NAIROBI — Acceptance, conciliatory speeches and promises of legal action marked the end of a hard-fought election in Kenya on Saturday, amid hopes the peaceful polls might draw a line under the ethnic violence that has defined Kenyan politics for two decades.
Uhuru Kenyatta was declared president elect, scraping over the threshold for an outright win by just a few thousand votes. His defeated opponent, Raila Odinga, rejected the results but said he would take his fight to the courts, not the streets.
An anxious atmosphere permeated the capital of Nairobi during the five long days it took for the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to count and declare the results. But by Saturday the tension had all but dissipated, replaced be resignation and despondency among Raila’s supporters, and joyful celebrations among Kenyatta’s.
Yet on both sides of the wide political divide, the desire for peace and for life to get back to normal was strong.
In a speech to the party faithful at a Catholic university on Nairobi’s outskirts, Kenyatta referred to Odinga as “my older brother,” commended his “spirited campaign” and called on all his defeated opponents to join him in moving the country forward.
“Despite the misgivings of many in the world, we demonstrated a level of political maturity that surpassed expectations,” said Kenyatta.
Jubilant Kenyatta supporters, clad in red party regalia, danced in the streets to celebrate their victory. In the satellite town of Ongata Rongai, they gathered to celebrate on a busy street corner, clapping each other on the back.
“Me, I am a drinker, so I go to those social places. Others will go to church, but we all will celebrate today!” declared Andrew Kanyoro, a 36-year old data researcher.
Odinga was quick to reject Kenyatta’s victory and vowed to challenge the results in court.
“It is clear that the constitutional process has been thwarted by another tainted election,” said Odinga, referring to the disputed 2007 election in which he was declared the loser.
Odinga complained of “massive tampering… and rampant illegality,” but unlike in 2007, he made a clear call to his supporters for calm and peace. “Any violence now could destroy this nation forever,” he warned.
In Kibera, a large city slum where Odinga has many supporters, his call was being heeded and instead of hot anger, a slumped resignation seemed to have settled over the tin shacks, potholed roads and rubbish-strewn alleys.
John Oyoo, a sinewy 36-year old, said that although Odinga had lost, he would not be taking to the streets in protest. Not this time.
In 2007, Oyoo (then known by his nickname ‘The General’) was a tribal gang leader spoiling for a fight. He led scores of young Luo men in an attack to chase Kikuyu stallholders from Toi Market. The assault was brutally effective: the shopkeepers fled and suddenly there was no food available.
“I am upset, but people will not fight. Sometimes we learn from our mistakes,” he said, expressing weariness instead of anger. “People are tired of this, all this. We need not cry foul. Let us get on with our lives."
“People have learned that chaos does not help anything,” said Peter Olendo, the proprietor of a Kibera photo studio selling dollar-portraits.
Vincent Nyakongo, a 34-year old pharmacist, sat outside his shuttered shops with a few friends mulling the election loss. “I wish I was not born a Kenyan,” he said miserably. “We are depressed, we don’t want to talk much.”
But there were barbs amid the acquiescence. Oyoo said Kenyans would get what they deserved from a Kenyatta presidency. “They have chosen Uhuru Kenyatta so let them suffer, let them feel the pain of that decision,” he said.
Others expressed resentment over yet another Kikuyu taking power (Kenyatta will be the third Kikuyu president out of four since independence 50 years ago).
“We are just asking ourselves, when will someone else be given a chance to rule?” said one despondent Luo woman who lives in Kwangare, another of Nairobi’s poorer neighborhoods.
In Kibera, some of the fervor of presidential politics seemed to have been dissipated thanks to the devolution ushered in by the country’s new constitution, voted for in 2010, which includes the powerful new elected position of governor in 47 new counties. The Nairobi Governor-elect, Evans Kidero, is Odinga’s man and seen to represent Luo interests. Oyoo described it as “a plus."
Foreign governments are also having to come to terms with a Kenyatta presidency. He and his vice president William Ruto both face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) later this year. They are charged with crimes against humanity as alleged masterminds of the post-election violence of 2007 during which more than 1,100 people were killed.
But among his supporters, there is no doubt of Kenyatta’s innocence and a feeling that his election was a kind of vindication.
“If he had done what they said he did could we elect him? Of course not,” said Hiram Mburu, a 36-year tour guide in Ongata Rongai.
To shouts of approval, Samuel Mbute said the entire case was a Western conspiracy to clip the wings of a Kenyan nationalist and patriot.
“That ICC is a fake case, they should drop it! We can rule ourselves, we don’t have to be stooges of the West," he said.
Kenyatta has said repeatedly that he will go to court and prove his innocence, but some of his supporters say he should not even appear in the dock now that he is Kenya’s president. In the town of Kikuyu, whose name betrays it for the Kenyatta stronghold it is, one man insisted that with Kenyatta president, “this ICC will go away."
But amid the jubilation on one side and despondency on the other, it was the realized hope for peace that was most striking, alongside the tones of reconciliation.
“The ones who lost are still Kenyans,” insisted Kevin Kimonde, a Kenyatta-supporting street performer clad in red t-shirt in cap. “All we need is peace,” he said, before adding, “and jobs.”