NAKURU, Kenya — When he was elected five years ago, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki promised to rescue a failing economy and ensure that all Kenyans were treated equally, regardless of the tribal affiliations that had long divided this East African nation.
Today the economy is roaring ahead and Kenya is regarded as one of the most vibrant democracies in Africa. So vibrant, in fact, that despite Kibaki's achievements, he's in serious danger of losing his re-election bid.
On the eve of the Dec. 27 vote, many Kenyans are frustrated that Kibaki has instead entrenched tribal rivalries by handing key government posts to members of his ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who constitute 22 percent of the population but have long had an outsized influence on the country's economic and political life.
The latest independent polls show Kibaki narrowly trailing Raila Odinga, a populist former political prisoner from the rival Luo tribe. The surprisingly tight campaign has sharply divided the country along ethnic lines, renewing old rivalries and, in some places, sparking violence.
In the lush, undulating hills of the Rift Valley, where the polyglot population is divided roughly evenly between Kibaki and Odinga, bandits allegedly armed by political operatives have set fire to scores of homes belonging to people of various tribes over the past two months. The attacks, blamed on Luo allies, have driven out several hundred families in what police say is an attempt to scare away voters of certain tribes.
This week, the country's leading independent human rights group accused each campaign's supporters of peppering speeches, leaflets and text messages with ethnic slurs against rival groups.
Many observers fear post-election violence, especially if, as polls suggest, the tally is close. Election officials, trying to head that off, have erected billboards around the country with the message: "There are many qualities to a leader; tribe is not one of them."
Kenya's 37 million people include more than 40 different tribes, most of which existed as autonomous nations before Britain collected them all under a colonial flag a century ago. Kikuyus and their close cousins constitute scarcely more than a quarter of the country's 37 million people, but control nearly all key Cabinet positions, lucrative chunks of the private sector and the booming national stock exchange.
Sitting presidents almost never lose re-election bids in Africa, where parties in power control the state machinery and election-year political giveaways are time-honored rituals.
At first glance, the phlegmatic, grandfatherly Kibaki hardly seems to deserve such a fate. After 24 years of rule by dictator Daniel arap Moi, analysts credit Kibaki with restoring some public faith in government, loosening the reins on the economy and promoting a nascent middle class — a rarity on a continent divided between the obscenely rich and the unimaginably poor.
But his political struggles reflect disappointment at the pace of change in a country where millions still live on $1 a day or less.
"There is a strong sense of resentment among non-Kikuyus," said Tom Wolf, an independent election analyst. "They're tired of the Kikuyus lording it over them. They see Kikuyus running things in every corner of the country."
With Luos forming 11 percent of the population, Odinga, a rapier-tongued orator who's long dominated opposition politics, has assembled a multi-tribal group of leaders around him dubbed "the Pentagon." He's called for the central government to devolve more power to regional administrations, a move that Kibaki's camp says would exacerbate tribal differences.
"Tribalism . . . is the one thing being spoken in these elections," said Ininda James, 27, a janitor from the western Luhya tribe who backs Odinga.
Opinion polls show the country carved up into red and blue states. Odinga's support is strongest in western Kenya, the home of the Luo and allied tribes, while the predominantly Kikuyu central highlands go overwhelmingly for Kibaki. A third candidate from the smaller Kamba minority is getting the bulk of his votes from his people's eastern heartland.
In the busy market town of Nakuru one recent afternoon, it was easy to determine which candidate was favored by the drivers of the rusting bicycle taxis known as "boda-bodas": The Kikuyus, gathered on one side of the road, supported Kibaki. On the other side, the Luos were uniformly for Odinga.
Asked why he was supporting Odinga, Juma Nyauche, 27, said: "He has the same origin as me. As a Luo, we will never be free with the Kikuyu in control."
But experts say that with no single group claiming a majority, post-election dealmaking is likely to prevent extensive tribal clashes.
"Both Kikuyus and Luos know they can't win without a lot of support from other people," said Wolf, the analyst. "That is the big safety valve."
(McClatchy special correspondent Munene Kilongi contributed to this report.)