Tens of thousands join a host of African leaders to celebrate 'birth of the second republic' PDF Print E-mail
Tens of thousands of Kenyans braved the cold and rain to celebrate the signing into law of a new constitution on what the president, Mwai Kibaki, called "the most important day in the history of our nation since independence".

The new set of laws, heralded in the domestic media as the "birth of the second republic", curbs the vast powers of the president and senior politicians that have enabled decades of impunity for the ruling elite and encouraged a ruinous system of ethnic patronage.

The feeling of local and international goodwill towards Kenya has been soured by the presence of Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal court on charges of genocide and war crimes allegedly committed in Darfur. As a member of the court, Kenya is technically obliged to arrest Bashir, but has instead chosen to treat him as an honoured guest.

The move has been strongly criticised by human rights groups, and raises serious questions over the Kenyan government's commitment to co-operate with the ICC over its own case in the Hague, which relates to the violence that erupted after the election nearly three years ago. The court prosecutor is expected to announce charges of crimes against humanity against several senior Kenyan politicians and security officials in the next few months.

In anticipation of today's ceremony at Uhuru Park, on the edge of the city centre, workers across Nairobi have been frenetically tidying up the capital. The event is being held amid tight security, with a host of African leaders and other foreign dignitaries flying in to attend.

Besides the political reforms, Kenya's new constitution provides for devolved power to often-marginalised regions, requires sweeping judicial and land reforms, and improves civil rights and women's representation. Despite an energetic campaign by the church and some politicians to reject the laws, Kenyans overwhelming approved the constitution in a national referendum this month. The vote was peaceful and well-organised, a marked contrast to the 2007 presidential election which plunged the country into chaos.

Passing a new constitution was a key element of the power-sharing deal to end the post-election chaos, although efforts by local reformers to replace the colonial-era laws go back more than 20 years. Kibaki, who is trying to rescue his legacy after his dubious election win, and the prime minister, Raila Odinga, his 2007 presidential foe and probable successor, both campaigned strongly for the yes vote in the referendum. They, together with all of Kenya's MPs, will be freshly sworn in today.

Full implementation of the constitution is expected to take several years, with parliament required to pass dozens of laws. There are certain to be hiccups along the way, as the political class is notoriously self-serving and those who campaigned against the document continue to demand concessions. The church wants to tighten the provision on abortion, which is outlawed in the new legislation except where the mother's health is in danger.

Land is the other main issue of contention. In Rift Valley province, the only region to vote no in the referendum, senior politicians, including the former president Daniel arap Moi, have whipped up fears that the land reform programme will see poor people lose title deeds. Proponents of land reform say the main people under threat are politicians and their cronies who have been illegally allocated vast tracts of land since independence in 1963.
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