The High Court of Kenya ruled that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s desire to change the constitution was illegal, ending a decision that critics said was aimed at verifying his deputy, with whom he fell out publicly.
Parliament has already passed proposed amendments – commonly known as the Bridge Building Initiative – which mark the biggest change in the governance structure of the East African nation since the passage of a new incorporation in 2010.
However, ruling on several challenges filed by various parties, a bench of five of the tribunal said Thursday that Kenyatta had used a constitutional provision reserved for citizens to initiate the changes, making the process illegal.
“The constitutional amendment bill is an initiative of the president and the law makes it clear that the president does not have the constitutional mandate to initiate constitutional changes through a popular initiative,” the court said in her decision.
As a result, “civil proceedings can be brought against the president for violating the constitution, by initiating his amendment,” the judges added.
“The president cannot be both a player and a referee in the same game,” said Jairus Ngaah, one of the judges.
The government, which wants to hold a referendum after Kenyatta signs the bill, has said it will appeal the decision.
Kenyatta says the bill promotes power-sharing among competing ethnic groups to reduce cyclical election violence and does not target anyone.
He will create 70 new constituencies, return the role of cabinet ministers to elected MPs and create several powerful new positions: a prime minister, two MPs and an official leader of the parliamentary opposition.
Kenyatta initiated the changes with the backing of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, after the two made peace in January 2018 following a divisive presidential election the previous year in which the president defeated Odinga.
The rapprochement has isolated Kenyatta MP William Ruto, who wants to succeed his boss when he resigns next year after serving the two five-year terms provided for by the Constitution.
The constitutional amendments are intended in part to tame the political ambitions of the Kalenjin ethnic Ruto, allowing for an alliance against him, said John Githongo, a prominent anti-corruption activist.
“It’s very clear that some of these lineups have to sideline him,” he said.
Ruto’s allies vigorously opposed the Constitutional Changes Bill inside and outside Parliament.
“I don’t think we have a constitutional problem in Kenya… The biggest problem in Kenya is an economic problem,” Ndindi Nyoro, a pro-Ruto parliamentarian, told local Citizen television.
The next presidential election will be held in 2022 and Kenyatta, having served two terms, is not eligible to run again.
Ruto said the constitutional reform will create a system whereby Kenyatta and Odinga, respectively Kikuyu and Luo, the two main ethnic groups in the country, to share power.