Modest turnout by voters in Kenya’s ‘hustlers versus dynasties’ election

Intriguing contest for the presidency rests between self-proclaimed ‘hustler’ Ruto and longtime opposition figure Odinga

While many Kenyans across the country began to queue hours before voting for Tuesday’s general election, which opened at 6am, overall turnout appeared to be lower than previous elections.

By 4pm, shortly before polls closed, just over 56 per cent of the 22.1 million people registered to vote had done so.

Political seats at all levels were on the ballot papers, though most discussion was about the presidency. Would the winner be current vice president and self-proclaimed “hustler” William Ruto, or his rival, Raila Odinga, a longtime opposition figure who has unexpectedly gained the backing of the current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his associated state machinery?

Kenya – an East African country of roughly 55 million – is internationally praised as a stable democracy, unlike neighbours Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania.

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Its capital, Nairobi, is home to regional hubs for international aid agencies, the United Nations, and various multinational companies – whose staff will be watching this vote closely.

Odinga (77) – who has run for president five times over the last 25 years – was met with huge cheers, and supporters bowing to him in unison, when he voted at Kibera Primary School at 10.30am.

Kibera, Kenya’s largest informal settlement, was a site of violence after the disputed 2007 elections, which nationally resulted in more than 1,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of people being displaced, leading to an International Criminal Court investigation.

“I just want peace and people to go home safe,” said Francis Muma Tom Mboya, a 30-year-old YouTuber who also goes by African Culture Ghetto King, who was at the polling station.

The long-time Odinga supporter said he lost faith in African elections a long time ago, as they are “never fair” and Odinga should have won before, but this time he is confident that his hero will be declared the victor.

Fish seller Dorcas Otiatu (73) said she voted quickly.

“I voted for Raila [Odinga], he has wanted to be in power for a long time… If he’s elected he will do good things not just for Kibera but for all of Kenya,” she said.

Otiatu was in Kibera through the 2007 and 2008 violence.

“There was a lot of noise, a lot of ruckus,” she said. “[But] people aren’t afraid this time.” Instead, she was expecting a celebration. “If there is a party I’ll go,” she smiled.

Seven kilometres away, in Kawangware, another low-income area of Nairobi, 28-year-old Susan Mumbi was getting ready to vote.

“I’m allergic to politics,” she said, but “you still have to vote because you don’t have another option.”

Many of her friends had not bothered to vote, convinced it would not change anything.

Mumbi spent the morning selling porridge and chapatis on the street, but after voting she planned on going home where she would “stay… for a week” to avoid any potential conflict.

This election is the first where there has not been a presidential candidate from the dominant Kikuyu tribe. Analysts say this may split votes along class instead of tribal lines, though many Kenyans who spoke to The Irish Times said they were still worried about ethnic divides.

“This is the worst place, most fights are always here. We are not one big family,” Mumbi said about her area, which is home to people of various tribes. “There’s a bit of tension. It can affect us very much. Tribe has been a big issue in elections.

“I’m not sure I’ll be safe at home,” she added. “I hope in the future of Kenya we love each other and be a family… Peace is everything.”

Outside the nearby Precious Blood High Secondary School polling centre, a blue-uniformed policeman was wielding a stick to disperse the crowds.

“You vote, you go,” he shouted at them.

A 22-year-old woman nearby said it took her just five minutes to vote, her first time ever casting a ballot.

“It was exciting,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “I voted for Ruto, he’s cool. I love Ruto, he encourages young people. I don’t believe everything he says because politicians usually say what people want to hear, but I believe 80 per cent.”

If Ruto comes to power, she hopes he will lower the cost of everyday essentials, which have rocketed due to soaring inflation. Cooking oil, she said, has gone from 60 Kenyan shillings (49c) to 170 (€1.39) for half a litre. Nappies are especially expensive, she said, and she has a young child.

Despite her excitement, the woman asked that her name not be published because of her concerns about what will happen next.

“There are reports circulating that there’ll be violence and I’m afraid I will be targeted,” she said.

Ruto (55), who was once a chicken seller and says he did not own shoes until he was a teenager, has painted this election as a “hustlers versus dynasties” vote, given that Odinga, and his backer, Kenyatta, are the sons of Kenya’s first president and vice-president. Ruto’s past is a key reason his supporters want him in power.

“I’m born to hustle,” said George Wanjiru (34), who runs a motorbike repair shop in Dagoretti, Nairobi, called Kwa Hustler. “Hustlers start from the bottom and go up,” he explained.

Wanjiru started out 15 years ago as a charcoal dealer.

“Mr Hustler Charcoal Dealer was the name of my business then,” he recalled.

“Hustlers” existed long before Ruto, Wanjiru clarified, but he still appreciates the central message the current vice-president has put out.

“Many Kenyans are very rich but most are very poor. Many Kenyans hustle. We need a president who knows what is poverty and what is being rich so they differentiate.”