A model for antitribal governance in Africa: Kenya's new Constitution

A new Constitution that took effect Friday sets Kenya on a path toward reducing tribal differences – and violence. Other nations with ethnic rivalries can learn from it.

It’s a rare day in Africa when a country tries to rid itself of political tribalism and embrace the grander politics of competing ideas.

But Kenya, with more than 40 tribes that are often at odds, did just that on Friday, at least officially.

Its elected leaders promulgated a new Constitution, one that promises to redistribute power and farmland in a way that may dampen the kind of ethnic rivalries that often hold so many nations back.

“From this day on, the people of Kenya should embrace a new national spirit; a spirit of national inclusiveness, tolerance, harmony, and unity,” said President Mwai Kibaki to a massive crowd in Nairobi as he signed the governing document.

The charter was approved by more than two-thirds of voters in an Aug. 4 referendum. The peaceful voting in Africa’s fourth-largest economy was in sharp contrast to the violence that broke out three years ago after a disputed election that reopened tribal tensions, leaving more than 1,000 dead.

Forced to accept foreign mediators to resolve that crisis, Kenya’s politicians then decided for a radical remake of government through a new Constitution – one with useful ideas about civic values for other African countries.

The most radical idea is a reduction in the power of the presidency. Having a strong president often meant only one tribe was in a position to command the nation’s wealth, leading to resentment and conflict – a common problem on a continent prone to “big man” politics.

Now more power will be given to regions in the national distribution of money, goods – and patronage. A new, two-tier parliament will put a check on presidential authority, with a Senate that will represent regions.

In addition, a candidate for president must win more than 50 percent of the vote, which will help unite competing tribal groups into parties based on policy preferences and not ethnic jingoism.

Another innovation: The cabinet will consist of technocrats, not elected members of parliament, and be limited in size, thus reducing the spoils system and cronyism for winning candidates. Kenyans will also be given a bill of rights that promises civil liberties. The charter also calls for cleaning up the often-corrupt judiciary.

These reforms still need a raft of laws to be passed by parliament. And Kenya faces a presidential election in 2012 that may revive ethnic favoritism. Voters in most of the country’s biggest tribes backed the new constitution, but the Kalenjin-speaking tribes in the Rift Valley did not. The main reason was the Constitution’s requirement for a limit on the amount of land that can be owned by any individual.

Tensions over land in the valley are tied to ethnic differences. Parliament will be hard-pressed to find a consensus on this redistribution of a precious resource. Finding a compromise could take years.

The tribal violence of 2008 that left some 300,000 people displaced is still fresh in memory. And Kenya’s 40 million people now realize their path forward is to adopt unifying civic virtues and new governmental structures that lessen ethnic competition.

Kenyans are an optimistic people by nature, most notably among the rising middle class. But they also face the complexity of having so many tribes that too often treat a struggle over economic wealth as a zero-sum game.

They can take heart in the fact that there was overwhelming support for the new Constitution, one that sets high ideals and tries to bridge ethnic divides.

It’s all there in writing, waiting for the words to become a reality.

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