Kenyans vote on constitution with hopes for big change


It may be wishful thinking, but many Kenyans believe a new constitution will cure poverty, slash prices on goods, create jobs, punish corrupt politicians, recover land lost decades ago, bring freedom, investment, tribal peace, higher salaries for common people, lower salaries for politicians — and, according to at least one voter, even make it rain.

Kenyans tired of decades of corrupt governance voted Wednesday on a proposed new constitution that generated a load of expectations.

Though it might not fix everything that people hope, analysts and politicians who supported the document, which was expected to win voter approval, said it could change Kenya forever. It could end decades of corruption, poor governance and tribalism in politics and public service, as well as curb the sweeping presidential powers that many see as the country’s biggest problem.

Many Kenyans began lining up early to vote. with reports indicating a high turnout devoid of tribal strife. Security was tight, with 18,000 extra police officers deployed to keep order, mainly in the volatile Rift Valley, which has repeatedly been torn by ethnic violence.

Official results are not expected for some time, but polls in recent days suggested the proposed constitution had the backing of two-thirds of Kenyans.

Florence Owira of Naivasha, an unemployed mother of six whose husband is also jobless, said she voted in favor of a new constitution with expectations it would help improve conditions, including bringing lower prices on commodities, higher wages for laborers and rain (none of which is mentioned in the proposed constitution). She did not necessarily support provisions to reduce presidential powers and allow self-government for counties.

“I believe if the president’s powers are reduced he won’t be happy and that will be bad for us,” Owira said.

The new constitution would create a provision for impeaching the president. Poorly performing members of parliament also would face removal. The draft also creates self-governing counties and a Senate, and cuts the number of government ministers to a maximum of 22, compared with more than 40 at present.

Legislators will have to resign their seats to serve in the Cabinet, theoretically paving the way for the appointment of professionals and technocrats, rather than political cronies of the president.

The draft originated with a power-sharing deal in 2008 after political rivals President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga both refused to accept defeat in 2007 elections, sparking tribal violence that killed about 1,500 people. Both are backing the draft, but it’s opposed by the Kalenjin tribal elite, including former President Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled Kenya for 24 years, and Higher Education Minister William Ruto.

The campaign against the new constitution stoked fears that people would lose their land, among other matters. Christian churches also opposed the draft because of a clause allowing abortion on medical grounds. Some opponents were against the inclusion of Islamic cadi courts, which govern family issues such as inheritance and marital matters for Muslims.

Many Kenyans had clear reasons for supporting or opposing the draft — such as the powers it will grant voters to sack poorly performing legislators, the provisions declaring equality for all, or the provision for a commission that will force those who received land illegally to surrender it.

Evans Gachanja, 68, who said he lost his land in tribal violence in 1992, said if the constitution were passed, he planned to go back and reclaim his property.

“I believe I’ll get that land back because I have the title,” Gachanja said. “People will be living together in peace. There will be no clashes.”

But 26-year-old Kimaru Tanui of Gilgil said all the hopes Kenyans had that everything would change for the better were misplaced.

“If you compare the new constitution with the old constitution, we are just baptizing our old problems with new names. We are lying to ourselves that everything will change and there will be no problems. But actually, there will be no change,” said Tanui, who voted against the constitution, believing it would lead to higher taxes due to the cost of county governments.

Analyst Mutahi Ngunyi, a critic of the draft, said many Kenyans voted on the draft according to their political leaders’ wishes. He warned that it could fuel tribal tensions over resources, with the new counties based on tribal territories.

Columnist Barrack Muluka, a supporter of the draft, said it would reform the country and become a model for other African states.

“The biggest issue is about accountability and distribution of power and the establishment of a system of checks and balances, so you don’t have this dragon, this hydra, as chief executive. Everything happens at the whim of the president, “ Muluka said. “A lot will depend on people themselves: They must be willing to continue fighting. It’s one thing to have a constitution that’s a written document. It’s quite another to have it followed.”