THIS week tremors still emanating out of Eastern Europe grew stronger in Kenya, long regarded as one of the more stable and prosperous of African nations. Calls for multiparty democracy increased, demonstrators took to the streets of Nairobi and several other cities, and President Daniel Arap Moi jailed leading dissidents. But dictatorial reflexes aren't likely to stop the political rumblings. Much of Africa is experiencing popular unrest based on a desire for government more responsive to people's needs. One-party, one-man regimes are drawing unaccustomed criticism. Some longtime rulers, like Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, have agreed to test their governments in a plebiscite. But critics doubt the willingness of these men to subject themselves to a fair vote. In other countries, from tiny Benin to huge Nigeria, democratization appears to have at least a toehold.
Kenya's officials argue they already have a democracy. Its institutions of representative government, however, mask an essentially repressive system. Mr. Moi can see to it that critics of his policies are barred from sitting in parliament. Judges come and go at his pleasure. As for Kenya's relative prosperity, it has been outrun by population growth and unemployment - which heighten unrest.
The president says strict one-party rule prevents tribal divisiveness. Certainly tribalism and ethnic rivalries are a persistent problem in Kenya as in many other countries, but they don't necessarily exclude genuine democracy. Parties organized around economic and social issues can cut across ethnic differences and help bind nations together. Above all, single-party systems that have lost touch with the aspirations of a people are social time bombs, since they generate dissatisfaction and try to prevent its expression simultaneously.
Kenya's leader should recognize this and allow the expression of various points of view. It doesn't hurt, either, for the United States and other aid donors to use their influence to hasten this recognition.