Nairobi, Kenya— -- Millions of Kenyans have taken to the polls in one of the country's most historic elections. They are voting for a new draft constitution that if passed, will overhaul the current constitution, which was ratified at the country's independence in 1963.
Haunting this election is the country's last general election, which was also considered historic but for all the wrong reasons.
The vote in the 2007 presidential election, which was largely considered to be rigged, plunged this normally peaceful nation into unprecedented violence. Ugly ethnic clashes resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people and sent half a million residents fleeing from their homes. Neighbor turned against neighbor, and Kenya suddenly found its self on the brink of civil war.
The violence came to an end after President Mwai Kibaki and his opponent Raila Odinga signed a peace accord and adopted major government reforms, including a power-sharing agreement making Odinga the Prime Minister. In addition a new constitution would be written which would reduce the powers of the presidency and provide a better system of checks and balances.
Now both leaders find themselves on the same side, actively campaigning for Kenyans to vote "yes". In Kibera, a slum outside of Nairobi, hundreds cheered loudly as Odinga cast his vote. He predicted that at least 70% of the country will vote for the new constitution.
"The current constitution is what caused all of the problems during the 2007 election," said Peter Temba, 43, a volunteer for voter education in Kibera, where he lives. "If we can really think about who we are as Kenyans and what we want, we would vote in this constitution so that we'll have a new one that will cater for each and every Kenyan."
But not everyone is in favor of the new constitution. Like all elections in Kenya, there is a tribal element to the voting.
Members of the Kalenjin tribe, one of the country's largest which was blamed for much of the violence in 2007, have been campaigning hard against the constitution's passage, couching it as harmful to their community's land rights. Their opposition is raising concern that there will be a repeat of the violence from two years ago.
Abortion Issue Clouds Voting
The government has deployed 16,000 additional police and security forces to potential trouble areas. Hotlines have been set up, and news stations are airing public service announcements urging Kenyans to peacefully accept the results.
In addition to tribal loyalties, religion is also impacting the vote. The draft includes a provision on abortion that the Kenyan clergy and religious leaders say opens up the door to "abortion on demand." The clause still outlaws the act, but says that if the mother's health or life is in danger a qualified "health professional" may perform one. The health professional language allows for abuse, say religious leaders and anti-abortion activists.
Though the argument may not win over Kenyans, it has found support from an unlikely source – members of the U.S. Congress. New Jersey Representative Chris Smith, along with two other Republicans house members, accuse the Obama administration of spending millions of taxpayer dollars to fund the "yes" campaign, which would be a violation of U.S. law.
"We should be embracing the health and welfare of both mothers and children in Africa while respecting sovereign prolife laws," Smith said in a statement. "Instead the Obama Administration is trying to change Kenya's existing restriction on abortion through the referendum."
He cites a State Department Inspector General Report showing that some of the groups associated with voter education projects and which are being funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, are also tied to abortion-rights groups. In response to the report the US Embassy in Nairobi said it suspended funding to some of the voter education programs in question. There have also been accusations that anti-abortion rights groups linked to the Christian Right in the United States have helped fund the campaign against the referendum.
Abortion Debate a Distraction?
The Obama administration has publicly said it is neutral on how Kenyans vote in the referendum and supports the process, not the result. But senior administration officials including Under Secretary of State of African Affairs Johnnie Carson and Vice President Joseph Biden have also publicly said they support Kenya's reforms and that the country needs change.
Kenyan politicians opposed to the constitution say the controversy in the U.S. over the referendum is proof that this new constitution has a foreign agenda and that the people should reject it.
But Almami Cyllah, the Africa regional director for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, an election monitoring group tells ABC News that the debate over foreign influence is more of an interesting distraction than a true factor in how Kenyans will vote.
"In the final analysis it's the Kenyans who are going to vote," says Cyllah. "To claim that the U.S. Government or the Christian Right is pumping money to try and influence the vote may be possible, but if the people have the right information and they know what they are voting for those outside influences will not matter. "