General elections in Kenya slated for end of this year may be postponed until next year to allow a team reviewing the Constitution to complete its work. The recommendation to extend the life of the Constitutional Review Commission was made May 28th by Chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Constitutional Review, Raila Odinga, after a meeting to decide the length of the Commission's term.
According to its terms of reference, the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission is supposed to finish its task of reviewing the Constitution by October this year.
But in April the commission, led by Professor Yash Pal Ghai, said it was not going to accomplish this task by the deadline since it had not collected enough views. The commission said it needed more time to travel the length and breadth of the country to collect and collate these views in order to come up with a new Constitution.
Committee Chairman Odinga said his committee had agreed to extend the life of Professor Ghai's commission to April next year, at which time it will be expected to present to Parliament a new Constitution. This extension has elicited a feeling, especially among some sitting legislators, that the current Parliament should also remain in place until a new Constitution is written. But others are opposed to the extension of Parliament
Dr. Shem Ochuodho, an opposition member of parliament, says, "The Progressive People's Forum is utterly opposed to the extension of of Parliament even for one extra day. We are equally opposed to the taking away of the people's role in the Constitutional review process. What we are offering as a way forward are comprehensive electoral reforms which would require longer to work on."
Mr Ochuodho says electoral laws can be reviewed successfully in the remaining time and that elections should be held on December 29th as scheduled. He says the Constitutional Review Commission definitely needs more time to review the Constitution and suggests that the exercise should be seperate from general elections.
Constitutional review has been quite a controversial topic in Nairobi. A lot of people, especially those in the opposition, are banking on the constitutional review process to level the political playing field ahead of a scheduled December vote. They say the current Constitution favors the ruling Kenya African National Union (Kanu) party.
President Daniel Arap Moi is ineligible to run in upcoming elections after having served two, five-year terms. Although President Moi has publicly stated that he wants to hand over leadership to a younger Kenyan, some skeptics say the review commission is one of the vehicles Mr. Moi wants to use to continue to stay in power. The Constitution of Kenya Review Commission denies these accusations.
The current decision to extend the life of the commission is therefore seen by some as a precursor to the extension of the life of Parliament. Some people also say the commissioners and members of Parliament earn a lot of money and allowances at a time when the average Kenyan is facing very difficult economic times. They see these extensions as selfish moves by the political elite to enrich themselves.
But Mr. Ochuodho says it is a price Kenyans must be ready to pay, at least for the sake of reviewing the Constitution. He says the commission should not get more than a four-month extension, and he wants to see more commitment on the part of the commissioners.
It is not clear whether the term of the current Parliament will be extended. Some legal observers say the life of Parliament can be extended only when the country is at war or in a national crisis. Neither is happening in Kenya at the moment.