Kenya reelects Kibaki president amid controversy

Protests erupted Sunday after electoral officials announced that the incumbent won Thursday's vote.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After days of confusion and charges of vote tampering, Kenyan election officials expelled reporters and party observers from their headquarters and announced that incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was reelected.

The capital city, Nairobi, remained tense Sunday as paramilitary troops guarded the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) headquarters, where officials announced an end to tallying and pronounced Mr. Kibaki the winner of Thursday's vote with 4.584 million votes versus populist challenger Raila Odinga's 4.352 million votes.

The reaction in Mr. Odinga's areas of support, such as the western town of Kisumu, the coastal town of Mombasa, and the sprawling Nairobi slum of Kibera was immediate. Residents of Kericho, a stronghold of Odinga's Luo ethnic community, said that the streets had erupted into "chaos."

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Within an hour of the announcement, Kibaki was sworn in, and Election Commissioner Samuel Kivuitu invited Odinga's supporters to pursue their allegations of vote tampering through the courts.

"This is a very sad day for Kenya and for democracy," says Njeri Kabeberi, a political analyst and head of the Institute for Multiparty Democracy in Nairobi. "We have created a recipe for something where we don't know what will happen. Kibaki's people will be celebrating, Odinga's people will be plotting, but the people of Kenya will have been watching TV to see what due process looks like and they will be losing faith in the process."

Lingering questions

Like the US presidential election of 2000, questions surrounding Thursday's vote may linger for weeks or months to come. But having held the most tightly contested election in Kenya's and perhaps Africa's history was an achievement of itself in a continent chock-full of one-party states.

The question now is whether Kenyans will accept a leader that fewer than half of Kenyans actually voted for and move on.

"I don't think that [Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement Party] will go to court, because the courts don't inspire much confidence," says Abdullah Ahmed Nasir, former chair of the Law Society of Kenya. "I think they will shift their focus to making this country ungovernable. They have 100 seats in parliament, against the president's 35 seats. This government will be a minority government, and they will not have an easy time ruling."

At his swearing in, Kibaki urged Kenyans to "set aside the passions that were excited by the electoral process and to work together as one people." He pledged to respect the right of Kenyans to choose a candidate, and said, "I will serve everyone equally, irrespective of who they voted for."

"We need to heal the differences created between ethnicities, religions, and regions," Kibaki said. "I call on Kenyans to set aside the divisiveness … and embrace one another as brother and sister."

Supporters of Kibaki say the technocratic leader has turned Kenya's stagnant economy into a regional power, with an average growth rate of 5 percent. But many of Kenya's poor – a large number of whom voted for Odinga on Thursday – say the benefits have not trickled down. Many blame Kenya's corruption, and Kibaki's anti-graft campaign has largely been seen as a failure.

Concerns of violence

As night fell in Kibera, the massive slum of 1.2 million people that makes up Odinga's parliamentary constituency, residents reportedly erupted into the streets after hearing the news, looting shops, lighting houses on fire, and pelting police with stones.

The police responded with water cannons and tear gas. The violence followed a day of relative calm as Kenyans remained glued to their television sets to await the results and to hear how election officials would resolve contentious charges from both parties of vote tampering and manipulation of results.

Police helicopters hovered over the capital, and some 30,000 police officers were deployed through the streets to restore calm.

But observers predicted more unrest to come, especially in light of Odinga's announcement late Sunday that he rejected the results as rigged and would hold his own alternative inauguration Monday.

Chief European Union observer Alexander Graf Lambsdorff said doubt remained over the accuracy of the count.

"We regret that it has not been possible to address irregularities about which both the EU and the ECK have evidence ... some doubt remains as to the accuracy of the result of the presidential election as announced today," he said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Kenya's former colonial ruler had "real concerns" about reported irregularities.

Hassan Omar Hassan, a spokesman for the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission, called the way in which the Election Commission announced the results "cowardly and perverse." It is the responsibility of the Election Commission and not the courts to determine whether the election process was free and fair and to vet charges of vote tampering, he added, and said that street protests by Odinga's supporters were almost inevitable.

"I don't rule out street protests, and if Kenyans want to do street protests, they have a legal and constitutional right to do so, said Mr. Hassan. "I urge the members of the military and the disciplined forces [which includes police and paramilitary] to exercise restraint and not to create pandemonium against their own people."

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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