I am often asked whether Kenya's new constitution, approved in a referendum in August 2010, will actually improve governance in Kenya. There are many people who seem to believe that it will not. A prominent journalist was recently quoted in Nairobi's Daily Nation as saying that the constitution is just a piece of paper, and "a piece of paper can't transform society". I disagree.
The new constitution is a huge improvement on the previous constitution. It subjects the presidency to more checks and balances. It strengthens parliamentary oversight of the executive. It devolves power to 47 elected county governments, introducing for the first time in Kenya a meaningful decentralization. It protects the rights of citizens, and particularly women and vulnerable groups, through an ambitious bill of rights. It requires all sitting judges to be vetted to determine their eligibility to continue to serve.
It is hard to imagine a future Kenya where these constitutional changes do not have an impact—for the better.
It is of course true that the constitution is not perfect; that it leaves many policy gaps that the Government will need to fill; and that the Government officials who will work to fill these gaps are, largely, the same officials who contributed to the governance challenges that Kenya faces today. Passing a new constitution does not, in and of itself, eliminate fraud and corruption.
Pessimists will argue that the Government officials who resisted the new constitution—overtly or covertly—will do everything in their power to ensure that the legislative changes made to implement it actually undercut the reforms that it promises.
But the new Constitution was approved by about two-thirds of the voters in Kenya, and the reformers who supported it included many Government officials. Reform-minded Kenyans are doing everything they can to strengthen the hand of the reformers, in and out of Government, to ensure that implementation will be conducted in the right spirit. The new Constitution has certainly empowered the reformers, and it will not be possible to ignore that document's key provisions. I am confident that, over time, decentralization and improved checks and balances will have a profound impact on Kenyan life —bringing government closer to the people, involving citizens (including women) more actively in decision-making, and enhancing transparency and accountability across all parts of government.