Kenyans celebrate approval of new constitution

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Friday, August 6, 2010; A09

NAIROBI -- Kenyans overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that promises to address the core problems of governance, such as corruption and tribalism, that have plagued this country throughout its post-colonial history.

Nearly 70 percent of Kenyan voters backed the new draft, the nation's election authority announced Thursday, citing official tallies from most polling stations.

The constitution's supporters declared that Kenya had entered a new era.

"Saying that we have won is an understatement," Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi told reporters. "Kenya has been completely reborn."

The referendum came more than two years after violence erupted following the 2007 elections, which were marred by allegations of vote rigging and fraud. More than 1,000 people were killed in the ethnically and politically motivated attacks. A new constitution was a key provision of a power-sharing deal that ended the bloodshed.

In the run-up to Wednesday's vote, many Kenyans said they feared that violence could again haunt their nation.

But authorities took painstaking steps to ensure a transparent vote. Both President Mwai Kibaki and his ruling coalition partner, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, were in favor of the constitution, ensuring that most Kenyans would support its passage.

"It's a major step forward for Kenya," said John Githongo, a well-known crusader against Kenya's endemic corruption. "It gives us something to be hopeful about."

The constitution, which Kibaki must sign into law, slashes the powers of the presidency. Many hope that will reduce the political patronage and domination by a single tribe that has been a staple of politics here since the end of British rule in 1963 and turned Kenya into one of Africa's most corrupt nations.

The charter also provides for land reform to curb endemic land grabbing by elite groups; devolves power to local areas; and gives Kenyans more civil liberties.

Some church leaders, who overwhelmingly opposed the constitution, said they would continue to press the government to alter a clause that they say could be interpreted as favoring abortions.

And much of the Rift Valley, the nexus of the 2007 violence, voted against the constitution. The no vote was driven largely by the Kalenjin tribe, which dominated under the rule of former president Daniel Arap Moi, who is a Kalenjin. Tribe members fear a loss of land rights and influence.

Githongo said there's "a huge underlying unhappiness that's going to have national implications."

"We're not out of the woods yet," he added. "The heavy lifting starts now."

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