Kenya’s vote on constitution may renew tribal conflicts

Kenya’s vote on a new constitution Wednesday is supposed to be about ending decades of poor governance and corruption. But for Njeri Kanini, who lives in the Olare village of the lush Rift Valley, it means terror.

She and her husband, Chege Kanyi, of the Kikuyu tribe, said they have seen their home burned down three times since 1992 by neighbors from the rival Kalenjin tribe. With voting in the volatile valley expected to run on tribal lines, they’re afraid of another attack.

“It really hurts, because when you think of all the times you’ve been chased away, you’re so afraid, you can’t even eat,” said Kanini, 48, who has 10 children, including 5-year-old twins and a mentally disabled son. “Nowadays, I can’t sleep either.”

Tribal tensions over land have echoed during the referendum campaign because of a provision to set up a commission to strip property from people who got it illegally.

One of Kenya’s biggest landowners, former President Daniel Arap Moi, a Kalenjin who ruled for 24 years, is among the loudest voices who oppose the new constitution, along with another prominent Kalenjin, William Ruto, the minister for higher education.

In the Moi era, corruption flourished and land in the Rift Valley was illegally parceled out to the then-powerful Kalenjin elite, including Moi’s family and cronies. They could be some of the biggest losers if the referendum goes through, as opinion polls suggest it will.

Kenyans have long been pressing for a new constitution to replace the present one with its sweeping presidential powers, which dates to independence from Britain in 1963. They voted against a draft constitution in 2005, in a show of disapproval for President Mwai Kibaki, its main backer.

The new draft would reduce the powers of the president, devolve powers to counties, abolish the post of prime minister, create a senate and drastically cut the number of government ministers.

Although it’s expected to win voter approval, the draft has been opposed by Christian church leaders who object to a provision that allows abortion if a mother’s life is at risk. They also oppose the inclusion of Islamic cadi courts, which govern family issues such as inheritance and marital matters for Muslims, calling them unconstitutional in a secular country.

Analysts predict the new constitution will pass with about 60% of the vote, in part because it has the support of Kibaki, a Kikuyu, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a Luo, who head Kenya’s troubled unity government. A power-sharing deal between the two was reached after both claimed victory in a December 2007 election, sparking violence between Luos and Kikuyus, which later spread when Kalenjins attacked Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. More than 1,500 people died.

But government leaders and analysts say they do not expect such violence this time, partly because of the widespread support for the changes in government and because of the thousands of additional police assigned to keep order, mainly in the Rift Valley.

Olare village is at the end of a narrow rutted track through lush misty hills, flanked by purple and yellow flowers and layered foliage of umbrella acacia trees. Birds swoop along the track, flirting with the pedestrian traffic and occasional puttering Chinese motorcycles.

Kanini’s family and many other Kikuyus displaced by tribal violence live in a squalid camp beyond Olare’s scattering of neat but faded wooden shops and bars. Shoes are scattered randomly in the muddy paths between plastic tents and makeshift huts.

Kanini’s hut has no chairs, electricity, water or even a radio. The “bed” is a knobbly structure fashioned of forest sticks, about 2 feet wide. The floor is lumpy dirt. Bags of clothing are strewn about.

The family once had a three-bedroom home in the village, a butcher’s shop, a food store, nine cows, 25 goats and 30 chickens, a couch and a radio, all lost in tribal violence. But they still have their 2 1/2-acre farm in the Rift Valley and the title deed, kept safe by a relative in a distant town.

Kanini and Kanyi, 43, said the family hears almost daily demands from neighbors to sell the farm. They would leave if they had somewhere to go. They do not trust politicians’ reassurances of a peaceful vote.

“These people won’t say if they’re planning violence, even if you sit with them and talk to them,” Kanyi said, referring to Kalenjin neighbors. “They won’t say, even if they’re your friends and it’s happening that night. You just don’t know.”

A prominent Kalenjin in the village, Simion Rotich, denied any tension in the village and said there was no threat of violence.

“There’s nothing to make anyone shy away from their usual activities,” said Rotich, 40, a shopkeeper and farmer.

While Rotich opposes the new constitution’s provision on landownership, Kanini and Kanyi plan to vote in favor of the changes.

“It will protect my land and it will protect Kenyans,” Kanini said. “There will be no more fighting.”