Women's rights row to derail Kenyan reform vote

Click to follow

There were no classes at the Olympic school in Kibera, Africa's biggest slum, yesterday. Instead, hundreds of Kenyans, dressed in their best clothes, queued patiently to put their tick beside a picture of a banana, to symbolise "yes", or an orange for "no", in the country'shistoric referendum on a new constitution.

Among them was Tom Kwelu, who was desperate for the "no" side to win. "If we adopt this constitution, my wife will leave me," he exclaimed. "She is from a rich family and I am from a poor one. With this new constitution, women have equal rights to inherit land. If she is allowed to get land from her parents, she has no need to stay with me."

Mr Kwelu's fear - that the proposed constitution would tear apart his country's social fabric - is a common one. Kenya began the long process of constitutional reform in order to set up a system with a more effective separation of powers. After long spells of rule by the autocratic Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, Kenyans had hoped their current president, Mwai Kibaki, would allow a constitution that limited his own powers and created a new, autonomous prime ministerial role.

When Mr Kibaki won the general election in December 2002, he promised to do just that. But the draft put before the voters yesterday allows the president to keep most of his powers, as well asthe right to appoint and control a prime minister.

Neither the "yes" nor the "no" campaign has been particularly edifying. Those in favour of the constitution have made vague promises of more jobs and land, while those against have focused on issues that are abhorrent to a conservative society. In most of Kenya, land is handed down to sons; the daughters are supposed to get married and work on their husband's land. A seemingly innocuous line in the new constitution - "women and men have an equal right to inherit, have access to, and manage property" - has been interpreted by voters such as Mr Kwelu as a state-driven attempt to destroy marriage.

The "no" campaign has also implied that the constitution promotes abortion and gay rights. "I have to vote 'no' because this constitution wants to legalise abortion, which is wrong," said Rispa Awino. In fact, the constitution makes no change to the law on abortion, but allowsit to be changed by parliament.

The referendum has highlighted the tribal differences in Kenya's government. Mr Kibaki is part of the powerful Kikuyu tribe, while his main opponent and the most vocal no campaigner, the cabinet minister Raila Odinga, is Luo, and many voters have simply chosen to follow their tribal leaders, regardless of their beliefs. During campaigning, eight people died in clashes across the country and, while yesterday's vote passed off peacefully, there are fears it will exacerbatetensions between Kenya's main tribes.

Dick Ochieng, 23, was unashamed to admit he had not read the new draft, but was going to vote "yes" because "the President is my leader and I will vote just how he tells me".