By: Michiel Willems
NAIROBI – Tens of thousands of students across Kenya have been ordered to return home as the country’s biggest election in years is only a week away.
Many schools and universities have started to close down while students are urged to return to their home towns as campaigns for hundreds of public offices are reaching the final stage.
The top job is also up for grabs on August 9, which will be the climax of a months-long fierce battle between politician veteran Raila Odinga and the current deputy president William Ruto, even though the latter fell out with outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta several years ago and he has effectively been operating outside government ever since.
In addition, hundreds of other public offices are being contested, including the governorship of Nairobi, local councils, all parliament seats and dozens of local and regional positions across the entire nation.
In an election campaign that is increasingly turning ugly, with accusations of corruption, land grabbing and power abuse flying left, right and centre, Kenyans are nervously awaiting what election day, and particularly its aftermath, will bring.
Ahead of next week, thousands of businesses are preparing to temporarily shut down, primarily to monitor whether the days immediately after the election will bring violence, rioting and looting.
Many offices, restaurants, bars, some larger supermarkets and most malls plan to close on the evening August 8, the day before Kenyans go to the polls, which is traditionally a public holiday.
Western embassies are on high alert and most have started sending pre-election warnings to their citizens, ranging from warnings to leave the country if you can to have your ‘grab and go bag’ ready.
People are urged to stay close to home and sock up on food, water, rice and pasta, if possible. Power outages and WiFi disruption is also expected next week.
A government official in Nairobi, who wishes to remain anonymous, told City A.M. yesterday that authorities are preparing for some election violence: “Yes, we have indications things may turn ugly in some places. There is a lot of activity on social media at the moment.”
Meanwhile, the first election observers from the European Union have been spotted in capital Nairobi.
A small army of EU representatives will be present at polling stations, primarily in Nairobi, Mombasa, Nakuru and a number of other cities across the country.
The main reason many Kenyans are increasingly on high alert is because millions have not forgotten the tense and bloody election in 2007, when president Mwai Kibaki’s re-election put a dent in his reputation as his victory was disputed by his opponent, Raila Odinga, who is the most likely candidate to become the nation’s next president later this month.
At the time, Odinga asserted that the election result had been rigged and that he had really won the poll. Hundreds of people were killed in weeks of ethnic violence that followed.
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Amid the stalemate, Kenya exploded into fighting along tribal lines that forced more than 600,000 people from their homes. The violence shattered Kenya’s standing as a beacon of stability in East Africa.
The international community led by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan eventually brokered a fragile power-sharing deal between Kibaki and Odinga, who settled for a new role as Kenya’s prime minister.
In the wake of the violence, Kibaki oversaw a new constitution for Kenya that was aimed at decentralising powers and reducing persistent ethnic tensions that continue to flare up during electoral seasons.
Following the bloody elections, four Kenyans faced charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands, in relation to the 2007-2008 violence.
Two of the four suspects were Uhuru Kenyatta, the current president, and William Ruto, the high-profile deputy president who hopes to become president next week.
Michiel Willems in Nairobi.
Michiel.Willems@Cityam.com / @Michielwil
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