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Kenya squelches dissent with detentions

Kenya's President Daniel arap Moi -- temporarily casting off his mantle of love, peace, and unity -- has acted fast to stop the dissension fed by his nation's economic downturn.

He has authorized detention of Kenyans without trial, a practice he had dramatically ended in 1978 when he freed former President Jomo Kenyatta's political detainees.

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The move surprised some observers because Moi had said recently that he would not use detention against dissidents except as a last resort.

Kenya is proud of its relative political and economic stability. It is better off than most African countries. Foreign investors, especially ''old friends'' like Britain and the United States, have sunk significant development aid into Kenya.

The nation's strong private-enterprise orientation has led to something of a witch hunt to root out Marxist-style groups, some of them reportedly based at the University of Nairobi.

The first of the new political detainees is George Anyona, a former member of Parliament. He had been talking about forming a socialist opposition to the monolithic Kenya African Nationalist Union (KANU). His proposed new party has considered support for veteran left-winger Oginga Odinga, former Kenyan vice-president, who has aired socialist statements in London.

KANU has expelled both Anyona and Odinga. Both were detained years ago. It is believed Odinga has been spared detention now because of his age. (He is in his late 70s.)

Mwangi Muriithi, a former deputy-director of intelligence, has also been detained. He was suddenly sacked from his job last year and given the post of director of a bacon factory, an action over which he filed a suit in the high court. The suit was rejected.

Perhaps the most surprising of the recent detentions is that of John Khaminwa , a prominent Nairobi lawyer, who had been acting on behalf of Odinga, Anyona, and Muriithi.

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Meanwhile, to avoid the possibility of the formation of opposition parties, KANU has announced it is the sole political party in Kenya. Kenya has for years been a de facto one-party state, but this makes it more formal.

President Moi's moves come in the wake of a series of disturbances at the University of Nairobi and other colleges. Fingers were pointed at lecturers with Marxist ideologies. Moi alleges that some dissidents were trying to foment strikes at schools and in industries.

The detentions come against a background of economic recession, dwindling foreign exchange, and rising unemployment.

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