Can Kenya's March election avoid killings, catastrophe, of last national vote?

Kenya prized its strategic and symbolic importance as one of Africa's leading democracies. But bloody post-election riots in 2007 has the world now watching.

Candidates for president of Kenya, including front-runners Uhuru Kenyatta (far l.) and Raila Odinga (far r.), stated their case in a televised debate Feb. 11.
Julie Fallon/Staff
Ben Curtis/AP/File
A Kenyan man sits in a destroyed truck used as a makeshift roadblock, as he and others enforce a roadblock, during post-election violence in Kisumu, Kenya in 2007.

The most infamous of the many violent atrocities that followed Kenya's last election in 2007 came when 20 people perished in a church in the western village of Kiambaa, set aflame by mobs supporting a rival politician.

Those who died in the Kenya Assemblies of God church, a tin-roof, mud-wall structure with two dozen rough wooden pews, were mostly children. Today, nothing remains of the building. But the new graves nearby are now carpeted with wildflowers bobbing in the breeze.

Philip Kimunya, then a teenager, escaped, but not unharmed. He bears mental and physical scars from that postelection rampage – six weeks of violence sparked by a rigged ballot.

In the aftermath, 1,300 people died and 600,000 were forced to flee their homes.

Now on March 4, Kenya, for decades a bastion of stability and trust in an unpredictable region, will hold another election. It is the first national vote since the violence of late 2007 and early 2008, and Mr. Kimunya is worried.

"We who survived this thing, we cannot say for sure that something similar cannot happen again," he says, speaking under an olive tree on the church grounds in Kiambaa, 190 miles northwest of Nairobi. "There is some peace now, but deep down I don't see that it can truly last."

As the nation gets set to vote – despite pleas by civic and religious leaders, and millions spent on what has been called peacebuilding, judicial reforms, and new voting systems – many citizens interviewed in the western region warn that trouble is again coming.

In Kenya, this is not supposed to happen. This is the West's sturdiest partner in a volatile region. Only Britain sends more tourists to Kenya than America – 110,000 last year. It is supposed to be mature, peaceful, a model rule-of-law democracy.

Dozens of US firms, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Google, and General Motors, have their main African base in Nairobi. Washington's diplomatic headquarters here is "our most significant embassy in Africa, full stop," according to Johnnie Carson, point man for the continent at the US State Department.

Next door stands Somalia, of concern to Washington as a potential Al Qaeda haven. Just two borders away from Kenya are some of Africa's most intractably problematic states.

Yet ahead of the vote, each political camp feels deeply that the stakes are too high for its candidate to lose. Allegations swirl of ballot buying, voter intimidation, and ethnic and tribal campaigning.

The two leading presidential candidates – Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta – largely draw support from traditionally opposed ethnic blocs in a society still defined and divided by tribe.

Mr. Odinga is a Luo, historically the rival tribe to the Kikuyus, who have economically and politically dominated Kenya since its independence from Britain 50 years ago this year.

Mr. Kenyatta is a Kikuyu, the Amherst-educated son of Kenya's first post-independence president and one of the nation's richest men.

Moreover, in a quite unusual circumstance, Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for instigating violence in the last election.

The root causes of previous election violence – land theft, unfair distribution of resources, nepotism, impunity – have not been fully addressed, despite official promises.

"As far as most people see it, we are exactly where we were before the last election," says Mwalimu Mati, head of Mars Group, a Kenyan governance watchdog.

Already, thousands of families are on the move, shifting people and property out of harm's way as tensions mount.

Kenya, where 42 ethnic groups are bound by colonial-era borders, retains tribal loyalties that play into the vote: To the victor goes the opportunity to redress the perceived marginalization of one's tribe, along with lucrative jobs, contracts, and other forms of political patronage.

Yet the 2007 election violence was not primarily about tribal differences.

Mwai Kibaki, the current president, allegedly rigged the vote to quash Odinga, his main opponent. When Mr. Kibaki was declared the victor, Odinga's supporters rioted. The "stolen" election sparked the violence. But underneath, the frustrations that fed the clashes were decades old.

Now Kibaki is stepping down, his two terms served, and Odinga is running again.

His father was vice president but never ran Kenya. He is 68, and if he does not win he may be too old to run again, his family's half-century search for power over.

"That legacy is what he hungers for; it is eating him up," says one former Odinga confidant in the western city of Kisumu.

Yet his rival, Kenyatta, faces a far more serious problem.

Indicted at The Hague

Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, are indicted for crimes against humanity at the ICC at The Hague for their alleged roles in orchestrating the postelection violence in 2007. The two deny all charges and both have promised to comply with the court, even if they win the election.

