Kenya’s elec­tion un­der­scored by fears of pos­si­ble tribal tur­moil

Iden­tity pol­i­tics could drive a wedge be­tween eth­nic groups af­ter Tues­day’s pres­i­den­tial con­test

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KEVIN SIEFF kevin.sieff@wash­ Rael Om­buor con­trib­uted to this re­port.

A con­crete bridge and a nar­row, garbage-filled river di­vide the slum of Mathare into two parts, a space be­tween eth­nic groups and vot­ing blocs that are com­pet­ing fiercely — and many say dan­ger­ously — over Kenya’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions sched­uled for Tues­day.

Here in one of the most eco­nom­i­cally suc­cess­ful and sta­ble coun­tries in East Africa, Mathare is only a few miles away from Nairobi’s ris­ing sky­line. Tech firms have popped up on the city’s pe­riph­ery. Ev­ery week, thou­sands of tourists pile into sleek sa­fari trucks. This spring, the top U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian of­fi­cial here, Sid­dharth Chat­ter­jee, called Kenya “a bea­con of hope in a re­gion mired in fragility.”

But with the elec­tion ap­proach­ing, Mathare feels far from sta­ble. On one side of the rut­ted bridge is a com­mu­nity of eth­nic Kikuyus, the tribe of in­cum­bent Uhuru Keny­atta, 55. On the other side are the Luos, the tribe of op­po­si­tion can­di­date Raila Odinga, 72.

Most days, those tribes peace­fully co­ex­ist, as the slum is con­sumed by honk­ing minibuses and a frenzy of com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity, with traf­fic mov­ing across the bridge in both di­rec­tions. But as the elec­tion ap­proaches, it is a line not to be crossed.

“This is the front line,” said Stephen Maina, a Kikuyu shop­keeper.

“Where it all goes down,” said Akal Ni­cholas, a Luo lab tech­ni­cian.

On Fri­day, fam­i­lies were pack­ing their be­long­ings, pre­par­ing to leave the slum be­fore pos­si­ble vi­o­lence. Stores were shut­ter­ing. Ex­tra firetrucks had re­port­edly been hired. A se­nior po­lice of­fi­cer in the slum said, “We are pre­par­ing,” but de­clined to elab­o­rate.

For all of Kenya’s suc­cess and mod­ern­iza­tion, its elec­tions are still de­cided al­most ex­clu­sively by eth­nic­ity, with the Kikuyus and Luos at the fore­front of a frac­tured elec­torate, where ide­ol­ogy is ob­scured by iden­tity pol­i­tics. Since Kenya be­came in­de­pen­dent in 1963, three of its four pres­i­dents have been Kikuyu, the first be­ing Keny­atta’s fa­ther, Jomo Keny­atta. A Luo has en­tered, and lost, ev­ery pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

“Now, it is our time,” Ni­cholas said.

In 2007, a tightly con­tested race de­volved into eth­nic vi­o­lence that left 1,200 dead, with swaths of Mathare burn­ing to the ground and young men clash­ing with ma­chetes. Keny­atta and Wil­liam Ruto, his cur­rent vice pres­i­dent, were among those charged by the International Crim­i­nal Court for in­cit­ing vi­o­lence. Both cases were later dropped for lack of ev­i­dence.

Odinga, the son of a for­mer vice pres­i­dent and him­self a prime min­is­ter from 2008 to 2013, has lost three pres­i­den­tial elec­tions since 1997. It’s likely that this might be his last at­tempt at the pres­i­dency, and Odinga has al­ready said that the only way he could lose is if the re­sults are rigged. For years, seem­ingly un­founded ru­mors have swirled in Mathare that if he wins, the Kikuyu sec­tion of the slum will be de­mol­ished and a sta­dium named af­ter Odinga will be built in its place.

Last week, when Chris Msando, an elec­tion of­fi­cial, was found dead, with signs of tor­ture on his body, Odinga sup­port­ers said it was an early sign that the vote could be marred. Msando was one of few of­fi­cials with ac­cess to the coun­try’s com­put­er­ized vot­ing sys­tem. So far, there are no in­di­ca­tions of who killed him. Hu­man Rights Watch called his death “cat­a­strophic” for the elec­tion prepa­ra­tions.

