The lionising of Leakey: Wildlife boss wins battle, but war goes on

LAUGHTER, dancing and applause greeted the controversial Kenyan conservationist, Richard Leakey, when he arrived at his office overlooking Nairobi national park on Friday.

It was his first public appearance since President Daniel arap Moi said he was refusing Leakey's offer to resign as director of the government conservation agency, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). The mood was euphoric.

Addressing the staff, Leakey described his reinstatement as 'a dazzling victory over the forces of hate . . . a triumph for all of us. Many did not share the joy of our good works and wanted me out. They have failed.'

It is still unclear, however, whether Leakey is returning to KWS to serve out his full term, which ends next year, or merely to pave the way for a successor. The son of world-renowned palaeontologists Louis and Mary Leakey and a former director of the Kenya National Museums, Leakey was appointed by President Moi to take over the country's wildlife programme in 1989. He swiftly dismantled the corrupt and dispirited department he inherited, sacked 1,640 staff and reinstated a shoot-to-kill policy against animal poachers.

In a continent where government departments are almost universally moribund, KWS became one of Africa's most dynamic institutions. The World Bank and other donors approved dollars 143m ( pounds 95m) to spend over five years.

But over the past year, Leakey could be forgiven for thinking the fates had finally turned against him - starting when he lost both his legs in a plane crash last June.

Although a natural leader, gifted speaker and vigorous fundraiser, Leakey has a bullying and confrontational manner that has made him many enemies. I have met many Kenyans who respect and fear him, but hardly any who genuinely like him.

Last December, a number of powerful politicians - including his immediate boss Noah Katana Ngala, Minister of Wildlife and Tourism - launched a vicious campaign, accusing Leakey of arrogance, racism and corruption. With the revelation in January of a secret government investigation into KWS, it appeared that these enemies had got the upper hand, and that Moi's support had evaporated.

But Leakey challenged Moi to back him or sack him. On 14 January he offered his resignation, and retired to his house on the lip of the Rift Valley to await the President's reply.

The probe found no evidence of corruption or significant wrongdoing at KWS. Nevertheless, the fact that it took Moi nearly two months to decide Leakey's future is a signal of the political difficulties.

On one side the foreign aid donors were vocal in their support of Leakey. Angering them would risk damaging Kenya's status in the international community. More serious was the threat that aid to Kenya, which has only recently been reinstated, would be cut off again or slowed down.

On the other hand, Moi did not want to be accused of openly favouring a white man - particularly one accused of racism - nor did he want to be seen to be cowed by Leakey's international supporters.

Just what kind of face- saving formula has been devised to allow Leakey's return will be revealed after the KWS director meets the President next week.

Nevertheless, five crucial questions need to be addressed if KWS is to recover quickly from the crisis.

The first is the question of KWS autonomy. The agency is nominally under the control of the Ministry of Tourism, but the public enmity between Leakey and the minister has aggravated an already difficult relationship between the two institutions, and unless Moi is prepared to undertake a cabinet reshuffle to please Leakey (which is unlikely), the agency may have to be made accountable elsewhere, perhaps directly to the President's Office.

Moreover, in the interests of greater effectiveness, Leakey always argued that KWS should be exempt from the State Corporations Act, the stultifying legislation that controls Kenyan parastatal organisations. Late last year the exemption was approved; it seemed Leakey had achieved what he wanted. But five weeks later, the government got cold feet and reversed the decision.

The second area that needs serious attention is KWS's relationship with the people who live on the edge of the national parks, whose crops are most at risk from marauding wild animals. A commitment made four years ago to return 25 per cent of national park entry fees to the community has never been fulfilled.

Last year, KWS distributed only pounds 134,000, a tiny fraction of its takings. This failure was widely used by Leakey's enemies to whip up grass-roots sentiment against the KWS director, who was accused of preferring animals to people.

Much also needs to be done internally to strengthen KWS. The relationship between Leakey and the board of trustees - never very good - has deteriorated badly through the crisis. The trustees, in particular the chairman Hilary Ng'weno, conspicuously failed to support Leakey in public; and many complained privately to ministers about him.

KWS's peculiar pay scales have also weakened the agency. A core team of 35 Kenyans was employed at private sector rates to administer the World Bank loans. The anomalies between these staff and regular KWS employees are as daft as they are demoralising. Leakey's personal assistant, for example, is paid six times as much as Leakey. With inflation in Kenya running at more than 100 per cent, pay will continue to be a focus of discontent unless Leakey approves pay rises across the board.

Last is the question of Leakey's succession. If nothing else, his air crash and the recent political crisis have proved that KWS was too dependent on Leakey. While he was there, it flourished; without him, decisions were stalled and KWS quickly began to crumble.

Leakey's health is not good. And his enemies will not give up. While KWS staff may feel euphoric about his reinstatement, the reality is that his worst problems may have only just begun.

(Photograph omitted)