Kenyan Political Violence Mars Moves Toward Democratic Reform

POLITICAL violence is threatening the process of democratic reform in Kenya, according to Kenyan opposition politicians and human rights activists.

"The government [of Kenya] is concerned to change the forms of single party to multiparty, but is not willing to implement the values of multiparty politics, which are to introduce tolerance with the political system, to accept divergent views, [to accept] self-imposed limits to the wielding of power," says Kenyan attorney Pheroze Nowrojee.

Since Dec. 3, when Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi yielded to international and domestic pressures for reform, several opposition parties have been recognized by the government and have attracted tens of thousands to their rallies. Many Kenyans are speaking openly about politics for the first time, including criticism of President Moi.

On Feb. 28, the government allowed a group of Kenyan women to begin a hunger strike in a downtown park calling for release of political prisoners.

"We've gone a long way," says Kenyan attorney Martha Kwaome. But she and others say the progress has been marred by growing political violence.

On Saturday, a mob shouting opposition slogans broke up a rally of the government party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Scores of people were reported injured.

On Feb. 29, a mob attacked members of an opposition party, the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), who were trying to open a branch office. Kenyan riot police blocked attempts by FORD to open another branch office, and a FORD official's car was stoned by a mob in another city.

Some opposition leaders blame the government for allowing the violence, or even paying troublemakers to stir things up at public rallies as a way of giving substance to warnings by Moi that multiparty politics would bring chaos.

Mwai Kibaki, a former Kenyan vice president now heading one of the main opposition parties, the Democratic Party (DP), makes charges that Moi is seeking a pretext to declare a state of emergency that would curtail opposition organizing efforts.

Yesterday the ruling-party newspaper, the Kenya Times, called such accusations "falsehoods being peddled by opposition politicians who are either panicky or have run out of ideas."

J. J. Gathaka, a government spokesman, claimed last week that Kenyan police have been outnumbered by mobs and unable to control violence at opposition party events. He acknowledged police had blocked the opening of a FORD office because the large crowd accompanying FORD officials at the time posed a "potential threat to security."

Charles Nyache, chairman of the Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists, last week called on the government to take action against whoever is causing the violence. Failure to do so, he added, "can only lead to a breakdown of law and order."

International pressure is also mounting on Moi to curtail violence interfering with human rights.

On March 3, riot police used batons and tear gas to break up the mothers' hunger strike. The United States State Department condemned the action, adding that failure to curb violence "would jeopardize Kenya's commitment to multiparty democracy and to the democratization process."

Germany, Britain, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden have also strongly criticized the use of force against the mothers. Western donors had already held up new aid to Kenya last November, pending political and economic reforms.

The mothers are continuing their strike under the protection of sanctuary granted them by the All Saints Cathedral, a downtown Anglican church. The strike has become a rallying cause for the opposition.

"We'll keep on until our children are released," says Njeri Muchina, one of the mothers in the basement of the cathedral. "We can't go backward. And we're not afraid in the least. They will have to beat us, kill us, finish us off, and we know other women will carry it on."

The mothers "are symbolic of the new will which is built up in Kenyans to express themselves and criticize the government," Mr. Kibaki says.

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