, NAIROBI, Mar 4 – Long lines of Kenyans queued from far before dawn as polls opened on Monday for hard-fought elections, hours after five policemen were killed in an ambush in the port city of Mombasa.
The elections are the first since bloody post-poll violence five years ago in which over 1,100 people were killed, and observers have repeatedly warned of the risk of renewed conflict.
However, voters standing in lines several hundreds of metres (yards) long crowded peacefully outside polling stations across the country.
Voters began lining up outside polling stations from as early as 4am (0100 GMT) to cast their votes in the historic election, two hours ahead of the officially opening of the polls, although there were short delays reported in some areas.
In middle-class areas of Nairobi, parked cars blocked the streets around polling stations.
Voters packed side streets as they queued in long lines in the port city of Mombasa, despite the gun attacks hours earlier blamed on a coastal separatist movement in which several police officers were killed.
Kenyan police chief David Kimaiyo said there had been “casualties from both sides” when an armed gang ambushed police officers in Kenya’s second city.
“There was a clash between people we suspect are MRC attackers,” Kimaiyo said, referring to the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a group seeking the secession of the coastal region popular with tourists.
Police sources said at least five officers had been killed, but officials could not immediately confirm the toll. Police have blamed the MRC for a string of attacks last year, and the group had threatened to boycott the polls.
Neck-and-neck rivals for the presidency, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his deputy Uhuru Kenyatta, have publicly vowed there will be no repeat of the bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 polls.
Crimes against humanity trials later this year at The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) for Kenyatta and running mate William Ruto have raised the stakes: should they win the vote, the president and vice-president could be absent on trial for years.
After hard fought campaigns tensions are running high.
In Nairobi’s shanty town Kibera, scene of some of the worst ethnic clashes during the heavily contested 2007 elections, thousands waited to cast their ballots, with the start of voting delayed for almost an hour.
“I got here at 3:45am, I came so early as I wanted to avoid the long queues,” said Denis Kaene, 34 years and unemployed.
“It’s a very good day, because we are looking for a change. It will be a very calm day, I want peaceful elections.”
Some 14.3 million Kenyans are eligible to vote in the multiple elections for a new president, parliamentarians, governors, senators, county representatives and special women’s representatives.
More than 99,000 police have been deployed to ensure the vote is peaceful, and about 23,000 observers, including 2,600 international monitors, will be on hand, officials say.
“I feel good, it is a good day, we need to promote peace,” said Joseph Murunga, 25 years old and unemployed.
“We have been waiting for this moment for five years. It is time for new leaders,” said 38-year old high school teacher Timothy Njogu outside the Ngara polling station in Nairobi’s Starehe constituency.
In the western town of Kisumu – the heartland of Raila Odinga supporters who went on the rampage in 2007-2008 after he was controversially pipped to the top job by President Mwai Kibaki – people blew whistles and sang as they waited to vote.
The start of voting there was delayed by some 30 minutes to wait for sunrise due to a lack of lighting, with people blowing plastic vuvuzela trumpets.
“We slept here last night because we want real change and we want our candidate- Raila,” said Susan Morell, 30. “We want real change but we want peace. We will accept the result as it comes out because we are sure of winning.”
“I feel so good to have voted,” said one of the early voters Samson Odoyo, 37, a motorcycle taxi driver showing off the purple ink stain on his fingernail.
“I voted for Raila. I think he can win and bring real change, now I am going back to work but I will follow the results closely.”
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 to limit vote rigging, while a new constitution devolves powers and has made the poll less of a winner-take-all race.
But the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has condemned evidence of politicians handing out cash for votes.