Winners with a country to lose: Britain should tell President Moi that his re-election must not bring political repression back to Kenya, says Richard Dowden

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Kenya was Britain's success story in Africa. Of all its former territories Kenya was the one that had not indulged in populist but unworkable economic policies, suffered military coups or fallen under the heel of a mad tyrant. Kenya, it was said by the Foreign Office, worked. And if they were ever asked about political murders, detentions or corruption the answer was 'look at Kenya's neighbours'. A glance towards Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia usually clinched the argument.

Kenya now stands at a crossroads, the most important moment in the country's history since independence. Not least at stake is the future of 25 million Kenyans. Kenya is East Africa's chief economic power. Its collapse would have catastrophic consequences in the region. But Kenya is also a critical test of Britain's post-colonial policy in Africa. A moment in Margaret Thatcher's visit there five years ago epitomised the relationship between Kenya and Britain. She was standing in a tea plantation near Kiambu with President Daniel arap Moi and the British High Commissioner to Kenya, Johnny Johnson. As they gazed out over the lush green hills, they seemed to say: 'We did win after all.'

Thirty-five years earlier this had been the battleground in the Mau Mau rebellion, when the Kikuyu squatters rose up against the whites who had taken their land. This uprising was defeated, but it gave momentum to African nationalism. Mr Johnson was a young colonial magistrate at the time, responsible for implementing the state of emergency. Mr Moi was a primary school teacher but was later to become a key figure in Britain's attempts to stop Jomo Kenyatta coming to power. Britain feared that Kenyatta's Kenyan African National Union (Kanu) party was too radical and that his ally Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was pro- Soviet. These two also represented the most powerful groups in the country. Kenyatta was Kikuyu and Mr Oginga Odinga was Luo. The British preferred to build an alliance with the rival Kenyan African Democratic Union (Kadu) party, one of whose leaders was Mr Moi, a Kalenjin.

The nationalist movement that emerged with Mau Mau managed to form an alliance between the Kikuyu, the largest, most populous and richest group, and the Luo, the second largest group. Throughout the colonial period the British stressed tribal divisions and tried to marginalise the Kikuyu. In 1955 Africans were allowed to form political bodies, except in Central Province, the Kikuyu heartland. Two years later a complicated system of voting excluded many Kikuyu and drew the constituencies in such a way as to give disproportionate representation to distant rural areas at the expense of the urban and semi-urban areas around the capital. By and large these same constituencies gave Mr Moi his victory last week.

Despite Britain's attempts, the Luo/Kikuyu alliance, which demanded full political rights, held. Britain then tried to unite the other tribes and the white settlers, as another minority, and played on the fears of 'Kikuyu domination'. Cabinet papers released last week show that the strategy was to build up Kadu as a coalition of smaller tribes. At the time Kenyatta was in prison and Kanu's policy was to boycott the colonial structures until he was released. Kadu and Mr Moi broke that boycott. But the winds of change proved irresistible. Kenyatta was released and was swept to power in the 1963 election.

Then came the change. His radicalism disappeared and in a remarkable act of reconciliation he invited the white farmers to stay on. He also gave posts to former Kadu members, including Mr Moi. The radical Mr Oginga Odinga was sacked and then detained. Mr Moi eventually replaced him as vice-president, so that when Kenyatta died in 1979 Mr Moi suceeded him. At the time he was not expected to survive, but he did, and gradually consolidated his power with the backing of Britain.

So the man who had nearly frustrated the nationalist movement had inherited the spoils. This election has highlighted that irony. Old rivals stood against each other in new clothes. Mr Moi stood for Kanu, but Kanu taken over by Kadu people. The Kikuyu and Luo had all defected to the new parties. But they had failed to hold together the alliance that had defeated the British in 1963.

For years Britain took a low profile and supported the status quo. When Mr Moi declared Kenya a one-party state in 1982 the British government remained silent and successive high commissioners argued that it was appropriate for Kenya. At its best it might have been, but throughout the Eighties Kenya became more corrupt, tribal and repressive, and its politics more closed. As more people were detained and the institutions were overridden by presidential decree, Britain said nothing. When British policy in Africa changed and began to emphasise human rights and freedom, the word democracy was not used. The Foreign Office spoke only of 'good government': democracy would mean multi-party democracy, and that would conflict with British policy in Kenya.

Only when it seemed that the country would explode if Mr Moi did not allow multi-party democracy, and when all other aid donors were urging democracy, did Britain finally put pressure on Mr Moi by stopping aid to Kenya. Even then no mention was made of multi- party democracy, only an election.

What should Britain's role be now? Like most African countries, Kenya needs Britain more than Britain will ever need Kenya, and because of the historical ties, and pounds 1bn worth of investment, Britain's voice is always listened to. The election has split Kenya along tribal and regional lines. The Luo and Kikuyu voted against Mr Moi and many of them believe the election was fraudulent. The winner-takes-all system means the Luo and Kikuyu are disaffected and excluded from power for the next five years.

Having persuaded Mr Moi to go for multi-party elections, it will be hard to persuade him that he needs to give power to the losers. But without these two major groups on board Kenya runs a risk of civil strife, even civil war. The British and other Western donors could help to prevent that by indicating that Mr Moi has achieved less than total endorsement through this flawed election and warning that there must be no return to political repression. The restoration of aid must be dependent on this, and on Mr Moi picking a cabinet that includes all Kenyans.