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Could Kenya's Tense Atmosphere Mar Upcoming Vote? - 2002-12-23

For Kenyans, elections over the last decade have always brought violence, with hundreds dying in ethnic clashes. The campaign this year, leading up to elections on Friday, has been relatively peaceful. But there are fears that simmering tensions could still explode.

With just a few days left to the elections, tension is rising fast in Kenya.

Last Thursday, anti-riot police had to fire tear gas to scare off a thousand-strong stone-throwing mob trying to attack two leading opposition candidates, Raila Odinga and Joseph Nyagah.

Elsewhere in the country, other campaigners have also been attacked by rival supporters.

U.S. Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a member of the Democratic Development Group of 25 diplomatic missions monitoring the election, has urged politicians to stop organizing and inciting such violence. "We cannot have a campaign which is marred in the last days by violence, and it is important that all of the political leaders reiterate their strong stance against violence and not only to reiterate it, to act against those who do so," Mr. Carson said.

Most of the troublemakers are unemployed young men, hired by politicians for about a dollar a day, to wreak havoc on their political rivals.

There are more than a dozen such gangs, or jeshis, in Kenya, affiliated to well-known politicians. Although the jeshis were outlawed earlier this year, the police seem powerless to stop them.

The Electoral Commission of Kenya is doing its best to stem the violence. On Saturday, it summoned 16 candidates, including two cabinet ministers, to answer charges of violence, malicious damage to property, assault, vote buying, vote selling, organizing gangs to terrorize people, intimidation and robbery.

Some were given a fine, others a verbal warning.

Electoral Commission spokesman Mani Lemayian said it is difficult for the Commission to take sterner action. "It's true our powers are limited in terms of executing the penalties because if you want to remove somebody from being a candidate you would have to go through a court process. That would take time. So until that law is changed or the commission is empowered to do some of these things, it will be difficult," Mr. Lemayian said.

In western Kenya, bloody skirmishes have erupted between neighboring ethnic groups, killing several people, injuring many more and destroying property.

In areas like Trans Mara, this violence is an escalation of the traditional cattle rustling and banditry that goes on between rival tribes. Toward election time, these tensions often take on a political dimension.

Security forces sometimes make the situation worse, by appearing to favor one community, or by carrying out attacks of their own. According to press reports, the General Service Unit security forces recently torched dozens of houses in the Trans Mara district in revenge for the death of one of their own men.

The aim, said Mugambi Kiai of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, is to drive certain voters out of the area. It is easy to predict which way most Kenyan voters will vote because they tend to choose candidates from their own ethnic group.

"You are having the Kisiis and the Maasai at war with each other. And then the security personnel carrying out these punitive expeditions. And really what happens is people move away and they do not vote from those areas, which is now why it becomes electoral violence," Mr. Kiai said.

During Kenya's last two elections, in 1992 and 1997, such ethnic clashes caused hundreds of deaths and displaced of tens of thousands of, mostly-opposition voters.

An independent inquiry, known as the Akiwumi Report, squarely laid the blame on the government, the provincial administration and senior cabinet ministers for sponsoring the violence.

Such violence has, so far, not broken out in this election.

President Daniel arap Moi is retiring after 24 years in power, leaving his chosen successor, Uhuru Kenyatta of the ruling KANU party, to battle it out with Mwai Kibaki of the opposition National Rainbow Coalition. Opinion polls indicate Mr. Kibaki has a strong lead for the presidency.

Mr. Kiai of the Human Rights Commission says, this time around, none of the candidates can afford to alienate any ethnic group through terror tactics. "This kind of candidate is trying to approach all communities and does not have the kind of traditional, steadfast support that President Moi himself had in 1992 and 1997. Given that fluid political support base then, there has been no need to start removing or uprooting whole communities from geographical areas, which is when then you see a lessening of the electoral violence," he said.

The government says security forces are on high alert to curb any election-related violence.

But this has not calmed fears that politics is to blame for all of the troubles Kenya is currently experiencing.

In the last two weeks, two politicians have been murdered, crimes which Vice President Musalia Mudavadi said were politically motivated.

Saturday night, two houses owned by Dorcas Wambui, a candidate from the ruling party, burned down, killing her husband, daughter and five grandchildren. Ms. Wambui herself was away from home, campaigning at the time.

The police are investigating allegations by the candidate's family that the apparent arson attack was politically motivated.