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Kenya in mass registration drive ahead of August poll

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta . / AFP PHOTO / STEFFI LOOS

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta . / AFP PHOTO / STEFFI LOOS

Kenya’s election commission on Monday began a drive to register millions of new voters ahead of August elections, with rival parties going all out to get their supporters to sign up.

Authorities estimate that some four to six million people have yet to register, crucial numbers that could swing the result.

Kenya’s vote for a president and lawmakers on August 8 is set to be a hard-fought election decided in large part along ethnic lines.

The country’s main opposition parties, which last week banded together to form the National Super Alliance (NASA), are counting on new voters to help them unseat incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta.

In Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum the opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) set up speakers blaring music next to a registration booth, while orange-clad motorcyclists whizzed through the streets to lure out voters.

ODM leader Raila Odinga, 72, who has lost three previous elections and is eager to be the candidate of the new coalition, was set to make a stop in the slum on a whirlwind tour of the city to rally supporters.

Many first-time voters were among those lining up to register, complaining about water shortages in the slum, and lack of employment. Youth joblessness in Kenya is among the highest in East Africa.

– ‘We want new leaders’ –
“We would like to see new leaders who are responsible and who can take good care of Kenyans,” said Fanuel Otieno, 23, who is unemployed and warned many like him in the slum were turning to crime and “end up dying because they get shot by police.”

Kenyatta will also tour the country over the next month to urge his supporters to sign up.

The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) said its voter registration drive would last until February 14.

Already 15.9 million Kenyans have registered, more than the 14.4 million who did so for the last election in 2013.

Election officials have in the past been accused of not doing enough to register voters in opposition strongholds.

“We demand that IEBC carries out a fair, just and transparent registration of voters,” Odinga said last week.

Tensions have already flickered ahead of the election, with the opposition accusing the ruling party of seeking to rig the election after it amended a law allowing for manual vote counting if the electronic system fails.

IEBC chief executive Ezra Chiloba said recent months of “very polarising debates” and “extreme views on certain policy decisions concerning elections” should end.

– ‘Ethnic census’ –
Kenyatta won 2013 elections by a narrow margin of some 800,000 votes.

In Kenyan politics, the “Big Five” refers to the main ethnic groups who can influence the outcome of the vote. Observers have warned candidates against abusing the registration process to win the “numbers game”.

“Unfortunately, the reason why voter registration has become the epicentre of combat is because voting has been turned into an ethnic census,” warned a weekend editorial in Kenya’s main Daily Nation newspaper.

“Political coalitions, which are essentially an amalgam of ethnic entities, want to herd their kindred into voting blocs and use their numeric strength to wrest power.”

Elections in 2013 were bad-tempered, close and disputed by Odinga who came second.

However they marked an important break from his 2007 loss to Mwai Kibaki, which was followed by weeks of politically-motivated ethnic violence that killed over a thousand people.

Kenyatta’s alliance with deputy president William Ruto in 2013 united their respective Kikuyu and Kalenjin ethnic groups, which had fought against each other in 2007.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) accused both men of stoking the violence but eventually dropped charges of crimes against humanity after witnesses disappeared or recanted.

Kenyatta has overseen strong economic growth — expected to hit six percent in 2017 — but the country continues to be strangled by massive corruption, with regular scandals involving eye-watering sums of money hitting the headlines.

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KenyaUhuru Kenyatta
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