Taking A Hard Line Against Democracy

Panicked crowds raced through Nairobi's slums, as police gunfire rattled the air. Stone-throwing youths shouted freedom slogans--then quickly returned to their looting. Scattered violence spread beyond the Kenyan capital last week and dissidents who fled the country warned that unless he bends, President Daniel arap Moi could go the way of Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu. But the comparison was overblown. The autocratic government of Moi easily weathered four days of street battles by ordering police to "take all appropriate measures." Few believed the government's claim that 20 civilians had died: eyewitnesses said 19 people were shot dead by the police in one small town alone. Unfazed by a wave of international condemnation, Moi blamed the bloodshed on "hooligans and drug addicts."

With that presidential dismissal, Kenya may have joined the legion of African nations that seem bent on political upheaval. Admired in the West for its stability, capitalism and spectacular scenery, Kenya has, in fact, been courting trouble for years. Since coming to power in 1978, Moi has presided over steady economic growth underpinned by abundant forign aid. At the same time, he has crushed political opposition and stripped the judiciary of its independent power. Troubled by the president's dictatorial whims and widespread corruption, Western investors are pulling back, threatening a long-term blight of the Kenyan economy. A crisis may be approaching more quickly than ever. Western nations, which underwrite 30 percent of the national budget, are talking of possible cutbacks. The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, delivered a blow to Kenya's vital tourist trade by warning U.S. citizens only to visit the country on essential business.

The showdown began building on New Year's Day, in the aftermath of the Romanian government's collapse. A protestant leader asked Moi to lift a ban on political parties he formally imposed in 1982--and was promptly threatened with arrest. Moi argued that a multiple-party system would only exacerbate conflicts among Kenya's ethnic groups. He dismissed those calling for pluralism as "dictators and puppets of foreign masters" and threatened to hunt down his opponents "like rats." He made good on those threats on July 4. when police arrested Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia--former Cabinet ministers who had led the call for change--and held them under laws permitting indefinite detention without trial.

The wave of violence was touched off on July 7. Government troops moved against several hundred demonstrators who attacked a policeman in Nairobi. The rioting seemed to be motivated as much by poverty as by politics; looters swept goods from shops and stores. There was also a strong ethnic strain to the unrest. It seemed particularly concentrated in areas inhabited by Kenya's largest tribe, the Kikuyu, which resents the government's favortism toward Moi's ethnic group, the Kalenjins. The strife also reached the gates of the U.S. Embassy, where Gibson Kamau Kuria, a prominent human-rights lawyer, took refuge when the crackdown began. After protesting "this unwarranted [U.S.] interference in Kenya's internal affairs," the government permitted Kuria to flee quietly to London. By late last week, police had arrested at least 17 people linked to the multiparty campaign, as well as dozens more who were picked up for possessing musical tapes bearing antigovernment lyrics. More than 1,400 others faced charges connected with last week's riots.

Despite his authoritarian ways, Moi has received surprisingly little criticism from black Africa. Indeed, censure from the West may be helping him. Arriving in Nairobi at the end of his international tour last week, South African nationalist leader Nelson Mandela said: "What right have the whites anywhere to teach us about democracy, when they executed those who asked for democracy during the time of colonial rule?" That attitude has justified one-party rule across the continent--and seems likely to prevail in Kenya as long as Moi is in charge.