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

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 Ndii. Kesavananda 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 frame, re-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.


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.

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

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