Nairobi, Kenya – There is an old saying in Kenya that the country witnesses two important migrations each year.
The better-known is the annual trail of wildebeest through the Maasai Mara. The other occurs every five years, when elections are held and Kenyans seek refuge from potential hotspots of ethnic violence.
Tensions are high ahead of next week’s vote, with the two presidential frontrunners neck-and-neck in an election race that has stoked ethnic divisions, and may unleash fresh waves of conflict.
While hoping for a peaceful vote, Kenyans are also preparing for the worst. Nairobi slum-dwellers have moved children and valuables to rural havens. Millionaires have private helicopters on standby for a quick getaway.
“We were all in shock last time around and never realised the violence would reach that level.“
– Alan Murungi, Nairobi business owner
Shadrach Otieno lives in Kibera, one of Africa’s biggest slums. His mud-brick shack is empty except for a mattress. His wife, baby boy, television, furniture and other valuables were moved to his family home in western Kenya.
“We have worked tirelessly to ensure that peace prevails. But, if the worst starts again, we will lose many people and many houses will be burned,” said Otieno. “Neighbours cannot be trusted. Once it begins, your best friend will be the one who loots your home.”
‘Better safe than sorry’
Like many slum-dwellers in Nairobi, Otieno will cast his ballot on March 4 before catching a bus to join his family in Nyanza province, and watching the election drama unfold on television.
The ethnic killing spree that followed the disputed vote of 2007 still haunts Otieno. His father was among the more than 1,100 who died in successive waves of inter-communal killing. Victims were burned alive, hacked to death by machetes, and beaten with clubs.
“The things I saw in Kibera last time, I would never like to see again,” said the 21-year-old.
A few kilometres away in a leafy Nairobi suburb, businessman Alan Murungi, 35, is making less drastic plans. His gated compound is typical of luxury living in Kenya’s capital, with barbed-wire walls, a swimming pool, and round-the-clock guards.
“We were all in shock last time around and never realised the violence would reach that level,” said Murungi, owner of a European-style bistro and brewery. “It’s better to be safe than sorry. [I’m] stocking up on food, fuel for cars, back-up generators and mobile phone credit.”
The entrepreneur has beefed up security for his business and held back on new investments until a president is sworn in. Kenya’s predicted economic growth rate of at least 5.5 percent for 2013 would be hurt by election violence, the International Monetary Fund said.
Embassies and charities with regional hubs in Nairobi have urged expatriates to stock larders and fill bathtubs with water, ready for outbursts of street violence that could make travelling through this city of three million people risky.
“I wouldn’t criticise anyone who’s leaving, because it’s quite a sensible thing to do,” said Alun McDonald, spokesman for the aid group Oxfam. Only a handful of the charity’s 18 international staff will vacate Kenya for the elections, he said.
“Expatriates and wealthy Kenyans have already bought tickets and sent their children out of the country,” added Carol Njeri, a travel agent with Imperial Air Services. “Tickets are selling at high-season prices. The really rich, we never hear from them. They already own their own helicopters.”
With only days left before Kenyans go to the polls, East Africa’s biggest economy is gripped by political horse-trading, unexpected alliances and ethnic rivalries that pre-date independence from Britain in 1963.
The presidential frontrunners hail from Kenya’s dominant tribal dynasties. Raila Odinga, the current prime minister, is from Kenya’s sizable Luo community, which has never had a tribesperson in the nation’s top job.
Odinga has alleged he was cheated out of the presidency in 2007 by then incumbent Mwai Kibaki, who is stepping down after two terms. Back then, foreign mediators brokered a power-sharing deal between Odinga and Kibaki to halt the bloodshed.
Odinga’s main opponent is Uhuru Kenyatta, a member of Kenya’s biggest ethnic group the Kikuyu, and the millionaire son of the nation’s independence leader, Jomo Kenyatta.
Kenyatta – along with running mate William Ruto – will stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in early April, as one of those accused in orchestrating the 2007-08 violence.
It remains to be seen whether Kenya can move on from the political turmoil of the past.
The 2010 constitution, judicial reforms and a new election commission will help “turn the page on the bloodshed of five years ago”, a report by the International Crisis Group said.
“We’re in a panic mode here, like it is going to explode. But I’m penniless. I can’t afford to take my stuff upcountry.“
– Celestine Adipo, market vendor
On the flip-side, Joel Barkan’s study for the US-based Council on Foreign Relations presents disaster scenarios that could “plunge the country into a renewed period of political instability and set back Kenya’s democratic advance”.
According to one Western diplomat, the vote will be “fantastically close”. Avoiding a re-run of post-election violence hinges on one of the frontrunners “accepting defeat” after votes are counted, the envoy said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to comment publicly.
“If you have a grievance, go to court,” was the diplomat’s advice to presidential aspirants. “Don’t instruct your people to go out on the streets.”
Gangs getting ready?
While ordinary Kenyans have been preparing for election dangers, evidence has emerged that troublemakers are also getting ready for the ballot.
Hate leaflets designed to stir up ethnic tensions were found in the coastal city of Mombasa and Kisumu, in west Kenya. Kibera residents talk of political gang-members bulk-buying machetes and other crude weapons.
A letter to the chief justice, purportedly from a Kikuyu militia, warned that its members are “more armed and prepared” than in 2007-08, when they self-confessedly “chopped off a few heads plus circumcised” tribal rivals.
Back in Kibera, Celestine Adipo, 39, a mother-of-five and market vendor, is fearful that ethnic militias will unleash more mayhem on Nairobi’s slums than they did in 2007-08.
“We’re in a panic mode here, like it is going to explode,” she said. “But I’m penniless. I can’t afford to take my stuff upcountry. I can’t stop people breaking down my door. If trouble starts, all I can do is run to the nearest police station.”