December 29, 2007 / 12:09 AM / 10 years ago

Kenya election foes neck-and-neck

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya’s presidential rivals were neck-and-neck on Saturday with nearly 90 percent of official results counted and accusations of rigging that ignited ethnic violence across the east African nation.

<p>Anti-riot policemen spray tear gas at looters as they ransack shops on Oginga Odinga street in Kisumu December 29, 2007. REUTERS/James Akena</p>

Several people died in the unrest.

As night fell with the election on a knife-edge and further results not due until morning, Kenyans kept off the streets, police were at roadblocks and politicians huddled to strategise.

Chaos reigned during the day as the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK)’s latest figures showed opposition challenger Raila Odinga leading President Mwai Kibaki by just 38,000 votes from a tally of 180 out of 210 constituencies.

But the head of the commission was interrupted after reading results from seven other constituencies that would have put Kibaki in the lead by about four times as big a margin.

With most of Kenya’s 36 million people hanging on the commission’s every word, it extended the torment by abruptly announcing it would stop reporting results for the night.

In a day of heckling and farce at ECK headquarters, scuffles broke out and police moved in at one point when an opposition politician shouted down ECK chairman Samuel Kivuitu and repeatedly demanded a recount in one constituency.

“We are Kenyans, not beasts!” Kivuitu told scores of party agents, politicians and journalists crammed into the Nairobi conference centre ringed by armed guards.

The ECK gave Odinga 3.88 million votes to 3.84 million for the president based on the 180 constituencies. But the extra seven would have put Kibaki on about 4.1 million.

The delays announcing the official results fuelled tensions across the nation, with political parties trading accusations of rigging and riots erupting in most major cities.

Both Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU) claimed victory and the leadership of the region’s biggest economy for the next five years.

HOMES ABLAZE

Throughout the day, youths from rival tribes fought, looted and burned homes, mostly in opposition strongholds.

Police fired teargas and up to six people died, according to witnesses and local media. The scenes marred what foreign observers had praised as broadly peaceful polls on Thursday.

If Odinga -- a wealthy businessman who paints himself as a champion of the poor -- fulfils a long-held ambition to lead Kenya, Kibaki would become the first of the country’s three post-independence leaders to be ejected by the ballot box.

The opposition led in early tallies, but as Kibaki narrowed the gap overnight, Odinga’s party said it feared fraud.

<p>A policeman runs after a supporter of opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) during a protest in Nairobi December 29, 2007. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna</p>

From Kisumu in the west to Mombasa on the coast and many towns in between, trouble broke out on Saturday pitting Odinga’s Luo supporters against members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu ethnic group.

The tribes, two of Kenya’s biggest, have a long history of rivalry during the country’s four decades of independence.

“We are sensing a plan to rig the elections,” taxi cyclist Eric Ochieng, 18, told Reuters in the middle of riots in Kisumu city, in Odinga’s homeland. “We will not accept this.”

Residents said one person was killed in Kisumu -- a normally sleepy city by Lake Victoria -- as hundreds of youths took to the streets, burning tyres, ransacking shops and blocking roads.

“The government has failed to declare Odinga the winner,” said 11-year-old Kennedy Ochieng, stumbling under the weight of a box of clothes, mobile phone chargers and other stolen goods.

Slideshow (28 Images)

“They stole our votes so we are looting everything we can.”

As black smoke billowed overhead, one crowd waved machetes and yelled “Death to Kikuyus”. Young boys swigged looted beer.

“We have just started. We will loot all Kikuyu shops and kill them on sight,” said Richard Ondigi, 23, a driver.

Locals said two people were killed in another hotbed of support for Odinga, Nairobi’s huge Kibera shantytown, where shots were fired and dozens of shacks burned to the ground.

Groups of youths protested elsewhere in Nairobi and city centre streets were near deserted as business owners pulled down their shutters. Truckloads of armed police patrolled.

Police boss Hussein Ali told a news conference his officers would “continue to take action against hooligans without fear or favour”, and foreign observers appealed for calm.

“People must exercise statesmanship. This is not about Luos and Kikuyus, but all of Kenya,” U.S. ambassador Michael Ranneberger told reporters while flanked by Western envoys.

If Odinga does seal victory, he will realise a dream that eluded his late father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a nationalist hero who became vice-president. Kibaki says he will double economic growth for Kenyans if he is re-elected.

The inauguration of Kenya’s next president was due in days.

If it is Odinga, his priority will be to enlist support of the economically powerful Kikuyus, ensure a peaceful handover and allay business fears that he is a left-wing radical.

Kibaki would have a tough time appeasing the opposition if he returns to State House.

Additional reporting by Guled Mohamed in Kisumu; Noor Khamis, Tim Cocks, Bryson Hull, George Obulutsa, Joseph Sudah, Duncan Miriri, Helen Nyambura-Mwaura, Katie Nguyen and Nicolo Gnecchi in Nairobi; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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