Offering the sign of peace took on a new meaning in Nairobi’s Consolata Shrine Catholic Church on Sunday, as Kenyans turned to each other to nod and mutter “peace be with you” (handshaking was halted during the Covid-19 pandemic).
A woman spoke into a microphone in front of the hundreds-strong congregation. “Let’s say a prayer for peaceful and credible elections,” she encouraged them. Together, they read words emblazoned on screens. “May we seek to better understand the issues and concerns that confront us as a nation… Grant us ears that heed to the cries of the vulnerable and minds that discern what is right and wrong. Enable us to choose leaders who abide by your word.”
Later, a priest announced the changed times for masses on Tuesday, Kenya’s general election day. “May God guide us as we elect the next set of leaders,” he said, before the service ended.
These scenes were repeated by religious leaders across Kenya, who are using their platforms to preach for peace. Though the East African country of about 55 million has long been regarded as one of Africa’s most stable democracies, its population are well aware of the fragility underlying this. Devastating violence followed the 2007 vote, when more than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. Any outcome could be contested in other ways too; the results of the last election, in 2017, were annulled by a legal challenge in Kenya’s supreme court, leading to a second run which ended in the same winner.
In anticipation of tensions, some Nairobi residents have been stocking up on food, while others left the city completely, returning to the rural areas their families originally came from.
About 22 million Kenyans are registered to take part, deciding positions including parliamentarians and county governors. But most eyes are on the presidential candidates. Current deputy president William Ruto, 55, will face off against long-time opposition figure Raila Odinga, 77, who this time has the backing of the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, following a shock alliance.
Kenyatta and Odinga are the sons of Kenya’s first-ever president and vice-president, leading Ruto — who grew up in poverty — to class this as a “dynasties versus hustlers” election. Ruto and Kenyatta first came to power in 2013, in what was known as an “impunity alliance” — both men were also indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, for their alleged involvement in violence after the 2007 election, though those charges were later dropped or dismissed.
Kenyatta had promised to back Ruto in a presidency bid, but instead shifted his support to Odinga in 2018, in an about-turn which shocked millions of Kenyans.
On Saturday, the final day that campaigning was allowed, both Ruto and Odinga held rallies in Nairobi stadiums.
Odinga’s was billed as a festival. It featured performances from Kenyan rapper Wanjiku Kimani, who goes by Femi One, and Tanzanian musician Nasibu Abdul Juma Issack, popularly known as Diamond Platnumz. Issack flew into the country especially for the event, reportedly on a private jet.
In contrast to this luxury, and offering an indication of the extreme poverty many Kenyans are facing, some young attendees in the crowd held out their hands to ask for dollars or food from passersby. Skirmishes broke out over free T-shirts, and security guards wielding sticks occasionally threatened those jostling, shouting at them to be calm.
Odinga arrived at the rally late, when crowds had built up. He stood through the sunroof of a car; his running mate Martha Karua doing the same in another vehicle. They did a lap of the stadium before coming on to the stage. “Baba, mama,” supporters cried, running alongside them.
If they win the election, lawyer Karua, 64, will be the first woman in one of the country’s two top jobs. Karua was also one of Kenya’s first woman MPs. She ran for the presidency in 2013.
In his speech, Odinga decried his rival, Ruto, as a " warmonger who is a deviant and a convicted thief”. He referred back to his handshake with Kenyatta, saying he will make peace with anyone as part of the “handshake doctrine”. “In whose hands are your families safe?” he asked the crowd.
The biggest cheer came when he said he’ll pay 6,000 Kenyan shillings (€46.63) monthly to Kenya’s poorest families. Critics say they are doubtful that this pledge will be seen through.
“The rally was really amazing, we enjoyed it. We think when it comes to Tuesday we will vote for him,” said attendee Diana Bochaberi, 23, leaving the stadium afterwards. “I’ve been hearing about the things [Odinga] did for this country, he fought for democracy and human rights… Old is gold, he’s so old but so wise.”
“He’s a father, a man of the people, a man of peace,” said Gerard Mutuku, a 21-year-old chapatti seller. “He can change many people [’s lives] and give money to the poor. That 6,000 Kenyan shillings will help many.”
Thirty minutes’ drive away, attendees of Ruto’s rally said they were glad they had gone, even if there were no big-name musicians present.
“Diamond Platnumz is not what we want. What we want is an agenda for this country,” said Anthony Kinyi (28). “I’m a qualified accountant but I don’t have a job. There is massive corruption. The Kenyan youth are very educated but they can’t get government jobs.”
He said he respects Ruto — a former chicken seller — as a self-made man. “William Ruto’s father was a nobody… We want to give hope to every Kenyan that no matter where you come from you can rise and become a president. But the narrative the other side is putting across is that you must come from a rich family.”
At least Ruto has “good ideas” related to remaking the economy, he said. Ruto has pledged to bring down the cost of living in 100 days, while investing in agriculture and weaning Kenya off costly food imports.
Kinyi’s friend Hawkins Indeche, 32, was an Odinga supporter but switched to Ruto after the infamous 2018 handshake, which he saw as a betrayal of the young people who had risked their lives protesting on behalf of Odinga in the past.
Indeche called the 6,000 Kenyan shillings proposed by Odinga “an insult”.
“That means you’re not going to create jobs… We do not want free cash, we want to work for our money… [By offering 6,000 a month] you’re calling me lazy, you’re saying I will be unproductive.”
Kenya’s next president will have significant challenges ahead of them. The country’s north has been affected by a devastating drought, with more than four million people facing acute food shortages and more than 1.5 million livestock dead.
Kenya, like much of the world, is also experiencing high inflation and swiftly increasing food and fuel prices.
But the most common issue that supporters on both sides kept bringing up was corruption, with current president Kenyatta himself saying the country is losing up to 2 billion Kenyan shillings (€15.5 million) a day because of it.
The continuing poverty faced by many Kenyans, while elites are seen to prosper through illicit means, even raised questions about who went to Saturday’s rallies and whether they liked the candidates at all. Attendees on both sides said their phones were stolen in the stadiums by thieves they suspected had come specifically to get what they could. “That is because people are desperate, they need to eat,” one victim, who went to Ruto’s rally, said. “[Stealing a phone] means food on the table.”