News / Africa

New Constitution Means Major Changes for Kenya

A man casts his ballot in during Kenya's constitutional referendum
A man casts his ballot in during Kenya's constitutional referendum

In a referendum held during the first week of August, voters in Kenya overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, replacing one that was drafted during the country's colonial era.   Among other things, the document sets out a Bill of Rights, creates a National Land Commission, and de-centralizes political power.  Many Kenyans see the vote as paving the way for greater government accountability and a fairer distribution of resources.  But analysts say the tough work is just beginning.

Some lined up for hours to tick off either a green "Yes" box or a red "No" box on their ballots.  In the end, almost 70 percent of Kenyans who voted threw their weight behind the "Yes" side.

"In the Kenyan history for women, we have not had so many rights, especially for inheritance (and) land: the men inherit; it is very traditional. So for us now [the new constitution] is giving us rights as women to be able to inherit land, equal opportunities, all those things," said Violet Kairu, one of the "Yes" supporters.

This is the first time in Kenya's post-colonial history that the constitution has been changed.  The push for a new constitution began in the early 1990s, but a previous referendum failed to pass.

The new document contains Kenya's first-ever Bill of Rights, which states that every Kenyan has the right to such basics as clean water, decent housing, sanitation, and an adequate supply and quality of food.

Fred Olendo is with the National Council of NGOs, an umbrella group that works with national and international aid agencies.  He thinks the Bill of Rights will ensure a better life for the almost 50 percent of Kenyans living below the poverty line.

"If we do not have enough food and housing, the government cannot use money for things like building roads or other areas," said Olendo.  "It will also put in the mind of the employees or the general populace that everybody has a right to eat, and everybody has a right to access to housing, so that if you employ somebody, you have to pay them the salary that can make them have a decent meal and decent housing."

In parts of the country such as northern Kenya, that have largely been ignored in development plans, an Equalization Fund will be used to provide basic services such as water, roads and health care.

The new constitution also deals with land ownership, a highly emotional issue.  The allocation of land based on ethnicity, gender or political allegiance was a trend that started in colonial days and continues up to the present.

Now, there will be a National Land Commission, with the power to re-possess illegally-occupied public land, an important step according to Moses Ikiara, executive director of the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis..

"If you do not do that, then the fight against impunity cannot go very, very far, so long as you make sure that there is no witch-hunting, investigation about the grabbing of public land is done properly without scoring political scores and other kinds of things," said Ikiara.

The National Land Commission is also charged with forming a national land policy, something Kenyans have been advocating for decades, and with ensuring that women are able to inherit land.

Many Kenyans are looking to the new constitution to curb excessive power in the president's office, government corruption, and non-performance by Members of Parliament.

"If any leader, somebody, has been accused of corruption, convicted of corruption and other cases, they cannot compete for public office," added Ikiara.  "Once this is implemented, and you bring in governance improvement, you bring in discipline in terms of how the public resources are used, [and] then we are likely to actually have efficiency."

Groups such as the National Council of NGOs plan to conduct civic education programs, says the NGO Council's Fred Olendo.

"You can have a right, but if you do not demand for your right, you cannot benefit from it," said Olendo.  "The Kenyan people must also rise up and know the provisions, what there is in the constitution. They should not just move on and vote, like the voting that was done. Not that very many people read the constitution."

The new constitution is scheduled to be promulgated August 27.

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