Opposition politicians in Kenya say they have never had an easy time. Now, they add, the imposition of a "draconian" act by the government in the name of bringing the nation "relief," may give the president unfair advantage in the next elections.
With the successive failure of rains, this East African nation is experiencing the worst drought in years with urgent appeals for relief food being made.
By declaring a national disaster, opposition forces accuse President Daniel arap Moi of taking advantage of the nation's hardship by imposing the Preservation of National Security Act, a sweeping law dating back to Kenya's colonial British past.
Besides enabling the finance minister to waive import duties and taxes on essential food items such as corn, milk, and rice, it also gives the government sweeping emergency powers. The act allows the government to detain people, censor news reports, impose curfews, control meetings and processions, and remove diplomatic privileges.
The issue has provoked a public outcry from lawyers and church leaders, who accuse the government of using the drought disaster as a cover to gain unfair advantage in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections, due to be held later this year.
"This is quite sinister," says constitutional lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria. "There was no need to declare a disaster to deal with this [drought]. It's like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. There are other ways of coping with hunger. Somebody must have wanted emergency powers for political purposes." In the past, Mr. Kamau Kuria adds, the act had been used against prodemocracy and civil rights activists. Before the advent of multiparty democracy in 1992, Kenya held a large number of political prisoners in detention under provisions of the act.
Justifying the measures, an official statement accused opposition politicians of deliberately choosing to misinterpret the situation. "They are indeed jeopardizing the ability of willing international aid and relief agencies ... to readily mobilize support to supplement the government's efforts in giving relief to the needy," it said. The draconian regulations contained in the act would not necessarily be imposed, the statement continued.
BUT among the charges and countercharges, the need for food relief is still acute. The government says it has placed 36 districts under a famine relief program. In a $12.3 million operation over six months, the UN's World Food Programme has begun providing food to nearly half a million people. Other foreign aid groups and local churches are also responding.
Observers say the charitable relief effort has had little to do with the new law. At the same time, however, they are worried by an increasingly hard-line attitude being taken towards government opponents.
This month, opposition members of parliament Paul Muite and Kiraitu Murungi were beaten and whipped by police trying to stop them addressing crowds in Nyeri, north of the capital Nairobi. Another opposition MP, Charity Ngilu, was charged in court with holding an illegal meeting in her own constituency. In another incident, a demonstration in Nairobi against police brutality was broken up by antiriot police armed with rifles and tear gas.
President Moi and his ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party are widely tipped to win this year's elections. But analysts say Moi, who has ruled since 1978, is determined to decimate the opposition by securing a big enough parliamentary majority to force through constitutional changes - such as the clause that otherwise makes his next term in office his last.
Kenya has six official opposition parties that share 78 seats in parliament. The ruling KANU party has 110 seats.