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A tale of two rallies

Nairobi splits in half as leaders make their final bids for electoral glory.
Last modified: 3 Mar 2013 01:53
Not all campaigners were entirely good natured towards their rivals [James Brownsell/Al Jazeera]

Nairobi, Kenya - It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Well, perhaps not the worst. And maybe not the best. But Kenya's leading electoral campaigns are undoubtedly two sides of the same coin. 

And, come results day, one half of this dedicated phalange of activists will truly be celebrating the best of times. We can but hope they reach out to the other half to prevent the worst.

The rallies this city observed on Saturday were not any attempt to persuade undecided voters. Surely, there cannot be many of them left in this country by now. These rallies were all about motivating their base and energising supporters in a drive to bring as many people out on polling day as possible.

Turnout is likely to be huge, certainly in urban centres.

For weeks, Nairobi has been a city plastered with garish-coloured posters. But on Saturday, Kenya's capital took on a bi-chromatic division. The streets were awash with red and orange.

Red: The colour of TNA candidates Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. Orange: The CORD coalition of Prime Minister Raila Odinga and his allies.

Mob rules

Tens of thousands packed into Uhuru Park for the TNA rally. Just a mile across town, the national stadium was filling up with CORD supporters.

The national stadium is huge, and it is difficult to estimate just how many jubilant Odinga fans were there. But it was clear which candidate still has resources left to throw at campaigners. Half a block away from Uhuru Park, gangs of scarlet-clad youths thrust posters and baseball caps through car windows. Teenagers hawking stickers and pin badges weaved through their more senior compatriots selling kittens and rabbits between lines of traffic.

Yes, you did read that right. It is not at all unusual, when one is stuck in traffic (as happens on a fairly regular basis in Nairobi), to come across men clutching balls of cute fluffiness, proffering them to passing drivers. Tiny big eyes peer out above the rim of cardboard boxes as these mobile kitty-kiosks and bunny-pushers ply their trade along the city's highways.

Back to Uhuru Park. Walking through the bottleneck entrance to the facility, there would be no hyperbole in saying that tens of thousands of hats, posters and flags carpeted the walkway. Youths joyfully grabbed up armfuls of the campaign detritus and flung them in the air, while whooping wildly. I half expected to see someone trying to make an equivalent of "snow angels" among all the littered TNA paraphernalia.

It was a far cry from the last election event I covered - the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, where merchandise was not given out freely. Far from it. The in-house store there must have made a small fortune. Today in Uhuru Park, a small fortune was clearly being spent.

"We have never seen a campaign like this," a taxi driver told me. "There is so much money being wasted."

Once inside the rally, the mob was truly oppressive. Huge crowds crammed into the front rows of the rally in an atmosphere more akin to a rock festival than a political talking shop. MCs on the stage gave out call-and-answer shouts - and the crowd, sweltering in the midday heat, was more than willing to play along.

"This guy [Kenyatta] has leadership qualities," electronics businessman Steven Gichuru told me. "He's the one guy who loves all Kenyans, and I want to work for all Kenyans."

Pushing and shoving, the swarm of TNA supporters were not going to win over any "undecided" voters. I got my interviews, and made a beeline for the next rally.

Mirror image

Over at Nyayo national stadium, the scene was repeated. Though the crush of humanity was less intense, man-sized cranes circled overhead as the heat in the bowl became overbearing.

Again, tens of thousands of fans had packed into the arena for the rally. Again, the party colours were the only thing to be seen wearing. And, again, no-one had a bad word to say about their candidate.

"He's a caring man, he loves everybody," ODM supporter Katherine Ayako told me.

I told her that Kenyatta's supporters had told me the same thing about their man.

"Every person has the same view of their candidate," she replied. "Kenyatta's people love him. We love Odinga."

With all this talk of love and trans-Kenyan fraternity in the air, it would seem that, should any violence kick off after Monday's poll, it would not be these people behind it. 

That said, however, wherever there is a mob, there is danger. Did one rally seem more dangerous, more fraught with anger than the other? At the TNA rally, I was mobbed, with a throng of people wanting to "see" my notebook and my camera. My dreadlocks - something a little out of the ordinary for Kenya's muzungu - were pulled several times. It was certainly an intimidatory atmosphere, and I was glad of my new running shoes. At the CORD rally, a rock was thrown at me, striking the corrugated metal gate next to me with a resounding clang. Is there some calculus of fear that would allow me to "prefer" one event over the other? I don't believe so. Wherever there is a mob, there will be people who let the majority down. I learned that from my days on the football terraces.

What is clear is that the everyday, ordinary party supporters bear little animosity towards each other - indeed, there was a story going round that a large group of TNA supporters had today encountered a large group of ODM/CORD supporters in the centre of town. Instead of fighting, arguing and beatings, the two groups began embracing each other and singing. This is the truth behind the vast majority of Kenya's voters.

"Whoever comes in [to power], we will accept the results," Mariam Mulela, a Kenyatta supporter told me. "We want peace. If it's Raila, if it's Uhuru, we're ready for that. All we need is peace."

Follow James Brownsell on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell