Otieno: Hope and Joy Greet a New Constitution in Kenya

By Purnell T. Cropper | August 10, 2010

By Alex Otieno, Instructor of Sociology and International Peace and Conflict Resolution

A celebration followed Kenya’s Aug. 4 peaceful constitutional referendum in which voters overwhelmingly (almost 70 percent) voted for the adoption of a new constitution in the East African anchor nation. This vote was markedly different from the disputed election in late 2007 that led to violence that shocked the world.

Many may still remember Kenya’s previous reputation as “an oasis of peace and stability in a troubled region” before the disorder and ferocious violence of late 2007 through February 2008. Thus, for many in the West and Africa alike, it is a sign of good things that Kenya has successfully held a largely peaceful and transparent national vote just two years after the bloodshed that followed the previous national vote.

Of course, the circumstances are a little different; the leaders of the campaign for the adoption of the new constitution, President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, were opponents during the disputed December 2007 presidential vote. The leaders of those opposed to the adoption of the new constitution were the Minister for Higher Education and Technology, William Ruto, who is said to be a suspect in organizing the violence that followed the 2007 elections and Kenya’s former president Daniel arap Moi, under who Kenya deteriorated into what most observers have described as a dictatorship and kleptoracy in the 1980s and 1990s.

The new constitution will bring several changes that are expected to usher a new era of democracy, economic prosperity and peace in Kenya with dividends for other East African nations. The key changes include reducing the powers of the presidency by subjecting presidential appointees (including judges and members of the cabinet) to vetting by the National Assembly. The new constitution also improves democracy by increasing the independence of the National Assembly by eliminating the president’s power to suspend it and mandating that its members have a fixed five-year term. Additionally, it reduces the number of cabinet appointees to 24 (half the current number) and guarantees complete independence for the electoral commission. Furthermore, the new constitution contributes to improved governance in two ways: first by increasing inclusiveness (with each of the new 47 counties expected to have a female representative) and also by vesting a bill of rights into the constitution.

Kenya’s journey toward democracy, economic prosperity and peace will in many ways be a hard one that will require technical support by its international partners. Following its promulgation on Aug. 27, it is expected that the National Assembly will have to enact a series of new laws to facilitate its full implementation by the next general election in 2012. Fortunately. the commonwealth and other external supporters have offered to provide Kenya with the necessary technical support to facilitate the necessary transition in the months and years ahead.

There is also the fear that the new constitution will open Kenya to become a highly litigious society since several chapters of the constitution are seen to be written in a more or less poetic way and, therefore, subject to multiple interpretations. This, of course, is the stuff that democracy is built on, and constitutional lawyers and scholars will help the populace figure out these issues.

The successful and peaceful conduct of the referendum by Kenyan people was not merely an accident but the product of over two decades of work by many Kenyans, some of who lost their lives in the quest for change. The challenges that face the country in the years ahead are, therefore, arguably a necessary path toward peace and stability and will require tenacity and commitment by various sectors of the Kenyan society and the their external supporters.

There has long been a sense of hope and determination among large sections of the populace that they can live amicably and create a peaceful and prosperous society. For Kenyans living abroad, especially those that have adopted citizenship of the countries of their domicile, the new constitution provides an opportunity to contribute to the discourse on democracy, development and peace in a different way: as voters. This sense of hope explains the total enthusiasm and joy that greeted the successful constitutional referendum among Kenyans and friends of Kenya across the globe.