Kenyans vote amid fears of rigging

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Chaos at polling stations and small pockets of violence failed to dampen enthusiasm across Kenya yesterday as the country went to the polls in one of the closest elections Africa has ever witnessed.

Opinion polls have put the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and his challenger, the former political prisoner, Raila Odinga neck and neck with most just giving Mr Odinga the edge and predicting that Mr Kibaki will be the first president to be ousted at the ballot box in the east African country.

President Kibaki has touted his introduction of free primary education and a rate of economic growth that has reached 7 per cent this year. His critics claim that he has failed to tackle corruption and complain that the fruits of the economy are not being enjoyed by all.

The election has also been seen by many as a battle of tribes. Mr Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) has claimed the President's own Kikuyu tribe has benefited greatly during his time in office, while other tribes have been left by the wayside. Mr Kibaki's Party for National Unity (PNU) has in turn alleged that Mr Odinga, an ethnic Luo, is intent on splitting Kenya along tribal lines.

Mr Odinga has huge support in Nairobi's Kibera slum considered to be one of the largest in Africa where he is known as "Agwambo, Agwambo" or "Warrior, Warrior". In a long queue outside the slum's Olympic primary school, Philip Adoda, a 33-year-old with two children, complained that the economy's growth under Mr Kibaki had only helped the rich. "What is GDP? For me, the price of bread is what matters. Commodities are very high I go without lunch every day."

Like most Luos, Mr Adoda voted for the current President in the most recent elections, when he was strongly backed by Mr Odinga. "I thought we would have a change. He is not my tribe but I voted for him. Today, I'm voting him out."

There have been fears in the run-up to polling day, many of them voiced by Mr Odinga himself, that the government would try to rig the election. Rumours have been flying around Nairobi about offices full of marked ballot papers.

Three policemen were killed on Boxing Day after they were accused of being disguised as PNU party agents trying to stuff ballot boxes. PNU has denied the allegations and the electoral commission has not found evidence to back them up.

Violence has marred previous elections and yesterday the main newspapers and election officials urged voters to remain calm. In a front-page editorial, the Daily Nation, Kenya's biggest- selling newspaper, wrote: "It's not a war, it's only an election."

As voting drew to a close, there were reports of gunmen shooting dead one man and wounding two others near a polling station in the slum. Police called it an "act of thuggery" but the opposition said the attack was against three of its agents.