NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Three Republican members of the U.S. Congress are accusing the Obama administration of using money meant for civic education in Kenya to back a draft constitution that they fear would increase access to abortion in the African country.
The U.S. Embassy on Friday said it has provided about $11 million in support of constitutional reform in Kenya, but that an investigation into the funds found that nine of more than 200 subgrantees supported the “yes” campaign. A spokeswoman said the embassy has since suspended or concluded those nine grants.
Kenyans will vote on the draft constitution on Aug. 4, a vote that is part of wide-ranging efforts to avoid a repeat of political violence that saw more than 1,000 people killed after the country’s December 2007 presidential elections.
The fight over the U.S. funding centers around one of the draft constitution’s most contentious clauses — language that says abortion will not be permitted unless the life or health of the mother is in danger according to the opinion of a trained health professional.
Abortions are illegal in Kenya under current law, but hundreds of thousands of women still seek them each year. The existing law, however, also allows a doctor to perform an abortion if a woman’s life is in danger.
Rep. Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, argues that the “trained health professional” clause reduces the qualifications needed of the abortion provider from current Kenyan law.
“The draft constitution, with its controversial provisions expanding access to abortion, is a matter for the Kenyan people to consider and decide,” said Smith. “The Obama administration should immediately withdraw all U.S. taxpayer funding used to buy votes and influence the outcome on the referendum.”
A part of U.S. law known as the Siljander Amendment makes it illegal for foreign assistance funds to be used to lobby for or against abortion.
Katya Thomas, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Nairobi, said that the nine suspended grants originally had been given to support civic education, and constitutional and democratic reforms. But the primary contractor gave subgrants to other groups using language that had not been approved by the Embassy, she said.
“We don’t fund the ‘yes’ campaign, but around the region, not just in Kenya, through USAID, we support constitutional democratic reforms,” she said, referring to the U.S. government’s aid arm, USAID. She said she does not know when those nine subgrants were cut off.
Smith, in a statement, detailed 10 Kenyan organizations he said the U.S. Inspector General had found used funds to promote “yes” votes on the constitution.
Top U.S. officials have done little to hide their support of Kenya’s proposed constitution. President Obama has said the constitution is a “singular opportunity to put Kenyan governance on a more solid footing that can move beyond ethnic violence, can move beyond corruption.”
Last month during a visit here, Vice President Joe Biden said the new constitution would “deepen the roots of your democracy and ultimately guarantee your security.”
Rewriting Kenya’s constitution was part of the peace deal signed in February 2008 after the postelection violence. The draft constitution cuts down the Kenyan president’s current enormous powers by setting up an American-style presidential system of checks and balances.
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi this week released a statement saying that unnamed Kenyan leaders have alleged that U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger and the embassy are providing funding to members of parliament to support the yes campaign or are intimidating opponents of the constitution.
“These claims are categorically false, and those making such allegations are lying,” the embassy statement said.
Kenyan Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Mutula Kilonzo denied to AP that the U.S. was illicitly giving funds to those supporting the constitution.
Mutula said that the U.S. has historically given Kenya funds to support voter education directly and through contributions to the United Nations Development Program, and that current funding is for a similar process.