NAIROBI (Reuters) - The possible trial of Kenyan politicians for election violence is the biggest threat for a repeat of unrest at next year’s vote, the country’s electoral head said, hoping reforms and new technology will ease a “pressure cooker” of tensions.
Next March’s election will be the first since a disputed poll in 2007 that triggered a politically-fuelled ethnic slaughter in which more than 1,220 people were killed.
Any trouble in Kenya could hit investment, trade and transport in the east African economic powerhouse’s land-locked neighbours, especially Rwanda and Uganda, which rely on Mombasa port for imports of food, consumer goods and fuel.
“As we move towards the election, it will become a pressure cooker,” said Ahmed Isaack Hassan, head of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that will oversee the vote.
“The issue of the International Criminal Court (ICC) process may bring some tensions. This is the only thing which stands out, we have to wait and see how it will impact the elections.”
Leading presidential contenders Uhuru Kenyatta, the former finance minister and son of Kenya’s founder president, and William Ruto a former higher education minister, face charges of directing ethnic mobs to murder after the 2007 election, along with other crimes against humanity.
The charges against Kenyatta, Ruto and two others have shaken a country where the political elite was once seen as almost above the law, and there is concern that, if the presidential hopefuls stand trial and are blocked from running for office, it may trigger fresh violence.
In January, the ICC ordered Kenyatta, Ruto, radio presenter Joshua arap Sang and the head of the civil service, Francis Muthaura, to stand trial for instigating the violence. The four deny the charges and have appealed the ICC’s right to try them.
Kenyatta and Ruto have forged an alliance against Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who leads in the race according to pollsters, to replace outgoing President Mwai Kibaki.
Asked if ethnic enmity which spurred the fighting after the last polls had eased somewhat since 2007, Hassan said: “Tribalism is a cancer ... it took us to the brink of civil war, but we came back from the abyss. I hope we learnt the lessons.”
A recurrence of election violence could deliver another economic blow to Kenya where the unrest slowed economic growth to 1.5 percent in 2007/8 from 7.0 percent in 2007. Tourism income fell 19.4 percent after a record year as wary travellers stayed away.
Speaking at the Reuters Africa Investment Summit, Hassan said judicial and electoral reforms included in a new constitution adopted in 2010 and new technology should deliver a fair election that would avoid the cycle of bloodletting.
Under a new system, the tally of ballots for a presidential candidate, cast at thousands of polling stations across the country of about 40 million, will be transmitted electronically to a national counting centre and broadcast live on television.
Previous elections have suffered from claims that votes were interfered with while being transported from polling stations to regional tallying centres.
The new system, which cost $1 million to install, uses the 3G data network used by mobile phone companies and was first tried in a 2010 referendum to ratify the constitution.
Kenya will also switch to an electronic register of voters after ballot boxes at the 2007 elections were found to contain the votes of people who had not registered and even some who were dead.
“Technology can enhance confidence in the results. We are the first country in Africa to use the transmission of ballots counted real-time, live,” said Hassan, who won praise for using technology for the referendum, earning the 42-year-old lawyer the president and parliament’s nod for the IEBC job.
“This way, by prime time news, people will know the results and go to bed knowing who won and this will help ease tensions.”
In 2007, the tallying of presidential ballots was delayed for days, raising suspicions of ballot rigging.
Hassan said, under the new constitution, he and other electoral officers could be personally liable for any electoral malpractice, something that should diminish the suspicions of bias levelled at of his disgraced predecessor who was blamed for bungling the 2007 vote.
Having led an African Union team to oversee last year’s Nigerian elections, cited by observers as the fairest in decades, Hassan said Kenya had to up its game.
“Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya were the poster boys for bad elections in Africa. Nigeria showed it can do better, and now it’s our turn.”