As Kenyans anxiously await election results, a region watches beside them

Recent events undermined voters' faith in a fair election, intensifying fears of violence. A peaceful vote could cement Kenya's status as a relatively stable, democratic economic powerhouse.

Goran Tomasevic
A woman from the Turkana District in northwestern Kenya cast her ballot Tuesday in a village near Baragoy during the country’s presidential election.

Amid international concerns of post-election violence, Kenyans are casting their ballots on Tuesday in one of most tightly contested presidential elections in the eastern African nation’s history.

“I will cast my ballot first thing in the morning and leave,” Michael Otieno, a carpenter based in Nairobi, said Sunday. “I am not sure about my security in the city.”

Mr. Otieno was one of thousands of Kenyans fleeing major cities for their rural homes to wait out the election, as memories of violence after a contested 2007 presidential election bubble to the surface. The aftermath of that vote saw a two-month wave of attacks that left 1,000 people dead and 600,000 displaced.

Since then, Kenya has upgraded its voting system, incorporating biometric voter identification and electronic transmission to reduce the chance of fraud. For Kenyans, the election is an important milestone to cement their status as a relatively stable, democratic economic powerhouse. Those same attributes have made the campaigns closely watched beyond Kenya’s borders, as well.

But several recent events have undermined faith in a fair election. Now, whether peace will prevail during and after the polls is again a concern for many citizens.

“I want to ask everyone to pray for peace as we go to the general elections,” President Uhuru Kenyatta told an anxious nation at Sunday church service in Nairobi.

Mr. Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga are the front-runners. Kenyatta, a son of Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, is seeking re-election under the ruling Jubilee Party (JP), while Mr. Odinga is the National Super Alliance (NASA) opposition coalition candidate.

“Kenya's election is important since this will be the first since the end of the ICC process following the 2007 violence,” says Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, chief frontier markets analyst at DaMina Advisors in New York, referring to International Criminal Court charges of inciting post-election ethnic violence against Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto. Those were dropped in 2014 and 2016, respectively. A peaceful outcome could “signal that Kenya is once again one of Africa’s most stable democracies,” Mr. Spio-Garbrah adds.

Long voting queues formed on Tuesday, with citizens arriving at polling stations as early as 4 a.m. Some voters said they had even left hospitals to cast their ballot, with Kenyan media reporting that one woman gave birth at a polling station and named her daughter “Chepkura” – kura means “ballot” in Swahili.

Memories of past vote

The violence 10 years ago ignited after former President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner, and Odinga rejected the polls as rigged. Between Dec. 27, 2007 and Feb. 28, 2008, when the two sides created a coalition government, communities engaged in deadly ethnic revenge attacks, with opposition-supporting members of the Kalenjin and Luo tribes attacking their Kikuyu neighbors – Mr. Kibaki’s tribe, and the nation’s largest ethnic group.

Observers say that now, the transparent release of results and faith in their accuracy is critical. Recent weeks, however, have shaken confidence that history would not repeat itself, despite improved election technology. Last Monday, a senior election official in charge of the election commission’s information technology was found dead, with signs he had been tortured. Foreign advisers to Odinga’s campaign were deported last weekend, and the opposition claimed that police had raided one of their vote-counting centers. 

“There have been allegations that the ruling coalition plans to steal the election. The opposition has said it will not accept results of rigged election. This has send shock waves, since this is what triggered the 2007-2008 post-election violence," says Benjamin Muema, a political and security analyst based in Nairobi.

A history of inter-ethnic attacks has also deepened the unease.

“Politicians have been stirring ethnic animosity during the campaigns,” says Victor Ndambuki, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi. “Many citizens fear in such a scenario, losers may not accept the results and may turn to their already charged communities for support. This has taken a violent twist in the past.”

But memories of the consequences of the 2007 attacks may also help prevent such an outcome.

“Even though many citizens fear a repeat of the violence, I think the International Criminal Court cases [against Kenyatta and Ruto]...are a deterrent,” says Abdalla Kheir, a lecturer at Kenya’s Umma University.

Regional consequences

For decades, Nairobi has also acted as the base for humanitarian groups providing relief aid to conflict zones like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia, the homeland of al-Shabab, the Al Qaeda affiliate in eastern Africa. A bungled election would disrupt these activities – particularly crucial now, amid profound drought and food insecurity.

“The world is watching the election because of the country’s strategic position. Many international organizations have offices in Kenya and the vote will determine if they will continue to stay,” says Mr. Ndambuki. “That’s why the election matters.”

Some regional allies are also watching the election for its security implications, such as in ongoing campaigns against extremist groups in Somalia. But interest in countries like Rwanda and Uganda is driven by economic issues, as well as political ones, notes Andrew Franklin, a security analyst in Kenya. They “are more concerned about whether they can use the port of Mombasa,” one of the continent’s largest, he says. “They are concerned about the short-term effects of the elections. It’s about the economy.”

The election also has the potential to deliver a political message. In a region where few incumbents lose elections, a peaceful transfer of power would be “a major political achievement” and “a great boost” to democracy, says Shadrack Nasong’o, an associate professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

If Kenyatta wins “fair and square” and the results are not contested, that, too, would be an important milestone, Dr. Nasong’o adds. A manipulated vote to retain the incumbent’s power, however, could strengthen neighboring countries’ leaders’ “resolve to remain in power” themselves.

Watching and waiting

With Kenyans also electing senators, governors, and regional representatives on Tuesday, analysts say this a chance for the people to reaffirm the promise of the 2010 Constitution, which devolved resources and governance to rural areas, diffusing the power of the presidency.

But many voters feel more reforms are needed. Kenyans have been “intent on change," Nasong’o says, and see a fair vote as their only lever. “Many argue that every time they have this opportunity to effect change, it is snatched away from them.”

Over the weekend, long-distance buses struggled to keep up with the number of Kenyans leaving the cities.

“We have seen some violence already. I cannot wait,” said Mutuku Kiema, a laborer in Nairobi, as he boarded a bus for eastern Kenya.

Yet others hoped that people would accept the results and listen to calls for peace.

“Kenyans want to see better economic growth and progress. They also want to feel secure in their own land,” Ndambuki says. “This can be best achieved in a democracy, and that is in the minds of many as they vote.”

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