In bitter twist of irony the opposition Kenya African National Union (Kanu) — which viciously cracked down on dissent when it was in power — this week came out in support of mass action.
Meanwhile, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki and his government, who had participated in public demonstrations against the former Daniel arap Moi regime, declared demonstrations illegal and ordered the security forces to use the “necessary means” to end protests.
The unrest was sparked when MPs allied to Kibaki met at a conference at the Bomas resort near Nairobi to amend clauses in a constitution drafted by delegates mandated to represent the Kenyan population of 32-million.
MPs from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) — a partner in the coalition government — and Kanu boycotted the meeting in protest against changes made to “the Bomas draft”.
The most contentious clause is the creation of the post of prime minister. The LDP maintains that, in a preâ€’election pact in 2002, Kibaki promised its leader and current Minister of Roads, Raila Odinga, the post. The promise prompted the LDP to abandon its ally, Kanu, to join Kibaki’s National Alliance Party of Kenya and form the National Rainbow Coalition, a move that analysts believe swung the vote Kibaki’s way and sounded the deathâ€’knell for Moi.
The original Bomas draft ensured that some power was removed from the president and ceded to a future prime minister. However, “Kibakiâ€’friendly” MPs amended the clause to ensure that the president retained supreme authority.
Odinga believes this to be a calculated manoeuvre aimed at weakening him politically.
Hanging heavy over the controversy is the pall of tribalism. The battle over the constitution is seen as a conflict between Kibaki’s Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, and Odinga’s Luo, the second largest ethnic group. This is seen as a danger in light of the recent slaughter of about 100 people in ethnic violence in northern Kenya.
In other changes to the Bomas draft MPs amended the document to: restrict the public’s access to information; retain the death penalty; make abortion difficult; limit female representation in Parliament; and ensure that the president can be fired only by a twoâ€’thirds majority.
Human rights activist Samson Ojiyayo maintains: “They had no mandate from the people to change the constitution. This is a dictatorship. We have been cheated.”
When reform activist Koitamet ole Kina tried to present a petition to Parliament riot police surrounded his small group before they could reach the gates.
“You will not pass!” spat a senior police officer. “Why can’t we enter Parliament?” asked Ole Kina. “We are Kenyans and we have that right!”
Security forces maintained a heavy presence in major Kenyan cities this week, firing water canons and tear gas and arresting scores of protesters.
Kenya has been waiting for a new constitution since Moi launched the process in 1990. Ahead of the last elections, Kibaki’s coalition government promised a new, more liberal constitution within 100 days of taking office in early 2003.