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Kenya’s Democratic Hope

Kenyans have much to celebrate this week. They lined up in large numbers, peacefully cast their ballots, and resoundingly rejected a flawed constitution that had been hastily forced upon them.

The November 21 referendum marks another pivotal step towards consolidating Kenya’s transition to a real democracy. The “no” vote not only forestalled attempts by President Mwai Kibaki and his inner circle to tighten their grip on power, but it also confirmed to ordinary Kenyans the power of the ballot box.

While the Kenyan public appeared to show their high regard for legal process and participatory democracy, the run-up to the referendum revealed the government’s much uglier face. The Kibaki administration used this year to entrench power in the hands of a small ethnic Kikuyu clique. Reformers within the government not only capitulated to the backsliding, but actively contributed to it.

Two years ago, the picture looked a bit brighter. Billing itself as a reform government that would promote respect for human rights and the rule of law, the Kibaki government promised Kenyans a new constitution within 100 days of taking office in 2003. The draft constitution had been many years in the making and had been crafted following extensive national consultations. It contained provisions that would have removed excessive presidential powers and given Kenyans a stronger bill of rights.