Fear of new violence overshadows Kenya’s elections

The country is also awaiting the trial for crimes against humanity for a top presidential candidate.

With less than two months until the March 4 polls, the first since 2007 when Kenya spiralled into ethnic violence that killed some 1 200 people and displaced 600 000 others, tensions are high in a hotly contested political race.

"Tribalism can be the pothole that prevents us from moving forward," Peter Kenneth, one of the six presidential hopefuls, told AFP. "Sometimes I believe we never learned a thing," he added, suggesting that current politics are little changed from the last round of voting.

While all candidates say they want peaceful polls, Kenya is struggling with a raft of security threats following a string of violent attacks, some linked by police to politicians.

"We know that Kenyans are peaceful … and that the outcome of the elections will be decided by the ballot and not violence," Kenya's Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country's founding president and a leading candidate, said at a political rally on Saturday.

Along with the presidential vote, parliamentary, gubernatorial, senatorial and local council elections will take place on the same day, a massive logistical undertaking which could see political tensions at the most local level.

The United Nations top humanitarian official in the country, Modibo Toure, warned this month of concern over an "increase in violence", as more than 450 people were killed and nearly 112 000 people fled their homes in 2012.

Kenya, whose army is still fighting in Somalia after invading in 2011, has suffered a spate of grenade attacks and shootings, often blamed on Somalia's al-Qaeda linked al-Shebab or homegrown Islamist supporters.

Tensions on the coast also are high, where police have cracked down on Islamist groups as well as a separatists wanting to split the popular tourist region from the rest of Kenya.

With President Mwai Kibaki stepping down after two terms in power, the main race to replace him is split between Prime Minister Rail Odinga and Kenyatta. However, adding to the unease is the looming trials in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Kenyatta as well as his running mate William Ruto for their alleged roles in orchestrating murder, rape and violence after 2007 polls.

The trials, set to begin on April 10-11, could clash with a presidential run-off vote due within a month if – as many expect – no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round.

Kenyatta, who protests his innocence but says he will cooperate with the ICC, has accused the international community in campaign rallies of "wanting to impose their thoughts and will on the Kenyan people" through the trials.

Kenya, as a signatory of the Rome Statute of the ICC, would be forced to act on any arrest warrant issued by the court should the two politicians refuse to attend – with the pair potentially absent for at least two years as the trials progress.

New posts may exacerbate ethnic rivalries
The 2007-8 violence shattered Kenya's image as a beacon of stability in East Africa when Odinga, then opposition leader, accused the incumbent Kibaki of rigging his way to re-election.

What began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings of Kibaki's Kikuyu tribe, which launched reprisal attacks, plunging Kenya into its worst wave of violence since independence in 1963.

Much has changed since then, including the 2010 introduction of a new Constitution meant to bring change, although key pillars have been woefully implemented. But many fear changes in the Constitution, including providing elections for the new posts of governors and senators, have increased the risk of violence at local levels, with ethnic rivalries exacerbated by political jostling for power.

Ben Rawlence, who worked on Kenya for Human Rights Watch until last year, noted a "frighteningly violent turn" in many areas once minority groups realised the implication of the competition for a rash of new political offices.

"Wherever a county does not contain a convincing majority from one ethnic group, or wherever the majority can be effectively challenged by a coalition of minorities afraid of being excluded, violence can be expected," he warned.

Examples of such violence have already been witnessed, including the southeastern Tana River delta region, where bloody tit-for-tat raids have killed some 150 people since last August.

Police chief David Kimaiyo has warned the clashes could be part of efforts to drive out one of the communities "for political reasons".

Bloody though the clashes are, such violence is unlikely to spread. But the same triggers that provoked the clashes are mirrored elsewhere across Kenya, according to Nuur Mohamud Sheekh, a Kenyan analyst, and Jason Mosley from the University of Oxford's African Studies Centre.

"The same drivers – namely pre-electoral political competition, and manoeuvring to benefit from the re-drawing of electoral constituency boundaries – are at play across the country," the pair wrote in a recent paper. Those factors "could feed into the existing tensions in flashpoint areas" affected by the 2007-8 violence, they added. – Sapa-AFP

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