National Agenda : One-Party Rule Now Crumbling in Kenya : * When President Daniel Arap Moi legalized opposition parties, he may have opened a door to his own demise.


The government’s way of marking the end of Kenya’s last year of single-party rule was not a particularly encouraging one: A squadron of presidential guards invaded a provincial hotel a few days before Jan. 1 and attacked a group meeting in support of Kenya’s leading opposition party. At least four people were beaten and robbed.

But the incident in Nakuru, a prosperous farming town, failed to obscure a sea change in the politics of this East African nation. The administration of President Daniel Arap Moi, who as recently as two months ago seemed to have a stubborn grip on national politics, is in desperate retreat.

Since late last month, when Moi legalized multi-party politics under pressure from foreign aid donors, the authority of his Kenya African National Union (KANU)--until then the sole legal political party in the country--has crumbled. Serious debate on national policies, previously the province only of a handful of officially harassed publications, has flowered in the local press to an extent not seen in more than a decade.


That atmosphere promises to become even more intense in the run-up to nationwide elections, which Moi is expected to call early this year. Already one new party has registered with the government: the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, or FORD, which was instrumental in pressuring the donors, and thus Moi, into ending KANU’s political monopoly. At least one other group with strong political credentials is likely to register shortly, and smaller parties have begun organizing.

All this is happening amid wide uncertainty over how the balloting might unfold. Moi, who has ruled Kenya since October, 1978, is constitutionally required to call an election by 1993, but his timing is sure to hang on his appraisal of the relative strength of KANU and other parties.

FORD leaders have said they would not be organized for an election before October, but other observers argue that a relatively early election would be to the new party’s advantage. That way it can ride the current wave of popular enthusiasm for new politics--and finish a campaign before inevitable policy and factional splits appear among its own leaders.

Few can guess how Kenyans will behave in a multi-party election. Before the latest events, Kenya’s last opposition party to contest an election was the Kenya Peoples Union, which was banned in 1969.

Moi’s own core popularity is difficult to judge. Political observers in the country believe he is likely to lose in the big cities, such as Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, but his political strength in rural districts is hard to measure. Moreover, no one can say today even what KANU and FORD will represent by the time of an election, as scores of politicians have been defecting from KANU to join FORD or form their own new parties.

Moi himself, one of the last African leaders to publicly embrace the concept of multi-party democracy, has been increasingly isolated, even within the councils of KANU. When the party scheduled a session of its leadership council for last Monday, rumors swept the political community that several party officials were plotting to force him to step down.

“He’s lost all of his top supporters and friends in KANU,” observed a Western diplomat with extensive political contacts. “He’s got no one.”

As it turned out, there was no ouster. But nevertheless the president is finding himself ruler of an ever-diminishing domain.

Over the last three weeks, six ministers--including three of Cabinet rank--have voluntarily left the government and the party. Two others, including Peter Oloo Aringo, a minister for manpower development and a leading reformist, were dismissed by Moi amid the government turmoil. Aringo, who had been KANU’s national chairman, evidently realized his days were numbered when he was left off a party committee drafting its election manifesto. He later announced he had joined FORD, where he became one of its most important members from the influential Luo tribe. Scores of other officials have resigned from the party, most of them to join FORD.

Perhaps the most important defection came on Christmas Day, when former Vice President Mwai Kibaki announced his resignation as minister of health, a Cabinet post. One week later he said he would leave KANU, of which he was a founding member, and form a new opposition party.

“It was a bombshell,” said Kwendo Opanga, a political writer for the Daily Nation, one of Kenya’s three English-language newspapers. A vice president under Moi for 10 years, Kibaki has emerged as the leading challenger for the presidency.

For all that, many political observers here see some reason for dismay in how Kenyan politics have begun to take shape in the new era of liberalization. As many feared and Moi himself predicted, political alliances have taken shape through tribal identifications.

Tribalism is an explosive issue in Kenya as in many other African nations, where one’s ethnic background is still more important and potent than one’s professional or economic associations.

Many see the creation of a political infrastructure encouraging economic or cultural alliances outside of the tribe as the most pressing need in the new era of political liberalization.

“If you had parties which derived their strength from labor, or the legal profession, or women’s groups,” says Peter Anyang'Nyang’o, a political scientist and founding member of FORD, “then a democracy here would be strong and I’d be much happier.”

The politicians jockeying for position in Kenya today are judged by their standing within their own tribes: Kibaki, for example, is viewed as potentially the most powerful Kikuyu--the largest tribe in the country and one with visions of establishing a ruling dynasty. Oloo Aringo is considered an important figure not only because of his service as KANU national chairman but because he may be the country’s strongest Luo politician except for former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a FORD founder who, at 80, is too old to serve in any capacity except as patriarchal figurehead.

In the absence of grass-roots organizations, much of what is happening today in Kenyan politics is little more than politicians positioning themselves to retain their old power under the new system. It is lost on almost no one that most of the leaders deserting KANU today were very recently part of the chorus that echoed Moi’s attacks on opposition leaders.

“If they had done three years ago what they are doing now,” said Anglican Archbishop Manassas Kuria of the officials leaving KANU, “Kenya would not have reached the dangerous point it has reached.” He added that the Kenyan Anglican Church had been publicly protesting rigged elections, corruption, and political assassination for years.

Meanwhile, Moi and other remaining KANU leaders have not lost the opportunity to stress the tribal basis of their opponents’ political activities, arguing that their repeated warnings that multi-party democracy would engender tribal conflict are coming true. (It’s noteworthy that Moi, during his regime, has promoted people from his own small ethnic group, the Kalenjin, far out of proportion to their numbers in the total population.)

Moi has also accused the newly organized parties of relying on foreign backing and charged that they are intent on fomenting violence in the countryside.

Kibaki and other defectors, he charged, had been secretly undermining KANU as long as they remained in the government. (“Kibaki’s Sabotage Plot,” headlined the KANU-owned Kenya Times.)

There are signs that Moi is using other tactics to undermine the opposition. At dawn on Sunday, for example, Kenya Police raided the offices of the weekly magazine Society, a leading opposition voice, and seized copies and printing plates for its forthcoming issue under a law forbidding publication of material denigrating the president.

The cover of the magazine, which has a circulation of about 30,000, was to bear the headline “Kibaki Wants Moi Out,” and an inside article was entitled “The Cost of Killing Ouko,” according to the magazine’s publisher, Pius Nyamora.

“We were really surprised,” Nyamora said after the raid. “We thought Kenya was becoming a more open country, but this is really taking us back again.”

On several occasions Kenyan police have broken up political organizing meetings, which now are technically legal, on grounds that the organizers did not have permits to meet.

The incident in Nakuru town was potentially more serious. Witnesses said more than 40 plainclothes policemen, evidently attached to the detail at Moi’s nearby State House, entered the hotel on Dec. 29 and took up strategic positions at its doorways. They assaulted patrons who were heard mentioning FORD, and at one point drew pistols. Police officials later refused to comment, but the episode and others like it provoked opposition leaders to charge that KANU was using civil servants to protect its political franchise.

“I think he (Moi) is playing a very dangerous game,” said Anyang'Nyang’o.