Connect to share and comment

Kenya passes new constitution

National referendum votes to limit presidential powers, but the fight isn't over yet.

Kenyan celebrates new constitution
A Kenyan celebrates passage of a new constitution Aug. 5, 2010. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

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.”