Kenya’s pre-election jitters

Burning issue: Opposition supporters set up a barricade in Kibera, Nairobi, in May last year, protesting for a change of leadership ahead of this year’s election in August. (Carl de Souza/AFP)

Burning issue: Opposition supporters set up a barricade in Kibera, Nairobi, in May last year, protesting for a change of leadership ahead of this year’s election in August. (Carl de Souza/AFP)

Since 2008, three letters have dominated Kenya’s political discourse — PEV. The acronym stands for post-election violence and refers to the bloody aftermath of the December 2007 vote, when more than 1 300 people were killed and more than 100 000 were displaced by political groups fighting over the result. That violence is casting dark shadows over the upcoming August 8 general election.

But this time round, the acronym is taking on a new meaning — pre-election violence. Months before a ballot has even been cast, fighting has begun. The troubles began in July last year when opposition leader Raila Odinga led nationwide demonstrations demanding a wholesale reform of the electoral board, which he claims is biased and favours the ruling party. A harsh police response — teargas and live ammunition were used against protesters — resulted in the deaths of three people, all from opposition strongholds Kisumu and Siaya.

But it was in April this year, when parties were involved with their internal nominations, that things really came to a head. Given the prestige and considerable perks attached to a parliamentary seat, the stakes are high.

In Pangani, one of Nairobi’s oldest suburbs, supporters of rival candidates for the ruling Jubilee Party nomination clashed over whose poster could go on a particular lamppost. During the fray, a middle-aged man was stabbed repeatedly.

When he tried to escape, he was run over and killed by a passing minibus. Another person was admitted to hospital.

In Mbita, on the otherwise placid shores of Lake Victoria, Ken Okore was also run over and killed. He was the bodyguard of an MP aligned with Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). The vehicle belonged to someone who supported the man challenging for that nomination.

In another case of vicious ODM infighting, Mombasa governor Hassan Joho narrowly survived an alleged assassination attempt while attending the launch of a new ODM office in Migori county. Two shots were fired at his vehicle and his bodyguard was injured. Just a few days before the launch, an unknown arsonist threw a petrol bomb at the new office building, which was burnt to the ground. 

The list of incidents goes on and on. In Rongo, a hospital was stormed by machete-wielding men allegedly linked to a local MP; in Busia, the governor’s vehicle was vandalised by a bunch of rowdy youths; in Mombasa, an ODM MP was arrested after being caught storming a polling station during the local party nomination vote.

For Kenyans who have lived through periodic bouts of political violence, these incidents bring back bad memories — and fears for the future.

James Wakibia, an environmental activist who was driven from his home during the original post-election violence and spent three weeks sleeping on the streets, is worried about a repeat of that.

“Already there is tension in the country just from the politicians’ talk. There are high expectations for winning on both sides and unfortunately there will be a small margin by the winner. The very thin line is very dangerous as many contenders will claim they [the elections] were rigged,” he said.

Coounter-intuitively, he does draw some comfort from the fact that the perpetrators of the violence last time round have now graduated to senior positions in government. He hopes that they will be sufficiently scarred by the experience to prevent it from happening again.

Shiko Kihika runs Tribeless Youth, a nongovernmental organisation that advocates against the deeply entrenched tribal divisions that dominate Kenya’s political landscape. She argues that Kenya has never healed from the violence in 2007-2008 because justice was not done. No one was successfully prosecuted for their role in the violence, either in Kenya’s local courts or at the International Criminal Court.

“Kenyans are violently calm, waiting for the moment they can revenge. Unfortunately, the best moment is the election period where we retreat to our tribal cocoons. We go back to mtu wetu [our man] syndrome and, if he doesn’t win, we term the elections as a sham and claim the results are crooked. We should be selfish enough to elect that person who has your agenda at heart. We need Kenyans to get sane enough to the point of acknowledging that they won’t fight their neighbours because of a certain individual,” she said.

A recent public survey, conducted by Infotrak Research, found that 49% of Kenyans believe the upcoming election is likely to trigger further violence.

Politicians are not doing enough to allay these concerns, says Joseph Omondi, a political analyst. “If one of the coalition partners feels they lost unfairly … they will incite people not to accept the results. He [Odinga] has been quoted severally saying that, if they lose, they will not go to court, which is a dangerous narrative in a country that still questions the electoral commission’s ability to run free and fair polls.”

In Nakuru, a scene of violence in 2007-2008, some people have already packed their bags in anticipation of more unrest. “Some families are first transporting their children, then wife and personal effects to their rural areas ahead of the election and this is very wrong,” said Nakuru’s Bishop Maurice Muhatia Makumba.

It’s a similar story in Naivasha, reports Kenya’s The Star newspaper, where workers on flower farms are trying to book their annual leave over August to ensure that they are far away from any potential flashpoints.

These precautions come despite the government’s insistence that this election will be different from 2007.

“There is no room for those who want to divide us. There is no room for those who want to raise their hands against their brothers, sisters and fellow countrymen,” said President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Fine words, but Kenyans can be forgiven for being sceptical. After all, Kenyatta himself was implicated by the International Criminal Court as a key architect of the violence, although those charges were suspended. Given the equally high stakes this time around, it’s impossible to rule out a repeat performance.

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