Days wane for African 'big men'

Kenyans pick the successor to Daniel arap Moi, president for 24 years.

On a continent where leaders often leave office only when overthrown or killed, Friday's election to choose the successor to Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi is being billed as a watershed event.

Kenyans are headed to the polls in an election where opposition leader Mwai Kibaki is expected to claim victory over Moi's handpicked successor, Uhuru Kenyatta.

Prohibited by Kenya's Constitution from running again, President Moi, one of Africa's "big men" - independence-era leaders who soon began confusing themselves with the countries they ruled over - will be packing up and going home after 24 years of absolute rule. And there is general expectation that with Moi's departure, the prospects for this tired, poor nation of 31 million - once thought of as the gem of East Africa - are about to improve.

"There are so few examples of a change in power [from one elected party to a different party] in Africa that it is important to nurture it to success - to make it work," says Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, director of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development. "There is much room for hope."

Only a handful of big men are still holding onto their posts after two decades or more. Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for 22 years; Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in Angola for 23 years; and Gnassingbe Eyadema in Togo for 35 years.

Some Kenyans admit they will miss their iron-fisted leader. Moi's face is everywhere - on banknotes, coins, and posters looking down from nearly every office-building wall. There are hospitals, streets, and an international airport named after him. And at last count, there were 23 "Moi" public schools. Newsreels of the president's daily activities precede the main feature at the flicks, and Oct. 10 is "Moi Day," a national public holiday.

"He's a father to us," says Margaret Mwachia, a high school student found hanging out on Moi Avenue. She has, of course, never known any other leader. "It will be too weird without him," she says solemnly.

Achievements hard to find

But the state of affairs in Kenya today speaks louder than such sentiment. Moi likes to point out that under his leadership Kenya - as opposed to most of the neighboring countries - has remained peaceful.

But other achievements are hard to find. Under his watch, Kenya's once-flourishing economy has ground to a virtual standstill: The average Kenyan survives on less than a dollar a day; slums have sprouted up around every city; street children roam the downtown areas sniffing glue and begging; HIV/AIDS rates have soared; violent crime is growing; most roads have collapsed into disrepair with barely any streetlights; and policemen routinely stop cars only to extract bribes.

Meanwhile, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the past 10 years, citing widespread official corruption. According to Transparency International, a watchdog organization, Kenya is one of the world's most corrupt countries, and according to the South Africa Institute of International Affairs, Kenya has the world's second greatest income disparity between rich and poor.

And so it comes as no surprise that both candidates in this year's election have been campaigning on a similar platform - one of change. Both promise better healthcare, infrastructure, education, and security. Both say they will woo international aid, boost the economy, and create jobs. And both vow to stamp out corruption. "All will be better without Moi," goes one of the popular opposition songs.

But, some warn, the tide of enthusiasm for the post-Moi era should be tempered with realism. While new leadership in Kenya will be a good thing, says Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard's Kennedy School of government in Cambridge, Mass., there is much work to be done before ordinary people's lives improve.

"The elections are critical because Moi has stunted Kenya's development and curtailed growth.... Kenya has the human potential to be an African success and with him out of the way, it might be," says Mr. Rotberg. "But can Kibaki do it? That is the critical question."

Rotberg says he is unsure of the abilities of Kibaki's National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) - an alliance of opposition parties and former ruling-party malcontents that came together just two months ago. "I fear that the alliance will crack after his victory," says Rotberg. "And I wonder if Kibaki has the leadership qualities equal to the enormous challenge. Can Kenya move from despotism and corruption to sustainable development?"

Who exactly is the fresh blood?

While Mr. Kenyatta, to his detriment, is closely associated with Moi, Kibaki, as well as many of his party's main lieutenants, are also tied into the old regime, many of them having served under Moi for years. "The country needs a breed of fresh and energetic leaders - not recycled politicians who are out to find scapegoats for their past mistakes," Kenyatta told crowds at a rally last Sunday. "Some of my most vocal critics and detractors were in the government when the economy collapsed and I wondered what they now had to offer the country."

New laws instituting term limits in Africa have been critical to ensuring new blood at the top. In the past two years, such limits have forced out Zambia's Fredrick Chiluba, Ghana's Jerry Rawlings and now, Kenya's Moi.

But experts say that term limits are not enough for real change. Governments must also institute constitutional reviews, says Mr. Gyimah-Boadi. Term limits can be ignored - as was the case recently in Namibia where long term President Sam Nujoma decided to stick around for another, illegal term - but constitutional laws are usually much harder to bypass, he argues.

"Kenya's elections will highlight the pitfalls associated with democratic transitions that are not accompanied with significant constitutional change," he says, adding that he looks forward to seeing the next government take up the constitutional review process, begun and halted under Moi.

Kibaki has already committed himself to the constitutional review process. "We have a new draft constitution, and we intend to oversee a major change in structure of government," he told reporters, adding that he intended to bring in the role of prime minister as well as strengthen Parliament. "As a long-term opposition parliamentarian, I look forward to strengthening that institution and setting up more checks and balances for our government," he said.

"Nobody wants any individual to have the concentration of power that Moi has used, and some say abused," says Yash Pal Ghai, the legal expert appointed by Moi to oversee the constitutional process. Mr. Ghai fell out with the president when he made his recommendations, which included serious decentralization of power.

Following in the footsteps of others

Moi has, in the past few weeks, asked for forgiveness for his wrongdoings, asked that he be remembered for his good deeds, and announced that intends to take up a regional peacemaking role following in the footsteps of some better respected big men before him like Tanzania's founding President Julius Nyerere or South Africa's Nelson Mandela.

"I will be handing over the reins of office to my successor, your new president. This will be done smoothly. This is my desire and pledge," Moi told the public on Kenya's Independence Day last month. "Some believe that nobody in Africa can relinquish power," he added. "But why should I cling onto power? I am done here."

Put out to pasture

But it's not always easy for African leaders to go quietly into that good night. Just ask Ghana's ex-President Rawlings.

"I cannot recommend it," says Mr. Rawlings about stepping down as president of Ghana two years ago after close to 20 years in power. "The people forget all you have done for them," he moans, "and so quickly."

Rawlings can relate to what Moi is going through. The fear of criticizing Moi, which has diminished over the years, has in the weeks running up to the elections almost totally disappeared. Crowds have booed him, the cartoonists have lampooned him, and his closest political friends have deserted him to join the opposition.

"When I used to travel it would take hours for my motorcade to pass through the throngs of well-wishers," remembers Ghana's Rawlings, who left office amid fanfare for restoring the democratic process, but also amid charges of theft and even allegations of extra-judicial killings committed by his government.

"Today, they yell out 'thief.' I am ignored. I am humiliated. I gave my life to this country and now I am being maligned," he continues. "If this is what happens when you leave office, well, no one will agree to leave."

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