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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Budget Day: View from the gallery!

From the vantage Press Gallery, the on-goings during the reading of the first Budget under the new Constitution was a spectacle that will be forever etched in the history books of the country. And it's not because it was Sh1.2 trillion worth of projections. It's the 'colour'.

Looking down at the MPs, it was evident that most of them were in the House to see how Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta will handle the reading of the annual financial statement –the Budget Speech. They were not there to listen attentively to what the minister would say, because, in any case, the committees of the House will have the final say on the national budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

Though House Speaker Kenneth Marende had promised a ministerial statement, he too, had to strike a balance between what the Constitution says and what the Standing Orders stipulate with regard to the presentation of the financial statement. In the end, Mr Kenyatta had his chance to read the budget in the usual form.

Also, Mr Marende altered his own rules to allow some guests from the East African Legislative Assembly into the Speaker’s Gallery without the stipulated attire. His rules stipulate that to access the gallery, one must have a necktie, a jacket, closed shoes, and socks.

Seven of the guests did not have jackets, and ten did not have neckties. Two had the flowing robes much-liked in West Africa, while two had short-sleeved kaunda suits. The Eala guests and their attire chimed the familiar fashion picture of African delegates attending some sort of international conference, only that, this time it was within the hallowed grounds of Kenya’s Parliament.

For 100 minutes in a packed House, the Finance Minister spelled out the economic policies for the next 12 months. But unlike in the past where the MPs listened attentively in pin-drop silence, on Tuesday, they chatted and laughed as the minister went on with the speech.

In one corner of the House, Cabinet minister Otieno Kajwang’ engaged assistant ministers Peter Kenneth and Peter Munya in an animated talk. In the middle row, assistant ministers Gonzi Rai and Bifwoli Wakoli had their tittle-tattle with nominated MP Shakila Abdalla. Still, on another row, Justice Minister Mutula Kilonzo engaged Tetu MP Francis Nyammo.

The chatter and laughs temporarily stopped when the few in the front row thumped their feet in a clumsy effort to applaud the minister. The foot-thumping wasn’t roaring as has been the case in the past.

Forty minutes into the statement, the MPs got tired and shut up and let the minister read in peace. However, after another 40 minutes, they got bored and decided to engage in ‘loud consultations’, parliamentary parlance for ‘noise’. No one alerted the Speaker that the House was ‘noisy’ and so the minister continued his reading against a backdrop of not-so-quiet murmurs.

Some like Mr Odhiambo Bwire (Butula) and assistant minister Ramadhan Kajembe were seen “listening and thinking with their eyes closed”, although they seemed to nod unwillingly at erratic intervals. If you told them thereafter that they had dozed off, you’ll have yourself to blame.

Earlier, Mr Bwire had had the rare chance to make President Kibaki, who was in the House, to listen to the answers that his ministers give to MPs –the one along the lines of “the project will be completed when funds become available”. It is a classic way of telling MPs that they should shut up and wait indefinitely, because the government acts at its own time. Mr Kambi Kazungu, the medical services assistant minister, was the culprit.

The august House’s unofficial comedians also had their chance to crack the ribs of their colleagues. There was Isaac Ruto (Chepalungu), who stood on a point of order only to introduce a funny argument that left some of his colleagues in stitches. Of course, House Speaker Kenneth Marende couldn’t take such light moments on such a crucial occasion and told off Mr Ruto.

There was also Prof Ayiecho Olweny (Muhoroni), also the assistant minister for education, who reported to the Speaker that the Attorney General, Mr Amos Wako, had crossed from one side of the House to another without bowing to the chair. The AG was reprimanded and he had to make that bow as per the House rules.

Just as Mr Wako did, Tetu MP Francis Nyammo also made his way across. MPs alerted him that he hadn’t made the bow. He made his way back to the door, bowed and then looking at the Speaker, gave a thumbs-up and walked right to the front. His colleagues laughed out loud. The Speaker did not make any statement. Mr Kenyatta who had paused to witness the spectacle, smiled, and went on with the reading of the budget.

Unlike the past when the Finance Minister strolled into Parliament with a briefcase and a beautiful carnation on his suit, yesterday Mr Uhuru Kenyatta entered Parliament just as he does on ordinary days: with a black folder and an ordinary suit, no flamboyance in his attire, not even a hint.

Planning Minister Wycliffe Oparanya, who has in the past entered Parliament with the minister, was in the House early to answer questions. He missed the opportunity to escort the minister to the House.
Mr Kenyatta’s assistant, Dr Oburu Oginga, did accompany his boss, and even while in the House, he did not forget his not-so-official self-assigned duty of refilling the minister’s glass with water, so that, his boss’ throat doesn’t run dry.

They say old habits, die hard. That was evident when the Executive decided to string along the police band to Parliament grounds. The band, clad in ceremonial attire, must have practiced the tunes unaware that the pageantry had been scrapped under the new dispensation. They didn’t want to ‘waste’ their practice, so they had to have a performance on the D-Day.

Nairobi Provincial Commissioner Njoroge Ndirangu was also present at the Speaker’s gallery clad in the khaki ceremonial uniform complete with that bowl-shaped hat that PCs wear on State occasions.

The Press Gallery too was taken over by the President’s security team, who took the front row seats, effectively relegating me to the back row. I was the only journalist, well, apart from the half-a-dozen photojournalists, in the gallery. The rest, tired of the push and pull between journalists and the president’s security detail, had decided to follow the proceedings on TV at the media centre.

The switch-over to the new dispensation also caught journalists flat-footed. They had set up equipment at Parliament’s media centre in the hope that the minister will address the usual post-budget press conference. But when the minister finished, he didn’t appear.

Some of the backbenchers had flipped their copies of the Order Paper to get modified notebooks, upon which they took notes profusely in readiness for addressing the media on what they thought about the Budget Speech. They did not find the usual tents. The clever ones made their way to television cameras and gave their opinion of the budget.

There was no tent; no after party tea and snacks, as had been the case in the past. However, earlier, at lunch hour there had been buffet worth Sh650.

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