Kenyans head to the polls, Nairobi streets tentatively calm

People wait in line to cast their votes in the 2017 Kenya general election. Photo by: Sara Jerving / Devex

NAIROBI — The infamously congested streets of Nairobi were calm Tuesday as the city cleared out before Tuesday’s general election. Concerns that violence could erupt — as it did after a contested vote in 2007 — shut down much of the city in the hours leading up to the vote.

Some Kenyan residents living in Nairobi left the city for their rural homes for the election. Many expats also left Kenya, either going home or on holiday to getaways such as Zanzibar.

“Nearly everyone has left,” said Dr. Alex Awiti, director of the East African​ Institute​ at The Aga Khan University. “They are waiting out this period to see whether the country survives or not. It’s going to depend on the credibility and believability of the elections.”

Kenya election: NGOs lean on local influencers to temper risk of violence

Civil society organizations have been laying the groundwork for the prevention of violence in the lead-up to Kenya's general election. Devex reports on a key part of this strategy — a reliance on influential individuals in local communities to keep an eye on tensions and serve as violence mitigators.  

Read more Devex coverage of the Kenyan elections

International observers and aid groups will be watching closely the coming days as results begin to trickle out. They are concerned about outright violence as well as exacerbated communal tensions that could impact their ability to work — or could even create new humanitarian needs.

For those who did stay, the days leading up to the election saw grocery stores packed with people stocking up on canned goods, bottled water and other supplies intended to tide them over in a period of uncertainty. ATM machines lines snaked around city blocks, and people topped up their phone credit.

On election day, many people only left home to vote. Many of the shops in Nairobi were closed today, some so that their employees could vote.

The day passed with some glitches, such as polls opening late because of delays in receiving voting materials, but the day was largely peaceful.

It took Rachal Inziano more than eight hours to vote, even though she arrived at her designated site at 4 am Tuesday morning, before the polls opened. She cast her vote in a polling tent in an open field in Kibera slum. A patchwork of lines of voters moved at a glacial pace, but those in line were waiting patiently and told Devex they were excited to vote.

As night rolled in, polling sites across the country broke the seals of the six ballot boxes that held ballots from each of the six races — president, members of national assembly, senators, county woman members of national assembly, county governors and members of the county assembly — and counted them in front of teams of witnesses. At one station in downtown Nairobi, dozens of election workers counted votes late into the evening, tallying the votes by kerosene lamps.

A block away, Chris Standa, a Nairobi resident, stood at a food counter a few hours after the polls closed. He was one of the few people on the street in downtown Nairobi. After buying dinner, he planned to head home and stay glued to the TV as the results rolled in.

According to Owora Richard Othieno, an observer with the East African Community who has observed the past three elections in Kenya, the turnout was high and the poll sites that he visited largely operated without incident.

There is still concern that violence could erupt after votes are tallied in the coming days. Legally, the electoral commission has a week to announce the final results.

But at the end of election day, the traffic had slightly picked up in Nairobi — a good sign, according to Othieno.

“Right now the city is empty,” he said. “By tomorrow afternoon, you will see life coming back.”

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About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.