Kenyan parliament passes draft constitution

kenyaParliament has unanimously passed a draft constitution that is one of several key reform steps needed to avoid a repeat of political violence that shook Kenya after disputed 2007 presidential elections.

Kenya’s presidency has enormous powers that are largely unchecked, leading to abuses of power that are believed to have fueled the violence between December 2007 and February 2008 during which more than 1,000 people were killed. This new draft proposes several checks to presidential powers.

Parliament’s vote late Thursday sets the stage for Kenya to go to a referendum on the draft charter within 90 days, marking the final steps in a decades-long process to rewrite the constitution.

This will be the second time the East African nation will hold a referendum since gaining independence from Britain in 1963.

Debate over the past two days in Kenya’s National Assembly was sometimes acrimonious as lawmakers tried to amend the draft prepared by a government-appointed panel of legal experts.

“Let us pass it (the draft constitution) and let us make that big step forward,” said President Mwai Kibaki, appealing late Thursday to the lawmakers to forget the emotions raised by the debate. Under the current constitution, the president is a lawmaker as well as head of state and government, something that critics have pointed out as a failure in Kenya’s supreme law because there are few checks on presidential powers.

The draft charter passed by parliament proposes several checks to presidential powers, including a requirement that Cabinet and other presidential appointees be vetted by the National Assembly, something that does not happen under the current constitution.

“Is it a better document than the one we have today? The majority of the provisions of this (draft) constitution are much better than what we have today,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga said before lawmakers voted on the entire document.

Constitutional Affairs Minister Mutula Kilonzo said Friday that the law setting in motion Kenya’s latest effort at reviewing its constitution was written to make it easy for the entire document to be voted on, but difficult for lawmakers to get frivolous amendments passed.

“I am happy,” Kilonzo said.

None of the more than 100 amendments passed as lawmakers were unable to rally the two-thirds of legislators needed to vote, adding to their frustration and sometimes heated exchange of words.

Among other major proposals, the draft charter introduces for the first time a Supreme Court and allows dual citizenship. It also provides for reintroducing elected county governments.

Kilonzo said he has drafted regulations for the referendum to ensure debate on the draft constitution does not divide the country as happened in the lead-up to the 2005 plebiscite. He declined to explain how the proposed regulations will achieve that, saying he will be opening them up for public debate next week.

The 2005 referendum on a previous draft constitution was seen as a precursor to the ethnic tensions that exploded after the 2007 election. During that referendum, Kibaki, who was serving his first term, campaigned for the ‘yes’ vote and several Cabinet ministers campaigned against him, including Odinga. The opponents of that draft said it did not go far enough in curbing presidential powers, among other criticisms.

About 57 percent voted against the 2005 draft constitution. Kibaki fired ministers who campaigned against the document, and Odinga became his biggest rival.

Kibaki and Odinga agreed to form the panel of Kenyan and other African legal experts that came up with the latest draft as part of a reform package pegged to the power sharing deal they signed in February 2008 to end the violence during which more than 1,000 people were killed.

Source: The Associated Press.