It is rare to be able to hail anything in international politics as an unadulterated success, but this week's constitutional referendum in Kenya must come pretty close. Less than three years after a disputed election almost threatened the country's very survival, Kenyans have voted in a referendum that appears to have been exemplary in almost every respect.
With the exception of a grenade attack on a rally in Nairobi, there was little violence. From the simplicity of the question to the orderly conduct of the vote, to the speed of the count, the whole process passed off smoothly. Yesterday brought a formal concession from the No campaigners, who accepted a vote that had gone more than two to one against them. That swift and unqualified acceptance of the majority verdict is itself a promising sign.
There are a few caveats; the one region of the country where the No vote gained a majority was in the Rift Valley, the rich and fertile province where the post- election violence was fiercest in 2007. The leader of the No campaign, William Ruto, comes from there and plans to stand for the presidency next time around. This could sow seeds of renewed discord – or, more optimistically, presage a healthy contest. Some of the provisions of the new constitution – especially those with a religious dimension – proved especially contentious during the campaign and could fuel disputes in the future.
Overwhelmingly, though, this constitution should benefit Kenya, both in the manner of its adoption and in its content. Democracy stands to be enhanced by the diminution of presidential power and the devolution of authority to the local level, which also has the potential to defuse the ethnic and religious tensions that proved so destructive three years ago.
Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of all is the creation of a land commission to arbitrate in disputes, with the power to reverse illegal acquisitions. In Kenya, as in so much of Africa, land disputes have been among the most poisonous legacies of colonial times and helped spark the violence of 2007. If the commission can establish its authority successfully, it will do more than almost anything else to keep the peace in Kenya.
The leader of the Yes campaign, Kiraitu Murungi, described the result as "the rebirth of a second Republic of Kenya". That depends on what happens next. But for now, the new constitution – promised as part of the peace deal concluded three years ago – is the best guarantee that such troubled times will not return.Reuse content