Kenya at a political crossroads Power: One of Africa's last autocratic 'Big Men' is locked in a struggle with the growing pro-democracy opposition. Promised elections are near, but so is the danger of more violence.


NAIROBI, Kenya -- When Kenyan President Daniel T. arap Moi appears in public, he is rarely without his rungu, the stout metal-topped stick that in some tribes is a symbol of authority and used to fend off enemies.

In Moi's hands, the rungu is another reminder of who's in charge.

Moi is a figure of spectacle. When he tours the country, he leaves new schools, generators and other government gifts in his wake. When he speaks, his words leave no doubt: He declares what will be. Now in his 70s and with nearly two decades of power behind him, he is a consummate political survivor, a man who has outplayed his many enemies. He rarely lets a speech go by without trying to convince Kenyans that he and his party are all that the country needs.

But he seems reluctant to let Kenyans freely decide that for themselves.

This East African nation, long heralded as an island of stability in a region full of civil war, is facing one of its worst crises in recent memory, as promised elections come closer. How Kenya will emerge from the crisis is largely in President Moi's hands.

For four months, a coalition of civic organizations and opposition politicians have been pressing Moi to amend Kenya's constitution, which they say unfairly concentrates power in the hands of the president and his ruling Kenya African National Union party.

The reformers say that without changes, the elections scheduled to be held before the end of the year will be a sham. And unless changes are made, the reformers are threatening to unleash a protest campaign and to disrupt the polls.

Clashes over reforms have already led to scores of deaths. In July, paramilitary troops and police descended on pro-democracy demonstrators, killing at least nine. Early last month protesters attacked and killed two policemen. Over the last two weeks, violence has erupted in and around the coastal city of Mombasa, claiming at least 45 more lives.

Opposition politicians assert that the violence in Mombassa has been instigated by government officials who are targeting ethnic groups aligned with the opposition. And reformers warn that the violence is a small prelude to what lies ahead for the country. As roads and services deteriorate, and as unemployment grows, the reform forces say that their movement will be all that stands between peaceful change and civil war.

"This is our last chance at peaceful change," says Maina Kiai, head of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and a pro-democracy campaigner. "The next attempt to change will be a violent one. If Moi tries to play one-upmanship, then this country will be destroyed."

Moi took office in 1978, taking over after the death of the country's founder, Jomo Kenyatta. Autocratic rule was at that time the norm for the continent. Africa was a place of "Big Man" rulers who allowed little criticism, little debate and little ideology other than official glorification of the president.

Nearly 20 years later, most of the Big Men are gone, either by way of elections or military coups. The newer, younger leaders have as their their stated goals efficiency and economic development, not presidential glorification. But Moi and his older style are still in place in Kenya.

Six years ago, after international donors exerted pressure by suspending aid programs, Moi agreed to end Kenya's one-party system. But other than the legal reintroduction of opposition parties, little changed. Moi and his party retained their nearly total control over the state. Opposition parties found themselves in a system designed to favor the party in power.

Moi still appoints the members of the country's electoral commission. He appoints the entire provincial administration. No parliamentary approval or national debate is needed. The president just proclaims, and few question his authority or judgment for fear of losing their jobs.

"We have a constitutional system that concentrates power on one person, so allegiance is not owed to public service or to the country but to the president," says Smokin Wanjala of the Kenya-based Centre for Law and Research International. "The president's hands are in everything."

By contrast, the opposition is hamstrung at every turn. To hold rallies, opposition parties need permits -- which are routinely denied. The only time opposition leaders are heard on state-owned radio -- by far the most important medium in Kenya -- is when they fight among themselves or make embarrassing gaffes. News programs almost always begin with mention of "His Excellency the President Daniel arap Moi" and proceed to describe the president's daily activities, even if they consisted of attending church.

Moi's government also has the power to decide which opposition parties will be legal. A new party led by paleontologist Richard Leakey and some of Kenya's more dynamic opposition figures began trying to register as a legal entity two years ago. Safina, as the party is called, has yet to obtain the government's approval, thus preventing its members from contesting elections.

Moi now is being pressured to surrender some of those powers. Opposition figures predict that he will have to be forced; they are vowing to step up their campaign of civil disobedience and to convene an alternative parliament.

Moi has made some concessions. After security forces clashed with demonstrators in July, he met the official leader of the opposition and church leaders who were calling for reforms. Moi says he is open to dialogue with elected opposition leaders but not with the umbrella reform body that has been spearheading the reform movement, called the National Convention Executive Council. Moi accuses NCEC of promoting chaos.

Reform leaders accuse him of trying to divide the opposition, a strategy he has effectively used in the past.

This time, opposition leaders say, they won't give up until substantial reforms are made.

"The popular mood in this country is that there must be change," says Richard Leakey. "The middle-income business community realize that with changes this country could go somewhere. Young people realize that they can go somewhere.

"There's a growing sense that we've got to do something. It's not focused at Moi, per se, but just, 'Get out of the way, old boy, so we can get this place working!' "

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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