A paleontologist for president?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NAIROBI, Kenya -- In the first of his several professional lives, Richard Leakey helped unravel the origins of humans in east Africa. In the second, he emerged as a leading wildlife conservationist by campaigning for a global ban on ivory sales, to save African elephants from extinction.

Now Mr. Leakey, a forceful 50-year-old white Kenyan, has begun a sort of third life, with the ambition of replacing Daniel arap Moi as Kenya's president -- or at least becoming the real power behind a new government.

It may sound odd or perhaps eccentric that more than 30 years after Africa's rush to independence, a white man is seeking to rule a black African nation. But Mr. Leakey is entirely serious.

Mr. Moi, 71, has led the country since 1978 and in recent years has shown little tolerance for dissent. His ruling African National Union (ANU) has used violence to silence and intimidate dissenters -- and Mr. Leakey has been among its targets.

Moi supporters earlier this year whipped and clubbed Mr. Leakey in public as police officers looked on, and his personal reputation has come under fierce attack. The ANU has accused Mr. Leakey of trying to bring white colonialism back to Kenya with the help of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. The government has cause for its anxiety. Mr. Leakey is a second-generation Kenyan with the iron will of a buffalo.

He has self-confidence the size of Mount Kenya, and a reputation for being an excellent though abrasive organizer in the midst of chaos, with a shrewd sense of self-promotion. His connections with the rich and powerful around the world assure him the ability to raise large amounts of money. His standing with foreign politicians and legislators is sufficient for him to influence Western governments' attitudes toward the Moi administration.

The paranoia exhibited by Mr. Moi about a white man becoming a leading figure in a political party "is extraordinary," Mr. Leakey says. Mr. Moi's government so far has refused to allow Mr. Leakey's party, Safina, to register as a political organization -- a step necessary for it to nominate candidates for elections.

"As far as I am concerned, it is great we are a multiracial country," Mr. Leakey says. It is great you can be a Kenyan if you are white. But if I am going to pay my taxes, as I do and so do a lot of other people, we've got to be equally protected whether or not we are in the opposition."

So far the Kenyan government has used a smear campaign to try to discredit him.

"Richard E Leakey Master of Deceit," a loosely documented book just published in Kenya by two former Leakey associates at Kenya's National Museum, describes Mr. Leakey as arrogant, devious, malicious and revengeful, and as a philanderer and a thief.

In a country where more than half the people go to Christian churches on Sunday, Mr. Moi supporters have publicly condemned Mr. Leakey, an evolutionist, as a "self-confessed atheist." Mr. Leakey has written that scientific findings proved humans evolved from a common ancestry that included apes.

Mr. Leakey's modest lifestyle indicates he has not joined with other government officials in looting the national treasury. Corruption is so rampant that the International Monetary Fund said last month it was delaying the release of $200 million in new aid for Kenya because of slow progress in ending government misuse.

Mr. Leakey asserts that Mr. Moi's autocratic rule has put Kenya on the brink of large-scale ethnic violence that could make the slaughters in "Rwanda and Somalia look relatively moderate."

Besides presiding over a decaying, disintegrating country being robbed by a den of official thieves, Moi has deceived Western democracies, Leakey charges.

"Moi has been telling everybody that Kenya is a bastion of freedom, a bastion of democracy, if it wasn't for him Islamic fundamentalists would have swept through the continent, if it wasn't for him Western interests would have been lost. It is not true," Mr. Leakey says.

That may be an overstatement. During the Cold War, Kenya did serve as an important counterbalance to neighboring nations that flirted with Marxism. The Kenyan port of Mombasa has at times been an important supply base for the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean, and Kenya still provides the United Nations and international aid agencies with an operational base for saving lives in east Africa's many famines.

For all that, the West was prepared to look the other way when it came to human rights abuses in Kenya. Now, Mr. Moi's rule has been questioned by Western governments and Mr. Leakey's outspoken criticism is one of the reasons.

Mr. Moi made Kenya a one-party nation until 1992, when Western donors began cutting back the $1 billion a year they provided in aid. The next elections are scheduled in 1997, but there is no formal campaign period. Mr. Moi will be eligible for one more five-year term.

Much of Mr. Leakey's career has been devoted to exploring and then promoting the country's past. From 1968 to 1989, he directed Kenya's National Museum. His famous parents, combative paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey, had elevated the museum to international scientific status with their discoveries that helped bolster the argument that humans evolved first in east Africa.

In 1989, Mr. Moi appointed Mr. Leakey head of the collapsing Kenya Wildlife Service. Mr. Leakey used his contacts to raise hundreds of millions of dollars overseas to stop poaching, reduce corruption and begin restoring Kenya's wildlife, the keystone of the country's tourist industry.

One of his first orders as wildlife director was to establish a shoot-to-kill policy against suspected poachers. His crackdown earned him legions of enemies -- some who may have been prepared to kill to protect their illegal profits.

On June 2, 1993, while he was still wildlife director, Mr. Leakey was piloting a single-engine plane north of Nairobi. The engine stopped abruptly. The plane crashed into rough country, crushing Mr. Leakey's feet. His legs were amputated below his knees; he now walks on artificial legs. Specialists from the United States could not determine the cause of the crash. But a suspicion lingers that it was an attempt on Mr. Leakey's life.

In 1994, Mr. Leakey quit as wildlife director because Mr. Moi's political system got in his way.

Associated with Mr. Leakey in the formation of Safina are leading politicians from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's largest ethnic group. Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president, was a Kikuyu.

Mr. Moi, from the small Tugen clan in the Kalenjin ethnic group, was vice president when Kenyatta died in 1978 and manipulated a coalition of smaller ethnic groups to grab and maintain power.

Kenya held multiparty elections in 1992. Because the opposition was divided essentially along tribal lines into three parties, Mr. Moi and KANU won continued political control with only 38 percent of the vote.

The deepest fear of the government is that Mr. Leakey -- with his organizational, promotional and fund-raising skills -- might persuade the three opposition parties to nominate only one candidate for president and for each parliamentary district. An unified opposition slate likely would defeat the Moi government if a fair election could be held.

Mr. Leakey's appeal has cut across color and tribal lines in Kenya. Kenya's white population is relatively small, only a few thousand out of 28 million people.

While denying he is running for president, Mr. Leakey openly admits he wants to be a major influence in a new government. At the same time he said he would accept the presidency "if it was the only way to get change and everyone wanted it."

Richard Leakey said that if the country continues to decline and Mr. Moi continues to suppress his opposition, "there would be civil strife."

"It would bring absolute slaughter. It could make the situation in Rwanda and Somalia look relatively moderate. That's what we want to avoid."

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