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Making Sense of #FakeNews and #CovidBillionaires

14 min read.

Given the allegations of COVID-related graft in Kenya, it is not surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in their government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and that some believe that the government is paying for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for COVID funds.

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Making Sense of #fakenews and #covidbillionaires
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As parts of the world begin to deal with a second wave of COVID-19 infections, it has become apparent that it is not just the virus that is not going away, but related outbreaks of “fake news” and allegations of fraudulent activity have also persisted.

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” lamented Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), back in February. He suggested that the parallel outbreak of misinformation “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”.  Since then, all manner of dubious stories about coronavirus have been circulating around the world, along with fake cures, fake testing kits, imitation drugs and rising reports of COVID-related fraudulent actions, from scams and price inflations to bogus companies and accusations of fraud along transnational chains of medical suppliers and subcontractors.

Fakes, forgeries and fraud are certainly not new phenomena, and nor are they limited to the current pandemic. Fake news exists in a wider ecosystem of disinformation (deliberately intended to deceive), misinformation (false information that is mistakenly circulated), clickbait and propaganda. Though so old that it predates the printing press, fake news has been of rising concern in the era of social media and since Donald Trump popularised the term by using it as a criticism of any reporting he didn’t like.

As the 2020 pandemic escalated, powerful organisations, such as WHO and Interpol reported an increase in fake news and fake medical products. Though the corruption monitoring organisation Transparency International has noted the increased likelihood of fraud in the wake of the huge influx of COVID-19 donor funds, this is arguably a continuity and extension of the last three decades of rising economic trickery and fraud during the neoliberal period.

Along with other researchers, our work has shown how, rather than reducing economic malfeasance and increasing efficiency, the years of economic deregulation, privatisation and marketisation that underlie neoliberalism have actually seen an increase in instances of fraud and fakery, rather than the reverse. Observers have also noted that the prevalence of fake news has increased alongside rising socio-economic inequality generated by neoliberalism, and the forms of political populism that it has sparked. Notably, this “age of fraud” has seen an accompanying emphasis on transparency, accountability and proliferating anti-fraud measures that, far from helping, may have further contributed to the fraud pandemic.

Nevertheless, coronavirus allows us to consider these long-standing concerns in new ways. In particular, as we sift through the growing pile of allegations and counter-allegations about COVID fakes, fraudsters and liars, we are interested in how COVID-related fake news might help to shed light on what anthropologist Daniel Jordan Smith has called “cultures of corruption”. That is, how debates about corruption, fraud and fakes can have different meanings and effects in different socio-political contexts around the globe and what the root causes might be. Whilst recognising COVID-related fraud as a global phenomenon, including in the countries we come from and live in (Germany and the UK), here we examine cases from Kenya, where one of us has recently conducted research on “fake buildings” and other “fake debates”. We start with two stories that went viral on Kenyan social media earlier this year.

Brenda and Benson 

In April, Brenda Cherotich was trending on Twitter. She was considered to be COVID-19 Patient One in Kenya, having flown back from the United States via London. After three weeks of isolation and recuperation, she was medically deemed to have recovered.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”. Despite vigorous official denials, numerous stories circulated that Brenda appeared in the media as a government PR exercise, that she was an actress and not a real COVID patient, that she’d been paid by the government to share her fake case to enable Kenya to access newly available donor funds for fighting the coronavirus.

In June, a new Twitter storm broke around Benson Musungu, the National Youth Coordinator for the opposition party ODM. He tweeted from hospital to say that he had been receiving treatment for COVID-19, and had been admitted to the ICU. Musungu was widely lampooned, and his illness dismissed as fake news. He was rumoured to have received a large pay-out (some said from the opposition, some said from the government) to “go public” about his case in order to persuade Kenyans of the dangers of COVID-19, allegations which he strenuously denied.

Brenda and another recovered patient who had been identified through tracing Brenda’s contacts were invited to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta, and their discussion was broadcast on TV. Kenyans on Twitter quickly exploded, not so much with sympathy for Brenda, but with vilification: she was accused of being “fake news”.

How to make sense of these two cases? Firstly, they suggest that some Kenyans remain sceptical about the genuineness and gravity of the novel coronavirus, to the extent that the government would pay people to convince the public of its reality. That COVID-19 is a “fake” disease is one of the recurring themes of the fake news “infodemic” that has proliferated alongside the global fight against the virus.

During discussions with Nairobi residents in recent months, it has emerged that there remain at least some Kenyans who are convinced that COVID is either a fake disease or hugely inflated as an issue by the government (or related authorities), a situation also reported by the BBC. And indeed it does seem that, as yet, coronavirus in Kenya has not reached the severity that many predicted back in March. This makes it a little easier to understand why some people could believe that Brenda and Benson were fake patients or government stooges. If Brenda and Benson were really paid to promote a government message about coronavirus, then they would not be the only ones: it emerged in August that the UK government, for example, was paying reality TV stars and social media influencers to endorse its public health campaigns. But beyond this, what are the circumstances that would make these stories believable enough to gain traction with a sizeable section of the Kenyan public?

One reason fake news goes viral is when it seems to offer people an explanation, particularly in times of uncertainty or anxiety. The most effective stories are not completely fictitious but are grounded in the possible: they perhaps spin off from a widely accepted narrative or recent mainstream news story. In other words, they make sense to these readers in a given context. In Kenya, as elsewhere, that context is a considerable lack of public trust in the motives and actions of state institutions.

One recurring theme of the Twitter storm around Brenda and Benson was that many commenters made a link between the phenomena of fake news and alleged government dishonesty and corruption. The stories accuse the government of not only peddling fake news, but also of mishandling official funds. And yet, the denials in turn also dismissed the stories as fake news, rebuffed by the individuals involved as well as government officials.

As each side accuses the other, do we just declare an impasse? Or is there something to glean here about the particular character of popular critique in Kenya, and the interpretations of financial management and public politics that allow such narratives to take root? We suggest that by looking at the claims of COVID-related fakery, fraud and corruption and the context from which they emerge, we can go beyond the utilitarian guidelines of international anti-fraud institutions and anti-fake news initiatives, whose statements tend to revert to simplistic binaries of truth/lies, genuine/fake, accountable/corrupt. Exhortations from agencies like the United Nations to “take care before you share’” do little to get to the root of why certain (mis)information goes viral and how it is embedded in particular moral and political-economic landscapes. Instead, we suggest, we should look to how such stories seek to challenge moral and political authority, revealing deeper anxieties about absence of trust, the conduct of the powerful, personal gain and what forms of misconduct a global pandemic might facilitate.

The economy of a pandemic

Since April, Kenya has been the recipient of huge sums in loans and grants from various international agencies to address the socio-economic as well as health impacts of COVID-19. This included $739 million credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), $50 million from the World Bank, a total of $162 million from the European Union (EU), as well as further disbursements from WHO. As this money flooded in, there had been growing allegations from the media and civil society organisations about procurement mismanagement, unqualified companies winning tenders, and inflated costs of COVID-related goods and services.

Meanwhile, some Kenyans have claimed they are not seeing the benefits of these funds and that there is little to be seen on the ground. In late August, Nairobi’s Uhuru Park was the location of two demonstrations. The first marked the start of a Kenyan doctors’ strike over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), non-payment of salaries and substandard working conditions in public hospitals that unions said were putting doctors at risk of contracting COVID-19. (There has been a flow of substandard PPE and fake equipment in Kenya, some of which carry dubious safety marks or have been through mismanaged quality control procedures.)

The second protest was mobilised online around the hashtag #arrestcovid19thieves to protest what the organisers claimed was massive corruption and misappropriation of coronavirus funds in Kenya. “We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic,” said organiser Wanjeri Nderu.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration. By September, there were state investigations ongoing into the “KEMSA scandal”, with updates about the allegations and investigations into COVID-corruption becoming almost daily news.

