Kenya gets new constitution, buries its demons with vote


Less than 12 hours after the polls closed in Wednesday’s referendum in Kenya, provisional results showed supporters of a new constitution headed for a landslide win.

According to results from the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC), the Yes side had 4,141,521 votes (67 per cent) against the No camp's 2,054,946 (33 per cent).

With a lead of more than two million votes, and quite a few Yes strongholds still to report, it seemed not even a miracle could turn the tides in favour of the No camp. Indeed as dawn approached, it looked likely that the Yes vote could even climb to at least 70 per cent.

The law requires that for the proposed constitution to pass, more than 50 per cent of the voters who turn out must support it.

The Yes campaign, led by President Kibaki, 79, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, 65, had a disorganised start, although opinion polls consistently showed them leading.

The No group, led by several churches, a few dissident ministers, most notably Higher Education minister William Ruto, and former president Daniel arap Moi, 86, looked in good early form.

More impassioned, and exploiting the emotional issues of abortion, which it claimed (inaccurately) was being legalised by the proposed constitution through an ambiguous clause, and the fact the (Islamic family) kadhi courts had been retained, the No side was on message straight from when the whistle blew.

However, the document was loaded with too many attractive clauses to lose. Its bill of rights is easily the most ambitious in Africa. It dramatically reduces the power of the president, expands parliamentary oversight over the executive, and provides for dual citizenship.

For a country where almost every middle class family has at least one child living or working abroad, mostly in the west, this clause was a difficult one to defeat.

For Mr Kibaki, the victory allows him to refurbish his reformist credentials and leave behind a worthy legacy when he retires in 2012. The President had been tarnished by the December 2007 election, which he was widely seen to have won fraudulently. The dispute over the results led to the worst political violence Kenya had witnessed since its independence in 1964.

1,133 people were killed in the violence and 650,000 displaced. Kenya stepped back from the brink only after a negotiated settlement led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan resulted in a 50-50 power-sharing between Kibaki and his main rival, Raila Odinga, who is now prime minister in the coalition government that was formed.

For Mr Odinga, the success of the Yes, which he led for several weeks alone before Kibaki joined the fray, bolsters his presidential hopes in 2012.

Indeed the votes from his home region of Nyanza and Western were dizzyingly high, weighing it at 92 and 80 per cent respectively.

Big names, big money, and state machinery served the Yes side well, but they were also gifted by Moi’s high profile role on the No side. Mr Moi was hugely unpopular, and Kenyans tend to treat him like the mad uncle who is locked away in the attic. They will let him be, as long as he doesn’t intervene too much in politics.

At the height of the campaigns, he got in a verbal spat with an unusually animated Kibaki. If that did anything, it seems to have convinced nearly all the undecided voters to fall on the Yes side. Commentators noted that every time Mr Moi opened his mouth to criticise the proposed constitution, he recruited 1,000 votes for the Yes.

For Kenya as a country, a Yes vote is also some form of national redemption. In December 2002, Kenya became the first country in the wider Eastern Africa where an opposition ousted a long-ruling party through a democratic vote.

But the euphoria soon dissipated as the opposition coalition descended into bickering and the same kind of corruption that had discredited the Moi regime. The post-election violence that followed the December 2007 poll, enveloped Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, in a cloud of despair and self-doubt.

With this referendum, the interim election commission organised easily the most efficient and open vote in Africa. And, after being caught asleep on the job last time, this time the security services left nothing to chance.

Security forces were deployed in large numbers in the volatile Rift Valley, where most of the last post-election and displacements took place.

In the event, the voting ended without incident.