, NAIROBI, Mar 3 – Kenyans prayed for peace on Sunday on the eve of the first elections since bloody post-poll unrest shook the nation five years ago, with a top presidential candidate facing a crimes against humanity trial over the violence.
Presidential frontrunners Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his neck-and-neck rival Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta have publically vowed there will be no repeat of the bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 polls, in which over 1,100 people died.
Some 99,000 police have been deployed this time to ensure the vote is calm, according to police spokesman Charles Owino.
“All Muslims in Kenya on Friday prayed to have peaceful elections and on Sunday the Christians prayed,” said Rahman Sharif Hamsa as he left a mosque in the port of Mombasa, East Africa’s transport hub and a popular tourist region.
Hamsa’s tourism business collapsed after violence broke out following the disputed 2007 elections.
“We want to elect in peace, love and unity for all together, we don’t want (to) fight in Kenya,” said Daniel Musio Mawewo, a motorised rickshaw driver in Mombasa. “Last time we saw what was going on and this time we know we want peace.”
But trials due later this year at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto have raised the stakes.
In the western town of Kisumu – the heartland of Odinga supporters who went on the rampage in 2007-2008 after he was controversially pipped to the top job by President Mwai Kibaki – locals said they hoped candidates would accept the vote outcome.
“Whoever wins, we will accept and it will be OK,” said water vendor Michael Osango, 37. “The politicians are rich but if there is violence it is us the common man who will suffer.”
Observers expect some violence in the upcoming polls – all of Kenya’s elections have seen some conflict – although foreign diplomats say they are cautiously optimistic.
Tens of thousands of party loyalists roared their support as Kenyatta and Odinga held competing giant rallies in central Nairobi on Saturday in the closing hours of official campaigning.
Both men have said they are confident of a winning an absolute majority, necessary to avoid a second-round runoff.
“I want to promise you that we will change Kenya for the better,” said Kenyatta on Saturday, dancing on stage alongside his fellow ICC-indicted deputy Ruto.
“Bring even the sick to vote,” Odinga urged, after releasing a white dove to symbolise peace, adding that the elections were the most important since Kenya’s independence from British colonial rule 50 years ago.
In one of the most complex polls Kenya has ever held, voters on Monday will cast six ballots for the president, parliament, governors, senators, councillors and a special women’s list.
Some 23,000 observers, including 2,600 international monitors, will be deployed, according to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
But watchdogs such as Human Rights Watch have warned that the risk of renewed political violence is “perilously high”.
In the Tana River delta region, where rival ethnic groups have clashed in recent months in a series of brutal revenge killings widely said to be politically motivated, election commission official Abdallah Chikore said all was calm and that “people were ready to cast their votes.”
The 2007-2008 violence exposed widespread disenchantment with the political class, deep tribal divisions and shattered Kenya’s image as a beacon of regional stability.
More checks are in place this time, including better systems to limit vote rigging, greater public awareness of the bloody cost of violence, and a new constitution devolving powers to make the presidential poll less of a winner-takes-all race.
Still, some Kenyans in flashpoint areas have packed up ahead of the polls.
“In most areas, the campaigns have gone fully ethnic as politicians and their cronies continue to raise emotions and inflame passions as they campaign for votes,” the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has warned.
The rights group has also condemned evidence it has gathered of politicians handing out cash to win votes, and reported accusations of the purchase of identity cards to allegedly block opponents from casting a ballot.