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After Campaign Full Of Drama, Kenyans Head To Polls

Even before sunrise, Kenyans began lining up to cast their vote for president.

At the Kibera Primary School in the heart of Nairobi's biggest slum, the lines snaked around corners.

Christine Siambe, 18, was all smiles.

"In Kenya, we need free and fair elections," she said. "If we get that, we'll all agree."

For this election, Kenya has ushered in a decentralized electronic reporting system and a biometric identification system that makes it much harder for elections to be rigged. At this polling station in a neighborhood that burned after the disputed 2007 elections, hope was in the air.

"We believe and we just pray that these elections will be fair," Siambe said.

In a lot of ways, these elections also seem monumental. They are likely the last breath of a rivalry that was born at independence in 1964. President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is seeking a second term, is the son of Kenya's first president. His opponent Raila Odinga is the son of Kenya's first vice president.

Back in the '60s, the two men disagreed and went their own way, setting up the country's main tribal rivalry — the one that fueled the post-election violence in 2007 and 2008 that left more than 1,000 Kenyans dead. Odinga, who has never won the presidency, has said this is his fourth and final bid and Kenyatta is constitutionally bound to two terms.

In Kibera, Oyugi Otieno, 25, was confident that this time history here in Kenya would be different. This time, with a more mature voting system, the opposition — Odinga, his tribe and his allies — would finally rise to power.

"Power is not given, it is taken," he said. "And I'm here to take power."


The past few weeks brought a dramatic end to Kenyan's presidential campaign. First, the vice president's rural home was attacked by a machete-wielding intruder and a little more than a week before elections, the man in charge of Kenya's electronic voting system was murdered.

Chris Msando had spent the previous weeks on television telling Kenyans that the new decentralized, electronic voting system was rig proof. According to the autopsy, Msando was tortured. One of his hands was broken and he had deep cuts on his forearms. Ultimately, the coroner found, he likely died after someone strangled him with their bare hands.

Needless to say, tensions are running high in the country. In the days leading up to the vote, Kenyans stocked up on essentials at the supermarket. Many of Nairobi's informal settlements, which are known for their ethnic diversity, began to empty as Kenyans took buses to their tribal homelands where they feel safe.

On the eve of the elections, President Kenyatta gave a nationally televised address. It was a sober plead that Kenyans exercise their right to vote, but that they also not let politics turn neighbors against their neighbors.

"No matter the result of this election, we must stand together as one people," Kenyatta said. "Above all we must reject intimidation, we must reject violence."


As morning turned to afternoon in Kenya, most polls seemed to be functioning with few irregularities. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission said electoral materials had to be helicoptered into certain parts of the country which were cut off by recent heavy rains. Some polling places opened later than usual and in at least one location ballots were stamped "rejected" by a clerk. Reuters reported that it took three tries for Kenya's new biometric system to recognize President Kenyatta's finger print.

People gather to vote at Olympic Primary School in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday.
Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images
Getty Images
People gather to vote at Olympic Primary School in the Kibera neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya on Tuesday.

To Kenneth Okoth, a member of parliament and a member of the opposition, things looked generally good, despite the fact that some of his constituents were not listed on the voter register. It was still early, he said, but what has been tricky historically in Kenya is the counting.

"We are concerned that at the time of counting, will the counting be done well?" he said. "There's always drama, the stakes are high, so let's be vigilant. I think if we relax that's when bad things happen."

At the polling station in Kibera, Fatuma Rehan Juma, 58, had just finished voting. She was showing her ink stained finger to her friends.

Her life here in Kenya is difficult, he said. She wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning to make the samosas and other snacks she sells on the streets.

"I don't rest even an hour," she said and sometimes the money she makes is just not enough to feed herself and her three grandchildren.

"Me, as a person, I need change, I want change," she said.

She was born and grew up in Kibera and this is the first time ever, she believes that change is possible.

"All the loopholes have been closed," she said. "And even if they rig, now Kenyans know everything. They know their right. Before we didn't know. You could not even talk. You could not even raise your voice, but now we can."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.