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Police Use Tear Gas on Protestors at Kenya Constitutional Conference - 2003-08-18

Police fired tear gas at protesters demonstrating outside Kenya's National Constitutional Conference as talks on a draft document resumed.

A rowdy crowd of about 60 young men chanted outside the Bomas of Kenya, a cultural park in Nairobi where more than 600 delegates gathered for the process of hammering out a new constitution for Kenya.

The protesters called for the appointment of Roads Minister Raila Odinga as Kenya's first prime minister, a new post created under a draft constitution. But police stepped in with teargas to scatter the crowd. Several people were injured and arrested in the melee.

Whether the east African country should have a prime minister is one of several key issues that members of Parliament, civil society representatives and other delegates need to resolve within the next six weeks as they discuss and finalize the draft constitution.

The draft has been put together by the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission, which last year collected views from Kenyans across the country. Delegates began debating the constitution in late April. But they took a two-month break and are now back for another month and a half.

"We have about six weeks this time around," explained commission chairman Yash Pal Ghai. "If we can finish our work, well and good, and then the draft bill can go to Parliament in early October."

The need to modernize Kenya's constitution has been discussed for more than 10 years. The current constitution was drafted in Britain at Kenya's independence nearly 40 years ago. Kenyans argue they now need a constitution that reflects contemporary Kenya.

Also, many Kenyans want the constitution changed to prevent a repeat of economic and human rights abuses committed by past governments. One delegate, trade unionist Kennedy Kiliku, says distributing power from the presidency is one way of avoiding abuses.

"As you know that, in this country, we have been complaining about the excess power of the president," he said. "Then we wanted those powers to be reduced and given to other institutions."

Mr. Kiliku and others argue that the president's power should be shared among the prime minister and regional bodies such as provincial governments. But those views clash with some government ministers and MPs, who favor centralized power with no prime minister.

Another controversial issue is the elevation of Kadhi's courts, or traditional Islamic courts, in the draft constitution. They are included in the current constitution, but some want to see more Kadhi's courts with more power.

But others argue that religious structures should have no place in the constitution. They fear this could lead to a growing Islamic influence on Kenyan politics.