Thursday, August 05, 2010

"Almost everything will be different"

Kenya's new proposed constitution addresses longstanding problems that have undermined good governance here for decades. Early results suggest that it has been overwhelmingly been approved. (GW)

Kenyans Vote Peacefully on New Constitution

New Civil-Liberties Protections Are Aimed at Soothing Ethnic Tensions That Led to Riots After 2007 Presidential Vote By Sarah Childress
Wall Street Journal
AUGUST 5, 2010

NAIROBI, Kenya—Voters cast ballots Wednesday to decide whether to adopt a new constitution, a pivotal event that could help quell ethnic and political tensions that sparked mass killings two years ago.

Kenyans crowd polling stations to vote on whether to replace a constitution from 1963. If approved, it would limit executive power and give citizens a bill of rights. Video courtesy of Reuters.

The new constitution—which among other landmark changes would put checks on executive power and introduce a bill of rights to protect civil liberties—has been championed by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. The political rivals had agreed to allow the drafting of a new constitution as part of a deal brokered to end nearly two months of ethnic violence that left more than 1,300 people dead in early 2008, after a disputed presidential election.

The new constitution also paves the way for Parliament to overhaul laws related to land ownership. The issue of property has troubled Kenya since independence from the U.K. in 1963, when the country's new leaders doled out land along tribal lines.

Women belonging to the Turkana tribe lined up outside a polling station in western Kenya's Loyangalani.

The U.S. has strongly backed the new constitution. Washington is eager to see lasting political stability come to a country that remains the economic engine of East Africa, a tumultuous region that includes Somalia and Sudan.

On Wednesday, voters lined up before dawn at polling stations across the country, some waiting hours to vote. Daniel Okukle Maguge, a 37-year-old who sells flowers for a living in the Kibera slum, said he was content to wait the entire day to cast his ballot.

"I want this new constitution. I need it for my daughters," he said. "Almost everything will be different" if the draft is approved.

The most recent polls indicate the proposed constitution is likely to pass. While preliminary results could be available as soon as Thursday, the final count isn't expected for days. To be approved, the constitution must earn majority support, and win at least 25% of the votes cast in five of Kenya's eight provinces.

Some religious critics of the draft say they want a new constitution—just not this one. They have focused on controversial issues such as abortion, which they believe can be too easily obtained under the draft language. They are also concerned that it allows Kenya's Muslim minority to use Islamic courts to resolve family matters, such as questions of inheritance. The majority of Kenyans are Christian.

Although the voting process was largely calm on Wednesday, the 2007 balloting for president also proceeded smoothly until the results were announced. The ensuing violence was initially directed at supporters of Mr. Kibaki, who is a member of the Kikuyu tribe. The Kalenjin ethnic group and members of the Luo tribe, both of whom supported Mr. Odinga, carried out most of those attacks, but the violence also spurred reprisal killings, and attacks against and by minor tribes allied to those major groups.


The bloodshed in Kenya came at a huge cost. The economy, which ground to a halt in 2008, is only now beginning to recover. The social wounds are taking longer to heal, and include lingering distrust among the country's tribes.

Most analysts and Kenyans aren't expecting violence this time. That is largely because much of the country is likely to approve the constitution, and the main rival politicians have united in support.

In Kibera, East Africa's largest slum, where violence flared after the latest election, voters were watchful but calm. Graffiti scrawled on the corrugated metal walls of some informal shops read: "Peace Wanted Now," and "Keep peace, Kenyans." Several voters proudly showed off T-shirts wearing similar slogans in Swahili, the national language.

This is the second time Kenyans have voted on a new constitution. In 2005, Mr. Kibaki, the president, pushed hard for a draft to be approved. His rivals, including Mr. Odinga, opposed it. The referendum became not about the constitution but an up-or-down vote on Mr. Kibaki's administration. That draft was rejected.


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