By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 31, 2007
NAIROBI, Dec. 30 -- As allegations of vote-rigging stoked protests and ethnically charged riots across this East African country Sunday, President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of the closest presidential election in Kenya's history and swiftly sworn in for a second term.
As Kibaki took the oath of office on the green statehouse lawn, gray smoke rose from the sprawling tin-shack slums that are the strongholds of his main challenger, opposition firebrand Raila Odinga, who had been leading in opinion polls and refused to accept results he said were fixed.
A close legal adviser to Odinga said the opposition leader would not challenge the results in court, which could take years, but would "take our case to the court of public opinion," the streets.
As the sun set, thousands of ardent Odinga supporters raged through the muddy, foot-worn paths of Nairobi's biggest slum, Kibera, wielding nail-studded sticks, heavy rocks, hammers, machetes and flasks of alcohol, setting ablaze a market run mainly by Kibaki's tribe, the Kikuyu, and continuing on.
"The president is Raila!" the rioters shouted, banging the machetes on tin roofs before tearing them down. "No Raila! No peace! They have rigged the election!"
"The problem in Africa is people cannot accept defeat -- why?" said Kelley Omondi, 26, who pulled from his pocket a napkin scrawled with the results. "We are not protesting for nothing. . . . If Kibaki had won in a fair manner, we would agree."
By Sunday night, at least 15 people had been killed across the country as an election that began as one of the most open and competitive in Kenyan history descended into mistrust and chaos.
It was the second multiparty vote since Kenya, one of East Africa's most promising democracies and biggest economies, gained independence from Britain in 1963.
The contest came down to a race between Kibaki, a gentlemanly economist praised for his stewardship of Kenya's recent boom, and Odinga, a gloves-off crusader who promised to distribute the wealth more equitably, fight corruption and champion the poor.
But an undercurrent of tribalism ran through the campaign season, with Odinga accusing Kibaki of favoring his own ethnic group and raising suspicions that his inner circle would never relinquish power.
The announcement of Kibaki's victory came nearly three full days after Kenyans voted in record numbers -- and largely along tribal lines -- in an election that international observers had initially praised as peaceful and a model for democracies across the continent.
Especially in Nairobi's poorest enclaves, where domestic workers, peanut hawkers and others seemed eager for change, people stood in sweaty lines for more than eight hours to vote.
With results Friday showing that most of Kibaki's cabinet, including his vice president, had been swept from power, there was a growing expectation that Odinga would win, which would have marked the first time a Kenyan president had been ousted.
Particularly among his own ethnic group, the Luo, there has been a sense of destiny surrounding Odinga, a former political prisoner widely viewed as a champion of multiparty democracy whose father was a key figure in Kenya's independence movement.
By Sunday, however, tensions swept the country as the announcement of the final results was delayed and charges of vote-rigging flew. Owners of supermarkets and shops chained their doors in anticipation of riots.
International election observers expressed concern. Election chairman Samuel Kivuitu complained that some election officials from Kibaki strongholds had "gone underground" with their vote tallies, raising suspicions that they were stuffing ballot boxes.
When Kivuitu finally appeared in a conference hall packed with reporters Sunday to announce the winner, the situation degenerated into chaos.
Odinga and his entourage interrupted the announcement, marching into the hall claiming to have evidence that tallies from the field did not match those reported to the commission. They produced one local election official who said he was pressured to sign a tally sheet with inflated numbers.
A shouting and shoving match ensued, and soon Kivuitu was whisked out of the hall and up to a meeting room where he finally announced the results to a small group of reporters.
"This means Honorable Mwai Kibaki is the winner," he said blandly, as truckloads of riot police fanned out across the capital.
In a statement, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, chief of the European Union observer mission, noted irregularities including a final tally from one polling center that had nearly 25,000 more votes for Kibaki than officials had announced on election day.
"Because of this and other observed irregularities, some doubt remains as to the accuracy of the result," he said.
U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger said that although there were "problems with the process," the United States would accept Kivuitu's announcement.
"Look at the U.S.," he said, just before Kivuitu announced the results. "The results are often disputed, and if there's a dispute, there are the courts. I'm optimistic that what happens today will not alter the course of Kenya."
As riots shook parts of Nairobi and other major cities, Kibaki told Kenyans to "embrace one another as brothers and sisters" and declared Monday a national holiday.
Soon after, he suspended live television coverage. Stations that had been airing election news almost nonstop suddenly began showing reruns of "ER" and music videos.
The streets were mostly empty. Many people had stocked up on milk, water and food earlier in the day, expecting to remain holed up at home for at least two days of rioting.
At sundown, police helicopters hovered over fires burning across the poorest neighborhoods of Nairobi, where Joshua Mukabwa, a Luo, stood in the smoky haze.
"We are telling all Kikuyus -- we want them all to go back to Central province, and we should have two countries in Kenya," he said.
Among other boozy young Kikuyu and Luo men, tensions seemed to turn to bloodlust.
Walking along an empty street near Kibera, Andrew Ndegwa, who is Kikuyu, said he'd barely escaped a machete-wielding crowd where he lives, and where his wife and baby son remained Sunday night.
"I've just escaped from that place," he said. "They are just going house to house and if they find any Kikuyu, they just start cutting. I'm very afraid."
Special correspondent Charles Wachira contributed to this report.