October 25, 2017 / 5:22 PM / in 8 months

In Kenya opposition stronghold, a repeat presidential vote looks unlikely

KISUMU, Kenya (Reuters) - As Kenya prepared to hold a repeat presidential poll on Thursday despite an opposition boycott, a handful of scared election officials huddled by an echoing hall in Kisumu, a stronghold of opposition leader Raila Odinga.

“Going out of that gate with this ballot box is like a suicide mission,” 26-year-old Evans said on Wednesday.

The young man, too frightened to give his last name, is meant to be in charge of one of the constituency’s polling stations. But only 19 of his 400 colleagues reported for duty at the Lions Club High School. Drivers meant to transport them to polling stations were too scared to show up.

Kisumu is the heartland of support for Odinga, who is boycotting Thursday’s vote because he said the election board has failed to push through reforms.

The repeat vote, meant to pit Odinga against President Uhuru Kenyatta, was ordered by the Supreme Court after it nullified Kenyatta’s win in an Aug. 8 presidential poll on procedural grounds.

Odinga’s boycott leaves Kenyatta as the only serious contender. None of the other five candidates gained more than one percent in August, virtually guaranteeing Kenyatta a second five-year term. At a rally on Wednesday, Odinga dismissed the five as “flower girls” at Kenyatta’s wedding.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court was due to hear a petition seeking to delay the poll, but was unable to do so after five out of seven judges failed to show up.

Minutes after the court announced it could not hear the case, hundreds of Odinga supporters poured onto Kisumu streets, blocking roads with logs and stones and lighting tyres. Most election staff decided to stay home.

“I’m afraid because it’s getting late,” returning officer John Ngutai told Reuters late on Wednesday afternoon. “My staff fear to come.”

The officials sitting with Ngutai said they had been attacked twice by Odinga supporters, who targeted training sessions by election officials last week.

Police struggled to save presiding officer Diana Odhiambo, 44, from a stick-wielding crowd of men. Ngutai played video of the incident on his phone, as Odhiambo said: “I love my job, but my family is very nervous.”

Ngutai said preparations were far behind schedule, and it wasn’t clear if the election could be held. Polling stations are supposed to open at 6 a.m.

“The roads are blocked, we can’t access the polling stations, the owners of the vehicles to transport my staff are scared,” he sighed, as his phone rang incessantly.

But 26-year-old Evans, burrowed into a deep blue hooded sweater, said he would stick around a little longer because he still believed in the elections.

“Our lives are in danger,” he said. But “I’m determined to make Kenya better. I believe that following a constitutional process is better.”

Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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