Kenya is moving towards greater democracy and more transparent governance thanks to the recent constitutional referendum that received 70 percent “yes” votes.

The new constitution, which is scheduled to be signed into law on Friday, replaces the one drafted during Kenya’s colonial era. It includes a Bill of Rights, which states that all Kenyans should have access to clean water, decent housing, basic sanitation and quality food. The new constitution aims to decentralize political power, increase government accountability, create more robust checks and balances against corruption, and foster a move towards fairer distribution of wealth.

President Mwai Kibaki said, “The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end.” In reality, forming a new constitution is only the beginning of another long road which the country will need to travel.

However, at least Kenya is moving in the right direction. Here in Zimbabwe, our constitutional reform process is lagging behind. But I think there is a lot we can learn from the role that media played in the Kenyan process.

Lessons from Kenya

Zimbabwe’s constitutional reform process should be an opportunity for meaningful public participation. Unfortunately, the process remains marred by intimidation and violence, including the alleged re-establishment of torture bases in farming communities where there are a high number of war veterans and youth militia.

I could not help but compare coverage of the Kenyan referendum to the Zimbabwean constitution-making process and reflect on what we can learn from Kenya. Although the countries’ circumstances are not totally comparable, we certainly can’t afford to let the Zimbabwean constitution-making process drag on for 20 years, as it did in Kenya!

The first factor that looms large is the fundamental role that a vigilant civil society plays in provoking public participation and debate, promoting state transparency and accountability, maintaining pressure and ultimately achieving change. A recent blog post on Pambazuka discusses the pivotal contributions that organizations such as the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa, Kenya Land Alliance, Kikuyus for Change and Kenyan Asian Forum made during the Kenyan constitution-making process.

The post, by Cottrell Ghai and Pal Ghai, also discusses the likelihood that civil organizations will continue to offer invaluable assistance, particularly “at a time when the capacity within the government is limited.” This is further amplified because trade unions — which uphold the constitution through their political and economic work — are non-existent in Kenya.

The second factor is the role that a vibrant media has in driving reform. According to an opinion piece in the Washington Times, both civil society and the media have played a part in the constitution-making process in Kenya and will continue to do so.

“Kenya is blessed with free and vibrant media and a vigilant civil society that relentlessly shines light into all corners of government activity,” it read. “This will heighten scrutiny in the use of public finances and resources by the executive and legislature.”

Although it is unlikely that the Kenyan media are fully objective or free from political influence (which country’s media is?), the Economist and the BBC have said that Kenya is more liberalized than most African countries. Various analysts have also stated that since independence the Kenyan media has been an important check on government power.

New Media Tools

New media tools were also used during the constitution-making process in Kenya. A customized version of Ushahidi, a Knight grantee, was developed for use in Kenya. Called Uchaguzi, which means decision in Kiswahili, the collaborative deployment was supported by the Constitution & Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), Social Development Network (SODNET), Uraia, HIVOS and Twaweza. During the referendum, the shortcode 3018 received over 1,400 SMS messages from around the country that reported incidents of electoral irregularities, violence and peace activities.

Similarly, The Uwiano Peace Platform was established to prevent violence during the Kenyan referendum. The system took advantage of mobile technology to get up-to-date information “on tensions, hate speech, incitement, threats and violence” from citizens nationwide. The system allowed for free SMSes from the public to be sent to the Uwiano secretariat. Analysts then verified, mapped and relayed the data on to rapid response mechanisms for quick intervention. The public knew how to report incidents because the platform was advertised in the electronic media, print media and Electoral Commission materials.

It would have been interesting if a new media tool like Freedom Fone, our project, had been added to the mix to capture citizen reports in an audio format.

A vigilant civil society, vibrant media and new media tools have played a pivotal role in Kenya’s constitution-making process. We must not underestimate the value of these organizations and tools during our process in Zimbabwe as we continue to strive towards the formation of a new constitution and a more democratic nation.