ELDORET, Kenya — Kenyans voted overwhelmingly for a new constitution that could signal a fresh start for the country’s historically damaged and divisive politics.
Two-thirds of the country’s 12.4 million voters cast their ballot in favor of a constitution that promises to limit the president’s powers, reform land ownership, devolve more power to the county level. The new constitution would also introduce a bill of rights for the first time in the country's history.
“The constitution is a good thing for the country because we need change,” said Celestine Adhiambo, a 35-year-old market trader in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret.
The draft constitution represents a much-needed overhaul of Kenya’s basic law. The current one dates back to independence in 1963 and has been blamed for creating a political system where the winner takes all and then uses presidential powers to enrich himself and supporters from his ethnic group, often by dolling out of vast tracts of state land.
“It is the powers enjoyed by the presidency that have created the ethnicized system of patronage that currently characterises our fragmented politics,” said John Githongo, a leading Kenyan commentator and chief executive of Inuka Kenya Trust.
Under the new constitution the president will have a range of checks on his power and, for the first time, can be impeached. To be elected president will require broad support from across the 47 new counties that will be created nationwide and more than half the total vote.
New counties will be ruled by governors and each county will send a senator to a newly created second chamber of parliament.
The creaking judiciary will also be thoroughly overhauled with judges required to re-apply for their jobs and a National Lands Commission will be in charge of disbursing land and, importantly, looking at disputes and illegal allocations.
During months of vigorous countrywide campaigning, three members of parliament were charged with hate speech, while in June six people were killed and more than 100 injured when grenades were lobbed at a ‘No’ rally in Nairobi, the capital Nairobi.
That ethnic rhetoric and bomb attack revived still-fresh memories of the last time Kenyans voted. Disputes over the result of the December 2007 elections quickly turned violent and more than 1,100 people died in the tribal fighting that followed.
To prevent a repeat of those horrors 63,000 security officers were deployed across the country on Wednesday, the referendum voting day. Armed police targeted hotspots like Eldoret in the Rift Valley where some of the worst of the violence had taken place.
Githongo described the election of 2007 and its violent aftermath as, “a terrible scare and lesson.”
The lesson appeared to have been learned this week. As results were published there was no sign of the kind of protests, rioting, looting, forced evictions and murder that followed the presidential election of 2007.
“All that violence, and no one got anything from it,” said Steven Kimani, a 22-year-old voter in Burnt Forest, one of the places badly affected by the post-election chaos.
The ‘Yes’ team, led by former foes President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga whose agreement to form a power-sharing government brought an end to the killings in 2008, declared victory on Thursday.
Spearheading the ‘No’ campaign was higher education minister William Ruto who conceded defeat saying that Kenyans had spoken.
Ruto denies accusations by human rights groups that he was behind some of the post-election violence committed by his Kalenjin tribe against Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. His acceptance of defeat will defuse tensions in his Rift Valley stronghold which voted overwhelmingly against the new constitution.
During the campaign, Ruto found unlikely allies in the Christian churches whose leaders urged their congregations to vote down the draft constitution because it permits abortion if the mother’s life is at risk. Church leaders also objected to ‘Khadi’ courts that judge Muslim civil matters saying they open the door to Shariah law in Kenya.
Despite the hope it offers for a fresh start for the country, the constitution is far from a panacea for Kenya’s deep-rooted political malaise as scores of laws — experts reckon around 60 separate pieces of legislation — will have to be passed to make the constitution a reality, leaving plenty of room for political sabotage.
“That will be a challenge because the conservative forces will start regrouping tomorrow,” warned Githongo. “But change will come, grimly and perhaps with the occasional convulsion but, step by step, it will come.”
A few miles outside Eldoret the need for change is all too clear. In front of one of three dozen little wooden crosses sinking into the soil on a plot of fenced-in land in Kiambaa is a spray of marigolds.
The flowers were planted by Grace Mukami, 32, to mark the spot where her eight-year-old daughter burned to death when Kalenjin men set fire to a church full of Kikuyus on New Year’s Day 2008.
The immediate reason for the Kelenjin attack was retaliation for the perceived "theft" of the election by Kibaki, a Kikuyu. The underlying reason was a long-standing belief that Kikuyus are "outsiders" who had taken traditional Kalenjin land in the Rift Valley.
It was the single worst attack of the post-election period and the wounds here are not healed. Just as there were armed officers on guard at polling stations on Wednesday to prevent a possible outbreak of violence, there is a new police post in the middle of Kiambaa’s divided community to deter attacks.
Makumi was voting in favor of the new constitution but feared it may bring little change, saying “It’s the politicians who destroyed the old constitution and they can wreck this one too.”