Kenyan police are on the hunt for bombers who attacked a Nairobi political rally on Sunday night, killing at least six and injuring more than 100 in the run-up to an August 4 national referendum on proposed constitutional changes. The blast underscores the political fragility in one of America’s most important East Africa allies, three years after election violence there left 1,500 dead and 300,000 displaced.
Two blasts occurred minutes apart at the end of a rally protesting the proposed draft constitution as a Nairobi Bishop was leading the several thousand attendees in a closing prayer, reports the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. Kenya’s The Standard newspaper reports that a ten-year old boy was among the dead.
No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing nor is it known what weapons were used in the attack, although the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation reports that initial police reports suggested hand grenades.
The rally fell apart as people scattered after the initial explosion, which the British Broadcasting Corporation caught on tape. (Watch BBC video of the scene here.) Prayer leaders urged the crowd to remain calm, reported Agence France Press.
Police sealed off the vast park as ambulances converged on the scene, then sped away to take the casualties to various hospitals.
Several thousand people were attending the rally, where organisers and speakers appealed for calm from the podium.
While the government has so far not named any suspects, opponents of the draft constitution have blamed its supporters for the attack. That charge has been made by Bishop James Nganga, who was leading prayers at the time of the attack, as well as by Higher Education Minister William Ruto, who blamed it on “people hell-bent on forcing a new constitution on Kenyans.”
And the National Council of Churches of Kenya joined with 14 other churches and groups in releasing a statement that blames the government itself for a hand in the attack. “Having been informed over and over that the passage of the new constitution during the referendum is a government project, we are left in no doubt that the government, either directly or indirectly, had a hand in this attack. Who else in this country holds explosive devices?” said the statement, according to the AP.
Kenya’s president and prime minister both support the new constitution. US Vice President Joseph Biden visited Nairobi last week, expressing support for it, as well.
Constitutional changes were a key part of the power-sharing deal negotiated in the wake of disputed 2007 elections that resulted in a spasm of ethnic violence that drove 300,000 from their homes. The New York Times reports that many Kenyans blame the violence on the country’s all-powerful executive branch and the weakness of local institutions. The draft constitution, passed by the parliament in April, focuses on beefing up individual rights and limiting the power of Kenya’s traditionally strong presidency in favor of giving more authority to local governments.
However, Christian groups have come out strongly against the draft and accuse it of easing restrictions on abortion and endorsing a system of Islamic courts that is already in use for Kenya’s Muslim minority. As The Christian Science Monitor reported in May, observers say these criticisms don’t hold water because the proposed constitution does not substantially change existing law on abortion or Islamic courts. Opposition may instead be linked to land reform clauses that threaten the interests of the wealthy.
“I very much doubt that those ranged with the ‘No’ side really care that much about abortion or Islamic courts,” one European diplomat in Nairobi told the Monitor. “But they will jump on any bandwagon which will keep prying eyes out of their affairs by keeping things the way they are.”