Divided by the colours of a new constitution

Less than three years after a closely fought presidential election plunged Kenya into widespread violence and displaced thousands, the country is bracing itself for another crucial and equally divisive ballot, this time on a new constitution.

"There is sufficient justification for people to be afraid, mainly because of hate messages and leaflets asking some communities to leave certain areas," said Ozonnia Ojielo, senior peace and development adviser at the UN Development Programme in Kenya. "There are also political actors using innuendoes."

The referendum is due on 4 August, and campaigns in favour (represented by the colour green) and against (red) the new political dispensation are in full gear. Observers and the Uwiano Platform for Peace, a joint initiative of the government and civil society, believe the potential for violence exists.

Uwiano has set up a free SMS service (6397) to monitor the situation and has received more than 4,000 messages. Many of these reported violent incidents, hate speech and various activities that threaten the peace.

Key facts
Referendum on new constitution agreed during the Serena coalition talks following 2007/2008 election debacle
Referendum date is 4 August, result expected on 6 August
Nearly 12.5 million voters have registered
“Yes” side uses the colour green; "No” camp is red
Some 5,605 prisoners have been registered to vote

"Kenya has had a bad past where people stopped trusting each other because of violence whenever we have had an electoral process," said Stephen Kileme, programme administrator for Peacenet, a national umbrella organization of NGOs, CBOs, religious organizations and individuals active in peace-building and conflict resolution. "It is the history, people are afraid of the past."

Peacenet has identified 29 “hot spots”, mainly in Rift Valley and Western provinces. "Reports from some of these areas indicate that some communities are being threatened," Kileme told IRIN on 28 July. "Some people are being told to ‘leave in peace or leave in pieces’. We are not taking anything for granted and have alerted the relevant authorities."

Some people have already abandoned their homes. In Western Province, the police arrested six people on suspicion of distributing threatening leaflets. An extra 15,000 policemen are being sent to Rift Valley Province.

"The possible insecurity flashpoints have been profiled and adequate measures taken to prevent any possible breakdown in law and order," Police Commissioner Mathew Iteere told reporters in Nairobi on 26 July. "We shall be vigilant to protect the democratic rights of all persons to campaign for their opinions."

There is reason to worry, say observers. In June, explosives went off at a “No” rally in Nairobi while some MPs, including a cabinet minister, were arraigned in court for hate speech. On 20 July, a group of youths in Kitui attacked the “Red” team and six people were injured. Other incidents included a 21 July standoff in Narok District, the 25 July attempt to pelt a helicopter carrying a minister in Bungoma District and the 26 July theft of computers from the “Red” offices.

Photo: Jerry Riley/IRIN
Children at a church ground in Eldoret that was temporarily turned into an IDP camp (file photo)

Past violence

The current fears are rooted in the violence that rocked the country after elections in 2007. More than 300,000 people were displaced while 1,100 died, many at the hands of police. Since then, tens of thousands of displaced Kenyans remain in squalid conditions in 19 camps, according to the Ministry of State for Special Programmes.

The Mawingo camp in Nyahururu, Rift Valley Province, is the most congested, with more than 3,000 households. According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FewsNET), most of about 50,000 of those still living in the camps cannot support themselves.

"Apart from 2002, past political processes in 1992, 1997, 2005 and 2007 [all election years, except 2005, when voters rejected another draft constitution] were highly contested and violent," Ojielo told IRIN. "In 2005, the country was polarized into two camps, which easily led to violence and destruction."

Isaack Otieno, head of the corruption and governance programme at the Institute of Security Studies, Cape Town, argues that the 2007-2008 election chaos pushed Kenya to the brink. "The country is yet to fully heal from the effects of that bungled election," he noted. "Perpetrators of the violence are yet to face justice. Survivors are yet to heal fully."

Authorities, however, are determined to ensure a successful vote. Speaking in Nairobi on 27 July, Interim Independent Electoral Commission chairman Issack Hassan said: "It appears the political class has not learnt the lessons of the 2007 election mayhem. We cannot afford to repeat what happened in 2008. We should conduct ourselves responsibly. The campaigns have become an industry of insults."

''Some people are being told to ‘leave in peace or leave in pieces’. We have alerted the relevant authorities ''

According to Ojielo, the stakes are too high this time. "There is a history that the state and the people are trying to overcome," he said. "Unlike 2007 when surprise was a factor, this time the government is saying, let us learn lessons, because delivering a new constitution was a political commitment by the government during the Serena process [named after the Nairobi hotel where talks took place, the negotiations ended the violence and led to the establishment of a coalition government].”

The issues

Supporters, led by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, say the new constitution secures land ownership, devolves power and does not discriminate on the basis of gender, religion or ethnic group.

Opponents say it will take away people's land, entrenches Khadi (Muslim) courts, and allows abortion and same-sex marriages. This group is led by the Protestant and Catholic churches and includes some cabinet ministers, such as High Education Minister William Ruto, as well as retired president Daniel Arap Moi.

"The new constitution is about the greater national interest," Kibaki told The Nation newspaper on 25 July. "[It] offers Kenya a chance and a big step to greater stability, economic opportunity and social justice."

Across the country, voters are warming up. In Isiolo, Samburu, Marsabit and Meru East Districts, the Waso Peace Caravan campaign spearheaded by professional, local and civil society leaders has in the past month conducted peace rallies in trading centres, fields, livestock markets and watering points.

Contentious issues
The proposal to set up a national commission to manage public land
Recognition of Kadhi (Muslim) courts
Termination of pregnancy if the mother’s life is in danger
Non-discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, ethnic group, disability, colour, etc
The recall of “non-performing” MPs

"We are agents of peace, our team is spreading the gospel of peace [to] prevent any possible division which might be caused by some forces," coordinator Peter Kalapata said. "Some communities... were made to believe they will lose their grazing land. We have managed to correct that misleading report. Some were afraid they would be oppressed after the referendum. It is possible to incite such groups to use violence [but] our campaign has made that impossible."

An attempt to pass a new constitution in 2005 failed when 57 percent of Kenyans voted against the draft, with 43 percent supporting it. This time, the referendum has attracted wide national and international interest.

US President Barack Obama described it as "a singular opportunity to put Kenyan governance on a more solid footing that can move beyond ethnic violence, beyond corruption [and] move the country towards a path of economic prosperity".


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