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Violence mars debate over a new constitution in Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya—Kenya has long been known as one of East Africa's more stable countries. These days, however, it more closely resembles some of its troubled neighbors.

Politicians have angrily accused one another of taking bribes. Crowds have pelted speakers with stones. Rallies have turned into bloody melees. The violence has become so unnerving that the police commissioner warned politicians this week to dial down the inflammatory rhetoric or "face the full force of the law."

The source of the tension is a debate over a new constitution to replace the document that was drawn up when Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963.

Kenyans are to vote Nov. 21 on the new charter, which enshrines a bill of rights, protects the land rights of indigenous peoples, provides for a stronger president and a weaker prime minister, allows dual citizenship and establishes religious courts subject to parliamentary authority.

The referendum fulfills a pledge by President Mwai Kibaki, who took office after the retirement in 2002 of longtime President Daniel Arap Moi and promised to deliver a new constitution to replace the independence-era one, which has been amended countless times.

It also spotlights simmering social tensions in a country where many people remain very poor—Kenya ranks 154th out of 177 countries in the United Nations' Human Development Index—and corruption is rampant.

Leaders of Kenya's Muslim community of about 7 million—roughly one-quarter of the population—worry that the proposed constitution undermines Islamic courts, which have had special protection since independence. The courts, known as Kadhi's courts, have the authority to decide personal matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance based on the teachings of the Quran.

The proposed constitution gives Parliament the authority to establish other religious courts and to pass laws related to these courts. That weakens the Kadhi's courts' position, said Lattif Shaban, the head of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.

"The proposed constitution removes the Kadhi's courts from their standalone position and lumps them together with all religious courts," Shaban said. "There are no guidelines on how these religious courts are going to be governed by Parliament."

Muslims' fears provoked a hostile reception for constitution supporters Sept. 17 in Garissa, a town in largely pastoral northeastern Kenya, where Muslim leaders had preached against the proposed constitution. A crowd threw stones and burned copies of the document, and when the politicians retreated to the airport under police escort, protesters set fires to block their convoy.

Some also see the effects of tribalism in the skirmishes. Supporters and opponents of the constitution are split along ethnic lines, with the Kikuyu, Kenya's dominant tribe, which includes Kibaki and his political allies, on one side and the Luo, who include the chief opposition leader, Roads Minister Raila Odinga, on the other.

Four days after the clash in Garissa, Odinga and his anti-constitution group campaigned in Thika in central Kenya, Kikuyu country. Protesters stormed the rally and tossed sticks and chairs at the campaigners.

"To some extent the ethnic issue is there. It's very disappointing ..." said Henry Obwocha, a constitution supporter. "You go into certain areas, you have to be careful what you say."

Violence has marred the campaign since July, when three days of protests in Nairobi, the capital, left one man dead. The recent episodes have featured gangs of youths storming political rallies. Dozens have been arrested in the attacks, which police think were financed by rival politicians.

"These incidents were deliberate acts of hooliganism that were organized, incited and funded by people seeking to further their own political or sectarian agenda by creating public disturbances," Police Commissioner Hussein Ali charged this week.

With the referendum still several weeks away, Obwocha said, "The way forward is to tone down the rhetoric and engage in civic education."

Five million copies of the proposed constitution are to be distributed nationwide as part of a month-long education campaign through churches and nongovernmental organizations. But many Kenyans appear to have chosen sides already, even those who haven't read the document.

That's clear at the rallies, where partisans wear bananas—the symbol for supporters of the constitution—or juggle oranges—the symbol for opponents.

"For most of the people, right now they may tell you, `I'm voting for banana' or `I'm voting for orange,'" said Matthew Dambala, the secretary-general of the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church, which hasn't endorsed either side. "But when you ask what is in the banana or orange, they have not even seen the document."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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