- - Thursday, November 16, 2017

KISUMU, Kenya — Under a scorching sun on the shores of Lake Victoria, fishmongers shout themselves hoarse to gain the attention of fishermen selling their catch.

Fishing is the economic engine of Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city. But the waterfront has been quiet since election violence hit this opposition stronghold in the lead-up to an Oct. 26 vote that declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of another term in office.

Kenyatta skeptics here see the election as a halfhearted do-over of an August presidential election marred by charges of electoral fraud.

In the aftermath of the vote, the streets and markets of Kisumu have been caught in a tug of war between those who reject the result and those trying to move on and escape what appears to be a semi-permanent state of political conflict and tribal tension.

“We felt that our vote was stolen. That’s why we protested peacefully, but police did not give us that freedom. They shot people dead and injured others,” said Chris Ochieng, a fisherman who works on Lake Victoria. “But as a country, we need to be peaceful so that there can be development. We need to return to our normal life.”

Across the country, in Kisumu, Mombasa, in the sprawling Kibera slum in Nairobi and other strongholds of opposition leader Raila Odinga — who withdrew from the election a few weeks before Kenyans went to the polls — the disappointment remains palpable.

The anger is particularly acute because after the initial election on Aug. 8, which Mr. Kenyatta won, the Supreme Court stunned Kenyans by ruling the vote was invalid because of irregularities involving the electronic transfer of votes. Many Odinga supporters thought justice had been done and their champion was on track to win the court-mandated revote.

But expressing frustrations that election officials had not done enough to avoid more tampering in the second vote, Mr. Odinga told his supporters in the region to boycott the Oct. 26 election. The decision sparked riots. In Kisumu, skirmishes between police and stone-throwing opposition supporters prevented polling stations from opening in the city and other western regions where a majority of voters backed Mr. Odinga, forcing election officials to postpone voting and announce results without these regions.

In the end, only 39 percent of Kenyan voters cast ballots, according to election officials, and Mr. Kenyatta received 98 percent of the vote.

In a worrying replay of violence that engulfed Kenya after a similarly close, disputed presidential vote in 2007-2008, demonstrations in Kisumu resulted in several buildings being destroyed and properties looted. No banks, schools, hospitals or businesses opened their doors. At least 33 people died.

Avoiding the worst

Now life is slowly returning to normal, leading some to hope Kenya may have been spared the worst.

The shores of Lake Victoria are bustling with business. Boats row in and out of the lake, carrying loads of fish into shore while others paddle out. Buyers and sellers throng the open-air fish markets on the shoreline. Small wooden fishing boats compete for space, carrying in the morning catch of tilapia, perch and catfish.

“People are now trying to get back to normal life because there is less tension,” said George Otieno, a resident of Kisumu who owns a shop in the city’s central business district. “We need peace to recover from what we have lost during campaign and election season.”

The local business community is optimistic about recovery after incurring heavy losses during the protests, said Kisumu Chamber of Commerce Chairman Jared Ochanda.

“Since the announcement of presidential election results, the environment is becoming more conducive for business,” he said. “Many businesses have resumed operations.”

Even so, locals are bracing for more disruption and violence: Local civil rights groups and others have submitted petitions to the Supreme Court asking the justices to annul the most recent election, too. The court has until Monday to consider the challenge.

At the same time, Mr. Odinga has called for a fresh vote in 90 days and asked Kenyans to mount a resistance to the government until a “legitimate” presidency is restored. On a visit to Washington last week, he was sharply critical of Mr. Kenyatta and what he said were Western governments that were supporting him in a misguided quest for stability and continuity in East Africa.

Kenya is hurtling toward an outright dictatorship,” said Mr. Odinga, blaming the situation on international policies that “exclusively focus on security and stability” that diplomats in Nairobi incorrectly think “only Kenyatta can deliver.”

Some members of parliament allied to Mr. Odinga are calling for Kenya to split into two countries, with a new state comprising Odinga-supporting regions, including Kisumu. Mr. Odinga has called for a boycott of the country’s three largest companies, claiming they facilitated the fraudulent election.

Meanwhile, the Kenyatta government has not held back in its propaganda campaign against Mr. Odinga.

Cecily Mbarire, a lawmaker with the president’s Jubilee Party, ridiculed Mr. Odinga’s call for an interim government to organize yet a third presidential election.

Odinga has thrown the constitution out of the window and using jungle law to get power,” she told reporters in Nairobi. “An interim government is not provided for by any Kenyan law.”

Kisumu residents feel caught in the middle. Some hope things stay calm; others demand change.

“We have been staying home for so long without working because of the election violence,” said 32-year-old Mourine Anyango, a mother of two who sells fish. “But it’s now calm, and things are picking up steadily. People are going back to work.”

Many say they are bitter and still not resigned to the election result.

“It’s like you cannot win elections in Kenya unless you are in government,” said 40-year-old Ken Owino, whose son was shot by police during a demonstration in Kisumu.

Some just mourn what could have been.

“I’m very disappointed because Raila may never be president,” said Noel Odhiambo, a fisherman. “The country may now never know how [an Odinga] presidency would look like after the elections were stolen. Raila is a man who meant well for this country. He has fought for democracy and reforms.”


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