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Presidential or Parliamentary System? 

By Suleiman Shahbal 

I have never felt more proud of being Kenyan than on the day I watched Uhuru Kenyatta being sworn in as President of The Republic of Kenya in April 2013. Even though I had campaigned on a Wiper ticket and therefore campaigned for Raila I admired the ceremony of watching our new President being sworn in with all the pomp and ceremony. This was our democracy and all its symbols. I waved to him as he swept past in his large motorcade resplendent, complete his twenty six outriders. The Power and the Glory. I should have added ‘’forever and ever’’. Amen. I never saw him again. 

Later on I come to realize that the things we like and admire are the big man syndrome. The big Chief. What Ali Mazrui called the ‘’Imperial Presidency’’. Then we complain when the President becomes Imperial up in the Big House on the hill. Of course he came down when the campaigns began.

A couple of months later I watched Julius Malema glaring malevolently down at President Zuma in the South African Parliament and telling him point blank ‘’you are a thief and a disgrace to South Africa’’. Can you imagine that in Kenya? They would probably reopen the Nyayo House cells for you!

What exactly do we as Kenyans want? What is good for the country? This is the great debate of our time. This debate has nothing to do with whether you support Ruto or Raila. Whether you are Tanga Tanga or Kieleweka or confused. This issue is bigger than both Ruto and Raila. Kenyans should put away their tribal hats and put on their thinking hats. The issue is not whether we should have a Prime Minister and many deputies or not. Those are side shows and minor details. The big issue is whether we have a Presidential system or a Prime Ministerial system?

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Last week I attended a lecture at the University of Nairobi where Governor Anyang Nyongo launched his book on the same debate. The event was graced by all the ‘’Young Turks’’ who were the intellectual proponents of the Second Liberation that brought democracy to Kenya. We know that after much soul searching we adopted the American model of a Presidential system. The main difference between a Presidential system and a Prime Ministerial system is that in the Presidential system Kenyans will go and elect a President. Therefore we will have candidates competing against each other. Automatically tribal politics come into play. Governor Kiraitu speaking there said,

‘’Despite many years of denial and civic education, Kenya is still a tribal society. The principal form of political mobilization is still ethnic mobilization. Presidential elections are fundamentally a tribal vote. They are the primary source of conflict and controversy in our society. Direct Presidential Elections will continue to divide us into fanatical tribalized groups. They will continue to cause permanent ethnic tensions and animosities; and as we saw in 2007, they could eventually tear this country apart.’’ 

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On the other hand the idea of a Prime Minister is that the political party with the most seats automatically appoints the Prime Minister. To win the most seats the party has to reach out to all tribes across the country. Most important of all, while we do not want to see him humiliated Zuma style, we want that Prime Minister in Parliament answering questions and defending his actions in parliament, in public in the full glare of television.

It is time to end the Imperial Presidency. To quote Kiraitu again ‘’We can speak from our experiences with the late President Jomo Kenyatta, President Daniel Arap Moi, President Mwai Kibaki, and now President Uhuru Kenyatta. It is not about personalities. The Institution of Presidency, in addition to its immense constitutional and legal powers, enjoys so much myth and extra-legal powers. As one Governor said, “it sucks oxygen from all other Institutions.”

The system of the Prime Minister has been adopted by most developed democracies. The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Malaysia and most of Europe. South Africa has a President but he is elected via the party rather than as an individual. They are using a hybrid Prime Ministerial system. When Mbeki lost his position as Chairman of the ANC Party he also lost his Presidential position. 


This is the big debate today in Kenya. It is over ten years since we promulgated our new constitution. It is time we reassessed whether it works or not and whether we need to change some parts. This should not be about creating an advantage for a certain candidate or not. It should not be about creating jobs for Kenya’s political princes and burdening Kenya with new government expenses. It is about Kenya, her people and what’s good for the country. Kenyans must speak their minds now on this critical debate or forever hold their peace. 

Punguza Mzigo is extremely popular amongst the wanainchi not because they have read and understood the details (most of which are unpractical) but because they love the main underlying thesis – enough is enough. Kenyans do not want to see expensive government burdened on them.

While we love the big cars and twenty six outriders, we are tired of paying for them. Let’s debate and bring some sanity to how our country is run.

Mr Shahbal is Chairman of Gulf Group of Companies

About Whispers from the North

Whispers from the North is an online platform that appreciates the ecological, cultural and socio-economic diversities of Northern Kenya. We also acknowledge that the lives of the communities of northern Kenya has been shaped by a number of intrinsic and extrinsic factors which have led to complex challenge that calls for a multifaceted approach.

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