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Could a white man lead Kenya?

David Orr and Ochieng Sino ask people in Nairobi if they would vote for Richard Leakey
COULD a white man ever win an election in Kenya? In the wake of the launch of Dr Richard Leakey's Safina party we conducted a straw poll to determine how much support the famous conservationist and palaeontologist could expect.

The creation of the new party represents the most radical development in Kenyan politics since the first multi-party elections in 1992. Safina's founders - among them Dr Leakey - declared war on corruption, falling standards in public life and lawlessness.

The vehemence with which President Daniel arap Moi and his ministers reacted suggests that Safina represents a threat to the existing order far greater than one might expect.

Leakey was dismissed as a racist, a colonialist, even an atheist. It was charged that Safina was being bankrolled by foreign interests hostile to Kenya. At one point it was even suggested that the new group had links with the Ku Klux Klan.

There are those who believe the presence of a muzungu (white man) of Richard Leakey's stature might help the party to sidestep the ethnic divisions which beset so much of Kenyan politics. Others consider that no matter how convincing his credentials, he cannot hope to rise above his colour and all its associations with the colonial past.

How many people support Dr Richard Leakey, secretary general of the new, as yet unregistered, Safina party? In conjunction with the Daily Nation, Kenya's leading newspaper, we surveyed more than 50 people over a three-day period during the week in Nairobi.We asked: "Would you vote for Dr Leakey and the Safina party?"

A cross-section of the population was questioned; professionals, manual workers, street sellers, students and the unemployed. Some gave their names, others preferred to speak anonymously. Dozens said they would rather not discuss politics at all. The poll does not claim to be a comprehensive exercise. In our view, however, it was extensive enough for a pattern to emerge.

First, there were those who said they would vote for anyone, Leakey included, who could improve the lot of ordinary Kenyans. These were people such as Ali Hassan (27), a Nairobi primary school teacher: "I don't mind who is in power as long as he can deliver the goods. I wouldn't mind Leakey if he can help the country's economy and all the other ills affecting us." Many were adamant that Leakey's colour had little to do with his ability as a politician.

"There is nothing wrong with him," said a 20-year-old unemployed man. "Whether he is white or an atheist. It doesn't matter. What every Kenyan wants is honest leadership."

A 40-year-old woman, a civil servant, said: "Dr Leakey's race would not influence my decision to vote for him. I'll vote for anyone as long as they have clear objectives and intend to solve the problems facing the country."

Many of those in favour of Dr Leakey were encouraged by his performance as director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) from which he was forced to resign last year, having stood on too many government toes. His greatest achievement while with the KWS was to help save Kenya's elephant population. His ability to raise funds abroad further enhanced his reputation.

"Dr Leakey is a Kenyan and I'd vote for him," said Joseph Ayiko Sudhe, a 35-year-old security guard. "Why is the Kanu government calling him all sorts of names? It was they who gave him a very important job as KWS director. He is a competent man and in need of the support of every democratic- thinking Kenyan."

Francis Ngethe (32), a car washer, said: "I'm ready to vote for Dr Leakey because he's capable of solving issues such as unemployment, which affects most young people. The country needs drastic political changes which can only be brought about by someone of his calibre. As a former director of KWS he could attract donor funds through his connections with the West. Increased Western investment is crucial. To criticise him on racial grounds is just parochial."

The novelty of a party prepared to take on the establishment appealed to many people, especially the young, who do not remember the independence struggle which brought Kanu into being. Many young people think the leaders of Kanu, and of the existing opposition parties, are out of touch.

"I'd definitely vote for Safina," said Kimey Wanziuke, a student at Nairobi University. "I know a lot of my classmates would as well. I see the party as something new, you could even say exciting, in comparison with the others."

Those who said they would not support Leakey or Safina fell into several categories. Many felt that he and his colleagues were too wealthy and privileged to understand the problems of the wananchi (ordinary people).

"We need someone who can solve the problems of the poor people," said Paul, a domestic employee whose main worry was finding jobs for his children. "Moi and Leakey are both rich men. It doesn't matter who's in power, they don't care about us."

Others went a step further, saying that Leakey's race was an issue. For them, his colour automatically alienated him from the concerns of black Africans. That he considers himself an African and speaks Swahili, as well as a couple of other indigenous languages, does not make him a real Kenyan in the eyes of some.

"I couldn't vote for Leakey because he's a European," said a 24-year- old tout. "Leakey and the Safina people are dishonest, their interests are not those of the wananchi. Voting for Leakey would be like back-peddling to the colonialism of more than 30 years ago."

For some, the link between Leakey, a third generation Kenyan, and the colonial past was simply too strong. Even some people opposed to Kanu rule had problems with his colour.

Beatrice Chebet (24), a fruit seller, said a vote for Leakey would mean "driving us back to the dark days of colonialism when Kenyans were locked up and tortured".

A 32-year-old man who gave his name as "Soldier" said he was a member of the ruling Kanu party. "Kanu brought independence and there's no way I'll ever vote for a muzungu."

Daisy Juma (27), a hairdresser, said she could not support Leakey because of his race: "I'd prefer to vote in a fellow African as president."

Others thought Dr Leakey untrustworthy because he had changed political tack after a long period of association with President Moi and his government.

"I couldn't vote for him because he's an opportunist," said Oliver Seki (40), a businessman. "He was working for the government and it was not until he was kicked out that he started his crusade. Nobody can trust such a man. Anyway, it would be just returning to colonial days to elect a white man as president."

Dr Leakey cannot count on the automatic support of white Kenyans either. While some expressed solidarity with his cause, quite a few said they would vote for Kanu. Opposition politics have become so discredited that people have trouble envisaging anyone mounting a credible challenge. A surprising number of white Kenyans said they would prefer not to get involved in politics. One elderly woman said: "Stick your head above the parapet in this country and you just get shot at. It's best to keep a low profile and get on with it."

Our survey shows support for Leakey and the Safina party standing at about 50 per cent. Given that Kanu was voted into power by little more than a third of the electorate, this result should be of some comfort for the new movement. Ochieng Sino, the Kenyan journalist who conducted most of the questioning in Swahili, drew these conclusions:

"The more educated and the professional people tended to say they would vote for Leakey on the basis of whether or not his policies were convincing; for them, colour was not such an important issue. It was the less educated people who had a problem with his race more often than not. Generally speaking, women showed themselves to be more sceptical than men. A lot of women said they could not endorse a party when they knew little of its policies. Young people were more favourable to Leakey than the older generation."