The BBI reggae has been paused yet again, jolting the unity drive into a deeper uncertainty over consensus.
President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga on Wednesday put off the collection of one million signatures, hopefully, five million, to back the report and a referendum. The launch was to be on Thursday.
Some analysts called it a tactical retreat.
An NIS report to the President said their survey showed only 19 per cent of Kenyans were in favour of a BBI referendum.
Even so, the process, which would impact the 2022 General Election, was already marred by concerns that this was the wrong time for referendum campaigning.
The main reason: the country is ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy is sliding and people are in financial pain. Is BBI more important than that?
The death toll from the virus stood at 1,313. The official caseload since March 13 is 72,686. Active cases of Wednesday were 21,495.
Some quarters say the apparent prioritisation of BBI at the expense of securing resources for Covid-19 response has left a bitter taste in their mouths.
The handshake principals are under pressure to build consensus on the document to avert a contested referendum that would result in ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ sides.
Discord and demands are mounting to ‘reopen’ the report for amendments from many quarters.
The IEBC has estimated a referendum it would cost about Sh14 billion – a figure that Raila and poll experts have disputed.
The resource constraints — which have affected all state agencies — have been worsened by the sorry state of the economy.
Kenya is technically broke and has heavily relied on borrowing about Sh1.15 trillion to survive the pandemic.
The public debt as of September 30 stood at Sh7.1 billion, exerting pressure on efforts to raise cash for a referendum and 2022 polls.
The Kenya Revenue Authority missed its revenue target by more than Sh60 billion, National Treasury data for July to September show.
Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yatani cited underperformance in Pay As You Earn, VAT (domestic and imports), excise duty, import duty and MDAs’ earnings.
Deputy President William Ruto says the Covid-19 emergency response should be the government’s priority.
“The pandemic is killing people including health workers while destroying livelihoods. We should stop everything and mobilise every human, material and financial resource to fight,” the DP said recently.
Political observers say the need for consensus politics, cash constraints and the restrictions posed by the virus could have triggered the pause.
The Covid-19 situation had equally denied the BBI promoters the hoopla and momentum from rallies (now banned) needed for the constitutional amendment drive.
Dr Charles Nyambuga, a communications don at Maseno University, holds that the “BBI requires fanfare for it to continue to have the same catch on the people.”
He says the challenge for the promoters is that with the pandemic, there cannot be fanfare, especially with the DP not being ready for a contest.
“The fanfare which was possible has been punctured by the second Covid wave. I am relating that it was postponed to get the fanfare.”
The don observed that “BBI has caught fire and can go places,” taking its cue from “the anger in what the Tangatanga people are saying”.
“When you look at Ruto, you see somebody who is angry and is seeking amends. While the BBI promoters want a contest, he is not ready and is for consensus. It is the first time I am seeing the DP looking a bit jolted,” Dr Nyambuga said.
The commentator said BBI is a political vehicle that requires visibility by very many people attending activities tied to it.
“Signature collection cannot be done privately as the sessions will be used to popularise the document more. For me, it is a tactical retreat by BBI team to buy more time,” he said.
BBI adherents though disagree with observations that they were being mean in the push for the process to conclude by April.
ODM chairman John Mbadi (Suba South MP and National Assembly Minority leader) said it was untrue the country’s resources are dedicated primarily to BBI at the expense of Covid-19.
He said it would be unfair to judge the unity drive’s timing by how it interweaves with the adverse effects of the pandemic.
“We can’t plan with a pandemic. It is here with us. Hopefully, a vaccine will be found soon because that is the only solution. If not, we will just follow the laid-down protocols in whatever we do,” Mbadi said.
The MP said the need to care for people is what caused the promoters to stop rallies to popularise the BBI document. “You can’t gamble with people lives.”
Mbadi dismissed critics saying the Covid-19 fight has been prioritised in ministries, with most budgetary allocations and loans being directed towards emergency response.
“The government has dedicated almost a trillion shillings towards Covid-19. What do people expect us to do, to always stand at Uhuru Park and talk about Covid-19?” the MP, also a member of the Budget Committee, asked.
Pastoralists, churches, county assemblies, senators, and a section of governors want further amendments to the BBI report.
Ndaragwa MP Jeremiah Kioni said there was no cause for alarm in the delays as consensus building is of utmost importance.
“When you are doing this kind of programme, you are guided more by consensus. You would want to use any opportunity to look for consensus.”
Kioni said the good news is that the Constitution of Kenya (Amendment) Bill, 2020, is yet to be published.
“The overall picture is that we have to deal with BBI before elections, therefore, we have no time pressure. Time would start kicking in when the Bill is published,” Kioni said.
“Once done, then everybody will have timelines to work with. The pause is good as we still have that opportunity to reach out,” the Constitution Implementation Oversight Committee chairman said.
Amani National Congress leader Musalia Mudavadi quipped that seeking consensus would be the sure way out of the “high-octane political activity” that the BBI was spiralling into.
He argued that politicians remain a fault line in the Covid-19 fight, perhaps the weakest link.
“A non-contested referendum will cost less and the lives of the people will be safe,” he said in a televised interview.
Mudavadi called for the postponement of the signature collection “divine intervention which allows Kenyans to create room for more conversations.
“With the slight delay, we could use the opportunity so that the gaps will have been narrowed by the time the bill is printed.”
Prof Mohamud Sheikh, known as Omar, the Wajir South MP and an infectious diseases expert, says anything that draws crowds must be stopped.
“Proximity is a trigger for infections. Covid-19 is a wildfire so we must reconsider crowds that are inevitable with such a political process,” the MP said.
He said the danger at the moment is that there is no vaccination and nothing to stop people from being re-infected.
“The relapse of Covid-19 is unpredictable. We thought it had subsided then it peaked, because of the interactions after restrictions were relaxed. It is advisable we avoid interactions as much as we can,” he said.