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Candidates court vote of Kenya's Muslim minority in nation's closest election ever
Supporters of the Orange Democratic Movement carry a live stork that they have captured next to posters of their leader, Raila Odinga, Monday, Dec. 24, 2007 during the last day of campaign rallies in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi ahead of the Dec. 27 Presidential elections. - photo by Associated Press

KIBERA, Kenya - In the Kenyan slum of Kibera these days, the ancient cadences of the Muslim call to prayer compete with election propaganda blaring from loudspeakers.

With opposition candidate Raila Odinga holding onto a razor-thin lead over incumbent President Mwai Kibaki, every pollster describes Thursday's vote as too close to call. It's a rare tight race on a continent where sitting presidents are usually re-elected, and in a country where an incumbent has never before faced a credible challenge.

Kenya's roughly 3.5 million Muslims — out of a predominantly Christian population of 34 million — may be the deciding factor.

"It's the first time that religious issues have played such a prominent part in national politics," said Karuti Kanyinga, a political scientist at the University of Nairobi's Institute for Development Studies. "Because the race is so close, candidates are looking for any issue that may pull voters over to their side."

The campaign has featured promises to clean up Kenya's notoriously corrupt government and thinly veiled appeals to tribal loyalties. Crowds of people supporting the rival candidates shouted tribal epithets and threw rocks at each other during rallies Monday, prompting police to fire tear gas.

But the race has also has focused to an unusual degree on Muslim grievances. There are concerns about delays in granting mainly Muslim ethnic minorities national identity cards, without which they cannot work, vote or own land, and about the constant poverty in the slums and along Kenya's coastline, where many residents are Muslim.

There are also perceptions among Muslims that they are being targeted in a war on terrorism in which Kibaki has allowed terror suspects to be deported from Kenya and sent to neighboring Ethiopia for questioning, in some cases by U.S. agents.

When Odinga signed an agreement in August with one leading Muslim forum promising to end the deportations and launch an inquiry into the practice, it dominated headlines for days.

Kibaki, who has said little about the deportations, responded in October by setting up a committee dedicated to looking at Muslim grievances, including the deportations. However, no date was set for the committee to report on its findings and the president has not publicly commented on it since it was established.

An investigation by The Associated Press earlier this year confirmed some terror suspects were being deported from Kenya and sent to Ethiopia for questioning. Human rights activists have criticized the Ethiopian government's human rights record, but it is a strong ally of the U.S. in the war on terror.

Saidi Osman of National Muslim Leaders Forum said before Kibaki, "no president in Kenya or Africa had removed citizens of his country to another country without due process."

Following widely publicized protests over the deportations, "Muslims in Kenya have decided to punish Kibaki and vote him out," Osman said.

Sheik Mohamed Dor, secretary-general of the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya, has taken the lead in organizing Muslim voters and demands that candidates address the community's concerns.

"For the last 40 years, Muslims did not take the issue of voting seriously. But the trend is changing now," Dor said. He established the council in 1997 both as a religious group and to educate people on their rights and the importance of voting.

In Kibera, a key election battleground with nearly a million residents and Odinga's home constituency, the Nubian community is less worried about deportations than government delays in processing their identity cards and land titles.

Many members of the 200,000 strong Nubian community are descended from Muslim Sudanese soldiers who served in the British colonial army. Despite being entitled to citizenship because their families have lived in Kenya for three or four generations, many still lack identity documents that would allow them to vote or own land.

Other Muslims in the coast and northeastern region complain about marginalization and say that they face waits of several years to receive identity cards.

Without their cards, Nubian Kenyans are vulnerable to harassment from authorities — five out of six young men interviewed for this article said they had been arrested and beaten — and they stand little chance of electing someone to represent their interests in government.

"We are the deciding voters," said 32-year-old Ali Abdullah, a Nubian youth leader, as the smell of burning trash drifted on a hot afternoon breeze. "But no one has come out clearly over our issues."

The agreement candidate Odinga signed, which was negotiated between his advisers and some Muslim leaders, also promised equitable representation of Muslims in government, and "deliberate policies and programs to redress historical, current and structural marginalization and injustices on Muslims in Kenya."

Some see the Nubian identity issue as part of a pattern of neglect and discrimination that leaves Muslim communities unable to improve themselves and open to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians.

The government insists that progress is being made, pointing to recent attempts to streamline the process of identification cards, and court cases investigating the deportations.


AP Writers Tom Odula and Malkhadir M. Muhumed contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.

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