Kenya's presidential election drew millions of eager voters who endured long lines to cast ballots Monday, but the vote was marred by violence that left 19 people dead, including four policemen hacked to death by machete-wielding separatists.
Officials urged voters not to be intimidated by the violence amid fears the impending election results could spark another round of the ethnic-related bloodshed in which more than 1,000 people died after the 2007 vote.
The election is the first presidential poll under a new constitution designed to prevent the ethnic violence of 2007-08. Enthusiastic voters formed long lines around the country, and election officials estimated turnout at 70 percent of 14 million registered voters.
The voting got off to a bloody start when a group of 200 separatists set a trap for police in the coastal city of Mombasa in the pre-dawn hours, Inspector General David Kimaiyo said. Four police were hacked to death with machetes, coast police boss Aggrey Adoli said.
The separatist group — the Mombasa Republican Council — had threatened election day attacks, and Kimaiyo said police were planning a raid "that will see the end of the MRC." The MRC believes Kenya's coast should be an independent country.
Their cause, which is not defined by religion, is fueled by the belief that political leaders in Nairobi have taken the coast's land for themselves, impoverishing indigenous residents. In addition to the attack in Mombasa, police blamed the MRC for three deadly attacks in nearby Kilifi. An Associated Press reporter visited a morgue and saw four dead young men wearing red bandanas — a sign of the MRC — who had been shot to death.
An AP tally of the violence found that four police and three MRC members died in Mombasa, while six government officials, four MRC members and two civilians died in the three attacks near the coastal city of Kilifi, all according to police and mortuary officials. After the polls closed, gunshots and an explosion rang out in the city of Garissa, near the Somali border, as gunmen stormed two polling stations, said Farah Maalim, the deputy speaker of parliament. Security forces responded to the attack and the gunmen fled.
The violence in the Mombasa and Garissa areas is separate from the ethnic violence that could break out related to election results, and which was so deadly after the 2007 vote. The country's top two presidential candidates condemned the Mombasa attacks. Prime Minister Raila Odinga called it a "heinous act of aggression" during a historic exercise.
Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta said he was discouraged by the news but he was sure the security situation would be brought under control. Authorities flew in an additional 400 police officers to Mombasa to increase security. The United Nations restricted the movement of its staff on the coast because of the violence. "People with ill intent must be stopped by all means," Kimaiyo said, explaining that he directed police to use their guns to stop further loss of life, a sensitive directive given that police killed more than 400 people during the 2007-08 postelection violence.
Police said the MRC was trying to suppress voter turnout, but the long lines seen across the country also formed in Mombasa. Those lines left voters frustrated in the election's early hours. Anti-fraud computers that scan thumbprints to identify registered voters were used for the first time and appeared to be greatly slowing the process. Equipment broke down in some polling stations and power blackouts made the technology useless in others.
Many voting officials had to resort to going through the old voters' register. George Kimoi, 42, waited two hours to vote. He said it was the first time he felt his ballot would actually count, after the government upgraded ballot security measures in the wake of allegations the last vote was rigged. "I felt that it was important to wait and vote today because we need a new government," he said. Odinga voted at an elementary school and acknowledged what he called voting challenges. "Never before have Kenyans turned up in such numbers," he said.
"I'm sure they're going to vote for change this election." Kenyatta gave a conciliatory message intended to help Kenyans accept the election outcome without violence: "This nation will have a president and that president will represent all Kenyans." Results are not expected until Tuesday or Wednesday.
A run-off between the top presidential contenders is likely in April, unless one unexpectedly captures more than 50 percent of ballots from among the pool of eight candidates. Monday's separatist violence is different from the tribal, postelection violence experienced five years ago. The ethnic violence could still break out if Odinga or Kenyatta supporters feel their candidate was cheated out of a win. In Kilifi, Nichodemus Shanga had hoped to vote at a primary school, but an MRC attack left several bodies lying on the ground, and he said officials didn't immediately remove them. Voting officials fled.
"I feel very bad because it is my right to vote. We came here at 5 a.m. asking them to remove the bodies so that we can vote, but they didn't do that and it has created a lot of tension and fear," he said, noting that residents fear a police backlash.