Kenya constitution vote could pave way to stability

A key concern in the Kenya constitution vote is ethnic divisions. But in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, where much of the 2008 postelection violence occurred, voters were calm and even top 'no' vote politicians accepted the results.

Sayyid Azim/AP
Supporters of the YES Camp at Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Nairobi, Kenya, shout slogans Thursday as they gather to listen to President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga after the YES Camp claimed victory in Wednesday's referendum voting for the new constitution.

As the official vote-counting continued, politicians and activists who supported a referendum to approve a new constitution claimed victory and opponents admitted defeat, in a vote that could pave the way for a more politically stable Kenya.

The “yes” vote to approve the new constitution garnered 69 percent of the vote, with nearly half the polling counted, making it all but certain that the constitution would be approved. The new constitution, written in 2009, was backed both by Kenya’s sitting president, Mwai Kibaki – who is forbidden from running for office again – and by current Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who is a likely front-runner in the next national elections, expected in 2012.

Under the current Constitution, which remains in effect until the vote count is finalized, the president has wide powers similar to those given British colonial administrators, including the naming of judges and the deployment of security forces. The new constitution would curtail those powers dramatically, and advocates say that a new system of checks and balances will prevent Kenyan electoral politics from becoming a violent, winner-takes-all process. The deeply flawed elections held in December 2007 sparked a wave of ethnic violence that killed 1,300 people, until a coalition government between the two main contenders was negotiated.

“People are calling this the Second Republic, the first one being the transfer of power from colonialism to independence,” says Mwalimu Mati, director of the Mars Group Kenya, a nonprofit think tank that monitors government corruption and democratic rights. “Why this had to happen is clear. Our Constitution set up a presidential system with highly centralized powers in one man, the president. When one side stole an election, the other side had no recourse to courts, but only through violence.”

Vigilance needed for true democracy

But transforming Kenya into a truly democratic society based on the rule of law will take more than just one vote, Mr. Mati adds. “Our political class is adept at counterreform. We don’t want the new system to retain all the bad habits of the past. We need to stay vigilant.”

The growing likelihood of passage of a new constitution has already had a positive effect on Kenyan markets, where investors fretted about the possible return of the violent postelection days of early 2008.

But the debate over enacting a new constitution had more than its share of controversy. Kenya’s powerful Christian church community organized to oppose the new draft under the mistaken notion that it would legalize abortion (in fact, abortion remains illegal except in rare cases where a pregnant mother’s life would be in danger if she gave birth). A mysterious bomb blast at a “no” rally in Nairobi killed six.

Three US congressmen, all Republicans, launched an investigation into US government activities in Kenya, including printing of the constitution draft, to see if US agencies were illegally using US taxpayer money to promote abortion. (A thorough internal investigation by USAID, concluded in May, found that they were not.)

Ethnic divisions

In the Rift Valley town of Eldoret, center of much of the 2008 postelection violence, voters remained calm, and church leaders and even top “no” vote politicians like Higher Education Minister William Ruto accepted the results.

“The first thing that’s going to be challenging in this now, is that the voting patterns have an ethnic angle. Most of the Kalenjins voted against this thing, almost to a man,” says the Rev. Maritim arap Rirei, an Anglican pastor in charge of community services in the Eldoret diocese. Voters didn’t see any reason to fight in this referendum, he says, but now voters will want to see positive change under the new constitution.

“The biggest challenge is dealing with a wounded, intimidated people, to make sure that they don’t feel that they have lost everything,” he says. “Delays will be a serious problem. If the dividends of a new constitution are not seen, then people will start getting frustrated. If there’re delays or procrastination from politicians in implementing this thing, we’d really have a greater problem before us.”

Maurice Odhiambo, a petty trader in Nairobi’s Kawangware slum, sees the apparent victory of the pro-constitution campaign as a “birth of a new Kenya.”

“The Kenyan people have shown that they can overcome differences and vote for something no matter if they are from the north, the west, the east or the south of this country,” says Mr. Odhiambo, reading a copy of the East African Standard newspaper, whose front-page headline reads “Yes It Is.”

“Now we have to look to our leaders in the Parliament, to the State House, to bring us what we expect from this new constitution,” says Odhiambo, saying he expects to see the return of land stolen by top politicians and the provision of basic services such as clean water and housing. “We can take them to court if they fail us. We are ready to do that, we are watching them. Time is short.”

In the Rift Valley town of Burnt Forest, Noah Keino watches the vote results on television in a tea shop. Nearly everyone in town opposed the new constitution, he says, because they fear that under a new constitution they will lose the land given to them by well-connected ethnic Kalenjin politicians.

“But we know that our side has lost,” he says. “We are watching, though. Politicians must not start playing their funny games. If that happens, there will be frustration.”

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