Visiting Kenya a few weeks before their March 2013 elections I took advantage of the long delays on Nairobi's congested roads to chat to our taxi drivers about their opinions regarding preparations for the elections and the presidential candidates contesting it. They shared their thoughts willingly and not unsurprisingly had different perspectives.
Signs of the impending election were evident throughout Nairobi where giant billboards promoted presidential candidates whilst ubiquitous wall posters punted candidates in a variety of other elections; parliamentary, senate, govenors etc.
Photo credit Christina Rolfe
Our first driver, lets call him Henry, was an avowed Odinga supporter and had a ready opinion to share about all of the presidential candidates. It was from him that I learned about the imminent, first ever televised debate between presidential candidates. We travelled with Henry before and after the debate and it was interesting to see how the event influenced his opinion. Prior to the debate he dismissed Peter Kenneth's prospects, claiming the nation was not yet ready for a president of mixed race. You would have thought this was an obvious opportunity to discuss Barrack Obama's Kenyan roots and his two-fold success in the US presidential elections, but Obama never came up in discussion. When it came to Martha Karua, the sole female presidential candidate and a divorcee, he bluntly stated that because of her marital status she was of questionable moral character. What?! I'd presumed that Kenya's progressive constitution, economic progress and high literacy would have eroded such blatant misogyny.
In contrast to Henry who had travelled very little outside Kenya, our second taxi driver, call him Abdi, had spent 12+ years working for NGOs in unpredictable, dangerous South Sudan as a driver and mechanic. He was the son of an artisan and had spent his youth growing up in Korogocho slum. His time in South Sudan had well and truly liberated him from slum life and on retirement he had come home and set up a taxi service offering transfers in and outside Nairobi. Abdi was tribally agnostic. Though he shared the same ethnicity as Henry he was inclined to vote for a new candidate without a legacy of tribal bias. He was leaning in the direction of the youthful Peter Kenneth who had performed well in the televised debate.
Photo credit Brenda Burrell
On each of our trips into the city with Henry, I bought a copy of the Daily Nation off a newspaper vendor when the traffic slowed to a crawl. The newspaper appeared to provide a good balanced summary of the frontrunners in the presidential election. The edition on the streets the morning after the debate included notable results of a telephone survey with members of the public shortly after the debate ended. It seemed that many respondents had been influenced by the performance of the candidates and had shifted their allegiance. Post-debate Henry was not nearly as certain about voting for 'his man, Raila' - he felt Odinga had performed poorly. In fact he now had a newfound respect for Peter Kenneth and especially appreciated his responses to questions about the economy.
Abdi and other urban Kenyans I spoke to were unconvinced or confused by the newfound bonhomie expressed during the debate by longtime adversaries - Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga. Was this some grand deceit? Were voters being used like pawns in a game of chess in which the principle players were congenial bedfellows in private and polarising adversaries in public. They didn't trust either of them and found their slippery refusal to answer honestly about their role in fanning tribal hatred a compelling reason to vote for one of the other candidates.
National peace and jobs were high priorities with most of the people I met. Kenyatta fell short on both scores. Odinga was unconvincing on the first point.
It was Henry who first informed me that Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto were due to appear before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in a matter of days. They and 4 others are accused of crimes against humanity for their role in fanning the violence that enveloped Kenya after the 2007 elections. Henry, Abdi and others I spoke to believed the politicians have a case to answer and should be ineligible to contest a presidential election whilst the case against them is ongoing. They questioned how the country could be effectively run if Kenyatta was elected President and had to attend ICC hearings - nevermind the complications that would arise should one or both be convicted.
Though they denied it in the press, it was widely believed that western governments had threatened to be uncooperative if Kenyatta won the election. Kenyatta's response was to assert that Kenya could go it alone without financial support from western sponsors and would look instead to China for aid. Everyone I spoke to thought this was laughable. They had experienced the drop in tourism following the violent aftermath to the previous election and were aware of the slow down in the economy.
Electoral conditions leading up to the March 4 elections in Kenya seem infinitely more conducive to free and fair elections than those we experience in 2013 in Zimbabwe. On a quick visit to the iHub in Nairobi I bumped into Daudi Were of Ushahidi who shared some of their Uchaguzi election monitoring promotional posters and fliers with me. The equivalent crowdsourcing initiative in Zimbabwe would face certain interference from the state.
What genuinely surprised me though was the fearful response some woman expressed to contributing information via the SMS channels advertised. Since Kenyans are required to provide formal documentation to register their mobile numbers the women I spoke to were concerned about privacy and security and possible retribution arising from reporting election anomolies information via SMS.
My visit left me with the feeling that in spite of Kenya's progressive constitution, the political elites still hold considerable power and it will be many years before the rights enshrined therein trickle down through the social hierarchy.