Just over a week before polling day, the near-naked body of Chris Msando, the man in charge of the IT system that would tally the results of Kenya’s presidential election, was found in a forest on the outskirts of Nairobi. He had been strangled and there were incisions in his arm, a sign that he had been tortured; not far away, the body of a young woman, an acquaintance, was found.
The apparent murder of Msando and the woman sent a chill through what had already been a raucous, money-soaked contest to run the east African country, one of the continent’s most economically vibrant and democratically open.
The death unleashed a flurry of rumours about the possible motive. Was someone trying to meddle with the election or send a message to the electoral commission, for whom Msando worked, that it should not — how to put this delicately — get the result wrong? Perhaps Msando had been tortured to obtain his password to the newfangled vote-tallying system?
The assassination, said one opposition leader, had driven “a dagger into the heart of Kenyan democracy”.
Ten days later, Msando’s ghost is still hanging over the election, the result of which is in bitter — and potentially dangerous dispute. Polling day itself went off smoothly last Tuesday, with nearly 20m people around the achingly beautiful country, from the Maasai plains to the steamy coast and from the hutted villages to the rampant cities, lining up to vote in national and local elections.
The presidential contest pitted against each other two of the country’s bitterest rivals, both offspring of independence heroes.
On one side was the incumbent, the urbane President Uhuru Kenyatta, 55, son of Kenya’s first president and educated at Amherst College in the US. On the other, the perennial loser, Raila Odinga, 72, the self-proclaimed authentic voice for Kenya’s dispossessed and marginalised, making his fourth stab at a presidency that had also eluded his famous father.
According to the electoral commission’s provisional tally, Mr Kenyatta has scored a fairly comfortable victory, with about 55 per cent of the vote, earning himself five more years in power.
But Mr Odinga is having none of it. He alleges the French-manufactured electoral system was hacked into using information gleaned from the murdered Msando. The real result, which he has somehow obtained, makes him the winner, he alleges, a claim he backed up with reams of papers and streams of accusations, but little in the way of hard evidence.
Another spectre is hanging over the outcome: violence. Ten years ago, Mr Odinga, then on his second bid for the presidency, also cried foul. Behind the scenes, both parties vying for power organised vigilante groups to take the battle to the villages and the streets. The country erupted into a state of near civil war, in which leaders exploited ethnic rivalries between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, which have dominated post-independence politics, and Mr Odinga’s Luo supporters. At least 1,200 were butchered, thousands of women raped and about 600,000 people sent fleeing from their homes.
Kenya said never again. Yet, once more, it stands perilously close to the brink.
In Mr Odinga’s heartlands, especially in Nyanza province on Lake Victoria, but also on parts of the coast around the second city of Mombasa, people are convinced that the“people’s president” has been robbed again. In Kisumu, young men from his Luo tribe prepared earlier this week to do battle with heavily armed police, convinced that the full force of the state was being marshalled to deny them of victory.
Around the country, at least five people have died and some looting has taken place, though protests have so far been minor compared with previous elections.
In Nairobi, many dismiss Mr Odinga’s claims. “In Africa, apparently, no one ever loses an election,” mocks Patrick Lumumba, an outspoken critic of Kenya’s politicians, nearly all of whom, he contends, are in it for corrupt gains. The opposition leader is being irresponsible, he says, knowing that his claim of fraud could be the match that lights a fire under Kenyan’s ethnic tinderbox.
“He went into an election with only one result in mind: ‘If I lose, it has been rigged.’”
All eyes are now on the electoral commission which, minus its murdered IT official, was on Friday steadying itself to announce the potentially explosive result. International observers, including former US secretary of state John Kerry, have swung to its defence. The system the commission put in place is robust, Mr Kerry said, and the result will be watertight. Anyone who says differently is besmirching the good name of Kenya’s democracy.
In Mr Odinga’s Luo heartlands, people do not see it that way. As tear gas canisters thumped through the air and as youths piled up rocks to throw at the police, one young man, who identified himself only as Eric, summed up the frustration of perennial defeat. “Even if they have to kill us all,” he shouted, “Raila must be president.”