Chaos looms as Kenya clings to democracy

It is election time in Kenya but the political talk is not about votes. It is about revolution. After pulling the ruling Kanu party out of planned talks on constitutional reform with the main opposition grouping, the National Convention Assembly, on Monday, Vice-President George Saitoti claimed the NCA was engaged in the "evil mission of changing the government of Kenya by revolution". It was an unlawful lobby group bent on undermining parliamentary democracy by causing chaos and civil war. Kanu would be betraying Kenya if it entered into dialogue with the NCA.

The implication was clear. The government would be justified in bringing down the full force of the state on those attempting to destroy the state. Yesterday, at the first full session of the NCA since it met in April to draw up its pro-democracy agenda, James Osengo, deputy leader of the Ford-Kenya party, met the veiled threat head-on. "Don't fear this word revolution. It is being used by the state to intimidate you."

His message to President Daniel arap Moi was hardly calculated to encourage the government to engage in dialogue. "If Moi does not listen we have to declare sovereignty of this assembly and move forward. We don't want to talk about government in exile but government here."

Such language is not simply a Kenyan form of political theatre. A real threat of chaos and national disintegration hangs over the country. Violence around the main coastal city and holiday centre of Mombasa has claimed 46 lives since it began two weeks ago, the latest on Sunday night, when 30 raiders stormed a bar in the Mombasa suburb of Likuni. They killed the owner, Samuel Kamau, and seriously injured his son and another man. Kamau was once an aide to Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Nine people died in July in brutally repressed demonstrations in Nairobi, in the early days of a programme of mass action which the NCA is now planning to step up.

The NCA was not constituted to push for power, but as a forum to campaign for democracy and constitutional reform. It sees the 1992 multi-party elections (in which Mr Moi easily defeated a divided opposition in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation) as undemocratic. Only reform of the pro-government media and laws that suppress the normal political process and hold a veil of secrecy over official corruption, will allow free and fair elections.

In bringing together seven opposition parties with non-political elements such as religious organisations, lawyers and NGOs it claims to reflect the spectrum of a civil society. "We are the only group that is going to save this country," said Charity Ngilu, a likely presidential candidate, yesterday.

Until last weekend, it was possible to hope that this road to salvation might be through discussion. "Dialogue is the only sane route," said Kivutha Kibwana, a senior NRA figure. But Gibson Kamau Kuria, lawyer and main mover behind the NRA, yesterday spoke for many when he said that only mass action would now bring Kanu to dialogue. As the language of persuasion gave way to threats and sabre rattling, Mr Moi was described by one MP as a robot, many of those around him as anarchists, and the whole ruling clique as a "fraternity of dictatorship".

How deep and broad the NRA support really is, is open to question. It claims to speak for all social sectors, but at the same time accuses Kanu of preventing it getting its message across to the grass roots. Moreover, while rivals and enemies have managed to come together under the one umbrella of constitutional reform, no one would pretend there are not bitter rivalries and hatreds under the surface.

Richard Leakey, Safina party leader, takes the optimistic view on all this. He argues that the reason the government will not recognise the NCA is precisely that it is so coherent. "It is united and has all the parties under its control," he says. "We all believe that with constitutional reform Kenya can be ruled more cohesively than it has been. You can build in provisions to prosecute corruption, to eliminate patronage, and for a coalition that will bind people. That's what it's all about."

He is also optimistic about Mr Moi. Although the president vowed to him in a private conversation two-and-a-half years ago that he would never waver on the issue of reform, Mr Leakey claims to have reason to believe that Mr Moi is capable of changing his mind.

But his Safina colleague Paul Muite spoke of mass action being the last chance to avert civil war, chiming in with the view expressed most vigorously yesterday that the "fact of dictatorship" in Kenya should now be accepted and the NCA should plan accordingly. There was at least one alternative voice at yesterday's gathering. Professor Karanja Njoroge is a Kanu supporter but also an advocate of constitutional reform. "What Kenya needs is tolerance," he told me. "Without tolerance there will be no democracy, no constitution, no reform. Even our greatest political enemies we must tolerate." But Mr Njoroge did not get the opportunity to present his views from the platform.

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