NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Kenya's first nation-wide vote since devastating violence broke out after the nation's 2007 presidential election will be closely monitored by the international community and local observers to help ward off potential problems, officials said Monday.
The disputed 2007 presidential election sparked off ethnic fighting that killed more than 1,000 people, and observers warn there is an unacceptably high risk of repeat violence around Kenya's March 4 vote. A chaotic primary vote this month and outbreaks of deadly violence around the country have done little to instill confidence that peace will prevail.
Kenya's election commission says at least 1,014 international observers and more than 10,000 local observers have been accredited. The United States said it will field a team of about 105 observers.
"We hope our ongoing engagement on electoral preparations combined with the presence of election observers from the U.S. government, international partners, and Kenyan groups before and during the election will help ensure that the electoral process is free, fair and peaceful, thereby giving the Kenyan people confidence in the legitimacy of election results," U.S. Embassy spokesman Christopher Snipes said.
The U.S. is encouraging Kenyans to put aside tribal and ethnic differences, reject intimidation and violence, demand an end to impunity and to address any electoral disputes through Kenya's courts, rather than on the streets, Snipes said.
The European Union observer team will be smaller in number than in 2007 — 70, down from 132 — but will spend more time in the country analyzing the buildup to the vote, said Gillian McCormack, deputy head of the EU observer mission.
Kenya has introduced political reforms to address the flawed 2007 polls. A new constitution passed in August 2010 has put checks and balances on government bodies. The constitution also established a robust Supreme Court and initiated judicial reforms that have resulted in more than a dozen higher court judges being fired over lack of integrity.
A report this month by the Council on Foreign Relations listed several reasons to fear violence might reoccur: the country's top presidential candidates are mobilizing voters along ethnic lines; the vote is likely to be very close; the election commission will be unable to fully prepare for the election; and one presidential candidate faces trial at the International Criminal Court for violence perpetrated after the 2007 vote.
"The United States and others may have limited leverage over Kenya's domestic politics, but they are not without options that would significantly improve the prospects for acceptable elections and help avert a major crisis," the report said. "However, with little more than two months before the elections, Washington must intensify its engagement or forsake its opportunity to make a difference."
The U.S. is financially supporting observers from the Carter Center — run by former President Jimmy Carter — and the largest Kenyan group of observers, said Snipes.
The International Crisis Group said in a recent report that high youth unemployment and inequality encourage the growth of criminal groups and militias who want to intimidate political opponents.