Vigilant civil society, vibrant media and new media tools in Kenya's constitution-making process
Kenya is now walking the route to greater democracy and more transparent governance – after the recent referendum on the constitution held in the first week of August – when the yes vote received almost 70% of the votes.
The new constitution – scheduled to be signed into law on the 27 August – replaces the one drafted during Kenya’s colonial era and includes a Bill of Rights, which states that all Kenyans should have access to clean water, decent housing, basic sanitation and quality food. The new constitution aims to: decentralise political power, increase government accountability, create more robust checks and balances against corruption, and foster a move towards fairer distribution of wealth.
This process dates back to the early 1990s – when the first attempts to change the constitution began – including a referendum in 2005 which was rejected. When the current referendum results were announced this month, President Mwai Kibaki stated: "The historic journey that we began over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end." However in reality, forming a new constitution is only the beginning of another long road which the country will need to travel.
Zimbabwe, currently engaged in a constitutional reform process, presents an opportunity for meaningful public participation in the constitution-making process. Yet, this process remains marred by intimidation and violence, including the alleged re-establishment of torture bases in farming communities where there are a high number of war veterans and youth militia.
Whilst reading the coverage of the Kenyan referendum, I could not help but compare it to the Zimbabwean constitution-making process and reflect on whether there may be anything that we could learn from Kenya? Although the countries' circumstances are not totally comparable, we certainly can’t afford to let the Zimbabwean constitution-making process drag on for 20 years!
The first factor that loomed large is the fundamental role that a vigilant civil society plays in: provoking public participation and debate, promoting state transparency and accountability, maintaining pressure and ultimately achieving change. A recent blog on Pambazuka discusses the pivotal contributions that organisations such as the Association of Professional Societies in East Africa (APSEA), Kenya Land Alliance (KLA), Kikuyus for Change and Kenyan Asian Forum have made during the Kenyan constitution-making process. The blog by Cottrell Ghai and Pal Ghai also discusses the likelihood that civil organisations will continue to offer invaluable assistance, particularly “at a time when the capacity within the government is limited.” This is further amplified because trade unions – which uphold the constitution through their political and economic work – are non-existent in Kenya.
The second factor is the role that a vibrant media has in driving reform. According to an opinion piece in the Washington Times both civil society and the media have played a part in the constitution-making process in Kenya and will continue to do so: “Kenya is blessed with free and vibrant media and a vigilant civil society that relentlessly shines light into all corners of government activity. This will heighten scrutiny in the use of public finances and resources by the executive and legislature.” Although it is unlikely that the Kenyan media is fully objective or free from political influence (which countries' media is?) – according to sources such as the Economist and the BBC – it is more liberalised than in most African countries and various analysts' state that since independence the Kenyan media has provided an important contribution in challenging the government.
In particular, new media tools were taken advantage of, in the constitution-making process in Kenya. Ushahidi which means testimony in Kiswahili was developed in 2008 to map reports of post election violence when thousands of people were killed and 300,000 people were displaced. During this referendum a customised version of Ushahidi was developed, called Uchaguzi which means decision in Kiswahili. The collaborative deployment was supported by Constitution & Reform Education Consortium (CRECO), Social Development Network (SODNET), Uraia, HIVOS and Twaweza; and the shortcode #3018 received over 1400 SMS's countrywide on incidences of electoral offences, violence and peace activities.
Similarly, The Uwiano Peace Platform was established to prevent violence during the Kenyan referendum. The system took advantage of mobile technology to get up-to-date information “on tensions, hate speech, incitement, threats and violence” from citizens nationwide. The system allowed for free SMS’s from the public to the Uwiano secretariat. Analysts then verified, mapped and relayed the data on to rapid response mechanisms for quick intervention. The public knew how to report incidents, as the platform was advertised in the electronic media, print media and Electoral Commission materials.
It would have been interesting if a new media tool like Freedom Fone was added to the mix, to capture citizen reports in an audio format.
A vigilant civil society, vibrant media and new media tools have played a pivotal role in Kenya’s constitution-making process. Similarly in Zimbabwe, we must not under-estimate the value of these organisations and tools, as we continue to strive towards the formation of a new constitution and a more democratic nation.