When The National Alliance opened its headquarters last year there was much talk of an Obama-style campaign and a grassroots youth movement.
The headquarters of the party-political vehicle that Kenya’s richest man, Uhuru Kenyatta, hopes will propel him to the presidency would be the nerve centre of a truly national campaign, its organisers boasted.
With 48 hours until polls open in Kenya, all that remains at Promiso House, in Nairobi’s rundown Eastlands areas, is a dusty warehouse with a giant banner that reads “I believe”. There are no phone banks, just piles of red TNA hats – robust, well-stitched ones for VIPs and cheap, flimsy ones for “the people”, a campaign worker explains.
As East Africa’s biggest economy braces for its first general election since the nightmarish events of early 2008, the veils have fallen to reveal a campaign in which the elite has treated ordinary voters with a complacency bordering on contempt. Five years ago a botched attempt by the incumbent President, Mwai Kibaki, to steal the election was taken as a cue to release a premeditated wave of violence. Kenya’s political barons marshalled armies drawn from the young and unemployed in their respective communities and set them against each other with guns and machetes. The killing was allowed to continue until events on the ground had given various politicians the seat they wanted at the negotiating table for a power-sharing government. Part of the internationally brokered peace deal that emerged called for those “most responsible” for orchestrating the violence to be tried at a tribunal in Kenya or at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. In the capital’s slums, the lakeside city of Kisumu and the towns of the Rift Valley, some 1,300 people died and hundreds of thousands lost their homes.
Tabita Nyambura was one of the unlucky ones. A smallholder from Kenya’s largest tribe, the Kikuyu, she eked out a living on the outskirts of Eldoret, a town on the northern escarpment of the Great Rift Valley that is famous for its long-distance runners. When the backlash began after President Kibaki, also a Kikuyu, was accused of stealing the vote, it was people like Mrs Nyambura who bore the brunt. She fled for her life when her home was burned down by youths from the Kalenjin community, another of Kenya’s larger tribes. For more than four years the 42-year-old and her children survived in an overcrowded camp hundreds of miles away.
Since last August she has been trying to build a new home on scrubland outside Nyeri in the Kikuyu heartlands. After years of delays and complaints of corruption the government has given about 1,500 families small plots, some timber and an iron roof. She still has plastic sheeting for walls and has tried to cheer up the bleak interior with colourful election posters. There is no electricity yet, the nearest water is a couple of kilometres away, and shops are even farther afield.
“When we arrived it was just savannah, there was nothing here,” she says. But Mrs Nyambura refuses to complain. She has planted maize, is rearing chickens and says she is happy to be delivered to a safe place.
While the Nyamburas were still sitting in the squalor of the camp the ICC charged four ringleaders in the post-election violence, including the Kalenjin politician William Ruto and the man who is now seen as the leader of her community, Uhuru Kenyatta. Despite the indictment from The Hague accusing them of marshalling their tribes against each other, the son of the country’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, and his supposed enemy, Mr Ruto, formed an alliance dubbed the “coalition of the accused”. Amid the struggle for survival faced by the two-thirds of Kenyans who earn just $2 a day, a long memory is a luxury few can afford. Mrs Nyambura has dutifully changed her view of Mr Ruto now he is the running mate of her community’s big man. “It’s changed because they have come together to bring peace,” she says.
On the plains of her new, nameless village, motorbikes ply the dirt furrows flying red TNA flags and even the donkeys have party fliers stuck to their foreheads. But not everyone has forgiven and forgotten.
Yussuf Morevi has an angry scar on his Adam’s apple where three Kalenjin men tried to cut his throat with a machete. Mr Ruto is a “bad man” and while “we can give him the vice presidency” he will never be allowed the top job, he says. Most voters recognise that the tribal alliances cobbled together for Monday’s vote are marriages of convenience based on arithmetic, not ideology. There are no great policy divides, says political commentator Murithi Mutiga: “It’s an ethnic census as much as an election.” The poll’s urgency comes from the fact that it is Raila Odinga’s last chance for the presidency and the threat of the ICC makes it a “life and death battle” for Mr Kenyatta.
The quietly spoken Mr Kenyatta was a reluctant heir to the political power that came with the $500m fortune he inherited – rated by Forbes as Kenya’s largest. He has none of the common touch of his rival Raila Odinga, Kenya’s Prime Minister and de facto leader of the Luo community, from which Barack Obama’s father hailed. Despite months of practice, the 52-year-old appears awkward and exhausted at the frenzied rallies he flies into in his helicopter. After thanking “hardworking voters” in English he switches to Gikuyu and begins to attack Mr Odinga as a “kimundu”, or “monster” in his native language.
Close friends say that it was only the 50-year sentence the ICC handed down to former president of Liberia Charles Taylor last year that stirred him into action. “We tried to persuade him that he could beat the ICC case and run next time,” says a family friend who asked not to be named. “After that he didn’t trust anyone to protect him.”
Jack Kanyingi, a well-to-do stockbroker in Nyeri who admits that he “hates politics”, says that Kenya’s tribalism started with the fathers of Monday’s main contenders – Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga – who were rivals after independence 50 years ago. Elections are “bad for business”, he complains and “if there were no ethnic politics we would go far”. But like so many other Kenyans, when the polls open he will be hoping for a peaceful outcome and voting for the man from his own community.