In Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, residents heeded opposition leader Raila Odinga’s call to boycott the presidential election rerun.
Not that they had much of a choice: on Thursday morning, none of the city’s polling stations were open, while groups of vigilantes scared off anyone still wanting to cast their ballot.
“We are here to see the people who would vote in a compromised system. The betrayers. If they come to vote, there will be consequences,” said Joseph Opiyo, 21, speaking at a polling station in the Jomo Kenyatta Sports Ground – or, as the graffiti behind him would have it, the Jaramogi Sports Ground.
The distinction is central to Kenya’s political crisis. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, is father to current President Uhuru Kenyatta. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga is father to Raila, who was born in a church in Kisumu district.
They like Raila in this part of the country. “Raila understands the problems of the common man. He’s not corrupt,” said Opiyo.
At Lions High School, the main distribution point for election materials, boxes of ballot papers are piled high outside the school hall. The are meant to go to polling stations across the district, but no one has come to collect them. They’re too scared.
Of the eight electoral officials supposed to be on duty at Lions High, only three remain, still carefully assembling boxes of election materials that they know will not be collected. The rest went home. The returning officer, John Ngutai, is also worried for his safety. “I sleep in a different house every night. There are risks,” he said.
The nature of those risks is evident at the Oginga Odinga teaching hospital, which has treated 18 victims of election-related violence in the last couple of days. Victims like Mohamed Juma, 20, who was shot twice in two separate incidents by police. In the first, the bullet grazed his left shoulder, leaving a painful scar. In the second, the bullet struck him in his left upper thigh, travelling through his body and exiting out the other side.
Another victim is Owuor Issa, 26, who has a bullet hole in his chest but has no idea how it got there. He is still obviously in shock. He was walking back from his classes at Kisumu Polytechnic when he got caught up in a political demonstration. The next thing he remembers, he was bleeding on the floor. “I cannot even tell you who did the action. What I know is vengeance is from God. Whoever has a hand in this, vengeance is from God,” he said.
The hospital was expecting plenty more admissions as the day progressed. In fact, nurses abandoned a months-long strike to make sure a surgical ward was ready to treat the expected influx of injured. “We must pause our strike,” said one nurse. “We are here for this situation.”
At Kondele roundabout, a major site for protest action in the city, the Mail & Guardian witnessed the political violence in action. Heavily-armed police occupied the roundabout and the flyover which passed above, while small groups of protests – in their hundreds – threw stones and occasionally tried to advance on the police positions, braving the occasional tear gas grenade lobbed in their direction.
Two young protesters got a little too close, and were caught by police. They were frogmarched towards a nearby police vehicle, and then thrown to the floor. They briefly disappeared from view, surrounded by policemen who delivered a swift but vicious beating with batons and heavy boots.
If they are lucky, the pair will end up on the treatment tables at the Oginga Odinga hospital.
The rest of the city, meanwhile, is on lockdown. Shops are closed and houses tightly shuttered, and only the most desperate tried to find work on the mostly-deserted streets, many of which are blocked by makeshift barriers of torn-up paving stones.
“I am the sole breadwinner,” said Beatrice Otieno, 32, a freelance housekeeper, waiting at one street corner in the vain hope that someone might require her services. She is worried less about violence and more about the economic impact of the ongoing instability. “For the last couple of days, my children sleep without food.”
Gun-toting cop ‘misses’ his target
Driving down Kisumu’s main drag, we spot a police van hiding in a dusty side street. As we slow to see what they’re up to, a police officer drags a young civilian from the back of the truck and throws him to the ground.
He’s wearing a red-and-white T-shirt. The police officer raises his foot, about to deliver a hefty kick, but the young man is too quick. He writhes out the way, jumps to his feet and starts sprinting down the road towards us.
The police officer reacts just as quickly. He raises his rifle and aims in the direction of his fleeing prisoner — and us. But before he can pull the trigger, he notices the big PRESS sign sticky-taped by our vehicle.
The rifle is lowered. The police officer looks at us, visibly annoyed at our presence.
Had we not been driving past at that precise moment, there may well have been another casualty admitted to the hospital — or a body in the morgue.
As it is, the prisoner made good his escape, and we journalists were once again reminded of the power of the press. — Simon Allison