Kenyan Election Overshadowed by Mayhem

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Kenya's disputed presidential election triggers an explosion of violence along tribal lines. Rob Crilly, of the The Times of London, and Chris Hennemeyer, of the International Foundation for Election Systems, explain the tensions.


I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, making sense of the U.S. presidential elections for a foreign audience. We'll hear from a Mexican and a British reporter about covering the Iowa caucuses. But first, another presidential race, this one has just ended, and it has led to nationwide violence that's left hundreds of people dead.

Last week, Kenya's electoral commission declared the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, the victor by a slim margin over Raila Odinga. By most accounts, there were serious flaws in the vote. The opposition says that Kibaki stole the election.

Rob Crilly is a reporter for The Times of London based in Nairobi. He's out reporting now, and he's joining us by phone. We're also joined by Chris Hennemeyer, the Africa program director at the International Foundation for Election Systems, and he's here with me in the studio in Washington.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. CHRIS HENNEMEYER (Africa Program Director, International Foundation for Election Systems): Thank you.

MARTIN: Rob, can you tell me where you are right now? And what's going on?

Mr. ROB CRILLY (Correspondent, The Times of London): At the moment, I'm in the middle of Kibera slum, which has about a million people in the outskirts of Nairobi. It's Africa's the biggest slum, and a large number of opposition support has its base. And so it would happen today that many people, several thousand people began a march into the center of Nairobi where they were hoping to meet with their leader Raila Odinga, the main opposition there, and the man they believe was elected(ph) to the presidency. But they found all their routes to the city's center were blocked by riot police. And they were turned back two times today.

For the most part, the march was good-natured. The first time they were turned back by the police. There was no trouble. The second time teargas was fired. And that provoked a small riot in one of the residential areas of Nairobi. Several shacks were burned. One or two petrol stations were leaking. And it looked like things could have easily spiraled out of control here. Since then, things have quieted down. One of the main opposition leaders actually came out to talk to the procession that I was following and urged them that opposition were people of peace and didn't want the violence. And perhaps, it was time for most of the people to return to their homes. Maybe they will try again next week as to how the street rally in the center of the city.

So I think things are just starting to be quieting down here in Nairobi now.

MARTIN: Mr. Hennemeyer, this was believed to be the most competitive election in Kenya's history. There had been some sporadic violence before the election. But things were perceived to be going rather well. Was there any hint that people were so primed to violence and was there any hint as to the kind of irregularities that surfaced after?

Mr. HENNEMEYER: Well, I think yes to both those questions. In terms of irregularities, the Kenyan electoral commission is one that's viewed in Africa as a pretty good one. Political, yes, but staffed with a lot of professionals as well. And it had been assumed that its chairperson, Sam Kivuiti, was a man of the utmost integrity, somebody who had withstood political pressures in the past. He's been on the commission since 1992 and has seen it all.

However in early November, Raila Odinga was saying things like the ruling party had placed its agents within the commission, that certain returning officers had been replaced at the last minute, that a number of commissioners whose mandates had ended were replaced by political cronies of the incumbent.

So there were suggestions, at least on the part of the opposition, that things were being prepared in the event that the race was as tight as it turned out to be. I think it is important to keep in mind that nobody really knows for sure who won this election. And going into it, all the opinion polls had both principle presidential candidates neck and neck within a few percentage points of one another. So statistically, it was an even race heading into the election.

Your question about violence is an interesting one. The answer largely rests in determining how much of this violence was spontaneous and how much of it was orchestrated. And I think there's a bit of both in there. Clearly, many people particularly non-Kikuyus feel that they've been politically disenfranchised for many years, specifically, Luos feel that way.

So their anger is genuine, and I think in most cases, spontaneous. There's also…

MARTIN: Just to clarify for people that Mr. Kibaki is a member of the Kikuyu tribe and Mr. Odinga is a member of the Luo tribe. There's some 40 tribes in Kenya, but the Kikuyu, I believe, are the largest?

Mr. HENNEMEYER: By a slight margin, I think 22 percent of the population is said to be Kikuyu. There's no real dominant tribe when it comes to numbers. And I don't want to overstate the tribal dimension of this. It's one of many, many factors that we have to consider.

MARTIN: Well, I want to ask you about this though because as we've mentioned that Kenya has some 40 tribes that many people speak multiple, you know, tribal languages. I mean, most of the people I've met from Kenya can speak at least two languages. This - there's not been a sense that among, you know, countries on the continent that this is a country where sort of tribal difference has been so important in politics, at least in social life before. So I just wonder was that a misperception, or was there something simmering under the surface or have those divisions been stoked by the campaign?

Mr. HENNEMEYER: Well, those divisions have been around for a long time, and they were, you know, if you want to take the historical view, many of those divisions were exacerbated by policies undertaken by the British colonial regime, moving people out of their tribal homelands to other areas. In fact, much of the violence you see in places like Eldoret in the Rift Valley stem from the disenfranchisement of people who originally live there.

