Multiple attacks against security forces in Kenya have killed at least 12 people as queues built up to vote in the country’s first general election for five years.
A group of 200 secessionists armed with guns, machetes and bows and arrows set a trap for police in the pre-dawn hours, killing five officers. One attacker also died. The group – the Mombasa Republican Council – had threatened election day attacks.
A second attack by MRC secessionists in nearby Kilifi killed one police officer and five attackers.
The country’s top two presidential candidates condemned the attacks. Prime Minister Raila Odinga called it a “heinous act of aggression” during a historic exercise. His deputy Uhuru Kenyatta said he was discouraged by the news but he was sure the security situation would be brought under control.
An additional 400 police were flown in to Mombasa to increase security. The UN restricted the movement of its staff on the coast because of the violence
“People with ill intent must be stopped by all means,” a police spokesman said, explaining officers were told to use their guns to stop further loss of life, a sensitive directive given that police killed more than 400 people during the 2007-08 post-election violence.
Long queues around the country left voters frustrated in the election’s early hours. Anti-fraud fingerprint voter ID technology being used for the first time appeared to be greatly slowing the process. The technology broke down in many locations.
Mr Odinga voted at a primary school and acknowledged what he called voting challenges. He said poll workers were taking action to “remedy the anomalies.”
“Never before have Kenyans turned up in such numbers,” he said. “I’m sure they’re going to vote for change this election.”
Mr Kenyatta gave a conciliatory message intended to help Kenyans accept the election outcome without violence: “This nation will have a president and that president will represent all Kenyans.”
The country’s leaders have been working for months to reduce election-related tensions, but multiple factors make more vote violence likely. 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, Mr Kenyatta faces charges at the International Criminal Court for orchestrating Kenya’s 2007-08 post-election violence.
If he wins, the US and Europe could scale back relations with Kenya, and he may have to spend a significant portion of his presidency at The Hague. His running mate, William Ruto, also faces charges at the ICC.
The Kenyatta-Odinga rivalry goes back decades. Mr Kenyatta is an ethnic Kikuyu who is the son of Kenya’s founding president. Mr Odinga is an ethnic 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 the two will be forced to go to a run-off in April.