NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan police fired teargas and shots in the air to scatter a small number of demonstrators in Nairobi two days before elections, as the main opposition leader appeared to pull back from a call for protests during the vote.
In the western city of Kisumu, around 2,000 demonstrators marched on the election board offices, witnesses said, heeding Raila Odinga’s appeal for protests against Thursday’s repeat presidential ballot, before dispersing peacefully.
Odinga is boycotting the contest against incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta. He says it will not be free and fair as the election board had made insufficient progress towards reforms he demanded after the original election held in August was annulled.
Odinga had urged his supporters to ensure the new vote did not take place, repeatedly saying there would be “no elections”.
But on Tuesday he told the BBC he was not calling for protests on election day itself. “We have not told people to protest on polling day. We have not said that at all. We have told people to stay away,” he said in a radio interview.
When called for clarification, Odinga’s spokesman said he was saying “peaceful protests” would still take place and that the opposition would fully explain their plans on Wednesday.
At least 49 people have died in political violence since the August ballot, evoking unwelcome memories of the aftermath of a disputed 2007 vote, when more than 1,200 people were killed.
On Tuesday evening, the bodyguard of the deputy chief justice was shot and wounded as he bought flowers by the side of the road, police said.
The motive for the shooting was unclear, but it is likely to add to the tense atmosphere surrounding the vote. Judges have received threats since they nullified the August result.
The political stand-off has blunted growth in East Africa’s richest economy, a nation which values its stability and relative freedom in a region plagued by conflict.
Kenya’s Supreme Court is still hearing several cases challenging the legality of Thursday’s election.
One, brought by human rights activist Khelef Khalifa and two others, seeks to delay the vote on grounds that the election board is not sufficiently prepared. The Supreme Court, the only body that can now legally postpone the poll beyond the end of the month, will hear the case on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the election board canceled a planned briefing with journalists on preparations for the polls.
Last week, the head of the election board said it was not clear a free and fair vote could take place due to intimidation and political interference.
He spoke after the resignation of an election commissioner, who then fled the country and released a statement saying she had been threatened, although she did not say by whom.
A day before the Aug. 8 vote, another member of the election board was found tortured and murdered.
On Monday, the International Crisis Group, a global think-tank, called for a delay in the election. “Proceeding under current conditions would deepen Kenya’s ethnic cleavages and prolong a stalemate that has already claimed dozens of lives and come at a high economic cost,” it said.
Both the election board and the government have said the vote will go ahead, irrespective of whether Odinga contests it, and only a court ruling could legally delay the re-run ballot beyond the end of October.
On Tuesday, police fired teargas and bullets into the air to break up protesters in the capital Nairobi. In Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold, demonstrators said that the polls should not take place, but were unclear on how they should be stopped.
“All we know is that there will be no elections. As to how this will be done, we are waiting for the big announcement by Baba (Odinga) tomorrow,” said one demonstrator, market trader James Ouma.
Around him, marchers waved branches and blew whistles.
Last week Odinga supporters disrupted at least three official pre-polling events. Police said some election board staff were seriously injured.
Kenyatta won the first election on Aug. 8, by 1.4 million votes, but the Supreme Court annulled that outcome on Sept. 1 over procedural irregularities. Odinga’s team then presented a list of demands to the election board.
Some have been met - opposition monitors will now have access to the board’s computers as results come in, a key official has gone on an extended holiday, and numerical results vulnerable to typographical errors will not be transmitted, rather only scanned copies of paper forms from tallying centers.
The board said it was impossible to meet other demands - such as changing the technology provider - in the short time frame allotted for new elections.
Under Kenya’s constitution, fresh elections must be held within 60 days of nullified ones.
additional reporting by David Lewis and John Ndiso; writing by Katharine Houreld; editing by Mark Heinrich and Robin Pomeroy