On Kenyan election day, limited violence and high turnout

Although 16 died in militant attacks before polls opened Monday morning, for most Kenyans the biggest barriers to voting were long lines and overcrowded polling stations.

Riccardo Gangale/AP
Masaai line up to vote in a general election in Kumpa, Kenya, Monday, March 4. Five years after more than 1,000 people were killed in election-related violence, Kenyans went to the polls on Monday to begin casting votes in a nationwide election seen as the country's most important – and complicated – in its 50-year history.

Millions of Kenyans lined up under the burning equatorial sun Monday to vote in the country's most complicated and expensive ballot since it gained its independence from Britain 50 years ago. 

The last polls, held in 2007, sparked violence that left some 1,100 people dead and resulted in some 630,000 people fleeing their homes. Now the country is under enormous international pressure to ensure that history does not repeat itself.  

Close to 100,000 soldiers, police officers, prison guards, and reservists were stationed at 33,400 polling stations, and patrolled other potential flash points. More than 22,000 election observers monitored the vote. 

And despite reports that separatist militants killed 16 people in predawn attacks near the country's Indian Ocean coast, for the most part the election appears to have passed peacefully and with great enthusiasm.

In many areas, lines of voters more than a half mile long formed well before dawn. In Nairobi, the capital, some voters complained of long waits and confusion over voter registers. But others praised the increased security and preparations by the electoral commission.

'I was determined to vote'

Kennedy Omondi was the first voter into Polling Station No. 6 at the Olympic Secondary School in Kibera, one of Nairobi's largest shantytowns.

"I woke up at 4 a.m. and was here 30 minutes later," he said as the rising sun lit up the thousands of voters waiting to follow him into the polling station.
"Voting to me is the thing that makes all Kenyans equal. Whether you are a rich man or a poor man, everyone has one vote. It is our right as Kenyans."

Mugo Nyagah said he would wait “as long as it took” as he stood in line near the Mukuru Kwa Njenga shantytown in eastern Nairobi. 

“I came at 6 a.m. and the queue is still long,” he said. “But I am eager to vote to elect new leaders. We want leaders who are accountable and who can change the country. We must separate real leaders from the pretenders.” 

Close to 10 hours after polls opened, Jotham Mukiira, who had also been in line since sunrise, was ushered into his voting station in Nairobi’s city center. 

“It’s taken all day, but there was no way I was going to leave that line. I was determined to vote,” he said. “This affects the direction our country will take for the next five years. Nothing can be more important.” 

'This thing is complicated'

A dozen people contacted in towns and villages across Kenya yesterday confirmed that the process was peaceful. 

Peter Mwangi, whose grandmother died in a church fire started by supporters of rival politicians after the last election, says there was "no tension" at home in Kiambaa, 190 miles northwest of Nairobi.

"The only problem is that this thing is complicated," he says. "People are taking long to vote. People don't understand exactly what they are doing."

The coast raids, which took place before polls started at 6 a.m. local time, were the only significant eruptions of violence – despite concerns that the election could set off ethnic clashes like those that followed the last election in 2007. 

Ten of the 16 who died were police officers or reservists guarding polling stations.

David Kimaiyo, Kenya’s police inspector general, said the officers died after they were ambushed by 200 members of a secessionist group, the Mombasa Republican Council. Six gang members also died. 

“Shame them by coming out and voting in large numbers,” Mr. Kimaiyo said in a statement to the media.

Both leading presidential candidates, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and former Finance Mnister Uhuru Kenyatta, made 11th-hour appeals for peace and to ensure their supporters voted.

But Mr. Odinga’s camp has also alleged government officials have been illegally campaigning for his rival, who denies the charge. And Mr. Kenyatta faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court over accusations that he bankrolled some of the last election violence, which he also denies. 

Counting of the votes began late Monday, and the result is expected Tuesday or Wednesday. Despite peaceful voting, there were still concerns that any suggestion that the final result was not fair could cause chaos. 

As she waited in line to vote at Kilimani Primary School in a middle-class suburb of Nairobi, health charity worker Christabel Anyona said she was worried.

"I'm not confident that people have learned anything after the last election." 

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