Kenya holds its breath on eve of vote on new constitution

The International Criminal Court named several prominent Kenyans as suspects in the violence that followed the 2007 election. More than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced during the turmoil.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

KIAMBAA, KENYA -- David Ngendo can't forget the day, after Kenya's disputed 2007 elections, when his neighbors stormed his village church with machetes and torched it. Nor can he forget the screams of the women and children who had sought refuge inside. His grandmother and 35 other members of his Kikuyu tribe died, most burned to ashes.

Today, Ngendo and other Kikuyus in this hamlet nestled in the lush Rift Valley are afraid again. On Wednesday, they plan to vote in favor of a proposed new constitution. But his neighbors, from the rival Kalenjin tribe, are against it.

"They may attack us again," Ngendo said.

Kenya's new constitution is designed to redress long-standing imbalances of power among Kenya's tribes, which triggered the spasms of post-election violence that killed more than 1,000 people across the country. And Wednesday's referendum will serve as a litmus test of whether this key U.S. ally in East Africa can bridge its communal divides.

If the new draft is approved -- as most polls suggest it will be -- it would also represent Kenya's most significant break from the era of former president Daniel arap Moi, whose 24-year-rule extended the political domination of his Kalenjin tribe through autocratic measures that deepened Kenya's ethnic fissures.

3 divisive issues

The run-up to the referendum has polarized the nation along tribal, religious and regional lines over three contentious issues: land rights, inclusion of Muslim courts and perceptions that the new constitution supports abortion.

Nowhere are the divisions more visible than in the Rift Valley, where opposition to the new constitution is the loudest, particularly among the Kalenjin, the dominant ethnic group here.

In some areas, Kikuyus, as well as members of less influential tribes, have received veiled threats, including anonymous letters, urging them to leave their homes. Scores of families have done just that willingly, heading to nearby towns to avoid a potential eruption of violence after the vote. Kenyan authorities have dispatched 18,000 additional police officers to the Rift Valley.

In places such as Kiambaa, a deeper malaise has set in, grounded in history and resentment. A new constitution, many Kikuyus say, could radically alter the political landscape. But it will do little to change their relationship with the Kalenjin.

"We can't trust them," said Grace Wangoyi, 22, who clutched her 5-year-old son, Frederick, at the edge of the compound where their church used to stand.

They were both inside the church that New Year's Day in 2008. Violence had erupted a day earlier after President Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, had been declared the winner of the elections amid allegations of fraud. Outside, Wangoyi recalled, Kalenjin mobs were pelting the church with rocks, urging Kikuyus to leave their lands.

"Inside, people were on the floor praying," Wangoyi recalled. Minutes later, the church was set ablaze. She shattered a window and escaped with her son.

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