Queues as Kenyans go to the polls in crucial election

The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse visited a polling station as people queued to vote

Long queues are reported nationwide as Kenyans vote in an election that observers describe as the most important in the country's history.

Polls were due to close at 17:00 (14:00 GMT) but officials said those in queues at that time would be allowed to vote.

There has been violence around the port town of Mombasa, with at least five police officers killed in one attack.

Early provisional results suggested the two main presidential candidates were far ahead of the rest of the field.

Partial preliminary results from areas where polling ended on time gave Uhuru Kenyatta a lead over Prime Minister Raila Odinga, although analysts cautioned that these results came from Kenyatta strongholds.

The two front-runners were well ahead of the other presidential candidates,

Mr Kenyatta is due to face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) next month in connection with the widespread bloodshed that followed the disputed 2007 election - he denies organising attacks.

Mr Odinga says he was cheated of victory last time.

Biometric kits fail

Authorities had urged Kenyans to avoid a repeat of the 2007 ethnic and political violence that killed more than 1,000 people amid claims the poll had been rigged.

As thousands continued to queue to cast their ballots, voting was extended by up to seven hours to cope with long queues at polling stations.

Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) issued a notice via social media saying: "We wish to inform members of the public that all Voters on the queue by 5:00pm will be allowed to vote.

At the scene

At a polling station close to the church where more than 40 people who had sought shelter there on 1 January 2008 were burnt alive most voters were happy to have cast their ballots in peace. "This vote is a new beginning," said a man who lost relatives in the fire.

The queues in some places stretched for more than a kilometre, as voters in Kibera slum stood patiently in line. As the sun grew hotter and the umbrellas came out, the mood was upbeat. "Peace, peace," one crowd shouted as a truck of paramilitary police trundled past.

"Polling Stations that opened late will also close late to compensate for lost time."

The electoral commission said some delays were caused by a new system intended to reduce fraud, which observers hope will prevent the kind of widespread ethnic violence that followed the last poll in 2007.

After he cast his ballot, Mr Odinga said he would accept defeat - but added that he was confident of victory in the first round.

"I will congratulate the winner," he said.

Mr Kenyatta also sounded a conciliatory note, saying the president would represent the whole country and that any disputes should be taken to court.

Reports from around the country suggested long queues of voters had formed even before polling stations opened - and some voters, such as those in Eldoret, were waiting up to 10 hours to cast their ballots.

Some technical difficulties were reported with newly instituted biometric voting kits - designed to counter claims of vote-rigging and long delays in announcing poll results that were partly blamed for the violence in 2007.

In places, electoral officials are having to use the manual voter registers, delaying voting. But Lilian Mahiri-Zaja, vice-chair of Kenya's independent electoral commission, said the registers were complete and there was no reason why the election should not be credible.

These people were queuing outside St Mary's polling station in Nairobi

Five police officers and at least six other people - including several attackers - died in the assault in the early hours in Changamwe, half an hour's drive inland from the centre of Mombasa.

There have been further disturbances in the town of Kilifi, north of Mombasa, where six civilians were killed, but details of the incident remain sketchy.

Police pointed the finger at Kenya's coastal separatist group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), but it denied responsibility, saying the group only sought change through peaceful means.

In other developments:

  • The BBC's Bashkas Jugsodaay in Garissa says there were three explosions in three different polling stations in Mandera, a town near the border with Somalia, as officials were preparing for polls to open. One person died, reports said
  • As well as the two deadly attacks near Mombasa, a third attack was reported in a village near Mishomoroni, but there was no information about casualties
  • In Kiharu, Muranga county, a 72-year-old woman fainted and died while waiting to cast her vote

It was unclear whether the deaths around Mombasa were election-related, but the Kenyan police chief said one of the attacks involved over 200 gang members, and in response he was sending an additional 400 officers to the area.

Some blamed a separatist group, the Mombasa Revolutionary Council (MRC) - which has called for an election boycott - for the incident in Changamwe, but others suggested it was just a convenient scapegoat.

Two-horse race

Waiting in line outside polling stations in Nairobi hours before polls opened, the atmosphere was calm and people chanted "peace", reports the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse.

