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Kenyans take no chances ahead of high-stakes election

Travelers waiting to board buses leaving for upcountry at Machakos County Bus terminus in Nairobi on August 6, 2017, a day to the general elections. In recent days, the queues of early morning travellers at Nairobi's long-distance bus stations have been thick with people seeking to leave the city. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Travelers waiting to board buses leaving for upcountry at Machakos County Bus terminus in Nairobi on August 6, 2017, a day to the general elections. In recent days, the queues of early morning travellers at Nairobi’s long-distance bus stations have been thick with people seeking to leave the city. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

In recent days, the queues of early morning travellers at Kenya capital Nairobi’s long-distance bus stations have been thick with people seeking to leave the city.

In supermarkets, the aisles are cramped with shoppers pushing trolleys stacked high with provisions.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s elections the signs were clear: a tight race and a history of political violence meant many Kenyans were taking no chances.

Some will vote in their rural areas, where they are already registered, but others are trading their franchise for safety.

“You cannot predict how the situation will be,” Ezekiel Odhiambo told AFP at a Nairobi bus terminus after putting his five daughters on a bus headed to the countryside.

Worries

Worries like these are common around election time in Kenya, exacerbated by memories of the bloody months after the disputed 2007 elections when politically-motivated ethnic violence killed at least 1,100 people and displaced 600,000 others.

This year, security chiefs say there will be 180,000 officers on the streets — everyone from the police to the forest service — to ensure the vote is at least as peaceful as it was during Kenya’s last election in 2013.

Still, people are “hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” said Peter Wairimu, a petrol station attendant, where sales have dropped in recent weeks as people have left town.

Getting Ready

The two main candidates in this election are well-known to Kenyans.

Uhuru Kenyatta has been president since 2013 and is gunning for a second term, while Raila Odinga is a long-time opposition leader who disputed his defeat in both 2007 and 2013 elections.

In the run-up to this week’s vote, both candidates have refrained from making inflammatory speeches, observers say, perhaps a consequence of the International Criminal Court’s now-abandoned indictment of President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto for their alleged roles in the 2007 bloodshed.

Yet people are nervous.

Hate Speech

Hate speech flyers and text messages have been circulating.

At the same time, both candidates have accused each other of underhanded campaign tactics and seem convinced that anything other than victory will be evidence of rigging.

Many Kenyans simply do not trust their politicians not to stir up trouble.

Editar Ochieng, a resident of the Nairobi’s Kibera slum where clashes broke out in 2007, has sent her two daughters out of town for the duration of the elections.

“I don’t want to play a 50-50 betting game. I want to be sure,” she said.

Businesses have also taken precautions, with local newspapers reporting that employees are being advised to gather supplies and family members and keep the number of a doctor handy.

A ‘Frenzy’

The Inspector-General of Police Joseph Boinnet police chief and the Interior ministry have tried to reassure Kenyans that they have nothing to fear, but people are hitting the road and stocking their pantries anyway.

“There is a frenzy right now,” said Hanif Rajan, the group operations manager of the Chandarana supermarket chain.

Five months ago, he put in extra orders for essentials like water, rice, batteries and frozen ground beef, anticipating the election-time rush.

Down at Nairobi’s Machakos bus station, transport companies have more than doubled fares on some routes, but that has not stopped a surge in commuters who line up before dawn each morning for a bus to western Kenya, one of Mr Odinga’s strongholds.

Travellers

Those travellers may represent votes that Mr Odinga desperately needs to win what is probably the 72-year-old’s last run at the presidency.

Recently, a politician from Odinga’s National Super Alliance opposition coalition asked ticket agents at the station to check the voting card of travellers to make sure they were registered where they are travelling to, said Lary Taja, an agent at Machakos bus station.

“We inspect them at times such that when we find the vote belongs here, we ask them to stay and vote and then travel home later,” bus driver Chelule Julius said.

Despite the movement, many Kenyans are staying put, confident that this election will go peacefully.

“I’m not worried,” said Rajan. “The doomsayers will always be there.”

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