Kenyans Vote in Presidential Election

Kenyan voters decide the most hotly contested presidential election since gaining independence. It's one of the few serious elections since its British rulers left some 40 years ago. The main contenders are President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, one of Kibaki's former Cabinet ministers.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today, voters in Kenya decide the most hotly contested presidential election since they gained independence. This is one of the few serious elections in that East African nation since its British rulers left more than four decades ago. The current president wants another term. He faces the strong challenge from a former political prisoner and successful businessman. And the voting began amid concerns about vote-rigging and intimidation.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins is at a polling station in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. And Gwen, what are you seeing?

GWEN THOMPKINS: Yes, I'm in front of the Olympic Primary School, which is the polling station in Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, actually, here in Nairobi.

The turnout is excellent. There are 14.2 million voters who are supposed to be voting around the country and an awful lot have never been here in Kibera. This is a stronghold of the challenger. His name is Raila Odinga. He is an MP who represents Kibera and, in fact, a large area of Nairobi.

The people here are very motivated, and many of them came well before 6 a.m., which is when the polling station was supposed to open. Now, it didn't open until eight, which is feeding a lot of suspicion on the ground here, that there have been efforts to rig this election, that there've been efforts to nullify their votes - efforts on the part of the government, which, of course, is headed by the incumbent, President Mwai Kibaki.

INSKEEP: I suppose you should mention that elsewhere in Nairobi, Odinga himself, the opposition candidate, when he went to vote, he claimed that he was told he wasn't registered. Now, the government tells a different story, but it does seem the ground is being laid for a lot of doubts about the results of this election.

THOMPKINS: That's very true, Steve. I mean the rumors are running rampant here. I mean, they are everywhere. People were telling me that whole letters of the alphabet have been eliminated from the books of the Kenyan Electoral Commission, that their votes are not being tabulated correctly, that the permanent ink that they're dipping their fingers in to show that they voted is actually removable ink. I mean, it's very difficult to figure out whether any of this is true.

But the challenger, Raila Odinga, has spent many, many, many weeks sort of hitting hard on this idea that there are going to be irregularities in this election, which has created a real sense of paranoia on the ground.

INSKEEP: What's the difference between Odinga and President Kibaki?

THOMPKINS: That's an excellent question, Steve, because from certain vantage points there's not really much difference. I mean, both of them come from elite families. They were in league with one another for some time - to bring an end to the 24-year autocracy of Daniel arap Moi, who held on to colorful (unintelligible) in this country, it appears. They, together, joined five years ago to defeat his hand-chosen successor, and they did. But shortly thereafter, they fell out.

Kibaki is about 76 years old. He's a former vice president. He is a former finance minister. He's a real numbers guy and he's really helped to improve the economy in the country.

Odinga is a long-time MP, a long-time parliamentarian from this very area, Kibera - and Mombasa is the larger area that he is representing. And he's been a long-time truth sayer in this country. People say that without Odinga, you know, Kenya would not be enjoying the democracy and the free speech that it enjoys today.

INSKEEP: And just give us a little broader view, if you can, of the country that you're in on this election day, Gwen. How is Kenya doing compared to other East African nations, other African nations?

THOMPKINS: Well, Kenya is doing well, compared to its neighbors in the region. I mean, it's the largest economy in East Africa. It has a stable society, a stable government. But like clockwork, every five years, when there's an election here, there is an awful lot of violence. And just a case and point, Steve, just in the last couple of days, three police officers were stoned to death in western Kenya by people who were suspecting that these police officers were representing government efforts to rig the election.

INSKEEP: NPR's Gwen Thompkins is at a polling station in Nairobi, Kenya, where a presidential election is taking place today. Thanks very much, Gwen.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Steve.

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