Religious Courts to Influence Region's Vote

Unlike other regions where political affiliations are determining views on the proposed new Constitution, religion has emerged as a major issue in the referendum campaigns in what used to be called the Northern Frontier district - North Eastern province - including Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale districts in Eastern province.

Cabinet minister Mahamud Abdi Mohamed and assistant minister Dr Adan Kuti - leading lights in the Banana campaign in Nep - admit that religion is a major issue in the referendum campaigns. But they claim that Imams and Sheiks have been incited to mislead the Muslim faithful against the proposed new Constitution.

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Divisions among Muslim leaders and their followers have spilled into the public arena in a manner uncommon amongst Muslims and their spiritual leaders.

The altercation culminated in the Chief Kadhi, Sheikh Hamad Kassim, engaging in public exchanges with Cabinet ministers Chirau Ali Mwakwere (Foreign Affairs) and Mahamud Abdi (Regional Development) when he urged Muslims to reject the proposed law.

Mr Mwakwere was so incensed he publicly called for the sacking of the Chief Kadhi. Mr Mahamud was more restrained, only urging the Chief Kadhi to restrict himself to adjudication of disputes and interpretation of the personal law, and keep off politics.

At the centre of the dispute is Kadhi's courts that opponents of the proposed new Constitution argue have been downgraded from the proposals in the Bomas Draft.

On the other hand was a rebellion led by evangelical Christian Churches who were preaching scare sermons about the threat of Sharia law.

A compromise was eventually reached to retain the Kadhi's courts as they have always been.

"Muslims have good grounds to reject this document. At Bomas, Muslims asked for the expansion of the Kadhi's courts to include an appeal court. The courts are very important to Muslims, especially women and children who are the main beneficiaries. Instead, we were lumped together with Christians, traditional and Hindu courts" says Ms Nazleen Rajput, of the National Muslim Council of Kenya.

Ms Rajput adds that provisions on gender equality are also unacceptable. "Sharia law empowers women and protects them from exploitation. The provisions are going to take away some of these protections," says Ms Rajput, an activist who runs one of the largest Islamic NGOs.

However, Mr Mahamud called on Muslims to ignore the NGO, claiming it was being financed by Americans through the United States Agency for International Development (USaid), "and the American's attitude towards President Kibaki's government is well known".

Ms Rajput dismisses attempts to cast aspersions on her connection with USaid as diversionary. "We have heard this before. We are a development organisation and we decide what help we want. USaid does not tell us what to do."