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Kenya: Democracy on Trial

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When I lived for a time in east Africa, two names dominated the politics of Kenya: Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first post-independence president, and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was vice-president and then leader of the opposition.

That was nearly 50 years ago, but if those names seem familiar to you, it's because their sons, Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, still dominate the Kenyan political scene, and were the leading candidates in this week's hotly-contested presidential election.

(Mind you, there's nothing particularly African about dynastic politics -- look, for example, at the Adams, Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Bush families in the US, or the Astor, Benn, Churchill, Foot, and Hogg families in the UK.)

Democracy is a tricky business at the best of times, and for the people of Kenya, this weekend is likely to be particularly tense. British readers may remember the strange sense of dislocation we felt after the inconclusive election results in 2010; US readers will recall the ghastly Florida hanging chads fiasco of the 2000 election.

For Kenyans, as they wait for the results of the elections to be announced, it's much, much worse. The last time they went to the polls to choose a president, more than 1,000 people died and 600,000 had to flee from their homes in an explosion of post-election violence. No wonder people are nervous amid reports of major problems with the electronic vote-counting systems and claims of result rigging from the camp of Raila Odinga.

It is in the nature of elections that they divide people. They force us to make choices, and in fragile societies with divided communities, those divisions can be dangerous, which is why so often elections can lead to violence.

Whether it's Kenya, Egypt, Afghanistan or Iraq, we know only too well what the cost of elections can be in lives lost. Yet you have only to look at the endless lines of voters outside polling stations to see why they matter. An election says to each voter: You have a voice, and you can make your voice heard. Whether it's a cross or an inky finger print on a ballot paper, or a tick on a computer screen, your opinion will count.

I have lost count of how many polling stations I have stood outside, in many different countries, talking to voters as they cast their ballots. Nearly all of them say the same thing: we vote in a spirit of hope -- hope for a better future, hope for a better country.

Yes, of course, they are realists. They know that an election is not a magic wand. As a Ugandan MP once told me: "An election doesn't guarantee a functioning democracy, any more than a wedding guarantees a functioning marriage."

The picture is unusually complex in Kenya, where both Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto are facing charges at the International Criminal Court related to allegations that they were partly responsible for organising the violence after the 2007 elections. Mr Odinga claimed he was robbed of victory then, but he did eventually agree to serve as prime minister in a power-sharing deal brokered by the former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.

But let's be honest here: underlying many of the problems in Kenya, as in several other African countries, is the continued influence of traditional tribal loyalties. True, over the past 20-30 years, democracy has marched impressively across the African continent, and most of the most notorious and brutal dictators -- like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Jean B├ędel Bokassa of Central African Republic -- have now gone.

But tribalism hasn't gone. As the respected Kenyan academic Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard university wrote late last year: "The concern is no longer the stranglehold of autocrats, but the hijacking of the democratic process by tribal politics ...

"Much attention over the last two decades has been devoted to removing autocrats and promoting multi-party politics. But in the absence of efforts to build genuine political parties that compete on the basis of ideas, many African countries have reverted to tribal identities as foundations for political competition."

And that's why I think what's happening in Kenya this weekend is so important. Kenyatta and Odinga still owe much of their support to tribal loyalties, even though the electoral rules aim to ensure that no candidate can win office only with the support of their own tribal group. (Any winning candidate must get more than 50 per cent of total votes cast and at least 25 per cent of votes in half of the country's 47 counties.)

The news from much of Africa over the past decade has been more positive than ever before. Economies are growing, wealth is being created, schools have been built and health care vastly improved.

Kenya should be -- and could be -- in the vanguard of African nations charting a path towards a more stable future. Its many friends, both in Africa and beyond, will be hoping that it can get through this fraught post-election period without any more bloodshed.