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This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Kenya: WOA Update Alert

Kenya: WOA Update Alert
Date distributed (ymd): 970809
WOA Document

WOA Update Alert

Pressure Grows on Kenya's Moi to Enact Political Reforms

Tensions are mounting in Kenya as the country looks toward new elections that will test the political hold of long-time strongman Daniel arap Moi. Pro-democracy campaigners in opposition parties, the churches, and other sectors of society are demanding reforms in the country's corrupt and repressive political system before elections are held. The potential for escalated conflict is great.

[For current updates of Kenyan developments, see news summaries from Kenyan newspapers, radio and TV on Kenyaweb (http://www.kenyaweb.com/news/newspapers.html). Full text of stories from the Daily Nation (Nairobi), as well as other sources, are available at the Africa News web site (http://www.africanews.org/east/kenya).]

In 1991, internal opposition to the Moi regime eventually led foreign donors to suspend over $350 million in aid. This in turn provided the impetus for Moi's subsequent agreement to multi-party elections in 1992. He won with 36% of the vote over a divided opposition. Donor countries subsequently restored aid despite widespread evidence of continuing repression. This year foreign donors have called for dialogue and reform, but have not yet explicitly threatened a cut-off of aid.

In April, representatives from a wide range of Kenyan groups-- including 13 opposition parties, religious entities, nongovernmental organizations and others--came together in a National Convention Assembly. They called for a minimum package of constitutional and other reforms to be enacted before the next general elections. The proposed reforms include reducing the extraordinary powers of the Kenyan presidency, establishing an independent electoral commission, and repealing a series of laws that restrict freedom of expression and assembly. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (Protestant) and the Kenya Episcopal Conference (Catholic) have issued a joint statement affirming the urgency of such reforms.

International human rights organizations--including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch/Africa, African Rights, and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights--have documented systematic abuses of human rights in Kenya under the Moi regime and have supported the call for reforms.

In a series of incidents in May, June and July, police forcibly broke up pro-democracy demonstrations. In the largest confrontation, on July 7, police killed as many as 15 people. Others seriously injured included three members of Parliament and a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Timothy Njoya.

Following this internationally publicized incident, President Moi promised dialogue with his critics and pledged changes in the laws before the elections, which must be held by March 1998. The National Convention executive council demanded a more substantive response and threatened a national strike unless the government begins serious dialogue. Moi seems determined, however, to play on divisions in the political opposition and other reform forces by offering limited changes in the laws without wide-ranging consultation.

In May, ambassadors in Nairobi representing the United States and 21 other countries presented President Moi with basic criteria for "free and fair" elections. The U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa, William Twaddell, told the Senate Subcommittee on Africa that "the U.S. government has indicated to Kenya that our relationship cannot develop in the absence of democratic reform." It is not yet clear, however, under what circumstances the United States and other donors would withdraw their aid.

Kenya faces other uncertainties in the coming months. The International Monetary Fund suspended the release of a $200 million adjustment loan on Aug. 1 because of the Moi government's unsatisfactory response to issues of corruption. This measure, observers say, could have more impact on the regime than overt political protests. The issues are, of course, linked. As Nairobi's Daily Nation commented on Aug. 3, "The corrupt are a powerful cabal that is well-known. It is in Government, it is connected to Government, it is nurtured, nourished and protected by Government."

The longer the Moi regime avoids a credible reform program, the greater will be the threat of renewed violence. If Kenyan pro-democracy advocates are to win even minimal reform demands, consistent international pressure will be essential.

An Entrenched System

President Moi has dominated Kenya's political system since the death of Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first president, in 1978. The undemocratic political order, however, has a longer history. Under British rule, effective political rights were confined to the colonial administration and to white settlers, who also controlled much of the country's best agricultural land.

After independence in 1963, Kenyatta presided over a conservative one-party state that edged out or repressed more radical or populist forces who had been involved in the struggle for independence and land rights. An African economic elite, aided by the state, joined settlers, foreign investors and Kenyans of Asian origin in controlling the economy. Kenyans without special access to power suffered both political and economic abuse, without effective protection from an independent judiciary.

Moi became vice-president under Kenyatta in 1967, and president in 1978. He further consolidated the one-party state. Like Kenyatta, Moi was skillful in using political and economic patronage to support his ethnic group and family network and to play on dividing lines among his opponents. Kenyatta was from Kenya's largest and most economically prosperous African ethnic group, the Kikuyu, while Moi comes from the smaller Kalenjin ethnic group.

When these tactics failed, Moi--like Kenyatta--resorted to repression. Many regime opponents have been imprisoned. Western powers, happy to have a Cold War pro-capitalist ally in the strategic East African country, most often turned a blind eye to these abuses.

According to World Bank figures, the highest 20% of Kenya's income-earners receive more than 18 times as much as the lowest 20%, a ratio almost as lopsided as in South Africa. Yet the political system provides no opportunity for addressing such inequalities. Instead, corruption is rife, and political life often focuses on dividing the spoils.

Kenya has also seen, however, the development of a large, diverse and outspoken civil society, including church groups, women's groups, human rights groups, writers, journalists, lawyers, academics and others. It is this sector which has most recently taken the lead, in uneasy alliance with opposition political party figures, in demanding reforms in the political system.