Kenya is not unique in this. The UN has acknowledged that we are likely to see an increase in fraud and mismanagement in 2020, particularly because donors and governments have “relaxed safeguards by trading compliance, oversight and accountability for speed of response and achievement of rapid impact, thus leading to the creation of significant opportunities for corruption to thrive”. This seems to have occurred in the UK, where the Good Law Project has initiated proceedings alleging breaches to procurement law, which the government defends as emergency response.

Globally, WHO and Interpol have also reported a growing volume of fake treatments: uncertainty about the new virus and how it spreads, as well as lack of access to healthcare, has made people susceptible to supposed “cures” for coronavirus. False remedies that have been circulating in Kenya range from the relatively benign, such as boiling onions with lemon, to the more risky, including a range of herbal treatments, to the downright lethal.

The same week, an exposé by the Nation newspaper claimed that COVID-19 had “opened the floodgates for looting”, which led to investigations of misconduct and senior leadership suspensions at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA). As accusations of graft and misconduct escalated, many Kenyans came together behind the hashtag #covidbillionaires to share their anger and frustration.

The rumour that drinking bleach protects against infection has gathered strength worldwide. In Uganda, an American pastor distributed a “miracle drink” containing industrial bleach to 50,000 Ugandans, while in the US, Donald Trump has disturbingly suggested injecting disinfectant as a COVID-19 treatment.

Sometimes it is not easy to distinguish what is genuine and what is counterfeit. As the world went into lockdown, the vast global supply chain feeding the pharmaceutical industry began to unravel. With registered companies operating at reduced capacity, supplies of raw ingredients for all kinds of medicines diminished and prices rocketed. This led to a spike in drugs where key ingredients were substituted with unapproved or illegal others, or which made false claims. For example, a drug circulating in the Democratic Republic of Congo was allegedly manufactured in Belgium by “Brown and Burk Pharmaceutical limited”. However, Brown and Burk, who are registered in the UK, said they had “nothing to do with this medicine. We don’t manufacture this drug, it’s fake”

Taking this into account, even if the particular cases of Brenda and Benson may not be accurate, the way the stories connect fake news to corruption does ring true with at least some in the Kenyan context, where a swirl of stories and rumours about fakes, counterfeits, corruption and fraud circulate and overlap. Given the emerging scandals and allegations of graft, it is perhaps less surprising that many Kenyans have little trust in official management of the pandemic. Nor does it seem so strange that some could believe that the Kenyan government might pay for good PR about patient recovery to demonstrate to donors a continued need for funds.

Addressing the symptoms, not the causes 

So what next? Recognising that fake news, fraud and corruption can have serious, even deadly, effects (WHO has likened corruption around procurement of PPE to “murder”) what has been the response? Firstly, we suggest, many of the measures proposed by international agencies address only the symptoms rather than the root causes of the phenomena. Secondly, unlike the stories of Brenda and Benson, they tend to treat fake news and fraud as very separate issues, masking the ways they might be rooted in similar public concerns.

In response to the fake news infodemic, WHO has advocated the need for fact-checking and “mythbusting”. Enlisting internet giants, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, as well as the news agency AFP, their project analyses search results and filters out content that they regard as unfounded medical opinion or fake news. Similarly, BBC Africa and German state media have launched fact-checking and misinformation services about COVID-19. Such initiatives have in turn been scrutinised by other parties who are sceptical about the mix of power, interests or politics that could be at play, and instead offer alternative analyses.

Rather than addressing this scepticism, powerful institutions continue to claim their impartiality: A spokesperson from UNESCO stated that their approach to fake news was to increase the supply of “truthful information”.  “We are underlining that governments, in order to counter rumours, should be more transparent, and proactively disclose more data, in line with Right to Information laws and policies. Access to information from official sources is very important for credibility in this crisis.”

In a similar vein, Kenyan journalist Waihiga Mwaura, who has been writing a series of “Letters from Kenya” for BBC Africa, has observed in relation to fake news in Kenya that “more emphasis needs to be placed on answering the questions of people, and encouraging collaboration with the government in order to save lives. Once people understand the basic facts they will become the best amplifiers of the core messages within their communities”.

What these responses have in common is the emphasis on facts and information, supposing that fake news only works because the public doesn’t have enough access to data. They also seem to assume that the public is unaware of political “spin”, information management or even the interest of international agencies in covertly influencing online opinion. The measures also assume that government involvement will lead to better health communication and that the public will circulate officially approved material.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare? Is the citizen likely to believe the authorities’ statements on what is true or not true in relation to the coronavirus?

On the global trade in counterfeit medicines, Interpol’s Operation Pangea, in collaboration with a mix of state agencies around the world, is developing a public information campaign on the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals from unregulated online sources. The OECD has issued a policy brief stating, “Governments need to ensure the legitimate and safe provenance of pharmaceutical products, both online and in pharmacies, so that citizens can trust the medicines they use.” Similarly, a BBC News investigation into the pharmaceutical industry during the pandemic reported that “the circulation of fake and dangerous medicines would only increase unless governments around the world present a united front”.

All of this presumes a scenario in which there is a high (or at least reasonable) level of trust between governments and the public. But what if this is not the case? What if a citizen suspects that government officials (and their favoured firms) are diverting or mishandling funds intended to provide essential healthcare?

But once again, things are more complicated than such powerhouse institutions suggest. Crucially, these public declarations again presume that there is a trustworthy state system in place for monitoring the quality of goods and products. And yet state agencies in various countries are themselves linked to allegations about unknown provenance and unenforced quality standards, including in the UK where medical supplies contracts have been issued to dormant companies that seem not to exist, as well as the German government’s implication in the VW emissions scandal, and their alleged failure to ensure standards were enforced.

In Kenya, the official Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) is embroiled in accusations that it is involved in fraudulent quality control testing of PPE, with claims that shadowy “cartels” are pulling the strings to gain favourable reports for their substandard products. Such claims are not new: a 2018 investigation by the Nation newspaper (since taken offline) found that KEBS had been running a counterfeiting scam of its own, faking the certification mark that authorises items for sale and making it impossible to tell which products were genuine and which were not.

On fraud and financial misconduct, the UN and Transparency International have each circulated recommendations for anti-fraud measures (AFM) for donors. These emphasise the need for clear communication strategies, transparency initiatives and preventive safeguards in procurement, including the use of technology for greater accountability and more comprehensive auditing and reporting mechanisms.

Transparency International advocates open contracting as one model for increasing accountability in procurement. Their “Open Contracting for Health” model has been deployed in five countries, including Kenya, and according to the project leads, in the context of COVID-19 they are now seeing “the results of efforts to increase the transparency of emergency procurement and combat corruption. Transparency International chapters, including Kenya…are tracking financial commitments to the COVID-19 response to ensure that promises are kept, and money is actually used to tackle the pandemic”.

Kenya is here held up as a best-practice example of emergency health procurement, which to some members of the public might be surprising given the current local news. It is also interesting to note the overlap in vocabulary between measures proposed to address fake news and AFMs. The emphasis is again on clear communication, sharing transparent and accurate data, and use of technology. This language of transparency, accountability, auditing and efficiency has become familiar with the liberalisation of economies around the world, and particularly in relation to neoliberal lending and financing. Yet research suggests these approaches may be of limited value in addressing the deep-rooted challenges of fraud and corruption, and that AFMs themselves are regularly claimed to be vectors of fraud. Likewise, anthropologists have noted how, in the same era that “transparency” has become a watchword for good governance, the inner workings of authority can nevertheless remain opaque. In such circumstances, popular suspicions of power, such as conspiracy theories or fake news, can become ways of making sense of things.

Rather than reducing economic malpractice, research suggests that economic liberalisation has actually seen consistently high levels and sometimes increasing instances of fraud across various regions and sectors. The rise in AFMs in Africa and elsewhere gives the impression of industrious efforts to combat such fraudulent activities, and indeed many genuine efforts exist. But underneath, various fraud-active state and business actors continue to find ways to circumvent AFMs and thus often the problems persist.

In light of this, AFMs and their calls for greater transparency and accountability can seem more like a sticking plaster, “masking the problem rather that addressing the root causes” of fraud. This is partly because the technocratic approach favoured by AFM agencies does not take into account the fraud-conducive moral economy of neoliberal capitalism and the particular socio-historical and political terrain from which fraudulent activities (and AFMs) take shape.

