After Campaign Full Of Drama, Kenyans Head To Polls

Aug 8, 2017
Originally published on August 8, 2017 7:24 pm

Even before sunrise, Kenyans began lining up to cast their vote for president.

At the Kibera Primary School in the heart of Nairobi's biggest slum, the lines snaked around corners.

Christine Siambe, 18, was all smiles.

"In Kenya, we need free and fair elections," she said. "If we get that, we'll all agree."

For this election, Kenya has ushered in a decentralized electronic reporting system and a biometric identification system that makes it much harder for elections to be rigged. At this polling station in a neighborhood that burned after the disputed 2007 elections, hope was in the air.

"We believe and we just pray that these elections will be fair," Siambe said.

In a lot of ways, these elections also seem monumental. They are likely the last breath of a rivalry that was born at independence in 1964. President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking a second term, is the son of Kenya's first president. His opponent Raila Odinga is the son of Kenya's first vice president.

Back in the '60s, the two men disagreed and went their own way, setting up the country's main tribal rivalry — the one that fueled the post-election violence in 2007 and 2008 that left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead. Odinga, who has never won the presidency, has said this is his fourth and final bid and Kenyatta is constitutionally bound to two terms.

In Kibera, Oyugi Otieno, 25, was confident that this time history here in Kenya would be different. This time, with a more mature voting system, the opposition — Odinga, his tribe and his allies — would finally rise to power.

"Power is not given, it is taken," he said. "And I'm here to take power."

***

The past few weeks brought a dramatic end to Kenyan's presidential campaign. First, the vice president's rural home was attacked by a machete-wielding intruder and a little more than a week before elections, the man in charge of Kenya's electronic voting system was murdered.

Chris Msando had spent the previous weeks on television telling Kenyans that the new decentralized, electronic voting system was rig proof. According to the autopsy, Msando was tortured. One of his hands was broken and he had deep cuts on his forearms. Ultimately, the coroner found, he likely died after someone strangled him with their bare hands.

Needless to say, tensions are running high in the country. In the days leading up to the vote, Kenyans stocked up on essentials at the supermarket. Many of Nairobi's informal settlements, which are known for their ethnic diversity, began to empty as Kenyans took buses to their tribal homelands where they feel safe.

On the eve of the elections, President Kenyatta gave a nationally televised address. It was a sober plead that Kenyans exercise their right to vote, but that they also not let politics turn neighbors against their neighbors.

"No matter the result of this election, we must stand together as one people," Kenyatta said. "Above all we must reject intimidation, we must reject violence."

***

As morning turned to afternoon in Kenya, most polls seemed to be functioning with few irregularities. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission said electoral materials had to be helicoptered into certain parts of the country which were cut off by recent heavy rains. Some polling places opened later than usual and in at least one location ballots were stamped "rejected" by a clerk. Reuters reported that it took three tries for Kenya's new biometric system to recognize President Kenyatta's finger print.

To Kenneth Okoth, a member of parliament and a member of the opposition, things looked generally good, despite the fact that some of his constituents were not listed on the voter register. It was still early, he said, but what has been tricky historically in Kenya is the counting.

"We are concerned that at the time of counting, will the counting be done well?" he said. "There's always drama, the stakes are high, so let's be vigilant. I think if we relax that's when bad things happen."

At the polling station in Kibera, Fatuma Rehan Juma, 58, had just finished voting. She was showing her ink stained finger to her friends.

Her life here in Kenya is difficult, he said. She wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning to make the samosas and other snacks she sells on the streets.

"I don't rest even an hour," she said and sometimes the money she makes is just not enough to feed herself and her three grandchildren.

"Me, as a person, I need change, I want change," she said.

She was born and grew up in Kibera and this is the first time ever, she believes that change is possible.

"All the loopholes have been closed," she said. "And even if they rig, now Kenyans know everything. They know their right. Before we didn't know. You could not even talk. You could not even raise your voice, but now we can."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Voters in Kenya went to the polls today to choose their next leader. The contest pitted the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's first president, against Raila Odinga. He's the son of Kenya's first vice president. Official election results are not expected before tomorrow, but early results put the incumbent Kenyatta in the lead. His challenger is rejecting the early numbers as fictitious. Disputed results led to widespread ethnic violence after elections 10 years ago. NPR's Eyder Peralta filed this report earlier today from Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The usually bustling streets of Nairobi are empty. Stores are closed. And in some places, all you can hear is the whir of a police helicopter overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)

PERALTA: It feels like all of this big city emptied out into the polling places where Kenyans poured their hopes onto ballots. Fatuma Rehan Juma had just finished voting at a polling place in Kibera, one of Africa's biggest slums. She says she wakes up at 3 a.m. each morning to make samosas and other snacks to sell on the streets. She works all day, but sometimes she doesn't sell enough to be able to feed her three grandchildren.

FATUMA REHAN JUMA: Me as a person, I need things. I want things. And I vote for Raila Amolo Odinga.

PERALTA: At 58, Fatuma says this is the first time she believes that change is possible. This is the first time that she believes a fair electoral system will allow an opposition leader to come to power.

JUMA: Because all the loopholes have been closed.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

PERALTA: There's no way to rig this?

JUMA: No way. And even if they rig, now Kenyans knows everything. They know they are right. Before we didn't know. You could not even talk. You could not even raise your voice. But now we can.

PERALTA: As we speak, Raila Odinga shows up to vote and his SUV is mobbed by supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Raila.

PERALTA: A similar scene plays out in Gatundu about an hour north, except there it was President Uhuru Kenyatta who votes in his stronghold. As he emerges from the voting booth, he says he is confident that he will be victorious and go on to a second term. Then he sends a message to Kenyans.

PRESIDENT UHURU KENYATTA: Peace, peace, peace, peace. (Speaking Swahili).

PERALTA: "Every Kenyan," he says, "should take part in their democracy and then go and wait for results." "There is no need for violence," he says, "as every Kenyan is a brother and sister." Voting in the country went on with no significant irregularities. The elections commission said there were some cases of ballots that had already been filled out when they were passed on to voters and another case where a clerk was stamping ballots as rejected. Back in Kibera, I find Oyugi Otieno. He had already voted, and he felt certain that the opposition candidate would win.

OYUGI OTIENO: And, you know, power is not given. Power is taken. Yeah, so I'm here to take the power.

PERALTA: Back in 2007, this slum saw some of the most deadly violence. Otieno remembers that. And he says he wants peace, but a rigged election is unacceptable.

OTIENO: War is bad. War is expensive. War will damage us. But when it comes to fight for your right, you have to - you got to fight, my friend.

PERALTA: Kenya's elections board expects to announce final results as early as tomorrow. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONMA'S "BREAKFAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.