, NAIROBI, Aug 6 – Kenyans embraced a new constitution by a vote of 67 percent, officials said Thursday, after a referendum that defied fears of a repeat of mass bloodshed unleashed by the 2007 presidential election.
"This is a victory for Kenya… The people have spoken. The majority has spoken loud. The majority had their way but the minority have been heard," said Ahmed Issak Hassan, head of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission.
"The constitution has therefore been approved by more than 50 percent of the votes cast… I do declare that the proposed new constitution is hereby ratified."
Kenya\’s first new constitution since its 1963 independence from Britain will place checks on the president, remove the post of prime minister, devolve some power to counties and generally consolidate democracy and human rights.
President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga — whose 2007 election feud triggered chaos that left 1,500 people dead — campaigned together for the new basic law, which preserves their prerogatives until general elections in 2012.
"The historic journey that we begun over 20 years ago is now coming to a happy end," Kibaki told hundreds of supporters in central Nairobi where he and Odinga addressed a victory gathering.
Wednesday\’s referendum saw 71 percent turnout. The "No" camp took 30.35 percent of around eight million votes, the electoral commission said.
Former UN chief Kofi Annan, who mediated a deal to end the Kibaki-Odinga tussle, praised the passage of the new constitution which was one of the key reforms agreed on in an accord between the two Kenyan leaders.
So too did US President Barack Obama, whose late father was Kenyan and whose administration views the country as an important island of stability in an otherwise volatile Horn of Africa region.
"This was a significant step forward for Kenya\’s democracy, and the peaceful nature of the election was a testament to the character of the Kenyan people," he said in a statement.
He pledged the United States would work with the international community "to support the implementation process, and to stand with the Kenyan people as they reach for a better future."
Kenyan Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi, one of the leaders of the "yes" campaign, called it "a victory of all Kenyans".
"Saying that we have won is truly an understatement. Kenya has been truly reborn. This is the rebirth of a second Republic of Kenya," he said.
William Ruto, the higher education minister who had led campaigns for the rejection of the draft constitution, admitted defeat.
"We have accepted the verdict of the majority in the referendum," Ruto said at a press conference.
Despite being one of the new constitution\’s main authors, Ruto campaigned vociferously against the document, arguing that it legalised abortion, favoured Muslims and penalised his Kalenjin tribe on land issues.
"The people who have fuelled the question of land are the Kalenjin elite led by the former president (Daniel arap Moi). These are guys who have big farms whose acquisition is still questionable," said Ken Wafula, director of the Eldoret-based Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.
The national mood was upbeat though, two and half years after the country\’s electoral dispute erupted into violence that besides the mass bloodshed also destroyed trust in the country\’s institutions and shattered Kenya\’s image.
Voters, commentators and officials took heart in the way referendum day passed off without a single major incident and applauded the revamped electoral commission\’s apparent new-found independence and efficiency.
"I was so worried there would be post-referendum violence but now there is peace. The (poll panel) and the police have really made us proud," said Herbert Wanzala, a voter from the eastern Nairobi neighbourhood of Umoja.
"It is impressive to see how successful this exercise of voting has been, Kenyans have done pretty well in terms of displaying democratic maturity," National Commission on Human Rights official Hassan Omar Hassan said.
Voters had gone to the polls amid fears, stoked by a deadly grenade attack on a "no" rally in Nairobi in June, that disagreement over the constitution could again plunge the country into violence.
But some 70,000 security forces deployed across the country, with particular emphasis on the northwestern Rift Valley, where opposition to the new constitution has been the strongest.
"The referendum exercise was held in a peaceful manner, there has been no single incident at all," national police chief Mathew Iteere told AFP.