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  • Confronting Dictatorship in Kenya
  • Gibson Kamau Kuria (bio)

Since June 1990, a battle has been raging over political pluralism in Kenya, On one side is a movement dedicated to restoring multiparty democracy and freeing a once-vibrant economy that is now staggering under the weight of statism and corruption. On the other is President Daniel arap Moi, a longtime enemy of free political competition who came to power in 1978 and imposed a constitutional ban on multiparty politics four years later.

The reform movement is led by an assortment of lawyers, Christian clergymen, and politicians who have concluded that unless democracy is restored, Kenya faces certain disaster, possibly even a bloody civil war. Committed to working peacefully for change, the reformers hope to forestall the possibility of a military coup or sectional rebellion designed to remove the current regime. Africa has seen too many such violent upheavals in the three decades since decolonization, they believe, and few have done much to help the cause of multiparty democracy. The [End Page 115] reformers hold instead that the methods used to effect changes are as important as the changes themselves. They want peaceful change like that recently witnessed in Czechoslovakia and Benin, and now promised in the Republic of Congo, where a national conference recently hammered out plans for a transition to democracy. The goal is to restore the constitutional principles Kenya adopted in 1963, with the addition of safeguards intended to prevent the reemergence of one-party dictatorship.

Africa has recently seen several countries move either to restore democracy where it was banished or to establish it where it has never been known. In Kenya, however, President Moi has declared that one-party rule will not end, and has threatened to deal "firmly" with those who advocate change. Yet intensified repression is having no effect. The democracy movement continues to press its case, and a showdown with the government is bound to occur soon. The movement has organized demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience, to which the government has reacted with sometimes deadly force. It seems likely that once the armed forces comprehend how profound and widespread opposition to the current regime truly is, they will withdraw their support from Moi's one-party dictatorship, thus effectively sealing its doom. Although grimmer scenarios remain possible, this writer believes that a version of the Benin model will be followed. In this report, I discuss the current situation, its causes, and how the movement has grown.

The Current Situation

Kenya today is wracked by tension and uncertainty. Grave civil disturbances could erupt at any time. Prodemocracy leaders know that they are subject to arrest and detention without trial. They may also be stoned in the street, or beaten up in their own homes in the dead of night. They know that they could be assassinated. Journalists who dare to cover events that the government does not want reported face some of the same risks. Magazine publishers know that they could find their journals impounded and themselves charged with sedition at any time. Poor people whom the government has identified as potentially unfriendly have had their homes demolished without notice and without pity. Lawyers who do human rights work know that the windshields of their cars may be smashed and police posted outside their offices to keep prodemocracy leaders from obtaining legal advice. They know that their practices may be ruined and clients driven away by the machinations of a hostile and unscrupulous government. Outspoken clergymen know that their services may be disrupted by the regime's goons, or even banned outright. They can also expect to be slandered, while their superiors will be pressured to silence or dismiss them. Although the constitution and the Public Order Act guarantee freedom of association to all, in practice only the members of the ruling party are allowed to enjoy it. [End Page 116]

Three events since 1982 have drawn the international community's attention to the repression and instability that beset Kenya, a country which in the 1960s and 1970s was widely seen as an African showcase for political pluralism and the market economy. The failed coup that the Kenya Air Force staged on 1...


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