Kenyans vote in hard-fought race

Long­time ri­vals from dif­fer­ent tribes vie for the pres­i­dency amid fears of vi­o­lence.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Robyn Dixon robyn.dixon@latimes.com Twit­ter: @RobynDixon_LAT

NAIROBI, Kenya — James Ka­mau got up at 2 a.m. Tues­day and rushed to the polling sta­tion in Kib­era slum four hours be­fore it opened so that he could be one of the first to vote in fa­vor of the pres­i­dent he wor­ships, Uhuru Keny­atta.

Carolly Obonyo, 23, got to a polling sta­tion in an­other Kib­era neigh­bor­hood at 4 a.m. to find a long queue. He waited six hours to cast his vote for change, sup­port­ing op­po­si­tion can­di­date Raila Odinga in a closely fought elec­tion that some fear could reprise the post­elec­tion clashes of nearly a decade ago.

Turnout ap­peared to be high among the 19.6 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers in a na­tion where peo­ple of­ten vote ac­cord­ing to eth­nic al­le­giance, and amid eth­nic fa­voritism in gov­ern­ment and public sec­tor posts that feed longheld griev­ances among groups that feel ex­cluded.

Keny­atta, 55, rep­re­sents the Kikuyu, the na­tion’s largest eth­nic group, and his deputy and run­ning mate, Wil­liam Ruto, is a mem­ber of the Kalen­jin, an­other of Kenya’s big­gest tribes. Both were in­dicted by the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court on charges of crimes against hu­man­ity af­ter the 2007 elec­tion when vi­o­lence flared across the coun­try. But af­ter gov­ern­ment ob­struc­tion of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and wit­nesses were killed, dis­ap­peared or with­drew their ev­i­dence, the pros­e­cu­tion was forced to drop both cases.

Odinga, 72, a Luo, is run­ning for the fourth time, but his eth­nic group has never pro­duced a pres­i­dent. He has pledged to cre­ate jobs, end poverty and ad­dress the en­demic cor­rup­tion that has sti­fled Kenyan progress. There are six other can­di­dates, none ex­pected to poll more than a few per­cent of the vote.

The elec­tion is be­ing closely watched for signs of vot­ing fraud and vi­o­lence af­ter the results are an­nounced, should the los­ing can­di­date fail to con­cede de­feat. The re­sult is ex­pected within two days of the vote.

Vot­ing largely went smoothly, said Wa­fula Che­bukati, chair­man of the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral and Bound­aries Com­mis­sion. In north­ern Kenya, elec­tion of­fi­cials and vot­ing ma­te­ri­als had to be f lown in by he­li­copter be­cause of heavy rains. Some polling sta­tions opened late, but vot­ing was ex­tended at those sta­tions.

“We are happy to re­port that there are no ma­jor hitches re­ported from the 40,833 polling sta­tions through­out the coun­try apart from a few is­sues af­fect­ing some of the polling sta­tions across the coun­try, and we are ad­dress­ing them ac­cord­ingly,” he told jour­nal­ists.

But some vot­ers com­plained of long de­lays, prob­lems with bio­met­ric equip­ment to iden­tify vot­ers and names miss­ing on the voter reg­is­ter.

Odinga tweeted that elec­tion of­fi­cials had been frus­trat­ing op­po­si­tion agents at polling sta­tions.

Kenya, with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 46 mil­lion, is a ma­jor trans­port hub in East Africa with eco­nomic growth of nearly 6% a year. It re­lies on agri­cul­ture and tourism for most of its in­come, with 75% of the pop­u­la­tion re­liant on farm­ing or live­stock herd­ing.

A can­di­date needs 50% of the vote and more than 25% of votes in at least 24 of Kenya’s 47 coun­ties to avoid a sec­ond-round vote. In the 2013 elec­tion, Keny­atta nar­rowly avoided a runoff, a re­sult that Odinga chal­lenged in court without suc­cess.

Obonyo, a nurs­ing stu­dent who grew up as an or­phan in Kib­era, said the gov­ern­ment did lit­tle for slum dwellers.

“Trib­al­ism is mak­ing the peo­ple an­gry. We don’t want one of the two tribes to be in power for­ever,” he said. “Peo­ple get em­ployed ac­cord­ing to their tribe. Most of the peo­ple in the gov­ern­ment are Kalen­jin or Kikuyu,” he said, re­fer­ring to the eth­nic groups of Keny­atta and Ruto. “It’s been that way for a long pe­riod.”

He hoped that if Odinga was elected, peo­ple would be ap­pointed to gov­ern­ment and public sec­tor jobs on merit and eth­nic­ity would play no role.

Kib­era is a sprawl­ing slum of rusted cor­ru­gated iron houses, open gut­ters, street traders and drift­ing smoke from cook­ing fires. The neigh­bor­hood buzzes with en­tre­pre­neur­ial en­ergy, with mi­cro busi­nesses on ev­ery cor­ner, such as women fry­ing dough cakes or fish, bar­ber­shops, bars, fur­ni­ture mak­ers, shoeshine men, butch­ers and sec­ond­hand cloth­ing sellers.

But for­mal jobs are hard to find and the youth un­em­ploy­ment rate is high. The costs of rent, food, wa­ter and school fees are high, and traders com­plain that no one has money to spend.

“I blame the gov­ern­ment be­cause the econ­omy has been low and has re­mained low while prices have con­tin­ued es­ca­lat­ing,” said Ruth Agumba of Kib­era, a 45year-old veg­etable seller with three chil­dren. “There are no jobs. Youth are idle all over, in­clud­ing my chil­dren. They have no jobs.

“I can never get ahead be­cause my sit­u­a­tion is handto-mouth,” said Agumba, who voted for Odinga.

She wasn’t con­cerned about pos­si­ble vi­o­lence af­ter the elec­tion, even though her sis­ter was shot dead by riot po­lice in western Kenya in the vi­o­lence that fol­lowed the 2007 elec­tion. If Keny­atta was an­nounced the win­ner in a vote that Odinga did not ac­cept, she would sup­port protests, de­spite fears they could turn vi­o­lent.

“Ev­ery­one dies, af­ter all, she said. “We need democ­racy, so if the youth take part in demon­stra­tions in order to get democ­racy, it’s OK.”

Ann Wa­fula, 41, an op­po­si­tion sup­porter, said her hair­dress­ing busi­ness of 19 years had never strug­gled as much as it has lately.

“Busi­ness is very bad. It’s dif­fi­cult to sup­port four chil­dren as a sin­gle mother. The prob­lem is clients. They don’t come be­cause they don’t have any money. We have to do without some things. Some­times you can­not even af­ford money for food and school fees are a prob­lem.

“We need a change of gov­ern­ment be­cause Kenya is head­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion.”

But Ka­mau, a gov­ern­ment sup­porter and com­muter minibus driver, said Keny­atta had brought many ben­e­fits to Kenya, in­clud­ing im­prove­ments to roads and in­fra­struc­ture, and moves to stop cor­rup­tion.

“The econ­omy is good, ac­cord­ing to me, be­cause cor­rup­tion has gone down. Although salaries vary, those who are paid more get to lift the oth­ers who are poor out of poverty.”

Luis Tato AFP/Getty Im­ages

PEO­PLE LINE UP to vote in Nairobi. Turnout ap­peared to be high and the bal­lot­ing went smoothly, an of­fi­cial said. Nearly a decade ago, post­elec­tion vi­o­lence f lared across the coun­try, and some peo­ple fear a re­peat.

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