Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga said mass protests were possible if August elections were rigged, comments likely to scare Kenyans fearful of a repeat of widespread violence following a disputed 2007 poll.
Then, more than 1,200 people were killed in weeks of fighting after political protests turned into ethnic clashes, but 2013 polls, when Odinga accepted the result after a court ruling, passed relatively peacefully.
“This country is not ready for another rigged election. Kenyans will not accept it,” Odinga said, noting multiple people had been registered to vote with the same identity card in a just ended registration period.
The national election commission accepts some of his criticisms are justified and has identified 78,000 duplicate registrations. Spokesman Andrew Limo said the commission was resolving the issue.
“We are confident we will have a credible and convincing register by May 10 to start verification,” he said.
The government said Odinga was simply trying to discredit the voting process early to lay the ground for challenging the results on the streets.
“The opposition is trying to create a narrative so eventually they have a way of rejecting the elections,” government spokesman Munyori Buku said.
“They never accept the result.”
Kenya is a staunch Western ally and a stable anchor in a region roiled by conflict. Its $63 billion economy is East Africa’s biggest but growth is not fast enough to absorb a mass of unemployed youth.
President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has been hit by a string of corruption scandals and a strike by doctors now in its third month.
Kenyatta, Odinga’s arch political rival, spent the last two months on a massive voter registration drive across the country and in his ethnic Kikuyu heartland, a strategy that helped him prevail over Odinga in 2013.
Odinga, a leading candidate for the top job, also took part in this year’s registration drive, which officials say added three million people to nearly 16 million registered voters, but he said it was deeply flawed.
“This is a big mess,” he said, “The executive office is trying to downplay it. It is a major, major mess.”
Odinga said he would first seek redress through the courts but government was putting pressure on the judiciary, citing a parliamentarian’s recent public criticism of a judge.
“That was an attempt to try to intimidate or blackmail the judiciary so they can be complicit,” he told Reuters in an interview in Nairobi.
“We have not ruled out what we call mass action … to ensure the rule of law is respected,” he said.
“Every option is open to us.”
Both sides accuse each other of stoking tribal tensions, a dangerous game in a country where politics often splits along ethnic lines. Analysts say the 47 county governorships, which come with big budgets and perks, will be flashpoints.
“They (voters) are being manipulated to believe that if so-and-so from another tribe is in leadership then their lives are going to be endangered and they can only be secure when their man occupies the top position,” Odinga said.
Last week, during a campaign to register voters, Kenyatta accused the opposition of “lies, tribalism, hatred and divisive politics”.
Some diplomats fear the international community, which played a major role in mediating and ending the 2007 violence, may be less engaged this time as they grapple with Brexit, a European refugee crisis and a new American administration.
The threat of prosecution at the International Criminal Court, which hung over the 2013 polls, has also receded after the case against Kenyatta collapsed following allegations of political interference and witness-tampering.
“You could see a whole lot more violence this time around before the international community intervenes because there are so many fires burning everywhere,” said one diplomat.