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In Kibera Slum: Half a Million Votes Kenya's President Won't Be Getting

Moi is likely to win today's elections. But the poor blame him for the country's decline.

By Lara SantoroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 29, 1997



NAIROBI, KENYA

The average person living in the sprawling Nairobi slum of Kibera does not have running water or electricity. Public latrines routinely overflow, children scamper barefoot through festering heaps of waste, and most adults are unemployed. Mention the name of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi here, and people will come running to voice their distaste.

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"He is a dictator and a criminal!" screams Peter Muchai. He grew up in Kibera, watching the slum's dizzying expansion across the railway tracks, across a river that is now a trickle thick with mud and excrement.

Like everyone else in Kibera, Peter used to sell scrap; now he repairs umbrellas. He has never gone to school, never taken a hot shower, never watched a movie. And like everyone else in Kibera, he blames his predicament entirely on Mr. Moi. "Do you know how many people live in Kibera?" he asks, a flicker of wry amusement in his eyes, "Too many. And no one will vote for Moi."

Mostly populated by Luos - the country's second-largest tribe - Kibera will cast a virtually unanimous, tribal-oriented vote in Kenya's second multiparty elections today.

Raila Odinga, one of 14 presidential candidates challenging Moi, will likely score a resounding victory here. He will be banking on tribal loyalty but also on the profound sense of betrayal slum dwellers harbor toward Moi's government.

"In a way, Kibera and all the other slums are what Moi's government has been all about," says Isaac Wahome, a student at Kenyatta University who has been working with schoolchildren in the slum. "These people came to Nairobi hoping to find better conditions of life and ended up building their own slums."

With its vast, seemingly irreversible misery, Kibera is the quintessential African slum. Yet its history speaks volumes about a country perceived by most experts to be in decline as a direct result of mismanagement and corruption.

In September, Transparency International, a nonprofit organization that exposes corruption in governments, listed Kenya as the third most corrupt country in the world after Nigeria and Pakistan. In July, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund cited corruption as the reason for the suspension of scheduled loans to Kenya.

"When you look at Kibera, you are struck by its size. You think that something so huge must have always been there," says Patrizia Erskine, an Italian whose family moved to Kenya when she was a child. "But until 1980, a year after Moi came to power, Kibera did not exist." In less than 20 years, an estimated half a million people have amassed in the area bordering one of Nairobi's poshest neighborhoods, transforming what was once a green valley with a small natural lake into a sprawling expanse of corrugated-iron sheeting, incubating misery, ignorance, and disease.

Bolstered by the advantages of incumbency - access to financial resources, a state-controlled media, and a weak electoral commission - Moi's Kenya African National Union Party (KANU) is still expected to win nationwide. Moi himself is expected to extend his 19-year hold on power another five years. But political analysts are predicting a much narrower margin than initially expected and even allowing the possibility of a runoff.

Moi needs to garner 25 percent of the vote in five out of the country's eight provinces to avoid ending up in a runoff and finding his chances of victory significantly reduced. So far, the president has drawn a key advantage from the opposition's inability to coalesce behind one candidate. In 1992, Moi won 36 percent of the vote against the fragmented opposition's 45 percent.

In the fairly turbulent runup to the elections, during which seven people lost their lives, Moi campaigned assiduously to dispel the impression of his government as rapacious, corrupt, and ultimately responsible for the unchecked proliferation of Nairobi's slums.

He has cited the introduction of several constitutional reforms expanding human rights and curtailing the power of government as good reasons for his reelection. Over and over, he has reminded voters of the risk of placing Kenya's future in the hands of a notoriously fractious, politically inexperienced opposition.

Yet in his last-minute scramble for votes, Moi has been unable to dispute the opposition's main arguments against his reelection: that the country's infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating, that the disparity between the rich and the poor is widening, that unemployment is rising while economic growth is slowing down.

In a recent campaign speech, Moi was quoted as saying that his party, KANU, had already won a parliamentary majority. This very well may be true, since only KANU has managed to field candidates in all of Kenya's 210 constituencies.

"Don't waste your vote," Moi told voters in Kisumu. "Vote for KANU and myself."

Moi has never set foot in Kibera. Not even Machua Mugai, KANU's dispassionate representative in the slum, has ever seen Moi. "I never met him," he explains, "I just put up his picture."