KENYA'S switch to multiparty politics in December is still hard to believe. Will President Daniel arap Moi's Kenya African National Union (KANU) subject itself to an open race against other parties after ruling since independence from Britain in 1963?
Ten years ago, President Moi, threatened by the possible formation of a new opposition party, began to accumulate increasing power into his hands by forcibly amending the Constitution to legalize KANU's de facto monopoly on power. His intolerance for criticism also grew.
But last December intense criticism from Kenyan opponents and pressure from international aid donors forced Moi to open up the political system. By the end of January, nine opposition parties had announced their formation. Two have attracted massive rallies as Kenyans await the announcement of an election date.
For the first time, the post-colonial generation is seeing several prominent Kenyans publicly present themselves as potential presidential candidates.
As a Kenyan following all this from the United States, it's difficult not to contrast the sudden political liberalization with the gloom of 1975, when I left the country. In March of that year, J. M. Kariuki, a highly popular member of Parliament and articulate critic of the government of then-President Jomo Kenyatta, was assassinated.
I was 13 then, and that tragic event was my awakening to national politics. Terrifying rumors made the rounds as to who actually killed Kariuki and how it was done. The underlying theme was that J. M., as he was commonly known, had boldly highlighted the social inequalities in Kenya, gaining such widespread support - transcending tribal lines - that he would have easily succeeded the aging Kenyatta. He was therefore a serious threat to some very powerful figures.
A report released three months later by a parliamentary committee implicated senior police and security officers. It was reported, however, that the committee was forced by Kenyatta to delete the names of two public officials embarrassingly close to him. There was a strange, though not unexpected, lack of follow-up. This killing, like that of Tom Mboya, a remarkably competent and popular minister assassinated in 1969, has remained a mystery.
Kariuki, like Kenyatta, belonged to the Kikuyu, the largest of Kenya's 40-odd tribes. His slaying showed that political divisions cut not only between tribes but within.
I left Kenya for neighboring Ethiopia, then on to America in 1978. In Ethiopia, I experienced a country that was sinking deeper into a violent socialist revolution after toppling Emperor Haile Selassie. A military regime, ruthless against opponents, was in control.
Kenya, despite its assassination scandals, enjoyed an active economy. The country welcomed foreign investment and had a limited democracy, enviable by African standards. Members of Parliament fought tough campaigns against formidable opponents from within the ruling party. Over half the incumbents lost in the 1969 and 1974 elections. The West, whose view has always mattered in Nairobi, regarded the country as one of its outposts in the cold war.
Aid was not suspended to induce political and economic reforms, as now. Moi, then vice president, was never taken seriously.
It's difficult to predict whether Moi, a member of the small Kalenjin tribe who still maintains that multiparty government is tribally divisive, will actually put his presidency at risk by allowing free elections.
Kanu supporters have resorted to violence against members of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the major opposition group. Last month, Moi banned all political meetings. He claimed this was necessary to deal with ethnic violence in western Kenya between his tribe and others. There is wide-spread belief, however, that the fighting has been instigated by the government to discredit multiparty democracy.
If Moi loses, a new government would most likely resume the halted inquiry into the 1990 murder of Robert Ouko, the former foreign minister who had criticized high-level government corruption. The investigation, stopped by Moi, had named two of his closest aides as prime suspects.
The new parties have given Kenyans unaccustomed choice. Ford is headed by the elderly Oginga Odinga, Kenya's first vice president before abandoning KANU in 1966 to start an earlier opposition party. Key to his party's future is how it tackles internal leadership struggles.
Kenneth Matiba, an affluent businessman and former cabinet minister, has stated that he wants to lead FORD. He made a sensation two years ago by publicly calling for a multiparty system when the concept was still illegal and earned a spell in detention. If he goes on to fight the 80-year-old Odinga, the contest, especially among older party members, could turn ethnic and split FORD. Matiba is Kikuyu while Odinga is Luo.
The Democratic Party (DB), another significant opposition group, is led by Mwai Kibaki, a politician with long government experience as a founder of KANU, finance minister, and vice president. Like Ford, DP distinguishes itself from KANU by claiming it wants to bring in tolerant, non-corrupt, and competent government. But unlike FORD, which originated as a heterogenous group of politicians, academics, lawyers, and church leaders united mainly to push Moi toward multiparty rule, DP's inner circle is narro wer. It's mostly made up of rich Kikuyu men like Kibaki.
An intense struggle for power is taking shape in Kenya as a political system suddenly opens after almost 30 years. As long as democratic rules are followed, there's nothing wrong with this. The Kenyan people will select the winners.