Thousands of people angry about the slow return of results waved machetes and looted shops in Kenya today as President Mwai Kibaki closed the gap on the opposition in the closest presidential election in the country’s history.
Both candidates insisted they were winning the election, which marks the first time an incumbent has faced a credible challenge in Kenya’s four decades of independence from the UK.
The unrest, which police said killed several people across the country, tarnished a vote that foreign and domestic observers had praised as calm and orderly.
Two days after the polls, the Electoral Commission said millionaire opposition candidate Raila Odinga was leading President Mwai Kibaki by just 38,000 votes in 180 of 210 constituencies counted. Mr Odinga was leading with 3.88 million votes to Mr Kibaki’s 3.84 million.
Both sides said they were sure to win, although the results were too close to call.
The trickle of results ignited tensions in the capital and opposition strongholds today. In Nairobi, the stores that did open were shutting their doors as the violence escalated, and many people were stocking up on food and water.
In the Kibera slum, Mr Odinga’s main constituency, young men with fingers still stained with voting ink were shouting “No Raila, No Kenya!” – an ominous call to declare him the winner. Hundreds of people swarmed out of the slum, heading for town, but police used tear gas to chase them back.
Smoke was billowing out of Kibera as homes, trees and stalls caught fire.
Hamisi Noor, 22, who was standing in front of his burned-out home in Kibera, said a crowd threatened him with machetes before setting his home on fire and cutting his father across the face.
Noor, a member of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, said his assailants belonged to Odinga’s Luo tribe. “I don’t know who they were,” said Noor, his trousers covered in blood and mud. “But they were Luos.”
Police were blocking off streets as young men climbed up billboards to rip down Odinga posters in the capital of Nairobi, about 6 miles outside the deserted city centre.
“Kibaki come back!” the men shouted as they waved machetes and sticks. In another part of the city, police fatally shot two people, according to a police official who asked for anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the media.
Violence was a major concern in the run-up to the election, and several diplomats have expressed concern that a narrow victory on either side could lead to rioting by those who do not accept or trust the results. The voting was generally orderly, and no major disruptions were reported. But as the results trickled in slowly, suspicions about rigging flared.
Mr Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement party said the government was deliberately delaying results because they were losing. Police and electoral officials appealed for calm, saying they were doing their best.
“We may get them (results) tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. It depends on when they come,” ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu said at a rowdy news conference, in which journalists and others condemned the slow pace.
About 20 miles outside Nairobi, hundreds of people massed along a main highway.
“They are looting houses and stoning cars,” Irungu Wakogi, a witness said.
In Kisumu, some 185 miles from Nairobi, shops were being looted and the streets were clogged with protesters. A police officer who asked for anonymity said two banks and a supermarket were broken into.
“People are demonstrating because of the delayed announcement,” said Grace Kaindi, a police official in the city.
Mr Kibaki, 76, has been credited with helping boost this East African nation’s economy, with a growth rate that is among the highest in Africa and a booming tourism industry.
But his anti-graft campaign has largely been seen as a failure, and the country still struggles with tribalism and poverty.
Mr Odinga, a 62-year-old former political prisoner, promised change and help for the poor. His main constituency is Kibera, home to at least 700,000 people who live in extreme poverty.
If Mr Kibaki loses, he will be Kenya’s first sitting president ousted at the ballot box.
Mr Kibaki won by a landslide victory in 2002, ending 24 years in power by Daniel arap Moi, who was constitutionally barred from extending his term. Moi’s blanket use of patronage resulted in crippling mismanagement and a culture of corruption that plunged Kenya into an economic crisis.
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, chief European Union election monitor for Thursday’s election, had been set to release a report on the vote today, but decided to hold off because of the violence.
“Everyone should remember, and that includes all political parties, candidates and their supporters that violence has no place in a democratic election,” he said.
Meanwhile, the two candidates each said they were winning.
“We are confident that (Odinga) has won the election,” said his campaign manager, Mohamed Isahakia.
Mr Kibaki’s Party of National Unity begged to differ.
“We in PNU have added all our figures and we are pleased to announce that Honourable Mwai Kibaki is winning this year’s election,” said Noah Wekesa, Kenya’s minister for science and technology.
In order to win, a presidential candidate has to get the most votes as well as garner at least 25% of votes in five of Kenya’s eight provinces, a move aimed at ensuring a president has some support in most of the country and its many tribes.