In Kenya, researchers have rightly noted that graft has long history, in part going back to colonial land expropriations and other forms of dispossession that meant the very idea of the Kenyan state was birthed from a colonial system that abused the public it was meant to serve. The vested interests of public office continued during the regime of President Moi and beyond. In a process Joe Kobuthi has described as the “bureaucratisation of corruption”, leaders adopted a tough anti-graft stance in public, establishing numerous anti-corruption committees, policies and taskforces, but economic deceptions persisted.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa, which since the 1990s has seen the implementation of new regimes of privatisation, audits and accountability across the continent, has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources. He argues that while on the surface, reliance on symbols of democracy, authenticity or transparency – such as election results, quality certification marks, procurement contracts, or audit trails – has increased, in fact trust in their efficacy has been hollowed out. We are left with a situation where a surface veneer of compliance has become increasingly detached from meaningful action, leaving a space for all kinds of fraudulent and counterfeiting activities to take shape. At a practical level, this can lead to “state capture”, or the repurposing of state institutions for private gain, which some researchers suggest can entrench corruption as indictments and prosecutions become weaponised.

Insights from theorist Achille Mbembe are highly instructive here. In his book On the Postcolony, he puts forward a theory of “doubling”, arguing that the politics of structural adjustment and neoliberal reform in Africa…has in fact increased opportunities for opacity, profiteering, and the extraction of resources.

For many citizens, understanding this landscape is complicated, as different actors can seem to be working beneath the surface, but always out of sight. In this context, debates over whether an issue is “fake news” or not can, for some, be part of wider anxieties about what is “really” going on. As further research has explored, in Kenya debates about fakes are more nuanced than just detecting whether something is counterfeit or genuine. After all, consumers often choose “fake” goods for cost or convenience, even if they are known to be less durable or of poorer quality. Instead, “fake” can become a term of critique and commentary, associating certain activities, products and politics with immoral action or suspect forms of wealth accumulation. In an article titled “Kenya, land of fake goods, fake leaders, fake smiles”, Dennis Otieno noted that in Kenya, “you must be very cautious, lest you pay a fake owner”. In such circumstances, everything is entangled in processes of doubling: opaque and potentially counterfeit, but nevertheless reliant on symbols of formality. Here, fake debates can be understood as some citizens’ attempts to understand more deep-seated deceptions at play in the moral and political system they live within.

In this way, anxieties about the “faked” cases of Brenda and Benson reveal public concerns not just about veracity, but more broadly about the agendas and operations of the powerful, self-enrichment and what is going on beneath the surface. In a country where state officials repeatedly cannot account for the disappearance of significant sums, and where corruption is believed by many to be endemic across all levels, it becomes more understandable why some Kenyans might start to look for #covidbillionaires behind all kinds of news stories, reasoning that coronavirus is simply another façade for concealing financial malpractice.

To decry a story as fake news is not to dismiss it as unreal, but to try to identify its doubleness; that its surface claims might be enabling other kinds of actions to occur underneath. Whether or not we believe them, by bringing fake news and corruption into one frame, the stories of Brenda and Benson indicate how the moral and political climate of fraud and fakery are deeply entangled.

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Dr. Constance Smith is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, and author of Nairobi in the Making: Landscapes of Time and Urban Belonging. Dr. Jörg Wiegratz is a Lecturer in Political Economy of Global Development at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Leeds, and Senior Research Associate, Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg.

Politics

The BBI Case at the Supreme Court of Kenya – Day 3

What is at stake is one of the most unique contributions to global jurisprudence in recent times: a basic structure doctrine that is not substantive but procedural, that does not impose a judicial veto but seeks a deeper form of public participation to amend the Constitution, and which provides to direct deliberative democracy an integral role in processes of significant constitutional change.

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The BBI Case at the Supreme Court of Kenya – Day 3
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As with Day 2, the final day of the proceedings in the BBI Case before the Supreme Court of Kenya can be divided into three phases (watch here). In some ways, it was a microcosm of the entire hearing – and indeed, of the entire BBI case so far: in Phase One, the Respondents finished their arguments. In Phase Two, the bench put a series of questions to the Respondents. In Phase Three, the Appellants made their Rejoinder. This, then, concluded the hearing (read analysis of Day 1 and Day 2 here), and judgment was reserved.

Phase OneThe Respondent’s Arguments

Carolene Kituku advanced detailed submissions on the IEBC/Quorum issue, arguing – in particular – that when a judgment struck down a legal provision as unconstitutional, the default position was that the provisions so struck down were deemed to have been always unconstitutional, right from the moment of their enactment (and not from the date of the judgment). Now if these amended provisions were void ab initio and never came into force, it would follow that the original, pre-amended provisions were never actually replaced, and continued to hold the field in the interim period. Thus, when in the Katiba Insitute case it was held that amended paragraphs 5 and 7 of the Schedule to the IEBC Act were unconstitutional, it would follow that the pre-amended provisions for quorum – which the IEBC was in breach of – would continue to apply during the intervening period – and indeed – as Elisha Ongoya argued later in the day – would be applicable until either the declaration of unconstitutionality was set aside, or another, legally valid amendment, was enacted. Carolene Kituku also advanced submissions on why the popular initiative process failed to pass the threshold of public participation (insufficient time, the draft bill only on the internet, PDFs, and so on).

In his submissions, Elisha Ongoya pointed out that at this stage, the BBI case had received close attention from a dozen judges combined (five at the High Court and seven at the Court of Appeal), and their concurrent findings should, therefore, be treated with a modicum of deference; in particular, and in any event, factual findings (such as insufficient public participation) should not be disturbed. Following up on this argument, Elisha Ongoya argued that the High Court’s determination of the basic structure doctrine – and the four-step-sequential process – was rooted in a detailed analysis of the text, structure, and history of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution. Ongoya argued that the onus was on the Appellants to demonstrate, specifically, which of these considerations was wrong or irrelevant; however, they had not done so, choosing instead to attack the High Court in general terms, for having converted itself into a philosophical tribunal. In particular, on Article 89 (delimitation of constituencies), the High Court produced six specific reasons, none of which had been disturbed by the Appellants. Moving through the abstract and the particular (as he had in the Court of Appeal), he illustrated the very specific political and historical concerns around constituency delimitation that had necessitated the High Court to evolve the basic structure doctrine. He was followed up on this by Evans Ogada, who argued that by prescribing a procedure and a time limit for the IEBC to carve out these new constituencies, the BBI Bill fatally compromised the independence of this fourth-branch institution. The line-up on the Respondents’ side was finally completed by Dr John Khaminwa, who summed up the arguments in favour of the basic structure doctrine.

Phase Two: The Judges’ Questions

In my opinion, the brief half an hour around midday today was perhaps the most important part of the hearing; having heard the judges’ questions to the Appellants the day before, their questions to the Respondents perhaps indicated in the clearest manner what their concerns were, and what the issues were upon which the decision would finally turn.

On the basic structure, Ouku J asked whether the High Court and Court of Appeal had provided sufficient guidance to the citizens of Kenya for determining what the basic structure was; and further, was the four-step-sequential process to be found within the Constitution, or coming from outside. Wanjala J asked about the distinction between “amendment” and “alteration”: what meaning was to be given to the “disappearance” of the word “alteration” from the constitution-making process, and how might that word be revived, constitutionally. He also asked about the where the juridical form of the constituent power was located. Koome CJ wondered if Kesavananda Bharati had attained the standard of a municipal decision that could be taken to lay down “a general principle of international law” – and whether, indeed, it had informed the framing of Kenya’s own Constitution, in particular Articles 255 – 257. Sticking with the theme, Lenaola J asked where in Kesavananda Bharati it was said that the Indian Constitution has any “eternity clauses”. He then asked what – in my view – was the most important question of the hearing (I will examine the reasons for this below): given that Article 255(1) specified which entrenched matters had to go to a referendum for amendment Article 257(1), what were those matters outside Article 255(1) that might need to go to the primary constituent power for amendment?

