NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya's president signed a new constitution into law Friday that institutes a U.S.-style system of checks and balances and has been hailed as the most significant political event since Kenya's independence nearly a half century ago.
Kenya's new constitution is part of a reform package that President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga committed themselves to after signing a power-sharing deal in February 2008. That deal ended violence that killed more than 1,000 people following Kenya's disputed December 2007 presidential vote.
"I feel honored to be your President at this moment because this is the most important day in the history of our nation since independence," said the 78-year-old Kibaki. He was a senior official of Kenya's independence party, the Kenya African National Union, when Britain handed over power in 1963 to its leader, Jomo Kenyatta.
Odinga said the new constitution was a major step in bridging Kenya's political and ethnic divisions.
"No one could have thought that out of the bitter harvest of the disputed election and the violence that pitted our people against each other just two years ago, we would be witnessing today the birth of a national unity that has eluded us for more than 40 years," Odinga said.
Friday's event comes after an overwhelming majority of Kenyan voters adopted the new constitution in an Aug. 4 referendum. Kibaki's signature formally marks the end of a decades-long struggle to cut down the massive powers of the presidency.
The government and parliament now must implement the ambitious document, a process expected to take up to five years. The document requires, among other things, the formation of a Supreme Court and a Senate. It also demands that the country's judiciary be vetted to rid it of corrupt or incompetent judges and that parliament pass 49 new laws.
Patrick Gichuki, a street vendor, painted his body in the colors of the Kenyan national flag and the words "Kenya mpya" — new Kenya.
"We are happy to be Kenyans and we are happy that Kenya has a new constitution," said Gichuki, who hopes the new constitution will help address the many problems facing Kenyan youth.
Emmy Kosgei, who sang during the festivities and got all the VIPs dancing at the podium, said the signing of a new constitution signified a new beginning for the country and she was proud to be part of it.
"Most of us have grown up reading about such events as history," she said. "But today we are a part of history."
Joining African leaders at the festivities was Sudan's president who faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with violence in Darfur, where U.N. officials estimate 300,000 people have died.
It is only the second time that Omar al-Bashir has risked arrest by traveling to a member state of the International Criminal Court since he was first charged in 2009. The ICC has no police force and depends on member states to enforce its orders.
Human rights groups had urged the Kenyan government to bar al-Bashir from the festivities but Kenya's foreign minister defended al-Bashir's presence.
Associated Press writer Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.