At a rally in this Kenyan village, the crowd cheered for presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, who is facing an international trial for his alleged role in post-election violence five years ago that left more than 1,000 people dead.
“Uhuru is innocent,” declared Vincent Muaswya, 42, a supporter. “He is being victimized by the West.”
At a rally in Nairobi, the trial was a key reason many said they were voting for Kenyatta’s main rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga. “We feel Uhuru has to clear his name first to become our leader,” said Jacqueline Atieto, 26, a teacher.
Kenyans vote Monday in the first national elections here since the disputed 2007 polls. The contests for a new president, parliament and local offices are unfolding against a volatile landscape — at least 200 people have been killed in politically linked attacks in recent months — and many fear that their nation could again descend into horrific violence.
After the 2007 vote, neighbors hacked neighbors to death and people were burned alive in the country’s worst violence since independence in 1963. More than half a million people were displaced in the fighting, which devastated the economy and shattered the country’s image as an oasis of stability. Then, as now, tribalism and land rights were divisive electoral issues.
The stakes are high for the United States and its allies, too. Kenya has been a model of economic development and is a key partner in the fight against al-Shabab, a militia linked to al-Qaeda in neighboring Somalia.
Eight candidates are vying to replace President Mwai Kibaki, who is stepping down after more than a decade in power. Polls indicate a tight race between Odinga and Kenyatta, who is currently deputy prime minister. Despite the presence of Western observers and the use of high-tech equipment to count votes, allegations of election rigging could surface in the close race. Tensions are already rising in some areas between Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribe and Odinga’s Luo, and police say hundreds of thousands of illegal weapons are in the hands of ordinary citizens.
U.S. and Western diplomats are concerned that al-Shabab might attack polling stations and other targets during the vote; the militia vowed to stage large-scale attacks in Kenya after the country sent troops to Somalia in 2011.
Many Kenyans are taking precautions. Slum dwellers in the capital have sent their children to villages. Middle-class Kenyans are stocking up on food, fuel and other supplies. And many expatriates have left the country, waiting out the elections in neighboring countries or back home.
Further complicating the elections is a new player: the International Criminal Court at the Hague, which is scheduled later this year to place four Kenyans, including Kenyatta and his running mate, William Ruto, on trial for alleged crimes committed after the last elections. Both men are accused of instigating mobs that killed and pillaged.
If Kenyatta and Ruto are elected, it would mark the first time that a nation has democratically elected two candidates indicted by the ICC.
Both Kenyatta and Ruto have said they are innocent and would face an ICC trial if they win. But the International Crisis Group wrote in a report in January that “regardless of the outcome of their cases, a president facing a lengthy trial before the ICC could potentially have extremely damaging implications for reform and foreign relations.”
Kenya depends on hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from Western nations. Last fiscal year, the United States alone gave $874 million in aid. Noncompliance with the ICC could lead to sanctions.
If the ICC issues arrest warrants for Kenyatta and Ruto, and if Odinga wins, he may have to order the apprehension of both men, raising the specter of clashes between their tribes. During the elections campaign, both sides have politicized the ICC case, deepening the ethnic divides.
Western donors have been unusually vocal in this election. Britain’s high commissioner declared on a local television station that Britain would not have any discussions with any of those indicted by the ICC “unless it was essential.” To many Kenyans, that suggested that Britain, one of Kenya’s biggest aid donors, would not deal with Kenyatta and Ruto if they are elected.
President Obama said last month that “the choice of who will lead Kenya is up to the Kenyan people.” Two days later Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, reiterated Obama’s comments but cautioned that Kenyans’ choice for president “must work with the international community.”
Kenya’s robust media interpreted Carson’s comments as suggesting that Kenyatta and Ruto may not be a wise choice. “US WARNS OF ICC CONSEQUENCES,” read a headline in the Star, a well-known local newspaper.
“Kenya is a sovereign country,” said Kenyatta supporter Muaswya. “I don’t see why the West should keep interfering.”
Kenyans remain divided over the ICC.
“If Uhuru Kenyatta is elected, we’re going to suffer for the next five years,” said Eunice Anne Ogana, 35, a teacher in Nairobi. “Because of the ICC case, we won’t get support from other countries.”
In Kinyui, where hundreds of Kenyatta’s supporters waited for hours to hear him speak, many refused to believe the ICC’s allegations. “The ICC case doesn’t matter,” said Anne Mukoma, 50, a shop owner. “In Kenya, we are so used to scandals. This is something small.”
At a rally last week sponsored by church figures, both candidates, as well as Odinga and four other contenders pledged to accept the election results and not incite violence, bringing cheers from the crowd of more than 15,000 people.
“They have come to repent!” cried one man. “Praise the Lord.”
Then Kenyatta stepped to the podium. “I, Uhuru Kenyatta, will tell all my followers to keep the peace. Kenya is bigger than any individual,” he said.
The crowd erupted in a deafening roar.