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Kenyan Electoral Chief Promises No Delay in Referendum

  • Michael Onyiego

The chairman of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission of Kenya, Ahmed Hassan, said at a press conference Friday in Nairobi that the August 4 referendum to approve or reject a new Kenyan constitution would proceed as scheduled.

Rumors of a delay briefly gripped the nation after the Commission's Dispute Resolution Court decided Wednesday that prisoners in Kenya must be allowed to participate in the vote. Many feared the electoral commission would be unable to accommodate the inmates with just over one month before the historic vote.

Rumors were further fueled by statements made by commission lawyers to Kenya's leading newspaper, the Daily Nation, that the logistical demands might be insurmountable before August 4.

The lawsuit was brought to the court by Kituo Cha Sheria, an organization which provides legal representation to marginalized communities in Kenya. Kituo argued that excluding that excluding prisoners from the referendum was a violation of their constitutional rights. The court agreed and granted prisoners a vote for the first time in Kenyan history.

The decision allows any inmate over 18 without psychological issues or convictions for electoral offenses to cast a ballot.

The Interim Independent Electoral Commission now faces the task of registering over 50,000 Kenyan inmates for the vote. Despite the challenge facing the commission in more than 90 prisons across the country, Chairman Hassan said the group would be up to the task.

"The ruling has presented to the commission, a serious logistical challenge in terms of time," he said. "We are really very busy doing inspection of the voter register. A lot of our energy was focused on that and preparing for the referendum. This is another challenge to the commission. But we have resolved that we will take it up. Whatever the difficulties, we think we'll still do it."

According to Hassan, the commission will spend the next week training electoral officers and registering polling centers in each of the prisons; official prisoner registration is to begin on July 2. The chairman expects to be done with registration as early as July 9, saying the relatively stationary nature of the prison population would simplify the process.

The August 4 referendum could end a nearly 20-year wait for constitutional reform in Kenya. The current constitution, dating from independence from Britain in 1963, has been panned by critics as antiquated and the majority of the population support reform.

The referendum process is part of a peace agreement reached by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to end violence which erupted after the disputed December 2007 presidential election. The ensuing ethnic violence left more than 1,000 dead and 300,000 displaced, many of whom remain without homes to this day.

The reform campaign enjoys support from both the president and prime minister, but has not been without controversy. Clauses over abortion and Islamic courts have provoked opposition from Christian groups and last week, explosions at an opposition prayer rally killed five and wounding more than 100. Many observers hope the referendum does not provoke a repeat of the violence seen in 2008.