Nairobi, Kenya — In the toughest crackdown on political dissidents in four years, the Kenyan government has signaled its response to any civil unrest or underground opposition. The detention of 48 people last month on suspicion of belonging to an underground Marxist movement seeking to topple President Daniel arap Moi has reminded Kenyans of his strength. It has also focused attention on Kenya's political stability and human rights policies.
Diplomats and government officials agree that the dissident group, known as Mwakenya -- a Swahili acronym for Union of Nationalists to Liberate Kenya -- does not present a significant threat to the government's stability. It is unlikely that the movement will infiltrate the predominantly right-wing armed forces, which underwent a major reshuffle in February to ensure their loyalty to the President.
Moi's government, however, is seen by political analysts as increasingly vulnerable to civil unrest. This vulnerability is largely a result of a declining standard of living, resulting from high unemployment. Although there is a labor pool of 7 million, only 1 million people draw wages. Each year, more than 300,000 prospective workers come into the job market. An uncontrolled birth rate will double the country's population by the year 2000.
Along with other opposition groups, Mwakenya has charged President Moi's regime with corruption and economic mismanagement. It has also objected to what it calls a policy of ``forced'' family planning and to the government's military links with the United States.
Although economists say Kenyan officials are among the best fiscal managers in black Africa, corruption is acknowledged to be on the rise.
In addition, a government program to curb the annual 3.9 percent population growth has clashed with traditional Kenyan values that say large families provide social security in old age.
As with the 1982 coup attempt, which prompted a major crackdown on dissent, students at the University of Nairobi are at the forefront of unrest. Earlier this year, the school was closed for several months after a confrontation between police and students.
In March, Isaiah Kariuki, a tax expert, and Kariuki Gathitu, a university lecturer, were placed in detention on charges of sedition. Since then, 19 people have received harsh sentences for possessing or distributing seditious literature. The defendants, some without legal counsel, received prison terms ranging from 15 months to five years. Some 25 others are being held without charge, while two have been released.
Several of those arrested were involved in the underground activity that prefaced the 1982 botched coup. In that attempt, junior Air Force officers and university students tried to install a socialist government. The leaders of coup attempt were secretly hanged last year, but scores of low-level officers are believed still to be in detention for their alleged roles.
Measured against a continental yardstick, Kenya's record for human rights is good. More than half of those in custody are Kikuyu -- under Moi's predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta, the dominant political and economic ethnic group from the central highlands. The Kikuyu deeply resent their waning role in public life following the President Kenyatta's death in 1978. They are also angered by the current domination enjoyed by Moi's own small Kalenjin ethnic group.