Monday, March 4, 2013

Watching from the Dug-Out/Being Benched

I spent a good chunk of today, March 4th, in a hipster-like cafe in the Kisimenti district of Kampala. The appeal of the place was more it's decent wi-fi, rather than a strong desire for a chai latte. Why? I wanted to do some work for a few hours out of the office but I also wanted to follow the events happening in Kenya as 14.3 million people went to the polls to vote for the country's 4th president since independence.

Having been re-located temporarily by the organisation that I work with as part of its security contingency measures, I desperately wanted to follow the events happening in the country that had been my home for the past 16 months. And so I logged onto Twitter and opened up Uchaguzi on my browser (and on my phone when my wi-fi failed) and watched as the reports, the pictures, the stories bounced around - linked (on Twiiter anyway) by the hashtag, #kenyadecides.

Sitting in the cafe in Kampala I felt like I had been benched - to put an American phrase to good use. To use an expression more fitting for my Irish readers, I felt like I was stuck in the dug-out at the side of the pitch, looking on, as the action took place without me. Yes, I tweeted and re-tweeted, I chatted to others online, but it was not the same.

Not that I have any direct connection with the elections, other than the fact that I live and work in Nairobi. I am a resident of Kenya, not a citizen. I would not have been voting yesterday. And yet I feel tied to the country and I care deeply about what happens. I have followed this election process almost since I arrived in Kenya, back in November 2011. I read about delays after delays; of an election pushed from August 2012, to December 2012 to, finally, March 2013. I followed the stories of the ICC pre-trial hearing with great interest. I watched as candidates joined the race, and dropped out. I looked on as the newly-formed IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) struggled to organise every stage of the election from the re-drawing of constituency boundaries at every level, to voter registration and January's nomination elections. But as polling began at around 6am this morning many of the earlier hiccups did not manifest themselves and most polling stations were fully equipped to deal with the long lines of people who turned out to vote. According to ELOG (the Election Observation Group in Kenya) 99.4% of polling stations had all of the materials needed to carry out the polling and there was adequate security present throughout the country.

Growing Nervous
In the days leading up to today's polling I found myself getting more and more nervous about what lay in store. I read so many articles on the internet - mainly from international news agencies and international organisations - that seemed to spell doom. They had titles like 'Vote M for Murder' and 'Elections in Kenya. There Will Be Atrocities'. And from Uganda it was harder than ever to separate the myth-making from the reality. To distinguish what might just have been the lazy international media narrative of what they wanted these elections to be, rather than what they actually were.

In reaction a number of African commentators posted warnings and satires on this growing number of clich├ęs used by foreign journalists, many of whom only arrived in Kenya last week. The Sunday edition of the Daily Nation published this satirical piece and the excellent website Africa is a Country posted this advice in reaction to one CNN report in particular which has caused great offense in Kenya. In the coming days, as results come in and

Pre-election violence
I woke up this morning to reports of violence in Mombasa and other coastal areas overnight. 15 hours later it seems that 15 people, including 9 police/security officers, though these figures still seem to be disputed. However what could have been a chilling omen for what would happen yesterday was not to be. Police in Kenya have claimed that the attack was perpetrated by the MRC, the Mombasa Republican Council, a group which would like Mombasa to secede from the rest of Kenya. The group has denied responsibility for the attacks, claiming it seeks only peaceful solutions for its aims.

The main story of the day was the queues. Queues, queues, queues as far as the eye could see and Twitter was awash with Twitpics and Instragram shots of the long lines, some stretching 1-2km out of polling stations. Some of the most impressive pictures I saw (and subsequently re-tweeted obviously!) were can be seen here here and here. There were loads more besides, and rough turn-out estimates are reporting turn-outs in the region of 80 and 90% in many polling stations. Though these are early figures, they are impressive percentages by any standards.

Passing the baby?
One of my absolute favourite stories from today was that of 'baby-passing'. In some places voters who had brought babies and small children with them were being allowed to skip the very long queues. This resulted in people passing babies around in order to move up the queue. Reports on Twitter suggested that some people were even paying up to 100 shillings (just less than 1 euro) to borrow a baby. However not everyone got away with it, as this tweet shows.

Polling officers quickly cottoned on to this in many areas and many began 'inking' the babies, just as they were doing with voters themselves, to show that they had voted!

What happens now?
As I write this the polls are not long closed in many places across Kenya, and with six separate elections to count the final tallies will take days to come in. But with the IEBC promising to gather and distribute results from polling stations as soon as they see them we should begin to have a picture by Wednesday, especially of the presidential race, which the IEBC is prioritising. I'll be writing another blogpost in a day or two when there is more information but for now I am proud that as the sun sets here in East Africa, a day of voting has passed off relatively peacefully in Kenya. The next test will be the counting of the votes, and the acceptance of the results by all sides.

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