Chance of a new start in Kenya

Kenyans voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new constitution designed to devolve power from the Presidency, address land issues and overhaul the corrupt judiciary. However, the country has to be aware of any attempts to reverse the latest event as well as exercising the potential of the constitution, writes Anders Sjögren in his analysis of the referendum in Kenya.

When, at 8.45 pm on August 5th, the Chairman of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission Issack Hassan, officially declared that the Kenyan electorate through a referendum had approved of the proposed new constitution, celebrations had already spread throughout the country. There was no uncertainty about the outcome. The victory was resounding; with 6,092,593 votes against 2,795,059, the Yes side had defeated the No camp by 66.9 per cent against 30.7 (the remaining 2.4 per cent of the votes cast were invalid). The impressive turnout (around 72 per cent out of 12.6 million registered voters) further strengthened the mandate.

The struggle for a new, democratic constitution had been at the centre of Kenyan politics for the last two decades – ever since it was clear that the mere reintroduction of multi-party politics was insufficient to safeguard democratic politics. The old constitution, inherited from colonial rule and amended repeatedly to further entrench the concentration of power to the Presidency, had served Kenya poorly. The judiciary, the public service, the security forces, the Provincial Administration and parliament – all key institutions were over time reduced into instruments for authoritarian domination. Since the push for constitutional reform took off in the mid-1990s, this process had been characterised by a series of subverted and manipulated attempts. The Narc government came into power in 2002 after having campaigned on a platform of a new constitution. This promise was to be betrayed, too. After a popular-driven draft was torpedoed, the watered-down proposal of the conservative wing of the divided government was rejected in a referendum in 2005.

Following the post-election crisis of 2008, the Grand Coalition Government was mandated with implementing a number of fundamental reforms, including delivering a new constitution. After a lengthy process, including extensive political bargaining, the Committee of Experts delivered a draft constitution to parliament in the beginning of 2010. In the meantime, parliamentary consensus had begun to dissolve. By the time parliament passed the draft, an opposition had emerged. The No side, allocated the colour red as their symbol, was an amalgamation of a few cabinet ministers, former President Daniel arap Moi and a number of Christian leaders. It campaigned on a cocktail of issues centred on moral concerns, as well as land; the No side claimed – erroneously – that the government would be allowed to arbitrarily confiscate private land. The Yes side, green in colour, consisted of the vast majority of the political establishment, including both the President and the Prime Minister. Most civil society groups, including both labour and employer organisations, were also on the Yes side. The poll was finally held on August 4th. Recalling the violent aftermath of the 2007 elections, the country was anxiously aware of the stakes involved. To everyone’s relief, voting, counting and tallying were conducted transparently and peacefully. The Yes side won in seven out of eight provinces; only in the Rift Valley did the No camp emerge victorious.

The passing of the constitution was clearly a milestone. It is just as evident, though, that the work to democratise the Kenyan state has only begun. The vested interests against a democratised state and policies for social justice remain extremely powerful. Certain politicians, including some nominally on the Yes side, can be predicted to continuously trying to obstruct the implementation. Parliament, the civil service, the judiciary and the security apparatus will be critical arenas for battles over the direction of implementation. The history of Kenya has been marked by false new dawns. Conservative forces hijacked earlier achievements, such as independence in 1963, the transition to multi-party politics in 1991 and the ousting of KANU from power in 2002. Sustained vigilance by democratic forces in political parties and civil society will be required to prevent that from happening again, not only by blocking attempts at subverting intentions as hinted at above, but also by realising the words of the constitution by exercising its potential.

Anders Sjögren is a researcher with the Conflict, Displacement and Transformation Cluster at NAI, and at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University.

Read more about Anders Sjögren and his research.

Anders Sjögren
Constitutional reform
East Africa
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