Photo: Kesse Sky-Buchanan
MERU, Kenya — Raila Odinga is brave to be holding a campaign rally here. This is PNU (Party for National Unity) territory, and Raila represents the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) — the opposition party in December’s elections. Kenyan politics are both colorful and violent, and venturing into another party or politician’s territory can be dangerous.
The people here in Meru are terrified that Raila will win the election. Most locals back Kibaki, the PNU incumbent, and fear that if Raila wins he'll cause a civil war. His campaigns have been reputedly steeped in violence; many fear his push for majimbo — a federalist reorganization of the government around a weakened central authority.
Many people here believe that majimbo will increase tribal tensions and divide the country into factions that will compete for resources and power. Stories of the candidate’s supporters causing violence, and accounts of Raila and his entourage eating at hotels and leaving without paying their bill, add to a growing sense of lawlessness surrounding his campaign.
Campaigns in Kenya can be more personality- than platform-driven, so these sorts of negative stories can have a strong influence on voters’ decisions.
The day before the rally, news spread that some Meru residents had been murdered in Raila's hometown. It turned out to be a rumor, common once campaigns get rowdy in Kenya, but we did not find this out until after the rally.
When I arrived at the rally and took my place between layers of people on the sidewalk, I could feel the air ready to explode. Raila had a stage set up just off of the main road in Meru. He did not arrive until around 4 p.m., but the streets had been bursting with people since 7 a.m.
The crowd of Kibaki supporters would scream "PNU, PNU!" every time a car drove past. The sidewalks were lined with people dressed in PNU blue as far as I could see. The blue faded with the road as it twisted out of town. People were yelling and cheering and dancing. The police had sent in for reinforcements and were dressed in full riot gear and military clothes as they walked up and down the road with their clubs.
There were whispers and rumors that "killings will happen." I started to get nervous. I wasn't supposed to be here and as a white Western woman I quite obviously stood out. One guy next to me looked at me curiously and said, "Even you want to see this." I was starting to feel uneasy enough to consider leaving. The tension was almost unbearable. The muggy heat under the dark sky felt pregnant with violence.
Photo: Kesse Sky-Buchanan
Then I saw a smiling face. A man made his way over to me. We started talking about politics and luckily this man, Titus, took me under his wing. I felt secure enough to stay and take some photos.
We heard Raila before we saw him. A wave of "PNU! PNU!" Swept through the street, coming from around the bend where all disappeared. The air was electric. I knew something big was going to happen. People started making their moves. There was commotion all around me. Raila drove up in his convoy, dressed in a shocking orange, the color for ODM. Rocks began raining on him.
There were too many people to see what was happening. I was caught in a spiral of chaos and movement, charging, rushing, spinning, trampling. "Run!" Titus yelled at me. We plowed through the madness to the side of the street, where a water-filled ditch separated the concrete from a steep, grassy embankment. Titus threw me over the water and a man on the other side grabbed my hand and pulled me up. "You are very small, you could get stepped on," the man understated sagely. I thought to myself that an elephant could get trampled amidst this crowd.
From the incline of the embankment, we were able to watch the movement of those below us. I saw police grab several people and beat them with their clubs. People screamed and threw more rocks. There was too much activity for my brain to organize into any sort of sense — it was just a sea of people and crashing movement. Another man bolted toward a police officer with a huge crowd following him. He tried to fit between the policeman and his clear riot shield. Titus explained to me that the man was an ODM supporter afraid for his life and wanted the policeman to protect him.
There was more running and dizziness. Whenever a crowd rushed toward us, we ran, too, fearing whatever unknown assailant was behind them. Then the tear gas began. I saw the clouds rise up above the biggest groups of people. The spray puckered in my lungs and mixed with my already-sore throat. My contacts shielded my eyes only for a moment, then the pungent stinging began.
Seconds later, the sounds of gunshots peppered through the noise of the crowd. We ran as if our lives depended on it. I couldn't tell if the gunshots were warning shots being fired in the air or shots sent through the crowd itself. I assumed they would just be warning shots, but I have learned in my short time here that this is Africa and in Africa, you cannot afford to assume anything. We tumbled around the mob, running and slipping in the mud. We took refuge in the nearby police station, ducking through the barbed wire.
Things began to settle down a bit as the rally got underway. Raila could not even be heard on his scratchy microphone over the chants of "PNU!" drowning him out. The next day Raila was quoted in the newspaper as saying, "Meru will be crying when I am president" (though this quote was later disputed as another vicious campaign rumor.
I knew more violence was apt to take place after the rally and I had no desire to stand out so much when things really started getting insane, so I said goodbye to Titus and prepared to head back home. As I was leaving, Titus asked me if this is what presidential campaign rallies were like in the United States.
"Not exactly," I said, as I tried to sneak back through the crowd unnoticed.
President Obama just wrapped up a major national security speech, defending drone policy but rejecting the notion of a “boundless global war on terror.”
In a little over a year, Mali has gone from a tourist destination to the newest front in the War on Terror. A former visitor reflects on how life has changed for the friends she made in Mali.
Yvonne Rogell, aka the Bitter Baker, gave an Italian focaccia bread demo during the Seattle Globalist Live Variety Show on May 15th. Relive the tasty magic and follow the recipe at home.
In a stunning turnaround, Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki has declared victory and been sworn in for his second term. Just two days ago, on Dec. 28, opposition candidate Raila Odinga seemed to be the sure winner with 57 percent of the vote, and even prematurely declared victory himself. But his lead quickly eroded in the following days.
The final count Sunday gave Kibaki a slim 2 percent margin of victory, leading many observers to reference U.S. presidential election results in Florida in 2000. But unlike that election, supporters of the losing candidate have taken to the streets to contest the results. Rioting has broken out in several cities, largely along ethnic lines, with Luo supporters of Odinga battling police and, according to some reports, beating and burning the homes of Kikuyu neighbors.
Many outside observers and diplomats have expressed skepticism of the legitimacy of the election results.
"A good number of Kibaki strongholds were delayed in reporting their results," explained CLP correspondent Ernest Waititu. "It is believed that this was a plot to establish how many votes they needed to doctor the presidential tally and ensure a win for the incumbent. The incumbent has in the past shown himself to be a democrat in spirit, but that doesn't negate the fact that there was probably manipulation of votes because he wanted to stay in power."
Questionable vote counts and the ensuing violence come as a stain on the image of the country, which has been hailed as a beacon of stability and democracy in Africa.
Incumbent Mwai Kibaki.
Opposition Leader Raila Odinga.