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March 6, 2013 / Dan Whipple

Peace reigns in Kenya election, so far

Voters waiting their turn in Kibera. Photo by Peter Ombedha, courtesy Ghetto Mirror.

Voters waiting their turn in Kibera. Photo by Peter Ombedha, courtesy Ghetto Mirror.

Kenya is holding an historic election this week, the first under its new constitution, so the wazungu are in a swivet about it. After the last election, in 2007 and 2008, 1,200 people were killed and 600,000 internally displaced. No one wants a repeat of this. Several of our friends have written from the United States to ask if we’re okay. The short answer is: Yes, we’re fine. As fine as we can be, that is, with me sitting at home staring at the computer, and Kathy at work at the Daily Nation from 8 am to midnight.

Kenyans are most exercised about the race for president, between Uhuru Kenyatta—who currently holds the lead with 53.4 percent of the vote, according to the tally in the Daily Nation—and Raila Odinga, with 42 percent. Only about 30 percent of the ballots had been counted by the end of the day Tuesday.

But while this race is getting most of the attention, under the new constitution, the president should be a less important figure than he’s been during Kenya’s first 50 years. The new laws are explicitly intended to devolve power from the central government to the counties and local officials.

This is a great experiment. The former style of government was essentially the British colonial structure with Kenyans as officeholders instead of British. The new constitution should provide a more culturally compatible government structure.

But first, the nation, which has been riven with sometimes murderous tribalism, must get through the election without excessive violence.

So far, things have been peaceful, though occasionally tense. On the coast on Monday, several police officers were killed. But this is the result of continuing separatist unrest in that part of the country, and can’t be called election violence, per se.

Voters stood calmly and patiently in long lines to vote, and have waited with equal patience for the results. I went to Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi, on Monday, election day, to help with some editing at the Ghetto Mirror. The area was very busy, with long lines at the polling places. But there was no trouble. Kibera was flashpoint for the 2007-08 post election violence, so the calm is a good sign.

Young men in Kibera will ask passersby if they have voted. If they haven’t, the non-voter may be escorted to their polling place. One young man even asked me—probably the only mzungu for five kilometers in any direction—whether I had voted. I told him, mimi si Mkenya (I’m not a Kenyan). So he moved on to the next victim. People who have voted get indelible ink painted on their pinky fingers.

As we were walking out, one young man who had maybe a little too much to drink took exception to this have-you-voted inquisition. He asked the vote enforcer what he’d do if he (the non-voter) went to get 20 of his friends who hadn’t voted. Fists were raised, but no punches thrown. The would-be combatants moved on to other pursuits. It was tense. But it was handled on the spot.

But it’s still early, and rumors fly, as they will. There was a rumor of rioting in Kibera on Wednesday (untrue, apparently), and of ballots in one of the counties being thrown into a lake (apparently true).
Most Kenyans I talk to are proud of the way the citizenry has responded so far, and are optimistic that peace will continue to prevail.

The voting and procedures have been transparent. Two foreign election observer groups gave high marks to the election process, according to a report in the Daily Nation. The real test will come when a winner is declared, and we see whether the losing side accepts the result gracefully. So far, however, Kenya has shown a tremendous advance in democracy and maturity since its trials five years ago.

Schools have closed for this week, many stores and shops are closed. There is almost no traffic—a very unusual situation in Nairobi—and the streets are virtually deserted, which is very unusual and a little creepy. But it makes it easy to get to the gym.

The U.S. Embassy has taken a personal interest in me, though, which is flattering. Usually they just tell me to stay out of crowded places, but now they want to know where I live. “Dear American citizens,”—that would be us—“If you have not already done so, please provide your physical address and # of adults, including yourself, and # of children residing with you as soon as you can.” Isn’t that sweet?


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