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Kenyans Worry Election Will Bring Repeat Of Tribal Violence


Kenya will soon have a new president. Voters there go to the polls on Monday. The last election was followed by allegations of vote-rigging, and by weeks of deadly tribal violence, which left more than a thousand dead. NPR's Gregory Warner sat down with a few perpetrators of that violence in a bar to watch a Kenyan presidential debate and to find out what, if anything, has changed this time around.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: In a bar called Kismenti in the rough neighborhood of Kenya's capital, Nairobi, the presidential debate is just firing up on the TV screens, and three men on a bench are singing along to the national anthem.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

WARNER: These guys are all different tribes. They're all voting strictly along their own tribal lines, but that doesn't stop these three friends from splitting a bottle of vodka to watch the debate.

Ray Omolo is from the tribe Luya. His friend, Austine Odhiamo is from a different tribe, Luo.

RAY OMOLO: Ustawi is togetherness.

AUSTINE ODHIAMO: Ustawi, togetherness.

OMOLO: That is the final word of the national anthem.

ODHIAMO: It's true. Like, you know, in Eastlands, we are together. Like, now, we are sitting here like brothers, watching together, because that's the way we've been brought up.

WARNER: There are 43 tribes in Kenya. Most of the time, in most of the country, they live together without killing each other. And then, every four or five years comes an election, and everyone starts worrying about this inevitable threat of tribal violence. So why does the ethnic rancor spill out during election season? Austine says it's simple. In 2008, politicians paid him and his friends to commit crime.

ODHIAMO: They gave me, like, 20,000.

WARNER: Twenty thousand shillings, about $240.

ODHIAMO: To go and burn those shops, loot if you can. Go talk to your people. Tell them there's work to be done. If we agree, we agree.

WARNER: Why do you agree?

ODHIAMO: Because I want the money.

WARNER: A Kenya commission report in 2008 fingered dozens of high-ranking Kenyan officials as perpetrators and instigators of the violence. One of the leading presidential candidates up there on the TV screen, Uhuru Kenyatta, stands accuse of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. As for why Austine might have agreed to commit violence, well, he had an infant daughter to feed, and he'd already turned to armed robbery. The politician's offer wasn't exactly a moral dilemma.

Since then, though, Austine and his friends here at the bar have left their life of hard crime. They got jobs washing cars, but they're not above disrupting a political meeting or two if a rival politician will pay them.

What did disrupt the meeting mean?

ODHIAMO: Hey, heckling.

OMOLO: Disorganizing furniture, everything.

ODHIAMO: And they know who you are. The people who have come to hear what you have to say, you know they'll, like, they'll get scared, like, thugs have come. Then they'll go. Then you won't sell your agenda. You didn't talk to the people. They don't know what you want to do for them. Us, we are drunk. We have disrupted, then we go. Then another one comes tomorrow, gives us money, vote for me. It's just like that.

WARNER: Austine's political cynicism, if not his thuggery, is common in Kenya. Ricky Anindo is a political campaigner I meet having a badly needed drink at the same bar.

RICKY ANINDO: Yeah, so it's plain that in Kenya, we have a very big problem of corruption.

WARNER: Amassing wealth to buy votes and buy muscle.

ANINDO: Politicians always use boys - to do what? To create violence.

WARNER: Ironically, the presidential debate is just then turning to the topic of corruption, but there's no one left to listen, because most of the young men who were in here drinking have rushed out to cluster around a young man in a suit with a neatly shaved head. It's a politician stopping by.

JAMAL KONGO: I'm Jamal, Jamal Kongo. I'm a county representative aspirant for Kariobangi South.

WARNER: Some of these guys are very interested in your career.

KONGO: I'm a youth, as they are. So now I want to represent them for this coming election.

WARNER: So it's late at night. Are you still campaigning?

KONGO: No, no, no, no. I'm actually heading home. I'm not campaigning. I just come to say hi to the guys.

WARNER: Just hi, right?

KONGO: Just hi.

WARNER: Then the political candidate and more than 20 young men - including Austine and his friends - move their discussion out of earshot. They huddle on the street corner, while I hang back with Austine's younger cousin, Kevin.

KEVIN: They are coming at night. He is, in fact, campaigning.

WARNER: They're all following him, you know?

KEVIN: You know, when they all come, everybody's, like, tell us what you want.

WARNER: What you want, and how much you'll pay for the job. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.