Kenya on Wednesday stood at dangerous crossroads just hours to the presidential elections, with deep divisions between rival leaders, publicly-voiced doubt over the vote’s credibility.
This came on the heels of the Supreme Court failure to decide on whether to postpone the poll or not due to lack of column. The opposition had petitioned to have the polling date postponed
The opposition staged further protests, pursuing its vow to keep up the pressure from the street but also fuelling anxiety over potential violence on polling day and beyond.
Thursday’s drama is rooted in a decision by the same court to overturn the result of the first presidential election, which took place on August 8.
The annulment, based on irregularities in the electronic transmission of votes, was hailed as an opportunity to deepen democracy in a country plagued by disputed elections.
But the re-run has instead been dogged by chaos and acrimony.
Top diplomats and observers have excoriated both opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta for division instead of searching for a path to a free and fair election.
Two months of drama
The August poll unfolded peacefully before turning sour when Odinga called foul in the counting process.
He charged the election had been rigged in favour of Kenyatta, who was officially credited with 54 percent of the vote.
The election had been billed as the 72-year-old Odinga’s final shot at the top job after three previous failed attempts, including in 2007 and 2013 when he said victory was stolen from him.
The 2007 election, which observers agreed was deeply flawed, plunged the country into politically-motivated tribal violence that left 1,100 dead.
Politics in Kenya largely plays out along ethnic lines, and Odinga — a Luo — and Kenyatta — a Kikuyu — have continued a dynastic rivalry which began with their fathers after independence from Britain.
To the shock of many, Odinga won a petition on September 1 to have Kenyatta’s victory overturned.
The Supreme Court did not rule that there had been rigging, but pointed to widespread “irregularities” and mismanagement by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
A furious Kenyatta called the judges “crooks” and vowed to “fix” the judiciary if elected, however energetically turned back to the campaign trail to defend his victory.
Meanwhile Odinga embarked on a mission to obtain fundamental reforms of the IEBC, insisting the new election was on course to be as shoddily run as the last.
Calls for delay
Diplomats point to key changes by the IEBC ahead of the new election, but Odinga was not swayed and with two weeks to the vote declared he would not take part. He is yet to announce his way forward after failing to get results from the opposition.
But his followers have vowed to keep on with protests, which have turned deadly in his western stronghold of Kisumu, and — in the immediate aftermath of the August election — in Nairobi slums.
At least 40 people have been killed, mostly shot dead by police, since the first election.
The dramatic election has been hit by several bombshells.
Kenyatta’s ruling party pushed through parliament electoral law amendments that the opposition said would make it easier to rig the election.
The president, facing pressure from western diplomats, has yet to sign the law. The Daily Nation lashed the bill as “partisan, ill-conceived, poorly timed and deviously designed to lower the threshold in electoral management”.
Then, in a further blow to the ballot’s legitimacy, a top election official last week fled the country and quit her job, complaining about intimidation and threats against her staff and saying the poll could not be credible.
Just hours later her boss, IEBC chief Wafula Chebukati, echoed these sentiments, saying internal divisions and political interference from both sides meant he could not guarantee a free, fair and credible vote.
Envoys from 20 countries raised the alarm on Monday about the “deteriorating political environment.”
US Ambassador Robert Godec said that if the electoral commission felt it was not ready for Thursday’s poll, it should ask the courts for a delay.
“We would be fine with that,” he said.