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Locals Urge Election Calm in Divided Kenyan Town

An aerial view shows the towns of Kibigori, Kisumu county (L) and Chemase, Nandi county, Kenya July 30, 2022.
An aerial view shows the towns of Kibigori, Kisumu county (L) and Chemase, Nandi county, Kenya July 30, 2022.

The road the cuts through Kibigori town in Kenya's sugar-growing country is more than a county boundary, it is also a fault-line dividing communities fielding rival presidential candidates in the Aug. 9 election.

On the southern side of Kibigori town, residents from the Luo community largely back their ethnic kinsman and veteran opposition presidential hopeful Raila Odinga. Their neighbors to the north overwhelmingly support Deputy President William Ruto, a fellow ethnic Kalenjin.

The town's split loyalties and history of unrest make it a potential flashpoint where armed police are conducting daily patrols. But it is also a test case for community peace-building in a country scarred by violence that followed disputed elections in 2007 and 2017 .

In 2017, violence erupted Kibigori between two of the nation's largest ethnic groups – the Luo and the Kalenjin. Houses were torched, cattle stolen and six people killed.

This time, religious leaders and volunteer peace ambassadors from both sides are trying to stop problems before they start. The peace ambassadors are part of a nationwide initiative - the Peace Ambassadors Integration Organization.

No politician is worth a life, the peace ambassadors say.

"Every five years politicians come and make more promises... but when you elect them they disappear," said Willis Oundo, who has volunteered as a peace ambassador with the Luo community for 14 years.

Oundo in encouraging voters to ignore politics and focus on shared interest: the sugar plantations and factories where residents work side by side.

Prisca Rono, one of Oundo's counterparts from the Kalenjin community, says the same.

"If we don't have peace, industry will close. No peace, no work," she said.

Some residents are still worried. Shopkeepers from both sides plan to close their business two days before the vote.

Several weeks ago, in a nearby town, leaflets were distributed ordering people to vote for Ruto or leave town. On Tuesday, police arrested eight people in a different area for distributing incendiary leaflets in the Rift Valley.

At Grace Gospel Ministry on the southern side of town, pastor Moses Agolla said Kalenjin parishioners stopped coming as political tensions rose three months ago. Agolla was injured in 2017 when a mob attacked him and torched his house.

To help improve ties, Agolla has sent parishioners door-to-door to preach peace, and held meetings with likeminded pastors from across the street.

"My message is to vote for peace," Agolla said.

Nationally, pre-election violence has fallen by more than two-thirds between January and end of July compared with the same period in the run-up to the 2017 polls, said Declan Galvin of risk advisory company WS Insight.