The World Today for June 07, 2021



Tribal Laws

Violence frequently mars elections in Kenya. As the Council on Foreign Relations explained, voters in the East African country identify with politicians through their ancestral tribes, setting the stage for political disputes to turn personal. In 2007, for example, clashes after a vote left more than 1,100 people dead.

In a bid to reduce violence in next year’s general election, President Uhuru Kenyatta and other leaders wanted to change the country’s constitution to create a prime minister and other offices so that more ethnic groups would receive a chance to serve in leadership roles, Bloomberg reported. Currently, Kenya has a winner-take-all system where whoever wins the presidency controls the government.

They assembled five million signatures and scheduled a referendum so that citizens could approve or reject the constitutional changes, which Kenyatta and other boosters called the Building Bridges Initiative.

The issue was immediately controversial. Critics said it would expand government, helping nobody but corrupt politicians. Deputy President William Ruto, usually Kenyatta’s ally, scandalously broke with the president and opposed the move, saying it was a backdoor way of removing him from power, Africanews wrote.

Ruto is an ethnic Kalenjin who is slated to become the next presidential candidate for Kenyatta’s Jubilee political party in 2022 after the president leaves office due to term limits. He claims that Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga are pushing for the reforms to keep their two ethnic groups – the Kikuyu and Luo, respectively – in power indefinitely. Kenyatta would be an obvious candidate for the prime minister’s job, for example.

Some observers agreed. “It is very clear that some of these alignments are to sideline him,” Kenyan anti-corruption activist John Githongo told Reuters.

Then a Kenyan court seemingly solved Ruto’s problem for him, striking down the referendum proposal, saying only a grass-root citizens movement – not the president and other elected officials – could initiate the process to alter the country’s government. “A popular initiative to amend the constitution can only be started by the people, not by the government,” said the judges, according to the BBC.

The court even said Kenyans could personally sue Kenyatta or lawmakers could impeach the president to hold him liable for his actions. Foreign Policy magazine praised the court for acting independently, in the interests of the law over powerful politicians.

Kenyatta and his allies have appealed the ruling, Al Jazeera reported.

Kenyans ultimately will have to decide what’s better – a system of tribal loyalties, a potentially compromised reform proposal or a third way. Regardless, some observers believe something has to change.

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