KENYA, once regarded as a beacon of hope in Africa, is on the verge of collapse. In the last two weeks several hundred people have been brutally massacred in the worst ethnic violence the East African nation has seen since independence in 1963. A civil war looms in one of Africa's most prosperous nations.
The violence is not surprising. When President Daniel arap Moi grudgingly legalized opposition parties last December, he reiterated a warning that multiparty politics would lead to ethnic violence and national disintegration. Since then, he has taken actions designed to convince Kenyans and aid donors that political competition was a mistake. The worst action is government orchestration of ethnic killings in western Kenya and the Rift Valley Province, Mr. Moi's home region.
Members of the Kalenjin group, to which Moi belongs, have attacked Luo, Luhyia, Kikuyu, and Kisii tribes - presuming they support the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the main opposition party. Ostensibly, these clashes are spurred by disputes over land.
Incredibly, the government blames the opposition for fomenting violence. Recently, the usually moderate but powerful Roman Catholic bishops spoke for most Kenyans in a pastoral letter, saying the violence was due to Moi and his government. The bishops said the violence was "part of a wider political strategy" by the government to keep Moi in power and forestall democratic reform.
The clergy note that attacks are carried out by "well armed bandits and arsonists" with orders "to inflict injuries only on particular ethnic groups." The bishops say the attackers are not local residents but are "transported to the scenes from outside the area." They and Anglican and Presbyterian clergy reject the government's assertion that the violence results from the legalization of opposition political parties.
The ethnic killings are a self-fulfilling prophecy for Moi, a dictator who has ruled the one-party state with an iron hand since 1978. If the killings continue a civil war may occur which Moi would use as a pretext for banning political parties. Only through such draconian measures can he avoid defeat in free elections.
Only decisive leadership by FORD can save the nation from this catastrophe. But FORD has not seized the political initiative. Admittedly, the government makes it difficult to organize. Physical attacks, killings, and intimidation are rife; public-rally permits are denied, and opposition parties not allowed to register locally.
Still, FORD is its own worst enemy. The party leadership is headed by a group of older men driven by power and personal glory. They are caught up in a bitter struggle to decide who should lead FORD to the polls to replace Moi. The desire for power, along with opportunism, dwarfs discourse. Petty squabbling and narrow political ambitions paralyze the party. The focus on elections, which may not be held, sidesteps the urgent business of effecting minimum constitutional and legal reforms needed for a democr atic transition.
The leadership wrangle pits Kenneth Matiba, a former Moi cabinet minister, against Oginga Odinga, a former vice president of FORD. Mr. Matiba, who suffered a stroke while detained in 1990, has returned to Kenya following medical attention in London. The rivalry has ethnic dimensions, with senior leaders of Matiba's Kikuyu tribe pressing for him over Mr. Odinga, a Luo who has consistently fought for a more democratic process.
Neither Matiba nor Odinga have the energy to lead FORD. Odinga, an octogenarian, may be senile. Matiba has recovered but cannot read or write.
Two other old-style FORD leaders are Martin Shikuku and Masinde Muliro. Mr. Shikuku is regarded as an unprincipled charlatan, and Mr. Muliro is seen as authoritarian. Though most Kenyans feel these men have made useful contributions, they want them to step aside for a younger candidate. Their retirements, coupled with Moi's departure, might allow Kenya to break with the politics of ethnicity, patronage, and repression.
Focusing on leadership and elections while the country stares a civil war in the face is shortsighted. Without a quick change there may be no country to rule. The opposition must return to the basics. A mindless rush toward elections after two decades of dictatorship is wrong.
First, the opposition must press the government to end ethnic violence. It then should call for a national conference or a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution, repeal repressive legislation, and appoint an interim government to oversee the country's first free and fair elections. As both the Liberian and Somali experiences demonstrate, intransigent dictators would rather destroy a country than give up power. Hence, the opposition should abandon narrow and personal agendas and focus on crea ting democratic institutions - else one of Africa's bright spots will be no more.