Raila Odinga vs Uhuru Kenyatta

Raila Odinga (l) Uhuru Kenyatta (r)

Uhuru Kenyatta

  • Son of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta
  • Due to stand trial at ICC in April accused of organising violence in last election
  • His running mate, William Ruto, also accused
  • Both deny the charges
  • From Kikuyu ethnic group - Kenya's largest at 22% of population and powerful economically
  • Kikuyus and Ruto's Kalenjin community saw fierce clashes after 2007 poll
  • Currently deputy prime minister

Raila Odinga

  • Raila Odinga son of first Vice-President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga
  • Distant relative of Barack Obama
  • Believes he was cheated of victory in last election
  • From Luo community in western Kenya - 11% of population.
  • Some Luos feel they have been marginalised by central government
  • Third time running for president
  • Currently prime minister under power-sharing deal to end violence last time

In Garissa, frustration grew in the long queues as the heat beat down, our correspondent reports. Some used umbrellas to shelter from the sun and others bought water to pour over their heads.

Kenyans are choosing a president, members of parliament and senators, county governors and members of 47 county assemblies.

However, our correspondent in the capital says all eyes are on the presidency.

Eight candidates are standing but it is essentially a two-horse race pitting Mr Odinga against Mr Kenyatta, he says.

Some observers say they are particularly concerned about violence erupting should neither of the two frontrunners poll more than 50% - in which case the vote will go to a run-off, probably on 11 April.

Mr Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding father Jomo Kenyatta, is due to stand trial at the ICC in April for his alleged role in orchestrating the violence five years ago.

Mr Kenyatta's running mate, William Ruto, has also been indicted. Both men deny any wrongdoing.

The 2007 violence broke out after Mr Odinga claimed he had been cheated of victory by supporters of President Mwai Kibaki.

Supporters of the rival candidates, from different ethnic groups, took up arms against each other. Mr Odinga later joined a government of national unity under a peace deal.

The underlying sources of tension in the 2007-8 election remain, and in some parts have escalated, with the risk of violence "perilously high", warns Human Rights Watch.

It says the "near total impunity" of the perpetrators of violence has left them free to rape and kill again.

Some 99,000 police officers have been deployed around the country.

Presidential candidates must secure support from across the country to be declared the winner, so they cannot just rely on support from their ethnic groups, as has been the case in previous elections.

Official results will be announced by 11 March by the electoral commission.

Title page: Behind the Kenya elections

Kenya elections: Maps and graphics

Map of Kenya showing distribution of ethnic groups Kenya is braced for general elections, which some fear could see a repeat of the horrific nationwide violence which followed the 2007 polls. Kenya’s 42 million people are divided into more than 40 different ethnic and linguistic groups and many Kenyans vote along ethnic lines. Some of the groups have long-standing disputes over access to land or water for animals, which periodically lead to outbreaks of deadly violence.
Map of Kenya showing election results 2007 Many politicians feel the route to power is through ethnic alliances. In 2007, Raila Odinga's ODM was mainly supported by his Luo community, their neighbours the Luhya, ethnic Kalenjins and others. Kenya's largest group, the Kikuyu, broadly supported the PNU and Kikuyu President Mwai Kibaki, while Kalonzo Musyoka's ODM-Kenya was largely backed by his Kamba people south and east of Nairobi.
Map showing three towns in Rift Valley affected by violence post 2007 election After the election, ODM supporters accused the PNU of rigging the polls and staged street protests. These quickly turned violent and degenerated into tit-for-tat ethnic attacks, especially in the densely populated and ethnically mixed Rift Valley, where Kikuyu and Kalenjin compete for land. Thirty-five ethnic Kikuyus were burned to death in a church at Eldoret. There were also deadly clashes in Naivasha and Nakuru.
Internally displaced mum and baby after 2007 election More than 1,000 people were killed and about 600,000 people fled their homes. Five years later, the UNHCR estimates about 100,000 people are still living in tented camps around the country. With such memories still raw, some people fear the 4 March elections could lead to a new outbreak of violence, as seen during the party nominations in parts of the country earlier this year.
Kenyatta, Odinga and Ruto, showing Ruto switched sides Presidential candidate Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate - William Ruto - are due to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in April for crimes against humanity. They are accused of organising their supporters to attack each other in the violence which erupted after the last election. Mr Ruto, a Kalenjin, backed Raila Odinga in 2007, but he has since switched sides. Both men deny the charges.

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