The strong endorsement by the people of a new Kenyan constitution is an important moment in the history of this great, and troubled country.

When Kenya came close to a flat out civil war in the winter of 2008, it came as a surprise those who had not been watching.  But problems have been seething within the country for decades.  The Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950’s had of course aroused world attention: it became a kind of stereotypical image of wanton violence, a “slaughter of the innocent”.  We now understand it as a brutal uprising of the landless and the jobless,  orchestrated by leaders who themselves were either executed or jailed for their commitment to violence.  Frequently forgotten are the estimated 20,000 killed by the British troops in their efforts to quell the rebellion.

The images of the recent violence were enough to arouse the memories of that earlier time, yet  another wave of brutal tribal violence that revealed the fragility of Kenya’s political community.  Kofi Annan was called in to broker a peace between two political parties whose rivalry had spiralled out of control, but only after hundreds died in a wave of killing after a deeply contested election.  Kenya was indeed on the precipice.

Jomo Kenyatta, the Kenyan leader who led the country’s battle for independence, spent several years in jail because of his alleged involvement in the Mau Mau rebellion.  A Kikuyu educated at the London School of Economics, Kenyatta was part of that remarkable generation of Africans who led the way to freedom and independence.  But his ascendancy to power was not matched by self-restraint.  “It’s our turn to eat” became a way of life as each successive government, Kenyatta’s and the one led by Daniel Moi, rewarded itself by appropriating wealth and advantage, with the tribal election winners – first Kikuyu, then Kalenjin – being the first to grab   what it could.  The offshore accounts, land and houses, and the vast fleet of Mercedes Benz’s in Nairobi being the symbols of success and power.

The last fifty years have been ones of tragedy, corruption, poverty and profound conflict in Africa, and Kenya has had its share of each.  Key leaders have been assassinated.   Land that had been seized by the colonial power was then transferred to the new generation of political leaders for their personal use. Phony procurement contracts, wholesale looting of the public purse, a political elite isolated from its people by its income and wealth, growing urban poverty and deep hardship in a drought worn countryside, all became symptoms of a country and continent in deepest difficulty.

The election of President Kibaki a few year ago was supposed to change all that, but it did not.  The corruption continued.  The battle for power that followed the next election in 2008 finally produced a Grand Coalition with a President and Prime Minister, long-standing rivals, finally agreeing on a common agenda.
The new draft constitution is a long document which contains much that would ordinarily be in regular statutes.  This is the product of two things – a lengthy consultation with the public, who want better laws, jobs, and a promising future, and who want it now – and a public who do not trust the political class, and so use the drafting of the constitution as a means to hem them in, to ensure better behaviour.

The constitution contains ambitious plans for  devolution and power sharing between the President and the Prime Minister, a power sharing whose success will do much to determine the future of the country.

The endorsement of the constitution this week, despite a well heeled opposition, is an important step.  It must be followed by others.

Visitors to London will be familiar with the announcement  on the London Tube – “mind the gap”.  It’s an important reminder.

Mind the gap.  A growing gap between rich and poor.

Mind the gap.  A growing gap between regions of the country, between people hiding behind age old barriers of language and ethnicity.

Mind the gap. A gap between the people and the politicians, that if left unaddressed is a sure fire recipe for even greater cynicism, mistrust, and lost opportunity.

Mind the gap.  The gap between what we say and what we do reinforces the problem.

Mind the gap.  The gap between our brain and our mouth (for politicians often fatal).

If these gaps remain unattended, the people of Kenya and the rest of Africa will pay a heavy price.

I was lucky enough this past year to make two trips to Kenya, first to attend a meeting of constitutional experts to discuss the draft constitution and discuss possible improvements (some of which made their way into the final document) and then to attend a specially convened Cabinet retreat with all sides represented in a meeting of debate and reconciliation.

It was hard not to be moved by Kenya’s potential, and at the same time its continuing conflicts and rivalries.  Just a few miles from Nairobi is one of the most spectacular and evocative views in the world:  standing on the hills above the Rift Valley stretches up and down below for as far as the eye can see.  This is the place where primitive man first lived, and a hundred thousand years ago began the slow trek out of Africa to populate the world.  Africa is mankind’s common home, and Kenya is very much at its heart.
There is much riding now on its achieving some success.

Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.