Kenya's saviour or white mischief-maker?

Three generations of Leakeys have left their mark on Africa. Now their most outspoken son says he wants to 'clean up' his country, a promise that has had him branded a racist and an atheist by the Kenyan president. Raymond Whitaker reports
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Richard Leakey is stirring up trouble again. The former safari guide turned international conservationist and gleeful participant in many a palaeontological squabble has announced he is plunging into the swamp of Kenyan politics.

Last week, Leakey, who only recently learned to walk again after losing both legs in an aircraft crash in 1993, emerged at the forefront of a new political movement, intended in part to clean up Kenya. "There can be few Kenyans who have failed to notice the falling standards in our country," he told a packed news conference at a Nairobi hotel.

He was flanked by lawyers and human rights campaigners who plan to form a new party, but the bluntness of their statement carried the unmistakable stamp of Leakey. "The lawlessness in our towns and rural areas has reached fearful levels," it said. "Police brutality has become the rule rather than the exception ... Public health facilities are a disgrace ... Our education system is a shambles ... Corruption is rampant in the public service."

Nobody ever accused Richard Leakey of self-doubt. "It never entered my mind that I would not survive," he said after his crash, which occurred when his Cessna 206 lost power just after take-off from Nairobi. But does he seriously imagine that a white man can lead a political party in black Africa, even if he is a third-generation Kenyan? And if he takes a back seat, will anyone believe that such a world-renowned figure is not really in control?

"I don't know about being leader," Leakey said this week in his first interview since revealing his ambitions. "It would be the least of my concerns whether I am or not. It depends whether people would want me or not. Don't forget, we haven't said we're definitely forming a party, but the chances are that there will be one."

Having to choose his words carefully is an unfamiliar experience for Leakey, who, with his leathery skin, clipped vowels and large frame, looks out of place in the dim surroundings of a borrowed London flat. In Kenya he lives in a spartan homestead about 20 miles from Nairobi, but its location, on the rim of the Rift Valley, is stunning. Leakey has never had much money - he earned a relative pittance during his years as a government servant and now lives on academic research grants and consultancies - but his charisma, transmitted by his books, television work and public speaking, means he has never lacked benefactors. An American admirer, for example, gave him his Cessna.

At home everyone knows Leakey's name, but their reactions to him differ widely. Many black Kenyans admire him as efficient and unbribable, though no one knows how they will react to him as a prospective politician. It is hard to picture Leakey, a man not used to being gainsaid, seeking their votes: he might seem as condescending as Coriolanus did with the Roman populace.

His fellow whites consider him too arrogant by half, and his venture into politics is unlikely to increase his popularity. A fluent Kiswahili speaker, he tends to shun their company; but like most Kenyan whites, he has a foot in both cultures. Two of his children are at British universities, and the third lives with her husband in South Africa.

Most whites keep clear of politics in Kenya, and most of those who do get involved, such as Richard's brother Philip, side with the party in power. Few dabble in opposition, but Richard Leakey has never been willing to be told what to do. In his latest role, however, he is confronting another man accustomed to being in absolute control: Kenya's president, Daniel arap Moi.

The Leakey family's associations with Moi go back long before he became president after Jomo Kenyatta's death in 1978. Richard was appointed head of Kenya's national museums by Moi, and in 1989 the president turned to him to set up a new government conservation agency, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). At the time, wildlife management in Kenya was falling apart: thanks to poaching rackets, the country's rhinos and elephant herds were being wiped out. Leakey sacked 1,600 staff, successfully campaigned for a world ban on ivory trading, declared war on the poachers and travelled the world, using the family name to raise hundreds of millions of pounds for conservation.

Wildlife stocks recovered, but the KWS director's single-minded drive to save the animals was cutting across the webs of patronage and tribal trade-offs that bind Kenya's political lite together. Leakey eventually resigned, revealing afterwards that he had blocked an attempt by one minister to build an oil pipeline through the Nairobi nature reserve. Another wanted to start a mine in a national park; others tried to take land from game reserves for their supporters.

Leakey was accused of putting animals before people, an accusation his high-handed style did not help to dispel. But what made the temptation to oust him irresistible were the huge sums of money he had raised. Displaying a hypocrisy enormous even by the standards of Kenyan politics, his enemies began accusing him of racism, corruption and mismanagement, and in March last year, his health weakened by kidney disease and the air crash, he quit. Leakey's white skin had kept him clear of the nepotism and tribal rivalries that plague Africa, but meant the system could not accommodate him.

"I was asked to read last week's statement because I do not belong to any tribe," he says. But the system is reacting hysterically to his presence in the new movement. The opposition, which lost the 1992 election because of its disunity, is panicking almost as much as the government. President Moi is attacking Leakey as a "colonialist white man", whose time as KWS director was a "failure". Leakey's father Louis's initiation as a Kikuyu, the tribe from which most of the other leaders of the group come, is being exploited - fear of dominance by Kenya's largest tribe is ingrained among the rest.

"I can't be a racist white and a Kikuyu at the same time, which is basically what they're implying," Leakey complained this week, but logic is hardly the issue for the government, which is throwing any charge it thinks will stick. Mr Moi has accused him of being an atheist who would never win a following among "God-fearing Kenyans". Foreign interests, including Labour MPs in Britain, are said to be funding his campaign.

Leakey denies being here to raise money for the party: "I'm here to get my legs adjusted. I think it would be a mistake to seek money abroad. Kenya has enough money for a party of this kind to be financially secure from its own resources in its own country."

The suspicion he will find hardest to shake off, however, is that he is waging a personal campaign against Moi. The president was once his close friend, but failed to stand by him when Leakey forced one showdown too many. "I had a relationship with Moi until last week," says Leakey. "He got frightfully cross when I resigned from wildlife, but we sorted it out. My purpose in this whole thing is being deliberately misrepresented and misconstrued.

"My concern is the collapsing standard of public service, the deterioration of public life, corruption and mismanagement. If Kanu [the ruling party] and Mr Moi will do something about it, I'll be happy to fight alongside them. If they won't, I want somebody else to do it."

Nobody outside Kenya's ruling circle would dispute that something needs to be done. Foreign aid was restored only last December, after being withdrawn in 1991 to force Moi to make political and economic reforms. Although free elections were held in 1992, the government continues to behave as though it were running a one-party state, and donors have scheduled a meeting in July to review the position.

"From 1992 until the end of last year there was a lot of improvement in freedom of expression," says Leakey. "But since the new year, repression has gone up. Many more people have been taken into detention; the sedition laws are being used. "

Others who have challenged the system, such as Robert Ouko, a former foreign minister, have been killed, and members of Leakey's own family have expressed fears for his safety. "I sincerely hope they are wrong," he says. "None the less, my concerns for Kenya are such that fear for my life will not make me drop these issues."

When Leakey is deploying his celebrated charm, it is easy to forget he is not on a one-man crusade. He admits it is possible that, far from becoming leader, it might be necessary for him to stay out of the new party altogether to prevent it being seen as his personal vehicle.

Could he ever be happy as a member of someone else's team? "It depends on what you are trying to do. If you are running a wildlife service which has been held back by years of corruption and shortages of everything, then you work one way. If you are trying to work with a group of people, on behalf of a group of people, then you work another. People say I ran the wildlife service very well, but they should not assume that's how I run everything."

The veteran confrontationist smiles wickedly, and adds: "I can be a bully, but I don't have to be a bully."