On the IEBC and quorum, Ouku J asked what would happen to those acts that the IEBC had done while it was improperly constituted. Njoki J asked if the quorum requirements could be read into the Constitution – and if not, why did the Constitution provide a “minimum” and a “maximum” number for the composition of commissions. Wanjala J wanted to know what would happen if Parliament made a law for a three-member commission, and fixed quorum on that basis. Similarly, Lenaola J asked what the meaning was of Article 250(1) setting the minimum number at three (as no constitutional provision ought to be considered superfluous), and what – if any – acts the Commission could undertake with three members.

On public participation, Njoki J asked what specific steps the IEBC could have taken to reach ordinary Kenyans. And Koome CJ expressed a concern similar to the one she had expressed during Appellants’ arguments: was there something in the Constitution that could be used to determine the standards for public participation, even in the absence of express statutory framework?

Discursion: Thinking through Lenaola J’s Question

Before continuing with this post, I want to briefly think through Lenaola J’s question, as I believe it is fundamental to the case. The point is basically this: as the Appellants argued repeatedly, the Kenyan Constitution has a two-track process for amendment. The regular Parliamentary route on the one hand (Article 256), and then, for the ten entrenched subjects under Article 255(1), the public participation + referendum route under Article 257. Appellants argued that this two-track process was doing the same work that the basic structure doctrine was otherwise meant to do: it was identifying the basic features of the Kenyan Constitution, and then prescribing a more onerous, people-involved way of amending them, which approximated the primary constituent power.

This being the case, the obvious challenge for the basic structure doctrine is this: if you say that the basic structure of the Kenyan Constitution is the ten subjects under Article 255(1) (the supremacy of the Constitution, the territory of Kenya, the sovereignty of the People, etc.), then an immediate problem arises – given that there is a specific and express way to amend these subjects (Article 257), how then can the four-step process be simply superimposed upon this scheme? If, on the other hand, you say that the basic structure of the Kenyan Constitution is not in these ten subjects, then a whole host of other problems arise. What, for example, is even more fundamental or basic than sovereignty, or the bill of rights, or constitutional supremacy, that would need an even higher threshold of amendment than what is set out in Article 257? And how would you identify what those even more fundamental themes are?

So how does one answer Lenaola J’s question? I think there are two sequential (sorry!) responses. The first is to accept that the basic structure is (largely) located within Article 255(1) of the Kenyan Constitution (as the Court of Appeal, in fact, did) and not outside of it. However, here is the key: not every amendment to an Article 255(1) subject will trigger the basic structure doctrine and the four-step-sequential process. It is important to note here that the OG basic structure case – Kesavananda Bharati – never actually said that you cannot amend the basic structure. What it said – and this is crucial – is that you cannot damage or destroy the basic structure. And the distinction is significant: for example, amendments to Article 16 of the Indian Constitution setting out the modalities for affirmative action have passed the judicial scrutiny, even though they “amend” the Constitution’s equality code, which is unambiguously part of the basic structure.

So, even with respect to the subjects set out under Article 255(1), not every amendment will necessarily trigger basic structure scrutiny. Consider, for example, 255(1)(e) – the Bill of Rights. Article 24 of the Kenyan Constitution sets out the conditions for limiting a particular fundamental right. It follows familiar language – the nature of the right, the purpose of the limitation, etc. Now, suppose you wanted to amend Article 24 and make the language clearer – for example, incorporate into the Article, in express terms, the global proportionality standard that is now followed in many jurisdictions across the world. This would be an amendment to an Article 255(1) subject, and therefore trigger Article 257. However, it would not be damaging or destroying the basic structure in a manner that would trigger the primary constituent power, and the four-step-sequential process. Indeed, you can think of many ways in which the subjects set out under Article 255(1) could be amended (i.e., making language more precise, modifications to standards, adding standards, etc.) that would not trigger what we generally think of as basic structure scrutiny. On the other hand, if you were to repeal Article 24 altogether, and replace it with a provision such as: “All rights in this Part may be limited whenever the government deems fit in the public interest” – now that would be a basic structure violation that would go beyond Article 257 and trigger the four-step-sequential process.

This point is crucial, because it really does go to the heart of the case – the difference between amendment and repeal – and why the existence of the two-track process (as the Appellants argued) does not preclude the operation of the basic structure doctrine. This is because at the end of the day, the two-track process is concerned with amendment – whether of non-entrenched provisions (Article 256 route) or entrenched provisions (Article 255(1) + 257 route). The two-track process does not contemplate wholesale repeal of the Constitution (express or implied). It is for those situations that the primary constituent power and the four-step-sequential process is needed. Thus, there is nothing absurd about saying that one does not need to go looking for the basic structure outside of Article 255(1): the same sub-clauses under Article 255(1) might trigger either Article 257 or the four-step-sequential process, depending upon the nature of the change in the Constitution sought to be effected, and whether it genuinely amounts to an amendment, or whether it is a repeal. In other words, the key is not Article 255(1), but the nature of the change.

My second, brief point is that at the same time, one might hesitate to definitively say that Article 255(1) necessarily exhausts the basic structure. Arguments were made before the High Court and the Court of Appeal, for example, showing how the questions of boundary delimitation – given Kenya’s context and history – needed to be considered as basic structure questions (arguably this would come within sub-clause (g), but bracketing that for the moment). One can also think of a case such as Indira Nehru Gandhi v Raj Narain, for example, where a constitutional amendment that simply precluded a challenge to the Prime Minister’s election was invalidated by the Court. Again, this would arguably fall within 255(1)(d) (the rule of law) and (g) (independent of the judiciary), but it is possible to differ on that. In any event, I do not think too much turns on this point: I think it is also perfectly reasonable to finally and conclusively say as follows:

. . . the basic structure – as the Appellants correctly argue – is found in Article 255(1). But not every amendment to Article 255(1) triggers the application of the basic structure doctrine, the primary constituent power, and the four-step-sequential process. For the primary constituent power to be triggered, the amendment must be of such nature, extent, and consequence, that it amounts to an implied repeal of the Constitution or its basic structure. Thus, if you were to make a venn diagram, there would be a larger circle of amendments to Article 255(1) subjects, and a smaller circle – contained within it – of amendments that triggered the basic structure doctrine.

With respect to the judge’s questions, Nelson Havi argued that both the High Court and the Court of Appeal had correctly stated that to identify the basic structure, you would have to look at the context and history of each provision. For example, in order to understand why the independence of the judiciary was part of the basic structure, you would have to look at how the colonial judiciary was a department of the executive, and how and why it migrated from the State department to independent status. On the four-step process, Havi argued that it was not found within the Constitution, but a means of preventing constitutional death: it was found in the process that made the 2010 Constitution. Indeed, it had to be outside the Constitution because the primary constituent power was, by definition, primordial. On the distinction between “alter” and “amend”, Havi submitted that the reason for the change was precisely the flaws that had been discovered with the Independence Constitution providing for the means of its own “alteration”.

Esther Ang’awa then argued that quorum could not be read into the Constitution, as the Commission had to operate on the basis of both the Constitution and legislation (the two engines). This argument was supplemented by other counsel, who pointed out that “composition” was just for membership, whereas quorum was to transact business – thus, the two concepts remained fundamentally distinct.

On public participation, Carolene Kituku provided various ways in which it could have been secured (e.g., use of other media of communication, such as radio). She also made an interesting burden of proof argument. Flipping the question around – i.e., what evidence was there that public participation was insufficient – she asked, instead, what evidence had been produced by State organs to show that public participation had taken place. I believe that this question is correctly framed: because if public participation is a guaranteed right under the Kenyan Constitution, and if it is easier for the State to prove the affirmative (i.e., that public participation had been carried out), then to me it seems to follow that the initial evidentiary burden lies upon the State: until the State has produced satisfactory evidence that the public participation requirement has been fulfilled, the presumption ought to be that it has not (this flows from the fact that it is a right).

