Kenya presidential cliffhanger sparks voter enthusiasm

Queues several kilometres long snaked around Africa’s largest slum on Thursday as Kenyans across the country and the class divide turned out en masse to vote in an unprecedentedly close presidential election.

In all of the East African nation’s previous polls, there was either only one candidate to vote for or only one with a realistic chance of winning, prompting many to stay at home on polling day.

“The turnout is more than 10 times what it was in 2002,” voter Fredrick Juma rejoiced as he walked out of a polling station in Kibera, a sprawling slum home to one million inhabitants.

While his claim might be a slight exaggeration of the truth, polling station official Teresia Kiilu confirmed that the turnout was markedly more robust than in previous years and expected to top the 57,2% achieved in 2002.

“There is more turnout than in 2002, there are more youth and more and more people enlightened about choosing their leaders,” she said.

Kibera slum is part of the constituency in which opposition leader Raila Odinga is running.

He has cast himself as the candidate of change and the champion of the poor, draining massive support among impoverished slum-dwellers who see incumbent president Mwai Kibaki as a symbol of the ruling elite’s arrogance and cronyism.

“We will take Raila to State House tomorrow, we will escort him there,” said Ogutu Otwaro, a civil servant at the National Housing Corporation, certain that his candidate would unseat the current president.

“I’m voting for Raila because he will bring change, prices of items will go down, our lives will change,” said 18-year-old Khadija Ismael, who lives in a cluster of makeshift dwellings in the heart of Kibera.

Meanwhile in central Kenya, Kibaki’s stronghold, patrons were barred from buying drinks from some local drinking holes unless they showed their inked finger, a sign that they had voted.

Odinga and Kibaki have been neck-and-neck in opinion polls, but the opposition candidate has maintained a slight edge in most of them and accused the government of planning to rob him of victory.

When Odinga arrived to cast his ballot in one of the slum’s schools, he claimed that his name was missing from the registrar as were many others from his Luo tribe.

“As you can see this is not by accident but by design. I am so sure that elections will go well and we will get big victory, but we sense a plot to reduce our votes,” he said.

The campaign has been tense with poll-related incidents leaving nearly 80 people dead and many commentators fearing widespread unrest if Odinga lost and rigging was evident.

But after filing a complaint to the electoral board and promising to return later to cast his ballot, Odinga urged his supporters to “be peaceful and persevere ... not to be heartbroken because many plots have been hatched here and there.”

“I am sure I will win,” he added.

A few kilometres distant, in Nairobi’s richer Westlands neighbourhood, the queues were more orderly and quiet but almost as long.

“Maybe Mr Mwai Kibaki is going to win,” said Khimji Kanji Khetani, a 45-year-old Kenyan of Indian origin working in the construction industry.

“He made a lot of changes: security, roads.
It’s true that small people can’t see what he did. Big people saw what he did,” he said.

Financial experts have argued that Kenya—the region’s largest economy—would still be on course to becoming an “African tiger” regardless of who wins Thursday’s election.

“Kibaki has done a good job, no doubt about it,” said Happy, a 30-year-old woman patiently waiting for her turn in the polling booth.

“But let’s see somebody else in charge because I believe anyone who takes charge now would have to prove better than Kibaki.”

The election panel said voting may be extended after many polling stations opened late.

“Chances are that most polling stations may go beyond [6pm GMT]to compensate for the delay in the start of voting,” Jack Tumwa, an election official, told reporters.—AFP

Client Media Releases

NWU takes sports development to new heights
UKZN scientists receive multimillion-rand research award