Kenyan police fired teargas to disperse stone-throwing supporters of the country’s main presidential contenders on Monday after the candidates made a final push to win votes in a race deemed too close to call.
Scuffles briefly flared shortly after President Mwai Kibaki and his opposition challenger, Raila Odinga, addressed huge rallies in the capital on the last day of campaigning before Thursday’s election.
Hawkers and shoppers fled as rival supporters, crossing paths in downtown Nairobi, hurled stones at each other before the police arrived and fired teargas canisters at the crowds.
”These elections are spoiling my Christmas. It’s very tough this year,” said Lucy Mungua, who was caught up in the melee.
”No one wants to lose or be beaten.”
With the latest opinion polls showing a couple of percentage points between the one-time allies, Kenyans fear the closeness of the contest will provoke rigging and more violence in the relatively young East African democracy of 36-million people.
Seeking a second term, Kibaki promised to pursue his record of economic growth and free schooling as thousands of supporters, wearing the blue of his Party of National Unity (PNU), sang and danced in the blazing sun.
”Everybody can see the work I have done in the past five years,” he told crowds gathered at Nairobi’s main Uhuru (Freedom) Park. ”You all know what we have been doing and I am asking for your votes so that I can continue working.”
Looking relaxed in an African print shirt, the 76-year-old incumbent took a dig at Odinga, who along with some of his aides was sacked from Kibaki’s Cabinet in 2005 for opposing a government-backed charter.
”They were in government but were defeated by the work.”
At a sports stadium a few kilometres away, Odinga hit back saying if elected his government would do away with the old guard.
It was a pointed reference to Kibaki, a legislator since independence in 1963, and his predecessor Daniel arap Moi, who ruled for 24 years and has thrown his weight behind Kibaki.
”We will not be an exclusive club of grumpy old men,” said Odinga, himself a longtime politician, warning Kibaki he would not accept a ”fraudulent election”.
Trading on Kibaki’s failure to stamp out corruption, Odinga vowed to fight graft that he said had cost the country more than 200-billion shillings ($3,15-billion) and tackle the widening gap between rich and poor.
”For every shilling a poor Kenyan earns, the rich one takes 66 shillings. That is the truth going by the government’s own figures. But they prefer to trumpet 6% growth, without telling Kenyans where the money goes.”
About 14-million Kenyans are eligible to vote in Thursday’s presidential and parliamentary polls. Official results are expected to start trickling in on Friday morning.
Many in Kenya are encouraged by the fact that the main challenger has a chance at victory — a rare feat in African politics where ruling parties control state machinery and sitting presidents almost never lose re-election bids.
But, police have warned politicians against fuelling clashes which threaten to tarnish the election, a test of Kenya’s democratic advances since the largely peaceful handover of power from a ”Big Man” ruler to the opposition five years ago.
That in itself won wide praise. But Kenya remains plagued by tribalism and weak political parties dominated by personalities rather than ideology.
Kibaki has the support of his Kikuyu ethnic community, the largest of Kenya’s 40 or so tribes, and is also popular in the northern and eastern provinces.
Odinga, a former political prisoner, enjoys the backing of his western Luo community, but has also garnered support from other ethnic groups who think the Kikuyus have had it too good under Kibaki.
Key facts about Odinga
- Born into one of Kenya’s political dynasties on January 2 1945, in Maseno, west Kenya, the 62-year-old Odinga comes from the Luo tribe, one of the country’s biggest.
- Father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a nationalist hero and Kenya’s first vice-president after 1963 independence from Britain, became a key opposition figure against the governments of founding President Jomo Kenyatta and his successor President Daniel arap Moi.
- Odinga is viewed as a firebrand by many Kenyans, an impression consolidated by remarks in a biography indicating he was a plotter in an attempted coup in 1982. Now he is trying to project a more moderate, business-friendly face.
- Educated in communist former East Germany, Odinga named his first-born son Fidel Castro. Representing Nairobi’s Kibera slum, one of Africa’s largest, Odinga projects himself as a champion of the poor. But he has a large business empire and is a member of Kenya’s wealthy elite.
- Analysts say Odinga is unlikely to make big policy changes, but his outspoken, confrontational style would contrast with Kibaki’s more reserved manner.
- Some attribute Odinga’s toughness to the nine years he spent in jail under Moi for protesting at one-party rule. He served six years in solitary confinement. He was charged with treason over the coup bid, before fleeing to Norway for a brief exile.
- A former ally of Kibaki, he helped him win power in 2002 and served for three years in his cabinet before being sacked for campaigning against him in a 2005 constitutional referendum.
- Odinga’s flamboyant style has seen him driving to rallies in a bright red Hummer H2. The Odinga family home displays part of his book collection — from Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs to biographies of Stalin — as well as two stuffed lions he is said to have picked up in Tanzania and South Africa.
Key facts about Kibaki
- The 76-year-old veteran politician was born on November 15 1931, in Othaya near Mount Kenya. The lush highlands are filled with tea and coffee farms on Kenya’s most fertile soils, in the heartland of his Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest. The son of a tobacco trader, his name in Kikuyu means big tobacco leaf.
- Kibaki has cultivated an image of staying above the fray of Kenyan politics. He never criticises his opponents by name — but always makes sure no one doubts who his barbs were meant for. He has a reputation for a sharp wit when giving off-the-cuff Swahili speeches in his rolling baritone.
- Where critics say Kibaki is indecisive and has never seen a fence he does not want to sit on, supporters say he is a strategist who never acts until he is certain of the right course and its likely outcome.
- An adroit political player over the decades, Kibaki became a legislator for the ruling Kenya African National Union (Kanu party at independence in 1963. Within two years he was appointed commerce minister and then finance minister from 1970-1983. He served 10 years as President Daniel arap Moi’s vice-president from the latter’s election in 1978.
- Gradually falling out of favour with Moi, Kibaki defected from Kanu in 1991 and launched the Democratic Party to contest Kenya’s first multiparty election in 1992. He lost that and a 1997 poll. But in 2002 his National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) won power. Kibaki was sworn in on a wheelchair after he was injured in a car crash.
- During his term, Kibaki’s Narc coalition split, with one of its members, Raila Odinga, now his main opponent in the upcoming election. Kenyans are generally happy with Kibaki’s economic performance, and were delighted at his introduction of free primary and secondary education. But critics say he has done little to combat graft and tribalism, and reneged on some pledges like re-writing the Constitution within 100 days.
- Kibaki has formed a new alliance, the Party of National Unity (PNU), as his re-election vehicle. Having lost the lead in polls, he has hit the road in recent weeks to drum up support.
- Married with four children, Kibaki was educated at Uganda’s Makerere University and the London School of Economics, where he was the first African to graduate with a first-class degree. He returned to Makere in 1958 as an economics lecturer.
- Among Kenya’s richest men, he has vast land holdings and interests in hotels, insurance and farming. Kibaki enjoys playing golf and socialising at Nairobi’s exclusive clubs.
- Although Kibaki came to power thanks to multiparty politics, and presented himself as a clean break with the graft-ridden Moi era, opponents say he was a late convert. They like to quote old comments from him likening campaigners seeking to end the one-party system in the 1980s to daydreamers trying to fell a tree with a razor blade. – Reuters