Finally, Topua Lesinko made the point that the judgments of the High Court and the Court of Appeal were different in crucial respects from Kesavananda: to continue with the running theme of the proceedings, while in Kesavananda the Court permanently shut out certain amendments from being made altogether, the High Court and Court of Appeal surrendered them to the primary constituent power without shutting them out. In my view, another way of putting it would be that Kesavananda puts substantive limits on constitutional amendments based on their content, while the High Court and the Court of Appeal placed procedural limits based on deepening public participation, so that the People could adequately determine when the content could be allowed to go through and when not.

Third Phase

The last segment of the hearing saw the rejoinder by the Appellants. I will focus here on the basic structure doctrine, as the rest of the arguments were addressed, but only briefly, and with arguments similar to those that have already been discussed previously.

On the subject of the basic structure, in closing, the Attorney-General’s legal team laid out the core of their case: that the basic structure constituted the foundational provisions of the Constitution. These were entrenched, and were to be found in Article 255(1). At the same time, the basic structure doctrine was an extra-constitutional doctrine that substantively limited the power of amendment. Thus, the Kenyan Constitution had a basic structure, but did not contemplate the basic structure doctrine. The Kenyan Constitution’s basic structure was protected not by the basic structure doctrine, but by the onerous amendment provisions under Articles 255 and 257.

The reason why the basic structure was located in Article 255(1) was to be found in the history of the constitution-making process. The People’s concern during the framing – as captured in the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission report – was how quickly and how fundamentally the Independence Constitution was amended. The CKRC then identified the People’s solution: a distinction between entrenched and non-entrenched provisions, with a stringent procedure being put into place for the amendment of the latter. This would safeguard the core of the Constitution. And that core was what was provided under Article 255(1).

The AG’s team argued that the basic structure doctrine was being deployed to obstruct the sovereign (i.e., the People’s) right to amend the Constitution under Article 257. In this context, there was no real difference between “amendment” and “alteration.” The contextual meaning of the word “amend” simply flowed from the ability of the sovereign to make or unmake anything, and that was the manner in which it was used in Chapter XVI of the Kenyan Constitution.

George Oraro SC then took up the baton. Speaking about the four sequential steps, he argued that what the High Court and Court of Appeal judges were trying to do was to revert to the original ratification procedure as a basis for legitimising the basic structure doctrine. But – according to Oraro SC, as I understood him – this, ultimately, was a futile endeavour: the power of making a Constitution was primordial and belonged to the People. By definition, it could not be regulated by a Court. The People had the right of reserving to themselves how they would use this power (e.g., Article 1(1)) – but even that could not stop them from coming up with a new method of creating or recreating a Constitution.

However, for now, the People had set out the route that they wanted to take, and that route was through Articles 255 and 257. The role of the Court, thus, was to ensure that those strict provisions for exercising the primary constituent power were very strictly followed: for example, sufficient participation, sufficient consultation. In essence, the role of the Court was to ensure that the right of the People to exercise their primary constituent power was protected. Oraro SC closed by stating that ultimately, it was the citizens – who were registered voters – who were holders of the primary constituent power, and it was this primary power that had been textualised under Article 257. This – thus – precluded the application of the basic structure doctrine.

As a closing remark of my own, I believe that this is as clear a statement of the case as it is possible to make. However, I am not entirely convinced that it responds to the core point: namely, that while the People indeed chose to constitutionalise the amendment to entrenched provisions under Article 257, that does not necessarily imply that said power carried with it the power of repeal or abrogation. Oraro SC’s argument assumes a conflation of that distinction, but in my respectful view, does not demonstrate it. It does not respond (in my view) to the independent arguments making that distinction, and showing why the primary constituent power is different from the power of amendment, and why – therefore – it must lie outside the Constitution.

Conclusion

The three days’ hearing before the Supreme Court saw arguments touch upon a wide range of issues crucial to both Kenyan constitutional law, and to comparative constitutional law in general. What is at stake (in my view) is one of the most unique contributions to global jurisprudence in recent times: a basic structure doctrine that is not substantive but procedural, that does not impose a judicial veto but seeks a deeper form of public participation to amend the Constitution, and which provides to direct deliberative democracy an integral role in processes of significant constitutional change. We will now wait to see the final fate of this case.

As Solicitor General Kennedy Ogeto said at the very end of the hearing, the judgment of the Court would be with Kenya for posterity. To that I will only add: it is also the kind of judgment that will echo in the annals of global constitutional law and thought for generations to come.

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The BBI Case at the Supreme Court of Kenya – Day 2

By now, it is evident that the battle lines have been drawn, and the points of conflict are beginning to appear in a clearer fashion.

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The BBI Case at the Supreme Court of Kenya – Day 2
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Day 2 of the BBI hearing (read analysis of Day 1 here) at the Kenyan Supreme Court (watch here) can be divided into three phrases. In the first phase, counsel supporting the appellants (i.e., broadly, the pro-BBI side) finished their submissions. In the second phase, the bench posed a series of questions to the pro-BBI side. In the third phase, the anti-BBI side (or, the Respondents) commenced its submissions. This typology is slightly reductive: for example, Mr. Isaac Aluochier, who argued in the first session, was against the basic structure doctrine, but was also against the BBI (for other reasons). Mr. Morara Omoke, who argued in the third session, was technically an appellant, as he had filed a cross-appeal on the question of single and multiple referendum questions. However, in the interests of sanity, this typology will have to do for the purposes of this post.

First Phase

The President’s legal team opened Day 2. SC Waveru Gatonye addressed the Court on the issue of Presidential immunity. Like his predecessors the day before, he focused on how the Kenyan Constitution contains inbuilt accountability mechanisms that are consistent with wide-ranging Presidential immunity from civil proceedings during the term of office. For example, wronged parties could sue the Attorney-General, and impeachment proceedings could always be launched. A bar upon suing the President during their term of office, therefore (for things done in the operation of their office) would not lead to impunity. Continuing on the theme of Presidential powers, SC Kimani Kiragu then argued on Presidential involvement in the Popular Initiative under Article 257: he argued that the sovereign People of Kenya had delegated a part of their authority to H.E. the President. Once that had been done, there could be no half-measures: the President must be deemed to possess all sovereign powers that had been delegated – including the power to initiate constitutional reform – unless there was an express limitation in the Constitution. In the context of Article 257, there was no such limitation. Readers will take careful note of this argument; as we shall see, it will become particularly important when contrasted with the Respondents’ submissions on this point.

Mr. Isaac Aluochier took the podium, to argue against both the basic structure doctrine and Presidential immunity. I want to flag one particular argument, as it was made before the Court of Appeal as well: that the basic structure doctrine is precluded by Article 1 of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya, which states that “all sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution.” Mr. Aluochier argued that Article 1 is express authority for the proposition that there can be no “extra-constitutional defence mechanism” for the Constitution, such as the basic structure doctrine. However, as I have tried to show before, this argument proves too much: at all times, the phrase “this Constitution” presumes the existence of the Constitution under advisement, that is, the 2010 Constitution. However, the whole point of the basic structure doctrine is to prevent or regulate amendments that are of such a nature that “this Constitution” will no longer be “this Constitution”, as its fundamental identity has been altered. Thus, if the basic structure doctrine is otherwise correct, Article 1 does not refute it: when you say that sovereign power will be exercised in accordance with this Constitution, it already excludes situations where this Constitution is no longer this Constitution – which is the situation that the basic structure doctrine is meant to cover. To be clear: this is not an affirmative argument in support of the basic structure doctrine. It is, however, a defensive argument that demonstrates that whatever other arguments there might be against the doctrine, Article 1(1) cannot be pressed into service here.

Second Phase

In an interesting turn of events, the bench did not pose any questions to counsel while they were arguing; instead, in the second phase, each of the judges took turns in posing a series of questions. Counsel for the pro-BBI side were then granted three minutes each to respond to the questions most relevant to their brief.

