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Kenya ushers in a new constitution

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki has signed a new constitution that aims to curb presidential powers and promote civic rights. Analysts hope the new charter will prevent future political turmoil and tribal unrest.

A police officer walks past burning buildings in Nairobi

Kenyans fear a return to the ethnic violence of 2007-08

Many see the the new constitution as the biggest political development since Kenya gained independence in 1963. But Kenyans have been let down before. When President Mwai Kibaki offered his political adversary Raila Odinga the chance to form a coalition government and become his prime minister, it was hoped that the power-sharing government formed by leaders from two rival tribes would end the violence that almost turned the December 2007 presidential elections into a civil war.

Despite accusations of electoral fraud, President Kibaki, from the Kikuyu tribe, and Odinga, from the Luo tribe, managed to form a government which finally quelled the post-election clashes between rival tribes, leaving over 1,300 people dead and thousands more displaced.

However, over two years later, there is still tension in Kenya amid concerns that the coalition is not working and that ethnic violence could once again erupt should the power-sharing government collapse.

Decentralization of power aimed at reducing risk of conflict

Opposition leader Raila Odinga, left, looks on as Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, right, announces the cabinet and Odinga as the Prime Minister

Odinga (l.) and Kibaki's coalition restored stability

The new constitution, part of a reform process instigated in the wake of the mayhem in 2007 and 2008, will establish a two-tier parliament which will decentralize power and reduce presidential authority by creating 47 new regions and halving the number of ministries from 40 to 20. No longer will the president have the sole right to hire and fire ministers and judges at will and without accountability.

"The new constitution places checks on the power of the executive branch which has broadened its authority since independence," Stephanie Hanson, a Kenya expert and former researcher with the Council for Foreign Relations in Washington, told Deutsche Welle. "As the constitution stands now, there are few mechanisms for curbing the power of the president. The new constitution creates a more balanced political structure, with a stronger and more independent judiciary and parliament."

"Finally, the constitution also requires that the president receive more than 50 percent of the vote to win an election. This requirement necessitates alliance building across tribes and communities in Kenya as no single ethnic group can deliver over 50 percent of the vote."

It is hoped that, by reducing the onus on presidential power, the stakes in future Kenyan elections will be drastically reduced and therefore less combustible. In the past, the huge advantages enjoyed by the tribe of the successful candidate have made winning, literally, a matter of life and death.

Disillusioned and divided, Kenya fears reopening of wounds

However, while the new constitution is designed to remove the consolidation of power from any future presidential election, and therefore reduce the risk of envy and anger among rival tribes, there is a certain amount of opposition to the document and a real fear that, rather than ending tribal violence, it will inspire a new conflict.

Kenyan men from the Luo tribe armed with machetes and rocks enforce a makeshift roadblock

Some fear that the vote could spark new conflict

At a more complex level, there a fears that the land issue that prompted the orgy of violence in the Rift Valley in 2008 - where ethnic Kalenjins murdered and evicted Kikuyus who they accused of stealing swathes of their tribal territory - could be resurrected by parts of the constitution dedicated to the reallocation of land.

The constitution would allow parliament to set a minimum and maximum level for private land ownership. By setting restrictions on how many acres can be owned, the constitution aims to redress the balance of ownership upset by years of dominance by rich families and tribal cronyism.

Land rights a potential catalyst for a return to violence

Bishop Sospeter Njenga surveys a row of houses belonging to Kikuyus, which were burned to the ground

Kikuyus were forced to flee the Rift Valley by Kalenjins

"Kenya has had a history of tribal favouritism in terms of distribution of resources and positions of power since independence," Allan Duncan, an independent economic consultant working with international organizations in Kenya and Sudan, told Deutsche Welle. "Change did happen after the 2002 elections, although within quite a short period of time, the establishment quickly reverted to the cronyism and corruption of the previous regimes that they had promised to eradicate."

"This was combined with a growing stranglehold on the means of production and political decision-making within Kenya, which the new constitution will attempt to address," he added. "A resurgence of marginalization and poverty once again took root within the non-politically connected tribes fostering resentment and disaffection. There is a chance this could erupt again."

Opposition figures such as Higher Education Minister William Ruto and former president Daniel Arap Moi, both of the Kalenjin tribe, say that these new land laws would allow the government to seize property from anybody without paying compensation to the owner.

With tensions over the Kikuyu presence in the Rift Valley still running high among Kalenjins, the land issue within the constitution is seen by many as a possible catalyst for a further round of bloodletting.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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