Kenyans see little change after new constitution

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 18, 2011 4:55 PM

By James Macharia

NAIROBI (Reuters) - When a new constitution was adopted six months ago, Kenyans yearning for change looked to a new era of progressive politics; but many, such as Dickson Owili, feel the ruling class is dancing to the same old tune.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor raised hopes when it named six suspected masterminds of the slaughter that followed the disputed 2007 elections. The fight against impunity might just have started in earnest.

But parliament voted to withdraw Kenya from the ICC, and President Mwai Kibaki said he would keep the suspects in his cabinet for now.

Tribal alliances that fueled the post-election violence have re-emerged in the run up to the 2012 vote, and many are now asking: is Kenya really changing?

"We had hoped for change, but now is when we are suffering even more. As for the politicians, there has been no change. It's the usual story: bickering and power games. Look at the judicial row, they were behaving like little children," said the 54-year-old painter at the bustling Burma Market in Nairobi.

"Even if they know something to be right, they oppose it just because they want their side to win," said Owili, having lunch at the market made famous for nyama choma, or roasted meat, the meal of choice in the east African nation.

Owili sees the row over the nomination of judicial figures between Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who opposed the appointments, as a sign of just how little the leaders have changed their old wrangling ways.

The dispute helped weaken the shilling to an all-time low and foreign investors fled the stock market, driving it to a 10-month low.

The new constitution aims to check presidential powers and curb the corruption, political patronage, land-grabbing and tribalism that have plagued Kenya since independence in 1963. It requires about 40 new laws to be enacted to become operational.

East Africa's biggest economy risks losing international goodwill, and even funding, if it fails to implement the constitution fully and in a transparent manner.

"It's just noise, they can't focus on building the economy. We talk about the violence after the 2007 elections, it could be worse in 2012. People are divided along tribal lines," said Owili.

2012 VOTE VIOLENCE FEARS

The former British colony's reputation for stability was shaken when the tribal violence erupted, but peace was restored by a power sharing deal brokered by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, creating Kenya's first coalition government.

The country of 40 million people holds elections next year, and lobby groups have voiced concern the vote could be pushed back from the set date of the second Tuesday of August because of the snail-paced implementation of the basic law.

Located in a congested, dusty and tired-looking working class sector of the city, Burma market is a stone's throw away from the Kamkunji or meeting grounds -- the symbolic launch pad for Kenya's struggle for multi-party democracy in the 1990s.

Traders and customers at the market are angry that Kenya has missed certain deadlines in implementing the new constitution, including the failure to have a new chief justice after the former one resigned by law at the end of February.

"Our leaders are selfish, they only look out for their own interests," said 32-year-old butcher Martin Mbithi.

Mbithi said political leaders refused to set aside their partisan and ethnic interests and were stuck in their old ways.

Some said the focus had shifted from enforcing the constitution to efforts to block the trials of the ICC suspects.

"They are trying to derail the ICC, because their friends are in the mix. They want to protect them," said 38-year-old Juma Chando, a trader who specializes in leather shoes.

Kibaki wants to shield key members of his inner circle from trials that could damage their political careers, and throw up evidence that may incriminate other senior government figures and taint his legacy, analysts say.

DREAM DEFERRED?

"We don't see the kind of momentum on constitution-making such as what we are seeing on the ICC effort," said Alice Nderitu, an official at National Cohesion and Integration Commission, formed to mediate after the tribal violence.

"But the plus is that we have independent oversight bodies outside of parliament to ensure that it is implemented."

Political commentator Kwamchetsi Makokha said the hiccups were expected, but would not block the basic law, citing similar hitches in stronger democracies such as the United States and South Africa which took years to bed down their constitutions.

Makokha said the implementation exercise was being hobbled from within by those who opposed the basic law during the referendum and those who were lukewarm in their support, but was still optimistic the new law was the start a new era.

"The question we have to ask is this: Is it possible to sabotage this constitution to the point where it is inoperational? In my view this is not possible, it may take long to implement, but its implementation is inevitable," he said.

"A lot of people are despondent because they had hoped for faster implementation ... but these delays do not mean the new era is a false dream, we can say it is a dream deferred."

(Editing by David Clarke and Ralph Boulton)