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Kenyan referendum registers discontent with president

58 percent of voters rejected a proposed constitution that included gender equality and limits on presidential power.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 23, 2005



NAIROBI, KENYA

President Mwai Kibaki's electorate emphatically rejected his new constitution in a vote seen as a referendum on his faltering record.

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Results announced Tuesday from Monday's nationwide poll showed the "No" camp in the lead with 57 percent of the 6.3 million votes cast. Analysts say the defeat of the "Yes" campaign, led by Mr. Kibaki, could spell the end for his fragile three-year-old ruling coalition.

"This is making history for our country, we have never before seen the government beaten like this," says Nairobi taxi driver Peter Gaithuma.

But the focus on political positioning - both by Kenya's leaders eyeing the 2007 national election, and by voters intent on showing their displeasure with the current government - precluded a measured debate on substantive issues in the new constitution: gender equality, land ownership, and presidential power.

"Genuine and honest engagement on the constitutional review has been sacrificed at the altar of political egoism and power games," says political economist Joseph Magutt. Hate speeches and dirty tricks on both sides in the run-up to the referendum have torn open age-old tribal animosities between Kenyans and split the country's 32 million people down the middle.

But Tuesday the country was largely peaceful. Most people celebrated their success at having voiced widespread frustration at their leader's failure to fulfill promises made on the hustings before the 2002 presidential election.

"What we wanted and what we voted for, we have not been given, and it is time this man [Kibaki] learned his people are still hungry," says Peter Lekerian, a Masai tribesman voting Monday in the dusty Rift Valley settlement of Ol Tepesi, 30 miles south of Nairobi.

Kibaki swept to power on a wave of resentment at soaring poverty and endemic corruption that characterized the 24-year rule of his predecessor Daniel arap Moi.

Kibaki promised jobs, security, and graft-busting, alongside a draft constitution to be presented to Kenyans within 100 days of taking office. This new document, he said, would curb the president's powers so that the country would never again suffer at the hands of an autocratic 'Big Man' leader.

But jobs never materialized, international donors have stalled aid over suspected corruption, and crime is on the rise. Furthermore, the constitution Kenyans voted on Monday - three years later than promised - was so watered down by Kibaki supporters during the review process that it looks little different from the current one.

In addition, Kibaki - who comes from the country's historically and numerically dominant Kikuyu tribe - and his key competitor Raila Odinga from the second-largest Luo group, called on traditional clan loyalty within each tribe to gain advantage over the other side.

"The manner in which this process was handled has entrenched ethnic politics," says Peter Wanyande, a political science professor at the University of Nairobi. "It's clear to me that it's going to have long-term political impacts."

Even in defeat, Kibaki is likely to go on the offensive, sacking rebel ministers and shaking up his Cabinet, which has not met for two months. His credibility, however, could be undermined by a resurgent opposition and an electorate delighting in their new-found power, analysts say.

"No amount of political acrobatics can convince Kenyans that the cabinet as presently constituted can still work in the interest of the country," says commentator Ochieng Rapuro.

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