Kenya's senators abandon ‘powerless’ Upper House

Thursday June 29 2017

Kenya's Senate at a past session. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Kenya's Senate at a past session. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

By FRED OLUOCH
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As the August election approaches, there are lingering questions on whether the Kenyan Senate has performed its constitutional duties and whether Kenyans have realised its impact.

The Senate, introduced after the 2013 election in line with the 2010 constitution as the Upper House, the Senate has become the least attractive among the four positions to be contested.

Out of the 67 elected and nominated senators, 34 have announced they will not defend their seats and have opted to either seek governorship, MP and even Member of County Assembly, while other have opted to retire in frustration.

Speaker Ekwe Ethuro complained that 30 Bills the total that Senate sent to the National Assembly were ignored thereby rendering them null and void.

The exodus has occurred despite the fact that Senators will earn a basic salary of $2,038 compared to the National Assembly members’ $1,983. The Speaker of the Senate earns $13,618 while the Deputy Speaker takes $10,965.

In total, Kenyan taxpayer spends $136,575 on 66 senators minus the Speaker and deputy.

Superiority battles

Unlike governors, MPs and MCAs, the senators have no resources under their direct control.

The Senate has been frustrated by the National Assembly and the Council Governors despite having been created under Article 96 of the Constitution to represent the counties, protect the interests of the counties and their governments, provide oversight of public funds, and offer significant checks and balances against the National Assembly.

According Jessica Musila, Executive Director of Mzalendo Trust, which monitors the performance of MPs, the National Assembly used delay tactics to frustrate laws from the Senate, giving the example of the delaying of Kiraitu Murungi’s Bill on restructuring the Parliamentary Service Commission in order to accommodate the Senate.

The National Assembly delayed this because they harboured their own vision of how the Commission should be structured.

These two Bills awakened superiority battles between the two Houses. Parliament’s life came to an end before this issue was agreed upon. The next House comes in with the battle lines already marked out for them.

Ms Musila says that along the corridors of Parliament, the Senate is described as a boring House, perceived as less busy and with lesser powers compared to the National Assembly.

Nominated Senator, Hosea Ochwang’i is running for MCA in Kisii County, while his counterpart, Godliver Omondi is seeking an MCA seat in Kakamega County. Migori Senator Wilfred Machage has climbed down and will run for Kuria West MP.

The major constitutional responsibility of the Senate is to protect the interests of devolved units. To this extent, the failures of county governments may be blamed on the aloofness of the Senate.  

In most jurisdictions, especially in the West, the Senate is represented by experienced politicians whose knowledge and wisdom are called upon in times of crisis, like in the case of the House of Lords in the UK. But in Kenya, the Senate attracted both old and young politicians, some of whom were entering politics for the first time. 

Over and above, it is agreed that the Upper House usually attracts the best of the political class, men and women who have proven their mettle in other realms of society, and to steady the ship of statesmanship.

In March 2017, National Assembly MPs threatened to draft a motion to scrap the Senate, but the idea flopped. The MPs, through the Budget and Appropriations Committee, had proposed that the Senate be abolished.