Leakey Has Bone to Pick With Tense Kenya Regime
Famed white paleontologist forms party to challenge black leader
NAIROBI, KENYA — PRESIDENT Daniel arap Moi's government has been thrown a curve by the entry into politics of celebrated paleontologist Richard Leakey, who is forming a new opposition party.
Dr. Leakey, a third-generation white Kenyan paleontologist famed for his work on early humans and later as head of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), says his new party aims to "clean up" a country he says is beset by "corruption, mismanagement, and failing services."
The fledgling party is likely to face its first battle later this month as Leakey and his colleagues apply to register it.
Kenya is widely recognized as one of Africa's more developed nations, remaining relatively stable since its independence from British colonial rule 32 years ago. It has attracted much foreign investment and a large expatriate community. But relations with the West have been turbulent since 1991, when a two-year freeze on donor aid was imposed to push President Moi toward political and economic reform. Moi has had little tolerance for outspoken opposition or criticism from foreigners or Kenyans alike.
Leakey says the Kenyan public is "totally demoralized" by its political leadership. "This country faces a crisis. It wasn't like this before, it has become like this recently. We are slipping backward," he said in an interview May 31.
"What I want to know is why our schools have no running water and no books, why you can't get a simple antibiotic anywhere except at select hospitals, why you can't get a marriage license without paying on the side, and why when someone is arrested you have to pay to get the police to take action?" Leakey asks.
Although Leakey says he is not interested in running for public office, preferring to lay the groundwork for younger Kenyans, his dramatic switch to politics has nonetheless been condemned by the government.
Moi has warned in several public speeches of a "return to colonialism," warning that "Kenya will never again be ruled by a white man." He denounced Leakey, who resigned last year as head of KWS, as "a foreigner," "traitor," and "atheist."
Leakey, however, says he will not be put off by "outrageous statements" meant to intimidate him. "I am given the time of day in the corridors of power in London, Washington, and Paris because of what I've done, not because I'm white," Leakey said. "By lending my name and my experience and my credibility [to the new party], I hope we might get some responses that will help the process of getting Kenya back on its feet."
His colleagues in the party believe the strength of anti-Leakey reaction indicates the government's fear.
"Moi realized there is really a threat of an alternative here," said Paul Muite, one of the party's leading lights, at the interview with Leakey. "By and large, members of the European and Asian communities here tend to take a back seat in politics. That's not necessarily a good thing. Richard was born here, he's as Kenyan as I am. Either we believe in a multiracial society or we don't."
Existing opposition parties continue to be dogged by tribalism and personality squabbles, which contributed to their losing the country's first multiparty elections in 1992. Moi, now in his 17th year in power, has not shied away from using repressive laws left behind by the British colonial rulers to weaken the opposition. A government campaign to woo dissenters back to the fold has resulted in the defection of a number of opposition politicians.
But observers say the emergence of Leakey on the opposition scene changes the political equation. A Western diplomat in Nairobi said: "Leakey's a big name, and everyone knows he means business." And a Kenyan businessman, who preferred not to be named, added: "There's a feeling that this is a person who will really address the issues that people care about."
As a newcomer to politics, Leakey's debut has been far from low-key. Already he is talking about organizing a boycott of the next elections, scheduled for 1997, unless reforms are made to the Constitution beforehand. "It's simply not realistic in the present circumstances to go forward unless certain factors are changed. At the moment, the people are not being given any choices," he said, mentioning the government's monopoly of radio and television, and its control of the civil service and security forces.
A forceful player
Leakey is outspoken, some say arrogant. Even among Kenya's estimated 5,000 whites, he arouses mixed feelings. "I'm not sure that I like him, but I think he'd do a good job, and we need someone like that," said a white Kenyan woman farmer, who preferred not to give her name.
While he is credited with bringing in millions of dollars to help rescue the failing KWS and curbing elephant and rhinoceros poaching, he says he made many political enemies. He resigned from the post last year after a campaign against him led by government ministers, who accused him of being corrupt, racist, and a bad manager.
But worse than controversy is the possible threat to his life in a country with a string of unsolved political murders. He lost both legs when a plane he was piloting crashed in 1993. The cause of the crash has not been established, and he does not rule out the possibility of sabotage. "I wouldn't minimize the dangers, but I'm not going to be put off from what I believe is the right action, I'm not going to stop speaking my mind," he said, adding: "If they bump me off, hopefully the process will continue without me anyway."