Drought, government neglect and the threat of violence: How high are the stakes in today's Kenya elections?

Such are the high stakes in Kenya's national elections today, that the former US president Barack Obama has broken his relative silence to intervene, calling for them to be 'peaceful and credible'.

ReutersA woman walks by a wall pasted with campaign posters ahead of the presidential election in Mombasa, Kenya.

Obama, a practising Christian with a Kenyan father, said in a statement: 'I urge Kenyan leaders to reject violence and incitement; respect the will of the people; urge security forces to act professionally and neutrally; and work together no matter the outcome. I urge all Kenyans to work for an election — and aftermath — that is peaceful and credible, reinforcing confidence in your new Constitution and the future of your country. Any disputes around the election should be resolved peacefully, through Kenya's institutions and the rule of law.'

The rare intervention comes as faith leaders were this week acting as peace negotiators and working to prevent the eruption of tribal violence that the country has seen in the past, ahead of the fractious elections.

Christian Aid has been overseeing a project in Marsabit County in the north, which was a hotspot for violence during the last election in 2013. In 2007, violence led to more than a thousand deaths across the country and the displacement of some 600,000 people.

Meanwhile, campaigners say that food shortages and rising prices could be decisive issues, with the government accused by the opposition of mishandling a savage drought that has left millions hungry, and the two sides broadly neck and neck in the polls.

The drought has been one of the worst on record: as many as 2.6 million people are 'acutely food insecure', with aid agencies fearing that the remote regions of Marsabit and Turkana could slide into 'emergency levels of hunger... one step away from famine'.

As the website IRIN explained recently, the long rains, which usually start in April and end in June, were far below normal this year, with some counties recording 75 per cent less rainfall than on average.

Kenya's food security is almost entirely reliant on rain-fed agriculture and the drought has had a disastrous impact on the harvest.

In April, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report said production of maize, Kenya's staple crop, was down by up to 70 per cent on the average of the last five years.

Subsequently, food prices have rocketed. Unga, or maize flour, was up by roughly 50 per cent, milk 12 per cent, and sugar 21 per cent, affecting household consumption across the country, according to IRIN.

More broadly, some argue that the crisis has been exacerbated by poor decision-making by the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta, and that Kenya, as a middle-income country, should have been ready to tackle the crisis. Kenya, which has a population of 43 million people, is the biggest economy in eastern Africa.

'Kenya doesn't have a famine or a food crisis but a governance challenge with multiple symptoms,' John Githongo, a well-known Kenyan anti-corruption activist, told IRIN.

​'The food crisis, cost of living, rampant theft and pillage, and insecurity do pose a threat to Kenyatta's position at the election. There is a generalised malaise and disgust with the lies Jubilee [the ruling party] has told.'

Back at Christian Aid meanwhile, Mbaraka Fazal, the charity's senior humanitarian advisor based in Nairobi, said the need for pre-emptive peace building work is particularly important. 'In this election the stakes are very high,' she said. 'If the opposition don't win this time they may well become irrelevant so they are especially keen to mobilise the electorate. At the same time, the current sitting Government are not ready to give up their political position.

'In Marsabit in 2013 the minority tribes united together to oppose the Borana majority. They won every seat and the Borana were completely sidelined. This led to a lot of animosity which sparked violence which resulted in deaths, displacements and destruction of property. We are doing a number of things to try and prevent the same thing from happening again. Faith leaders have a unique role to play because they are respected by people across tribal groups and are known to be impartial and able to mediate. Christian Aid is helping them to facilitate dialogue between different factions to encourage people to recognise other's opinion and see things from a different perspective from their own.

'After any election there will be winners and losers. We have helped to set up local peace committees whose members are selected by the community. Faith leaders are working with these groups to identify shared issues of concern. It is hoped that these formal avenues of communication will allow grievances to be addressed instead of physical violence.'

Money for the work is being provided by the Start Fund, a humanitarian rapid response source supplied by the UK's Department for International Development and managed by NGOs to address emergencies that Christian Aid describes as 'under the radar'.

Fazal said they were also preparing to send emergency help should conflict flare up. 'We are pre-qualifying suppliers in advance so that if we need to deliver emergency food, water or essential household items we can do that as quickly as possible,' she said. 'We're also helping communities to develop their own plans and identify safe havens where they can escape to should violence erupt.'

For some, though, this was a crisis that should never have been allowed to happen, with the blame leveled at a government that has neglected its people.

Kwame Owino, the head of the the Institute of Economic Affairs, a Kenyan think tank, told IRIN: 'In terms of the problem and preparation for the upcoming crisis, there wasn't any preparation. That tells you, on that basis alone, it's not too unfair to say that this is incompetence.'

And as Kenneth Kambona, food security adviser to the opposition leader Raila Amolo Odinga told IRIN: 'It is any government's responsibility, first and foremost, to feed its people.'

Timeline, by Reuters:

* December 27, 2007 – Odinga alleged vote-rigging after the election commission abruptly stops tallying and announces incumbent President Mwai Kibaki has won. Protests and ethnic violence kill around 1,200 people and displaces 600,000.

* February 28, 2008 – Power sharing government formed. Mwai Kibaki remains president and Raila Odinga is prime minister.

* August. 27, 2010 – New constitution devolves power and money to 47 newly created counties, spreading opportunities for political patronage and removing the winner-takes-all trigger for violence in the next presidential election.

* April 9, 2013 – Uhuru Kenyatta sworn in as the fourth president after a bitter contest against Odinga, who challenged the outcome after the widespread failure of electronic voting equipment. Results upheld at the Supreme Court.

* December 5, 2014 – The International Criminal Court (ICC) drops charges of crimes against humanity against Kenyatta. The case against Kenyatta's deputy William Ruto collapses in April.

* October 5, 2016 – All 10 members of the electoral commission resign after a deal reached by the government and the opposition, following the months of violent protests led by Odinga against the commission.

* July 31, 2017 – Chris Msando, the senior manager of information technology systems at the election commission, is found tortured and murdered, raising fears about the credibility of the vote.

* August 8, 2017 – Polls open for 19 million registered voters to pick their president, parliament and regional authorities.

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