Atmosphere of suspicion troubles Kenya. Government actions foster tension among Kenyans and foreigners

In the world of coups, famine, civil war, and poverty that troubles the nations of East Africa, Kenya is an island of stability. But some Kenyans and foreign diplomats see political and economic danger in the quick, angry, sometimes forceful way the Kenyan government has responded to recent incidents it perceived as threats to the nation's stability.

Such government reaction fosters suspicion among Kenyans and suspicion and resentment toward foreigners working in Kenya, say Kenyans and foreign diplomats - all of whom requested anonymity. This creates an atmosphere that hinders full airing of key views. It also sends out signals of instability that could lead to an unfavorable climate for foreign investment and development aid.

The result, some Kenyans say, is confrontation at a time when Kenya needs cooperation from all sides to arrest its population growth - the highest in the world - and its growing unemployment figures.

The most recent examples include the government's response to riots at a university, and to an alleged plot by the United States white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), for US missionaries to overthrow Kenya's government.

When word came late last month that Kenya had decided not to deport one Canadian and eight American missionaries accused of plotting a coup in Kenya, it was too late to avert tensions. Suspicions against missionaries in Kenya had already been fanned by President Daniel arap Moi in a nationwide address following the publication of a letter allegedly written by the KKK.

In his address, President Moi thanked the ``many genuine foreign friends working amongst us.'' But he also spoke of ``a minority of non-Kenyans amongst us. ... Some have come disguised as missionaries. ... Their real work has been sabotage and destabilization ...''

Two days after his address, US officials here denounced the Ku Klux Klan letter as a ``forgery.'' There were a number of clear irregularities in the letter indicating it had not been written by a native English speaker or someone familiar with the KKK or US currency. US officials are puzzled as to why the government did not first come to them with concerns about the letter.

In the aftermath, a long list of Kenyan politicans jumped on the issue, condemning allegedly troublesome, foreign missionaries. And the secretary general of Kenya's only party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), called on KANU ``youthwingers'' - volunteer youth and young adult party members - to work day and night to make sure all missionaries working contrary to the government were handed over to police. KANU youthwingers have no power to make arrests but can take people to the police for arrest.

Kenyans in general are ``sensitive to criticism'' because the nation is still experimenting methods of government and feels outsiders are ``not sympathetic'' with the attempts, said one Kenyan.

Still, the Kenyan government, says another Kenyan, ``is used to lying to us so much they forgot people out there will check'' the facts of the alleged plot.

One Kenyan predicted the government would ``quietly back-pedal'' on the issue without making an acknowledgement that a mistake was made. To an African, ``admitting you are wrong is loosing,'' he added.

In the university incident, police beat and arrested students and several foreign journalists covering a riot at the University of Nairobi. The students were protesting the earlier arrest of student leaders who had criticized some government policies.

There were official protests from at least three Western nations over the treatment of the journalists. Offering no apologies, Minister of State in the Office of the President Justus Ole Tipis blamed journalists for being on the scene and said their activities ``have left us in a very suspicious position. We are asking whether the students were not incited by some foreigners.''

A Kenyan business professional lamented the ``police coming in full force'' at the university. ``There must have been some way out'' peacefully, he said. Settlement of issues, without arousing resentments and suspicions, he added, will help Kenya's development in the long run by fostering a spirit of cooperation.

``Traditionally in Africa one does not criticize one's elders openly,'' said the professional. ``Government considers itself as a council of elders for the whole country.''

Lively debates on many issues do occur in the nation's parliament. But the President can usually shut off debate on a topic among officials if he chooses.

``Over the past few years,'' the Kenyan professional said, ``the President has been put above criticism.'' That means he can step in and settle disputes, but ``it can lead to personal aggrandizement.''

Yet Mr. Moi, says a Western diplomat, ``has the intolerance of a schoolmaster, not the tyrant.'' He is ``pretty shrewd and astute on what is in Kenya's best interest.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.