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Kenya takes its place among world’s top democracies at emotional ceremony

Friday August 27 2010

President Kibaki holds up a copy of the new Constitution after it was promulgated on August 27 last year.

FILE | NATION President Kibaki holds up a copy of the new Constitution after it was promulgated on August 27 last year. 

By MURITHI MUTIGA [email protected]

Kenya took its place at the high table of nations with progressive constitutions at a euphoric ceremony in Nairobi laced with historical significance.

Before an overflowing crowd that included several African heads of state, President Kibaki signed the new constitution at 10.27am.

At the stroke of the pen and to the echo of a 21-gun salute, the nation shed off a set of laws inherited from the British and entered a new constitutional dispensation in which the powers of the presidency will be reduced and far-reaching changes introduced to tackle inequality and promote greater national cohesion.

Some 150,000, by police estimates, watched as President Kibaki hailed the endorsement of the new law as a turning point for the nation.

“The dawn of a new era is upon us. Let us seize the moment with courage because the birth of the Second Republic holds great promise for the Kenyan people,” he said.

The mood at Uhuru Park was one of elation mixed with a palpable sense of hope. Tens of thousands filled the arena as early as 6.30 am in a bid to get the best seats, with about a dozen choosing to hang precariously from the branches of a tree in the middle of the park.

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But the light-hearted mood could not mask the historical significance of an occasion billed as the most important the nation has witnessed since December 12, 1964.

President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga – two men who could barely make eye contact during the signing of the national accord which ended the worst post election crisis in Kenyan history – were warm and effusive in their remarks.

Mr Odinga praised his rival at the 2007 General Election for leading the campaigns that yielded the new constitution and called on the nation to grab the chance to “begin writing the story of an equal and just society” on the clean new page the nation had turned.

Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka spoke in similar terms, describing the new constitution as a chance to launch a new Kenyan “renaissance” and saying voters had taken a bold step “in transforming our country into a great nation.”

Friday’s ceremony was the capstone in the long and winding path to a new constitution. Demands for a more progressive set of laws kicked off almost immediately after independence in part due to the flawed process through which the Lancaster constitution was drafted.

The British used negotiations for the charter to advance their own interests by dividing politicians along ethnic lines. They took the side of the smaller ethnic communities and introduced a devolved system of government, which was bitterly opposed by the leading figures in Kanu, Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya.

After independence, the situation was made worse by the centralists in Kanu, who amended the constitution to create a unitary state in which the president enjoyed extraordinary powers, including the capacity to detain rivals without trial.

That creaky patchwork of a constitution is blamed for sowing the seeds of ethnic division and inequality whose results were dramatically highlighted after the closely contested 2007 poll.

That crisis also jolted the political class into seeing the need for a new constitution.

At Uhuru Park, signs that British cultural influence remains strong were evident on the stage. The Attorney General, the Speaker of Parliament and judicial officers were resplendent in robes similar to those seen in the UK, complete with horsehair powdered wigs.

But that is where the comparison between the old order and the new one ends. The new constitution will introduce considerable curbs on the powers of the presidency, including some which will spare protocol officials the nightmare they had early Friday finding sitting space for the dozens of government officials that turned up.

Unlike the old constitution, which allowed the president and PM the power to appoint an unlimited number of MPs into the Cabinet, the new constitution limits the number of ministers to a maximum of 24.

It also abolishes the position of assistant minister, paving the way for a leaner front bench than the current grand coalition, which had a record 40 ministers and 52 assistant ministers when it was formed in March 2008.

The new Bill of Rights, which became effective immediately the constitution was signed into law, will see women guaranteed at least a third of the seats in all elective bodies and commissions of the state.

Policymakers will also have to grapple with other rights granted to citizens, including those spelling out their entitlement to the highest attainable standards of health, adequate housing, access to clean and safe water and freedom from hunger.

In an echo of some of the earlier proposals in Lancaster which were eventually watered down, the new constitution aspires to unite the nation by devolving resources to tackle the inequalities that are viewed as the greatest threat to the nation’s unity.

At least 15 per cent of national revenue will be sent directly to the counties, giving wananchi and local leaders greater authority in managing resources.

The draft will see the creation of an Equalisation Fund, which will send 0.5 per cent of annual revenue to marginalised communities.

The fine print of the constitution was clearly far from the minds of wananchi who wanted only to enjoy being part of the historic occasion at Uhuru Park.

The arena was filled with miniature flags on an order not seen since Reinhardt Fabisch’s stewardship of the national football team stirred hope that Kenya stood a chance of qualification to the World Cup.

Entrepreneurs were out in force, selling everything they could plant the national colours on including calendars, framed photos of the main political party leaders and one who stocked an audio CD of the constitution.

The politicians were also on their best behaviour. After a bitterly contested referendum, the sight of the leaders of the ‘No’ campaign, Daniel arap Moi, William Ruto and Archbishop John Njue sitting cheek-to-jowl with their ‘Yes’ rivals was refreshing.

Drowned out by the majority Although some elements in the crowd attempted to jeer Mr Moi, they were drowned out by the majority, who were not in the mood to spoil the occasion.

An elite group of artistes had been assembled to sing a song composed specially for the occasion and Eric Wainaina issued a rendition of his stirring Daima mimi ni Mkenya tune.

But the show stopper was gospel singer Emmy Kosgei, whose performance saw first lady Lucy Kibaki engage in a vigorous jig and earned the musician a standing ovation.

On a chilly, windless day with low-hanging clouds creating a snug atmosphere at the expansive grounds, Kenya’s broad range of cultures, ethnic and racial peoples was in full view.

The multi-racial National Youth Orchestra performed a jazz tune paving the way for a variety of performances by Samburu and Maasai dancers dressed in monkey skin regalia complete with shining spears and a Kisii team of dancers with colourful feather capped gear.

Organisers left little to chance by introducing airport-style scanners, putting in place a stand-by generator and installing a flat screen TV to improve the view of those who could not get a seat on the main stand.

There was a touch of humour when the military display of their heavy equipment was greeted by cries of “Migingo! Migingo!” aimed at Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, in reference to the island whose ownership is the subject of a dispute between Kenya and Uganda.

Protocol officials had a nightmare keeping off various dignitaries who tried to access the VIP dais. Three councillors were unimpressed after being denied entry.

They had been asked for their invitation cards and produced instead cards showing they were Orange Democratic Movement life members.

All those sideshows did little to detract from the general camaraderie that marked the occasion.

President Kibaki, who was a young Kanu official during the celebrations to mark independence, urged the nation to seize the moment to steer Kenya to the level of a developed nation in the shortest time possible.

“The new constitution gives us renewed optimism about our country and its future. Some of us were present at the birth of the First Republic. As young leaders, we envisioned turning our newly born country into a prosperous, healthy, and developed nation in a generation or two. A lot has been achieved towards this goal, but much more work remains to be done,” he said.

“I appeal to Kenyans, individually and collectively, to build a nation that will be socially and economically inclusive and cohesive where all have equal access and opportunities to realise their full potential.”

That appeal drew cheers from the crowd but there was perhaps a symbolic sign from nature on the scale of the task that lies ahead.

Immediately after the new law was signed, the sun’s rays briefly pierced through the thick clouds. But the sun retreated only a few minutes later offering a metaphorical illustration that much work lies ahead if this latest new dawn in the nation’s history is to be consolidated to guarantee a better future.