Let us group the questions thematically. On the subject of the basic structure, Lenaola J asked what it meant to say that sovereignty was “extra-constitutional”. Njoki J wanted to know if the four-step sequential process was found anywhere in the Constitution. Smokin Wanjala J asked why the appellants located the Kenyan Constitution’s basic structure within Article 255 – and why believed that the basic structure doctrine was inapplicable in Kenya. On the popular initiative, Lenaola J asked if there was any global precedent for a President – or a President-like figure – being involved in something like a popular initiative. Njoki J asked if the President was authorised to move under a popular initiative in order to fulfil his constitutional functions (readers will note this question, as an interesting answer was provided during Respondents’ submissions). Smokin Wanjala J enquired why it was being argued that the popular initiative kicked in only after the collection of a million signatures – and not before. Koome CJ also asked about the initiation of the popular initiative, and whether the requirement of public participation required a legal framework or rules of procedure, to be instantiated. Finally, on the subject of distinct and separate referendum questions, Ouku J made the important point that while four judges in the Court of Appeal seemed to endorse the “thematic unity” approach to referendum questions (i.e., referendum questions within a single theme could be grouped together, but not from different themes), the final disposition of the Court of Appeal reflected the opposite holding. Lenaola J asked if it was correct to say that the question was not yet ripe, as the IEBC was yet to decide how to frame the referendum questions; and Njoki J wanted to know if – given that there was nothing express in the Constitution – whether the thematic approach implied inserting into the Constitution something that was not there.

Responses to these questions were along familiar and expected lines: counsel reiterated – or further explained – the positions they had taken, including the argument that the basic structure doctrine applies only when there is a parliamentary monopoly over amendments, that the Kenyan Constitution’s basic structure was identified in Article 255 and provision for its amendment set out in Article 257, that Kesavananda Bharati is inapplicable to Kenya, that the scope of public participation is expressly set out in Article 257, and varies with the stage of the popular initiative, that the referendum question issue was unripe. Most of these points were addressed in yesterday’s blog post, and I will not repeat the arguments here.

Let me, however, flag two interesting responses. One response came on the question of global precedent: apparently, in Lichtenstein, the Prince had proposed a series of constitutional changes through a popular initiative (including the power to appoint judges), which were eventually passed by a referendum. Now, it was undoubtedly fascinating to hear – for the first time – some comparative constitutional law from Lichtenstein! I do wonder about the appropriateness of the example, though: a Prince taking control of the judiciary through constitutional amendment doesn’t exactly feel like a particularly inspiring instance of the use of the popular initiative. Out of curiosity, I did some digging after the hearing: it appears that the Venice Commission strongly criticised many of the constitutional reform proposals for their anti-democratic character, for the reason that they would result in excessive centralisation of power with the monarch. If anything, therefore, the Lichtenstein example seems to show that letting a powerful head of State bring about constitutional reform through popular initiative is more a recipe for abuse than anything else!

The second response was on the basic structure. Perhaps for the first time, counsel bit the bullet, and told the Court that if, tomorrow, there was a constitutional amendment seeking to curtail judicial review itself, the Court could participate in the public discussion around it – but would have no power to invoke the basic structure to invalidate the amendment. Putting the point in such stark terms – i.e., telling the Court that it had no legal power to protect even its own existence from constitutional amendment under Article 257 – is undoubtedly a starkly honest – and rather bold! – argumentative technique. It remains to be seen how the Court will respond to the issue being framed in such categorical terms.

Third Phase

The third phase was kicked off by Mr. Morara Omoke’s team, which had filed a cross-appeal on the referendum questions issue, but ultimately launched a full-throated defence of the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments. Counsel responded directly to the Appellants’ Kesavananda point, noting that there was a key distinction between Kesavananda and David NdiiKesavananda expressly “locked out” a set of amendments altogether. The High Court and the Court of Appeal, however, were equally express that in principle, every provisions of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution – including its basic structure – could be amended (as I argued in yesterday’s post, this distinction is crucial, as it – in my view – tracks the contextual differences between the Kenyan and Indian Constitutions). Secondly, counsel argued that the purpose of the four-step sequential process was to deepen public participation in the amendments process. It is important to read the two arguments together. The first argument is an argument demonstrating the need for a different form of the basic structure doctrine in the Kenyan context; and the second argument is an argument demonstrating that the form chosen by the High Court and the Court of Appeal was justified: where the amendment process already provides a role for the People (the two-track process referred to by the Appellants), the basic structure doctrine can only exist to the extent that it deepens that role to a level commensurate with constitutional framing. That, in essence, was what – according to counsel – the High Court and Court of Appeal did, and that was why this particular form of the basic structure doctrine (i.e., the four-step sequential process) was justified in the specific context of Kenya.

Mr. Morara Omoke then advanced a series of arguments supporting the High Court and Court of Appeal: on the issue of IEBC quorum, that Article 250(1) mentioned that the composition of Commissions had to be a minimum of three – but that composition did not equate to quorum. Extending the argument – in terms somewhat similar to the constitutional statute point made in yesterday’s blog post, he took the example of the tax code: if – Mr. Morara Omoke argued – amendments to the tax code were struck down, would it be the case that the Code itself would be treated as repealed, leaving the entire domain unregulated? He argued that that could not be the case – and similarly, the striking down of Sections 5 and 7 of the IEBC Act Schedule could not lead to the conclusion that there was now no statutory regulation governing the functioning of the IEBC.

For the sake of completeness, this argument was carried forward later in the day by Ester Ang’awa, who pointed out that the IEBC was regulated by both the Constitution (Article 250(1)), and by statute (the IEBC Act) – both of which, together, functioned as two wings of a plane, and were necessary for it to continue flying. On the failure of one engine (the statute, parts of which were struck down), the plane could not simply run perpetually just on the other. Readers may here again spot similarities with the constitutional statute argument, without the term expressly being mentioned.

Finally, on the issue of referendum questions, Mr. Morara Omoke noted that he had written to the Court of Appeal after its judgment, requesting clarification on the apparent contradiction between the holdings and the disposition; he had a reply stating that there was no contradiction (pretty impressive due diligence!). Mr. Omoke then made the case in favour of the “thematic unity” approach. The case is, by now, a familiar one: a voter cannot exercise choice in any true sense if she is provided with a grab-bag of seventy-four constitutional amendments – some of which she may support and some of which she may oppose – and then asked to approve or reject all of them in an up-down vote. This is a specific problem when “sweeteners” that have nothing to do with constitutional reform are thrown into the mix with the specific intention of making the reform proposals more palatable.

The Respondents then formally opened proceedings, with Mr. Nelson Havi starting the case. His conceptual and theoretical arguments on the basic structure should – by now – be familiar; one important point to flag is that Mr. Havi affirmed that – by its very nature – primary constituent power must lie outside of the Constitution itself. This is a direct response to the argument – made by George Oraro SC the day before – that the 2010 Constitution had textualised the primary constituent power within Articles 255 and 257. Now, while this is true as a matter of constitutional theory, a more subtle point that the appellants had made remains: which is that the closer the amending process in a Constitution gets to the primary constituent power, the less role there is for judicial intervention through the basic structure doctrine. To this, Mr. Havi replied that the four-step sequential process was what provided the wedge between constitutional amendment and constitutional repeal. The four-step sequential process – which lay outside the Constitution – kicked in only when what was being attempted was constitutional repeal (express, or through necessary implication). Thus, no matter how close an amendment process came to approximating the primary constituent power, when what was being done was not an amendment at all, but a repeal, it became necessary to look outside the Constitution in order to find the power for such an action; because, recall – Mr. Havi argued – that the primary constituent power is the power to framere-frame, or repeal a Constitution, and must therefore lie outside of it.

On the involvement of the President in the popular initiative, Mr. Havi inverted the argument made by the Appellants: he asked, instead, where in the Constitution was the President granted the power to involve himself in the popular initiative process. This emphasises the point that I made in yesterday’s blog post: the popular initiative dispute is, at the end of the day, a dispute about how to interpret a constitutional silence, and will turn upon what the Court thinks is the purpose of Article 257. If the Court thinks that the purpose of Article 257 is to establish bottom-up direct democracy, it will exclude the President; if, however, it does not view Article 257 in that manner, it may not do so.

