A transition in Kenya

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

Outgoing President Daniel Arap Moi (left) with the new President, Mwai Kibaki, at the swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi on December 30, 2002. - SIMON MAINA/AFP

Outgoing President Daniel Arap Moi (left) with the new President, Mwai Kibaki, at the swearing-in ceremony in Nairobi on December 30, 2002. - SIMON MAINA/AFP

Kenyans vote out the Kenya African National Union, the party that has enjoyed a monopoly on power since the country's independence.

THE landslide victory of the Opposition in the Kenyan general elections, held in the last week of December, is a landmark event in the region. It was for the first time after the country's independence in 1963 that the Kenya African National Union's (KANU) monopoly on power was been broken. Swept into power was the recently formed National Rainbow Coalition, led by the veteran politician, Mwai Kibaki. Daniel Arap Moi, who ruled Kenya as President for the last 24 years, did not contest. The Constitution does not allow a person to hold the office of President for three consecutive terms. Multi-party elections were held in Kenya only from 1991, mainly at the insistence of the international donor community. One-party rule ensured that Moi was elected unopposed until the early 1990s.

Opinion polls conducted before the elections had predicted victory for the Opposition. Unlike in the past, it was a united Opposition that confronted the ruling party. In the two democratic presidential elections in which he was candidate, Moi had skilfully exploited the divisions in the Opposition ranks. Despite winning fewer votes than the opposition, Moi and KANU had romped home.

Another factor that went in the favour of the Opposition this time around was the absence of voter polarisation based on ethnicity. Both Kibaki and KANU's candidate for President Uhuru Kenyatta belonged to the majority Kikuyu ethnic group. In the earlier two elections, Moi had projected himself as the protector of the interests of the smaller tribes, which together constitute the majority of the population.

At the end of the counting, Kibaki had won over 60 per cent of the votes, as against Kenyatta's 30 per cent. Minor candidates mopped up the rest of the votes. The Rainbow Coalition also won a healthy majority in Parliament, making it easy for the new government to usher in the promised changes. Fourteen of Moi's senior Cabinet colleagues lost their seats to candidates from the Rainbow Coalition. KANU, which for the past 10 years was the dominant force in Parliament, has now been reduced to a strength of 60 in the 210-member House. International observers have certified that the elections were fair and free. Moi was conspicuously present at the swearing-in ceremony of the new President, in spite of the presence of a partisan crowd of 200,000 Opposition supporters. Kibaki, in his acceptance speech, said that there would not be any witch-hunt against senior officials of the outgoing government. Some of the leading lights of former government are anyway expected to get prized portfolios in the incoming administration.

Moi belongs to the small Kalenjin ethnic group, which is concentrated in the Rift Valley. The desire of the other ethnic groups to keep Kikuyus out of power was exploited by the wily Moi. Nevertheless, the ethnic divide had contributed to widespread violence in the last two elections, of 1991 and 1997, in which hundreds of people lost their lives. This time too there were some instances of violence, but of a much smaller scale. During the rule of the first President, Jomo Kenyatta, which ended in 1978, the Kikuyus had cornered plum jobs and prime assets. Even today Kikuyu businessmen control key sectors of the economy. After independence, the best agricultural land was taken away by the Kikuyu elite. Moi successfully exploited the distrust of the other tribes towards the Kikuyus for his own political ends. However, this at the same time led to the degeneration of Kenyan politics. Ethnic identity became more important than ideology.

In the old days, the political opponents of Kenyatta and Moi were people like Oginga Odinga (the father of Raila Odinga, a frontrunner for the post of Prime Minister). Odinga was a leftist who opposed the government's pro-capitalist policies and close military ties with the West.

Moi was a close ally of the West. American and Israeli intelligence agencies have always had a strong presence in Kenya. Moi's support was important for the United States during the Cold War days when it set about destabilising the progressive regimes in the region. The strong-arm methods Moi used against his opponents after a failed coup in 1982 did not bother the West. Even today Kenya plays a crucial role in the U.S. game plan for West Asia. American troops have been given basing facilities and logistical support as the U.S. prepares for war against Iraq.

Ironically, Moi's selection of Jomo Kenyatta's youngest son as his successor a few months before the general elections sparked off a revolt in his party. The vertical split in the ruling party was a major cause for its dismal performance in the polls. Moi sought to present the young Kenyatta, an alumnus of a prestigious American university, as a young technocrat with a vision for the country. The Opposition was, however, quick to allege that the real reason for his selection was to ensure that a new KANU-led government would not look deeply into the financial and political skulduggery that marked the Moi years and that the outgoing President would be the real power behind the throne. Moi had protected the interests of the Kenyatta clan. The rampant corruption that has scarred Kenyan politics and economy started during the Kenyatta years. It was during Kenyatta's presidency that one of the brightest Kenyan politicians of the time, Tom Mboya, was assassinated, allegedly at the bidding of top officials close to the President.

Following the selection of Uhuru Kenyatta as the candidate for President, senior Cabinet colleagues of the President led an exodus of party cadre to the Opposition. Many of them, like Raila Odinga, had expected that they would be chosen for the post by Moi. The KANU rebels along with other Opposition leaders set up the Rainbow Coalition to challenge the ruling party.

On the campaign trail, they succeeded in portraying the young Kenyatta as a puppet of Moi. Moi had made the mistake of saying, at a rally, that he would be around to guide the KANU candidate in matters of governance. It was only in the latter stages of the campaign that Kenyatta distanced himself from the KANU patriarch in a bid to impress Kenyans that he was his own man.

Mwai Kibaki too is an old KANU hand. In fact, he was Moi's Vice-President for 10 years, until he split up with his mentor in the early 1990s. He had unsuccessfully contested against Moi in the last elections. Kibaki, who is 71 years old and is in indifferent health, has promised radical changes to end corruption and rebuild the country, which he said, had been "ravaged by years of misrule and ineptitude". Kibaki, a graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, has also pledged to end the highly personalised style of politics that has characterised 38 years of KANU rule.

A high-powered government-appointed Commission will soon submit a report that will recommend sweeping changes in the country's Constitution. The new Constitution would curtail presidential powers and at the same time expand the powers of Parliament. The report envisages the creation of the post of a Prime Minister. Jockeying has already started for the post.

Kenya, which is East Africa's biggest economy, has been experiencing difficult times. Its economy shrank in 2000, for the first time since it gained independence. Around half of its 30 million people live on less than $1 a day. Compared to its neighbours like Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, Kenya was almost a model state for the region until the 1970s. It was a tourism and communications hub. The export of coffee and tea contributed substantially to the country's economy.

The country's health sector needs immediate attention. Between 10 and 20 per cent of the population is said to be HIV-positive. Moi had termed it a "national disaster" three years ago, but owing to incompetence and the paucity of funds, the government has not been able to provide any succour to the victims of the scourge. In 1997, the International Monetary Fund(IMF) stopped lending to Kenya, citing corruption and incompetence. Other aid donors followed suit. With Kibaki taking charge and the international community lauding the peaceful transition, help may be at hand for the beleaguered Kenyan economy. Kenyans also expect their new rulers to ensure that the country's resources are distributed fairly.

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