Millions of Kenyans queued for up to ten hours under fierce equatorial sun yesterday to vote in an election that was marred before it began when 15 people died in overnight attacks near the Indian Ocean coast.
Ten of those killed were police officers or reservists guarding polling stations. A secessionist group that had threatened to disrupt the vote was blamed.
But the attacks, which took place before polling started at 6am, were the only significant eruptions of violence, despite concerns over the risks of clashes such as those that followed the last election in 2007.
Then, 1,100 people died and 600,000 were violently evicted from their homes, as supporters of rival politicians fought after the count was seen to have been rigged.
Kenya is under enormous international pressure to ensure there is no repeat of that this time. Close to 100,000 soldiers, police, prison guards and reservists were stationed at 33,400 polling stations across the country, and patrolled potential flashpoints in between. More than 22,000 election observers monitored the polls.
A dozen people contacted in towns and villages across Kenya yesterday said the process was peaceful, but many reported problems with a new computerised voter identification system.
Peter Mwangi, whose grandmother died in a fire at a church started by supporters of rival politicians after the last election, said there was “no tension” in Kiambaa, 190 miles north-west of the capital, Nairobi. “The only problem is that this thing is complicated,” he said. “People are taking long to vote, and the machines are causing problems. People don’t understand exactly what they are doing.”
This is Kenya’s most complicated, and expensive, general election, costing in excess of £170 million. The 14.4 million voters chose from 12,461 candidates for six positions, from president to local assemblymen.
Kennedy Omondi, 31, was the first voter into Polling Station No 6 at the Olympic Secondary School in Kibera, one of Nairobi’s largest shanty towns.
“I woke up at 4am and was here 30 minutes later,” he said, as the rising sun lit up the thousands of voters waiting to follow him into the polling station.
“Voting to me is the thing that makes all Kenyans equal. Whether you are a rich man or a poor man, everyone has one vote. It is our right as Kenyans.”
Close to ten hours later, Jotham Mukiira, who had also queued since 6am, was ushered into his polling station in Nairobi’s city centre.
“It’s taken all day, but there was no way I was going to leave that line. I was determined to vote,” he said. “This affects the direction our country will take for the next five years. Nothing can be more important.”
Both leading presidential candidates, prime minister Raila Odinga, 68, and former finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta, 51, made 11th-hour appeals to ensure their supporters voted.
A quick count at five polling stations in Nairobi late yesterday resulted in estimated turnouts mostly above 85 per cent, which would be Kenya’s highest ever.
Counting began last night, and the result was expected today or tomorrow.
However, despite peaceful voting, there were still intense concerns that any suggestion the final result was not fair could cause chaos.
Mr Odinga’s camp has alleged that government officials have been illegally campaigning for his rival, who denies that.
Mr Kenyatta himself faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court over accusations he bankrolled some of the last election violence. He denies that.
The high stakes for both men mean their supporters fervently believe their man must win.
Christabel Anyona, a health charity worker who voted at a school in an upmarket Nairobi suburb, was worried. “I’m not confident that people have learned anything after the last election,” she said after waiting three hours to vote.