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Ethnicity Likely to Play Part in Kenya Elections

A political suspense thriller is unfolding in Kenya. No fewer than nine candidates are running for president — but from nearly every angle, it is a two-man race.

The incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, and his main challenger, Raila Odinga, were at one time allied in the struggle to overthrow a 24-year autocracy in the country. But what a difference a democracy makes.

There are eight voting provinces in Kenya, and a candidate must win one-quarter of the vote in five of them to become president. One-quarter of the vote sounds like a pretty low bar. That's the kind of law that can allow a bully to hog power.

Former President Moi

Former Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi, for example, took the oath of office after winning less than 40 percent of the vote — nationwide.

"President Moi, in the 1992 election, got about 37 percent, I believe," says Mani Lemayian, the spokesman for the Electoral Commission of Kenya. "[In] 1997, he also had a smaller percentage — less than 37 percent. The opposition had the numbers, but they didn't have the provinces."

It took a constitutional amendment to bring about term limits and the end of the Moi franchise.

In 2002, all of Moi's political rivals got together, formed their own party and defeated his hand-chosen successor. Moi's rivals had each worked for him at one time or another, and each wanted to be his successor. But Raila Odinga, the son of a former vice president, made the call. He chose Mwai Kibaki as the opposition's presidential candidate, saying, "Kibaki is enough." It was the political thriller of the century.

Kibaki's Successes and Failures

Under Kibaki's pro-capitalist leadership, East Africa's biggest economy got even bigger. The Kibaki administration also eliminated school fees for elementary students, lifting a terrific burden from the nation's poor.

"To those who refuse to recognize our achievements and continually focus on our weaknesses as a nation at home and abroad, I say to you today, you cannot move forward by continuously looking behind you," Kibaki said on Kenya's Independence Day.

But Kibaki's promises to get a handle on corruption have gone nowhere. The nation's top corruption investigator was hounded out of the country by death threats, and the politically connected masterminds behind Kenya's most egregious corruption scandals are still at large — or in government.

Whatever the understanding was between the new president and his fellow opposition party leaders, Kibaki apparently did not make good on his end of the deal. Raila Odinga had expected to take a leading role in the new government, but that did not materialize, and Odinga, a rabble-rouser with a long and colorful history of political fallouts, broke witk Kibaki.

Ethnicity Likely to Play Part in Outcome

Pollster Alan Abongo, and many others, say ethnicity will decide this vote.

"There is overwhelming support from where each particular candidate comes from," Abongo says.

Kibaki hails from the largest ethnic group — called the Kikuyu. They are based in Central Kenya. The Mau Mau rebellion, which helped bring independence from Britain, was a Kikuyu uprising. And Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of independent Kenya, was Kikuyu.

Odinga represents the Luo, the nation's second-largest ethnic group. The Luo are rooted in Western Kenya, near the Ugandan border. No Luo has ever been president of Kenya, although Odinga's father at one time was vice president. Many of them feel it is their turn.

But rules are rules, and neither the Kikuyu nor the Luo are big enough to single-handedly win five out of Kenya's eight voting provinces. Each will need support from the nation's 40 other ethnic groups to claim the presidency, and that's what has the electoral commission so worried.

Ethnic clashes in recent weeks have killed nearly 20 people nationwide and displaced hundreds. Polling stations have been burned to the ground. Even the State House — the Kenyan equivalent of the White House — has been the scene of ... a scene. Lucy Kibaki, the president's notoriously grouchy wife, recently slapped a member of the administration at a state event. He had mistakenly called her by the president's mistress's name.

Election Day is Dec. 27. It will likely be a last political stand for Kibaki, who is 76, and Odinga, who, at 62, is a fast-aging rebel. The race will probably come down to which of the two contenders is hungrier.

In Africa, incumbents are especially hard to beat. But, as Odinga says, he has already "smelt power," and he's reaching for a place at the table.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gwen Thompkins
Gwen Thompkins hosts Music Inside Out on WWNO in New Orleans.