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Africa

Kenyans vote in critical elections amid security fears

© Leela Jacinto

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-03-04

Kenyans are voting 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.

Kenyans are voting 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.

A cry went up from the crowd and vuvuzelas were honked at 6am sharp at a polling station in the sprawling Nairobi slum of Kibera as polls opened on Monday in one of the most critical and complicated elections in Kenya’s 50-year history.

Long lines had formed at polling stations across Kibera hours before polls opened as residents, undaunted by the violence that engulfed this shanty town in the last elections, expressed their confidence in the electoral system this time.

Monday’s vote is the first since a new constitution was introduced in 2010 in an attempt to prevent the crisis that followed the December 2007 elections. More than 1,000 people were killed and over 600,000 displaced in the 2007-2008 post-electoral bloodbath.

Under the new constitution, Kenyans are electing a president, governors, senators, parliament members, county representatives and other officials to a new federal government structure.

Ballot papers and boxes have been colour-coded for each of the races to help voters pick their local and national representatives.

It may sound like a complicated process, but Carolina Aumaotio, a 22-year-old mother of two children, said she found the system easy.

“No problem,” Aumaotio said, beaming as her baby, wrapped and tied to her shoulder, slept soundly through the noise in the tiny Kibera voting room.

A cornseller in this teeming slum, Aumaotio said she joined the line outside the polling station at 10 pm the previous night. Monday marked the first time Aumaotio had ever voted and she was also the first person to cast her ballot at Kibera’s Olympic Primary School.

“I’m happy, yes,” she said, almost lost for words, but conveying her pleasure in a little hip-swinging dance as a line of voters trooped into the room to cast their ballots.

Odinga votes, expresses confidence

Kibera experienced some of the country’s worst violence after the December 2007 elections as the disputed results opened ethnic fault lines in Kenya as deep as the Great Rift Valley.

It was also the place where leading presidential candidate Raila Odinga cast his vote early Monday amid tight security at the Old Kibera Primary School.

Speaking to reporters shortly after voting, Odinga said he was “confident that we will win this election in the first round. I am sure that Kenyans will today express their confidence in us.”

Odinga and his main presidential rival, Uhuru Kenyatta, have been running neck and neck in the opinion polls in the weeks before the elections and while most Kenyans would prefer to avoid a runoff, the chances of a victor in the first round seem remote.

A presidential candidate has to win 50% of the votes and at least 25% of the votes cast in not less than 24 counties.

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 the post-electoral violence. His running mate, William Ruto, also faces crimes of humanity charges at The Hague.

Security tightened following coastal attacks

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.

World leaders, including US President Barack Obama, have joined outgoing Kenyan President Kibaki’s call for peaceful elections.

'A tense situation...A close race'

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.

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 not 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 in the coastal city of Mombasa, a predawn attack killed several police officers hours before another attack rocked the coastal town of Kilifi. Following the attacks, security was beefed up across Kenya’s trouble coastal region, where a separatist group has threatened to disrupt the vote.

 

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 carry out attacks in Kenya and has threatened more violence around the 2013 elections.

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 motivated.

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.”

 

 

Date created : 2013-03-04

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