Kenya's Best Hope: A Rising Middle Class

In a rare move, the business class turned out for Friday's protest for political reforms

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As Abel Mugenda stands listening to speeches about legal and constitutional reform, he has hope. He thinks Kenya is ripe for change.

The reason, Dr. Mugenda says, is a growing and increasingly vocal middle class. "The concept of a middle class in Africa has really been crushed," he said, standing on the edge of a crowd of about a thousand people in Nairobi's Uhuru Park last Friday.

"But look around you," he said. "I have attended most of the national days.... I see guys here who have just come from the office like myself and I think the middle class is just starting to come up. This is the group that is really going to shape Kenya's political events in the future."

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With presidential and parliamentary elections required before February, the calls for reform in Kenya have grown more persistent. Opposition politicians, church groups, and human rights activists, grouped together in an organization called the National Convention Executive Council, declared a nationwide strike last Friday to pressure President Daniel arap Moi's government to overhaul the Constitution and to revise or repeal a dozen colonial-era laws that they say will give the government an upper hand at the polls.

In what were to be peaceful demonstrations, four people were killed, including two policemen. Both the government and the opposition denounced the violence. The opposition is still anxious to discuss reforms with the government; religious leaders have been designated the intermediaries.

As the politicians and intellectuals wrangle over who will effect reforms and how, left out of the debate is the middle class Murenga hopes will eventually change this country.

Kenya, thanks to a fairly diversified economy and infrastructure created during Britain's colonial reign, has always had a middle class.

Its presence is evident on Nairobi streets, bustling with men and women in business suits, and in the shops, filled with appliances and Western-style food intended for people with disposable income. Kenya's middle class tends to be college educated. They work as professors, for nongovernmental organizations, as bankers, or in the burgeoning tourism sector.

So far, they have not participated in large numbers at this year's rallies and demonstrations, which have been associated with violence and looting. They appeared at last week's rally only after it became evident that police were not going to disperse the crowd as on previous occasions.

The last elections in 1992, when Mr. Moi grudgingly allowed a multiparty system to operate, and 1993, when a program was launched to free the shilling from exchange controls, marked the beginning of new freedoms here. Small businesses began to spring up, as did hopes by many that their lives would take a turn for the better.

But there is a whole section of the population that sees life getting better for some, but find their own way is blocked by a corrupt and inefficient system.

With more than one-third of the people officially unemployed and inflation at 30 percent, there seems to be a growing frustration among the people. Many are willing to work but are unable to find jobs. They are tired of a government they say does little for them. Kenya's road system is crumbling and health care is nonexistent.

"I would like to work in one of the hotels," says Bernard Kirega, a twentysomething who does odd jobs such as plumbing. "But someone like me doesn't get considered for those jobs." He says only the relatives and friends of government officials get the well-paying positions.

Mr. Kirega says he's looking for a job that would pay him $6 a day, enough to get his own apartment and perhaps start a family. He hasn't decided who to vote for, but he says it won't be Moi.

The government has a reputation among Kenyans for corruption, cronyism, and nepotism. "Moi, he is a thug," said Muenge Kamau, a social researcher, at last week's rally.

Jacob Oluu, standing near him, says he is convinced that the government will have to change, or it will be voted out - if not in this election then in the next. Mr. Oluu and his wife live in a room of a friend's apartment. They can't afford their own housing, or the children they would like to have. He has been unable to find steady work and sells bunches of kale to support himself and his wife.

He, like many Kenyans, says there must be change.

"I have come to hear about the reforms," he says. "We are fighting for our rights, because we are not really getting that much."

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