Kenya's Moves toward Democracy Troubled by Drought and Violence Six Month after Western Donors Linked Aid to Multiparty Reforms, Periodic Arrests and Crackdowns Show Moi's Reluctance to Change

Article excerpt

IT would not have been allowed six months ago.

On a busy sidewalk in the old section of Nairobi, an opposition-party activist stands on a box and harangues the government. A policeman walks by without interfering.

All over Kenya, vendors offer independent local magazines and newspapers carrying headlines that accuse the government of corruption and incompetence.

"Last year we were afraid to talk politics," says a shop employee in a nearby store.

These are a few of the positive signs of this East African country's transition to democracy, which formally started six months ago when President Daniel arap Moi reluctantly legalized opposition parties in response to international aid cutoffs and months of domestic pressure.

But since December, the start-stop liberalization of basic political rights - said here to include freedoms of speech, press, and assembly - has also shown how reluctant an entrenched regime can be to relax its grip on power. Rights curtailed

Kenyan lawyers, women's leaders, and Western diplomats point to telltale signs: periodic arrests of outspoken opposition activists and journalists; bans on open opposition rallies; curbs and opposition branch offices; the failure to establish an independent electoral commission.

"I don't see any change at all," says John Keene, acting vice chairman of the opposition Democratic Party (DP). "The government doesn't seem to have accepted the spirit of multiparty {politics}."

But in a speech May 22 to the Federation of Kenya Employers, Kenyan Attorney General Amos Wako said, "I want to assure the people of Kenya that the government of Kenya is committed to holding free and fair general elections."

One Kenyan offical describes what critics call Moi's uneven record toward reforms as part of the goverment's "teething" process through which it is adapting to multi party politics.

Complicating the political landscape are several factors: Africa's worst drought in 100 years, which has caused extensive crop loss in southern and eastern countries and necessitated large-scale food relief; a flood of refugees fleeing civil war in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia; and increasing ethnic violence in Kenya's western provinces.

Meanwhile, the West has declined to reinstate aid estimated to be worth $800 million, and some Kenyan human rights lawyers say the government will be increasingly hard put to deal with the country's problems.

"Properly harnessed and directed, Kenya's political liberalization should result in greater democratization: greater protection of human rights, greater enjoyment of political freedoms," says Lee Muthoga, a Kenyan attorney who heads a nonpartisan Committee for Democratic Change. …