Kenya's moment of redemption?

In 2007, a disputed election nearly tore the country apart. Yesterday Kenyans voted in an attempt to stop it happening again
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The descent from Nairobi into the Great Rift is one of the natural wonders of the world. This vital economic corridor contains Kenya's flower industry, tea plantations and spectacular tourist sites. It also hosts a series of ragged tent cities still sheltering thousands of people left homeless and destitute by the country's last bloody encounter with democracy.

As Kenya went to the polls yesterday to decide whether the draft constitution is the settlement that almost everyone agrees the country badly needs, many of the victims of the 2007 post-election violence were among the first in line.

With the sun rising over the escarpment, a stream of people trekked from the displaced people's camp near Mai Mayu in the eastern Rift to vote at a school. Wrapped in a scarf to beat the morning chill, Joseph Kimani was one of many first-time voters convinced of the need for change. Early provisional results last night supported his view and backed up opinion polls that pointed to a two-thirds majority in favour.

The 24-year-old was forced to flee from Narok – a two-hour drive from the IDP camp, which witnessed some of the worst of the clashes that left more than one thousand Kenyans dead. "People were killing others with pangas [machetes], burning our houses and killing our animals," he remembered.

The legacy of those clashes has been a palpable sense of fear. Some 10,000 police and soldiers were deployed in the valley yesterday amid uncertainty over whether this would be a moment of redemption for Kenya or a resumption of hostilities. Mr Kimani was unafraid to say how he had voted in the secret ballot. "It's time for a 'yes' vote," he said. "We want to see the changes that we need to help us. We need a place to live and jobs."

Two long lines had formed outside the primary school and the first arrivals had come in the dark at 5am. Unlike the chaotic scenes that marred the elections in December 2007, a simple "yes" or "no" decision meant a brisk flow through the booths. Monica Wansiku, a bright-eyed 19-year-old was dismissive of the "No" campaign spearheaded by an alliance of powerful politicians and church leaders.

Senior clerics from most Christian denominations have appealed for a "no" vote because they believe a clause enabling abortions violates the unborn's right to life. They also object to its recognition of Kadhi courts which decide on matters of inheritance and marriage among parts of Kenya's Islamic communities. These arguments get short shrift from Ms Wansiku: "This constitution has many advantages opposed to few disadvantages. I can't vote 'no' because of two issues."

As polling stations closed, turnout was reportedly high and there were few adverse incidents. The young student's rejection of religious arguments for determined pragmatism appeared to have won the day. "I read, I understood and I resolved what to do," she said.

Ms Wansiku vividly remembers the consequence of a contested election under the old system. As attacks and reprisals spread, she and her family left their house in Mai Mayu and sought shelter at a nearby mission house. When the fighting stopped she found her home had been burnt to the ground. "That's why I had to vote. But I don't feel angry, I already forgave the people who did it."

The teenager, who would one day like to be a tour guide bringing foreigners to the Great Rift, says land was the real cause of the killing spree. Like many, she was hopeful that the draft, which calls for a review of some of the worst of the land deals under previous administrations, would improve things. "Thousands of people are scattered all over the country and the very rich people have big lands that can be shared."

The search for a new constitution in East Africa's biggest economy has been arduous. The original settlement, agreed in the run-up to independence from Britain in 1963, fostered an imperial presidency whose sweeping powers have created a nightmarish system of patronage. A referendum five years ago on a previous draft fell foul of Kenya's shifting political alliances.

This time the awful prospect of a return to the near-anarchy of early 2008, and the international pressure to redraw politics in a country long heralded as East Africa's island of stability, appear to have convinced enough of the elite to back the draft. The official result is due tomorrow.

Popular support for a settlement that, on paper at least, will clear out the bloated government, devolve power from the presidency, curb the power of MPs and flush the current, highly dysfunctional judiciary has been in little doubt.

William Ruto, a cabinet minister who has taken up the mantle of the Kalenjin grouping in the Rift Valley, has been the star of the "no" campaign. Mr Ruto, named as a chief culprit in the post-election violence by Kenyan human-rights groups, split from cabinet colleagues and joined forces with Daniel arap Moi, the former president and fellow Kalenjin leader, to try to block the draft.

He warned yesterday of a "dangerous split between Muslims and Christians" and of land issues that would escalate in the future. "We are creating the wrong impression that land is something we should share equitably among all citizens," he said. "Land is an asset that must be used productively to feed the nation." But there were few signs that he was winning the argument.

The results of generations of land-grabbing and dangerously unequal distribution of resources is nowhere more evident than in Nairobi's slums, where 60 per cent of the population of four million live on just 5 per cent of the land.

In Kibera, the most famous of the capital's 200 informal settlements, there was no sign of a repeat of the violent upheavals that razed large areas after the last nationwide poll.

Kibera is a stronghold of support for Kenya's Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, and popular resentment here welled up when he was seen to have the last election stolen from him. The man who will take another tilt at the presidency in two years' time drew an excited crowd when he voted at the Old Kibera Primary School. "I have no doubt in my mind that the 'yes' will win resoundingly," he said.

Andrew Otieno, a local doctor joined hundreds of others waiting in the long queues and said no one would dare even to wear a red T-shirt from the No campaign. "You won't find anyone here voting 'no'," he said. At the nearby Anglican church, Reverend James Ochieng was keen to dispel the notion that all clerics were in the "no" camp. An unabashed "yes man", the priest said some on the other side had lied to scare people. "There is no perfect constitution in this world – maybe in Heaven," he said. "But this one will restore some order to the management."