Kenya goes to polls amid fears of electoral violence
Kenya goes to the polls on Monday in one of the most critical and complicated elections in the East African nation’s history. Haunted by the ethnic bloodshed after the 2007 polls, there are fears the aftermath of the 2013 vote could be tumultuous.
From the shores of the jade-blue Lake Turkhana to the rolling savannah of the Masai Mara, from the highlands around Mount Kenya to the Indian Ocean coast, millions of voters across Kenya head to the polls on Monday in one of the most critical and complicated elections in the country’s 50-year history.
Under a new constitution, Kenyans are electing governors, senators, parliament members, county representatives and other officials to a new federal government structure.
But it’s the presidential race that has dominated headlines, with frontrunners and archrivals Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga running neck and neck in the opinion polls.
More than 14 million registered voters are set to cast their ballots at 33,000 polling stations across the country. Speaking at a press conference a day before polls opened, Issack Hassan, chairman of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) noted that “all necessary measures have been taken to ensure free and fair elections”.
Over the past few weeks, seemingly every inch of this country’s public spaces have been plastered with campaign posters, with raucous processions of supporters taking to the streets in a gay, colour-coded display of loyalty to their favored candidate: red for Kenyatta and orange for Odinga.
But beneath the color and excitement, frissons of fear are rippling across Kenya, running along ethnic divides as deep as the Great Rift Valley.
President Mwai Kibaki steps down this year after serving two terms in office. But the spectre of his disastrous 2007 re-election bid – and its aftermath - still haunts this country, threatening the stability of East Africa’s “anchor state” and potentially placing this darling of Western donor nations on a collision course with the international community.
Kenyatta, who is running for president, is one of four Kenyans facing crimes against humanity charges at the ICC (International Criminal Court) for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after the disputed 2007 presidential polls in which 1,000 people were killed and a further 600,000 displaced. His running mate, William Ruto, also faces crimes of humanity charges at The Hague.
Should Kenyatta win the election, he would be the first sitting head-of-state to commute back and forth from The Hague – an issue that has dominated the campaign period and Kenya’s first-ever presidential debates.
‘We want peace’
Across the nation, there have been fervent calls for peace, with demonstrations ranging from dozens of students chanting, “We want peace,” to massive rallies, where the main presidential candidates publicly promised to renounce violence.
“Kenya was peaceful for so long, we actually took peace for granted,” explained Nancy Omuronji, a university professor, during a peace rally in the capital of Nairobi. “But now we know that if we want peace, we have to work for it.”
Local radio stations – some of whom played a leading role in inciting violence following the 2007 poll – have been closely monitored for hate speech and in a nation where 93% of the population uses mobile phones, cyberactivists have been harnessing the power of technology to monitor SMS texts.
World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, have joined outgoing Kenyan President Kibaki’s call for peaceful elections.
Post-electoral memories haunt Nairobi slums
But it is not known if all these measures can prevent Kenya from descending into violence once the results – which are expected 48 hours after polls close – are announced. According to IEBC chair Issack Hassan, provisional presidential results will be released within 48 hours after poll centres close at 5pm local time Monday.
In the teeming Nairobi slum of Kibera, Isaac Otieno, a 25-year-old costume jewelry-maker, strings beads in a rickety stall in a market that he helped rebuild after it was burned down in the 2007-2008 post-electoral violence.
“It was bad, very bad,” said Otieno, remembering the violence. “The market was burning, I saw people looting – children, mothers, everyone. But the nights were the worst – there were gunfights and armed youths outside – we lived in terror.”
Kibera, a slum of more than 600,000 residents, is often called “Kibera kiberiti” – meaning Kibera is a matchbox. Along with Mathare - another sprawling Nairobi slum – it saw some of the worst post-electoral violence.
This time, residents and market vendors have prepared themselves for the elections as best they can.
Moritze Robert Kole, a local hip-hop artist known as “Moroko”, who runs a family business renting sound systems for weddings and funerals, has moved his equipment from his store to his home, where the carefully wrapped speakers occupy most of the space in the tiny two-room dwelling.
Kole, an orphan, has also ensured that his little sister will not be in Kibera on Election Day – and for at least a week later. Elizabeth, 13, will spend her one-week school break at her aunt’s apartment outside Kibera.
“It’s tension,” explains Kole. “If she’s here, it’s tension. I have to work at this time - my equipment is being used in election campaigns - and if she’s at home, it’s just tension.”
The post-electoral chaos in 2007-2008 saw horrific levels of sexual abuse and rape. Although exact figures do not exist, human rights activists estimate that at least 3,000 women were raped – by gangs of youth as well as security forces. Five years later, no one has been convicted.
Old scores in new political fights
Kenya’s police are widely regarded as corrupt, ineffective and prone to human rights abuses. In the aftermath of the 2007 elections, they were unable to contain the violence and there are concerns about whether the police will be able to handle the challenges this time.
A new inspector general of police was appointed in December 2012 and he has pledged to restore security and do everything possible to prevent a recurrence of post-electoral violence.
More than 99,000 police officers have been deployed across the country and over 7,000 senior police officers are supervising the elections. Speaking at a press conference in Nairobi on Sunday, Kenyan police spokesman Charles Owino warned that security would be compromised. He also noted that police officers securing the elections had been trained by the IEBC and had provided “an enabling environment to ensure this election is carried out peacefully so we don’t have a repeat of the 2007 elections”.
But should post-electoral violence break out it is unclear if the Kenyan security forces will be able to handle the situation.
Ethnic violence in the eastern Tana Delta region has claimed more than 200 lives over the past few months and despite a boosted security presence in the region, remote villages have continued to experience attacks that are believed to be politically connected.
The security situation also remains tense along Kenya’s 140-kilometre northern border with Somalia with border towns such as Garissa witnessing a series of attacks since Kenya launched a military operation against the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab group in 2011. Following the invasion, al Shabaab vowed to conduct attacks in Kenya and has threatened more violence around the 2013 elections.
Along the country’s long-simmering coast, a secessionist group which was quashed by the government last year is said to be recruiting new members and planning attacks on elections, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
Despite the heightened security fears, most Kenyans express faith and optimism in the democratic system. Otieno, the 25-year-old Kibera costume jewelry-maker, says he’s voting for the first time.
“I was never interested in politics. When my father used to go to vote, I would say, ‘why are you voting? Nothing changes.’ But now I want to vote,” says Otieno. “They say if you participate in voting, you participate in the democracy of your country and I want to participate in the democracy of my country.”