Vote on constitution set to challenge Kenya's 'poisoned' tribal politics

A long-awaited referendum has split the church and civil society in Nairobi over a system critics say is in urgent need of reform

Kenya is back at the crossroads. That is the warning emanating from the pulpits of its church leaders, fretted over by academics, and fought over by its politicians and commentators.

For the first time since the violence that devastated the country in the wake of a flawed election in 2007, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, East Africa's biggest economy faces a major democratic test.

Voters must decide this week whether to back a controversial new draft constitution that was a key element in the peace deal that ended the fighting in 2008. The 'Yes' campaign, which includes both sides of the power- sharing coalition that emerged from the wreckage of the last election, considers the draft to be voted on on Wednesday a long overdue chance to reform the dysfunctional system of the post-independence era, devolving power from the centre, and drawing some of the accumulated poison of tribal politics.

But it has faced formidable resistance, led in part by Kenya's church leaders, who are furious at the document's recognition of Islamic customary courts, and at a clause they claim opens the door to legalised abortion.

This majority-Christian country's competing denominations have agreed a truce during a campaign that has been more reminiscent of the culture wars of US politics than the confessional and ethnic mosaic of East Africa.

Flanked by a palette of ecclesiastical robes at Nairobi's Catholic Basilica on Friday, Cardinal John Njue railed at the "evil" in the proposed constitution. "Today our country is at the crossroads," he said from a podium hung with the slogan: "Choose Life, Vote No".

"We seem to have sidelined God's commandments ... We reiterate our advice to all Kenyans to reject this draft."

Much of the energy in the "No" campaign has come from the more overtly political Pentecostal churches. Bishop Mark Kariuki, the rising star of this evangelical movement, has railed against an allowance for doctors to abort if the mother's life is at risk, and has highlighted foreign backing for the other side.

"The American government is funding the Yes campaign," the bishop said. He claims that donor funds given under the guise of "civic education" are being use to lobby for Yes votes. The US embassy – one of the largest in Africa, reflecting Kenya's strategic importance to Washington – has denied taking sides.

In fact, both sides have outside help. Support for the draft among pro- reform Western embassies who helped to broker the peace in 2008 is well-known, and US pro-life groups have been pouring money into the No campaign.

However, the effort to use abortion as an American-style wedge issue on Wednesday appears unlikely to work, as it ignores aspects of the constitutional battle that go much deeper. Opinion polls over the weekend pointed to a 60-40 vote in favour of the draft. For all the culture wars rhetoric, it is tribe and not God that takes precedence, argues John Githongo, a former anti-graft official who was famously forced to flee Kenya after trying to blow the whistle on grand corruption.

He is back, and pushing hard for a Yes vote, arguing that an over- powerful presidency is at the centre of this system. "Our political system has three pillars: tribalism, corruption, and unfair distribution of resources," he says. "Tribalism delivers power to an individual, who then uses corruption to skew distribution of public resources, primarily to his kinsmen."

This approach was created and has been sustained by tribal barons who took Kenya to the brink of civil war two years ago. Githongo believes that the proposed draft can "open new political space" by reducing the power of the presidency and devolving some spending and decision-making to the regions.

First it must overcome the most incendiary issue in Kenya: land. The Great Rift Valley, which has absorbed and fed the country's mushrooming population since independence, has become central to the tribal rivalries that shape its politics.

The area witnessed the worst of the post-election violence, and has been flooded with 10,000 security personnel this time around to avoid a repeat. Earlier in the campaign, six people were killed by a grenade attack on a No campaign rally.

It is no coincidence that former president Daniel arap Moi, one of the country's richest men, has emerged from semi-retirement to lobby hard against a draft constitution that would seek to unravel some of the illegal land deals dating from his tenure.

Tribal support in the Rift from the Kalenjin grouping put Moi in office, but this time the balance of tribal politics, which Moi did so much to build, is against him. The unexpected support of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga means that Kenya's two largest tribal blocs, the Kikuyu and Luo, are in the Yes camp.

Political analyst Murithi Mutiga says that conflict in Kenya arises primarily when the Kikuyu and Luo are at odds. Only a series of unconnected events persuaded the political rivals to compromise, he argues, and that has forced most of the political class to fall in line. The business elite then followed, in search of stability. "The trauma of the violence last time is what is driving the process forward," Mutiga said.

Yash Pal Ghai, a respected Kenyan-born constitutional expert, says that this time the support of the majority of big politicians, or "ethnic barons", will be decisive. The draft, which calls for a US-style system with a bill of rights, separation of powers, checks and balances and a non-elected cabinet, is not perfect, he argues, but "it's the best we're going to get for a long time."

It's not only church leaders and the populists who disagree. Chris Foot, a young Kenyan lawyer, points out that the draft is poorly written, with"fatal deficiencies". There are 16 spelling mistakes and five missing sections. But it is the sections on land that most concern him. The draft could pave the way to nationalising foreign-owned land under a confused lease system, he warns, and sections on community land could open a "pandora's box" of ancestral claims.

Foot also rejects claims that the document can be improved on later; the terms for an amendment make that practically impossible, he says.

But Kenya is at a critical juncture, argues Githongo, and only a Yes vote offers hope: "We are forced to make this moment a positive one as Kenyans, because the implications of failure in this process are too terrible."

The Path to Reform

Why does Kenya need a new constitution?

Kenya has been in search of a new constitution since the declining years of the regime headed by Daniel arap Moi (right) as president.

Successive leaders have campaigned with promises of changing the current settlement, only to fail to deliver. The constitution, it is widely agreed, has created an 'imperial' presidency, with sweeping central powers. This has become the sole electoral prize in Kenya, and the patronage system that supports it has cemented the primacy of tribe in politics. Decades of resentment at this setup spilled over into violence after a contested election result two years ago.

What are the main points of the proposed settlement?

The draft would create a US-style system, with a second chamber and a President surrounded by greater checks and balances. It would allow for the recalling of non-performing MPs and for a cabinet of technocrats. It would also scrap the temporary role of Prime Minister that emerged from peace talks in 2008, and set up a land commission to address the issue of land illegally acquired under past governments.

Who is supporting it?

Unusually, the leaders of the two largest ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Luo, are campaigning for a 'Yes' vote. There is a strong sentiment among the country's business elite and its academic class that the document represents the best available compromise. Most of civil society is also in support, and there has been a strong, if discreet, push in favour of it from most of Kenya's main donors in Europe and the US.

Who is leading the 'No' campaign?

The main opposition comes from those who stand to lose land and influence, such as the Kalenjin political leaders of the Rift Valley, former president Moi and cabinet minister William Ruto. They have been joined by Christian church leaders who are outraged at a clause that opens the door – in limited circumstances – to legal abortion; this campaign has drawn financial support from the pro-life lobby in the US.

Suggested Topics
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine