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Opinion: Kenya's new constitution presents challenges

Voters approved constitution that calls for new laws and cooperation.

Kenyan officials cheer as President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga make an address to announce that voters have approved a new constitution on August 5, 2010. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

KISUMU, Kenya — This pleasant city on the edge of Lake Victoria gives little evidence that it was the site of serious upheaval following Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election.

Shops along the city’s main drag were vandalized, looted and burned, disrupting commerce for months. Across Kenya some 1,200 people were killed in the political/ethnic violence.

Today, few visible signs of this upheaval remain. Shops are freshly painted, bodas (bike taxis) patrol the corners looking for customers, and every few blocks, someone is wearing a bright green T-shirt that proclaims “Yes.” It is just days after the Aug. 4 referendum for a new constitution, and the streets are quiet and peaceful.

Nearly 9 million Kenyans went to the polls. Two-thirds of them voted "Yes," and those that voted "No" have accepted the results of the election.

The importance of this outcome should not be taken for granted. The violence that followed the 2007 election was not an aberration, as many international observers thought. Kenya has a history of violence in the run-up and aftermath of elections but in late 2007 and early 2008, the extremity and duration of the violence launched Kenya into international headlines.

The violence abated after the formation of a power-sharing government in late February 2008 and Kenya dropped below the international radar once again.

Meanwhile, that power-sharing government was expending most of its energy bickering and haggling over who was authorized to do what. This political stalemate continued well into 2010, with Kenyans becoming more and more disillusioned with their political leaders.

If anything, some Kenyans complained, the power-sharing government was worse than the previous administration. Now, they said, both political parties were feeding off the state’s coffers. The headlines were full of corruption scandals — first in the Ministry of Agriculture, and then in the Ministry of Education.

Many political analysts, both inside and outside Kenya, agreed that the country needed a new constitution. Last year, Stephen Ndegwa of the World Bank told me that Kenya couldn’t move forward politically without a new constitution, but he wasn’t sure that most Kenyans would support one.

Yet last weekend, just days before Kenyans went to the polls to vote on a new constitution, not only were pollsters predicting a victory for the "Yes" campaign, former political foes President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga held a rally together in Kisumu in support of the constitution.