Daniel Branch: Kenya’s Referendum: “In the Name of God, No!”





[Daniel Branch is an assistant professor in history at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York: 2009). He is currently writing a political history of Kenya since independence.]

Many Kenyans as well as foreign observers have welcomed the result of Kenya’s constitutional referendum on 4 August 2010, which gave overwhelming approval to the document. The relief at the clear outcome and peaceful process indeed makes it tempting to see this moment as a new beginning.

But it is also as well to be cautious, for we have been here before. Over the past fifty years, Kenya has witnessed many moments of apparent transformation followed by disillusionment and despair. The country’s independence in 1963 was but the first such episode; the death of the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, in 1978, was another; then there was the restoration of multi-party politics in the early 1990s; and, a decade on, the defeat of the Kenya African National Union (Kanu) by Mwai Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition in October 2002.

Most pertinent of all in this series is the lesson of the constitutional referendum of 2005. Then, a large majority of Kenyans angered by government manipulation of the reform process rejected a much watered-down constitutional draft as it failed to deliver the widely demanded devolution of power and limits on the presidency. The peaceful conduct of that referendum, coming so soon after the similarly (relatively) calm elections of 2002, fooled many into believing that Kenya had turned a page in its political history. But that hubris was shattered by the violence that followed in the wake of the elections of 27 December 2007....

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