Of chapati and term limits for parliamentarians


By Kenyatta Otieno

It is that season in Kenya where everyone and their dog become political analysts – good students of Mutahi Ngunyi and Prof. Edward Kisiangani combined. A while back, I bumped into a friend and as soon as the pleasantries were settled, he updated me about what was cutting in Mukurwe-ini. Renowned former University of Nairobi student leader Kabando wa Kabando had lost in the Jubilee Party nominations. This was a big surprise as Kabando is one of the leading lights in Jubilee Party.

According to him, the electorate did not have a problem with Kabando and they made sure they told him as such. Their reason for kicking out the two-term MP was because a good cook does not turn a chapatti on the fire more than twice, and Mukurwe-ini residents know how to make good chapati. I cannot authenticate these allegations but they got me thinking about instituting a two term limit for MPs. Is it okay to add it to our statutes, or we leave it to the electorate to decide that at the ballot?

Former president Mwai Kibaki was MP for Othaya for almost four decades since 1974. Too bad for the people of Othaya but they are not alone. Raila Odinga was MP for Lang’ata from 1992 to 2013, a two-decade stint. Kalonzo Musyoka was also MP for Mwingi for three decades the same as Moody Awori for Funyula – they both were in parliament from 1983 until 2013. These are examples of long serving members of parliament who have since left the legislature; Raila and Kalonzo are still in active politics.

There is a reason why football and most sports are played in two halves with a brief rest period in between. The human mind has a concentration span and the body also tends to give in under exposure to long durations of strain. It is evident that the longer an MP stays in the August House, the less contribution s/he makes on floor of the house. This could be a case of familiarity breeding contempt, seniority complex or the advent of getting bigger fish to fry.

There is no all-round person who can be good at everything. Nature and nurture bestows on us different abilities that we use for our good and that of society. This means that an MP has passion for some things and is competent in specific areas in parliament and his constituency. If one is elected for a long period, it means that his constituents will enjoy the fruits of what he is passionate about and competent in, and miss out on the rest. It is like someone going to the gym for biceps building only; in due time, he will appear like a life size cartoon!

I will consider at Raphael Tuju, who spent five years as Rarieda MP. His contribution to debate in the house was limited to ministerial responses. A reserved gentleman, he is a good diplomat though. He used this to his advantage by channelling goodies from his networks and travels as minster to his constituency. Tuju could reach out across the political divide and for the five years he was MP, Rarieda was transformed from a backwater constituency bypassing other constituencies in Siaya County.

Tuju was wrong in thinking that if Rarieda got a good road network, water supply, electricity, and several schools were built/transformed, he would be re-elected. The reason being he was not experienced in playing party politics in Kenya. This is another factor in an MP’s life; in Luo-Nyanza, there is only one political party: Raila Odinga – the advent of independent candidates is slowly shaping a new reality down there.

If Kalonzo Musyoka was as much into education as was former President Daniel Moi, it means that for the three decades he was MP, Mwingi would have had better schools at the expense of health and other sectors. Even if his advisors had asked him to try and look at other sectors, he would not have applied the same energy on them the way he would have to education. Kimani Wamatangi comes to mind; the man eats and sleeps water tanks. Should we let a constituency suffocate under effects of skewed abilities of one representative?

Very few MPs are born debaters, who take to parliament like fish in water. Millie Odhiambo, Moses Kuria and Ababu Namwamba come to mind in the recent past, while Martin Shikuku, James Orengo and Odongo Omamo graced the floor with charm and eloquence in the past. Some members have used their networking skills to represent their constituents well to the advantage of their people, like David Ochieng’ of Ugenya in the current parliament and Rarieda’s Raphael Tuju between 2002 and 2007. Between good legislators and representatives are joy riders, who make up the numbers; that is where a majority of MPs fall.

Parliament always suffers quorum crises unless the Executive whips MPs allied to the ruling party with goodies for particular Bills. The only time the House is full is when matters touching on political lifeline of members is on the agenda. Such an attitude means that the longer an MP stays in the house the more likely he is to make technical appearances for purposes of the hefty allowances at stake. This makes the term limits a viable option.

On the other hand, over 50% of members of National Assembly never make it back to parliament. This means that there is natural attrition, with the exception of a few who have mastered their way around the murky waters of our politics. This beats my proposal of a mandatory two-term limit for MPs if the people can change a majority of them every five years. The challenge, however, is that the turnover is never an assurance of an improvement in quality of leadership.

Ideally, democracy is meant to be self-regulating, but the reality is that there are forces that will not let democracy to take its course. Party politics in Kenya is about loyalty, bribery and theft. If one day in politics is a long time, in Kenya it can also be very short for some people because careers can end even before they begin. This is the reason the independent candidate window is coming out as a safety net in our politics.

In a country where people in crucial careers like medicine and engineering leave their professions to seek seats in county and national assemblies, it is time we looked at our politics. Politics has become a gateway to easy wealth,and a quick ascent into a higher social class. When more and more people are seeking political office, then it is paramount to put in measures that limit a few people from hogging the seats so as to deflate the intensity candidates put in acquiring these seats.

To set or not to set the two terms limit is the question.



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