Kenya leader's constitutional reform bid illegal, says court

The reform plan, known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), would notably dilute the current winner-take-all electoral system blamed by Kenyatta for repeated post-electoral conflicts in the country.

President Uhuru Kenyatta. Picture: @UKenyatta/Twitter.

NAIROBI, Kenya - Kenya's High Court on Thursday ruled that President Uhuru Kenyatta's planned constitutional reforms are illegal and that he is liable to legal action over the move which has raised tensions in recent months.

The prosecutor general's office said the government would appeal the decision.

The reform plan, known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), would notably dilute the current winner-take-all electoral system blamed by Kenyatta for repeated post-electoral conflicts in the country.

A referendum on the matter is being prepared, but the five judges of the high court ruled that the president does not have the right to initiate the process.

"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 Building Bridges Initiative came about after Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga in 2018 stunned the nation by shaking hands and pledging to promote unity after a drawn-out 2017 election battle left more than 90 people dead.

Kenya, with its diverse population and large ethnic voting blocs, has long suffered politically-motivated communal violence around election time, notably after a 2007 poll when over 1,100 people passed away.

That election led to a power-sharing government, in which Odinga was prime minister, and a new constitution in 2010, which introduced the posts of prime minister and leader of the opposition.

However the 2017 election again led to chaos, with Odinga crying foul over fraud and the Supreme Court ordering a rerun due to irregularities, which Kenyatta won.

The next presidential election will be held in 2022 and Kenyatta, having served two terms, is not eligible to stand again.

Deputy President William Ruto, from the Kalenjin ethnic group, had been seen as Kenyatta's successor but now fears he is being frozen out.

He believes the constitutional reform will create a system allowing Kenyatta and Odinga, respectively Kikuyu and Luo, the two main ethnic groups in the country, to share power.

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