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Explosions in Kenya evoke past violence

A new constitution is considered long overdue. But it's still highly contested.

Kenya explosions kill 6
People assist blast victims at Kenya's Uhuru Park in the capital Nairobi immediately after three explosions occurred June 13, 2010. The blasts happened at a Kenyan prayer meeting where church leaders and politicians were campaigning against a proposed new constitution. Six people were killed and 100 injured. (Stringer/Reuters)

NAIROBI, Kenya — A grenade attack on a political rally in downtown Nairobi on Sunday evening killed six people and injured more than 100, cranking up tensions ahead of a hotly contested referendum on a new constitution.

Three grenades exploded one after the other at dusk in Uhuru Park, a treed carpet of green that stretches the length Nairobi’s central business district. The explosions caused a panicked stampede among thousands of Kenyans who had gathered to campaign for a ‘No’ vote in the forthcoming constitutional referendum due in early August.

The injured were taken to Kenyatta National Hospital where the luckier ones were laid on gurneys while others, bloodied and battered, littered the floor of the overstretched emergency department.

The blood, death and fear of Sunday evening were an unwelcome flashback for a country still feeling the aftershocks of political violence that killed more than 1,100 people following the last elections. Not a single person has yet been convicted although an investigation underway by the International Criminal Court (ICC) may change that.

Political violence is nothing new to Kenya. Since multi-party democracy began in 1991 politics and violence have walked hand-in-hand. Tensions rise before elections often erupting in ethnic attacks stoked by politicians who emphasize tribal allegiances and stoke local animosities.

The run-up to the constitutional referendum on Aug. 4 has been hotly contested, as it was in 2005 when a proposed new constitution was voted down, setting the stage for the disputed and ultimate bloody election of late 2007.

On Tuesday six politicians were called in for questioning by Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission for alleged, “hate speech” during the campaign.

A new constitution is widely considered to be long overdue. The current one dates back to independence in 1963 and since the early 1990s a replacement has been debated and even fought over. The proposed new constitution trims the president’s sweeping powers, devolves more authority to the regions and addresses long-standing land grievances often seen as being at the root of Kenya’s strife.

But it also allows abortion, “if the life or health of the mother is in danger,” and special Muslim courts for “matters relating to personal status, marriage, divorce and inheritance.”

These latter clauses have upset Christian groups so Sunday’s rally was a politico-religious affair with politicians and preachers standing side-by-side to condemn the draft law.