There is a palpable energy in the streets of Nairobi—partially because the daily traffic is ridiculously chaotic—but mostly because the referendum on Kenya’s new proposed constitution is less than a month away. This constitution has been in the works for the past several years and represents for many “the most far reaching institutional reforms since independence” (S. Mitra, PKF Kenya). Every day the Kenyan newspapers display headlines representing the alternating viewpoints of the “yes” and “no” camps—those in favor of the constitution and those opposed. The highways bordering the center city are spotted with huge billboards asking Kenyan citizens to “Soma. Elewa. Amua.” (Read. Understand. Decide.) Everyone is talking about it, a lot of people are worried about it, and some have even become violent as a result of it.
In the midst of all of this energy and discussion I was able to take the place of my host-mom at an invite-only discussion of the relevance of the constitution for Kenyan business owners hosted at the Intercontinental Hotel several days ago (the priciest and most famous hotel in Kenya—I was reminded by several people that this was where Joe Biden stayed when he was here a few months ago.) Although presented as an “unbiased forum for information exchange” regarding the proposed constitution, it was clearly organized by and directed towards the “yes” camp. I spent all day at the conference learning about the ins and outs of the new constitution as well as the failures of the antiquated constitution that it will be replacing. I heard from various prominent Kenyan CEOs and business leaders representing public finance, manufacturing, banking and investment, land and property, the private sector and more. It was a fascinating “meeting of the minds” and an exhibition of many of the most progressive, innovative thinkers in modern Kenya.
As an observer, what struck me the most was that the issues deemed most significant in this conference were very different from what the Kenyan media focuses on every day. Before I attended this conference all I heard about regarding this constitution was abortion and Muslim courts. According to the popular media, the most controversial reforms in the constitution are the “Right to Life” clause that maintains the illegality of abortion except if the health of the mother is at risk and the constitution’s acknowledgement of the Kadhis’ Courts—which maintain certain Muslim laws apart from Kenyan law. The “No” party has used these two items to protest vehemently against the constitution.
What became clear during the conference yesterday was that the far more contentious issues that are at the crux of the political dispute over the constitution surround reforms of land ownership and leadership.
Poignantly, it was just one day before the conference that the “Daily Nation” displayed a front-page article with the headline “MPs Give Themselves Hefty Pay Raise.” The Members of Parliament voted to increase their own monthly earnings from 851,000 KSHs to 1.1 Million KSHs. Many of the speakers at the conference raised this very news item—pointing out that a new constitution would make this type of corrupt governance a thing of the past. They contend that the proposed constitution will create independent commissions that determine the salaries of all public officials and ideally diminish the culture of paternalism that has thrived for as long as anyone can remember.
As a student of International Relations I couldn’t help but relate this discussion to my own struggles as a development practitioner focused on Africa. The slow development of the continent is often blamed on the rampant corruption and poor governance that plagues many African countries. With this new constitution many Kenyans hope to usher in a new era of good governance, a system of checks and balances and a democratic government that is answerable to its people and not to its own pockets. This new constitution represents what Thomas Dichter calls “development with a small D,” progressive reforms that are brought about by “primary agents for their own societies” as opposed to “secondary agents” –the “Western world”—under the auspices of “aid” or “development assistance.” This is not to say that the international community has not attempted to sway Kenyan leadership towards a certain decision, made quite obvious by Joe Biden’s most recent visit to the country.
The incentives for Kenya’s international partners aside, I believe that Kenya has the opportunity to do something great with the passing of this constitution. Honorable Njoki Ndungu, an incredibly powerful speaker at the conference, told those present that the new constitution, if passed, would “change and transform their lives.” She noted that the constitution would no longer allow the president to be “above the law”, would ensure that it is no longer exclusively the friends of the president who receive government jobs and high salaries, and make sure that all government officials pay taxes.
She also emphasized that the proposed constitution is imperfect. It will not please everyone and it does not solve every problem.
In the end the responsibility belongs to every Kenya; Soma. Elewa. Amua.
Posted By Dara Lipton
Posted Jul 6th, 2010