Grey skies and stench of teargas mark vote in Kenya slums

Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Nairobi, Kenya

A barricade burns in the Nairobi slum of Mathare (Luis Tato/AFP)

“It is our right not to vote. We voted already in August and you see what happened,” said Joseph Otieno as he stood in the drizzling rain with a handful of youths boycotting Thursday’s presidential re-run. In Nairobi’s Mathare slum, a neighbourhood of rickety high-rises and tin shacks, mixed ethnicity and mixed political affiliation, some polling stations were deserted, while others opened late, attracting just a trickle of voters.

There was no sign of the thick snaking queues of voters that characterised the August election, whose results were annulled last month, unleashing weeks of acrimonious politicking and angry demonstrations which sometimes turned violent. Near a polling station at the Heidemarie primary school, a small group of young men stood blowing whistles and shouting. They were not voting.

All of them were Luos — members of the same tribe as opposition leader Raila Odinga, whose court challenge cancelled the August election victory of President Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, resulting in Thursday’s rerun. But he later pulled out of the poll, claiming it would be neither free nor fair, calling his supporters to observe a boycott.

The men lobbed occasional rocks in the direction of the polling station and mugged unfamiliar passersby for their mobile phones but Otieno, who is 25 and unemployed, said they weren’t stopping anyone from voting. “Those who want to vote, it’s their right,” he said, a wad of gloopy green khat in the corner of his mouth.

Also boycotting the vote was John Owuor, a 45-year-old electrician who, unable to find work, makes a living selling street snacks. But he had little hope anything would change. “It will not achieve much. Life will go on, people will feel the pinch and when they protest, security forces will be poured upon them,” he said with a shrug.

“They are expressing their anger. We are neighbours,” he said, meaning Luos, like himself, and Kikuyus. “But those who are voting are legitimising an illegal government.”

Elsewhere in the city, people were managing to cast their ballots — but the numbers weren’t huge. “Last time there were a lot of people, the queues were long,” said an election official at the Redeemed Gospel Church, a polling station with around 9,000 registered voters in Huruma, one of a necklace of slums that encircle Nairobi. “This is a different scenario.”

As the polling station opened shortly after 6:00 am, only a few dozen people were lined up on the grass outside, turned boggy by heavy overnight rains. Almost all of them were Kikuyus, members of the same tribe as Kenyatta. He is guaranteed an overwhelming victory thanks to the withdrawal of Odinga.

Susan Ndungu, a 40-year-old television saleswoman, was first in the female line to vote. “Last time it was nullified but the reality is we had voted! We have to vote now. Maybe the opposition won’t vote but we will vote.”

Back in August, turnout was around 80 percent with Kenyatta initially winning with 54 percent of the vote while Odinga took 45 percent. If the opposition boycott holds, turnout on Thursday was likely to be far lower — and Kenyatta’s figures far higher.

Those voting in Nairobi had only scorn for the boycotters. “They have a codswallop argument!” said 20-year-old business student Pius Muhoro after voting at the Redeemed Gospel Church. “It’s nonsense: whether they vote or don’t vote we will elect Uhuru.”