Kenya's simmering unrest boils over in unsuccessful Air Force coup

The attempted military coup in Kenya will surprise those many outsiders who had come to look on that lovely and relatively prosperous land as an island of stability in a troubled East Africa.

But trouble has been at or near the surface in Kenya since spring. Criticism of the country's basically conservative government was becoming sharper and more vocal at two levels: within academic and intellectual circles; and at the grass-roots level among the urban poor.

At this writing, it was not clear how the military move against the government Aug. 1 fit into the overall picture. It could have come from senior British-trained officers set on ensuring stability and firm government in the face of political unrest - after the pattern of Nigeria in the 1960s.

Or it could have come from a lower level in the armed forces sympathetic to grass-roots grievances - after the pattern of Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings in Ghana last year.

Reports from Nairobi identified the leaders of the attempted coup as coming from the Kenyan Air Force and being set on overthrowing the ''corrupt'' government of President Daniel arap Moi. Troops loyal to Mr. arap Moi put down the uprising after some fighting, in which there was loss of lives. The government was said to be once again firmly in control.

As chairman of the Organization of African Unity, Mr. arap Moi has been somewhat distracted from domestic politics for the past year. The first signs that potential opponents were laying the groundwork for what might be called the post-post-Kenyatta period came in March.

The patriarchal Jomo Kenyatta, founder of modern Kenya and its President when independence came in 1963, passed on in 1978. He bequeathed to his countrymen a society in which he had labored to minimize ethnic and tribal rivalries. That society had a greater measure of political liberty than its neighbors, was relatively free of ideological commitment, and operated a free market economy.

Mr. Kenyatta was a Kikuyu, Kenya's biggest and most powerful ethnic group. Mr. arap Moi is a Kalenjin, one of the country's smaller tribes. He was Kenyatta's hand-picked vice-president and successor by law.

Many wondered whether Mr. arap Moi would be acceptable to the Kikuyu after Mr. Kenyatta's passing. But such was the latter's posthumous influence that Mr. arap Moi was confirmed in the presidency without difficulty.

Four years later, a younger generation of Kenyans is looking to the future. Revolutionary ideological thinking began to assert itself among the handful of academics and intellectuals critical of the government. There was criticism of the government's pro-US policy, under which the United States has use of port facilities at Mombasa.

The government began to crack down. In March, an open-air theater outside Nairobi was razed. It had been drawing crowds for plays by one of Kenya's best-known writers, Ngugi Wa Thiongio, who is critical of authority.

Then a veteran of the political opposition from the Kenyatta days spoke critically of the government while visiting London. He is Oginga Odinga, a member of the Luo tribe, Kenya's second biggest ethnic group and therefore a threat to Kikuyu dominance.

Kenya, long a de facto one-party state, became one constitutionally only in June. A few days earlier, Mr. Odinga had been expelled from the Kenya African National Union.

In recent weeks, eight academics have been arrested and detained under a law permitting detention without trial. John Khaminwa, a lawyer, raised the question of habeas corpus in behalf of one of the detainees and was himself arrested. So was a critical former member of the legislature, George Anyona, who was about to announce the formation of a socialist party.

Kenya's best-known journalist, George Githii, criticized these detentions in the Standard newspaper and was summarily dismissed from his post as editor in chief.

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