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Kenya: A new beginning

By By Parselelo Kantaiin Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 23 December 2010 11:48

The reformed constitution promises to change the game ?in Kenya, but not before the security forces and old guard try to stop the process of political transformation

It is a great experiment, one that Kenyans fervently hope will succeed. Can rewriting the rules of the political game change the behaviour of politicians and their organisations? Kenyans’ hopes are vested in a new constitution that devolves political power and state funding from the centre and imposes new checks on the presidency and parliament.

There will be no dress rehearsal. The first test of the new political order will be the campaigns ahead of the elections due in December 2012. The new constitution, promulgated in front of hundreds of thousands of cheering Kenyans in Nairobi’s Uhuru park on 27 August, is meant to help the country break away from the cycle of violence and division that reached a murderous crescendo three years ago and threatened to tear Kenya apart.

The new constitution is critical to the package of reforms – on land, elections and the judiciary – promised in the aftermath of the 2007 elections. It breaks radically with the past. It sets up a US-style presidency which is directly accountable to parliament. Like the Washington model, the president will be able to appoint a team of ministers who are not necessarily professional politicians and do not have to be members of the ruling party, although all senior appointments will be vetted by parliament.


Kenyan members of parliament, among the highest paid in the world, have a reputation for underperformance, but they will face new checks on their operations. Constituencies can recall their representatives if they judge that MPs have neglected their duties.

Most significantly, the new constitution devolves power from the central government to 47 semi-autonomous counties. This marks an important shift of resources and power, as the counties will have to answer to local voters and will control important budgets.?

These counties, which will be run by locally elected governments and get 15% of the national budget, will become a new focus for politicians.

The population of each county will elect governors, who will replace the detested provincial commissioners, as well as senators, who will represent their county’s interest in the new Senate in Nairobi.?

“For a majority of Kenyans, devolution is like the second independence,” argues Duncan Okello, a regional director for the Society of International Development.

The mood music in Nairobi around the promulgation of the new constitution was akin to the swearing in of a new government. On 27 August, in front of hundreds of thousands of people in Uhuru Park in the centre of the city, President Mwai Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and their ministerial colleagues pledged loyalty to the new constitution.?

“Since independence, we have had moments of betrayal amid the optimism,” says Okello. “The leadership in Kenya has always been keen on frustrating any attempts at reform by its refusal to implement structural change.

“?One of the big surprises about the new constitution was the degree to which it exercised Kibaki. Among the most laid-back of leaders, Kibaki took the constitution campaign by the lapels and cracked down on lukewarm lieutenants.

Intelligence and security apparatchiks were also sceptical about the reforms and they were linked to an attempt in May to sabotage the draft constitution. Someone had mysteriously added some rogue clauses in the copy of the draft constitution at the government printers which would have allowed considerations of “national security” to take precedence over many of the proposed liberal reforms.

“The old order will try to limit the extent of revolutionary change,” says Okello. “And they will look for a leadership that will help blunt the change. What we need to watch out for going forward are attempts within the provincial administration.”?

What worries some observers is that parliament will be crucial in implementing the new constitution. Already divided along ethnic and party lines, parliament’s involvement will depend on the skills of the two principals, Kibaki and Odinga, in balancing partisan interests.

With this comes the question of who succeeds Kibaki in 2012. From the start of the campaign in May, it was clear that the battle over the terms of the new constitutional order would shape the political landscape ahead of the 2012 elections.

The tensions within the ‘Yes’ campaign revealed how strongly politicians linked the terms for the new constitution to the 2012 campaign. Immediately after the referendum, politicians started to form new political alliances.

Volatile rift valley?

Among the contenders to succeed Kibaki is Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, whose support for the constitution was initially ambivalent. Kenyatta’s visit to Odinga in the aftermath of the referendum prompted talk about a new alliance between the two men.

Although Kenyatta and Odinga will not comment on their intentions, such an alliance would be mutually beneficial. For Odinga, it would compensate for the loss of his Rift Valley Kalenjin support following his quarrel with Kalenjin leader William Ruto. For Kenyatta, it would offer him a national support base outside his Central Province stronghold.

Insiders in Odinga’s camp downplay the prospects of a new alliance. “At the moment, the prime minister is completely focused on implementing the new constitution. He is also not keen on an alliance that would alienate one group at the expense of another,” one of Odinga’s aides tells The Africa Report.?

In the volatile Rift Valley, Kenya’s political barometer and the centre of ethnic violence over the past two decades, William Ruto led the region in rejecting the draft constitution. Basing their opposition to the draft on its provisions on land rights, over one million residents voted against the constitution.

Ruto’s vociferous campaign against the draft won almost 3m votes in total, showing that he remains a powerful force at the regional and national level. An opinion poll in August rated him as the third most popular leader in the country.

Behind the ‘No’ campaign, there are serious worries among the Kalenjin elite at the looming break-up of its strongholds in the Rift Valley. Leaders such as Ruto and former President Daniel arap Moi will find it much harder to control their supporters in the Rift Valley as a coherent voting block.?

“The new constitution will remove the notion from a section of the Kalenjin that the Rift Valley is theirs to monopolise,” says political scientist Joseph Magutt. “With the creation of counties, the contest for the Rift Valley changes significantly. The problem here has never really been land but resource distribution. Under the new dispensation, resources will be effectively devolved. This may bring a lasting peace to the region.”?

Possible alliances

Ruto stood almost alone in his opposition. Veteran politicians such as Moi and his allies were cautious in how they expressed their concerns about the new provisions. Some analysts argue that Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka was also opposed to the constitution but could not publicly admit it because his position imposes an obligation to back the president. If Kenyatta warms to the prospect of an alliance with Odinga, perhaps Musyoka will see his best chances of political ascendancy served by a deal with Ruto.

For now, the biggest winner at the referendum is President Kibaki. Like Kenya’s, his reputation has been restored. His challenge will be in seeing the process through. Over the next two years, Kenya faces a transformation of its political scene that some compare to the demise of National Party rule in South Africa. The massive vote in favour of the constitution is a starting point, but there are interests that are determined to resist the change.

Kibaki’s legacy

Reports persist of arms being stockpiled in the Rift Valley and in Central Province in preparation for the forthcoming elections. Both sides know the price of repeating the violence of 2008 could be the destruction of their country – but just like the poker player who bets all on a last hand of cards, there are some who believe they can still control their fiefdoms through force of arms rather than constitutional laws.?”The manner [in which] President Kibaki conducts himself will determine whether he is remembered as a P.W. Botha or an F.W. de Klerk,” says Okello. “Will he pander to sectarian interests – the same ones that control the crucial security and provincial-administration sectors? Or will he defy them and secure his legacy?”

This article was first published in the October-November 2010 edition of The Africa Report