In the final set of arguments for the day, Elias Mutuma addressed submissions on Presidential involvement in the popular initiative – again, responding specifically to the appellants’ core point that in the absence of any constraining provision, the President should be deemed to have the power as part of the normal exercise of his constitutional rights. While it was true – Mr. Mutuma argued – that the People had delegated sovereign power to the President, it was important to note that what had been delegated was executive, not legislative power; thus, to the extent that the President wanted to legislate (and constitutional reform through the Popular Initiative was a form of legislation), he needed express authorisation under the Constitution. A constitutional silence, thus, would need to be interpreted against the President.

Mr. Mutuma went on to make a fascinating argument about the nature of the popular initiative, and when it could be deemed to commence. Under Article 257 – he noted – the People had to be involved with enacting the constitutional reform in question. This envisaged an active role for the People right from the beginning, and not simply a situation where the People were just given a constitutional reform proposal to endorse or reject. Thus, the mere fact that there was a reform proposal with one million signatures did not ipso facto mean that the requirements of Article 257 had been fulfilled.

I want to pause for a moment and reflect upon the deep roots of this argument in democratic theory. Article 257 of the Kenyan Constitution – as I’ve argued before – is a particularly important provision in how it seeks to infuse direct democracy into the constitutional amendment process. Direct democracy itself, however, can be of two kinds, depending upon whether the citizenry is to be treated as passive consumers of laws, or active participants in their enactment. In the former situation, the political elite continue to devise and frame the laws, with the “direct” role of the People being limited to (mostly) accepting them by acclamation, or (rarely) turning them down. In the latter situation, however, the involvement of the People is deeper, and begins from the moment of the devising of laws. Mr. Mutuma argued that Article 257 envisioned the latter conception of direct democracy, and this would have an impact (a) on the question of when the Popular Initiative could have been deemed to have begun, and (b) on the scope of public participation. Incidentally, it would also have an impact on the question of Presidential involvement: it is far more difficult to justify Presidential involvement if the purpose of Article 257 is to empower an active citizenry to play a front-stage role from the get-go. Top-down, led initiatives are in fundamental conflict with this vision of direct democracy.

Finally, Mr. Mutuma posed a hypothetical: if this was a pre-constitutional moment, and the 2010 Constitution was being submitted for ratification, would the procedure under Article 257 be deemed sufficient? He argued that it would not, and that was why the four-step sequential process – which provided for a deeper and more sustained level of public participation – was justified. Arguments for the day were then concluded by Caroline Jerono, who argued that as all the terms in Article 257 (Bill, Amendment, Suggestion) were in the singular, it was a strong indication in favour of the thematic unity approach to referendum questions.

Conclusion

This brings us to the close of day 2 of the hearings. By now, it is evident that the battle lines have been drawn, and the points of conflict are beginning to appear in a clearer fashion. Tomorrow should bring the curtains down upon the case, and leave us with a clear sense of the issues on which this case will finally turn.

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The BBI Case at the Supreme Court of Kenya – Day 1: Some Observations

Both Courts were fairly clear that even the basic structure of the Constitution is amendable, but that conceptually, the procedure for amending it and for altering constitutional identity itself – the exercise of primary constituent power – has to be found outside the Constitution, and not within it.

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Katiba 2010 and the Power of “We the People”: A New Account From Kenya
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Today, arguments commenced before a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of Kenya in Attorney-General v David Ndii and Ors, popularly known as “the BBI Case.” On this blog, I have covered in some detail the progress of this case, including the judgment of the High Court (see here), the oral arguments at the Court of Appeal (see here), and the judgment(s) of the Court of Appeal (Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4). Because of the issues that it raises – about the limits of the constitutional amending power, public participation in popular initiatives, the conduct of referenda and the framing of referenda questions, the role of fourth branch institutions, and presidential immunity, to name just a few – the BBI Case is not only hugely significant for Kenya and for Kenyan constitutionalism, but also for global and comparative constitutionalism more generally. The three-day argument this week is now the final round, and the Supreme Court’s judgment will be the last chapter of this story.

Oral proceedings before the Kenyan courts are broadcast live, and can be watched all over the world. Over the next three days, therefore, I will post summaries of the day’s arguments in the case, with some analysis (if applicable). A quick disclaimer: I am now formally a part of the proceedings, having submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Kenya, supporting the correctness of the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments.

The Basic Structure

Recall that the BBI Bill [“the BBI”] is a set of seventy-four proposed amendments to the Kenyan Constitution. Both the High Court (5-0) and the Court of Appeal (6-1) struck down BBI on the ground that it violated the Kenyan Constitution’s basic structure. The High Court held (5-0) – and the Court of Appeal confirmed (4 – 3) – that the basic structure could not be amended through the procedures set out within the Kenyan Constitution itself, under Articles 255 – 257 (“the secondary constituent power”). Rather, the basic structure could only be amended through a process that recreated the conditions under which the Kenyan Constitution of 2010 was framed (“the primary constituent power”). This required a sequential four-step process – civic education, public participation, a Constituent Assembly, and a referendum.

Before the Supreme Court, this finding was under challenge by the Appellants and the supporting Respondents, most of whom argued today. In my opinion, the clearest and most lucid statement of the Appellants’ case can be reconstructed by studying the combined oral arguments of the Solicitor-General and – after him – George Oraro SC. Put simply, the argument is this: the mischief that the High Court and the Court of Appeal were seeking to remedy through the basic structure had already been identified – and then remedied – within the text of the Kenyan Constitution itself, specifically through Article 257 (the popular initiative).

The Solicitor-General noted that the core problem – that is, the problem of “quick and fundamental” amendments to a Constitution effectively eviscerating constitutionalism itself – was specifically recognised during the framing of the 2010 Constitution, and it was solved through the drafting of Articles 255 and 257. Where an amendment to a core feature (i.e., the basic structure, taken in a non-technical sense) was sought to be made, Articles 255 (that listed these core features) and 257 would kick in, which required a detailed process of public participation and – eventually – a referendum. In other words, the Solicitor-General argued that Article 255 and 257 were doing the same work that a basic structure doctrine was otherwise meant to do: that is, protect a Constitution’s core identity from majoritarian abrogation. The Kenyan Constitution did have a basic structure; it was contained in Article 255; and the procedure for its amendment was set out in Article 257.

The theoretical gloss upon this argument was put by George Oraro SC, who argued that what the High Court defined as “primary constituent power” – i.e., the power of creation (or re-creation of a Constitution, as opposed to simple amendment) had been textualised within the Constitution itself, through Articles 255 and 257. Thus, when the Kenyan Constitution stated that for amending certain parts (set out under Article 255), the popular initiative process of public participation and referendum (under Article 257) had to be followed, it was effectively providing an internal, constitutional route for the exercise of primary constituent power. And both the Solicitor-General and Oraro SC noted that with this two-track procedure of amendment, which reflected the exercise of primary constituent power, there was no need of a basic structure doctrine, as the two were effectively meant to do the same thing.

Echoes of this argument were made by various counsel through the day. Counsel for the National Assembly specifically argued, for example, that the basic structure doctrine – as it judicially originated in India – was not meant to be a limitation on constitutional amendments per se, but on parliamentary monopoly over constitutional amendments (an argument repeated by counsel for the Senate as well as counsel for the 74th Respondent). Where Parliamentary monopoly had already been taken away by the constitutional text – and indeed, taken away in favour of direct participation by the people – there could be no place for the basic structure doctrine.

One notes a subtle – but unmistakable – shift in the Appellants’ arguments from the Court of Appeal (and indeed, in response to the Court of Appeal’s judgment(s)). In the Court of Appeal, it was straightforwardly argued that Articles 255 – 257 provided a self-contained code that explicitly contemplated the amendment of every provision of the Constitution; now, it was argued that conceptually, Articles 255 – 257 were encoding primary constituent power (or something like it). This shift is expressed most clearly in Oraro SC’s argument that amendment procedures in a Constitution are best understood upon a spectrum; and – on this spectrum – the closer that an amendment process is to the exercise of primary constituent power in its design, the less scope should there be for judicial intervention via the basic structure doctrine.

I want to use this idea of the spectrum as the springboard for a few brief comments.

