Kenyans began casting votes today in a nationwide election seen as the country’s most important – and complicated – in its 50-year history, five years after more than 1,000 people were killed in poll-related violence.
Clerics across the nation gave sermons yesterday dedicated to peace and urged the country to prove wrong the “prophets of doom” who predict violence.
But violence began early with police in the coastal city of Mombasa reporting a 2am attack by dozens of people. Early reports indicated several officers were killed.
Police issued an alert last night that criminals were planning to dress in police uniforms and disrupt voting in some areas.
In addition, intelligence on the Somali-Kenya border indicated Somali militants planned to launch attacks on the polls; a secessionist group on the coast threatened – and perhaps carried out – attacks; the tribes of the top two presidential candidates have a long history of tense relations; and 47 new governor races are being held, increasing the chances of electoral problems at the local level.
Perhaps most importantly, Uhuru Kenyatta, one of two top candidates for president, faces charges at the International Criminal Court for orchestrating the 2007-08 post-election violence. If he wins, the US and Europe could scale back relations with Kenya, and Mr Kenyatta may have to spend a significant portion of his presidency at The Hague.
His running mate, William Ruto, also faces charges at the ICC.
Mr Kenyatta, a Kikuyu who is the son of Kenya’s founding president, faces Raila Odinga, a Luo whose father was the country’s first vice president. Polls show the two in a close race, with support for each in the mid-40% range.
Eight candidates are running for president, making it likely Mr Odinga and Kenyatta will be matched up in an April run-off, when tensions could be even higher.
Near the Somali border, Garissa County commissioner Mohamed Ahmed Maalim said officials intercepted communications that indicated terror attacks were planned, including explosive attacks and kidnappings.
“They are planning to interrupt the elections, but we will not allow them do so,” he said.
Mr Maalim said soldiers were patrolling the region to prevent attacks from al-Shabab, the al Qaida-linked Somali militant group. He said 300 specialised troops known as GSU were patrolling the Dadaab refugee camp, where more than 400,000 Somalis live.
In Mombasa, police officer Aggrey Adoli said colleagues were attacked by a marauding gang while on patrol.
In the weeks leading up to today’s vote, described by Mr Odinga as the most consequential since independence from the British in 1963, peace activists and clerics have been praying that this time the election is peaceful, despite lingering tensions.
Mr Odinga’s acrimonious loss to President Mwai Kibaki in 2007 triggered violence that ended only after the international community stepped in. Mr Odinga was named prime minister in a coalition government led by Mr Kibaki, with Mr Kenyatta named deputy prime minister.
Some 99,000 police officers will be on duty during an election in which about 14 million people are expected to vote. Kenyans will also be electing new MPs, governors and other officials.
Mr Kenyatta, 51, the son of Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s founding president, is one of the country’s wealthiest men. He studied at Amherst College in the US before returning home to become a businessman and later his father’s political heir.
In 2011 Forbes magazine listed him as the wealthiest Kenyan, worth at least 500 million dollars, although he was dropped from a subsequent list because his personal wealth was hard to separate from that of his close relatives.
The Kenyattas are said to own hundreds of thousands of acres of prime land across the country, a controversial point in a nation where millions do not own even a small plot of land.
Mr Odinga, 68, who has been prime minister since 2008, believes he was cheated out of victory in the last election. His refusal to accept the results in 2007 helped fuel tribal tensions, with many seeing Mr Kibaki’s win as another example of the Kikuyus’ overly broad influence.
A win by Mr Odinga would make him the country’s first Luo president, a feat never accomplished by his father, Oginga Odinga, who was Kenya’s first vice president and himself a hero of the anti-colonial movement. The elder Odinga fell out with Jomo Kenyatta, straining Kikuyu-Luo relations for decades.
In a rally Friday in Kisumu, Mr Odinga’s home town and the biggest Luo-dominated city, Mr Odinga repeatedly used words like “freedom” and “change” to emphasise the epochal moment it would be for his people if he won.
“Be prepared for freedom,” he said. “This country is at the verge of total liberation.”