Referendum fever in Kenya

On August 4th, Kenyans are queuing for what is probably the most important referendum since independence.

After 20 years of struggle, and one previous attempt shot down at a referendum in 2005, Kenyans are finally about to get a new constitution. If passed, it will radically improve the governance structures of the country.

The temperature of the debate had hit fever levels already by the time I returned to Kenya in June, to join Jon Bøhmer in his Kyoto Energy project, and it has kept heating up since.

Green vs. Red

President Kibaki Addressing a "Yes" Rally
President Kibaki Addressing a “Yes” Rally (photo from The Nation)

Nearly all the radio, and locally produced TV content is about the constitution. Most TV ads are either from the “Green” (yes) or “Red” (no) camps, from the Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC), the Committee of Experts (CoE) that wrote the proposed constitution, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), or from some NGO reminding people to vote, and to do so peacefully.

In any conversation lasting for more than 10 minutes, the subject of the Constitution almost inevitably comes up. “Are you Yes or No?” has become one of the most commonly asked questions when two or more people get together.

Anywhere you go, you will see advertising boards featuring politicians or celebrities telling you to vote “Yes” or “No”, or simply to vote, or to abstain from violence.

The civil service is on a low gear, as most senior decision-makers, usually highly respected opinion leaders in the home areas, have been given the blessing of President Kibaki and his coalition partner, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, to campaign for the new constitution. The few senior civil servants in the “Red” camp are also allowed to promote their stance, but they are only a handful. The open alignment of so many top public servants with the “Green” side has drawn heavy criticism from the anti-reformist camp, most of whom have their roots in the kleptocratic former regime of Daniel arap Moi.

Needless to say, the newspaper front pages (and most other pages as well) are all about the campaigns. Even the African Athletics Championship, which is being held in Nairobi, and where Kenya has so far taken 10 gold medals, barely makes it to the headlines as referendum campaigns has taken the monopoly of the media’s attention.

Peaceful campaigning

So far, the campaigning has been surprisingly peaceful, albeit with some fear of instability in the Rift Valley – the only real “Red” stronghold. The police presence there has been beefed up by an extra 20,000 to tackle any attempts of violence in the aftermath of the referendum.

There’s no real doubt about the outcome. Most opinion polls indicate between 65% and 75% support for the new constitution, with 20%-25% opposing it. Most opposition comes from former Moi regime cronies, who benefited massively from irregular land allocations in the years after independence. The new constitution provides a framework for long overdue land reforms. Those with dubious ownership of massive land areas are not very keen on that.

Abortion a key issue

The new constitution explicitly states that abortion is not permitted, except if the mother’s life is in danger. For the Catholic church, it is obviously better to let both the mother and the unborn child die. So they have thrown their full weight behind the “No” campaign. The Catholic Church also owns large tracts of land in Kenya. They however insist that fear of land reforms has nothing to do with their opposition to the new constitution..

Other churches, funded by far-right religious movements from the US had also initially joined the “No” campaign in an attempt to create a united church front.  Kenyans, including their church leaders, tend to be pragmatic. Hence, many of them have jumped ship and joined the “Green” camp. Opinion polls are quite clear that the only uncertainty is the margin of the “Yes” victory.

Former president Moi has been one of the leading figures of the “No” campaign. During his 24-year reign, he effectively thwarted any attempt at writing a new constitution. This time, his crusade to do what he does best – blocking reforms – seems headed for a massive defeat.

On the evening of August 4th, count on massive “Green” celebrations all over the country.  On the 5th, hopefully, Kenya will return to normalcy, but with a brighter future than ever ahead!

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