Suleiman Dori died of cancer aged 42 on March 9, 2020. He left Msambweni parliamentary seat vacant. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) scheduled a by-election on December 15, 2020.
The nomination of political party candidates and the independent aspirants happened on October 15-16, 2020. Nine candidates presented their papers. They included Sharlet Onyango, Mansury Kumaka, Ali Mwakulonda, Charles Bilali, Khamis Liganje, and Marere Wamwachai. Others were Sheikh Abdulrahman, Omari Boga, and Feisal Bader.
The by-election was explosive. It teetered Msambweni on the edge of full-blown chaos, constituting the main subject of this report, which resulted from the monitoring of voting.
At his second term, and ahead of his demise, Dori was defining a political path away from ODM, an opposition party that twice sponsored him to parliament since 2013. He hoped his ambitions would deliver to him a third term or higher office. And to pull a political masterstroke, Dori banked on Deputy President William Ruto, the deputy leader of the ruling party, Jubilee, which has rivalled coalitions formed by ODM in 2013, and 2017 General Elections.
Ties between Dori and Ruto deepened to the chagrin of ODM, which is headed by Raila Odinga—and extended the DP’s raid and capture of Raila loyalists. The political feud between Raila and Ruto laid bare when Msambweni voters went to the poll. Politicians stoked chaos and hate as they fought to prove who among the duo is the supremo. In the process, they marred the ballot by bloody violence, arrogant display of firepower, and caused instances of near-shootouts or missed deaths.
Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) trained its eyes on Boga and Bader, the eventual front-runners.
Boga was a councillor in the defunct Kwale Municipal Council, and then a Member of County Assembly (MCA) under the devolved system. Bader was Dori’s long-term aid. He is credited for some of the successful political manoeuvres by Dori, including actualizing various projects that endeared the deceased to voters.
Initially, an ODM member, Bader, without evidence, cited a plot to rig him out at a party primary—a claim his campaign advanced to the ballot. He defected from ODM and ran as an independent candidate. But he received substantial support from Ruto.
Boga, by contrast, clinched ODM ticket through a party nomination. He amassed 6,183 votes, and thrashed the second-best, Nicholas Zani, by 5,653 ballots. ODM big shots like Mombasa governor Hassan Joho and party luminaries from the Orange House supported Boga.
Traditionally an opposition bastion, Msambweni was under the grip of ODM since 2007, and Boga was the presumptive winner of the by-election. Even an opinion poll by Radio Africa Group (RAG) projected a “landslide” triumph for Boga.
But the stakes only got higher and dicey because of Raila-Ruto factors. Msambweni by-election was like a rematch, a fierce and protracted Ruto-Raila duel that has been festering. Just over a year, Ruto lost to Raila at another vicious by-poll in Kibra—ODM’s Imran Okoth trounced footballer MacDonald Mariga, a DP’s favourite.
And smarting from this hammering, Ruto’s boisterous allies camped in Msambweni for three months from October to deliver the seat, showing defiance against their party position to pull out of the vote, at least to allow ODM retain the slot, due to handshake. Raila’s ODM, contrastingly, wanted to defend the seat and assert its political dominance over Msambweni—and by extension, Coast where Ruto has been making forays.
The campaigns launched on October 15, 2020, and ended on December 12, 2020, about two days to the poll. MUHURI monitored the by-election, just as it has observed in dozen others, including general ballots and referenda, since 2005. For Msambweni, all signals pointed to possible voter fraud and violence, making our monitoring a critical undertaking.
On the eve of the election, December 14, 2020, we witnessed election officials transporting ballot materials from the tallying centre, Dr Babla secondary school, to 129 polling stations, under tight security.
The poll opened and 6 am, kicked off an exercise marred by allegations of fraud, and fixed horrific political violence instigated and cheered by some politicians who kept pressing on the gas. Violence inflicted injuries, some bloody, on dozen voters—many ambushed or attacked in open-air.
We witnessed violence at three polling stations—Jomo Kenyatta Primary School, Mwaroni, and Makigwena—but its impact snowballed across the constituency and trembled most of its 124,295 residents. These dwellers, about half of them voters, were victims of political violence. But politicians whose actions or inactions instigated, and incited bloodshed, were not hurt.
Noticeable politicians during the vote included ODM’s Hassan Joho (Mombasa governor), Edwin Sifuna (ODM secretary-general), Mishi Mboko (Likoni MP), Esther Passaris (Nairobi women representative), Zuleikha Hassan (Kwale women representative), Abdulswamad Nassir (Mvita MP), Amason Kingi (Kilifi governor), and Issa Boy (Kwale senator). All were Bogo’s agents.
