The people’s assembly is a town hall writ large

Posted by on 19th November 2017

Categories:   Uncategorized

By Gitungo Wamere

(Guest Blog)

The phrase “The People’s Assembly” has become one of the most used phrases in Kenya in the past few weeks. It has inspired both anxiety and confidence and as usual divided the country into two. Accolades and epithets, in regard to the idea are determined by the side of the political divide which one stands.

This idea of “The People’s Assembly” was introduced by NASA leader Raila Odinga when he was highlighting how the coalition shall be rallying its supporters against the government of President Kenyatta after his withdrawal from the controversial fresh election which was conducted on 26th of October.

In short “The People’s Assembly” is supposed to take shape of an inflated town hall where the people shall be discussing their issues then have them ratified by their respective County Assemblies. “The People’s Assembly” shall be different from a town hall because it is envisioned to have a structured membership and it shall have a “unique mandate” from the County Assemblies.  “The People’s Assembly” which shall not recognize the government of President Kenyatta (if Supreme Court validates his re-election) shall operate as a parallel government of the people.

Presently the questions are – what is the justification of the “The People’s Assembly”? What legal environment shall they operate in? These are questions that Kenyans have been grappling with, because this proposal has been confusing and to some extent vague.  Let’s try to dissect these two questions. Generally, the people’s assemblies are justified, because good governance and democracy thrives where people are consulted and they are free to question the government of the day.

Normally, people’s assembly is a forum where people meet to discuss and participate in decision making. They are formed for the sole purpose of facilitating public participation and putting the government on check. Looking at Odinga’s proposal, does it fall within the above justification? The answer is both yes and no. It is justified because like its look-alike the “The People’s Assembly Movement” in the United Kingdom, they shall be venting on the issues pertinent in the Kenyan society such as exclusion.

From the onset, Mr Odinga has highlighted issues like unemployment and cost of living as their agenda. On the other hand, their establishment is unjustified because they are meant to manufacture dissent and somehow breed anarchy in counties that didn’t support the President-elect.

The second question is on the environment and the legal architecture of the assemblies. First, there has been displeasure among the Jubilee section of Senators since the ratification of the People’s Assemblies in some counties. The discomfort emanates from the fact that county Assemblies are discussing issues that are way beyond their Jurisdiction.

Firstly, County Assemblies cannot discuss on the suitability, legality or the conduct of a President, this mandate is granted to Parliament.  Secondly, the County Assemblies cannot ratify the existence of an institution that doesn’t recognize the existence of a government.

Legally, County Assemblies are only supposed to legislate on County functions as stipulated in the part two of the fourth schedule. The People’s Assembly therefore, which will be an institution outside the constitution may find itself in trouble when steering its agenda.

It is perceived that “The People’s Assembly” is being formed to subvert the constitutional institutions in order to frustrate and delegitimize the government. Odinga says the “The People’s Assembly” shall operate until a legitimate government is elected in the office.

Despite, the circumstances and the grievances that surround President Kenyatta’s re-election extra-constitutional means will be unpopular and therefore difficult to sustain. A people’s assembly which is within the limits of the constitution may be welcome in a transitional democracy like Kenya. This is because people will find avenues to bring forth issues that bring discomfort in their wellbeing.

Finally, as a country we advocate for strengthening of civic education and arming Kenyans with information in order to encourage public participation. Here we shall make civic engagement everyone’s business compared to the current situation where government issues are left to a certain class of people. If the people’s assemblies take this shape, then there is nothing illegal when people assemble to discuss issues affecting them in order to get a solution.