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Kenya's Moves Toward Democracy Troubled by Drought and Violence

Six month after Western donors linked aid to multiparty reforms, periodic arrests and crackdowns show Moi's reluctance to change

IT would not have been allowed six months ago.

On a busy sidewalk in the old section of Nairobi, an opposition-party activist stands on a box and harangues the government. A policeman walks by without interfering.

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All over Kenya, vendors offer independent local magazines and newspapers carrying headlines that accuse the government of corruption and incompetence.

"Last year we were afraid to talk politics," says a shop employee in a nearby store.

These are a few of the positive signs of this East African country's transition to democracy, which formally started six months ago when President Daniel arap Moi reluctantly legalized opposition parties in response to international aid cutoffs and months of domestic pressure.

But since December, the start-stop liberalization of basic political rights - said here to include freedoms of speech, press, and assembly - has also shown how reluctant an entrenched regime can be to relax its grip on power. Rights curtailed

Kenyan lawyers, women's leaders, and Western diplomats point to telltale signs: periodic arrests of outspoken opposition activists and journalists; bans on open opposition rallies; curbs and opposition branch offices; the failure to establish an independent electoral commission.

"I don't see any change at all," says John Keene, acting vice chairman of the opposition Democratic Party (DP). "The government doesn't seem to have accepted the spirit of multiparty [politics]."

But in a speech May 22 to the Federation of Kenya Employers, Kenyan Attorney General Amos Wako said, "I want to assure the people of Kenya that the government of Kenya is committed to holding free and fair general elections."

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One Kenyan offical describes what critics call Moi's uneven record toward reforms as part of the goverment's "teething" process through which it is adapting to multi party politics.

Complicating the political landscape are several factors: Africa's worst drought in 100 years, which has caused extensive crop loss in southern and eastern countries and necessitated large-scale food relief; a flood of refugees fleeing civil war in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia; and increasing ethnic violence in Kenya's western provinces.

Meanwhile, the West has declined to reinstate aid estimated to be worth $800 million, and some Kenyan human rights lawyers say the government will be increasingly hard put to deal with the country's problems.

"Properly harnessed and directed, Kenya's political liberalization should result in greater democratization: greater protection of human rights, greater enjoyment of political freedoms," says Lee Muthoga, a Kenyan attorney who heads a nonpartisan Committee for Democratic Change. "Badly managed, it could ... result in more inter-tribal violence, even civil war," says Mr. Muthoga, who is not a member of any political party.

Tribal violence has left thousands homeless and at least 130 dead in some parts of Kenya since late last year. Opposition leaders accuse the government of fomenting the clashes between tribes in a cynical attempt to delay elections and prolong President Moi's grip on power.

Under the Constitution, Kenya must hold presidential and parliamentary elections by March. Nation-wide voter registration is scheduled to begin today.

"There must be state involvement [behind the violence], because they have the machinery to stop it, says Lilian Mwarura, chairman of the National Council of Women. "If they are not involved, why are they not stopping it?" Moi blames opposition

The government denies any involvement in the ethnic disputes, which have flared up between Moi's Kalenjin tribe and neighboring Luo, Luhya, and Kikuyu tribes. Rather, Moi blames the opposition for causing the trouble to make the government look bad.

Privately, some Kenyan officials admit that statements by both opposition and some government officials have fueled tribal sentiments.

The government has sought financial aid from several donors, including the United States and the European Community, to carry out the registration and election process.

"We have asked the EC ... not to give one single penny until a proper election commission is set up," says the DP's Mr. Keene, voicing the opposition's desire for an independent commission. All members of the existing commission, which runs voter registration and elections, were appointed by Moi.

The West's concern, according to one diplomat from a donor country, is that "[the Moi government] will get us to pay for an election [it] will subvert to stay in power."

Attorney General Wako said Kenya has invited monitors from the Commonwealth states.

Meanwhile, Ms. Mwarura sees one positive development of multiparty reforms: "Women are much more aware that they have been left behind in terms of participation in the political process. They are not going to be left behind again."

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