Others were Khatib Mwashetani (Lunga Lunga MP), Mohamed Ali (Nyali MP), Johnstone Muthama (former Machakos senator), Aisha Jumwa (Malindi MP), Hassan Omar (former Mombasa senator), and Boni Khalwale (former Kakamega senator). Oscar Sudi (Kapseret MP), Nelson Koech (Belgut MP), Caleb Kositany (Soy MP), and Nixon Korir (Lang’ata MP) were present, too. All acted as Bader’s agents.
The violence appeared premeditated by leading camps. Two results were on the cards. First, it was to instil fear. Second, cause voter apathy in areas where Boga or Bader was predicted to scoop most votes.
And the plot worked, to a large extent.
The impact of the mayhem spread far and beyond the target spots. The actual violence—and the anxiety of a possibility of one—made some voters keep off, those we talked to and were affected said. In polling stations where violence occurred, long queues of voters vanished immediately after the chaos. The effect reflected on the final voter-turnout: a paltry 39.58 per cent of 69,003 registered voters cast their ballot.
We witnessed deadly clashes at Jomo Kenyatta primary school, Mwaroni, and Makigwena polling stations. Outside these voting stations, viral pictures and a video showed plainclothes police attached to Mombasa governor Hassan Joho and Nyali MP Mohamed Ali brandishing their guns—an AK-47 and a pistol, respectively—in wide-ranging intimidation tactics.
Jomo Kenyatta polling station violence
We saw Edwin Sifuna, ODM’s secretary-general and Boga’s agent, banging the window of a car occupied by Boni Khalwale, a former Kakamega senator and Bader’s agent. He claimed Khalwale was bribing voters. Sifuna’s action incited his security detail who threatened to attack Khalwale. The group said Khalwale was blocking locals from voting—but they provided no evidence to their claim. They said Msambweni was Raila’s bedrock, not Ruto’s, bringing to fore the national political duel the two have had since 2013, and possibly in future.
Khalwale could not get out of the car as he was a target of an attack by at least three bullish security detail who were with Sifuna. Police occasionally surrounded his car, a white Prado with registration number KCX199B. Their persuasion to have its windows rolled down flopped.
Police kept the entrance of Jomo Kenyatta Primary School controlled and shut. Access was restricted to the public. Only poll officials, candidates’ agents or journalists got in—our Communication Officer gained entry and filmed. Voting at this station stopped for over an hour as a charged crowd gathered at the entrance and chanted slogans supporting Bader and Ruto. They said ODM denied them an opportunity to vote—but they did not elaborate.
Another crowd drew closer to repulse Bader’s supporters. It turned messy—opposing camps engaged in fistfights and struck with stones. One youth got knocked down, and a crowd surged with kicks and blows. He bled from the nose and mouth. There were no police outside to quell the violence or, at least, help the injured get medical attention.
As the war escalated outside, Sifuna, whose action appeared to have fueled the clash, was standing safe inside a secured polling station covered by riot police. Khalwale remained affixed inside his car. He, too, was kept safe by the hordes of police who surrounded his vehicle. But there were no police to protect members of the public caught up in the clashes outside the station. Police had to escort Khalwale out of the station when Sifuna and his team appeared to double down on their motives.
Police were only deployed outside the station after about an hour, way too long after the damage had been done. They engaged the youths in a running battle. The crowd forcefully hailed stones and severed one of officer’s head. The troop immediately evacuated the injured to a secured ground, then drove off with him.
Mwaroni polling station violence
We heard Nyali MP, Mohamed Ali, ordering protection of Bader’s votes through any possible form, including attacking those he suspected of engaging in electoral malpractice. Ali passed these orders verbally to a group of rowdy and armed youth whom he either drove with in convoy or were strategically placed at Mwaroni polling station. He issued similar orders to his security detail, one of them armed with a handgun concealed on his waist by an oversize shirt. The MP provoked the violence when he termed an attack by his security on an ODM supporter, as a “vote protection strategy”. Ali’s “strategy” reflected a brutal assault on people merely suspected of engaging in voter fraud. To fall victim of Ali’s coordinated attack, one only needed to possess some notes in their pockets, wallet, or purse. It did not matter if the money was for personal use. It simply made you a target.
