Kenya Faces Crucial Referendum

Tension is rising ahead of Kenya's constitutional referendum tomorrow, as the contest between opposing sides heats up and leaders run their final rallies. But recent polls say that a large majority of Kenyans support the new constitution, Edoardo Totolo writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Edoardo Totolo in Nairobi for ISN Security Watch


Nearly three years after the post-election crisis left 1,300 people dead and 300,000 internally displaced, Kenyans are asked to go back to the polls to vote for a new comprehensive constitution, which is supposed to modernize the political system and tackle the root causes of the conflict.

Even though the proposed constitution plans profound changes in the Kenyan's political set up - such as the reduction of the presidential powers, the creation of a senate, and the devolution of power from the central to the regional level - numerous challenges to long-term peace and stability remain.

The fear of violence reached a peak on 13 June when a grenade attack caused bloodshed at a 'No' rally in downtown Nairobi, killing six people and injuring 100 others.

Last week was also very tense, as political rallies picked up momentum and campaign leaders exacerbated the debate, though there were no reports of violence.

However, compared to 2005, when a new constitution was voted down by 58 percent of Kenyans, today's situation seems very different. A recent opinion poll showed that 66 percent of Kenyans support the new constitution (with a 4 percent increase compared to two weeks ago). The 'No' side remains at 20 percent, while 9 percent of voters are still undecided.

The main issue for the 4 August referendum is not who will be the winner, as the 'Yes' side seems largely advantaged, but how solid will be the people's support and the new political landscape emerging after the vote.

New alignments

The rivalry in this referendum does not follow the same ethnic lines of the 2007 election, when the opposition between the two main parties - the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), led by current Prime Minister Raila Odinga, and the Party of National Unity (PNU), led by President Mwai Kibaki - brought the country to the edge of civil war.

Kibaki and Odinga are today allied in support of the constitution whereas the 'No' front is composed of an unusual group of leaders, including Higher Education Minister William Ruto, who seems intentioned to gain popularity for the 2012 presidential elections; Daniel Arap Moi, who served as president of Kenya from 1978 to 2002, and is still today one of the richest men in the country.

This front is backed also by the majority of Christian leaders, who disapprove the new politics on abortion (which will be allowed when the mother's health is in danger) and the recognition of Islamic Khadis Courts, which will operate on matters of marriage and inheritance in the Muslim community.

"The constitution has many controversies and it makes a mistake of not listening to the large Christian community in Kenya," Richard Ochanda, an associate of the Nairobi-based Koinonia Advisory Research and Development Service, told ISN Security Watch. "However, our country has an absolute need for change."

"Our present constitution is a colonial document and it was written when the country had only six million citizens, while now we are 40 million [...] It does not address the issues of accountability and corruption, which are our biggest obstacles to development," he said.

Modernizing Kenya

The central objective of the new constitution is to decrease the power of the president and to create a system of checks and balances that can reduce corruption and the accumulation of power in few hands. This is pursued mostly with the transfer of power at the local level and the parallel creation of the Senate, which will serve as a second chamber of the parliament.

The power of the central government will be reduced also through the devolution to 47 newly formed counties, each of which will have a governor and a representative at the senate. Counties will be entitled to 15 percent of the national budget and therefore they will be much less dependent on central funding.

There are diverging views on the effects of the devolution. On the one hand, this system might tackle tribalism and political patronage because most ethnic groups will be able to rely on local funding instead of being in constant need of 'favors' from the central government.

On the other hand, this system risks increasing the opportunities for corruption at the county level, because local politicians will have a freer hand in the management of public funds.

President Kibaki recently replied that counties would not be completely autonomous in their operations, and that "it will not be a federal system." Counties will be involved only in the implementation phase of centrally planned projects.

The constitution also addresses the management of public land with the establishment of special commissions entitled to repossess or reallocate illegally acquired land. This will fight the problem of land transfer from the state to well-connected individuals or families, which has occurred in Kenya throughout its post-colonial history.

The land reform has been harshly criticized by former president Moi, who has become a major leader in the 'No' campaign.He argues that the land reform will allow the state to expropriate land arbitrarily and that intrusion of politics in the private sector will place the country "on a dangerous path."

However, many in Kenya are suspicious about Moi's involvement in the referendum. Being one of the largest landowners in Kenya, and having been involved inmajor corruption scandals, Moi's own properties could be threatened by the new commission.

Time for change

A large majority of institutions and political leaders are on the 'Yes' side in tomorrow's referendum, and it has the clear support of almost all national and foreign media and the international community.

The US was a major contributor to the referendum, having financed the project with $23 million, despite the fact that Republicans contested Washington's involvement in Kenyan domestic affairs.

The timing is also advantageous. The new constitution comes at a time when Kenya is registering fast economic growth, relative stability and a new plan for the unification of East Africa which could boost regional trade and investment in the near future.

However, Ochanda warns that a 'Yes' landslide victory is not certain. "The 'Yes' campaign was supported by the media and it appeared in all newspapers and on television. But at the grass-roots level, the 'No' side is much bigger than expected."

If the 'Yes' side manages to win by only a small margin, the 'No' leaders will be in a position to claim a moral victory, and the current power-sharing government would probably suffer a tremendous loss of credibility in the eyes of Kenyan citizens, foreign investors and the international community.

This scenario could have far-reaching negative consequences for development in Kenya, and it could halt promising growth prospects in the eastern African region.


Edoardo Totolo is a PhD candidate at the doctoral school in Local Development and Global Dynamics, University of Trento. His fields of expertise are private sector development and the impact of informal economies on human security in Sub-Saharan Africa.