Too many African political developments have gone according to stereotype of late: suspect elections in Ethiopia and Rwanda, surging violence in Somalia and a never-ending conflict in Congo.
Trouble was expected in Kenya, too, where voters last month turned out for a referendum on a new constitution. The country’s last vote had led to violence, bringing the world pictures of angry men sharpening machetes on Nairobi pavement and callous police firing into unarmed crowds. But the constitution was passed smoothly and last week it was signed into law in front of tens of thousands of Kenyans in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Finally, it seemed, the dull drone of nerdy technocrats formulating policy overwhelmed the outsized personalities, vague promises, bullets and mayhem of years past.
Kenya’s two biggest men, former rivals Prime Minister Raila Odinga and President Mwai Kibaki, banked their careers on a campaign for this progressive new body of law. It curtails the powers of their own political class, establishes an independent judiciary, addresses a long history of illegal land grabs that has left a tiny elite with much of the country’s most fertile land and introduces a robust bill of rights, putting heavy-handed security forces on their heels.
Kenya’s civil society has fought for decades, braving batons, teargas and detentions, to replace a 1964 constitution that was little more than a recast of colonial law and which accorded regular Kenyans the status of subjects rather than citizens. But international pressure in the wake of 2008 violence made such change inevitable, with first Odinga and then, ponderously, Kibaki backing the bill. Beleaguered activists seemed almost shocked to find the country’s notoriously self-interested leaders on their side. ”We call it the constitution for the poor,” says Jamia Abdulrahim, a grassroots rights advocate in the Nairobi slum of Kibera, who remained wary. “Politics is like football we cannot predict. Anything can happen.”
Odinga and Kibaki presided over a signing ceremony complete with air force flyovers, the singing of all three stanzas of Kenya’s demanding national anthem – normally just the one is required – and the third 21-gun salute in Kenya’s 47-year history as an independent nation. ”Change has finally come to our land. It has come because we refused to give up. It has come because finally, we agreed to work together,” said Odinga. Whether those high hopes will become a reality remains to be seen. The ceremony was supposed to signal a new dawn. But among the guests of honour, sat not far from Kibaki and Odinga, was a man charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court: Sudanese president, Omar Al-Bashir.
According to Florence Simbiri Jaoko, the chair of Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, “Hosting President Al-Bashir flies in the face of the very constitution it was promulgating.”