How Mwai Kibaki’s stolen election sparked the 2007/8 Kenyan Crisis that killed thousands

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On December 31, 2017, Kenya was plunged into crisis after the country’s Electoral Commission declared Mwai Kibaki (now deceased) the winner of a presidential election, amid allegations of fraud and vote rigging.

Violence erupted in various parts of the country as opposition supporters took to the streets at the news that Kibaki had been sworn in for a second five-year term.

In Nairobi’s slums, protesters clashed with hundreds of riot police who had sealed off the election commission headquarters ahead of the result announcement, evicting party agents, observers and the media. As unrest spread, television and radio stations were instructed to stop all live broadcasts.

Kibaki, had trailed in all the opinion polls but the final count gave him 4,584,721 votes to the 4,352,993 tally of the opposition leader Raila Odinga. Odinga, a fiery former political prisoner, rejected the result, claiming massive rigging by the government.

A joint statement by the British Foreign Office and Department for International Development cited “real concerns” over irregularities, while international observers refused to declare the election free and fair. The European Union chief observer, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, cited one constituency where his monitors saw official results for Kibaki that were 25,000 votes lower than the figure subsequently announced by the electoral commission.

“Because of this and other observed irregularities, doubt remains as to the accuracy of the result of the presidential election as announced today,” he said.

The US, however, which enjoyed close cooperation with the Kibaki government on anti-terrorism matters, congratulated the president on his re-election and said it supported the Electoral Commission’s decision. State Department spokesman Robert McInturff said: “The United States congratulates the winners and is calling for calm, and for Kenyans to abide by the results declared by the election commission”

Kibaki, who was sworn in less than an hour after the result was declared, said: “I call upon all candidates, all Kenyans, to accept the verdict of the people. With the election now behind us, it’s time for healing and reconciliation.”

But outside the president’s home province, where he officially secured 97% of the vote, that message went unheeded. There were fears already that the perceived stolen election will greatly inflame ethnic tensions between Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group which remained close to power since independence and Odinga’s Luo constituency which felt it had been sidelined.

More so, Odinga’s promise to end the Kikuyu dominance had attracted support from across Kenya’s 43 ethnic groups. Some of last night’s violence, which had already claimed 10 lives by the time Kibaki took his oath, was directed at Kikuyus.

Odinga called for the president to step down. “It is a shame that a few people are robbing Kenyans of the democratic progress they have achieved,” he said. “The train of democracy in Kenya is unstoppable, like the flow of the Nile.” His campaign team had sent out text messages to supporters a day before announcing that a mass rally to inaugurate “The People’s President” would be staged in downtown Nairobi the next day.

Police declared the meeting illegal, and said people trying to attend “will face the full force of the law”. But aides to Odinga, who was imprisoned for eight years under Daniel arap Moi, said he would not be intimidated.

Odinga, who had helped Kibaki win the presidency in a historic election in 2002, had won the popular vote in six of Kenya’s eight provinces in the presidential election. His Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party was believed to have won nearly three times as many seats as the ruling Party of National Unity in the parallel parliamentary vote, which means it will be extremely difficult for Kibaki to govern.

The ODM maintained that Kibaki was only able to win the presidential vote because corrupt electoral officials significantly inflated the results in areas where there was little opposition support. The EU observer mission cited the example of Molo constituency, where its monitors saw the official tally for Kibaki in the presidential poll marked at 50,145. But when the national election commission announced the results Kibaki was given 75,621 votes.

Unrest across the country continued to grow. Police shot dead five men in western Kenya, where youths set petrol stations on fire and were reported to have vandalised the power and water supply in Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria. In Nairobi, where more than a million people, mostly Odinga supporters lived in densely packed slums, shops and shacks were torched while protestors waved clubs and machetes, chanting anti-Kibaki slogans as a police helicopter hovered overhead.

A blackout plunged the city’s Kibera slum into darkness as police fired live rounds and teargas to disperse demonstrators. Violence spread to the eastern port city of Mombasa where bonfires were lit as demonstrators clashed with police. And in the central town of Naivasha, pro-Kibaki youths torched an ODM office. The most violent election in Kenya’s political history was quickly gaining momentum.

Raila Odinga encouraged supporters to engage in mass protests which he announced on local television and radio stations, most noticeably in Mombasa, Eldoret, Kericho, Kisumu, Nakuru and parts of Nairobi. Police shot hundreds of violent demonstrators, including a few in front of TV news cameras, causing more violence to erupt.

Targeted ethnic violence (as opposed to violent protests) escalated and at first was directed mainly against Kikuyu people living outside their traditional settlement areas, especially in the Rift Valley Province. The violence started with the murder of over 50 unarmed Kikuyu women and children, some as young as a month old, by locking them in a church and burning them alive in Kiambaa village in the outskirts of Eldoret Town, on New Year’s Day.

Tribal tensions in the Rift Valley region had resulted in violence in several previous Kenyan elections, most notably in the 1992 Kenyan Elections. This issue prompted the Kikuyu to start defending themselves which forced the Luos and Kalenjins to stop the killings of the Kikuyus.

In Mombasa, the Kenyan coastal residents took to the streets to protest the electoral manipulations and support their preferred candidate, Odinga. Tensions rose as the landless indigenous Coastal communities felt this was a time to avenge the grabbing of their land by mainly up–country Kikuyu. Looters also struck a number of stores in Mombasa.

The slums of Nairobi saw some of the worst violence, some of it ethnically motivated, some expression of outrage at extreme poverty, and some the actions of criminal gangs. The violence continued sporadically for several months with targeted killings particularly in the Rift Valley.

About a month after the election, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan arrived in the country and successfully brought the two sides to the negotiating table. However, over 1,300 people had been killed in the bloodshed, around 300,000 uprooted from their settlements in what was later termed 2007-2008 Kenyan crisis.

Crucial timelines:

Dec. 30, 2007 – Electoral Commission declares President Mwai Kibaki re-elected and he is hurriedly sworn in. Riots erupt as his rival, Raila Odinga, says the vote was stolen.

Jan. 5, 2008 – Kibaki says he is ready to form a government of national unity. The opposition rejects the offer.

Jan. 8 – Kibaki announces 17 ministers for his new cabinet. Protesters burn barricades in response.

Jan. 15 – Parliament is convened. The opposition, which won a majority of seats, takes the post of speaker.

Jan. 24 – Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, mediating in the crisis, brings Kibaki and Odinga together for their first meeting since the crisis began.

Jan. 28 – Opposition legislator Melitus Were is shot dead outside his home in Nairobi, triggering more killings.

Feb. 28 – Kibaki and Odinga sign agreement after talks on power-sharing.

March 6 – Kibaki urges parliament to enshrine into law the power-sharing deal and commemorates the losses in the bloodshed, which killed over 1,300 people and uprooted around 300,000.

April 8 – Odinga’s opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) suspends talks and his supporters take to the streets after delays to naming of the cabinet.

April 12 – Kibaki and Odinga agree on the cabinet list after secret one-on-one talks.

April 17 – The cabinet is sworn in at Kibaki’s residence. The 41-member cabinet is Kenya’s largest and costliest ever.

Sept. 18 – An official inquiry says that the conduct of the polls was so defective that it is impossible to establish true or reliable results for the 2007 election.

April. 2022 -The Kenya’s former president Mwai Kibaki, who ushered in economic reforms and a new constitution, died aged 90. His legacy was dented by failure to deliver on promises to combat graft and a disputed re-election which led to deadly violence.

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