Opposition in Kenya feels firm autocratic rule

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Kenya's government ministers never tire of saying that constructive criticism is encouraged in their country, but the threshold of tolerance seems to have been sharply lowered.

Citing a recent move against the Mwangaza Trust, one of Kenya's leading civil rights organisations, opponents of the government say the administration is becoming increasingly autocratic. Six political activists, including the trust's chairman and opposition MP, Paul Muite, are facing criminal proceedings and could be charged with running an unlawful society.

The fire-bombing of a legal advice centre and the closure of Clarion, a non-governmental organisation investigating corruption, are being connected by opposition activists with what they see as growing persecution of liberal elements.

"No real investigations are made and no one is arrested when a legal advice centre is firebombed", says Mwai Kibaki, chairman of the Democratic Party. "Yet the government is very quick to arrest opposition MPs. Our gatherings are constantly being broken up by the police." The government offensive is seen as the most intense since the multi-party elections at the end of 1992.

One opposition MP faces criminal charges for calling the government "satanic" while another is accused of promoting tribal hatred against the Kalenjin, President Daniel arap Moi's ethnic group.

Only strong centralised government, President Moi used to argue in single- party days, could avert an increase in tribal violence. Though the incidence of such clashes has declined since the advent of democracy, the President is rarely slow to invoke the spectre of ethnic unrest as Kenya's greatest danger.

However, threats to national security have now become the main bogeyman. In recent weeks, President Moi and his ministers have warned of threats by a "Brigadier" John Odongo and his 18 February Movement, allegedly based in Uganda, to bring down the government. Though a handful of Kenyans are serving lengthy jail terms for their alleged involvement with the guerrillas and Mr Odongo has moved to Ghana, the danger apparently remains. The government has even gone so far as to link the supposed invasion plot with the leading opposition party, Ford-Kenya and a flamboyant MP, Raila Odinga.

Though there is evidence of the existence of such a movement in the past, the government has failed to produce any substantial proof of it ever posing a threat to national security.

Churchmen, who have been critical of the government in the past, have rejoined the fray in condemning the government. In a pastoral broadside issued earlier this month, Kenya's Catholic bishops said that the nation had been betrayed by the political leadership, that opposition activities were being driven underground and that corruption flourishes.

Last month, three American journalists were threatened with deportation for writing articles considered offensive. Though relatively tame by Western standards, the reports, in Time, Newsweek and the International Herald Tribune were greeted with howls of outrage by the ruling party, Kanu. Only intervention by the former US president, Jimmy Carterdefused the issue.

Local journalists are less fortunate. In recent months,Kenyan reporters have been arrested and charged after the appearance of articles containing material unpalatable to the government. At least two have felt obliged to go into hiding.

"Freedom of the press in Kenya is as good as in any part of the continent," said the Education Minister and Kanu secretary-general, Joseph Komotho. "And I'm sure our human rights record is as commendable anyone's. It's natural we want our national image to be projected properly. Rumours and lies cannot be tolerated for they are destructive."

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have pledged another $200m (£125m) in loans to Kenya over the next two years but if the government comes under pressure for its human rights record, donors may think again.