x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Kenyan PM denies warning of violence two days before vote

Monday's vote is the most important and complicated in the country's 50-year history, and despite efforts to promote peace, there are many reasons why the vote could turn tumultuous.

Supporters of Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, rally in Nairobi on Saturday, two days before the national election. Sayyid Azim / AP Photo
Supporters of Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, rally in Nairobi on Saturday, two days before the national election. Sayyid Azim / AP Photo

NAIROBI // Kenya's top two presidential candidates held their final rallies today before large and raucous crowds, but it was an interview with a British newspaper that upended the campaign's final days, with the prime minister quoted as saying violence could be worse than 2007-08 if he loses because of rigging.

Monday's vote is the first nationwide election since Kenya's December 2007 vote devolved into tribe-on-tribe violence that killed more than 1,000 people. Kenyan leaders and community groups have been working to ensure that massive violence isn't repeated, but fears linger that bloodshed will reappear.

The Financial Times in a story today quoted the prime minister, Raila Odinga - one of the two top presidential candidates - as saying he knows his opponents are planning to rig the vote and "I have warned them the consequences may be worse than last time round. The people will not stomach another rigging."

The paper also quotes him as saying that if he loses it will because of "blackmail and intimidation".

Mr Odinga, in a statement on Saturday, denied talking about violence in the interview and said he felt "absolutely slandered". The statement included a quote it said Mr Odinga gave the paper:

"I am aware that my opponents are scaring my supporters so that they can migrate from where they registered in order to cut the spread of my vote. It is a form of rigging and Kenyans will not accept it. However, the people they are pushing out constitute a drop in the ocean of my support. I will still win this election despite this dirty campaign."

The Financial Times did not release an audio recording of the interview.

The deputy prime minister, Uhuru Kenyatta - Mr Odinga's top challenger - called Mr Odinga's words "dangerous and inflammatory" and he called on Mr Odinga to retract them.

"We have in public, and our words and deeds throughout this election - all of us presidential candidates - committed to campaign in this election in peace, and just as importantly, to accept the result in peace," Mr Kenyatta said. "So then why is it that at the most delicate time in the election campaign Raila sought to use such dangerous, inflammatory words? In the interests of the people of Kenya he must publicly reject what he has said to this newspaper."

Rigging and cheating are a part of Kenyan elections, though international observers say they believe an improved electoral system will make widespread cheating harder this time. Many Mr Odinga supporters believe that President Mwai Kibaki stole the vote from Mr Odinga in 2007, a belief that propelled the violence.

Mr Kenyatta and his running mate - William Ruto - both face charges at the International Criminal Court over allegations they instigated the 2007-08 violence. If Mr Kenyatta wins, he may be forced to spend much of presidency before The Hague-based court.

Low-level election fraud was evident today, when a man approached an Associated Press reporter at Mr Kenyatta's rally and asked if the reporter wanted to buy a voter registration card for about Dh45. The man gave his name as Calvin Juma Hongo and said: "Why should I waste my time voting for these guys? They don't care about me. All I am thinking about now is how to look after my pregnant wife."

Mr Hongo is from the western Kenyan city of Kisumu - pro-Odinga territory - but he said he believes Mr Odinga will lose. He said he doesn't believe the election will be free and fair.

The Kenyatta rally - with thousands of people clad in red - reached a peak frenzy as two helicopters circled the downtown park as Kenyatta was arriving.

Julius Waweru, 25, who is studying to become an electrician, wore multiple Kenyatta hats. He said: "I support Uhuru Kenyatta because he is young, and we need to change this government for a younger generation."

Just down Nairobi's main street, perhaps 3 kilometres away, tens of thousands of supporters for Mr Odinga filled a sports stadium. Supporters held a dozen or so American flags aloft. Mr Odinga and President Barack Obama's father come from the same tribe.

Nicholas Owino, 56, a resident of Nairobi's Korogocho slum, wore a hat made of dozens of oranges, the colour of Odinga's party. Mr Owino said Mr Odinga has consistently fought for the rights of the poor.

"My life is not good and I have not benefited from my support of Odinga since 2004 but I am confident if he becomes president my children will benefit," said Mr Owino, who said he lost his grocery store during rioting of the 2007-08 violence and has not yet recovered it. More than 600,000 people were forced from their homes during the violence.

Monday's vote is the most important and complicated in the country's 50-year history. Despite efforts to promote peace, there are many reasons why the vote could turn tumultuous.

The Somalia militant group Al Shabab may try to attack voters or disrupt the vote; a secessionist group on Kenya's coast has threatened violence; new political divisions known as counties will see 47 new races for governor, creating sources of new friction; and tensions are high in some regions between Mr Odinga's tribe - the Luo - and Mr Kenyatta's tribe - the Kikuyu.