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Source: The Economist

DRIVE west out of Nairobi and you quickly realise how astonishing the topography around the Kenyan capital is. After an hour or so crawling in traffic past tea fields and farmers selling sheep skins and fresh vegetables, motorists suddenly find themselves on an escarpment from which the land simply drops away. On the horizon, mist clings to the top of Mount Longonot, a dormant volcano. Before it, a patchwork of tiny green farms stretches across the valley floor like a carpet.

This is the central part of the Rift Valley, a vast depression that stretches thousands of miles. It is Kenya’s breadbasket and its most densely populated region. Its flower farms, tea fields and coffee plantations provide much of the country’s exports, as well as employment for thousands of workers. Its geothermal energy plants provide Nairobi with cheap electricity; its lakes provide water and its farms food.

In politics, too, the Rift Valley plays a central role. It contains a key constituency that Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, needs to win over if he is to be returned to office in an election due next year. Mr Kenyatta, who is from the Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest tribe, won in 2013 by forging an alliance with William Ruto, a politician who is popular among the Kalenjin-speaking people who are numerous in the Rift. Yet with Mr Ruto arraigned at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague on charges of instigating violence after disputed elections in 2007, and the economic boom slowing across Africa, what happens over the next year in the Rift Valley will be crucial to Kenya’s fate.

Polling day is more than 18 months away, but electioneering is already under way. In Nakuru, the biggest city in the region, the office of the Kenyan electoral commission buzzes with young workers clutching application forms for jobs as officials. As many as 1.5m voters will be registered over the next few months, says Ezekiel Muiruri, the local administrator.

On the shore of Lake Naivasha, the election is beginning to worry some. Here, tourist camps sit alongside acres of greenhouses from which, every day, millions of roses are flown to Europe and the Far East. The farms are flourishing: between 1995 and 2014, the annual volume of flowers exported rose from 29,000 tonnes to 137,000, drawing workers from across Kenya.

Yet this influx of migrants means that the area around Naivasha is no longer so dominated by either the Kikuyu or Kalenjin. Its kaleidoscopic tribal mix has long made Kenyan politics jumpy and sometimes violent. Tribal tension is always liable to boil over during elections and the Rift Valley remains a political cauldron.

For the first decade-and-a-half after independence in 1964 the Kikuyu, led by Jomo Kenyatta (the current president’s father) were on top. Then, under President Daniel arap Moi, the Kalenjin started to call a lot of the shots. In 2002 Mr Moi was succeeded by Mwai Kibaki, who reasserted Kikuyu power. But this was challenged at the polls in late 2007 by an alliance led by Raila Odinga, the head of a particularly aggrieved tribe, the Luo, alongside Mr Ruto, the Kalenjin’s main torchbearer.

When the results of that election were contested places like Naivasha and Nakuru erupted in violence that shattered the country during the first part of 2008. At least 1,300 people were killed and 300,000-plus displaced. At Karagita, a slum that borders the lake, a group of men fret about the possibility of ethnic violence similar to what happened after the election in 2007. “The way politicians are speaking now makes me nervous,” says Julius, a tailor, hunched over his ageing sewing machine. He fears that politicians will once again whip up ethnic tensions.

Most Kenyan analysts think Messrs Kenyatta and Ruto could easily win again if they stick together. But that is not assured. One problem is the case at the ICC: for the past two years, Mr Ruto, with the backing of the entire Kenyan government, has been seeking to have the charges thrown out. But instead proceedings have moved slowly. On January 12th, he appeared in The Hague. Many of Mr Ruto’s supporters question why he is still in the dock when charges against Mr Kenyatta have been dropped. If Mr Ruto is convicted, his alliance with Mr Kenyatta may crumble.

Another problem is that although in 2013 Mr Ruto was able to deliver the crucial Rift Valley votes of the Kalenjin, he is not the only politician representing them. Gideon Moi, a senator and the son of the former president, and Isaac Ruto, a county governor (no relation to William), are two potential challengers.

The government also faces two further challenges to its popularity. The first is a slowing economy. Despite the fall in oil prices and a weaker currency, flower exporters say their margins are narrowing, mainly because many of their costs are incurred in strengthening dollars. Inflation is surging. So too are interest rates as the central bank tries to stabilise a currency that has fallen sharply. Another issue is that instead of the usual pre-election splurge, the government is having to tighten its belt to deal with a fiscal deficit that reached almost 9% of GDP in 2015. Whatever happens in the run-up to elections, the Rift Valley will be at the centre of it.

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