News / Africa

Campaigns Close Ahead of Kenyan Referendum

Michael Onyiego

Campaigns for and against a new Kenyan constitution have come to a close as the country prepares for the pivotal referendum on Wednesday.  It was a sprint to the finish Monday after two months of fierce advocacy as officials from the "Yes" and "No" teams held rallies across Kenya on the final day of campaigning.

The "Yes" team was led by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who spoke to voters in Kitui, in Eastern Province, and Kiambu, near Nairobi, urging them to approve the proposed constitution Wednesday at the ballot box.  The "No" team, meanwhile, focused on the coast, holding a rally in the port city of Mombasa where Higher Education Minister William Ruto told voters to reject the document.

The referendum could end nearly 20 years of waiting for a new constitution.  The current constitution has been in place since Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963. Supporters of the new document argue the current set of laws are antiquated and inhibit reform.

While recent polls show that more than 60 percent of Kenyans support a change, controversial clauses in the new document have split voters.  Chief among the "No" Group concerns are clauses over abortion and land. Christian groups and politicians alike have blasted the document, telling voters that the new constitution would make abortions legal.   But organizations such as the Kenya Medical Association have hit back, saying the "No" team has mislead voters. KMA explained that the proposed constitution disallows abortion, except when approved by a medical professional to save a mother's life.

The proposed land policy has also provoked anger in Kenya's Rift Valley.  The new constitution limits the length of title deeds and gives the government greater control over land use.  The "No" campaign has warned supporters that this new policy will allow government to steal private land, a charge refuted by the President Kibaki and the "Yes" team.

The campaign process has attracted as much controversy as the issues in recent weeks.  In early July, Kenya's head of Civil Service, Francis Muthaura, allowed civil servants to return to their communities to campaign for the referendum.  While Muthaura did not specify which campaign to join, officials such as Ruto said the order was a violation of the Public Officers and Ethics act and an attempt by the government to rig the vote.

The United States also has been ensnared by election controversy.  President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have publicly declared their support for the new constitution, and Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has urged Kenya to pass the new laws.

"Putting in place a new constitution really is key to the entire agenda to reform Kenya and to bring about fundamental change," said Ranneberger.  "The other reforms, police reform, judicial reform, ending the culture of impunity, ending negative ethnicity, can't really come about unless this new constitution is put in place."

But "No" camp officials have accused Ranneberger of bias, saying the U.S. has used aid funding to unfairly skew the process.  Members of the United States House of Representatives have also entered the fray, accusing President Obama of using taxpayer money to support abortion.

The ambassador has denied these charges, saying all funding for the referendum process was aimed at civic education rather than lobbying for a particular side.  

The final gambit came last week as the "Yes" team booked every major event venue in Nairobi for the last four days of campaigning, a tactic frequently employed by political parties in the 1990s.  Despite complaints, the "No" campaign was effectively shut out of the capital.

All voices are now silent as Kenyans reflect on the arguments ahead of Wednesday's vote.  Despite their differences, both campaigns called for peace during the voting process and many are hopeful the country can avoid the violence that has plagued Kenya's democracy in the past.

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