Kenya stands at a dangerous crossroads ahead of a presidential election Thursday, with opposition leader Raila Odinga refusing to take part and even the country’s electoral chief casting doubt on the poll’s credibility.
The opposition has called for daily mass protests, including on election day, fuelling anxiety over the outcome of an election called after the Supreme Court overturned the result of an August vote.
The annulment, based on irregularities in the electronic transmission of votes, was hailed as an opportunity to deepen democracy in a country plagued by disputed elections.
But the re-run has instead been dogged by chaos and acrimony.
Top diplomats and observers have excoriated both Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta for divisive handling of the post-election crisis instead of searching for a path to a free and fair election.
“Kenya is a critical player in regional commerce; and a respected member of the comity of nations. Such credentials must not be soiled by power-hungry politicians,” wrote the Daily Nation in an editorial, accusing both sides of playing “hardball”.
Two months of drama
It is more than two months since Kenyans first went to the polls.
The peaceful vote quickly turned sour as Odinga called foul early on in the counting process, charging the election had been rigged in favour of Kenyatta who won with 54 percent.
The election had been billed as the 72-year-old Odinga’s final shot at the top job after three previous failed attempts, including in 2007 and 2013 when he said victory was stolen from him.
The 2007 election, which observers agreed was deeply flawed, plunged the country into politically-motivated tribal violence that left 1,100 dead.
Politics in Kenya largely plays out along ethnic lines, and Odinga — a Luo — and Kenyatta — a Kikuyu — have continued a dynastic rivalry which began with their fathers after independence from Britain.
To the shock of many, Odinga won a petition on September 1 to have Kenyatta’s victory overturned. The Supreme Court did not rule that there had been rigging, but pointed to widespread “irregularities” and mismanagement by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
A furious Kenyatta called the judges “crooks” and vowed to “fix” the judiciary if elected, however energetically turned back to the campaign trail to defend his victory.
Meanwhile Odinga embarked on a mission to obtain fundamental reforms of the IEBC, insisting the new election was on course to be as shoddily run as the last.
Calls for delay
Diplomats point to key changes by the IEBC ahead of the new election, but Odinga was not swayed and with two weeks to the vote declared he would not take part.
He has said he would announce his “way forward” on Wednesday.
He has also vowed to keep on with protests, which have turned deadly in his western stronghold of Kisumu, and — in the immediate aftermath of the August election — in Nairobi slums.
At least 40 people have been killed, mostly shot dead by police, since the first election.
On Tuesday, a small crowd was teargassed in Nairobi while in Kisumu, a crowd marched to the IEBC offices and set tyres alight on the street.
The dramatic election has been hit by several bombshells.
Kenyatta’s ruling party pushed through parliament electoral law amendments that the opposition said would make it easier to rig the election.
The president, facing pressure from western diplomats has yet to sign the law which the Daily Nation said was “partisan, ill-conceived, poorly timed and deviously designed to lower the threshold in electoral management”.
Then, in a further blow to the legitimacy of the election, a top election official last week fled the country and quit her job, complaining about intimidation and threats against her staff and saying the poll could not be credible.
Just hours later her boss, IEBC chief Wafula Chebukati, repeated these sentiments, saying internal divisions and political interference from both sides meant he could not guarantee a free, fair and credible vote.
Envoys from 20 countries raised the alarm Monday about the “deteriorating political environment.”
US Ambassador Robert Godec said that if the electoral commission felt it was not ready for Thursday’s poll, it should ask the courts for a delay.
“We would be fine with that,” he said.
“Proceeding under current conditions would deepen Kenya’s ethnic cleavages and prolong a stalemate that has already claimed dozens of lives and come at a high economic cost,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) said.