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Kenya girds for vote on constitution

Associated Press / August 3, 2010

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NAIROBI — Kenya is bracing for its first national vote since the 2007-08 political violence that left more than 1,000 people dead, dispatching 18,000 additional police officers to a potential hotspot ahead of the ballot on a new constitution.

Politicians and analysts predict that tomorrow’s referendum will be largely peaceful, but at least 200 people in the volatile Rift Valley already have fled their homes, fearing a new flare-up.

Kenya is sending thousands of extra police officers to the Rift Valley, home of the largest concentration of Kenyans planning to vote against the constitution and site of some of the worst attacks in 2007-08. During the violence, tribesmen used bows and arrows to fight each other, gangs hacked opponents to death, and police were accused of shooting sprees.

No threats have been issued by opponents of the proposed constitution, but some were victims or witnesses during the 2007-08 violence and clashes over land in 1992.

At a rally against the constitution in downtown Nairobi in mid-June, grenade attacks killed six people. Leaflets threatening violence have been distributed elsewhere and three politicians were charged with hate speech for inciting crowds.

But Kenyan groups and political leaders have worked hard to avoid a repeat of the 2007-08 violence, which the International Criminal Court is now investigating.

The Rift Valley provincial commissioner, Osman Warfa, said the government has deployed 18,000 additional police officers to the region.

National police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said there was no indication violence will break out in the Rift Valley but that officials are concerned about the possibility of a resurgence of a militia group. The Sabaot Land Defense Force claims to fight for land rights in the Mount Elgon region on the border with Uganda.

Kenya’s two top leaders — President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga — both back the “Yes’’ campaign, bringing two of the major ethnic groups onto the same side. Kibaki and Odinga signed a power-sharing agreement in early 2008 that ended the postelection violence.

Recent polls have consistently shown that a majority of Kenyans back the new constitution, and it appears likely to pass.

The draft constitution being voted on cuts down the president’s enormous powers by setting up an American-style presidential system of checks and balances, part of the reason the draft appears to have wide support.

The US government has openly backed the “Yes’’ campaign.

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