The Kenya High Court ruled that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s push to change the constitution was illegal, stopping a move that critics say was designed to check on his MP, with whom he has fallen publicly.
Parliament has already passed the proposed amendments, popularly known as the Building Bridges Initiative, which mark the biggest change in the governance structure of the East African nation since a new constitution was adopted in 2010.
However, in issuing a ruling on several appeals filed by various parties, a bank of five court judges said on Thursday that Kenyatta used a constitutional provision reserved for citizens to initiate changes, making the process illegal.
“The constitutional amendment bill is an initiative of the president and the law is clear that the president does not have the constitutional mandate to initiate any constitutional change through the popular initiative,” the court said in its ruling.
As a result, “civil proceedings can be initiated against the president for violating the constitution, initiating the amendment,” the judges added.
“The president cannot be a player and referee in the same match,” said Jairus Ngaah, one of the judges.
The government, which wants to hold a referendum after Kenyatta signs the bill, said it will appeal the ruling.
Kenyatta says the bill promotes the sharing of power among competing ethnic groups to reduce cyclical election violence and is not aimed at anyone.
It will create 70 new constituencies, return the role of cabinet ministers to elected members of parliament, and create several powerful new positions: a prime minister, two deputies and an official leader of the parliamentary opposition.
Kenyatta initiated the changes with the support of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, after the two made peace in January 2018 after a divisive presidential election the previous year in which the president defeated Odinga.
The rapprochement isolated Kenyatta MP William Ruto, who wants to succeed his boss when he resigns next year after serving the two five-year terms the constitution has allowed constitutionally.
Constitutional amendments are designed in part to domesticate Ruto’s political ambitions of the Kalenjin ethnic group, making it possible to unite an alliance against him, said John Githongo, a prominent anti-graft activist.
“It’s very clear that some of these lineups need to be put aside,” he said.
Ruto’s allies have loudly opposed the bill of constitutional changes in parliament and abroad.
“I don’t think we have a constitutional problem in Kenya … The biggest problem in Kenya is an economic problem,” pro-Ruto MP Ndindi Nyoro told local citizen television.
The next presidential election will be held in 2022 and Kenyatta, having served two terms, will not be able to run again.
Ruto said constitutional reform will create a system that will allow Kenyatta and Odinga, respectively Kikuyu and Luo, the country’s two main ethnic groups, to share power.