Monday, August 2, 2010

Kenyans count-down to a constitution...

Wintry Sunday mornings in Nairobi are quiet...the streets are mostly empty, shops largely shut. I was walking down Kenyatta Avenue when the silence was broken by the honking of a vehicle and shouting. An enormous flat-bed truck, weighted down by an improbably large mass of people, came hurdling down the streets, loudspeakers blaring, the driver laying on the horn. It was a bus for the 'Yes' Campaign. Kenyans are voting in a referendum on the introduction of a new constitution on Wednesday, and both the 'Yes' and 'No' campaigns are pulling out all the stops in the final days before voting. The 'Yes' supporters on the bus were wearing green shirts, baseball caps, and waving green 'Yes' signs. 'Katiba sasa! Ndiyo, ndiyo!' was the cry. 'Constitution now! Yes, yes!'

Later in the morning I went down to Uhuru Park for the 'Yes' rally. 'Uhuru' means 'freedom', and in Kenya's case, independence from Britain came in 1963. In a way, the referendum has become a kind of commentary on Kenya's post-colonial history. The draft's opponents see it as an unnecessary attack on the legacy of those in power since 1963. Its proponents see in it the possibility of resolving unfinished business.
The large hill in Uhuru Park facing a series of covered stands (for the dignitaries) gradually filled through the late-morning and early-afternoon, musical entertainment being provided in the interim (many of the songs apparently arranged for the occasion, featuring such original lyrics as 'Vote yes, vote yes!' and 'Raisi anasema ndiyo, Raila anasema ndiyo, Kenyatta anasema ndiyo...' [the various leaders who are saying 'yes'], etc). The campaign seems very politician-oriented, and this showed during the rally. Occasionally the supporters of a particular MP who was voting 'yes' would come running across Processional Way, which separated the stands from those of us on the hillside, chanting, yelling and carrying on. The master of ceremonies got rather peeved at one point, declaring that 'Such sideshows are not welcome!'

Eventually he announced that Waziri Mkuu Raila Odinga was on his way, and the crowd exploded. Odinga arrived to rapturous applause, and then police sirens wailing, helicopters thumping the air overhead, and a brass band doing its best to compete, Rais Mwai Kibaki pulled up and things got kicked off, with MPs, public figures and other prominent supporters of the constitution (entertainers, church figures) giving short speeches.
At this stage in the national drama, the key characters have assumed comfortable roles in the story. Raila Odinga is the charismatic man who was meant to lead the 'Yes' campaign, but who has been confined, on doctors' orders, to his house for the past month and more. Returning in the final days of the campaign, he has put the wind in the sails of the 'Yes' supporters and had the crowd at Uhuru Park at his feet. He took complete command of his audience and had them in stitches, laughing and nodding along to his every word. Mwai Kibaki is playing the part of the worthy if uncharismatic head of state who had to unexpectedly step forward to head the 'Yes' campaign, and most seem to agree that he did so more effectively than anyone could have imagined.
And of course every drama needs a villain. At least a half dozen speakers piled onto the man who has been increasingly outspoken for the 'No' campaign in past days--former-President Daniel Arap Moi. And it's easy to see why he makes the perfect villain. That a man whose administration presided over the arrest, imprisonment, torture and murder of thousands of political opponents, mangled Kenya's election process, and then walked away to a substantial retirement package has the temerity to open his yap on the subject of democracy and political reform--and that anyone has paid him any heed--is quite extraordinary.

Many are hoping that the passage of the draft constitution will let Kenya decisively turn the page on the Kenyatta and Moi eras. Many public supporters have even been speaking of a Second Republic, so transformative is the document meant to be. However, and this is a danger that is particularly acute because the process of constitutional revision has been a very top-down one, a set of expectations are being generated around the constitution that might well lead people to see it as a panacea for all the country's ills (indeed, its supporters are encouraging this view). Its passage will not erase, as politicians promise, inequality, intolerance and corruption. That will require a committed generation of Kenyans, who must hold their leaders' feet to the fires that the passage of the draft on Wednesday might very well light.

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