Without getting too much into that I think Rob could answer this as well. But tribalism is ever present in Kenya. But Kenyans are very discreet about it. And they don't speak particularly openly about it, particularly not to foreigners. But it's there all the time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin. And you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking to Chris Hennemeyer from the International Foundation for Election Systems, and Rob Crilly, a correspondent at the Times of London, about the aftermath of the Kenyan elections.

Rob, what about what Chris Hennemeyer was just saying. Is there some evidence that Mr. Kibaki has been favoring Kikuyus in his government so far, or is it just assumed?

Mr. CRILLY: Well, the criticism that is often made of President Kibaki is that he rules alongside Mt. Kenya Mafia, is their name. And these are key players within the government. And some in the shadows, who come from the Mt. Kenya region, of Kenya, which is home - which is really sort of the spiritual home, if you like, of the Kikuyu tribe.

So I think it is a reasonable criticism for him. Although, in some provinces there are other tribes represented in the high reaches of government.

MARTIN: What has Mr. Odinga been saying since the election? I know he's made it clear that he won't concede. How is he suggesting that this should be resolved?

Mr. CRILLY: Well, there appears to have been a slight change in his mind in the past 24 hours. Actually, he say that would accept nothing of President Kibaki (unintelligible) and in the past 24 hours that he had leadership and has now said that they would accept a degree of national mediation, and are prepared to talk to President Kibaki, maybe about some sort of caretaker government, a power-sharing agreement. (Unintelligible), although at first, he's very, very strong. He does seem to be softening his line for the moment.

MARTIN: Mr. Hennemeyer, I wanted to ask you, international election's observers have said that these elections were deeply flawed, in what way? And were the flaws big enough that Odinga could have won? Or is it assumed that he would have won? What exactly was the nature of the irregularities?

Mr. HENNEMEYER: Well, I think you have to break the election process down into two pieces. One is election day itself and then there's the tallying or counting portion of the equation. Election day itself went well. We had people on the ground, my organization did as did many, many other organizations. And, you know, there were polls that opened late. There were materials that were delivered late. There were some logistical problems. But by and large, that was not a real issue. The problem began when votes were being tallied.

Initial results showed Raila Odinga far ahead of Mwai Kibaki by as many as a million votes. So there was kind of a fever within the country about the inevitability of an Odinga victory. And that lead shrunk and shrunk and shrunk until we got down to 30 or 40,000 votes, at which point, the chairman of the commission read his version of the results and announced that the winner was the incumbent Kibaki. He subsequently, two days later, declared that he couldn't be certain that, in fact, Kibaki had won the elections and he felt he had been put under undue pressure to make an announcement without perhaps all of the information at his hands.

European Union observers have noted several flaws. One is, inordinate turnout in some districts, far in excess of what one might expect, leading one to think that perhaps the votes were patted in those districts. Another is that results that E.U. observers tallied themselves in specific constituencies did not correlate to the results announced by the election commission of Kenya. And in a couple of those instances, there was a difference of 25,000 votes for Mwai Kibaki. So assuming the race was that tight, that could have thrown it in his direction.

MARTIN: Let's see if we can try Rob one more time. Rob, what happens now? What's Mr. Kibaki saying? What's Mr. Odinga saying?

Mr. CRILLY: Well, there are instances that (unintelligible) for mediation today. (Unintelligible) has been found at the meeting with Ralai and persuade him and set a more considerate (unintelligible). I understand he's also trying to meet President Kibaki about that. He would have had less success there. And the fact that we have appeared to have avoided major violence today does I think, give us a small window of opportunity for some sort of breakthrough because at the moment, the government is maintaining a hard line that President Kibaki won the elections fairly and squarely - a miracle that has no price and there is no need for any dialogue yet.

MARTIN: Mr. Hennemeyer, what do you think what happens next?

Mr. HENNEMEYER: Well, it's hard to see what compromise can be reached - you know, I think Rob's right when he says that there's been a slight softening of the ODM line. But the positions are still pretty firm. And with all of these international mediators floating around - the former Sierra Leonean president is there as well, Tejan Kabbah, Tutu, Kufuor, calls have been put in by Condi Rice and others, I think there will be a short-term solution worked out that will perhaps obviate future violence.

But at the end of the day, you know, we can talk about politics and we could talk about tribalism. But the real issues for Kenya are the same that they are in any developing country. It's an economic system that doesn't distribute wealth fairly; it's the lack of employment; it's the high birthrate; it's land pressures; it's all kinds of things that need to be dealt with over the long-term.

MARTIN: Chris Hennemeyer is the Africa program director at the International Foundation for Election Systems. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington. We were also joined by Rob Crilly. He's a reporter for The Times of London. He was speaking with us by phone from Nairobi.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HENNEMEYER: Thank you.

Mr. CRILLY: Thanks very much.

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