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  • African AmbiguitiesKenya Tries Again
  • Joel D. Barkan (bio) and Njuguna Ng’ethe (bio)

The lesson that one election does not a democracy make was painfully learned by Kenyans in December 1992 when their country held its first multiparty elections in 26 years, but continued to be ruled by an ancien régime that was returned to power with barely one-third of the vote. 1 Compared to the decade preceding the elections, during which Kenyans endured a combination of kleptocratic dictatorship and declining income, the period that followed was marked by substantial political liberalization and modest economic advance—but not democratization or full-scale economic renewal. Indeed, the return to multiparty politics resulted in a protracted five-year stalemate pitting President Daniel arap Moi and his ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU), against an increasingly divided opposition.

That stalemate might now be broken, but it is hard to predict whether it will give way to an increasingly intense struggle between Moi and his opponents—possibly even leading to civil war—or to wide-ranging negotiations that establish the constitutional framework for democracy. On 29–30 December 1997, Kenyans went to the polls again in an exercise that many hope will prove a turning point in their country’s torturous transition to democratic rule. Although the outcome was similar to 1992, with Moi and KANU besting a divided opposition, the process of democratization and the groups that drive it were reinvigorated to a degree that would have seemed impossible [End Page 32] even six months earlier. This is particularly true of civil society, which now occupies a pivotal position in Kenyan politics.

A perpetual theme of Kenya’s democratic transition, like its desultory efforts at macroeconomic reform, is that reform has been the product of domestic and international pressure upon a resistant government. Calls for a return to multiparty politics were first voiced domestically in 1989. Moi stonewalled them until December 1991, relenting only after international donors suspended $350 million in “quick-disbursing” aid. 2 Moi’s acceptance of reform was—and is—purely tactical. His strategy then was to amend the Constitution to permit the existence of more than one political party, with the idea of harassing or bribing the leaders of any new parties until splits occurred or key members defected to KANU. Moi would go on ruling much as before, but at the head of an emerging one-party-dominant system with enough democratic trappings to satisfy the donors.

Moi appointed all 11 members of the Electoral Commission, thus compromising its independence. Even more controversial, he forced through a second constitutional amendment that required any presidential candidate to win not only a plurality or majority of the popular vote, but also at least 25 percent in no fewer than five of Kenya’s eight provinces. This was meant to wreck the presidential prospects of popular opposition figures, particularly politicians such as Mwai Kibaki, Kenneth Matiba, and Oginga Odinga, who drew the bulk of their support from their ethnic homelands. With their support concentrated in Nairobi, Central Province, some sections of the Rift Valley, and Nyanza, they could not hope to clear this hurdle.

The run-up to the 1992 elections and the outcome went according to Moi’s plan. The opposition split into three major and six minor parties. Although the voting itself was administered passably well, and although both domestic and international observers stated that the outcomes reflected the preferences of the electorate, the entire period before the elections was one of continual state harassment of the opposition.

Most sinister was Moi’s self-fulfilling prophecy that multipartism would lead to “tribal conflict” because opposition parties would become vehicles for tribal interests. Throughout 1992, there were “ethnic clashes” in which mysterious “raiders” attacked members of those groups (especially though not exclusively the Kikuyu) that formed the core of the opposition’s support. These attacks, which occurred mainly in minority ethnic areas of the Rift Valley Province, left more than 1,500 people dead and a quarter of a million homeless. Private death squads, acting on the orders of KANU hard-liners close to the president, were widely held to be responsible.

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