As Kenya's Election Season Kicks off, Can Anybody Stop the Violence? Observers Warn of a Repeat of Violence That Killed Some 1,300 People at the 2007 Elections

By Onyulo, Tonny; Van Zijl, Ilse | Newsweek, June 2, 2017 | Go to article overview

As Kenya's Election Season Kicks off, Can Anybody Stop the Violence? Observers Warn of a Repeat of Violence That Killed Some 1,300 People at the 2007 Elections


Onyulo, Tonny, Van Zijl, Ilse, Newsweek


Byline: Tonny Onyulo and Ilse Van Zijl

As commuters in the heart of Nairobi hustle past one another on River Road at the end of a recent workday, young men are buying machetes in a hardware shop before boarding a bus. The tools aren't for clearing brush or making campsites, chopping food or splitting firewood. Peter Mwangi, who runs an electronics shop, is arming himself in case of election chaos. "I know there will be violence. I need to ready myself," says Mwangi, holding a giant knife. "In the 2007 elections, we were not prepared. We were attacked, and I lost some of my relatives. But this time, it will not happen."

Mwangi says his shop was looted during the violence in 2007 that followed the election of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, who is accused by the opposition of taking power through vote-rigging. More than 1,300 were killed and about 600,000 were displaced from their homes during those protests.

Kenya next holds general elections on August 8. As the campaigning kicks off between incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, the parallels to 2007 are striking. Back then, Odinga was running against Kibaki. Now, as then, suspicion of government election officials is high. The electoral commission and the courts lost credibility in the eyes of many in 2013, when the Supreme Court upheld Kenyatta's election as president, despite widespread allegations of fraud.

"We are going to win this election very early in the morning," says Kennedy Oluoch, who plans to vote for Odinga. "We have enough numbers to beat the ruling party. If they try to rig it again, like they did in 2013, Kenya will burn."

The country is polarized along ethnic lines. The ruling party is determined to win a second term, while the opposition says it sees signs of plans to rig the vote and vows not to accept a stolen election. "The opposition will lose this election terribly and resort to violence," says Mwangi, who comes from Kenyatta's tribe. "But we will not accept them to disturb our peace and attack other tribes. We will retaliate if they try to attack us."

A report that Kenya's National Security Council presented to Parliament last year warned that the nation is teeming with weapons, including guns, machetes and spears. "It is estimated that there are between 580,000 to 650,000 illicit arms circulating in the country which have been used to perpetuate conflicts thus increasingly posing significant socio-economic, political and security risks countrywide," reads the report.

In another report this year, the National Security Council warned that politicians are forming militias to protect themselves, ensure victory and cause trouble for opponents. "The heightening political temperature in view of the 2017 general elections has seen the resurgence of criminal gangs, political goons and militias," the report states.

Kenya's political parties have been holding their primaries to select candidates to represent them in the general election in August. Already, trouble seen in the primaries has rekindled memories of 2007. Seven people have been killed in political violence so far. In one incident, men armed with machetes and whips attacked party officials and accused them of planning to rig the vote. Police later arrested 17 people and displayed the weapons they had confiscated.

"I see chaos, strife and bloodshed in the forthcoming general elections of a magnitude unheard of in Kenyan electoral history," says Nazlin Umar Rajput, a Nairobi-based political analyst and chairman of the National Muslim Council of Kenya. "The violence and chaos evident in ongoing party primaries nationwide is clearly indicative of this."

This East African nation does not vote on issues but largely along ethnic lines. …

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