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23 Dec 2002 11:28
It was a rally not unlike the hundreds that the ageing Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, had presided over during his 24 years in power, with a 50 000-strong crowd allegedly bribed to attend.
But when Moi stood up to speak at this rally, the people went quiet, turned on their heels and walked silently away. Moi sat down, dumbstruck.
All over the country, with an election looming on Thursday, the verdict is the same: Kenyans want change.
Moi is constitutionally barred from standing, but his nominated successor, Uhuru Kenyatta - the son of Jomo, Kenya’s founding father - is trailing in the polls.
The International Republican Institute gives a 47-point lead to Mwai Kibaki, a former vice-president and head of the National Rainbow Coalition of opposition parties and defectors from Moi’s Kanu party.
There are good reasons for discontent with Kanu. Its corrupt rule has turned one of Africa’s brightest hopes, a fertile land with hard-working people, into a basket-case. In 1971, Kenya’s economic indicators were roughly on a par with Singapore’s. Now, according to the World Bank, the average Singaporean earns Â£15 500 a year, while the average Kenyan earns Â£220 - the same as in 1963.
More than half the population lives in poverty, at the mercy of violent crime and a plague of preventable diseases.
At the foot of Moi’s Nairobi residence sprawls Kibera, east Africa’s largest slum, where some 750 000 people live on a heap of smouldering refuse and excrement.
Elamu Ombuya, 31, moved here from remote western Kenya 11 years ago in search of a better life. Dressed smartly, in a clean yellow shirt and polished brogues, he speaks English fluently. Yet life remains a struggle: with his occasional earnings as an office errand-boy he can barely pay the rent on his mud shack or feed his three young children.
“It’s a nice place he has,” he says, gesturing up to Moi’s house. “Here, it’s terrible, a toilet for every 1,000 people, no electricity,no power. At night, I lie listening to my kids coughing.”
In his occasional, infamous rants, Moi blames rich western countries for much of this misery - Kenya’s aid money was frozen four years ago, although only because the politicians invariably stole it.
The anti-graft watchdog Transparency International puts Kenya in the top five most corrupt countries in the world. The well-off can still get basic services such as power or phone repairs, at a special price. But the poor no longer bother asking.
Their plight is amply demonstrated in Kajiado, 100 miles south of Nairobi, where a World Bank-funded water pipe was due to irrigate the arid farmland. The pipe never arrived. Instead, it allegedly stopped at a cluster of nurseries owned by powerful cronies, including, it was claimed last week, George Saitoti, the then vice-president.
In Mombasa, last month, the international press revelled in the incompetent investigation into the latest al-Qaida bombing. Precious evidence was either lost, stolen or left out in the rain, while the prime suspects turned out to be a couple of American tourists and an unlucky drunk.
How could it have been otherwise, when most of the city’s policemen were lining the pot-holed roads shaking down motorists for bribes.
Fearing that their time is up, Moi’s cronies are allegedly indulging in a frenzy of looting. In recent weeks, the treasury has issued Â£40m worth of bonds to well-connected contractors - including members of Moi’s family - to settle “outstanding” bills for roadworks which an independent inquiry considers fictitious.
“If the bills are valid, why the sudden haste?” asked Mwalimu Mati, of Transparency International.
Aids, which infects at least 10% of the population, is one problem Kenyans do not blame on Moi. Perhaps they should. Three years after Moi declared the disease a national disaster, Kenya still has no effective state-run Aids awareness programme. Last year, a new trade bill enabled the import of cheap, generic Aids drugs. But when the western media moved on, new clauses were introduced, in effect blocking the generics. Early this year, Kenya’s pitch for cash from the new Global Aids Fund was rejected largely because, as western Aids activists put it, Kenya was incompetent and corrupt.
Kaptagat, a remote village high on the western wall of the Great Rift Valley, reveals much about how Moi has clung on to power. This is the heartland of his small Kalenjin tribe, and the birthplace of Nicholas Biwott, his trade minister and closest ally.
Kaptagat has a fine district hospital, primary schools for every child, and, nearby, a recent battleground.
In the run-up to Kenya’s first election, in 1992, local politicians incited the Kalenjin to attack the neighbouring Kikuyu.
At least 2 000 people were killed in the clashes, prompting the opposition alliance to split on tribal lines, and Moi to scrape home.
But now the Kalenjin, like the slum-dwellers in Nairobi and the Masai in Kajiado, have had enough. When Moi named Mr Kenyatta, a 42-year-old political novice, as his successor, half his ministers - including Saitoti - defected.
Although Kenyans respect Kenyatta, they believe he would be merely a puppet of Mr Moi and his cronies.
Last week, on Independence day, Moi announced that he “had forgiven” Kenyans the wrongs they had done him. Yet Kenyans do not seem to bear a grudge against Moi. Some even say they will miss such absurdly comic one-liners. But from Thursday, they pray the comedy will end.
The 71-year-old opposition leader has not been able to dispel an impression that, though genial and relatively honest, he is too weak to control his dubious backers and deliver serious reform.
His political career spans Kenya’s independence. As finance minister, from 1969-82, he introduced the state marketing boards - every one of which has collapsed under the weight of corruption. As vice-president from 1978 to 1988 he oversaw a decade of unprecedented repression.
When a ban on opposition parties was lifted in 1991, Kibaki left Kanu to form the Democratic party. In two subsequent elections, in 1992 and 1997, he came third and second respectively.
When Uhuru Kenyatta was nominated as Kanu’s candidate, many disappointed ministers joined Kibaki.
The slogan of Kibaki’s party is: “Vote Kibaki to save Kenya”. But how he would do this is unclear. He has announced no concrete policies, and remains equivocal on a constitutional review.
African politics are frequently dynastic and tribal, but they have never seen anything like Uhuru Kenyatta, 42, the son of Jomo, Kenya’s founding father.
Until recently, Kenyatta was considered a dilettante - an amiable, unambitious rich-kid. Though bright, his record was unspectacular at school in Britain and America. As a director of the Kenyatta business empire, he was said to be bullied by his formidable mother, Mama Ngina. After failing to win his father’s seat in 1997, he vowed to abandon politics.
In a little over a year, Kenyatta has been appointed an MP, then a minister, then Kanu’s presidential candidate. He has meanwhile transformed his reputation.
Kenyatta remains flanked by President Daniel arap Moi’s most powerful cronies. But he has also emerged as a master of Kenya’s backroom politics. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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