Kenya: hot political race despite one-party rule

President Daniel arap (means ''son of'') Moi of Kenya is not having any sleepless nights about the outcome of this Monday's elections. In his one-party state, his ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party is uncontested, so Mr. Moi is the automatic winner.

More important to the President, who survived a coup attempt last year that shook this East African nation's image as a rock of political stability in Africa, is how much of a mandate he will receive in the Sept. 26 poll.

Even within the narrow confines of the one-party system, there is sufficient latitude for Kenya's highly politicized voters to thumb their noses at the government. They can vote in candidates somewhat removed from the leadership or vote out ministers they think have fallen down on the job. Moreover, there are enough candidates - more than 900 for just 158 seats - for voters to have a choice.

Disgruntled voters avenged themselves in 1979, the last election, when they unseated a large number of members of Parliament. This time, as many as many as 50 to 60 percent of the MPs are expected to be voted out, according to Western sources monitoring the electoral process.

Even prominent politicians must play according to the rules. Mwacharo Kubo, assistant minister in the office of the vice-president and MP for Taveta, forgot to have one of his nomination forms signed by a magistrate as required by law. When he discovered his omission, it was too late.

Writing in Kenya's ''Weekly Review,'' editor in chief Hilary Ng'weno, who is one of Africa's most outspoken journalists, says, ''The general feeling of the public and parliamentary candidates alike was that the nomination process is the fairest the country has seen since independence.'' Kenya achieved independence from Britain in 1963.

This year's political campaign has also been one of the most turbulent since independence, with heated clashes between supporters of rival candidates.

Although Mr. Moi is from the minority Tujen tribe, Kenyan politics is dominated by power struggles within the Kikuyu, which controls the political hierarchy, and tension between the Kikuyu and the equally large Luo tribe. The Kikuyu and Luo each account for about 20 percent of the nation's population.

Tom Mboya, the brilliant trade union leader who was assassinated in 1969, was a Luo, as is Oginga Odinga, once vice-president under Jomo Kenyatta, but whose leftist philosophy has fallen afoul of President Moi's pro-West, free enterprise policies.

The election takes place against a backdrop of charges of treason leveled against Charles Njonjo, who until he fell from grace was one of the most powerful politicians in Kenya. Mr. Njonjo, who has a penchant for Savile Row suits and roses in his buttonholes as well as a general fondness for things British, was instrumental in helping to transfer power from Kenyatta to Moi at Kenyatta's passing in 1978.

Njonjo has served as attorney general and more recently as home and constitutional affairs minister. But he is currently suspended from his ministry post - and thus cannot run for office - while a judicial commission investigates accusations that he conspired with an unnamed Western power to overthrow the Moi government. The cloud hanging over him is likely to favor candidates most closely aligned with Moi.

A vote of confidence in the President, which may be reflected in a large return to Parliament of pro-Moi candidates, would consolidate the power of Mr. Moi, whose position was weakened by the abortive coup staged by junior Air Force officers 14 month ago.

The coup attempt was a jolt to the United States as well. Washington rewarded Kenya's low-key support for the US by making Kenya one of its largest aid recipients in Africa. Kenya's unabashedly pro-Western free-market economy makes it a natural ally of the US.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Shah of Iran raised concern about Middle East oil supplies and the growing presence of the Soviet Navy in the Indian Ocean. It also raised Kenya's strategic profile in the eyes of the US. US defense interests in that part of the world now are centered on the American base at Diego Garcia, on access to airfield and naval facilities in Oman, and access to the ports of Berbera in Somalia and Mombasa in Kenya.

Kenya, which calls itself politically nonaligned, will not allow Mombasa to be used as a military base, but it will allow the US to use its airfields in the event of a Gulf emergency. The US is spending some $50 million to upgrade Kenya's facilities, including the dredging of Mombasa's port to take aircraft carriers. US sailors are thought to pump some $10 million annually into Kenya's economy.

And it is the state of Kenya's economy, rather than its strategic potential, that preoccupies African watchers now.

Until the coup attempt, Kenya was enjoying a post-independence prosperity that was matched by only a few African countries. When the world recession sapped tourism and precipitated a drop in the prices of tea and coffee, Kenya's economy began to stumble.

Stagnating agricultural production and a high population growth rate are problems faced by almost all African states, but for Kenya they are especially acute.

Kenya's 4 percent population growth rate is certainly the highest in Africa. If that rate is maintained, the country's population of 16 million will double in the next 17 years. The country is also burdened by a rapid march of Kenyans from the countryside to the capital, Nairobi.

To Robert F. Meagher, professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, there ''is a tremendous feeling of unrest under the surface in Kenya.'' He is particularly concerned about the growing numbers of poor and unemployed around Nairobi.

The dispossessed were quick to take to the streets, set up roadblocks, and loot stores in the initial stages of the coup. They remain a potential political risk to President Moi.

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