Voting in Kenya’s Presidential election opened today with outbreaks of violence in which at least 17 people have been killed in separate machete attacks near the coastal town of Kilifi.
Yesterday, on the eve of the election clerics across Keyna preached sermons dedicated to peace amidst fears that the elections could devolve into the same violence that engulfed the East African country after the disputed 2007 election.
At the Nairobi Chapel, an evangelical church in the capital, three pastors took turns praising the attributes of some tribes. The Kikuyus were praised for being entrepreneurial, the Luos for valuing education, and the Kalenjins for their loyalty. The congregation cheered.
Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Raila Odinga, a Luo, are the leading candidates for president.
But today’s violence has cast a shadow over a vote seen as vital to repairing the country’s image after tribal bloodshed five years ago.
Senior police officers said the death toll includes nine security officers, two civilians and six attackers.
The authorities suspect at least one of the attacks was carried out by members of a coastal separatist group who had threatened to disrupt voting if their demand for secession of the Indian Ocean coastal strip was not met.
Officials and candidates have made impassioned appeals to avoid a repeat of the tribal rampages that erupted following the disputed result of the 2007 election.
More than 1 200 people were killed, shattering Kenya’s reputation as one of Africa’s most stable democracies and bringing its economy to a standstill.
But as in 2007, the race has come down to a high-stakes head-to-head between two candidates, prime minister Raila Odinga and deputy prime minister Uhuru Kenyatta.
Once again both will depend heavily on votes from loyalists from their tribes.
Ambrose Munyasia, chief of police intelligence in the Coast region, said he suspected the gang behind today’s attack were linked to a separatist movement, the Mombasa Republican Council.
In recent weeks the group has tried and failed to have the national vote scrapped and a referendum on secession instead.
If so, it would suggest entirely different motives that sparked the post-2007 vote rampage, when disputes over the result fuelled clashes between tribal loyalists of rival candidates.
Outgoing president Mwai Kibaki, barred from seeking a third five-year term, made what he described as a “passionate plea” for a peaceful vote.
The candidates have pledged to accept the result, but the close race has raised the sense of uncertainty.
Though well ahead of six other contenders, polls suggest Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta will struggle to secure enough ballots for an outright victory in the first round.
That could set the stage for a tense run-off tentatively set for April 11, while a narrow first-round win could raise prospects for challenges.