President Daniel arap Moi's Kanu party ruled independent Kenya unchallenged until 1992 elections, which it won against a divided opposition. Since the announcement last week of a new opposition grouping, angry reaction has focused on Dr Leakey. The former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service launched plans for the party with a scathing attack on corruption and public decay. Six prominent opponents of the regime signed the statement, with Dr Leakey's name heading the list.
"Many Kenyans believe that Richard will get killed doing this," a Leakey family member said yesterday. "I'm quite sure he'll be used by the people around him, in all sorts of ways. As a result, I think he may well be killed. I know his mother has expressed that view to him."
Kenyan history is sprinkled with the assassination of troublesome politicians. A foreign affairs minister, Robert Ouko, was murdered in 1990. Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, a Kikuyu politician, was killed in the mid-1970s, while the former economic planning and development minister, Tom Mboya, a member of the Luo minority, was shot in broad daylight on a Nairobi street in 1969.
Dr Leakey is the second son of Louis and Mary Leakey, the palaeontologists famed for establishing the cradle of mankind is in Africa. His younger brother, Philip, is a member of Mr Moi's Kanu party and was foreign affairs minister until he lost his seat in the 1992 elections.
Dr Leakey lost both his legs after a private plane he was piloting crashed in June 1993. He resigned as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service in March last year, after a vicious public disagreement with Mr Moi.
After he made his dramatic entry into Kenyan politics last Sunday, Mr Moi accused him of being an avowed atheist, who would never gain a following among "God-fearing Kenyans."
The President claimed Dr Leakey was advancing a Western scheme to divide Kenyans into antagonistic ethnic groups. .
In middle age, Dr Leakey has made the leap into politics out of concern for the deteriorating political situation in Kenya. "He approached us about eight months ago," said his political colleague, the human rights lawyer Gitobu Imanyara.
"He said it would be unconscionable for him to just sit on the sidelines and do nothing."
The government's extraordinary reaction to Dr Leakey's announcement has been taken by many as a sign of fear that a united opposition would seriously threaten Kanu's pre-eminence.
"There can be few Kenyans who have failed to notice the falling standards in our country," Dr Leakey said last week. "Corruption is rampant at all levels in public service. It is not just 'big people' taking 'commissions' on contracts, it is everywhere.
"The lawlessness in our towns and rural areas has reached fearful levels. Police brutality has become the rule rather than the exception. Our roads are a nightmare. Public health facilities in Kenya are a disgrace. Our education system is a shambles. Public land is being given away to people who don't need it, except to enrich themselves. Why should we, the people, the taxpayers, not have answers to our questions?" Few Kenyans would disagree. Dr Leakey's unique position, as an internationally recognised figure, will undoubtedly have advantages for the new party.
His presence will ensure wide coverage of party affairs, and his prestige will enable him to make controversial allegations against the government. When he first resigned from the KWS, he described how he had thwarted a plan to lay an oil pipeline through Nairobi National Park; last December, in a speech to the Royal Geographic Society in London, he highlighted a controversial scheme to divert a river and raise the level of Lake Nakuru, endangering the natural habitat of Kenya's biggest flamingo population.
Yet the reaction of the authorities has disguised many of the problems the new opposition movement faces with such an international figure in its midst.
First is the question of the party's profile. Already, the references in Britain and the US to "Richard Leakey's party" have begun to grate.
That irritation will only grow if Dr Leakey is seen to be involved in raising support for the new party abroad.In recent months he has grown close to the former US president Jimmy Carter, who has become disenchanted with Mr Moi.
Then there is the question of Dr Leakey's personality. A gifted administrator, he is impatient with the collegiate culture of democratic politics, preferring to rule with a single-mindedness that borders on arrogance.
Nowhere will Dr Leakey's natural tendency for autocratic leadership be tested more than on the issue of the new party's leader. When it is registered in about six weeks, a leader will be elected at a conference of constituency representatives.
For all its vaunted anti-racist, anti-tribalist stance, it is unlikely the party will elect a white man as leader, if only because a white president of Kenya is still unthinkable. Will Dr Leakey acceptthat he must always play second fiddle?
"Richard thrives on confrontation," said a Leakey family member. "But confrontation doesn't always solve problems. I don't think he's thought it through properly. I'm afraid it may be doomed, not to failure, but to disaster."