Kenya Finds Itself Divided Into Bananas and Oranges

Times Staff Writer

The fate of Kenya’s proposed constitution won’t be known until this week, but one clear winner already has emerged: fruit vendors.

Proponents of the new constitution are using the banana in their campaign, while opponents are known by the orange. The symbols, assigned by officials to make voting simpler for illiterate citizens, meant robust business for produce stands and grocery stores Saturday, when thousands streamed into downtown Nairobi for rival rallies.

The gatherings marked the final push before Monday’s referendum to determine whether Kenyans will replace their colonial-era constitution. Despite the widespread fear of violence, the rallies were largely peaceful and festive -- with lots of free fruit.

But political experts predict that bitter debate over the constitution won’t end with Monday’s vote. A process that was intended to unite the country and showcase Kenya’s democratic progress has instead reignited tribal animosities and undermined political stability.


“We’ve taken a step backwards,” said Peter Wanyande, a political science professor at the University of Nairobi. “The manner in which this process was handled has entrenched ethnic politics. It’s clear to me that it’s going to have long-term political impacts.”

The draft constitution has divided the nation into two camps. President Mwai Kibaki is leading the campaign to adopt the document, while his former ally, Roads and Public Works Minister Raila Amolo Odinga, is urging Kenyans to reject it.

The men, representatives of Kenya’s two leading tribes, are major powers in the fragile coalition government that swept into power in 2002. Kibaki is a member of Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu. Odinga is a leader of the Luo tribe, the third-largest ethnic group.

Even before the debate over the constitution began, relations between the two men were fraying. Now, their differences are so deep that some question whether the coalition can survive until the next national election in 2007. Regardless of Monday’s outcome, a shake-up in Kibaki’s administration is likely.


Odinga, head of the Liberal Democratic Party, said recently that he was “ashamed” to be part of the government.

Leaders of Kibaki’s National Alliance Party in turn have accused Odinga of fomenting a coup and threatened to try him for treason.

Eight people, including four boys, have been killed in clashes between police and opponents of the draft constitution.

Many voters expressed disgust at the violence.

“All this fighting has nothing to do with the constitution,” said Edward Malenya, 30, a taxi driver. “It has to do with power.”

Kibaki, who rode into office amid a groundswell of optimism, has the most at stake in the vote. Before the 2002 election, he promised to deliver a new constitution in his first 100 days in office.

Three years later, political strategists view the referendum as a dry run for the 2007 presidential race, in which Kibaki is expected to seek reelection.

In recent weeks, Kibaki has moved aggressively to shore up his support. He doled out thousands of land grants to a Rift Valley tribe, raised government salaries and rehired fired employees. And a parade of teachers, bus drivers, politicians and other special interest groups filed into his office seeking favors.


“The State House has been turned into a commercial marketplace where the president is dishing out our country’s resources,” Odinga complained at Saturday’s rally.

The current constitution was drafted in Britain shortly before Kenya won independence in 1963. For the last 15 years, the government has been promising to revise the document to strengthen human rights and reduce the power of the president. Kenyans are eager to prevent the ascension of another “big man” president, such as Kibaki’s predecessor, Daniel Arap Moi, whose 24-year rule was riddled with corruption and political violence.

The amount of power a president can wield is at the heart the debate.

Shortly before unveiling the final draft of the constitution, Kibaki’s administration made significant revisions to a compromise on the charter that had been reached by a broad-based commission.

Critics say the changes would boost the powers of the president, making impeachment virtually impossible, and allowing the head of state to appoint members of parliament.

But supporters say the proposed constitution is a vast improvement over the existing document. They note that it strengthens freedom of speech and rights for women, and accuse Odinga of opposing it because it reduces the authority of the prime minister, a post he aspires to hold.

Some voters said they feared citizens might pay for the deadlock.

“The constitution has been hijacked by powerful and influential people,” said Rose Munene, 30, a schoolteacher. “Whether we like it or not, things are going to remain the same.”