Kenya's prominence is enhanced by the fact that it provides a regional headquarters and base for many governments, international agencies, private companies and nongovernmental organizations involved in eastern Africa. While such agencies have often ignored Kenya's internal problems, the escalation of crisis there could have profound effects on neighboring countries as well.

The Election Context

The 1992 elections were deeply flawed: by government harassment of the opposition, by government-inspired ethnic violence and expulsion of ethnic groups associated with the opposition in the Rift Valley in particular, and by other alleged manipulation of the results.

Fundamental to the opposition's defeat, however, was its division. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) split into two groups: FORD-Kenya, with a primary base in the Luo population, and FORD-Asili, based among southern Kikuyu. A third major group, the Democratic Party (DP), was strongest in the northern Kikuyu areas. In the presidential race, Moi won 36% of the vote against 26% for Kenneth Matiba of Ford-A, 19% for Mawi Kibaki of DP, and 18% for Oginga Odinga of Ford-K. Moi's party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), won 100 seats in Parliament and added 12 nominated by the president, while the combined opposition gained only 57 seats.

After the 1992 elections, the Paris Consultative Group of foreign donors renewed aid to Kenya, citing progress in economic structural adjustment and the existence of the multi-party system. However, serious abuses have continued, as documented by Kenyan and international human rights groups:

  • Beginning before the 1992 elections and continuing afterward, as many as 1,500 people were killed and 300,000 were displaced from their land in ethnic clashes initiated by Kalenjin or Maasai "warriors" who were in turn instigated by ruling party officials. Despite a U.N. Development Program effort that reportedly returned more than half of the displaced to their land, Human Rights Watch/Africa recently reported that the government has undermined the resettlement program, and that there has been no effective protection for the displaced.
  • There have been repeated incidents of banning or unexplained violence against independent nongovernmental organizations and news media. While critics continue to speak out and most organizations still function, a climate of intimidation prevails, particularly in areas remote from the capital without effective access to the national and international media.
  • Opposition leaders, most notably Koigi wa Wamwere, a former member of parliament, have been detained or imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Koigi was finally released in December 1996 after three years in prison. Other politicians have been attacked by government-inspired mobs, and opposition rallies have been regularly broken up by police or mob violence.
  • The judicial system has failed to protect opponents of the Kenyan government from such abuses. As documented in reports by African Rights, Human Rights Watch/Africa and others, it has also failed to protect ordinary Kenyans, particularly vulnerable groups such as street children, the landless, and prisoners, from abuse by the police and local authorities.

Against this backdrop, the coming elections have provided a focus for opponents of the regime. Significant consensus has formed around a minimum set of demands for reform to precede the election, without which a vote would lack any credibility.

The National Convention Assembly, Kenyan churches, and Amnesty International (with the support of 17 Kenyan human rights groups) have each prepared detailed lists of issues to be addressed and specific laws to be changed. Particularly important is stopping the use of legal mechanisms, police action or mob violence to bar freedom of association, speech and public protest.

Equally critical is the process for reform. The government must engage in serious dialogue about change, not only with opposition political parties but also with representatives of civil society. Unless these prerequisites are met, an election exercise would make no contribution to democratic rights for Kenyans, and could well lead to escalated violence.

Even if the minimum reforms are accepted and implemented by the Kenyan government, it is quite possible that divisions among the opposition will give Moi another lease on political life. And even if the opposition should oust Moi in a free and fair election, further reforms to address political and economic injustice will not be easy. Many Kenyans critical of Moi also have little faith in opposition politicians. That is why most critics in civil society stress the need to open the system for ongoing critique and change, not just a package of election-time agreements.

What You Can Do

[Note to non-U.S. readers: This posting is provided both for your background information and for possible forwarding to those of your U.S. contacts you think would be interested.]

1. Contact the White House and the State Department. Ask that the United States increase its pressure for meaningful democratic reform in Kenya before the December elections. Stress that it is crucial for Kenya's donors to focus on systemic change, not only on economic issues, and to demand far-reaching rather than minimal cosmetic reforms.

Talking points:

  • If international pressure on the regime does not increase, there is a danger of more regime-manipulated violence that could take many lives.
  • Kenya is of critical importance to the peace and security of the entire East African region.

Mr. Samuel (Sandy) Berger
National Security Advisor
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Fax: (202) 456-2883
White House comment desk: (202) 456-1111

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520
Fax: (202) 647-6434

2. Send copies of your letters to the Africa Subcommittees in Congress and to the Congressional Black Caucus. Encourage them to make public statements of support for Kenyan pro-democracy forces. Congress should let the Moi regime know that the United States stands firmly in favor of peaceful and thoroughgoing reform in Kenya and sees such reform as a prerequisite for free and fair elections.

Africa Subcommittee
Foreign Relations Committee
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Africa Subcommittee
International Relations Committee
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Rep. Maxine Waters
Congressional Black Caucus
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515


This material is produced and distributed by the Washington Office on Africa (WOA), a not-for-profit church, trade union and civil rights group supported organization that works with Congress on Africa-related legislation. WOA's educational affiliate is the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC).


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