On August 4, Kenyans went to the polls to vote on a new constitution. The vote had raised the specter of violence which marred the 2007 elections, when 1,300 people died and 300,000 were displaced. In the months leading up to the referendum, fears were again raised when a bomb killed six people at a rally in Nairobi in June. As of Wednesday night, though, the vote has been reported to have gone smoothly and without major incidents. Preliminary results indicate that the new constitution received more than 66% of voters’ support, with over 4 million “yes” ballots.
This vote is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, the constitution which was voted on is to replace the current, oft-amended constitution which was negotiated and crafted with the British in 1963, thus eliminating the legacy of colonial rule which it had perpetuated. As is the case with most efforts to modernize a country’s polity, reactionary leaders – in the form of religious and political conservatives – have attempted to rally Kenyans to vote against this new constitution. It’s interesting to note that the some of the most vocal opposition to the new constitution came from religious circles in Kenya, who criticized it for being too liberal, particularly with regards to abortion rights and the inclusion of Muslim courts into the legal system. Christian leaders who oppose the constitution claim that it “doesn’t meet religious, moral, economic and justice concerns”, that “it has strong socialist tendencies.” Former president Daniel Moi came out of retirement to campaign, becoming one of the most vocal opponents to the proposed constitution. The Washington Post summarizes: “The new constitution curbs presidential power to reduce domination by one tribe. It also weakens regional power centers, paving the way for more equitable distributions of resources. And it permits the central government to take back land that was distributed for political gains.”
Secondly, this referendum allowed the millions of Kenyans who went to the polls on August 4 to reaffirm their confidence in the democratic processes of their country. In spite of much tension following the 2007 election and the fear that violence may erupt again, over 6 million people – over half of all registered voters in the country – went to the polls to cast their ballot.
With respect to the civic engagement of Kenyan citizens, in addition to the high voter turnout, this vote was also defined by a broad reliance on social media for transparency and accountabiltiy. Ushahidi, the platform developed in Kenya to monitor violence and aggregate reports of incidents in the aftermath of the 2007 election, was on the forefront of this effort. An Ushahidi spin-off, Uchaguzi, collected and communicated reports from election monitors all over the country. Using their cellphones, regular citizens were able to report whether polling stations were peaceful or tense, if the vote was taking place unobstructed and without incident. So strong is the influence of Ushahidi that when the website erroneously reported 2005 constitutional referendum results instead of current ones, it unsettled observers and media outlets in Kenya. The Christian Science Monitor discusses the use of social media in the vote here, noting that the “new system that uses SMS and Twitter [allowed] every Kenyan to be an election monitor.”