Watching history happen in Kenya: looks just like politics

Kenyans are voting on a new constitution on Wednesday. It will almost certainly pass, according to recent polls. In the past month, I’ve come to realize just how historic this change will be. I won’t try to repeat the work of the Economist, which does a characteristically good job describing the context and stakes of the vote. However, I do want to highlight one aspect of their article: the way that this grand historical moment has intertwined with ordinary politics.

Every night, the news covers the daily activities of the “Yes” and “No” campaigns. President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, though former rivals, are both campaigning in favor of the draft. Former President Daniel arap Moi is campaigning against. The referendum has provided fodder for local political positioning, as politicians consider how their stances will impact their future careers. The Catholic church and Anglican church are both opposing the draft due to clauses on abortion (the draft continues the general ban on abortion, but allows it in cases where the mother’s life is at risk) and khadi courts. The US has also gotten involved, as I discussed before: aid money is being spent to educate citizens on the draft, the Congressional Black Caucus has formally expressed its support, and the “No” campaign continues to complain about US meddling, despite receiving funding from American conservative groups.

It’s easy for citizens of established democracies to forget the history of our governance institutions: they developed from political maneuvering between various interested parties. America’s founding fathers didn’t spend the whole constitutional convention discussing lofty political ideals so they could craft mechanisms for embedding enlightenment ideals in government. Rather, they dealt with personality conflicts. They negotiated compromises that may have left no one happy. And 80 years later, our predecessors were killing each other in large numbers over many of those same compromises.

This referendum is not the end of reform for Kenya. Even if the vote is peaceful, there will be a risk of violence around the 2012 presidential elections. The draft lays out the transition process in some detail but it could still be derailed. It will also be important to see how the new constitution impacts another major historic undertaking: the development of the East African community, which has already eased movement of labor, goods and capital across five countries, and may lead to a single currency by 2012 and a political federation by 2015. The next decade promises to be very interesting for the region.