Ethnic Violence Haunts Kenya's Presidential Election

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In the East African nation of Kenya, voters are choosing the next president. Of greatest concern is whether these polls will provoke the same amount of deadly ethnic violence as the elections five years ago. More than 1,000 people were killed during voting in that election.


Kenya votes for a new president today for the first time in five years. It's an important election, in part because the country is still haunted by the ethnic violence that bloodied the last presidential election in 2007. More than 1,200 people were killed and the violence only ended after the international community stepped in. NPR's Gregory Warner is out visiting polling stations and talking to people in Nairobi. He joins us to talk about the election. Good morning, Greg.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What has happened so far? I mean what are you seeing?

WARNER: Well, I've been seeing very, very long lines up to a mile long, moving slowly. That could be a good thing. People are very enthusiastic about the vote, but it also ups the tension. Today I was in a very ethnically divided slum called Kiumbiu(ph). It's in eastern Nairobi and it's where the very first fires of the post-election violence of 2007 and 2008 really began. And the last election there were 3,000 people that registered to vote here.

Today, there were 10,000. There was a huge crowd. And while I was there, I heard screams. A woman screamed. Suddenly the barriers fell, a massive rush of people came in from outside, and one woman I talked to who had been there since 4:00 a.m., she just wanted to vote and she was hungry and tired. But again, a lot of shoving matches, no violence, mostly people enthusiastic to vote.

MONTAGNE: Although we have heard reports about a couple of attacks in Kenya's second largest city, Mombasa, a number of police officers and others were killed in poll-related violence. What is being done to keep the violence down this time around?

WARNER: Right. There's the Mombasa Separatist Movement that was claiming responsibility for those attacks, it seems. But one thing to remember about the last election was the election violence was triggered by the feeling, widespread throughout Kenya, that that was a stolen election. There was vote rigging, ballot stuffing, registration shenanigans, and so that fueled this sense that, hey, the other tribe stole this election from our tribe and the cycle of violence began.

So there's a lot of attention in getting the technicals of the election right. The voting process - the U.S. alone has put in $37 million into training poll workers. We see with these long lines that maybe, you know, the election is not running that smoothly yet, but there is this new constitution in Kenya. There are a number of fire breaks in that constitution to stop violence, to basically solve disputes in the courts rather than in the streets.

So this election today is really a test of whether those Democratic institutions can heal inter-ethnic violence or whether they will exacerbate it.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, Kenya is an important player in East Africa. The entire region felt the effects when the country slipped into chaos after the last election. What's at stake this time? Who are the candidates who want to be president?

WARNER: The two leading candidates in this race are Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Both of them are the sons of Kenya's first vice president and Kenya's first president, respectively. So this is a historical, some would say tribal, feud that's been going on for - since Kenya's independence, for half a century. One thing to mention here is that Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kikuyu candidate, is accused of war crimes by the international criminal court due to his role in inciting violence in the last election.

So if he wins, it'll really put the international community in an awkward state because it will be very difficult to put sanctions on a place like Kenya, which plays such an important role as the anchor economy of the East Africa region, plus Kenya's been crucial to keeping Somalia stable and Al-Shabaab at bay. Uhuru Kenyatta's been mentioning al-Shabaab a lot in his speeches, so if he wins, these war crimes charges could, you know, literally dribble away. We'll see.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Gregory Warner speaking to us from Nairobi. Thanks very much.

WARNER: Thanks so much, Renee.

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