In Kisumu

London Review of Books
Kisumu, Kenya

When people in Kisumu, in western Kenya, began voting on a Tuesday morning in early August it was more like a party than an election. At the Kenyatta Sports Ground, a large triangle of dirt and trees in the city centre, whistles blew, vuvuzelas honked and drums banged; there was shouting, laughing, singing, cheering, even dancing. Cigarette smoke and the smell of booze drifted up from boisterous clumps of young men. Other voters smiled and chatted as they queued in their hundreds, some with babies swaddled in polyester blankets. It was 4.45 in the morning, still dark and more than an hour before the polling stations were due to open, yet new arrivals were latecomers already. To work out which of the dozen growing lines of people they should join, they used the torchlights on their mobile phones to read lists of names taped to a breezeblock wall beside a sign declaring the availability of ‘Clean Executive Toilets & Bathroom’. At the front of each queue stood a police officer with an AK-type rifle. Behind each police officer, inside little pagoda tents, officials in yellow reflective vests branded IEBC (the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) worked by gaslight to prepare ballot boxes, papers and fingerprint-operated electronic voting machines.

Kenyan voters go beyond the grudging apathy of their Western counterparts: one person one vote isn’t a chore but something to celebrate. I met people who queued to vote and then drove about, col­lecting the elderly and infirm and ferrying them to polling stations. Ronald Ngala, a T­shirt beneath his dark suit jacket bearing the logo ‘Kenya Daima’ (‘Kenya for ever’ in Kiswahili), had arrived before midnight hoping to be the first to vote. ‘In 2013 I was sixth in line!’ His plan was to vote quickly then leap in his Toyota Corolla to fetch others for whom the journey to the polling station was too expensive or arduous, or who couldn’t be bothered. ‘Some people take voting for granted and they’re the same, same people who complain about bad leadership.’

I spent the day driving to polling stat­ions in different parts of Kisumu as the temperature soared towards 40°C. Long into the evening, diligent officials counted ballot papers, scanning the results into tablet computers and transmitting them to constituency and national tally centres. Late that night I came across a polling stat­ion next to a playground across the road from the Octopus Bottoms Up Club, where the returning officer and his colleagues had been at work for more than 24 hours. They were surrounded by empty soft-drinks bottles and a woman was asleep on the table. ‘I think the machine is tired too,’ the returning officer said as he struggled to scan the tally sheet.

Despite the exuberance of polling day, elections in Kenya are usually tinged with a degree of tension and fear. The ethnic logic of Kenyan politics means that pol­itical differences tend to resolve along ethnic lines. Since a ‘multi­party’ system replaced the one­-party state in 1992, all but one of past five elections have been scarred by violence. In 2007 more than 1100 people were killed and half a million made homeless during two months of politically motivated ethnic violence that tore through the Rift Valley, raging in the slums of Nairobi and across Kisumu. Trigger­happy police were responsible for a third of the killings. Others were carried out by tribal gangs using machetes, bows and arrows, rocks, clubs and arson.

As the poll approached last month, the gap between the leading candidates, Pre­sident Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Raila Odinga, the leader of the perennial Luo opposition, grew ever narrower. Each side appeared convinced it would win and that losing would be proof of the other’s fraud. Theirs is a dynastic rivalry stretching back half a century to Kenya’s independ­ence in 1963. Kenyatta, the 55­-year-­old millionaire son of the country’s first president, fought his campaign on the evid­ence of economic growth and big infra­structure, delivered during his first term, which began in 2013. Odinga, the 72­-year-old son of the country’s first vice president, campaigned against inequality and corrupt­ion. Both men formed alliances with pol­iticians from smaller tribes, and ethnic allegiances seemed to say more to the voters than any of the campaign rhetoric.

When I went to sleep late on Tuesday night it seemed as if Kenya had dodged a bullet. But in the small hours on Wednes­day morning Odinga rejected the provis­ional results from some polling stations published on the election commission website, which gave Kenyatta an early lead. Later in a televised press conference, Odinga, who is overwhelmingly popular in Kisumu, a Luo stronghold, dismissed the entire election as an ‘attack on democracy’ and said: ‘You can only cheat the people for so long.’ His followers in Kisumu were quick to react. From a distance an urban riot in Kenya is signalled by plumes of black smoke rising into the sky. Further in, tear gas prickles at the back of the nose and throat and stings the eyes. Then the sound of shouting, breaking glass, splint­ering rocks. Finally the sight of hundreds of young men, flaming barricades and boulders strewn across the road.

