NAIROBI, Kenya — Speaking for the first time since he lost Kenya’s hard-fought presidential election, opposition leader Raila Odinga rejected the result announced Monday and vowed to pursue “all legal options,” apparently signaling that the dispute that has gripped the East African country is likely to be decided at its Supreme Court.
The narrow victory pronounced by the electoral commission in favor of his rival, William Ruto — 50.5% of votes against 48.9% for Odinga — was “a travesty and a blatant disregard of the constitution and the laws of Kenya,” Odinga told supporters at a conference center in downtown Nairobi.
The results are “null and void and must be quashed by a court of law,” he added.
Kenya’s election was largely lauded, until yesterday, as one of its most peaceful and best-organized votes. But Odinga’s accusations plunged the country into a period of uncertainty that is likely to last weeks, if not longer.
However, his decision to take his challenge to the courts, rather than the streets, was a relief to many Kenyans who feared the argument might spiral into violence.
“We had gathered stones and tires to burn; we were ready to go,” said Alex Shisia, a 46-year-old bus driver and self-described “Odinga die-hard” who had come to hear his leader speak Tuesday. “But we are walking away and going home.”
A string of flattering newspaper headlines Tuesday greeted Ruto, who is currently vice president. He moved quickly to cement his status as president-elect, issuing a call for national unity Monday and taking congratulatory phone calls from the leaders of other African nations.
He assured rivals there was “no room for vengeance” after a fiercely fought campaign and offered an olive branch to supporters of Odinga, who at 77 is making his fifth bid for the presidency, having lost his first four attempts.
In his speech, Odinga accused the electoral commission chair, Wafula Chebukati, of behaving like a “dictator” to swing the vote in favor of Ruto. And Odinga heaped praise on four election commissioners who had stormed from the counting center Monday moments before the result was expected to be declared, saying Chebukati had ignored their concerns about the counting process.
Ruto, for his part, has dismissed their actions as a “sideshow,” along with any suggestion that they have tainted the legality of his election.
The four dissenting commissioners, appointed last year by Odinga’s political ally, President Uhuru Kenyatta, gave a news conference Tuesday where they outlined their reasons for refusing to verify the tally.
Their remarks were broadcast on a large screen at the conference hall where Odinga’s supporters were waiting to hear him speak. They clapped when one of the dissenting commissioners, Juliana Cherera, called the result “unconstitutional.”
But the commissioners undermined their own case with some apparently mistaken math.
Cherera told the news conference they had uncovered a .01% error in the count that amounted to 142,000 misplaced votes — a sizable figure in an election decided by about 233,000 votes.
In fact, that proportion amounts to 1,420 votes — an apparent mistake that triggered a wave of derision on social media that was led by Ruto’s supporters.
Kenyans are on edge because their last three elections have ended in disputes, always over claims that Odinga was cheated of victory, that spilled over into lengthy confrontations and, in 2007, ethnically targeted violence in which more than 1,200 people were killed.
But this time, Odinga’s appeal for calm — “Let no one take the law into their own hands,” he said in Nairobi — appeared to have been heeded at his strongholds in western Kenya and in the sprawling Nairobi shantytown of Kibera, where the streets were largely quiet Tuesday.
Burned tires, sticks, and stones are strewn across streets in Kisumu County, in western Kenya, testified to clashes between protesters and security forces Monday night. But by Tuesday afternoon, shopping centers and restaurants were reopening in Kisumu, the county’s lakeside capital, where even some traffic jams began to form.
In the low-income Kondele district, young men clustered in groups on streets glittering with broken glass to chew over Odinga’s speech.
“We won’t fight. We won’t go to the streets,” said Tony Odhiambo, 25, who works at an internet cafe. “We will wait for the court to take his side.”
Still, the presidential dispute has opened a deep chasm in Kenya’s power structures and has badly strained its state institutions. And on Tuesday, many were still processing the chaotic scenes that erupted a day earlier at the climax of the election.
As thousands of people waited for results, the four dissenting election commissioners argued behind closed doors for hours, refusing to sign off on the results.
Odinga’s top aides held an impromptu news conference to denounce the counting center as the “scene of a crime.” Then his supporters rampaged through the hall, casting the event into complete disarray.
Odinga supporters rushed the dais, flung chairs onto the floor, and clashed with security officials brandishing truncheons. Foreign officials fled. A choir continued to sing.
A half-hour later, Chebukati appeared, noting that two of his commissioners had been assaulted before he declared Ruto as the winner.
Western allies declined to endorse his win, evidently waiting for the outcome of any court process. But the U.S. Embassy recognized the leadership of the beleaguered Chebukati with a statement that praised the result as “an important milestone in the electoral process.”
On Tuesday, the government’s Kenya Gazette issued a special edition formally declaring Ruto as the president-elect, in a move that underscored the legitimacy of his victory.
An election officer who had vanished from a polling station in Nairobi was found dead 125 miles away, near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro on Kenya’s southern border, local news media reported. It was not immediately clear whether his death was linked to the voting.
A statement Tuesday by the Election Observation Group, a respected coalition of civic and faith-based groups, could make Odinga’s challenge more difficult. At a news conference in Nairobi, it issued a detailed analysis of the published election results, comparing them with its own tally, and concluded they were broadly accurate.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.