NAIROBI, KENYA — IT was a bold act, in a day of public defiance that marked a turning point in the struggle to bring democracy to Kenya.Martin Shikuku, a former member of the Kenyan parliament, emerged from hiding from police on Saturday to ride through Nairobi atop a pickup truck, waving both hands in the two-finger salute calling for multiparty democracy. Crowds along the way cheered and saluted back. After a chase of several miles, police finally closed in and arrested Mr. Shikuku and several other organizers of a major public rally to demand that multiparty politics replace one-party rule. Hundreds of police blocked the rally by wielding wooden batons and lobbing tear gas canisters at the thousands of people who had gathered. About a dozen organizers were arrested before the rally. But the opposition trumpeted its success in moving the Kenyan public to action. "This was historic," says the Rev. Timothy Njoya, an outspoken Presbyterian minister. "We have been talking words - appealing to the consciousness of the government, hoping it has a conscience." Now, he says, Kenyans are taking concrete action.
Individual attacks Such public resistance follows more than a year of mostly individual verbal attacks on the government and growing international pressure for political liberalization. Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi has promised multiparty politics within three years. A senior Kenyan official told the Monitor last week that multiparty politics could come to Kenya much sooner. Meanwhile, the official said, new elections for parliament are almost certain before long, to replace those elected in 1988 under charges of government rigging. But this official also argued that Kenya has more political freedom and has made more economic progress than many African nations. While he said he personally favors a one-party system with lively competition for elected posts, he said Mr. Moi has made multiparty politics possible by strengthening the ruling party, the civil service, the press, and even the courts. But critics argue that the courts are under Moi's political control. They note the press is not free to criticize Moi directly. The government's periodic detention of its critics, expulsion from parliament of members critical of the government, and police beatings and occasional torture have muted most public calls for change. Only a few outspoken lawyers and church leaders have risked censure and imprisonment in their efforts to bring reform. Moi has repeatedly said change will come if Kenyans show they want it, citing lack of mass opposition as proof of support for his regime.
New determination "That's why Moi resisted Saturday's rally because it might show the public wants change," says Kenyan attorney Martha Njoka. "I think we are getting near change. If there were free and fair elections with opposition, I'm sure they [Moi and his team] would be thrown out." Saturday's demonstration marks a new level of Kenyan determination to show opposition, not only against the one party system, but against recently exposed corruption. "We have to fight," one angry Kenyan said Saturday, near the site of the intended rally. "We are determined to fight. Today. It's today or never." "We need true democracy,' another young man said, as eye-stinging tear gas reached him from a nearby police platoon. Eyewitnesses said dozens of civilians were beaten by police using batons, whips, and guns. And some 15 foreign and local journalists were reportedly arrested and their film confiscated. Moi has accused the United States and several other nations of orchestrating the demonstration. US embassy officials deny the charge, though they defied Moi and sent two observers to the rally who were turned back by police. US Ambassador Smith Hempstone made it clear on the eve of the demonstration that the US supports change in Kenya. "We would be happy to see them clean up their single-party act ... but obviously we'd be most pleased if they went directly to [a] multiparty system," Mr. Hempstone said. "Kenya has resisted that change so far," he continued. "I won't say the [government's] thinking hasn't changed a bit, because it has. Things that were unthinkable two years ago are taking place now."
Frank criticism He cited the increasingly frank criticism of the government carried in the official press, as well as in local, private newspapers. The ongoing inquiry into the death of Foreign Minister Robert Ouko has generated startling details about high-level corruption in the government. Just before his arrest last week, Kenyan journalist and government critic Gitobu Imanyara said, "The revelations on corruption have put so much pressure on the government I think you are going to see a lot more people speaking out. People are reading about huge commissions [bribes solicited by officials], capital flight [to Swiss bank accounts], when there is so much poverty their children can not afford to go to school."