I do not seek to get into the pros and cons of the recently enacted Finance Act by the Kenya Kwanza government, even though it elicits a remark or more. Rather, it is the emotion that the bill – and later on the Act – has aroused across the country that most pricks my curiosity. In my view, there have been fewer times when national discourse has been characterized by great animation like has been the case as regards this piece of legislation (first proposed, then passed, and now challenged in court).
History will remind us that certain episodes of our national discourse have brought about perhaps more passionate and fervor-filled appeal than what obtains from the present. Apart from political events such as independence, the little elections of 1966, political assassinations of prominent personalities such as Tom Mboya, J.M. Kariuki and Robert Ouko, the death of Jomo Kenyatta, his intrigue-filled succession by Daniel arap Moi and clearly the attempted coup in 1982 (including its aftermath that had such epochs as the ‘traitor’ prosecution series), fewer events and discussions have gripped the nation as the debate on the Finance Bill (now the Finance Act). And this is good.
I know we all remember the other moments of national passion, including the long-standing court battle over lawyer S.M. Otieno’s internment and the protracted pro-reform engagements of the late ‘80s and ‘90s leading to the scrapping of Section 2(a) of the old Constitution and finally the enactment of a new Constitution in 2010.
I am not lost on the import of these events and topical discourses and what they have done in shaping the destiny of the country to date, but what pricks my curiosity is the fact that the recent Finance Bill 2023 debate was on quite a different trajectory compared to the others. It was the first time that Kenyans decided to interrogate an economic proposition by government, giving strong counter-arguments. Perhaps the parliamentary debate on Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 presented by Tom Mboya comes closest in this respect. But how many ordinary Kenyans participated in this process in 1965.
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 must be thanked for turning the tide on this. Within it, Kenyans anchored the requirement of public participation as part of what the courts in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) rulings affirmed as part of the pillars of the so-called Basic Structure of the constitution.
Given the tough economic reality, the opportunity of a new government that is still naïve and in transition, an opposition that is desperate to make up for their loss and an eager media that rubs its hands with glee in anticipation of a political bloodbath, the required fodder for such a debate was always there. But this cannot take away the import of the citizen agency through robust engagements in public participation forums across the country and the countless memoranda that were submitted to the National Assembly by both individuals and interest groups such as Trade Unions and private sector entities.
It does look like we are finally coming of age.
As many activists will attest, this has been the dream all along. Get the people to engage robustly and effectively with their governors and the governed to interrogate the proposals by their leaders. Get the people to wake up and smell the coffee. Get them to finally claim the ownership of the country, its tools and instruments.
For so long, we have allowed parochial interests of an elite few to direct national debates, to their benefit. It was about personalities, tribes, regions, and who’s-turn-to-eat stories. The soap operas have never abated, and as a result, rather than be engrossed in productive engagements that would inspire national growth, the public have been mostly hypnotized by the political drama that is a game of musical chairs. Is it any wonder then that despite having one of the most robust private sectors, civil society, media and skilled working class in Africa, we still lag far behind our peers in economic well-being.
It is for these and other reasons that this debate needs to become a watershed moment in our nation-being and nation-building. Not only have Kenyans shown that they can participate in their own public affairs, but that they have explored and exploited the avenues through which that expression and participation can be processed.
It is the reason I have argued before that we do not need the Maandamano Mandamus to prosecute our issues. If you throw in public interest litigation personified by Busia Senator Okiya Omtata and the formation of interest groups to agitate and lobby parliamentary committees and other governmental authorities and further use the media to express our views, we can hold public authorities accountable.
What is required moving forward is to consolidate the new space by devolving it to the counties. The counties have literally been having their way given the ignorance of their respective publics and constituencies. It is about time we demystified political and government leaders the same way we figured out Moi’s local chiefs and provincial administrators when the time came. While leadership should guide and serve, it must be propelled forward by the thrust of public expectations and accountability.
Let the same verb and tenor or the current moment remain constant if not higher. We have many bills and proposals that all the 48 governments (47 counties and the national government) will be processing over the period of their tenures. They must be dissected and interrogated as the Finance Bill 2023. With such pressure, with time, the leadership will either shape up or ship out.