Kenya’s High Court has ruled a drive by President Uhuru Kenyatta to change the constitution as illegal, stopping a move critics say was designed to check his deputy, whom he has fallen out with publicly.
Parliament had already passed the proposed amendments – popularly known as the Building Bridges Initiative – which mark the biggest change to the East African nation’s government structure since a new constitution was adopted in 2010.
The judgement is arguably the most significant ruling by Kenyan courts since President Kenyatta’s election win was nullified in 2017.
The judges said the constitution amendment bill was irregular, illegal and unconstitutional.
“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 changes through popular initiative,” the court said in its ruling.
As a result, “civil proceedings can be instituted against the president for violating the constitution, by initiating its amendment,” the judges added.
“The president cannot be both player and umpire in the same match,” said Jairus Ngaah, one of the judges.
President Kenyatta and his political nemesis-turned-ally, Raila Odinga, unveiled the initiative after a truce following the contentious 2017 election, which saw violent clashes around the country.
The debate has dominated Kenya’s politics for the past two years and is closely linked to the battle to succeed Kenyatta, who is due to step down next year.
The two leaders said the initiative, which proposes, among others, the expansion of the executive arm of government, would make the country’s politics more inclusive.
But critics say it is a selfish initiative to reward political dynasties, and that it will lead to a bloated parliament and executive which Kenya – a country already burdened by debt- cannot afford.
The BBI bill had been passed by the National Assembly and the Senate before Thursday’s court ruling and was awaiting a presidential assent, after which Kenyans would have headed to a referendum before next year’s elections.
The BBI has dominated Kenyan politics for the past two years, so the ruling is a huge blow to Kenyatta who had staked his legacy on passing the initiative.
The judges warned that the president could be sued in his personal capacity.