President Kibaki's mandate crumbles as Kenya rejects new constitution

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The Independent Online

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki suffered a major humiliation yesterday as his government lost the first referendum the country has held since independence.

After a relatively peaceful polling day, the 5.4 million ballots counted by yesterday afternoon showed that 58 per cent of voters chose to reject a new constitution that had the strong backing of the President and his cabinet allies.

The results were announced after weeks of spirited and sometimes violent campaigning that threatened to tear apart Kenya's fragile tribal harmony.

As it became clear that the government had lost, Mr Kibaki gave a speech promising to respect the results. "The vote has shown clearly that the majority are opposed to the proposed constitution," he said in an address to the nation. "As we had said before, my government will respect the wishes of Kenyans." He did not say what he plans to do with the seven members of his own cabinet who had defied his orders and campaigned for a "no" vote. He had earlier threatened to sack them unless they changed their stance, but is now more likely to offer them compromises.

Mr Kibaki made an election pledge to draw up a new constitution that would limit the powers of the president, and set up an autonomous prime minister. Kenya has suffered for years from rule by "big men", who keep power through a potent combination of patronage and fear, and many had hoped that the mild-mannered, intellectual Mr Kibaki would draft a constitution that would divide power and prevent more big men from emerging. Instead, the draft put before voters on Monday created the post of prime minister, but gave the president the right to appoint and sack him at will.

The 74-year-old Mr Kibaki has suffered from ill health since becoming President in December 2002 and been criticised for failing to deliver election pledges on lowering unemployment and curbing corruption.

Yesterday's vote was seen as a referendum on his performance, as well as the new constitution. Other voters believed, mistakenly, that they were deciding whether to legalise abortion or promote gay rights.

The vote also highlighted Kenya's deep-seated tribal loyalties. Mr Kibaki belongs to Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu, who voted in favour of the draft. But his main cabinet rival, Roads and Public Works Minister Raila Odinga, ran a strong campaign to persuade members of his Luo community to vote "no".

Moreover, the patriarchal Luo community objected strongly to clauses that would have allowed women equal rights to inherit land from their parents.

Kenya's predominantly Muslim coastal tribes also voted "no".

Patrick Lumumba, secretary of the commission that has reviewed the constitutional charter, said: "The 'no' vote does not mean that Kenyans do not want a new constitution. It means that they did not want what had been proposed in the current drafts."

Most shops and businesses across Kenya remained boarded up yesterday; owners had decided to close in case the voting and announcement of the results sparked off riots. But although the weeks leading up to the campaign had been marked by violence, the mood was peaceful, as "no" campaigners celebrated their victory by juggling oranges in the streets.

Election officials reported some isolated incidents of voter bribery and other irregularities, but the overall consensus is that the referendum had been free and fair.