Kenya’s proposed constitution — and a US proxy culture war

Last Sunday, before the World Cup final, I sat down on the sideline at A-STEP‘s “Sports for Peace” program to watch the local under-17 team play against the elders’ team. I soon found myself surrounded by the kids from the under-14 team, which had played earlier. Proper ex-pat policy would require me to snap a photo to prove that I was surrounded by smiling African children, but I didn’t have a camera.

One especially talkative kid was named Alvin. I would have guessed he was 12-years-old. He wanted to talk about Obama, of course. Then after a while, he asked me what I thought of Kenya’s proposed constitution. Seriously. This 12-year-old wanted to talk about the constitution. I gotta say, it just warmed my heart.

What’s at stake

The background on Kenya’s constitutional reform process is long and complicated, as such things are. Reform has been on the agenda for a while. One of the major issues is the massive power of the Kenyan president. After the disputed presidential election of December 2007 and the violence it sparked, a coalition government of the incumbent president (Mwai Kibaki) and the challenger-turned-prime minister (Raila Odinga) embarked on a constitutional reform process. The voters had already rejected a proposal in a 2005 referendum.

On August 4th, Kenyans will vote again on a new version. In all likelihood, this version will pass: a recent poll found 62% in favor. Both Kibaki and Raila are in favor of it. I’ve been following the news on it for a while, but when Alvin asked me about it, I honestly knew very little about the content. Unfortunately, that’s true of many Kenyans as well. Earlier this week I was flipping through a copy while chatting with some of the Mercy Corps staff here. And you know what? It’s really long. So it’s too bad that the civic education efforts have been lacking, and that they have been overshadowed by the yes/no campaigns.

Several difficult issues have been, let’s say, misrepresented by the campaigns. In the Rift Valley region, a major issue has always been land reform. The “no” campaign has been telling Kalenjins here that the constitution will result in their land being taken away. It’s not true, but it has people scared. Other major issues include whether the clause on kadhi courts will lead to sharia law in Kenya (it won’t) and whether another clause will lead to more abortions (despite the fact that it defines the beginning of life at conception and has a general ban on abortion, it allows for abortion if the life of the mother is at risk).

Proxy culture war

Sadly, these issues have also opened the door to a proxy culture war. American conservative Christians are heavily funding the “no” campaign, while the governments of the US, UK and EU governments have openly declared their support for the “yes” side. In the last week, this issue has erupted in the debate. The “no” campaign claims the US is imposing the constitution on Kenyans, and has asserted that the US is funding the “yes” campaign, which the US ambassador denies. (However, I’m certain that “Barack Obama wants you to vote yes” is a bad strategy for the “no” campaign.) Back in Washington, congressional Republicans have joined the fray, accusing the Obama administration of using taxpayer money to buy votes. In fact, the US is funding civic education efforts, but it has suspended grantees that have been found to be supporting either side.

The important questions

It’s too bad that the Kenyan constitutional reform has become about the US. Flipping through the draft, I think it’s actually a pretty good constitution. I’m especially excited about how it decentralizes political power and government finances. This may sound boringly technocratic, but effective local governments are vital to a state’s ability to provide services and promote development. Currently, local governments in Kenya do very little. Teachers and other civil servants all report to the center, which inhibits accountability for services. Much of that would change under the new constitution. (One exception is the police, which will remain centralized — a bad idea in my opinion.) In a similar vein, the constitution addresses many issues of excessive presidential power. For example, cabinet secretaries will have to be approved by the national assembly, and there will be a maximum of 20 of them (currently Kenya has about 40 ministers).

But I know what you’re wondering. You’re reading all this and thinking, “But, Dave: Can the proposed constitution be sung in a catchy jingle with adorable animation that will stick in the minds of school children for decades?” I’m sorry, but that’s something only Kenyans can decide.