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Kenya in 'dicey' political era after coup bid, economic slide

Kenya has stood out as one of Africa's steady achievers. But like a pillar of the community whose behavior suddenly turns erratic, it is drawing worried glances from the West.

Kenya has visibly returned to normal after a shattering coup attempt seven months ago. But, as leaden clouds blanket the country in advance of the season of ''long rains,'' a sense of uncertainty is in the air.

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President Daniel arap Moi is in control, but he is more vulnerable than at any other time since he assumed power in 1978, say Western diplomats, political analysts, and businessmen.

Mr. Moi's vulnerability is seen as stemming from two trends. On the one hand, social and economic conditions are deteriorating. But the political climate is also unsettled, making it difficult to assume the President can provide the strong leadership most analysts feel Kenya desperately needs at this juncture.

''The situation is dicey,'' says a well-informed observer in Nairobi. ''The economy is bad, but it would be manageable given strong, consistent leadership from the government. I'm not sure we will get that.''

The mere hint of instability in Kenya worries the West. Since independence in 1963, this nation has prospered under a relatively open political system, conservative government, and market economy. ''It's a capitalistic showpiece, at least in East Africa,'' says a Western diplomatic source.

Indeed, although Kenya is officially nonaligned, it has supported the West on key international issues. Kenya has consistently called for the Soviets to leave Afghanistan. It did not send athletes to the Olympics in Moscow, and it allows Western navies to dock at its Indian Ocean port of Mombasa.

Trouble began brewing here about a year ago. Criticism of the government mounted among university intellectuals, politicians, and journalists. Moi made more use of his power to detain without trial to stifle dissent and intimidate the press. And he officially made Kenya a one-party state.

Meanwhile, Kenya's rapid post-independence economic growth was slowing. It slipped below the nation's population growth rate in '81 and '82. Kenya has the world's fastest-growing population at 4 percent per year, and real living standards are beginning to fall.

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The Aug. 1 coup bid by lower officers of the Air Force was short-lived, but it set in motion some important political developments, political analysts say.

Chief among them is the politicization of the military. The Air Force officers' coup was put down by the Army. Some analysts say the military's influence in the civilian sphere has grown only marginally since the coup, but most analysts agree there now is a possibility of much greater encroachment.

''It has become crystal clear to the President that the military is one of the main reasons he is still in power. He knows it and they know it,'' a diplomatic source says.

If Moi is more beholden to the military, he appears less so to his traditional political allies, and in a general sense to the majority Kikuyu tribe.

Moi is a Kalenjin, one of Kenya's smaller minority tribes. When he became President in 1978, many questioned his ability to maintain the support of the majority Kikuyu. But Moi operated successfully through a troika that included two powerful Kikuyus - Vice-President Mwai Kibaki and Charles Njonjo, minister for constitutional affairs and a former attorney general.

Since the coup bid, in which the Kikuyus are regarded by most analysts to have performed only marginally well in bolstering the government, Moi has fallen back on a group of close personal advisers and grown more suspicious of the Kikuyus, informed observers say. Moi's political base has narrowed.

The growing estrangement between the Kikuyus and Moi is a worrisome sign for the stability of the Kenyan government, say diplomatic sources.

He has forged new political alliances, but some analysts are surprised that there has been no shake-up yet in the Moi government.

''The question remains whether the government has learned a lesson (from the coup bid) and whether the President can prove he is in charge,'' an analyst says. A number of sources say much of the public believes that some high officials in the government were at least informed of the coup attempt.

Moi's failure to ''clean'' his government of enemies is causing a slow drain of public confidence, say some analysts.

While the political scene remains unsettled, the economic outlook for Kenya appears bleak. Economic growth this year and next will be in real terms about 2 percent, one economist forecasts. That is half the rate of Kenya's exploding population growth, which at 4 percent is the world's most rapid. Also, unemployment is rising and is estimated at 13 percent in Nairobi.

The one bright spot is the good agricultural crop of 1982. But Kenya's main foreign-exchange earners - coffee, tea, and tourism - are all in a slump. Today, one economist says, Kenya has only enough foreign exchange reserves for one month of imports. Economists consider a ''safe minimum'' to be enough foreign exchange for three months of imports.

Recognizing Kenya's economic plight and political vulnerability, international aid agencies and Western donors have come forward with more money since the coup attempt. But at the same time private foreign investment has almost dried up as investors size up anew the risks in Kenya.

Some economists say Kenya is entering a period where the rapid growth Kenyans have grown used to is no longer possible.

Exacerbating the public's discontent over the economic hard times is the widespread corruption in the government. One example: The entire Nairobi city council was suspended last month for corruption so rampant that the councilors just quietly walked away from their jobs without a whimper of protest.

''The political problem is that there are no short-term solutions to any of Kenya's problems,'' a diplomatic source says. The Moi government, he says, faces an unenviable question: ''How do you cut up the declining pie?''

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