Kenya Referendum: Voters Cast Ballots, Tensions High

Today’s historic Kenya referendum over whether to back a new Constitution sparks fresh memories of the ethnic clashes that killed more than 1,300 people in the wake of the 2007 presidential election.

Nairobi, Kenya – Millions of Kenyans lined up before dawn at polling stations stretching from chilly Nairobi to the semi-desert of Lodwar to cast their ballots in what many here are heralding as a historic day for change.

Each of the 12.4 million registered voters has a simple choice: to approve or reject a new Constitution, the draft of which has been internationally praised for addressing contentious issues of tribalism, centralized political power, and impunity for corruption.

Opinion polls have consistently put support for the draft charter at above 60 percent, with 25 percent opposed and the remainder undecided.

Security is tight during the Kenya referendum, with memories still fresh of the ethnic violence following the country’s last national vote – the Dec. 2007 presidential election, when 1,300 people died in post-poll bloodshed.

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63,000 Police Officers Deployed

More than 63,000 police officers have been deployed nationwide. It seems to have worked: turnout was high at most of the 27,000 polling stations.

As queues of voters thinned to trickles an hour before the official end of balloting Wednesday afternoon, there were no reports of trouble.

“No matter what mischievous politicians tell us, we know that this Constitution will be good for Kenyans,” says Zapporah Wanjiru, one of the 300,000 people forced to flee their homes as the violence spread early in 2008.

The retired teacher left behind land she had farmed for 40 years, and has since been squatting in a “safe area” 30 miles north of Nairobi. Until recently, she was living in a tent of bent branches and plastic tarpaulin.

Squashing Tribalism?

“There is the hope that the Constitution will make us see that we are all Kenyans, and all Kenya is our home, not just pieces of it,” says Francis Karinge, chairman of a self-help group for people like Mrs. Wanjiru.

Mr. Karinge is referring to the main problem besieging Kenya at every election time – tribalism.

Presidential powers are currently so all-encompassing that power-hungry politicians have never failed to manipulate ethnic divisions in their quest for votes.

This has encouraged inter-tribal fighting as each ethnic group’s employs supporters to intimidate rivals into not voting, ensuring an easier contest for their candidate.

Theoretically, this is a key issue addressed in the new draft, an amalgam of a decade of earlier attempts at revamping Kenya’s current 47-year-old, independence-eve Constitution.

What change will the new Constitution bring?
Presidential powers are significantly curtailed. Key appointments – to senior public service posts, university vice-chancellors, judges – would now be subject to parliamentary approval.

The judiciary – notoriously corrupt and facing a backlog of more than 900,000 cases – would be entirely overhauled. Professionals, not just politicians, would sit in the Cabinet.

A large share of national resources would be sent directly to 47 new devolved county governments, who could spend it as they – or their constituents – wish.

“It all pulls in one direction – economic and political stability,” says Aly Khan Satchu, a Nairobi-based economic analyst.

Concerns with the Draft

There are concerns with the draft, however.

US-based Christian groups have sent significant amounts of cash to those campaigning to quash the new Constitition, because they argue it eases laws on abortion and Muslim-only family kadhi courts. Both are emotive issues in majority-Christian Kenya.

And there are worries from large-scale international investors – especially tea and flower farmers – over land policies which limit foreigners to owning leasehold titles only, and for a maximum of 99 years.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a good deal better than the Constitution we have,” said Kevit Desai, chairman of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance.

Most of the draft’s opposition is in the Rift Valley province, scene of the worst of the 2008 violence.

Tensions there between rival voters were said to be high Wednesday, and there are fears that sporadic clashes could break out after results are announced Friday.