I headed for Kondele, a poor northern neighbourhood of Kisumu, with a large roundabout beneath a new multi­lane fly­over. ‘No Raila, no peace!’ the crowds chanted as tyres burned beside them. A contingent of around two dozen riot police advanced towards them, batons, shields and rifles at the ready. ‘No Raila, no peace!’ the protesters screamed as they fled from a volley of tear gas. Repairing to the flyover for a clear view I watched as a water truck extinguished a fire, which was relit moments later. A police helicopter circled. Protesters lobbed rocks and set new fires. ‘They should not do that,’ a man standing next to me said. ‘It is a waste of people’s resources. They are burning the things of the common wananchi’ (‘ordinary people’ in Swahili). A chorus of ‘Uhuru must go!’ from the protesters below was followed by the more dangerous ‘Kikuyus must go!’ Three of Kenya’s four presidents since independence, including Uhuru Kenyatta, have been Kikuyus.

Later, I joined a group of Kenyan, Eur­opean and American journalists to speak to some of the protesters. Some were drunk, some angry, some friendly. They performed for our cameras, brandishing rocks and leaping over tyres. Beyond them we found a contingent of police, sweating in helmets and flak jackets. A couple of cops sat in a pick­up, their G3 rifles point­ed at the crowd. The police, perhaps a dozen in all, were cut off front and rear by hundreds of protesters. So were we. As rocks began to rain down, and police fired into the crowd – first tear gas, then bullets, which we later worked out from the casings were blanks – we left . In our un­dignified retreat – we looked like members of a fetishists’ athletics club, in gas masks, goggles and protective headgear – we sought out alleys that would take us off the main road and away from the street fight­ing. The first was a dead end; in the second I spotted a muscular man in a tank top and woolly balaclava whirling a sling above his head. In due course we found a clear exit and ducked out, residents pointing us the way to safety. By nightfall the protesters had worn themselves out and the police had returned to their barracks.

The following morning opposition lead­ers claimed to have evidence of hacking and widespread rigging. They demanded that Odinga be declared president-­elect. The cry was taken up in Kondele where a crowd gathered once again, this time in celebration. Waving leafy branches and blowing vuvuzelas the crowd did a dishev­elled clockwise conga around the roundabout, singing as riot police looked on – but they must have known their celeb­rations were premature. A day later op­position officials staged a walkout at the national tally centre in Nairobi: enough of ‘fraudulent elections’. For a while that night I watched the results on a television in a bar in Kisumu, until the staff, sensing trouble was afoot, threw us out and padlocked the door. After reading out the result from every one of the 290 constit­uencies the election commission chairman declared Kenyatta the winner with 54 per cent of the vote.

The reaction was instant. I heard a woman wailing, then a man screaming in fury. The rumble of angry voices grew louder. Someone banged repeatedly on the corrugated iron sheets of the shacks in the marketplace. The helicopter was back, a searchlight scanning the slum. From behind us police in trenchcoats and tin helmets, carrying rifles and sticks, walked silently towards the orange glow of burn­ing tyres. Pops and bangs echoed around Kondele and its adjacent neighbourhoods. Soon, gunshots followed: too many, too fast, to be anything but live rounds. Were the police shooting into the air or into the crowd? The stand­offs and battles continued well into the night. Residents said police chased protesters and kicked down doors, filling homes with tear gas and beating the people they found inside. There were similar scenes in parts of Nairobi.

The next morning I visited the local hospital and found a man with a bullet wound in his chest. Another, unable to speak, had been shot in the jaw. A third was bandaged where a bullet had passed through his thigh. Michael Oluoch, sitting up on a gurney in the corridor, claimed not to be a protester: somewhat implausibly he said he had just been out shopping for meat. In any case, police had shot him too. He was 21. In another hospital a six­-month-­old girl, Samantha Pendo, was in a coma after police cracked her skull with a baton: her parents said it had happened when their house was raided.

Human rights groups believe that at least two dozen people died in the protests that followed the final election results: a relatively small number in the long history of political violence in Kenya. As Odinga and his colleagues prevaricated the pro­tests fizzled. People wanted to get back to work. A week after the election, Odinga said he would challenge the re­sults in the Supreme Court, calling Ken­yatta a ‘computer­-generated’ president, a reference to opposition allegations that the electronic tally system was hacked. The petition was filed on 18 August. When Odinga went to the courts after the 2013 election, he lost. This time he is calling for the election to be annulled and rerun. At the time of writing, the judges have seven days left to make their ruling.