In Kenya, New Constitution Would Curb Presidential Powers

BY Larisa Epatko  August 4, 2010 at 3:39 PM EDT


Kenyans line up to vote on referendum. Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Kenyans voted Wednesday on a new constitution that would remove some power from the president and in turn, many hope, would reduce the likelihood of a repeat of the 2007 election-related violence.

Results from the vote are expected either Thursday or Friday.

Kenya’s current constitution dates back to 1963 when the country became independent. The changes, if enacted, would establish a bill of rights, and impose some checks and balances on the president, including allowing him to be impeached. It also would de-centralize some powers to regions and deal with land distribution issues.

The new constitution would set up a National Land Commission to be responsible for disbursing land and review past illegal disbursements of land, said GlobalPost’s Kenya reporter Tristan McConnell. Past presidents have used the land distribution power to buy supporters and enrich themselves, he said.

Reducing the president’s authority is expected to temper violence surrounding elections, because winning — or losing — an all-powerful presidency means “it’s something very much worth fighting for,” said McConnell.

“And in a country like Kenya, where political support is basically ethnic support — people vote on ethnic lines — it means that if your man gets in, you expect him to reward you for that. And that’s the way that it’s worked. So you get these horrible kind of tribal conflicts. And with a presidency that has less power, that’s less likely to happen,” he said.

Those who oppose the referendum, including potential presidential candidates, don’t want to see those powers reduced, McConnell explained.

Members of the “no campaign” also opposed provisions in the new constitution that would allow abortions by a medical professional if the mother’s life were in danger, whereas currently abortion in Kenya is illegal, and establish Muslim family courts, which opponents said would spread Sharia law.

Although many Kenyans who McConnell spoke to thought the new constitution wasn’t perfect, they still thought it was an improvement over the current one. “They realize it’s got problems, but it’s better than the current set-up, which has failed so woefully in 2007 and every election before that,” he said.

And even though many believe the success or failure of the referendum could have a direct impact on election-related violence, McConnell said a repeat of the 2007 level of fighting appears unlikely in the next elections in 2012.

When McConnell spoke to people who were caught up in the past violence, including young Kikuyu and Kalenjin men — the two main tribes involved in fighting in the Rift Valley, many said they wouldn’t try it again because everybody lost.

“I think Kenyans were shocked at the scale and extent of the murder and destruction that happened last time,” he said. “And that’s what makes it hard to believe we’re going to see a repeat of that now.”