This week, as Kenyans take to the polls once again, painful memories of those days are being revived as the people hope the country can turn a corner toward peace and stability rather than violence and division. Yet with the front runner facing a trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, questions loom over Kenya’s future.
The ethnic violence that marred the last election has its roots in the years following Kenya’s independence in 1963. When Kenya emerged from the colonial control of Great Britain, a man named Jomo Kenyatta became the first president, with Oginga Odinga his vice president. Kenyatta represented the Kikuyu ethnic group, while Odinga was of the Luo people. When the two fell out and Odinga resigned from his post, a decades-long rift between the two groups was formed.
Forty years later, it is the sons of these two men who are competing for power in Kenya: Ohuru Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu people and leader of the Jubilee Coalition, and Railia Odinga, a Luo and leader of the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). With such a fierce history, it is no wonder that this hotly contested election has given rise to fears of ethnic clashes.
Yet the source of tension does not end there. Odinga lost the 2007 election to current president Mwai Kibaki. Believing that the votes had been counted fraudulently, Odinga’s supporters took to the streets in protest. Opposition turned to violence, and violence turned to murder. In one incident, more than 30 Kikuyu, mostly women and children, were locked inside a church that was then burned to the ground.
Revenge attacks staged by the Kikuyu soon followed. It is largely believed that Kenyatta and his current running mate, William Ruto, instigated the violent reprisals, in many cases paying gangs and militias to inflict widespread devastation on Luo people. By the end of the chaos, more than 1,300 people were dead. More than 600,000 were forced to leave their homes, many of which remain in refugee camps to this day. Kenyatta and Ruto have both been charged with crimes against humanity and are due to stand trial at the International Criminal Court later this year.
It seems hard to believe that a person facing such accusations could be a viable candidate for the presidency, yet Kenyatta’s popularity has placed him firmly in the lead as the votes continue to come in. Even better for Kenyatta, the ICC has agreed to delay his trial, originally set for April, to account for a possible runoff election that would clash with the timing of the trial.
Amid all of this, the Kenyan people want only peace. The vivid memories of the postelection violence in 2007 has left a deep scar in society, yet hope exists that peace can be achieved this time around. Kenyans in their droves have turned out to vote, with some 80 percent of eligible voters registered, and many lining up for hours to cast their ballots. Both candidates have promised to concede defeat should they lose the vote, and for the most part signs point toward a much more promising outcome this time.
However, there remains room for contention. In order to win the presidency, one candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the overall vote. Although Kenyatta currently has 53 percent, less than half of polling stations have reported their results. His margin could be easily eradicated by votes from some of Odinga’s stronghold counties.
Furthermore, around 6 percent of all ballots cast so far have been designated as “spoiled,” meaning they may not be counted at all. Odinga insists they be included, while Kenyatta wants them to be omitted. Should they be counted, the margin may be further reduced. If they are ignored, accusations of fraud may once again enter the fray which could lead to unrest. Ethnic tension still exists beneath the surface in Kenya, and little may be required to spark a new conflict between certain groups.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome will see neither candidate receiving 50 percent of the vote. Third place candidate Musalia Mudavadi currently holds around 3 percent of the votes, making him appear insignificant. Yet, should the election go to a two-person run off, Mudavadi’s supporters become an important factor in tipping the balance. His endorsement of either candidate would almost certainly be the deciding factor in the outcome.
Kenyans remain hopeful that a corner might be turned if the election can remain peaceful. Yet, should Kenyatta win, the threat of violence is real, and his impending ICC trial seems certain to discredit the government in the eyes of other countries. Whatever the outcome, it is vitally important for Kenya’s future, as it remembers the past, that politics does not lead to violence and death, and that some semblance of political stability might be achieved.