Hated, feared, bent and likely to win

Repression in Kenya alternates with promises of reform. Ed O'Loughlin in Nairobi explains why Daniel arap Moi may get away with it again
Click to follow
The Independent Online
After 19 years of autocratic rule, flattering portraits of President Daniel arap Moi, 73, hang in every shop and public building in Kenya. State television and government papers reverently follow his every word and move.

For his supporters he is a fount of authority, wisdom and well-being. For others he is an embarrassing relic of the days whenAfrica was dominated by egotistical and often corrupt "Big Men" like Mobutu in Zaire or Banda in Malawi. Detractors see him as an aging dictator, the man whose name has launched a thousand tired quips: "L'etat, c'est Moi".

Lately, however, Mr Moi may have gone too far. On 7 July the world was horrified by scenes of Kenyan police teargassing and clubbing pro-democracy demonstrators who had taken refuge in Nairobi's Anglican cathedral. Up to 14 people died as police used pick-axe handles and live ammunition against protesters demanding free speech, movement and political association.

But that evening the government did what everybody expected least. The ruling Kenyan African National Union (Kanu) announced it was proposing a parliamentary commission to review and reform the constitution and to alter or scrap the colonial-era laws used to stifle dissent.

The opposition has reacted guardedly so far. The palaeontologist Richard Leakey, secretary general of the banned Safina party, said that Kanu could merely be playing for time, but that if the offer was genuine "a very great many people in the opposition will be very pleased".

Willie Mutunga, co-chairman of tho pro-reform National Convention Education Committee, pointed out on Friday that the government was merely proposing to "consider" reforms. "There has been a catalogue of broken promises in the past," he said.

But if Kanu does stump up significant reform, the ball will be in the opposition's court. For four years now it has complained that Mr Moi's governmentlooted hundreds of millions of dollars from public funds to subvert the opposition and buy off voters in the 1992 poll. To prove this they must win this time on a level playing field. The trouble is, not many political observers in Kenya think they can.

It is not that Mr Moi is very successful or popular. Since he took power, Kenya has seen corruption blossom and violent crime soar. Roads, telephones and power supplies are in terminal decay, and the education and health systems are groaning to keep up with the world's fastest-growing population.

Economic growth has declined from 4.8 per cent two years ago to 4 per cent this year, far from enough to provide jobs for the estimated 400,000 school leavers each year. Last year, while skyscrapers continued to sprout up in downtown Nairobi, drought led to famine in some remote regions.

Kenya's opposition and foreign diplomats accuse Kanu of exploiting ethnic tensions to cling to power, leading to tribal clashes that cost hundreds of lives in the Rift Valley. A rash of largely unrecorded tribal wars has made it unsafe to visit much of the north, and bandits have killed several tourists in the national parks. Over the past week Nairobi's hotels have suffered a rash of cancellations.

With all this ammunition, one might expect the opposition to blow Kanu away. But according to Kwengo Opanga, associate editor of the Independent Nation newspaper, most Kenyans see the opposition leaders as no better. Much the same allegations of corruption, incompetence and power lust are freely thrown at them, and frequently they stick.

Public cynicism dates back to the 1992 elections, when most of Kenya's 25 million people were tired of Kanu's 29-year rule. But as polling day drew near the reformists fell out over who would be boss. The opposition vote ended up split among three parties, allowing Mr Moi and Kanu to hold on to both presidency and parliament with only a third of the vote.

"The people were very disappointed," said Mr Opanga. "They invested a great deal of hope in the opposition parties and they looked to them to remove Kanu from power. They failed to unite, and Kanu won."

Michael Wamalwa, chairman of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy Kenya (Ford-Kenya) faction and official leader of the opposition, has since supported the government on several contentious issues, including its desire to back-pedal on reform. His main rival, Kenneth Matiba of the Ford-Asili faction, is widely blamed for splitting the party before the last election, when he failed to wrest the leadership from the veteran opposition leader, Oginga Odinga.

Mr Matiba, a remote millionaire, also suffers from being a member of the prosperous but mistrusted Kikuyu ethnic group - the largest of Kenya's 70-odd "tribes" - who dominated post-independence Kenya until Mr Moi, of the small Kalenjin group, took power in 1978. Although seldom directly acknowledged, Kenya's tangled web of ethnic allegiances and animosities is still at the heart of national politics.

The one issue that unites most of those opposed to Kanu is democratic reform, but even here they have failed to catch the public imagination. Recent protests have mostly involved middle-aged intellectuals, activists in the established churches and students. According to Kwengo Opanga, little progress has been made persuading the largely uneducated and rural masses that the government is to blame for their lot, and that

by voting they can change it.

Two years ago Richard Leakey co-founded the Safina (Swahili for "Noah's Ark") party to try and kickstart the opposition, but the Kenyan government refused to register it, so it cannot legally meet or organise. Safina is still at the forefront of the reform movement, but has failed to persuade the "official" opposition to agree on a single candidate.

The signs are that if and when elections occur, there will be another free-for-all among the anti-Kanu forces. Apart from the main party leaders, Charity Ngilu is challenging this male chauvinist nation to elect a woman. Sheikh Khalid Balala, a fiery Muslim orator who returned from exile last week, says he does not see why he should not be President. A retired Anglican bishop, John Henry Okullu, says he may have a go.

Most observers agree that if Mr Moi can stave off financial disaster - direct aid and International Monetary Fund loans of nearly $500m (pounds 300m) are under threat because of unchecked corruption - he has an excellent chance of winning. Barring disasters in the Kanu camp, it is simply too late for the opposition to organise his defeat, fair fight or foul.