Speakers leave different legacies as bicameral Parliament folds up

Asked to give his opinion on National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi’s tenure, a Kiambu High School teacher, Charles Thairu, had only two words — too partisan.

He went on to state what he meant. Muturi in the chair leaned all the time on the government side.

And asked the same question about Senate Speaker Ekwee Ethuro, the teacher had also two words — more sober.

Mr Thairu said the Senate Speaker was more patient, unwavering and quick in getting the mood of senators while conducting House business.

Perhaps this could be too harsh and may not be the common perception out there — that Muturi’s rulings are tilted in favour of the government.

But Thairu’s observation was echoed by a broad section of people who included ardent Jubilee supporters, respected journalists and business people interviewed for this article whose views will be repetitive if quoted.

In an interview on NTV on Monday, Mr Muturi sought to dismiss people’s verdict that he was dictatorial, partisan and a non-performer.

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President Uhuru Kenyatta hands a document to National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi (left) and his Senate counterpart Ekwee Ethuro after giving the State of the Nation address at Parliament Buildings on March 31, 2016. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

In the court of public opinion, Mr Muturi came off as emotional and not sober; directional and not umpire; participating in debates instead of issuing rulings, which characterise Speakers in the Commonwealth Parliaments.

There were instances when Muturi “decided for MPs instead of ruling and letting members make decision”, observed one journalist familiar with Parliamentary practice.

The pinnacle of his partisanship and error in judgement came in a session set aside for President Uhuru Kenyatta to give his State of the Nation address.

This was a joint session attended by MPs and senators, but it took an acrimonious turn as the Opposition members threw papers and blew whistles to disrupt the President’s speech.

Even President Kenyatta was amused by the unfolding drama and broke into laughter. He chided the Opposition for their tantrum.

At one point, Mr Muturi sprang from the chair ostensibly to discipline an errant senator but was duly reminded by an MP that he had no jurisdiction over senators.

Mr Ethuro saved the day by rising from his chair to call for order among senators.

Mr Ethuro’s rulings, some of which were admittedly partisan, were done with finesse without antagonising the ruling and opposition coalitions.

He will be judged fairly for bringing sobriety between the two coalitions during debates.

Perhaps circumstances favoured him as a majority of senators were more mature, with long experience in Parliament compared to the many “freshers” in the National Assembly.

Worse, Mr Muturi, the seventh Speaker, found himself fighting supremacy battles with his Senate counterpart, which occasionally ended up in the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion.

However, like any Speaker in the Commonwealth, he was confronted with many crises in the Chamber, occasionally handling them with coolness while in others he was seen as being temperamental.

For instance in another incident of picketing and whistle blowing by opposition MPs who were opposed to enactment of a controversial Election (Amendment) Bill, he expelled Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandayi for the remainder of the session.

His critics saw it as excessive punishment while others thought he was bent on pleasing the government side.

This is in complete contrast with Kenya’s First National Assembly Speaker Humphrey Slade, who always kept his cool, avoiding the fight for supremacy with his Senate counterpart Muinga Chokwe to the extent that he inadvertently became the de facto Speaker for both Houses.

It is the second time Kenya is having two Houses and the two Speakers were at loggerheads in games played over their heads by legislators in the two Houses in their supremacy battles.

The fights centered on interpretation of the Constitution, mainly which House has which powers over counties, finance and the entire issue of devolution.

Then, the enactment of Bills, which have implications on counties, finance, elections and vetting of persons to public offices.

While Mr Ethuro has not been in limelight as much as his counterpart, he occasionally faced criticism.

For instance, during debate on a report by a committee chaired by Busia Senator Amos Wako, which collected people’s views on election laws, the Speaker was accused of favouring the Jubilee side. 

The situation that prevailed was not any different from the fight in the first edition of both Houses.

For instance, the Senate had in 1964 blocked a Bill calling for civic authorities to collect some taxes that had been passed by the National Assembly to flex its muscle.

Then, on April 1966, just eight months before they dissolved, the Senate had overwhelmingly passed (33 against two) a Constitutional Bill requiring people who defect from a political party that sponsored them to seek fresh mandate.

The two Speakers were also victims of senators and MPs who competed for supremacy in a superiority game at the expense of defining their separate roles in the new Constitution.

For instance, the Constitution empowers the Senate to deal with county issues, while the National Assembly has more powers on taxation matters.

Debates in both Houses spoke volumes of how far the bicameral system was yet to go to strike a balance.

And like in the first instance, when the Speakers fought to contain powerful hatchet men, Mr Muturi and Mr Ethuro found themselves in a similar situation.

Mr Slade faced Mr Tom Mboya while Mr Muturi faced Majority Leader Aden Duale.

While Mr Mboya successfully accomplished his mission to dissolve the Senate, Duale unsuccessfully fought to dismiss the role of the Senate under the Constitution.

Mr Muturi has also been criticised for eroding the sanctity of Parliament.

For instance, when police surrounded Parliament after opposition MPs threatened to disrupt proceedings over the controversial election law, he played it down, insisting they were there to maintain security.

Contrast that with Mr Ethuro who, faced with a similar situation, stopped senate business until policemen who had ringed the House were withdrawn.

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Police who were outside Parliament Buildings on December 28, 2016 leave after Senate Speaker Ekwee Ethuro gave the directive. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Questions have also been raised about Mr Muturi’s performance as gatekeeper of the business before Parliament.

A glaring example is when Parliament passed a Security Law, which required that the media seek permission from police to publish pictures or stories on terrorism.

It took a High Court judge to rule that it was illegal as it infringed on freedoms, including that of the Press.

The Speaker, both as chairman of the supreme committee that prepares business agenda and gatekeeper, ought to have drawn government attention to the fact that the Bill infringed on the Constitution.

The vetting issue came to the fore when the current Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet was nominated by the President.

It turned out that all vetting to Public offices is done only by relevant committees in the National Assembly as stipulated in the Constitution except in Article 245 on IG, which provides for Parliament — meaning both Houses.

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Senate Speaker Ekwee Ethuro leaves Parliament Buildings after a senate special sitting on December 28, 2016. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Incidentally, it was Mr Duale, widely regarded as a Jubilee hawk, who pointed out that the IG is vetted by Parliament.

“From a plain reading of that article, Parliament means two Houses,” he said in the House.

Earlier Mandera Senator Billow Kerrow had proposed that Boinnet be vetted separately in both Houses.

Mr Duale had proposed that Mr Boinnet should be vetted by joint security committees of Senator Yusuf Haji  and Tiaty MP Asman Kamama.

This is what prevailed eventually, but not before Mr Muturi was blamed for not properly interpreting vetting law in the Constitution.

As Mr Muturi’s first term comes to an end, historians will find it difficult to document his legacy as the Seventh Speaker of Parliament.

Mr Ethuro will go down as an assertive and sober second Senate Speaker in post-independent Kenya, after Mr Muinga Chokwe.

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