaya told the Nation on telephone.
Earlier, Speaker Ethuro had called for a sober debate as he directed the Amos Wako-led team to talk to all stakeholders who had complained that their views had been ignored by the National Assembly.
“Debate robustly. Hold different views. It is your prerogative. But please, do so with decency and decorum and in accordance with the Constitution, the laws and the rules of this House,” Mr Ethuro said during a heated but controlled special sitting that stood in sharp contrast to the chaotic National Assembly session that gave passage to the amendments.
The Speaker added: “As we process this Bill, I would like to make a special appeal to you to display the same level of maturity and sobriety that this country has come to expect from the Senate.
“The people of Kenya are looking up to the Senate.”
In making his ruling, Speaker Ethuro said it was not possible for the House to read a Bill through four stages — the First and Second Reading, the committee stage and the Third Reading — at a go.
Legal Affairs Committee chairman Wako (Busia, ODM) said public participation was a cardinal principle of the Constitution and should not be subverted by the hustle to pass the amendments.
“When the sitting was called, I was afraid that we will be hurried to debate the amendments, therefore ignoring public participation by the people who represent the sovereignty of Kenya,” said Mr Wako.
The former Attorney-General said the committee would start sitting immediately and asked the clergy, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and civil and human rights groups to appear before it.
IEBC Chief Executive Ezra Chiloba, Law Society of Kenya (LSK) president Isaac Okero, Kenya Private Sector Alliance chairman Vimal Shah and civic leaders from the Mkenya Daima group were present in the gallery.
“Even for politicians, please come to our committee instead of discussing these things at funerals, churches and other places,” said Mr Wako.
The contentious amendments at the centre of the controversy allow the IEBC to have an “alternative mechanism” for the identification of voters and transmission of election results should the deployed digital technology fail.
The ruling Jubilee has argued that that will ensure no voter is locked out of the ballot if machines malfunction. Cord however called for street protests from Wednesday, saying the amendments to a law they spent weeks negotiating were a scheme by Jubilee “to resurrect dead voters to vote”.
Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Kithure Kindiki (Jubilee), who moved the Bill, said: “There have been extraordinary discussions from both sides of the divide since this issue threatened to tear the country apart.”
Senate Minority Leader Moses Wetang’ula (Ford-Kenya) said the fate of the country lay in the Wako-led team and asked it to show the way forward.
“Please, I plead with you, the Legal Affairs Committee, live to the billing of the expectations of Kenyans and be free of any ethnic abuse,” said Cord co-principal Wetang’ula, who asked that the committee of Information Technology be included in the deliberations.
Siaya Senator James Orengo (ODM) said: “In the new Constitution, it is no longer about the majority just making a law even if it is wrong.”
Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar, the Wiper Secretary-General, weighed in: “This discussion that we can have people bulldozing their way because they are the majority should stop. We need to let reason prevail.”
Nominated Senator Elizabeth Ongoro called on the committee to find “ways of coming up with a variety of solutions to the problem”.
Earlier, at 2.30pm, Mr Orengo had tried to have the sitting declared null and void with support from Senators Ongoro, Mutula Kilonzo Jr (Makueni, Wiper) and Martha Wangari (nominated) saying the Mace — the House’s symbol of authority— had been removed and, therefore, the afternoon session was different from the one gazetted for 10am.
Prof Kindiki and Kipchumba Murkomen (Elgeyo-Marakwet, Jubilee) however opposed the proposal.
In the morning, the senators had, in a rare show of unity, demanded that Speaker Ethuro calls off a police barricade outside Parliament Buildings, saying it sent the wrong message.
“This is not a police state. This is a democracy. The instructions were very clear that we don’t need any police presence,” Mr Ethuro ruled.