Nairobi — Kenya has entered the final week of an historic election campaign leading up to the landmark general election on Friday, and the departure of one of Africas longest serving leaders, President Daniel arap Moi, who bows out after 24 years in office, to usher in a new era of change.
'Change has become a mantra for Kenyans throughout the country.
Everyone is talking about it, whether change comes with the leadership of Uhuru Kenyatta, the presidential candidate of Mois governing Kenya African National Union (Kanu) party or Mwai Kibaki, the main opposition National Rainbow Coalition's (Narc) contender and erstwhile Moi ally. Analysts say the three other presidential hopefuls - Simeon Nyachae, James Orengo and David Waweru Ngethe - stand little chance.
Four days ahead of the poll, weekend campaigning reached fever pitch as the rival political camps continued to criss-cross the country, despite heavy rains, in last-minute efforts to sway undecided voters. But the final stretch was marred by violence and the death of at least 7 people, after a largely trouble-free campaign that has seen only isolated incidents to date.
The spectre of violence during elections is familiar to Kenyans, who remember, with bitterness, the tribal clashes in the run-up to the polls in 1992 and 1997, when up to 2000 people were killed. With the political temperature climbing steadily, seven family members of a local Kanu politician were killed in a fire at her home overnight on Saturday.
The police were quoted as saying negligence, rather than political motives, was probably the cause of the fire but local people suspect arson and said there had been previous complaints to the police in Othaya, which is in Kibakis home constituency and an opposition stronghold. The Kanu candidates husband, daughter and five grandchildren lost their lives.
But it is the race for the presidency, and the countdown to the poll, that continue to dominate the front pages of all the national papers and the airwaves in Kenya. "So, who will it be?" asks the banner headline of the Sunday Standard newspaper, with twin photographs of the leading presidential candidates in Fridays poll, Kenyatta, 42 and Kibaki, 71.
The caption under Kenyatta, the son of Kenyas founding president, read: "I will not be a president under the shadow of Moi. I am my own man." Critics say Kenyattas close association with the president, as his chosen successor and - in some eyes - Moi's 'puppet, is a huge handicap. Kenyatta says he represents change and will be a breath of fresh and the purveyor of workable new ideas and policies for his country.
Kibakis caption read: "We pledge to remain true to the wishes of the majority of Kenyans". His detractors say 'promises, promises, promises, and point to the fact that Kibaki was once Mois vice president and finance minister in the 1980s, before abandoning Kanu and the one-party state. They dismiss the veteran politician as a recycled and reluctant democrat, who can only offer stale ideas.
The Sunday Standard also concluded of the campaign: "There is mischief afoot," no doubt in reference to last-minute confusion, mistakenly created by utterances from the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), which claims its statements on voting regulations were misinterpreted by the media.
Or it could be a reference to alleged dirty tricks planned, says the opposition, by the governing Kanu party. Leading columnist, Macharia Gaitho, in the Sunday Nation warned that "a cornered rat is at its most dangerous." He wrote that "Kanu has the money, personnel and access to state resources to help it mount an effective last minute push - Hungry voters will gladly take whatever is thrust their way."
Kanu's and Mois dirty linen is getting a thorough public airing before Kenyas veteran leader steps down. The opposition is not being spared either, though Kibakis Narc lieutenants are the ones pointing the finger at the government and warning Kanu that it must not rig the vote.
The ECK, Sunday, fined one Kanu and one Narc candidate for alleged campaign violence and intimidation. Some 14 other candidates received formal warnings. The Commission questioned all 16 for alleged abuse.
But Kenyans hope the era of dirty tricks and rigged elections is behind them. In the same breath as they speak of change, they also talk about hopes for an end to endemic corruption, a revival of the economy - currently in recession - and more transparent and 'moral government and leadership.
Whoever takes over from Moi faces these monumental challenges. Kenyans want to know whether they will be better off under the new-look Kanu and Kenyatta or under Kibaki and Narc - or one of the other three presidential candidates.
The presidential race has almost eclipsed the crucial parliamentary election, also scheduled on Friday. But this weeks East African newspaper, published by Kenyas Nation group which is known to be critical of Mois government, predicts the prospect of a hung parliament, with Narc "managing only a thin majority, presaging the kind of inter-party horse-trading that characterised the eighth parliament."
The papers three-week survey, in each of Kenyas 210 constituencies, showed that Kibakis Narc would win at least 92 out of the 210 parliamentary seats, compared with 70 for Kanu, "placing the latter in the House minority for the first time since independence."
Echoing anecdotal evidence, and the view of pro-opposition urban voters on the streets of the capital, Nairobi, The East African also predicts that Kibaki will become Kenyas third president "by at least one million votes".
But political observers are divided on which man will win and much depends, finally, on whether the poll is free, fair and truly democratic.