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Kenyans vote in referendum on new constitution

Text by Aurélie BLONDEL

Latest update : 2010-08-05

Two years after post-election violence killed some 1,500 Kenyans, the country votes in a referendum to change the constitution, with the aim of reducing presidential authority. French journalist Nicolas Michel explains the significance of the vote.

Some 12.6 million Kenyans go to the polls on Wednesday in a referendum to change the African nation’s constitution. The proposals were put forward by President Mwai Kibaki and his Prime Minister Raila Odinga in 2008, following deadly post-election violence in 2007.

The reforms are, however, “less radical” than were originally intended, according to Nicolas Michel, journalist at Jeune Afrique (Young Africa), a weekly pan-African news magazine published in Paris. Jeune Afrique also publishes English-language quarterly The Africa Report.

FRANCE 24: What are the main points of the reform proposal?
Nicolas Michel: The principal objective is to reduce the power of the president, for example through the creation of an upper house of parliament or Senate, and to devolve some powers to local government.

However, contrary to what was originally promised after the 2007 violence, the post of prime minister would not be kept. It was thought that Raila Odinga would have fought to keep his position, but he is thinking ahead to the 2012 presidential election. If he were to become president he would certainly not want to be hampered by a prime minister beneath him.

Other important points include the setting up of a special commission to consider issues of land distribution and also a proposal to allow abortions where the mother’s life is in danger.

F24: Which groups support the proposals, and which are against it?
N. M: The “no” campaign centres on religious objections to the legalisation of abortion for medical reasons. This side also objects to the maintenance of Islamic “kadhis” tribunals which manage issues of marriage and inheritance for the country’s Muslim population. The objectors include Christian leaders as well as Education Minister William Ruto and former President Daniel Arap Moi.

In the “yes” camp are a large number of the country’s sitting politicians, including the president and the prime minister. Despite a presidential vote in 2012 in which Odinga is likely to stand as a candidate, it is not completely illogical that he and Kibaki should agree on the proposals. Kibaki is probably too old to consider running for another term and is likely to want to end his period in office on a positive note.

F24: What do you think will be the result of the vote?
N. M.: These reforms should have no difficulty getting through. Kenyans have been asking for a new constitution for a long time and they are anxious to see progress, as nothing has changed significantly since 2008.

On a broader level ordinary Kenyans have other concerns. They are worried about how to get food on the table and about the rising price of raw materials. Bearing this in mind it will be interesting to see what voter turnout will look like [today], to see if voters turn out en masse on a purely constitutional issue.

F24: Is there any risk of violence?
N. M.: No, I believe the vote will be peaceful. Extra police have been deployed, especially in the Rift Valley. Also, the two factions that were at loggerheads in 2007 are now both in the same camp.

F24: Does this referendum represent a big step forward for the country?
N. M.: It is a good sign. Up till now the situation was stagnating for both the president and the prime minister. Both were in opposition to each other, now there is some consensus.

But this is just the first stage of a long list of reforms that were promised in 2008 when the coalition government was formed. These included fiscal and judicial reforms, measures against corruption and so forth.

On the whole, however, Kenya is a more stable country than its neighbours. It is one of Africa’s bigger successes both economically and even politically, since the country did enjoy significant political change in 2002.

Date created : 2010-08-04


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