Flattering portraits of President Daniel arap Moi, now in his 19th year of autocratic rule, hang in every shop and public building in Kenya, and state TV reports his every move.
For his grass-roots supporters, he is a font of authority and wisdom. But his detractors see him as an aging dictator. To them he is the man whose name has launched a thousand quips: "l'etat, c'est Moi" (the state, it's me.)
Lately, however, Kenya's ruler has begun to look shaky. On July 7, the world was horrified by footage of police firing tear-gas and clubbing pro-democracy demonstrators who had taken refuge in Nairobi's Anglican cathedral. This was not the first time the government had used force to suppress demonstrations by the opposition. But the crackdown, which killed at least nine, was the most visible since 1992 elections ended official one-party rule.
The United States immediately condemned the "strong-arm tactics," and 21 countries - including Kenya's closest Western ally, Britain - signed a statement criticizing the government's action. Foreign investors, fearing further instability, bolted, and Kenya's shilling dropped 10 percent in a week.
Backed by such external forces, Kenya's divided opposition stepped up its campaign for electoral, legal, and constitutional reforms. Last Thursday, it announced a campaign of mass actions to culminate in a general strike Aug. 8.
That same evening, the government replied in the way everybody had least expected: The ruling Kenyan African National Union (KANU) announced that it was setting up a parliamentary commission to review the Constitution and to alter or scrap colonial-era laws used to stifle dissent.
The opposition has reacted guardedly. Paleontologist Richard Leakey, head of the banned Safina Party, says that KANU could merely be playing for time, but that if the offer was genuine, "a very great many people in the opposition will be very pleased." Willie Mutunga, co-chair of the pro-reform National Convention Education Committee, pointed out Friday that the government was only proposing to "consider" the reforms in parliament. "There has been a catalog of broken promises in the past," he said.
But if KANU does go ahead with reform, the ball will be back in the opposition's court. Opponents have complained that Moi's government abused its powers and looted public funds to subvert the opposition and buy off voters in 1992. To prove this, they must beat him in elections to be held by February 1998. The trouble is, not many political observers think they can.
The main difficulty facing the opposition, according to Kwengo Opanga, the associate editor of the independent Nation newspaper, is that most Kenyans see the opposition as no better than the government. Many of the same allegations of corruption and incompetence are freely thrown at them, and frequently stick.
Public cynicism dates back to 1992, when it seemed that most of Kenya's 25 million people wanted an end to KANU's 29-year rule. But as election day drew nearer, the reformist leaders argued over who would be boss and split their vote three ways. Moi and KANU were able to hold both the presidency and parliament with only a third of the vote. The signs are that, when elections do take place, there will be another free-for-all among the opposition.
"The people had invested a lot of hope in the opposition," recalls Mr. Opanga. "But then they failed to unite and let KANU win."
"Opposition" is often a dubious term. Michael Wamalwa, chair of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy Kenya, has supported the government on several issues, including a backpedal on reform.
His main rival, Kenneth Matiba, is widely blamed for splitting the FORD Party before the last election, when he tried to seize the leadership. Mr. Matiba is also a member of the mistrusted Kikuyu ethnic group, which dominated post-independent Kenya until Moi took power in 1979. Although seldom acknowledged, Kenya's tangled web of ethnic animosities is still at the heart of its national politics.
According to Opanga, the opposition has failed to persuade the rural majority that KANU is to blame for their growing poverty. Protests have mostly involved intellectuals, church activists, and students.
If Moi slips out of his commitments to reform, diplomats say there will be an upsurge in political violence but no full-scale insurrection. The pressure for reform will probably come not from Moi's domestic enemies but from Western powers and the foreign media.
But donors have so far shied away from tying aid to democratic reform, and most observers agree that, if Moi can stave off financial disaster, he has an excellent chance of winning a final five-year term. Barring disasters in the KANU camp, it could be too late for the opposition to organize his defeat, fair fight or foul.