In Kenya’s North East Province, heavy voting was reported early today amid an atmosphere of calm.
Up to up to 14 million people are eligible to vote across the country. The winner needs to carry a majority of the votes nationwide and 25 percent of the vote in five of the eight provinces.
David Ochami is a journalist in Garissa, the capital of North East province. About one fourth of the region’s one million people – most of whom are Muslim and ethnic Somalis -- are expected to go to the polls. Garissa is about 80 kilometers from the border with Somalia.
Ochami says there was a large voter turnout in the town today. He said relations with its neighbor influenced some of the issues on voters’ minds. “Because this area is next to Somalia,” Ochami said, “the dynamics [of that country] always affect this area. [Kenya] shut down the borders with Somalia after the collapse of the Islamic Courts government [and invasion by Ethiopia into Somalia last year]. It has affected trade [here] in an area where government support is not very strong and people depend on goods from Somalia, which are cheaper.” He adds that even in the best of times the region, which is largely pastoralist, remains one of Kenya’s poorest. Many people complain that the government is not giving them enough assistance.
He also says Muslims are critical of the way the government has handled security in the region, including what human rights activists say is the arrest and detention of ethnic Somali Kenyans.
Ochami said, “People who are highly political, young people and Islamic leaders, think [the Kibaki government] has tried to revive old stereotypes and profiling of Islam in the context of the war on terrorism or reprisal on some Kenyans who had supported the [overthrown] Somali [Islamic] Courts [government], who were either deported to Somalia, arrested and released without charges or just disappeared.” The government denies that it has arbitrarily arrested or mistreated any ethnic Somali citizens.
Ochami said many people in North East Province also favor increasing the power of government in regions like their own. Critics of the current administration say it watered down the initial draft of a new constitution that was put before voters in a referendum two years ago. According to Ochami, they say the initial draft would also have given greater recognition to Islamic courts and would have granted more regional autonomy. However, in their view, the government-backed version of the proposed constitution did not go far enough. That constitution was defeated by voters in 2005. Ochami said many in North East Province want to revive the issues.