"Don't vote with your stomach," declared a headline in Nairobi last week. Fortunately for all of Africa, the more than half of Kenya's voters who live below the poverty line heeded that good advice in a landmark Dec. 27 election. Millions of them did take a bribe of a few dollars handed out by the cronies of the ruling KANU party and then voted for the opposition.
They were fed up with the corruption that has brought Kenya to ruin, and made it a haven for Arab terrorists. The election results were a stunning success for a continent still struggling to show it can enter the age of democracy despite massive poverty, and win over the trust of Western donors and investors.
Kenya was once the gem of Africa, flush with natural wealth. But under two successive iron-fisted rulers since independence, it's been reduced to the same per capita income level as in 1963. The departing leader of 24 years, Daniel arap Moi, was forced not to run again, both by Kenya's Constitution and by foreign pressure, such as the withholding of aid from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Mr. Moi, however, did try to cling to some power by hand-picking the presidential candidate of his ruling Kenya African National Union. But the candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding father, lost soundly to a well-unified opposition, the National Alliance Rainbow Coalition.
Moi also was forced to give up any opportunity to doctor the vote count. Thousands of foreign election observers were in Kenya for polling day. Poll workers were well trained and election laws were changed to allow vote counting locally to prevent widespread fraud. And privacy in the ballot booth was ensured. Such are the details of building democracies.
The new president, Mwai Kibaki, now faces the enormous task of transforming a nation ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world. Despite being a former Moi associate, he promises to revamp the constitution to distribute power and forgive those who stole government money if they return it.
To win international aid, he'll need to act quickly on reducing graft. And to ensure that terrorists can't operate into Kenya, the police, customs, and judicial systems will need an overhaul. Al Qaeda has found a home in a few African nations such as Kenya.
This election should spark a renewed effort to bring more democracy, clean government, and economic uplift to a continent being left behind.