In speeches, and on their bill­boards and web­sites, Odinga and Keny­atta make lit­tle overt men­tion of tribal al­liances. Keny­atta talks about the new national rail­way that re­cently opened and im­prove­ments to ma­ter­nal health. Odinga says his team of­fers an al­ter­na­tive to an ad­min­is­tra­tion plagued by al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion, where wealth re­mains con­cen­trated in the hands of a few. Al­though Kenya’s av­er­age per capita in­come is more than $1,400 an­nu­ally, a vast num­ber of cit­i­zens live on a small frac­tion of that.

Be­hind the scenes, both can­di­dates have put to­gether tribal al­liances that they hope will bring the ma­jor­ity of the vote. And both have spent un­told mil­lions on their cam­paigns, buy­ing fleets of SUVs and paint­ing them in their party’s col­ors.

“There’s no ide­o­log­i­cal day­light be­tween the can­di­dates,” said Mu­rithi Mutiga, a re­searcher for the International Cri­sis Group. “It’s just about num­bers that the eth­nic al­liances will bring them.”

Kenya’s next pres­i­dent will have cru­cial de­ci­sions to make across a num­ber of is­sues, even if those is­sues won’t sway the coun­try’s trib­ally minded elec­torate. Its mil­i­tary is mired in a bloody war against in­sur­gents in So­ma­lia, who have cre­ated a foothold in parts of Kenya. This coun­try re­mains a haven for refugees from So­ma­lia and South Su­dan, but politi­cians have for years con­tem­plated clos­ing its largest refugee camps. It is crowded with NGOs try­ing to erad­i­cate poverty and im­prove education and health ac­cess, but the gov­ern­ment has much fur­ther to go in ful­fill­ing its own devel­op­ment role.

For now, the elec­tion polls in­di­cate an ex­traor­di­nar­ily close race, mostly show­ing Keny­atta with a slight edge. The closer the re­sults are, the higher the prob­a­bil­ity that they will be con­tested, ex­perts say.

In Mathare, the Luo com­mu­nity says it has seen signs of Keny­atta’s eth­nic pa­tron­age net­work in the slum for years. A national youth em­ploy­ment pro­gram, for ex­am­ple, ex­ists only on the Kikuyu side of the bridge. Mathare’s wealth — and par­tic­u­larly its real es­tate — re­mains mostly in Kikuyu hands. Kenya has 42 of­fi­cial tribes, and sev­eral of them have mem­bers in Mathare, but the Luo and Kikuyu are the most preva­lent.

Across Kenya, the Kikuyu make up roughly 22 per­cent of the coun­try and the Luo make up about 13 per­cent. Keny­atta and Odinga have formed coali­tions with other ma­jor tribes. Those tribal iden­ti­ties were sharp­ened dur­ing Bri­tain’s colo­nial reign, when col­o­niz­ers used a strat­egy of “di­vide and rule” to keep tribes from unit­ing in op­po­si­tion. In re­cent years, a class of ur­ban, ed­u­cated Kenyans has emerged, less in­ter­ested in a pol­i­tics dom­i­nated by tribe, but that de­mo­graphic re­mains a mi­nor­ity.

In 2013, when the of­fi­cial re­sults said that Odinga lost to Keny­atta by seven per­cent­age points, Odinga launched a fail­ing ap­peal in court, al­leg­ing a rigged out­come. This year, Odinga has in­di­cated that he’ll take a bolder stand if he sus­pects fraud.

In Jan­uary, he told re­porters, “We are not go­ing to take it ly­ing down” if they sus­pect vote rig­ging.

In Mathare, some of his sup­port­ers have sug­gested that an Odinga loss would trans­late into im­me­di­ate vi­o­lence.

“If he loses, Kenya will burn,” said Ni­cholas, the lab tech­ni­cian, who didn’t want to spec­ify what role he might play in such a dis­play.

But stand­ing about 20 yards from Mathare’s bridge, his ex­pres­sion grew more se­ri­ous.

“I will need peo­ple to know that I am not con­tent.”


A ven­dor waits for cus­tomers at his tomato stall Fri­day be­side elec­toral posters in Nairobi. In Kenya, de­spite its mod­ern­iza­tion and suc­cess, elec­tions are still de­cided al­most ex­clu­sively by eth­nic­ity, with the Kikuyus and Luos at the fore­front of a frac­tured elec­torate.


LEFT: Kenyan pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Raila Odinga, who has lost three pres­i­den­tial elec­tions since 1997, speaks Satur­day in Nairobi. RIGHT: Sup­port­ers of Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta, who is seek­ing re­elec­tion, cheer dur­ing a cam­paign rally Fri­day, also in Nairobi.


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