Kenyans Vote in Presidential Election, Amid Fears of Violence

Kenyans Vote in Presidential Election, Amid Fears of Violence
Kenyans Vote in Presidential Election, Amid Fears of Violence

KISUMU, Kenya — Millions of Kenyans went to the polls on Tuesday to vote for a new president, the culmination of a campaign dominated by concerns about the potential for vote-rigging and fears that the country will be plunged into violence once the winner is announced.

Fake news reports, candidates’ accusations of peddling hatred and electoral fraud, and the killing of a top election official have cast further doubt on the fairness of the race between President Uhuru Kenyatta, 55, leader of the Jubilee Party, and Raila Odinga, 72, a former prime minister who is making his fourth, and possibly his last, bid for the presidency.

Efforts have been made to head off potential violence once voting ends: The electoral authorities are using biometric technology to prevent fraud and to instill confidence in the process; the two leading candidates have made pleas for peace; and even former President Barack Obama, whose father was born in the country, has called on Kenyans to reject violence.

Most Kenyans say they do not want to see the kind of violence that nearly tipped the country into a civil war after the 2007 presidential election, and thousands have fled cities to avoid potential clashes.

The police and troops were deployed to areas that are believed to be at risk of turning violent if there is a perception that the vote has been manipulated.

Just hours after polling stations opened, there were some signs of voting irregularities. Hundreds of voters discovered that their names were not on the register, there were reports that voting materials in some constituencies had not been delivered, and voting kits were not working properly in other areas.

There were also complaints that the 3G network used to transmit results to a national tallying center was running too slowly. Reports of stampedes and of the use of tear gas by the police at two polling stations were making the rounds on social media.

In Kisumu, Kenya’s third-biggest city and an opposition stronghold, some tensions were evident at one polling station. Thousands of voters had been lining up since midnight, checking their phones for the latest mix of news and rumors, a toxic combination that has fanned fears about whether the country can pull off a credible, peaceful vote.

Two previous elections were marred by violence amid widespread claims of vote-rigging. In 2007, the disputed vote touched off bloodshed that left at least 1,300 people dead and 600,000 displaced from their homes.

Thousands of Kenyans have already fled big cities, fearing a repeat of the violence. Kisumu and the port city of Mombasa, the second-largest city, were considered “hot spots,” and both have been eerily quiet in recent days.

Shops were closed. Roads, usually jammed with traffic and pedestrians, were empty. In the Rift Valley, ethnic Luos and Luhyas, aligned with Luhyas, are heading further west. Kikuyus, the base of support for Mr. Kenyatta, are moving east, from Kisumu, a port city on Lake Victoria.

Kenyans, of whom more than half get their news from social media, according to Africa Check, lined up to vote while digesting the latest unverified news and opposition claims that cast the election in warlike terms: the police had been provided with body bags; hundreds of grenades had been transported in an aircraft on a “suspicious mission”; the government was secretly planning to switch off electronic devices used to identify voters.

Are we going for war today or are we going for elections?” demanded Silas Owiti, 30, a voter in Kisumu and a youth leader for the National Super Alliance, the opposition umbrella group led by Mr. Odinga.

Mr. Owiti said he was skeptical that the elections would be credible, having already spotted the names of two dead people, both acquaintances, on the voting register. One died last November and the other two years ago, he said. “Kenya is sitting on a bombshell,” he added. “If these elections don’t reflect the majority of Kenyans, believe me, the bombshell will explode.”

However, others said the voting had gone smoothly and expressed trust in the commission in charge of the process.

Joseph Obongo, a 28 year-old banker, was impressed by the process, which, he said, had taken three minutes at a polling station in Kisumu. “I gave my ID, then my thumbprint, and that was it,” he said. “It’s very difficult for the election to be rigged because everything is digitized.”

Still, he added, “Men are men. You never know what they do.”

Throughout his campaign, Mr. Odinga roused supporters by warning that the election could be stolen, which critics say is an incitement to violence. He says he was robbed of victory in the previous two contests. In 2013, Mr. Kenyatta won by a margin so tiny that Mr. Odinga asked the Supreme Court to invalidate the election, although his effort was unsuccessful.

“They’re always cooking up results,” said Beatrice Akinyi, 34, referring to Mr. Kenyatta. “Right now, they’re being cooked somewhere between here and the national tallying center” to where the results are transmitted, she said.

Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga were virtually tied in recent polls, but neither is drawing more than 50 percent. If no candidate crosses that threshold, there will be a second round. Voters will also be casting ballots for members of Parliament, governors and local offices.

Given the tightness of the presidential race, the concerns expressed by Mr. Odinga increase the chances of opposition supporters protesting in the streets, followed by a crackdown by security forces. In 2007 and 2013, residents of Kisumu said they saw the police fire live ammunition into crowds of opposition supporters after the election.

Vestiges of that violence remain: a once-popular hotel stands empty, its windows smashed and its insides gutted. A bookstore, also attacked by rioters, was derelict, its walls papered over with posters and advertisements.

Lagathe Naftali, an officer at the Kondele police station in Kisumu, said more than 600 police officers in uniform and in plainclothes had been deployed in the city. He expected violence to be contained this year. “We’ve taken protective measures,” he said.

In 2013, there were “only 50 police officers,” outnumbered by protesters, he said, many of whom went on a looting spree, burning and attacking shops. “There will be skirmishes and looting this time again,” Officer Naftali said.

“They’re good looters, you’ll see,” he added somewhat slyly. “I’m nervous.”

In an office nearby, John Cox Lorionokou, who leads the local office of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission in Kisumu, was also feeling anxious.

There were some irregularities, including names that were missing from the register, he said, or names that had been entered twice and therefore struck from the database, “because the system thinks it wants to duplicate your identity.”

Of the 600,000 or so eligible voters in Kisumu, as many as 4,000 may not find their names on the register, Mr. Lorionokou said. But he was confident that the technology would ensure a free and transparent election. Kenya is using biometric technology to identify voters and transmit results electronically, which should diminish the chances of fraud.

Election officials, of whom 10,000 are deployed in Kisumu, are better trained and prepared than in previous elections, Mr. Loriokonou said. Those who are caught helping to rig an election face jail time.

The commission has routinely been accused of helping the campaigns of both Mr. Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga. “People here use anything and everything that will give them the ability to control the process if they can, whether by scaring or whatever you do,” Mr. Lorionokou said.

“That’s what we have to fight all the time.”

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