NAIROBI, Kenya – 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 Wednesday's referendum will be largely peaceful, but at least 200 people in the volatile Rift Valley already have fled their homes before the vote, 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.
Julia Murugi, who was gang raped after the 2007 election, has taken her seven children out of their Rift Valley home in Nyakinyua and is staying with relatives 200 miles (300 kilometers) away.
"We will wait for a few days after the vote just to be sure before we go back home," said Murugi, who like Kenya's president is an ethnic Kikuyu. The Rift Valley is heavily populated by ethnic Kalenjins, and the two tribes have battled in the past.
At least 200 people have fled their Rift Valley farms, said Steven Kimani, who leads a community of displaced people. No threats have been issued 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.
"Our prediction is that there will be localized violence in some of these potential hotspots but that violence will be limited, and we think that there will be very little prospect that that violence will escalate into broad-level violence as we saw in 2008," said E.J. Hogendoorn, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group.
The Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Osman Warfa said the government has deployed 18,000 additional police officers to the region.
"We have the hotspots covered," he said. "We do not foresee violence. There are no indications on the ground that we will have any problems."
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 post-election 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 Wednesday 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. Kenyan presidents have long favored their own tribesmen in the distribution of resources, a source of tension in the country.
The U.S. government has openly backed the "Yes" campaign, an issue that has been used by the "No" side to try to raise opposition.
The draft constitution also has stirred emotions over abortion and publicly funded family courts for Muslims. Anti-abortion groups in Kenya and the U.S. have also joined the campaign. They argue the abortion clause — which says abortion is not permitted unless the life or health of the mother is in danger according to the opinion of a trained health professional — could be interpreted broadly.
In 2005, Kenya held a referendum on a draft constitution, but it was shot down. This time around, rewriting the constitution was part of the peace deal signed in February 2008.
"This is an improvement. It may not be perfect but it is a first step," said Fatima Abeyd Anyanzwa, an activist living in Nairobi's largest slums, Kibera. "We have waited so long. We could wait forever for it to be perfect ... Let us pass this one and our children can take on the next fight. Let them improve what we can give them."
Shamsa Ibrahim, a 23-year-old law student in Nairobi, pointed to the constitution's preamble as one of her favorite parts: "All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya."
"This is the most important sentence to me. It means reform — that we need to move forward," she said. "People might not have read the whole document but they know they don't want what they have."
Associated Press Writer Katharine Houreld contributed to this report.