Fear lies beneath the facade of day-to-day life in Kenya
It’s easy to pretend that there is no crisis in Kenya.
No matter how dysfunctional its politics, life here goes on. People go to work, they go shopping, they meet up with friends in bars and tearooms, they cram into matatus, they complain about the weather and the economy and the football — and the politics, of course the politics — and they go home.
Kenya may be staring into a bloody abyss, but it is startlingly difficult to find obvious evidence of discontent outside of newspaper headlines or the television screen. There is hardly any party paraphernalia on show; and, in the run-up to Thursday’s election re-run, protests and demonstrations have been largely confined to small areas of major cities.
Even in Kisumu, the opposition heartland where four people were shot on Wednesday, the running street battles between protesters and police took up just a tiny percentage of the city’s communal energy.
The city is big enough that, just a few suburbs away, it was possible to go about one’s daily business without hearing a single shot fired.
But look hard enough and you can see how the current crisis – resurrecting traumatic memories of the 2007-2008 post-election violence – has infiltrated the national psyche. Kenyans are scared, and the fear manifests in subtle ways.
If they can, households are stockpiling groceries. Parents are urging their kids to stay close to home. The traffic in Nairobi is noticeably lighter — less than an hour from the airport to the CBD, even in rush hour — because so many people have gone to stay with family elsewhere.
On the shuttle route from Nakuru to Kisumu, operators have not forgotten the lessons learned in 2007-2008, when hundreds of vehicles were torched. Passengers in Kikuyu-owned minibuses are unloaded halfway, and then bundled onto Luo-owned minibuses for the rest of the trip. Kikuyus are perceived to be in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s camp, Luos with opposition leader Raila Odinga. “For safety,” the conductor explains to disgruntled passengers. He’s not taking any risks.
Nor is most of the business community. The last four months of instability has cost the economy 700-billion shillings ($6.75-billion), according to the Kenya Private Sector Alliance. That’s 10% of Kenya’s GDP.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the source of this fear. The last few months, ever since the Supreme Court annulled the August 8 presidential vote and gave the much-maligned electoral commission just 60 days to organise a new one, politicians have recklessly ratcheted up the tensions.
The rhetoric has been accompanied by some genuinely frightening developments. Amnesty International estimates that at least 33 people, and possibly as many as 50, have been killed in political violence since 8 August, including a nine-year old who was shot by police while standing on a balcony; and a woman, eight months pregnant, who was trampled to death after fainting from inhaling tear gas.
No one is safe, not even those in the higher echelons of power. On Tuesday, gunmen attacked the driver of the Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, severely wounding him. Was it a botched assassination attempt? A barely-disguised threat? Whatever it was, it was enough to dissuade Mwilu and several of her colleagues on the Supreme Court from going to work on Wednesday. As a direct result, just two members of the Supreme Court were on hand to hear an emergency petition to cancel or postpone the election: not enough to form a quorum, meaning the petition was not heard and the election went ahead by default.
But it’s not really an election. Odinga withdrew his candidacy weeks ago, and on the eve of the vote he doubled down. “Do not participate in any way in the sham election. Convince your friends, neighbours and everyone else to not participate,” he told orange-clad supporters in Nairobi. He warned darkly of the government’s intentions: “We are aware that the blood-thirsty regime is using every chance to massacre our people”.
Although he urged his supporters to remain peaceful, Odinga also said that his political coalition would transform into a “resistance movement”, a term more commonly associated with civil war. And in Swahili, in impromptu comments, the opposition leader said that if the cat was eating the chickens, then there are many ways to kill the cat - a dangerously ambiguous metaphor.
President Kenyatta, in televised speech from State House, was just as stubborn. He insisted the election would go ahead, and issued his own veiled threat: “But let no one infringe on his brothers’ or sisters’ right [to vote] and let everyone know that our security agencies have been deployed across the country to ensure the safety of each and every Kenyan.”
Kenya’s trigger-happy police have been implicated in much of the recent political violence, and are not considered impartial arbiters by the opposition.
But most damning of all was the comment made by the man in charge of guaranteeing a credible vote.
“It’s impossible under the current conditions to hold free and fair elections,” said Wafula Chebukati, speaking to journalists last week. He’s had a rough few months. As chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), he’s already botched one presidential election — as per the stinging Supreme Court judgement, which annulled the vote — and has spent the last six weeks desperately trying to organise a new one, amid a barrage of criticism directed at him and his organisation from across the political spectrum.
But the flaws observed by the court are not so easily rectified, especially in such a short space of time. It’s proved difficult, if not impossible, to get new printers to print the ballot papers; or to reconfigure the more than 40 000 electronic voting machines; or to train election officers in opposition areas amid a worsening security situation.
With the new vote scheduled for this Thursday, Chebukati is preparing to fail again. And if the head of the electoral commission has lost confidence in the electoral process, why should anyone else take it seriously?