It’s make or break for Kenya

2013-03-03 10:00

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“You know there should be just two tribes in Kenya – rich and poor,” asserts Mary bluntly as she supervises men in bloodstained white coats hulking a huge cattle carcass off a lorry in one of Nairobi’s packed informal settlements.

With just hours to go until Kenyans go to the polls, Mary is shifting her stock out of the capital, fearing that voting will be soured by ethnic divisions once again.

In 2008, her butchery was trashed in the violent aftermath of disputed polls.

This time, she’s not taking any chances.

Uncertainty is a dangerous emotion in Kenya.

It was the trigger for widespread violence five years ago and though reforms have been rolled out, a new complex electronic voting system is giving cause for concern.

“They’re taking it down to the wire,” warns Gladwell Otieno, who heads the Africa Centre for Open Governance.

Like other election watchers, Otieno fears the new Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is “struggling” to be ready on time.

A test of the results transmission system failed recently and confusion over the six colour-coded ballot papers, which voters will have to complete, is “likely to lead to delays and a very high proportion of spoilt papers”, warns Otieno.

But the commission has assured voters that “polling stations will remain open until late” to ensure everyone who wants to vote can easily do so.

Eight candidates are competing for Kenya’s top job, but in truth, it is likely to be a battle between the two frontrunners, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – sons of the nation’s two most famous political dynasties and men from different tribes.

Ethnicity is a political weapon that’s long been used to divide Kenyans come election time.

The stakes are higher than ever before.

Kenyatta, son of the nation’s first independence leader, is charged with crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The trial at The Hague in the Netherlands could last up to two years and Kenyatta junior strenuously denies the allegations against him.

The international community has threatened sanctions if Kenyatta becomes president and seeks to stall the ICC process.

But the 51-year-old political challenger remains defiant. He views the ICC as an assault on Kenya’s sovereignty, reminding diplomats that Kenya still has China as a friend.

Odinga (67) is Kenyatta’s archrival, who felt robbed of the presidency five years ago.

His critics paint him as an authoritarian leader and a stooge of the West who has sold his former political friends to the ICC.

But Odinga wants to be seen as a peacemaker who ate humble pie, taking second prize as prime minister in a government of national unity in 2008.

Opinion polls put Odinga and Kenyatta neck and neck.

Under the new complex electoral arithmetic, it is likely the voting will go into a second round.

But already there are worrying signs.

Civil society groups have reported hundreds of pangas being purchased in key parts of the nation and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has warned against “ethnic violence”.

If Kenyans manage to pull off peaceful elections tomorrow, it will be a landmark moment for the nation.

Parselelo Kantai, East Africa editor of the Africa Report, argues: “These elections could be the elections that pretty much open the door to a radically different political order in Kenya.”

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