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Kenya Referendum Also Proves Divisive in US

The U.S. embassy and the U.S-based Ford Foundation funded this photo exhibit and booklet called "Kenya Burning" in the run-up to the vote

While Kenyans prepare to vote in a referendum Wednesday on a new constitution, the issue has also proved divisive in the United States. The U.S. government has played a major role to support the process, but U.S. evangelical groups have pushed for a "no" vote, mainly over the issue of abortion.

Ethnic violence following Kenya's last general election in late 2007 underscored the need for reform in a country the United States has long considered a reliable ally in East Africa.

The U.S. embassy and the U.S.-based Ford Foundation funded this photo exhibit and booklet called "Kenya Burning" in the run-up to the vote.

"This is a booklet of the reform and a review of the reforms in Kenya since the national accord was signed. We have constitutional reforms, legal and judicial reforms, police reforms, civil service reforms," said one Kenyan organizer explaining that the exhibit and booklet are for educational purposes.

On a recent visit to Kenya, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden made clear the U.S. government was helping to fund the process for a new constitution, but that ultimately the document was for Kenyans and by Kenyans.

"This is your decision, your decision alone. The people of Kenya must make this choice, a choice for Kenya by Kenyans," he said. "And as you prepare to write a new history for your nation, resist those who try to divide you based on ethnicity or religion or region and above all fear."

In Washington, lawmakers with the Congressional Black Caucus accuse Christian evangelical American groups opposed to abortion of meddling in Kenyan affairs.

They issued a statement accusing the evangelicals of financing several Kenyan religious and legal groups to defeat the passage of the new constitution.

Rep. Donald Payne
Rep. Donald Payne

"I think that those who are trying to derail it are taking the risk of having the blood of many people in question, by their reckless behavior of trying to defeat the constitution," says Donald Payne, a Democratic congressman from the eastern state of New Jersey. "We are neutral on it but we cannot stand idly by when people are trying to abuse the rights of Kenyan people."

One group which has admitted opposing Kenya's constitution is the American Center for Law and Justice, based in Washington.

Jordan Sekulow
Jordan Sekulow

Jordan Sekulow, in charge of the center's international operations, says the proposed constitution allows abortions in certain circumstances, in what is called the "health of the mother" exception, based on a doctor's evaluation.

Sekulow says that can lead to what he calls abortion on demand, which he and his Kenyan partners find unacceptable.

"And so as a pro-life organization, who is battling abortion here in the United States, it is no shocker that our organization and our affiliates would be against this portion of the constitution," he said.

Other U.S. lawmakers point out that U.S. law prohibits the use of U.S. funds to lobby for, or against abortion, outside the United States, so the Kenya referendum may end up having legal ramifications in Washington as well.