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Vote tests Kenya's democracy

Thursday's tight presidential race is a rarity in Africa, where one-party rule is the norm.

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That tempers should be set so high is striking in a country that has enjoyed an economic boom – and an average 5 percent growth rate – since Kibaki came to power in 2002. Kibaki's free-market policies have attracted foreign investment and foreign tourists. Most Kenyans applaud his decision to provide primary school education free of charge, and to expand that program to secondary education as well.

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Yet with more than 40 percent of Kenyans unemployed, and with food prices rising, many Kenyans seem ready for a change.

"People will vote for [Odinga], because the prices keep going up, but their wages are the same," says Isaac Barongo, a security guard in Nairobi.

Support in the slums

In Kibera, which is widely considered the largest slum in Africa, campaign trucks pump out African dance music as supporters wearing orange Odinga campaign shirts dance, blow whistles, and slow down traffic.

Kibera is the heart of Odinga's support, since this is where he has served as the district's parliamentarian, and a vocal opponent of the pro-business party of Kibaki. Yet Kibera is a disaster area. Its few paved roads are full of potholes. Its schools – though free – are desperately short of teachers.

Feruz Khamis is a leader of the Nubian ethnic community here, which has been pressuring the government to provide land titles to Nubians who have lived in this area for more than a hundred years. "To Nubians, Raila Odinga's dramatic entry into politics has been a source of hope," he says.

Compared with Odinga's flashy style, President Kibaki is an African Al Gore – a technocrat with a 10-point plan, and a long list of accomplishments. Kibaki campaign workers admit privately that the president awakened late to the need for vigorous campaigning, but they insist that despite the polls, the voters are on their side.

"Kibaki has achieved so much, but his laid back style hurts him," says Catherine Ngahu, a marketing researcher working for the Kibaki campaign. "When you're talking about poverty, using the World Bank standard of $1 a day, Kibaki has reduced the poverty level from 57 percent of the population to 46 percent. That may look little, but it was so bad before."

For his five years in office, Kibaki has preferred to delegate authority to his cabinet ministers, setting targets for them to achieve, and forcing them to resign if they failed. The method produced results. By investing in meat processing plants, Kenya has revived its meat industry, which collapsed under President Moi. Today, Kenya exports meat products throughout Eastern Africa.

Yet Kenyan voters, embracing the spirit of multiparty democracy, and the power to toss out incumbents, may simply want a new face.

"There are only two African countries – Kenya and Ghana – where the ruling party is not guaranteed to win elections," says Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. "The way that Kenya conducts these elections can give a lot of hope to Africa, that you can become progressively better at democracy over time."

Like Mr. Kiai, Abdullah Ahmed Nasir believes that Kenyans have awakened to their democratic rights, and won't allow the polls to be rigged on a massive scale, as they were earlier this year in Nigeria.

"If [Odinga] wins, that can show that the apparatus of state can lose," says Abdullah Ahmed Nasir, former chair of the Law Society of Kenya, "and in terms of a defining moment for Kenyan democracy, that is significant."