A concrete bridge and a narrow, garbage-filled river divide the slum of Mathare into two parts, a space between ethnic groups and voting blocs that are competing fiercely — and many say dangerously — over Kenya’s presidential elections scheduled for Tuesday. Here in one of the most economically successful and stable countries in East Africa, Mathare is only a few miles away from Nairobi’s rising skyline. Tech firms have popped up on the city’s periphery. Every week, thousands of tourists pile into sleek safari trucks. This spring, the top U.N. humanitarian official here, Siddharth Chatterjee, called Kenya “a beacon of hope in a region mired in fragility.” But with the election approaching, Mathare feels far from stable. On one side of the rutted bridge is a community of ethnic Kikuyus, the tribe of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, 55. On the other side are the Luos, the tribe of opposition candidate Raila Odinga, 72. Most days, those tribes peacefully coexist, as the slum is consumed by honking minibuses and a frenzy of commercial activity, with traffic moving across the bridge in both directions. But as the election approaches, it is a line not to be crossed.
“This is the front line,” said Stephen Maina, a Kikuyu shopkeeper. “Where it all goes down,” said Akal Nicholas, a Luo lab technician.
On Friday, families were packing their belongings, preparing to leave the slum before possible violence. Stores were shuttering. Extra firetrucks had reportedly been hired. A senior police officer in the slum said, “We are preparing,” but declined to elaborate.
For all of Kenya’s success and modernization, its elections are still decided almost exclusively by ethnicity, with the Kikuyus and Luos at the forefront of a fractured electorate, where ideology is obscured by identity politics. Since Kenya became independent in 1963, three of its four presidents have been Kikuyu, the first being Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta. A Luo has entered, and lost, every presidential election.