Despite threatened opposition boycott and widespread doubt over logistics, Kenyans look likely to go to the polls again on Thursday.
Ballot papers for Kenya’s presidential election this week have begun arriving in the country, in a sign that the troubled poll will probably go ahead.
The final batch of papers is scheduled to arrive from Dubai on Tuesday, less than 48 hours before Kenyans vote for a second time in less than three months to elect a president.
There have been widespread doubts that the Kenyan election officials could overcome huge logistical obstacles to organise the election, taking place after the supreme court annulled the result of an election in August won by the incumbent president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
That the ballot papers have had to be printed overseas – candidates and parties were unwilling to trust local firms – is evidence of the acrimony and mutual suspicion that characterises politics in Kenya.
However, despite a threatened opposition boycott, millions of Kenyans now look likely to queue again outside the polling stations in the Rift valley, on the plains of the Maasai Mara, in the historic coastal city of Mombassa and in the capital itself.
“I am looking forward to it. This time we will get it right, I think,” said Matthew Mwange, a shopkeeper in Kilimani, an upscale neighbourhood in central Nairobi.
In areas where support for opposition candidates is high, there was anxiety. “There is tension all over,” said Alphonse Wire, a community mediator in the Nairobi slum of Mathare.
This is an election like no other ever held in Africa, taking place only because a poll in August, won by Kenyatta by nine percentage points, was annulled on procedural grounds by the Kenyan supreme court last month.
The decision was unprecedented on the continent and was viewed as a positive step showing the growing maturity of Kenya’s key institutions.
Yet early enthusiasm was soon tempered by the realisation that the judgment had plunged the east African nation into a crisis that does not look likely to end soon.
“The crystal ball is very cloudy at the moment … The situation is changing by the hour,” said a senior western diplomat in Nairobi.
Last week a senior member of the Kenyan Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) fled to New York, saying she was afraid for her personal safety and unwilling to be involved a poll that she said would not be credible.
The next day the body’s chairman admitted it would be difficult to guarantee the polls would go smoothly. “Ironically, the very people, political leaders, who are supposed to build the nations have become the greatest threat to the peace and stability of the nation,” Wafula Chebukati said.
Finally, the CEO of the IEBC announced a sudden departure on a three-week holiday on Friday. In the bizarre world of Kenyan politics, this was greeted as a possible breakthrough, prompting Raila Odinga, the opposition leader – whose legal challenge led to the decision to void the August poll, but who has sworn to boycott the coming election – to tell supporters he would announce “a way forward” before voting starts.
“We are not fools. Listen to me very carefully on Wednesday, October 25. On this day I will tell you how we will slay the cat,” the 72-year-old veteran politician, who has lost in four elections, told supporters.
There have been near-daily opposition protests by members of Odinga’s National Super Alliance (Nasa) against both the election body and the draft new electoral law, which the president has yet to sign. These have mostly been small and police have used teargas to quash them. Four people have died.
Both Odinga and Kenyatta, in power since 2013, have mixed uncompromising rhetoric with more conciliatory words. Kenyatta, 55, called for a weekend of “reconciliation and prayer” but warned that there would be no tolerance of “those who thrive in chaos and relish anarchy”.
Kenyatta will now compete against six other candidates, none of whom polled more than 1% in August, though Odinga will remain on the ballot paper and could yet decide to stand.
The crisis has spooked investors in the region’s most advanced economy. Last month Kenya lowered its 2017 economic growth forecast to 5.5% due to drought and political uncertainty.
But even if most analysts predict months of instability in even a best-case scenario, public opinion surveys show the court’s decision remains broadly popular in Kenya.
Patrick Gathara, a political cartoonist and commentator, argued that the crisis had provided Kenyans with “an object lesson in the workings and transformative power of the 2010 constitution”.
“In the world before [the supreme court decision], elections were routinely stolen with impunity and the credibility of the process was regularly sacrificed at the altar of expediency. For the first time, Kenyans have had a taste of a world where the law can tame state power – and they appear to like it,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
Many observers see developments in Kenya as an important indicator of the progress of democracy on the continent.
“There is a set of countries where democracy is well entrenched and gaining … and another set going the other way. These are diverging and we may end up with one [set] that are fairly well consolidated democracies and another of countries which are more authoritarian,” said Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development at the University of Birmingham.
In Rwanda, Paul Kagame has just won a further term as president with nearly 99% of the vote. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, in power since 1986, is hoping to change the constitution to allow him to remain in office.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila has remained in poweralmost a year beyond the end of his electoral mandate, with new polls now postponed until 2019. In Zimbabwe, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party have effectively shattered any real opposition.
Observers have also described the political struggle in Kenya as the final act of a dynastic rivalry between the families of Kenyatta and Odinga that has lasted more than half a century. Kenyatta is from the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic community, and Odinga from the Luo, which has long felt marginalised.