Another conspicuous figure in this fracas was Mgandi Kalinga, a Mombasa-based political activist deployed by Bader’s team to monitor the poll. Kalinga seemed to have Ali’s ear. We saw him snatching a phone, wallet, national identification card, and money from a man he accused of bribing voters. Ali’s team of youth and security attacked the victim. They only backed off after Mvita MP, Abdulswamad Nassir, and his security detail arrived. We heard Ali saying they will not return the man’s valuables, and that Nassir should instead get him a new phone.
Neither Ali nor his squad adduced pieces of evidence to implicate their victims. We did not see Ali or his group presenting their prisoners to authorities for the due process to take its course.
Makigwena polling station violence
The poll closed at 5 pm, and some minutes past 7 pm, the situation at Mwakigwena polling turned powder-keg when police, without provocation, fired teargas canisters. Bader team—led by Lunga Lunga MP, Khatib Mwashetani, and his Malindi counterpart, Aisha Jumwa, —would later claim Boga was trying to stuff ballot boxes with his votes during the melee. They said this was to bridge the lead Bader held. Again, they provided no evidence to support their allegations when they addressed a tension-parked press conference at the tallying centre at around 10 pm.
We revisited the scene at Mwakigwena polling station by interviewing eyewitnesses. Some agents scampered for their safety when police lobbed the first teargas. We gathered that one cop, who appeared to command the contingent, warned agents against putting their lives on the firing line for the sake of a politician. This information was provided to us by agents who requested anonymity to speak candidly and to avoid reprisal.
One of the agents said he grabbed ballot box and blocked police from snatching it. Until now, we do not know what police’s intention with the voting box was—but the scenario explains the huge suspicion over voter fraud that engulfed this poll, and which thrust police at the centre of conspiracies.
Violence at tallying centre
Bader’s team maintained their allegations of voter fraud and implicated ODM when they addressed two press conferences at Dr Babla secondary school on the night of vote counting. Mwashetani claimed ODM was planning to bring two ballot boxes, all stuffed with Boga’s votes, which would drastically tilt the equation against Bader. We did not see these boxes—but one election official was manhandled by Bader’s agents on suspicion of being an accomplice in the plot.
As tension escalated inside the tallying centre, a group of about 10 youth breached the facility’s security. They claimed, without evidence, that Boga was being rigged out. They were rowdy, violent, and intoxicated. Despite the enforcement of coronavirus curfew, which starts at 10 pm, it was not clear how the group managed to be out at 11 pm when they stormed the centre.
They were neither poll agents nor essential service providers. At first, police were reluctant to confront them—and when they did, their reaction was a slap on this wrist, not the brutal force they would ordinarily use during such incident.
IEBC declared Bader winner of the by-election after he garnered 15,251 votes against Boga who had 10,444 votes. Abdulrahman Sheikh Mahmoud had 790 votes, Wamwachai Marere Mwarapayo, 300, Liganje Khamis Mwakonje, 230, and Bilali Charles Bombo, 135. Mwakulola Ali Hassan got 107 votes, Kumaka Mansury Abdurhman, 38, and Onyango Sharlet Akinyi, 18. Casted votes were 27,313. The final turnout was 39.58 per cent out of 69,003 registered voters.
Boga has since conceded the defeat.
Political violence muddied the by-election and put its credibility into question. Intimidation of voters only cast doubt on the vote’s fairness and openness. And even though none immediately brought forward evidence to substantiate allegations of voter bribery and electoral malpractice, we are not ruling out that such might have occurred discreetly.
IEBC did nothing to restrain errant agents caught on camera causing chaos. Its inaction contributed to the electoral flaws witnessed in Msambweni and did little to inspire confidence in the democratic process.
- Politicians involved in Msambweni violence should be barred from seeking elective and appointive seats or monitoring and observing future polls or acting as candidates’ agents.
- Relevant investigative agencies should probe the violence and take legal actions against culprits, many of them politicians, who have started beating the drums of war ahead of 2022 General Election.
- Responsible government agencies should promote peace and reconciliation efforts.
- IEBC should conduct sufficient voter education for efficient elections in future.
- Relevant stakeholders, including MUHURI, should be engaged in voter education and peacebuilding programs ahead of 2022 ballot.
Reporting by: Samuel Safari, Mwinyi Mbaruk, Fredrick Okado, Francis Auma, Idris Suleiman, Topister Juma, Mohamed Ahmed, Zamzam Sirat, Dennis Chinzi, and Nuru Mohamed.
Writing by: Ernest Cornel.
Editing by: Ernest Cornel.