SINCE independence in 1963, Kenya has been a model democracy in Africa - a progressive and independent state that takes seriously its British rule-of-law legacy. Yet what happens when friendly democracies begin to forget their principles? When political liberties and human rights are trampled? When freedom of the press, opposition, and criticism are repressed? When the state forgets who it is serving and begins to serve only itself?
Welcome to Kenya's brave new world. Efforts to form a multiparty democracy there are being stifled, often brutally, by President Daniel arap Moi's government, which increasingly resembles a soft totalitarian state.
Since July, two leading advocates of a multiparty Kenya, ex-parliament members Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, have been imprisoned without charges. This act followed the mysterious murder in February of popular pro-multiparty foreign minister Robert Ouko, and preceded the mysterious fatal car crash in August of Anglican bishop Alexander Muge, a popular critic. Three days earlier, Mr. Muge had been threatened by Mr. Moi's minister of labor.
Last month the Kenyan government, contrary to earlier promises, said it would not release the entire Scotland Yard investigation into Mr. Ouko's death.
Moi's latest inexcusable act is to ban the Nairobi Law Monthly, one of the only opposition organs. The cover headline of its last issue may explain why: ``Kenyans Want Change, KANU Review Committee Told.'' KANU is Moi's once-proud Kenya African National Union party, the only legal party there.
Such events are the tip of iceberg of repression that includes beatings and jailings of ``undesirable elements'' who feel democracy is more than a pretty word.
Kenya is hardly a worst-case African state. It isn't a Liberia or Uganda. Its sins and crimes are minor compared to many of the 52 nations in the Organization of African States, where one-party totalitarianism is unquestioned. But Kenya has higher standards, greater political maturity. It says much that the most fervent multiparty advocates in Kenya are found in the legal community, and in human rights groups in the Anglican Church.
Kenya must move to a new level of political liberty. Whether this means a multiparty system, or real reform of the current system, is a Kenyan decision. (Surely ``queuing'' - whereby voters line up behind a candidate's poster to be counted - must end.) But it must occur. US lawmakers are rightly on the brink of withholding all or part of the $60 million aid to Kenya. The West must support a fight for change in Nairobi.