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Kenya, Once a Paradigm, Slips Pitifully Into Tyranny

<i> Kevin O'Leary, an intern on the Times editorial pages, lived in Kenya in 1977-78</i>

Kenya has always been something of a star among the African nations. Blessed with a wonderful climate, a dynamic economy and a competent bureaucracy, Kenya has also enjoyed one of the freest political systems on the continent. No longer.

In a big step toward authoritarian rule, Parliament recently amended Kenya’s constitution to give the police wider powers of detention and the president unrestricted power to dismiss judges. These steps move the East African country closer to a strong system of personal rule under President Daniel Arap Moi.

While such a move was not unexpected, it is disheartening nonetheless. Kenya has had more respect for democratic freedoms and the rule of law than have most African nations. And tourism to Kenya’s famous game parks has been aided because Kenya has not been a nasty police state. When Moi came to power in 1978, after President Jomo Kenyatta’s death, he signaled his commitment to continuing Kenya’s respect for civil liberties by releasing the 26 political prisoners who were then held in Kenyan jails.

But since a 1982 coup attempt, the first in Kenya’s history, Moi has progressively tightened his grip on power, putting vocal critics in jail and demoting possible political opponents--first Atty. Gen. Charles Njonjo in 1983 and then Vice President Mwai Kibaki this spring.

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In addition, important provisions of the 1963 constitution have been gutted one by one. In 1982 the constitution was changed to formally make Kenya a one-party state. Eighteen months ago Moi prevailed on Parliament to abolish the secret ballot in primary elections and to substitute queuing, a system requiring voters to line up publicly behind a photograph of their chosen candidate. This new technique encourages voter intimidation and reduces the chances that critics will be elected to parliament. The recent coup de grace , the constitutional amendment abolishing the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, simply formalizes Moi’s absolutist rule and consolidation of power.

Previously, everyone had a right to appear with a lawyer in front of a judge within 24 hours of arrest. Now individuals suspected of capital crimes--murder, armed robbery and treason--can be detained for two weeks before a hearing. The extension is important because a number of people have died in Kenyan police custody in recent years, and the fear is that this number will now increase.

For its first 15 years after independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya was ruled by Kenyatta, a powerful, charismatic figure who had guided the struggle for Uhuru (freedom). As the father of his country, Kenyatta was revered. Precisely because Kenyatta was a national hero and the leader of the Kikuyu, the single most powerful ethnic group, he ruled with a considerable degree of legitimacy. Full political democracy--in the sense of competitive elections between two political parties--did not exist, and the only politicians to rival Kenyatta as national figures were assassinated--Tom Mboya in 1969 and J. M. Kariuki in 1975. Yet Kenyattadid allow a fairly open political system in which individual rights were respected, and there was a good deal of dissent and pluralism within the Kenya African National Union, the major political party. Today individual rights, dissent and pluralism are endangered species.

Moi has never enjoyed the stature of Kenyatta. As the vice president in the shadow of Kenyatta, Moi’s public image was nebulous, and, coming from the tiny Kalenjin tribe, his political base was narrow. The attempted coup by the air force in 1982 unnerved both Moi and the country. While some African leaders have moved toward authoritarian rule because of personal egoism, Moi’s move appears defensive.

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Fearing the political competition that democracy would bring, knowing that economic gains are being eaten up by Kenya’s exploding population, and bracing himself against a possible coup attemptby the military or the Kikuyu, Moi is retreating to the traditional strategy of the despot. While Kenyatta was a master ofthe carrot and the stick in handling his political opposition, Moi lacks the light touch. He has decided that he can tower over his opponents only if he first knocks them down.

Kenya under Moi is certainly not Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam, or Uganda under Idi Amin, but the drift toward more authoritarian rule is regrettable. It is unsettling that habits of political democracy, so rare in Africa today, are now being chipped away and eroded.

Oginga Odinga, an elder opposition politician of the important Luo tribe and onetime rival of Kenyatta, says of the recent events under Moi, “The sense of insecurity which today has permeated every level of our society is due to the erosion of democratic traditions of our country . . . . We have an urgent task . . . to stem this gradual slide toward tyranny and cultism.”

During Kenyatta’s rule, barbed wire concealed beneath the beautiful flower beds at the University of Nairobi helped constrain student demonstrations. Today the repression in Kenya is in full view.

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