Red letter day: Supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party are hoping for a big win in Tuesday’s polls. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/SIMON MAINA
Red letter day: Supporters of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party are hoping for a big win in Tuesday’s polls. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/SIMON MAINA

Days before Kenya goes to the polls, concern about the risk of violence amid a deepening political crisis is stoking tension.

Kenya still bears the scars of post-election violence in 2007, when at least 1,300 people died and more than 500,000 were displaced.

There are fears that violence could rear its head again if there is any doubt about the credibility of the election results. These fears were heightened this week after senior Kenyan election official Chris Msando was found dead, and colleagues said he had been tortured.

Both the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his main rival, Raila Odinga, have made it clear that they will not take defeat lightly. Odinga’s coalition, the National Super Alliance (Nasa), has also controversially questioned the integrity of Kenya’s electoral commission.

For both candidates, the stakes are high. At 72, Odinga is widely believed to be running his last campaign for the presidency, the elusive culmination of his long political career. For Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, anything less than a second term would be a terrible humiliation. It would make him Kenya’s only president not to be re-elected. Neither leader has prepared his supporters for defeat.

At a rally organised by Kenyatta’s Jubilee coalition in Nairobi in June, his supporters were adamant that the incumbent would win easily.

"Jubilee is going to win big. We love our president," said Henry Gitonga, wearing a red T-shirt, the colour of the ruling coalition. "But I am worried that Nasa will try to contest the result." Some of his friends suggested — without revealing their names — that they would be ready to meet Odinga’s supporters in the street.

Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says: "People are confused, leaders have sent mixed messages and criticised the electoral commission. That undermines trust in our institutions, it’s irresponsible."

But Kenyatta and Odinga are not the only candidates stirring trouble. The 2017 elections will be the most hotly contested elections since independence, with over 14,550 candidates competing for 1,882 elected posts.

At county level, nearly 11,000 candidates are vying for 1,498 positions recently created by the new constitution adopted in 2010.

As part of an effort to reinforce democracy and a balance of power, the Kenyan parliament voted for a devolution of powers from the central government to regions, and created governors, a new level of political representation.

Attractive salaries and a reallocation of resources that used to be the central government’s prerogative have made the governors’ offices among the most sought-after political roles.

During the first gubernatorial elections, in 2013, 300 Kenyans died in clashes linked to political competition at county level.

"The devolution process is very young, and these are only the second elections in which governors will be elected. Though it has corrected many issues linked to overcentralisation of power, and created inclusion, it also has its challenges," Mutiga says.

"Local politicians have a tendency to play up ethnic tensions."

Worryingly, the central county of Laikipia has experienced unprecedented violence since the beginning of the year, as local politicians have been stirring conflict by inciting cattle herders affected by the severe drought to invade private land owned by ranchers and farmers.

They have been arming them and offering their support in exchange for the vote.

In the western part of Laikipia, cattle herders have been accused of burning and pillaging farms, and killing and raping farmers. "[Some tribal groups] say that this is their ancestral land and they want to claim their right," says Esther Wangiru, a smallhold farm owner. "Some politicians have made them promises, but as far as I am concerned, this is our home." The ownership of land is skewed along tribal lines.

More than 30 people have been killed in Laikipia in the past few months, and similar politically motivated violence has erupted in the Marsabit, Isiolo and Narok counties.

Yet the government has been unable or unwilling to keep the peace, likely because of concerns over electoral strategy.

Such violence and unrest could jeopardise the running of the elections on Tuesday, and could give the losing side the ultimate excuse to contest the election results.

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