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Almost 20 million Kenyans go to the polls as fear of violence grows

by Julia Steers
Aug 8 2017, 1:42pm

NAIROBI, Kenya — Unlike many of his peers in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum, 19-year-old Collins Otieno will stay at home if post-election violence breaks out in the coming weeks.

“I don’t want a protest to be the end of my life,” he explains, showing off a freshly inked finger from voting in his first-ever election. “The result of this election will determine a big part of my life, but I don’t want it to be the end for me.”

Otieno was one of an expected 19.6 million Kenyans who turned out to vote Tuesday, to decide a neck-and-neck presidential election. The contenders — incumbent President Uluru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, a seasoned political operator, have faced off before. After Kenyatta was declared the winner of their 2013 showdown, Odinga challenged the results in court, a move that threatened to plunge the country into the same ethnic violence that killed over 1,200 people after the 2007 elections. Now, 72-year-old Odinga is running for his fourth — and final, he says — time, and his incendiary, divisive rhetoric has again raised fears of a deadly 2007 repeat.

The combination of Odinga’s old-school, tribally divisive rhetoric with Western political strategy — like the proliferation of fake news and disinformation — have dramatically raised the stakes of an election that many say is “do or die” for the candidates and Kenyans alike.

Odinga has spent much of his campaign pre-emptively delegitimizing the election, a familiar tactic that has agitated his base and increased the likelihood that they will resort to violence if their candidate loses.

Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans emptied out of Nairobi in the past few weeks, hopeful that violence would be avoided but unwilling to take the change if the worst-case scenario came to pass. Nairobi’s tribally diverse slums bore the brunt of the violence a decade ago. Paranoia and tension turned to outright fear when a high-ranking electoral commission official, Chris Msando, was found gruesomely murdered in Nairobi just over a week ago.

If Odinga loses and claims the election was rigged, “there will be chaos,” Otieno warns. “Not just here in Nairobi, but in the whole country.”

Residents around Kibera and in Nairobi echoed this sentiment today: They are hopeful that “chaos” will be avoided but worried their country will slide back into the violence that consumed Kenya after the 2007 election.

Both candidates voted in the capital Nairobi early Tuesday. Kenyatta spoke to voters briefly after voting and once again urged calm and peace following the announcement of the election result.

Odinga cast his vote in the Kibera slum, one of his strongholds.

Voters check for names on registration posters at the Olympic Primary School in Kibera on August 8, 2017.Joe Van Eeckhout

“People here believe he is the best. He understands people regardless of their background or tribe,” David, a young supporter who withheld his last name out of concern for his safety, said, looking on as Odinga cast his vote.

Kenyans facing food shortages, price surges, and high youth unemployment are eager for change and receptive to Odinga’s rallying cry.

President Kenyatta’s Jubilee campaign dismissed this man-of-the-people characterization, telling VICE News that Odinga alone will be responsible for potential bloodshed, for his failure to outright condemn violence ahead of the vote.

Odinga’s NASA party has already begun sowing doubt over the election’s legitimacy, complaining that their representatives witnessed pre-marked ballots being handed out, and pointing to a “massive failure” of voting equipment in constituencies along the Kenyan coast.

The IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) and international monitors continue to urge voters to be patient and calm as the results are tallied in the days to come.

International election monitors numbering nearly double the amount sent for the last election have been dispatched across the country, and they include high-profile monitors like former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and representatives from the EU. Former President Obama emerged from his relative post-Trump seclusion to call for a peaceful turnout: “I urge Kenyan leaders to reject violence and incitement; respect the will of the people,” Obama said in a statement Tuesday morning. Pressure on Kenyans and the international community to maintain stability in Kenya is high; the country is a regional economic and humanitarian hub.

Vote counting is underway across Kenya and electoral commission officials say they are hopeful that a presidential winner will be announced in one or two days. Per Kenya’s constitution, they have up to a week to announce results but given the historical context of unrest when results are delayed, stakeholders and voters are eager for a swift announcement.

“We’re hoping for the best. Maybe they won’t count fairly, but everyone is hoping for the best, no one wants to fight,” 22-year-old Valerie Ochieng said as she stood in line at a polling center in Nairobi.

“Whoever wins, I just hope the opposition doesn’t fight it, and we get a president fair and square.”

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