Kenya’s top two presidential candidates held their final rallies before large and raucous crowds on Saturday, a day of political attacks and denials following published comments attributed to the prime minister that election violence could be worse than in 2007-2008.
Today’s vote is the first nationwide election since Kenya’s December 2007 vote devolved into tribe-on-tribe violence that killed more than 1,000 people. Kenyan leaders and community groups have been working to ensure that massive violence is not repeated, but fears linger that bloodshed will reappear.
The Financial Times in a story on Saturday quoted Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga — one of the two top presidential candidates — as saying he knows his opponents are planning to rig the vote and “I have warned them the consequences may be worse than last time round. The people will not stomach another rigging.”
Odinga denied making the statement and told a stadium full of supporters that the story was a “total fabrication.”
He said his campaign would petition the courts if it felt the results were problematic.
An earlier statement said Odinga felt “absolutely slandered” and included a quote it said Odinga gave the paper: “I am aware that my opponents are scaring my supporters so that they can migrate from where they registered in order to cut the spread of my vote. It is a form of rigging and Kenyans will not accept it ... I will still win this election, despite this dirty campaign.”
The Financial Times did not release an audio recording of the interview.
Kenyan Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta — Odinga’s top challenger — called Odinga’s words “dangerous and inflammatory” and he called on Odinga to retract them.
“We have in public, and our words and deeds throughout this election — all of us presidential candidates — committed to campaign in this election in peace, and just as importantly, to accept the result in peace,” Kenyatta said. “So then why is it that at the most delicate time in the election campaign, Raila sought to use such dangerous, inflammatory words?”
Rigging and cheating are a part of Kenyan elections, though international observers say they believe an improved electoral system will make widespread cheating harder this time. Many Odinga supporters believe that Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki stole the vote from Odinga in 2007, a belief that propelled the violence.
Kenyatta and his running mate — William Ruto — both face charges at the International Criminal Court over allegations they orchestrated the 2007-2008 violence. If Kenyatta wins, he may be forced to spend much of presidency before The Hague-based court.
Low-level fraud was evident on Saturday, when a man approached an Associated Press reporter at Kenyatta’s rally and asked if the reporter wanted to buy a voter registration card for about US$12.
The man gave his name as Calvin Juma Hongo and said: “Why should I waste my time voting for these guys? They don’t care about me. All I am thinking about now is how to look after my pregnant wife.”
The Kenyatta rally — with thousands of people clad in red — reached a peak frenzy as two helicopters circled the downtown park as Kenyatta was arriving. Kenyatta accused Odinga of taking success for granted, and he told his crowd he believes he can win in the first round. Ruto, in a reference to the newspaper interview, said no voter should be intimidated.
Julius Waweru, a 25-year-old studying to become an electrician, wore multiple Kenyatta hats.
“I support Uhuru Kenyatta because he is young, and we need to change this government for a younger generation,” he said.
Just down Nairobi’s main street, perhaps 3km away, tens of thousands of supporters of Odinga filled a sports stadium. Supporters held a dozen or so US flags aloft. Odinga and US President Barack Obama’s father come from the same tribe.
Nicholas Owino, 56, a resident of Nairobi’s Korogocho slum, wore a hat made of dozens of oranges, the color of Odinga’s party.
“My life is not good and I have not benefited from my support of Odinga since 2004, but I am confident if he becomes president, my children will benefit,” said Owino, who said he lost his grocery store during rioting in 2007-2008 and has not yet recovered it.
More than 600,000 people were forced from their homes during the violence.
Odinga told the stadium crowd that Kenya has stagnated the last 50 years because the “status quo” has remained in power.
“This can only change by voting in the forces of change,” Odinga said.
Monday’s vote is the most important and complicated in the country’s 50-year history. Despite efforts to promote peace, there are many reasons why the vote could turn tumultuous.
The Somalia militant group al-Shabaab may try to attack voters or disrupt the vote; a secessionist group on Kenya’s coast has threatened violence; new political divisions known as counties will see 47 new races for governor, creating sources of new friction; and tensions are high in some regions between Odinga’s tribe — the Luo — and Kenyatta’s tribe — the Kikuyu.