I think Oraro SC’s insight that amendment procedures are best understood along a spectrum that goes from Parliamentary monopoly at one end (India) towards primary constituent power on the other, is an important one. However – and this is crucial – in exactly the same way, the basic structure doctrine is also best understood along a spectrum, a spectrum that goes in precisely the opposite direction. The particular form that a basic structure doctrine takes in a particular jurisdiction is directly responsive to where, on the spectrum, that jurisdiction’s amendment procedures lie. So, in a jurisdiction like India, where there exists parliamentary monopoly over the amendment process, the basic structure doctrine takes a thick, substantive form, and is effectively a judicial veto over amendments (because that is the only way to protect constitutional identity from evisceration). On the other hand, in a jurisdiction like Kenya, where the amendment process creates space for the People, the basic structure doctrine takes a thin, procedural form, and the judiciary no longer exercises a veto over amendments. This was the fundamental point that – in my view – the High Court correctly grasped when it crafted a doctrine of the basic structure that was radically different from Kesavananda Bharati, precisely because the Indian and Kenyan Constitutions were at different places along the spectrum.

If we understand this, we are also in a position to re-formulate the argument made by counsel for the Senate and for the National Assembly. Thus, it is perhaps not entirely accurate to argue that the basic structure doctrine is limited to curtailing parliamentary monopoly over amendments. It is more accurate to say that the basic structure doctrine in its thick, substantive, judicial veto form is limited to curtailing parliamentary monopoly over amendments. However, as the judgments of the High Court and the Court of Appeal show, that is not the only basic structure doctrine that is on offer. The basic structure doctrine can take a form that is applicable to a Constitution where the amendment process incorporates elements of participation and democracy. This form will be thinner, it will be procedural, and the judiciary will take a more backstage role – exactly the features of the doctrine that the High Court did evolve (note that – contrary to Oraro SC’s submissions – this is not the first time this has happened. The basic structure doctrine in Bangladesh evolved at a time when the amendment process did provide for a referendum).

The Popular Initiative

The Appellants’ arguments on the popular initiative – and the question of whether the President could be involved in the popular initiative – were more familiar and straightforward. Textually, the Appellants (and their supporting Respondents) argued that there was no express bar upon the President’s involvement in the popular initiative process. Structurally, they argued that much like the President did not lose their other constitutionally guaranteed rights on becoming President (such as the right to vote), there was no justification for denying them the right to political participation through involvement in the popular initiative. Historically, they argued that Article 257 – the popular initiative – was meant to curb Parliamentary monopoly over the amendment process. Purposively, they argued that Article 257 was meant to address situations where a President who had been elected on a platform of constitutional reform was stymied by a hostile or recalcitrant Parliament. On a combination of all these arguments, they therefore submitted that Article 257(1) ought to be interpreted liberally: that is, the words “an amendment to this Constitution may be proposed by popular initiative” should be read to mean “an amendment to this Constitution may be proposed by any person by popular initiative. . .”

Readers will note that these are – more or less – the arguments that were made before the Court of Appeal, and have been discussed in previous posts. As I have argued earlier, the interpretation of Article 257 depends, ultimately, upon the interpretation of a constitutional silence. Article 257 neither permits nor prohibits Presidential involvement in the popular initiative. The question, however, is whether Presidential involvement is consistent with a provision that seeks to encode bottom-up direct democracy as a method of constitutional amendment. In other words – and there is an interesting tension here between the Appellants’ arguments on Presidential involvement on the one hand, and their argument that Article 257 encodes primary constituent power on the other – will the political agency that Article 257 seeks to provide to the People be fatally undermined by allowing the process to be taken over by the State’s most powerful public official? If the answer to that is “yes”, then the structural argument falls away; and as to the historical and purposive arguments, it is equally plausible to argue that a recalcitrant Parliament standing in the way of the President is precisely the point: the very purpose of separation of powers – and of distributing power among different branches of government as opposed to concentrating them in one – is to prevent unilateral decisions, especially on matters as significant as constitutional reforms of basic principles.

It is also perhaps important to flag arguments on the issue of whether different referendum questions could be lumped together into an omnibus bill, whether different questions would have to be put separately to the People (the High Court judgment), or whether the “unity of theme” approach should apply (Court of Appeal judgment). Other than the familiar, Oraro SC made the (I believe) new argument that prescribing how the referendum should be carried out wasn’t a task for the judiciary at all; rather, the issue would have to be governed by rules prescribed by Parliament, and by legislation (in this case, the Elections Act). However, Oraro SC also went on to argue that the Court could step in if the referendum was carried out in contravention of the Constitution. This – in my submission – potentially cuts out the legs from under the argument, because the import of the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments is precisely that a referendum in which disparate issues are shoe-horned into a straight up-down vote is unconstitutional. The before/after distinction, therefore, falls away.

The IEBC and the Quorum

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission addressed submissions at some length on the question of whether or not the IEBC had quorum to carry out the BBI process. As in the Court of Appeal, the argument turned on a technical point about the consequences of a judgment striking down a legal provision, and its operation in rem (i.e., against the world at large). In brief, the IEBC argued that at the time the BBI case was being heard in the High Court and in the Court of Appeal, a prior judgment of the High Court had already struck down Sections 5 and 7 in the Second Schedule of the IEBC Act (which had altered the quorum requirements of the IEBC). The effect of this striking down – the IEBC argued – meant that these amendment provisions were gone altogether, and the previous provisions – which they had replaced – were also gone. Thus, there was no law governing the question of quorum anymore, and the position reverted to the default under the Constitution (see Article 250(1)), which was a quorum of three (this was fulfilled).

While the Court of Appeal judgment(s) addressed this point at some length, I believe one important addition to the discussion is the idea of a constitutional statute. Certain constitutional rights cannot be implemented directly, but need an institutional framework for effective implementation. A classic example is the right to vote, which is meaningless without an independent election commission. A constitutional statute is a statute that creates the institutional framework that is necessary to implement a constitutional right. Now, the crucial point is this: as long as a constitutional statute has not been enacted, the State is arguably in breach of its positive obligation to fulfil constitutional rights; but also, there is no real remedy, as the Court cannot force the State to legislate. However, once a constitutional statute has been enacted, there is arguably a bar on the State from then affirmatively going back to the pre-statute position where the right in question was unprotected (think of it like the principle of non-retrogression): because to do so would be a judicially reviewable breach of the State’s constitutional obligations. To take an example: having passed a voting law and set up an independent election commission, it would then be unconstitutional for the State to repeal the law and erase the Commission altogether (unless it proposed an equally efficacious statutory framework for fulfilling the right to vote).

I think that similar logic applies to the IEBC issue. If the Appellants’ arguments are to be accepted, then the consequence of a judicial striking down of amendments to the IEBC Act is not simply that the amendments are gone, but that the statutory regulation of that sphere (in this case, the quorum requirements for the IEBC to function) is gone altogether, sending us back to a situation where no legislative framework holds the field. For the reasons I have advanced above, I think that a better route is the route taken by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

Conclusion

Towards the end of the day’s hearing, James Orengo SC noted that once the People had clearly established the route by which they wanted to enact amendments to the Constitution, the Court should be slow to interfere; and doing so might “prompt Kenyans to find other paths to reach their desired goals.” This formulation, in my view, represents the fundamental wedge in this case. Orengo SC’s critique – which he termed as judicial usurpation – would be undoubtedly accurate if the High Court and the Court of Appeal had actually “usurped” the power of amendment – i.e. established a judicial veto over constitutional amendments, based on their substantive content. However, it is questionable whether the High Court and the Court of Appeal did that. Both Courts were fairly clear that even the basic structure of the Constitution is amendable, but that conceptually, the procedure for amending it and for altering constitutional identity itself – the exercise of primary constituent power – has to be found outside the Constitution, and not within it. That process was anchored (by both Courts) in the re-creation of the conditions under which the Constitution was enacted: i.e., public participation in a deep sense, going beyond what is provided under Article 257.

It will now be interesting to see how the Respondents argue these points in the coming two days.

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