Tourists have been advised to stay away from Kenya’s beaches after it emerged that gangs of young men have been training in forest camps to disrupt Monday’s election.
Police, fearing a repeat of violence that scarred the 2007 presidential poll, arrested 12 men from the self-styled Mombasa Republican Council on Thursday.
“They were planning to attack election officials and materials and scare people from voting through violence,” one senior police officer said.
“Violence is our only solution,” a senior member of a coastal secessionist gang in Likoni, a shanty close to beaches popular with tourists south of Mombasa, warned. “We are trained. We are prepared.”
Khelef Khalifa, the head of Muslims for Human Rights, a respected activist group in Mombasa, said that “it would be better tourists did not come now, it is not a safe time”.
The Foreign Office approves visits to all of Kenya’s coast except for the 40 miles closest to the Somali border, and to all major tourist attractions including the safari parks.
No tourists were hurt during the post-election violence, and they are unlikely directly to be targeted if clashes erupt again.
But a recent amendment to Britain’s travel advice warned “the threat to Westerners may have increased” because of claims that Western countries were meddling in the election.
The Ministry of Defence and the British High Commission in Nairobi have said that a battle group of British troops that recently arrived in Kenya were there for training, not to act as security for British citizens should security deteriorate, as was rumoured.
A fifth of the one million visitors a year who go on safari in Kenya’s game parks and laze in its Indian Ocean resorts are British.
During the political violence in 2007,1,100 people were killed, 600,000 were forcibly evicted and Kenya’s prized reputation for peace in a troubled region was shredded.
The grievances that fanned the flames of that fighting, mostly in western Kenya and the capital, Nairobi, are now keenest felt on the coast.
People say the political elite has ignored them for decades and has ruled over failing social services, rising joblessness and the theft of land.
President Mwai Kibaki is stepping down after two terms in office that spanned some of the country’s most violent periods, but saw a new constitution that has brought hope for change.
A leading candidate to replace him is Uhuru Kenyatta, the country’s richest man and son of independent Kenya’s first president, who faces the complication of being wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges relating to violence in 2007.
If he reneged on a promise to appear at The Hague, Mr Kenyatta would put his country at risk of international arrest warrants and sanctions, potentially isolating the West’s most important ally in the region.
British trade alone is worth £1.5billion annually, 10,000 British troops train in Kenya each year, and Nairobi is the base for the West’s counter-terrorism activities in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.
Despite the danger of Kenya losing this favoured status, Mr Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance is popular, especially with the dominant Kikuyu tribe.
He is neck-and-neck in polls with his main rivals in the Coalition for Reform and Democracy, led by the man denied victory in 2007, Raila Odinga.
“Jubilee voters know they have the numbers, unless there’s a miracle there is no way Raila can succeed,” said John Sangut, an Anglican priest in Eldoret, a highland farming town badly hit by the 2007 clashes. “No one has a reason to fight, unless there is cheating by the other side.”
But 60 miles away in Kisumu, Mr Odinga’s supporters were equally certain that their man would win, either in Monday’s first round, or in a run-off a month later.
“But we are worried the Kikuyus and Kenyatta can again steal this thing,” said Benson Oduor, 27, a motor-cycle taxi driver outside Kisumu’s City Market. “If that happens, what will we do? We must again protest.”
There have been repeated reports of politicians cosying up to armed groups.
Most Kenyans point to significant efforts since 2007 to reconcile opposing tribes and to establish an independent electoral commission.
“The day after the election results, we are all still Kenyans, we still need to feed our families and educate our children and put seeds in our fields,” said Peter Mwangi, 34, whose grandmother died with 19 others in a church set on fire by supporters of rival politicians after the last election.
“Our leaders should realise that these truly are the matters of life and death for us, not who wins the election.”