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Kenya Votes on New Constitution

  • Michael Onyiego

The referendum on a new constitution is underway in Kenya. Despite some earlier fears of violence, peace and quiet has been observed countrywide.

Voters began lining up as early as 5 o'clock in the morning on Wednesday for a referendum to determine whether the proposed Kenyan constitution becomes law. The polls opened at 6 and voting countrywide has proceeded peacefully.

There have also been relatively few logistical issues during the vote.

Paul Akongo is an officer with the Interim Independent Electoral Commission in Nairobi's Kibera District.

"The voting process has been so good. All materials were arranged in good time. They arrived here yesterday evening. The process has been going good," he said.

Kibera was one of the hotspots of violence during the disputed presidential election in 2007. Though many fear the election could spark renewed clashes, Akongo said the only challenge had been controlling the crowds gathered to watch Prime Minister Raila Odinga cast his vote.

Fears of violence around the referendum stem, in part, from the acrimonious nature of the referendum campaigns. Both the Yes and No campaigns accused each other of misleading the public, and prominent politicians were vilified for their respective positions.

The issues of abortion, Islamic courts and land policy dominated the referendum debates and seemed to split voters along religious and regional lines. But voters at polling stations revealed that other issues had influenced their vote.

Joshua Katungu, a voter in Kibera, told VOA the referendum was an opportunity to fight corruption in Kenya.

"I'm for change, definitely yes. It is an historic moment for Kenyans, particularly those who want change," said Katungu. "I think the draft constitution offers more accountability, particularly for the government. We want the government to serve the people. You know, government for the people."

Voting in Lavington, an upscale neighborhood of Nairobi, Violet Kairu said her vote would be cast for women's rights. Women's issues were largely lost in the arguments surrounding the referendum campaigns, but Kairu said the proposed constitution would help Kenyan women.

"For me it is the advantages it is going to give Kenyan women, especially. That is what I am interested in," said Kairu. "As a woman, we have not had so many rights in Kenya because we have had the colonial constitution; so for me this is a step forward. For us now, it is giving us rights as women to be able to inherit land, equal opportunities, all of those things."

The referendum is part of the peace process initiated after violence rocked the country following the December, 2007 presidential election. Then-rivals President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga accused each other of vote rigging in the election. The dispute sparked countrywide violence which left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead and forced 300,000 to flee their homes.

The two former rivals are now allies in the Government of National Unity and prominent voices for the proposed constitutional document.

The Interim Independent Electoral Commission is expected to release the results of the vote early Thursday. Many expect the announcement to end nearly two decades of waiting for a new Kenyan constitution.