Sunday, February 20, 2011

Marende: The voice of reason amid chaos

By Alex Ndegwa
Never before in the country's five decades of independence history has the Speaker of the National Assembly wielded so much influence in governance.
So subdued was Parliament that, for instance in 1975, when then Deputy Speaker, Jean Marie Seroney, dismissed protests that followed MP Martin Shikuku remarks that Kanu was dead, he was hauled into detention.
Times have changed and democracy has flourished. But in the progress the exigencies of the moment have also thrust on the country a leadership with a knack for fermenting crisis.
Which makes it even the more significant for those in authority to win public trust and cultivate reverence, like Mr Kenneth Marende, the sixth Speaker of the Kenya Parliament, has managed to.
The word from the highest office in the land has always been law, but under Marende, an assertive Legislature has shown it can very well challenge the Executive.
This is impressive for a person who started out as a clerk at Barclays Bank in 1975 and rose to head one of the three arms of Government, helping the country ride out political storms.
Political philosophy
The soft-spoken bespectacled father of five in a maroon robe presiding over stormy sessions in Parliament is one many Kenyans are familiar with.
Marende has carved out an image as the man in the middle, the arbiter in an environment polarised by brinkmanship and dangerous political rhetoric, to the relief of the public.
Through his rulings, considered balanced, sober and intelligent, the Speaker has calmed the tide as the coalition ship showed signs of sinking.
His decisions have been termed as Solomonic. But some critics—predictably those rubbed the wrong way by his edicts—have however poked holes on his rulings saying they are enveloped in sophistry. But it matters not to him as long as his intervention curries favour with majority of Kenyans.
"We must put Kenya first, the interest of Kenya is paramount and I hope to contribute to that interest from my position as Speaker," Marende says of his political philosophy on Parliament’s official website.
Marende was elected Speaker with ODM’s solid backing after a cliffhanger of an election in January 2008. PNU was determined to install their candidate to consolidate their hold on power, in the aftermath of the disputed presidential vote that threatened to plunge the country into civil war.
Immediately after he was elected, against political expectations, Marende ruled against an attempt by ODM MPs to alter the wording of the Oath of Allegiance with the intent to undermine the President, then locked in a bitter contest for the Presidency with his rival Mr Raila Odinga.
And he resisted attempts to have President Mwai Kibaki wait his turn according to the alphabetical ordering of the names and instead swore the Head of State first. It is difficult to contemplate the consequences had the Speaker chose to do political bidding at the time Kenya was facing its worst crisis since Independence.
In April 2009 Marende was called upon to arbitrate the standoff occasioned by the row over the leadership of Government Business in Parliament. The President had nominated Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka but the Prime Minister contested the decision and staked claim to the post.
It was the culmination of the acrimonious falling out between the coalition partners over the sharing of plum State jobs and the collapse of the Kilaguni talks at which ODM had pressed for the renegotiation of the National Accord.
Marende assumed Chairmanship of the House Business Committee so that parliamentary business could not stall and triggered a constitutional crisis.
He asked the two principals to resolve their disagreement. The matter stayed in abeyance until it was quietly resolved last year when Kalonzo’s appointment was upheld.
After a moment of calm, albeit with minor frictions, the coalition Government imploded, again last month. This time around the rift was caused by the President Kibaki nominations of four men to four constitutional offices, which the Premier rejected, accusing his co-principal of acting unilaterally.
Live broadcast
Marende bid his time hoping the two principals would compromise. The principals, it seems, were not interested.
So Marende was forced to point the ugly truth, Kibaki had acted unconstitutionally. With that pronouncement, the former Emuhaya MP extremely upset certain quarters.
It has got the Head of State, who garlanded the Speaker in June 2008 with the Elder of Golden Heart (EGH) award, in a foul mood.
An accomplished Advocate of the High Court, with a penchant for motivational books and the occasional round of golf, Marende has managed to demystify the august House.
He has spearheaded sweeping reforms in the National Assembly, including revising the Standing Orders to introduce live broadcast of parliamentary proceedings.

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