In the sharpest crackdown on the political opposition here since multi-party democracy was legalized last month, the government has arrested four leaders of a key opposition party and charged them with "spreading malicious rumors" about President Daniel Arap Moi and his administration.
One of the opposition leaders, Wangari Maathai, a leading environmentalist, was arrested Monday only after she and a crowd of supporters held off police at her home for 24 hours.
The four are officers of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the most important of several opposition parties that have sprung up since Moi, under strong foreign and domestic pressure, legalized multi-party democracy here in December.
All participated on Friday in a press conference in which they reported widespread "rumors" that Moi was plotting to turn over his government to a military junta to preserve his own authority and forestall an electoral defeat. They also contended that the government had drawn up a list of 144 opposition figures who were to be "liquidated" once the takeover happened. The "coup," they said, was to take place the next morning.
The press conference itself was interrupted by a police squad that tried to arrest all the participants but was held at bay by a large crowd of forum supporters.
In any event, no military takeover occurred Saturday, and Moi vehemently attacked FORD for associating itself with what he termed such "loose talk." The detentions began Sunday with the arrests of former Vice President Josephat Karanja and Eliud Matu Wamae, a former member of Parliament. They were charged Monday with spreading false rumors and released on bail until a further hearing Jan. 27.
Meanwhile, the police laid siege to the house of Maathai, the first female member of the Kenya Parliament and first full professor at the University of Nairobi. In recent years, she has gained renown as the head of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement, a nonprofit group that assists local development organizations in reforestation programs.
Maathai held off the police until Monday, when they broke down her gate and doors and took her to jail. Also arrested Monday was James Orengo, a lawyer and FORD officer. Several other forum leaders are reported to have gone underground to evade the dragnet.
The ensuing crackdown on opposition "rumor-mongers" illustrates the growing pains Kenya is suffering as its government and opposition test the limits of political debate. It is also Moi's strongest counterthrust against the opposition since his own Kenya African National Union, which until last month held a constitutional political monopoly in Kenya, began shaking itself apart under the strain of political pluralism.
Scores of Parliament members, ministers and provincial officials have defected in recent weeks to the forum or to a second key opposition group, the Democratic Party. The defections have included some of the union's oldest members and its most reform-minded leaders.
In one embarrassing episode this week, for example, the government was forced to suspend a new 18% sales tax after its imposition on hotels and restaurants sparked consumer protests and threatened boycotts around the country.
For all that, the rumors of a military takeover were not widely taken seriously here. Kenya's armed forces have in recent years been perhaps the most resolutely nonpolitical in Africa--the result of a thorough housecleaning Moi undertook after surviving a 1982 coup attempt by air force officers.
Although Kenyan law does prohibit the spreading of rumors that might destabilize public order, the law has been used almost exclusively to silence government critics. In 1990, for example, several opposition figures, including Karanja and Maathai, were detained for questioning the government's investigation of the killing of Foreign Minister Robert Ouko. They were later released.
This time around, the opposition has again charged that the law is being applied unevenly. FORD complained Tuesday that no action has been taken, for example, against Cabinet Minister Elijah Mwangale, a union stalwart, for charging on national television that forum members in one province intended to "assassinate" party leaders to take over the provincial leadership and that FORD was inciting violent tribal clashes in western Kenya that have already taken scores of lives.
"If these are not dangerous rumors, what are they?" asked Maathai during the police siege of her home.
A Look at Kenya (Southland Edition, A6)
Kenya lies on the Equator on Africa's east coast. Country has long been celebrated for its profuse wildlife and scenic attractions . Some key facts:
AREA: 224,960 square miles, about twice the size of Nevada. Bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda.
POPULATION: 25.2 million. Population growth rate of 3.6% is one of highest in world, adding to country's economic woes.
ECONOMY: Undependable weather and a shortage of arable land hamper growth of agriculture, the country's economic backbone. Main crops are coffee, tea, sisal, sugar and cut flowers. Tourism is main foreign exchange earner.