Could Kenya Become the Next Rwanda?

With presidential and parliamentary elections expected this year, tensions are escalating on all sides. The West must help.

Kenyans have several reasons to feel buoyant. Inflation is stabilizing. Economic liberalization remains on course. The government has reduced school fees.

Yet, despite these positive signs, ordinary citizens, for the most part, aren't happy. And any good feeling will be extinguished, observers say, as the country nears another turbulent event: general elections, to be held sometime this year.

Signs of trouble

Already there are signs of trouble. Violence against opponents of President Daniel arap Moi and against the press has escalated to pre-1988 levels, when the "Big Man" crushed dissent and hand-picked members of parliament. Last November, police opened fire on demonstrating students at Kenyatta and Egerton Universities, killing three. Though the government is investigating, few believe the police will ever find the killers within its ranks.

Last week, a Nairobi University student leader, Solomon Muruli, died from an explosion in his dorm room. The incident was reminiscent of the period following a 1982 coup attempt, when government security forces killed hundreds of students, accusing them of supporting the coup.

Earlier, police reportedly had abducted and tortured Mr. Muruli after he led a group of students in a demonstration against deteriorating services at the university. He recently expressed fear for his life. The incident ignited student riots and condemnation from countries such as the United States and Britain.

The recent killings followed the return of Moi's most trusted aide, Nicholas Biwott, to the Cabinet. Mr. Biwott, who was linked to the unresolved 1990 murder of Foreign Minister Roberto Ouko, was dropped from his ministerial position in 1991 because of pressure from Western aid donors who were unhappy about political violence and official corruption. Over the past few years, the donors also have expressed disappointment over some government expenditures, including a controversial $85 million international airport in Moi's hometown of Eldoret and his new $50 million private jet.

Meanwhile, harassment of journalists and the opposition continues, and Moi appears unwilling to implement the constitutional reform program he promised the donors. The opposition, led by paleontologist Richard Leakey and Michael Wamalwa, have taken to the road in search of international support. In the last year alone, Mr. Leakey has made trips to South Africa, London, and the US. Colleagues Raila Odinga, Kenneth Matiba, and Gitobu Imanyara, editor of the influential Nairobi Law Monthly, are also frequent visitors to Washington and Canada.

Will Moi step down?

The question for the opposition is whether it can force Moi to retire before the next ballot. If not, it will have to compete against a trickster president who has mastered the rules of clinging to power despite international condemnation - the only leader known to have openly supported the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa by Nigeria's military rulers in 1995.

International observers of Kenya's first multiparty elections in 1992 concluded that it was heavily rigged by Moi's ruling Kanu party. The observers have plenty to worry about this time, judging from the increase in official violence. On a visit to Kenya last fall, I witnessed numerous incidents of abuse of the press. To start a vocational training program for young reporters, I had to get a permit from the intelligence service. I read daily reports about reporters being beaten and detained by police. I saw police confiscate cameras from press photographers for documenting brutality and mob violence.

Before returning to the US in November, I helped my colleagues found a press freedom organization, the Media Institute. I have no idea how long it will continue to operate before my dear friends go to jail or become victims of "stray" bullets fired by police.

Another question is whether Moi will agree to leave office should he lose the election. That's unlikely, given the Ouko murder, which remains unresolved. If someone such as Leakey comes to power, the case is likely to be reopened, and Moi knows it. That means the president will work hard to win another term - his last according to the amended Constitution.

Opposition's struggle

So where does that leave Leakey and his colleagues? Trying to garner local and international support to force Moi out of office before the election. Can they succeed? I don't know. But, according to my friends in Kenya, "There is no better time for the the US and other Western nations to help restore decency in Kenya. It must happen now or we go down the Rwanda road. And if that happens, the West might as well say goodbye to Africa."

* George Owuor, a staff writer for Business News New Jersey, recently visited his native Kenya.

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