But that means the presumptive president and vice president would spend much, if not the majority, of their time in office in a Dutch courtroom, an eight-hour flight from Nairobi.

Odinga tossed a zinger at Kenyatta in a televised debate, saying, "it will pose serious challenges to run a government by Skype."

In the heartlands of Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe in central Kenya, and in the western Rift Valley, Mr. Ruto's stronghold, it is whispered that if the two men win, they will remove Kenya from the ICC's jurisdiction and refuse to attend the trial.

But if Uhuru and Ruto fail to appear, arrest warrants will be issued, their assets may be frozen, and their travel restricted. Kenya as a whole could risk international sanctions.

This risk of sanctions and isolation is at the heart of the election dynamic: One side says its candidate is wrongly accused by the world court, and will vote him in to prove it, ignoring the potential for a reduction in Kenya's global stature.

The other side points out that Kenya needs its international partners – its budget is oiled by foreign aid and its booming private sector relies on outside investment.

In Eldoret, an agricultural town in the Rift Valley, Edwin Kiptoo glowers over his Coca-Cola as he chats in a pub. He's pro-Ruto, and the ICC criminal indictments rile him.

"We know that the court has the wrong men. We will vote for them to show the world that they are not guilty, international sanctions be damned," he says.

None of the country's international donors have spelled out what action they would take should Kenyatta and Ruto offer the ICC a cold shoulder.

Mr. Carson, the top US official, said only that "choices have consequences" in Kenya's election.

Ken Ouma, an Odinga supporter in Nakuru, a highland town of dusty streets where tea and coffee harvests are processed, thinks he knows what those consequences are.

He lists the potential impacts, one by one, on calloused fingers: "Our produce will go unsold. Our gas will be too expensive. No tourists will come. Our jobs will be lost – all Kenyans will suffer," he says.

"We will become like Sudan [where President Omar al-Bashir is also indicted by the ICC]. We will be like Zimbabwe," he adds. "It is for this that we cannot accept Uhuru as president, until at least he clears his name."

For every Edwin Kiptoo, and every Ken Ouma, there are millions more in each camp, convinced, thanks to questionable opinion polls and a biased political media punditry, that their man already has the numbers to win.

Key to diffusing tensions will be the politicians' reactions to the result, says Elijah Mwangi, a businessman in a village north of Nakuru.

"Whoever is the loser, let him concede defeat immediately, otherwise his people will protest; and in Kenya, election protests are never peaceful things," he says, his red UhuRuto '13 baseball cap pulled low on his forehead.

Where are the police?

Potentially further fueling tensions, a series of studies and anecdotal reports points to the widening involvement of gangs paid to cause trouble.

"Armed militias are reportedly forming …supported by local political leaders," said the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations in an analysis last month.

Human Rights Watch agreed. "Armed gangs and criminal groups continue to operate," it said in a report. "The likelihood exists that politicians may hire these groups to wreak havoc around this year's elections."

Kenya's police, who should stand between citizens and paid thugs, are widely derided as ineffective, corrupt, and even responsible for many of the deaths during the last election violence.

Since 2007, Kenyan officials have promised police and court reforms. But little has taken place. Despite 1,300 deaths from clashes during the previous election, only seven cases have been brought to court, and 14 people convicted.

"The failure of the Kenyan justice system to investigate and prosecute ordinary citizens and public officials who perpetrated the violence in 2007-2008 ... has greatly contributed to the current tension and prospects for violence," says Human Rights Watch.

Discussions of these doomsday scenarios, however, irk most Kenyans. Indeed, it is not clear that the nation, having experienced so much bloodshed, will actually stomach more.

Ordinary Kenyans often say that major tourist spots escaped violence and that potential postelection rage in 2013 will be constrained to city slums.

"You know people lost their heads, and we saw the devil's work," says Sammy Kiarie, a fruit wholesaler piling up plums beneath the domed roof of Kisumu's city market. "No one wants to see that again. They will not go to the streets this time. They will hide at home."

Up and down the country, meetings of opposing local candidates have been publicly held, allowing them to work out ways to split the spoils and diffuse tensions.

"We call it negotiated democracy," smiles Fred Simiyu, a Protestant bishop from Kitale. "It's working, I tell you. Here everyone is an ally; there will be nothing to fight over."

Back beside his grandmother's grave, near the church that was burned at Kiambaa, Peter Mwangi, a farmer, says he knows there could be more violence, but adds he is "praying for the best.

"The day after the election results, we are all still Kenyans. We still need to feed our families and educate our children and put seeds in our fields," he says. "Our leaders should realize that these truly are the matters of life and death for us Kenyans, not who wins the election."

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