Kenyans back new constitution

The new constitution, supported by most of Kenya's top politicians, would significantly shift power from the chronically corrupt central government in Nairobi.

NAIROBI // Kenya was poised yesterday to adopt a new constitution full of sweeping reforms that would, if approved, change the political landscape of east Africa's largest economy. With about three-fourths of the 12 million votes counted, supporters of the constitution were leading by a two-to-one margin, according to preliminary results from Wednesday's referendum. The measure needed 50 per cent plus one to pass. Opponents of the measure conceded defeat and pledged to work with the new constitution.

The new constitution, supported by most of Kenya's top politicians, would significantly shift power from the chronically corrupt central government in Nairobi to local governments. Many rural Kenyans feel that local governments will listen and respond to their needs better than the central government in Nairobi. They feel that a closer, local government will be more easily monitored and thus more transparent.

Supporters hope that provisions on electoral transparency in the new bill will help Kenya avoid clashes such as the 2008 violence that broke out after the last presidential election, which was widely seen as fraudulent. A review of the constitution was required as part of the peace deal that ended the post-election violence, which killed 1,300 people. "It's amazing how what was seen as a crisis has been turned into an opportunity," said Musalia Mudavadi, the deputy prime minister and a supporter of the new constitution.

The new constitution will form the basis of law in Kenya. Analysts say it is likely that most if not all of the provisions will be implemented, though it is unclear how long this will take. The bloodshed that some predicted would follow Wednesday's voting so far has not materialised. International election monitors said the poll was fair and transparent. Kenyans took to the polls orderly and peacefully, forming long queues before dawn at polling stations across the country. In Kibera, a sprawling slum of 1 million people, where marauding gangs torched churches and hacked each other to death with machetes two years ago, voters quietly cast their ballots then returned to business as usual.

Most voters interviewed said they had cast their ballots in favour of the constitution because they wanted to chart a new course for Kenya. "I want a change for my country," said Boniface Mise, a landscaper. "We have been living under this current constitution for a long time. Many things in this new bill are good. I would like a strong local government that can spend money at a local level." The current constitution is a relic of Kenya's colonial past. The charter was negotiated in London on the eve of Kenya's independence from England in 1963 and has been in use ever since.

Opponents of the new constitution focused on provisions that will address inequity in land ownership. Injustice over land ownership has long been a source of contention in Kenya. The centre of the opposition was based in the western Rift Valley, where large landowners, mostly from the Kalenjin tribe of the former president Daniel Moi, feared that their sprawling tea and coffee plantations would be seized if the constitution passed. That provision is not in the new constitution, but opposition politicians stoked fear before the vote.

Church leaders also opposed the constitution because it contains provisions for abortion and Islamic courts in predominantly Muslim areas. Some voters said they supported the constitution because of the inclusion of a bill of rights, which provides equal rights for women. "As a woman, I will be much more empowered," said Dorry Aomo, a businesswoman. "I'd also like to see the equitable distribution of resources so that the gap between the rich and poor is not so wide."

Many young people turned out to vote and showed a strong sense of civic education. Young voters widely circulated and read a draft of the bill before the vote. "I want to change the history of Kenya," said Lilian Kemunto, 23. "The new constitution will be good for young people. It might initially take some time, but our lives will change because of this." With victory in the referendum almost assured, the new constitution will cement the legacy of Mwai Kibaki, the president, who has promised Kenya a new charter since coming to power in 2002. A referendum on a new constitution failed in 2005.

Mr Kibaki and other supporters of the constitution declared victory yesterday, although the results were not expected to be made official until as late as today. "The historic journey is now coming to a happy end," the president said at a victory rally in Nairobi. "Let us all join hands together as we begin the process of national unity under a new constitution."