Behind Kenya's Push For Multiparty Reform

Critics attack Kenya's image as one of the freest countries in Africa

UNNOTICED by most tourists who visit Kenya's game parks and lush beaches, an intensifying struggle is under way between the government and its critics over political freedom and other human rights.On these issues, the government tends to portray Kenya as one of the freer countries in Africa, with ample room for dissent and enough stability for tourism and investors. Detractors, officials often say, are simply hungry for power themselves. But a newly formed political opposition group and recent human rights reports present another image. These critics say that Kenya is permeated by government spies, that police torture suspected dissidents and others, and that the courts are political instruments. The freedom of citizens to express their views is being extinguished by a corrupt government, led by an over-powerful president, they say.

Shattered image These conflicting assessments come against the backdrop of a tragedy that both the government and its critics say has shattered Kenya's peaceful image. In July 71 girls were raped and 19 girls were killed by boys at St. Kizito secondary school in the central Kenyan town of Meru. The incident, condemned by Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and many others, reportedly occurred after the boys failed to enlist the girls' cooperation in a protest over conditions in the school. A number of the boys have been arrested. President Moi has named a committee to investigate unrest in Meru and other schools around the country. Hilary Ng'weno, editor of the private Kenyan magazine Weekly Review blames the incident partly on lack of discipline in schools, but also on "the abominable male chauvinism that dominates Kenyan social life." Meanwhile, a group of advocates for adoption of a multiparty system in Kenya who have previously spoken out individually have taken this occasion to step up pressure on the government. "The whole world is moving toward multiracialism and multipartyism, and democracy," said former Vice President Oginga Odinga, in launching the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD).

Not to be dismissed Another FORD member is Martin Shikuku, a popular politician who, by all accounts except the government's, was cheated out of his seat in the 1988 parliamentary elections by the government. He told the Monitor the solid reputation of the group, mostly ex-government officials, will force the government to listen. "No one is going to dismiss what we say so easily. [Moi] will do so knowing he's handling a very heavy rock, which is likely to fall on his toes. I'm sure he'll not be amused." Shikuku is urging Kenyans who agree with FORD's positions to form similar public pressure groups, small enough to try to duck Kenyan laws against formation of opposition political parties or even political associations. But the outlook is far from certain. President Moi thus far has managed to keep his political opponents off balance, and in some cases, behind bars. Kenya currently has no detainees, unlike most other African nations, but a detention law remains on the books. Some Kenyan officials have called for the detention of FORD members. But a senior Kenyan official dismisses the new group and the multiparty matter as "not a major issue," in a Monitor interview. He insists that a "checklist" of freedoms here shows Kenya has considerable freedom of "movement, worship, and an independent judiciary." Kenya is ahead of most African countries in terms of press freedom, and many different views are tolerated, the official says. "Is there corruption?" the official continues. "Yes. Are there abuses? Yes. I cannot deny people are being tortured or being beaten up [by authorities]." But, the official says, such abuse is punishable by imprisonment and some officials have been jailed for such acts. Prison conditions are deplorable, and Kenya's jails are old and need improvement, the official concedes.

Intimidation used Two recent reports by the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights detail the arrests of several lawyers outspoken against the government. "The internal security apparatus has been used to intimidate and harass politicians, opponents of the government, and dissidents, frequently by calling them in for questioning on political topics, and it has committed some abuses," says a United States Department report on human rights in Kenya issued last February. A July 30 report on Kenya by Africa Watch, an international human rights organization, documents some of those alleged abuses. Relying on control of dissent by fear, the government's use of security forces and spies has become extensive, the report charges. Special branch agents, says the report, spy on almost every aspect of normal life. Government torture of political dissidents and ordinary prisoners is persistent in Kenya, says Africa Watch. Methods include: keeping suspects naked in sunken-floor cells partially flooded with water; rape; severe beatings with wooden sticks, iron bars and whips; deprivation of food and water for several days; denying access to lawyers, family and friends. The Africa Watch report also examines an earlier alleged atrocity, and cites an anonymous former Kenyan security official as its source. In a crackdown against armed nomadic groups, the official claims Kenyan security officials killed 2,169 persons, including 316 children, in the northeastern town of Wajir in 1984. The government says only 57 persons were killed in the crackdown. The report also claims Kenya illegally annexed some 14,000 square kilometers (5,398 square miles) of Sudanese territory in 1988 known as the "Elemi triangle," bordered by Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya. The land seizure reportedly took place after nomadic Sudanese killed at least 15 Kenyan police near the Kenya-Sudan border. A senior Sudanese official told the Monitor his government is discussing the issue with the Kenyan authorities. But when asked about the takeover of the land, which is believed to have some oil and gold, the senior Kenyan official says firmly: "Kenya owns it."

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