On 27th August 2010 President Mwai Kibaki signed Kenya’s new constitution in a ceremony in Nairobi. I watched the signing of the constitution in a small cafe in Tsavo, Kenya on the only working television in the village.

People celebrating the new constitutionThe cafe was filled with local Kenyans who were all excited and optimistic, seeing the constitution as the birth of a new Kenya and the end of corruption. It was also interesting to note that they all saw the signing of the constitution as the beginning of the process and were clear that it was up to the people themselves to ensure it was enforced.

The debates over the need for a new constitution have been going on for 20 years but the impetus for change was the high level of violence at the time of the 2007 general election. The key elements of the document are:

  • A decentralisation of the political system with more power devolved to the regions.
  • Limits to the President’s powers
  • The provincial governments known for their corruption are replaced by larger counties.
  • There is a land commission to settle land ownership disputes which have often been the source of tribal conflicts. It is also alleged that land ownership has been manipulated by corrupt politicians to gerrymander their constituencies.
  • There is a citizen’s bill of rights
  • A second chamber of Parliament (the senate) has been established.

The constitution’s promise of a new era of governance was somewhat undermined by the presence at the signing ceremony of Omar Al Bashir. Al Bashir is the Sudanese President wanted by the United Nations for war crimes. Kenya was asked, by the UN, to arrest him on their soil but President Kibaki declined to do so.

The dismantling of the Provincial Administration is of huge import for Kenyans. It has been used to administer government plans and suppress dissent by successive regimes ever since colonial rule. President Jomo Kenyatta enhanced the role of the Provincial Administration and President Moi later called them the ‘eyes’ of the Government in every village.

The constitution will have raised the hopes of the Kenyan people, but at the same time the limitations in terms of relying on the Government to implement real improvements in their lives will inevitably quickly emerge.

President Kibaki has already refused to assent to a Price Control Bill which would have set maximum prices for essential goods. In Kenya a security guard earns £16 a month, yet it costs between £200 and £400 a year to send a child to high school. Only primary education is free but it is extremely difficult to find a job without a high school diploma.

I met a taxi driver who told me that sometimes he drives 24 hours a day, without sleeping at all, in order to try to pay for his daughter to go to high school. He also had two younger sons who he would have to pay for later.

It is noticeable, just from driving around Mombassa, that the multi nationals are present in Kenya. Shell, Total, Crown Paints, DHL are all visible. Even jobs which may appear artisan are concentrated in large workplaces.

There is a woodcarving factory near Mombassa that employs 5,000 people. Whilst many Kenyans are scraping a living running small shops, street stalls, making items for the tourist trade or selling goods on the beaches, there are industrial workplaces which are increasing.

In 2001 there were 41 unions in Kenya with 600,000 members constituting 33% of the industrialised workforce. This is despite the fact that union activity can lead to dismissal, complex rules can make it hard to strike and COTU (the Central Organisation of Trade Unions) is ineffective.

Last week 2,000 flower farm workers were on strike on three different flower farms in Naivasha. The strike concerned a recent wage agreement not being implemented and poor working conditions. Riot police from Kongoni Police Station were deployed even though the protests were completely peaceful.

There were also protests in Nakaru when the council tried to evict tenants who were behind on their rents. Police fired and killed at least two people in the protests.

Whilst people’s hopes have been raised by the promises of the constitution, when those hopes of decent jobs, homes and free education are not fulfilled conflict with the government and employers will be inevitable.