He's the picture of a hip young African. But Uhuru Kenyatta's flowing shirt and American-accented English--acquired at Amherst College--contrast sharply with the setting in central Kenya where the presidential candidate finds time for a brief interview. "I don't believe in looking into the past," Kenyatta says before racing off to the next rally.
But old-style Kenyan politics plays out only minutes after the campaign caravan rocks away down the potholed road. Suddenly 200 women onlookers jostle to form a double line. A party worker clutching a stack of banknotes gives each the equivalent of $6-a payment Americans call "walking-around money" for electioneering.
Kenya's future hinges on how voters will express their distaste for politics as usual. During 24 years in power, President Daniel arap Moi, 71, dominated the machine that has ruled Kenya since independence in 1963. He declared one-party rule in 1982 and in 1991 only grudgingly gave in to Western pressure to permit political opposition. Twice he survived elections with a plurality of the vote by splitting a fragmented opposition.
Now time may have caught up with the "professor of politics," who will stay on as chairman of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) after elections on Dec. 27. He has kept his country intact-no mean feat in a neighborhood that includes Sudan, Uganda and Somalia. But while Kenya became the linchpin of regional stability, it grew to symbolize African misrule. The gap between rich and poor is second only to Brazil's. "Moi just has no idea how unpopular he is," says one diplomat.
Moi's legacy argues against Kenyatta, 41, his handpicked successor and the son of Kenya's founding president, Jomo Kenyatta. Uhuru ("Freedom") has no political track record. Having helped run the family businesses, he lost his only electoral bid, for a parliamentary seat, by a 2-1 margin. Moi last year appointed him to parliament and imposed him as the KANU nominee less than a year later. As a result, the opposition, including many top KANU defectors, coalesced behind Moi's leading opponent in the last two elections, former vice president Mwai Kibaki, 71.
The National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) includes politicians who brought in 60 percent of the vote in 1997, the last presidential poll. "This is a third revolution in Kenya," says Alice Chelaite, a former KANU stalwart in Nairobi who backs the opposition front. "We got our independence, then a multiparty system, and now we'll have true liberation."
But this fight is far from over. Money inevitably will sway the result, and the ruling party has far more of it to spend than the opposition. KANU has the only viable political organization in many rural areas, where most of the votes are. And at its core, the contest replays a uniquely African power struggle, based on tribe, that is fundamental to Kenya's politics. Again Kenya's two greatest and oldest political dynasties--the Kenyattas, members of the dominant Kikuyu tribe, and the Odingas, the most prominent family of the second-largest tribe, the Luo--will determine the future. Last time the Kenyattas came out on top. The scars are deep. In the Lake Victoria fishing town of Kisumu, Odungi Randa's eyes glisten as he tells of the day in 1969 when Jomo Kenyatta's bodyguards panicked before a crowd of Luo tribesmen and opened fire. "Dozens were killed, all over town. Kenyatta never came to Kisumu again," he says. Randa had gone to hear speeches from Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya's first vice president, a Luo whose early support was critical to Kenyatta's release from a British colonial jail. The shooting started after the crowd heckled Kenyatta, who had failed to deliver on promises to aid the Luo region. The next day, Kenyatta ordered Odinga Oginga held under house arrest-where he remained until the president's death in 1978. To this day, the Luo fishermen of Lake Victoria don't have refrigerators to keep their catch fresh. "It was a deliberate ploy to keep this area underdeveloped to punish us for being in the opposition," says George Njondi, a NARC candidate from the district.
The fight continued under Moi. Kenyatta's successor suspected Odinga and his son, Raila, of conspiring in a failed coup and banned opposing political parties after they tried to organize one. Raila Odinga spent a total of eight years in detention-more than any other political prisoner. Once freed, the younger Odinga led the fight for multiparty democracy and, later, constitutional reform. His own party placed third in the last two presidential elections, with the Luo voting as a bloc. Moi then enticed Raila Odinga into government by dangling the possibility that he would be appointed prime minister under the next president. An appointed commission was preparing a plan to create that office along with several vice presidencies and to set up a runoff system so that the president would have an absolute majority. But Moi balked. He sacked his top cabinet officials and KANU aides, then imposed Uhuru Kenyatta as his political heir. He also rejected the proposals for constitutional reform.
Moi's about-face provoked the most significant shift in Kenyan politics since independence. Again Raila Odinga was its architect. Passed-over KANU figures began to defect to the mainstream opposition, led by former vice president Kibaki, a Kikuyu. In hours of backroom talks, Odinga persuaded his followers and other opposition leaders to fall behind the new opposition. "Raila has been extremely shrewd," says Richard Leakey, a white Kenyan who has served both in government and the opposition. The changes to a long-calcified political setup captured the public's imagination. The new party's nominating convention in November took on the air of a people-power happening. NARC filled Nairobi's 80,000-seat soccer stadium to overflowing.
If the elections had been held that day, the insurgents probably would have swept into power. But the picture may be changing. Moi's choice was well considered. The Kenyattas are wealthy and will not come after Moi and his cronies. After all, Moi didn't go after the money his predecessor amassed while in power. Moi also wants someone he can control--though he denies he'll interfere with the next president. The
Kenyatta scion quickly realized his only path to power was to distance himself from the old guard and make a virtue of his apparent weaknesses--youth and inexperience. After his nomination, he told cheering supporters, "This represents a chance to give power to a new generation in order for it to bring fundamental changes." Says lifelong friend John Muhua, "He appeals to a whole generation of people who have shunned politics."
Kenyatta clearly can score by appealing to the young and disaffected. It's a young electorate--half the Kenyan population is under 18 years old. The opposition slate is old, and NARC has taken in tarnished KANU dinosaurs who decamped the moment it seemed the game was up. That takes some of the gloss off the corruption issue, which is to be the focus of NARC's election finale. Chance also underscored the age issue--both Kibaki and his running mate were in the same London hospital this month, Kibaki after a campaign highway accident, vice-presidential hopeful Michael Wamalwa to be treated for gout. When Kibaki relaunched his campaign in a giant airport rally on his return Saturday, he wore a neck brace to avoid aggravating a cracked vertebra, and had an arm and leg in plaster casts. "I can't elect somebody old," says Shadrack Gitonga, 26, a driver who attended a Kenyatta rally in rural Embu last week. "Everybody in NARC was in government. These are corrupt people.
Uhuru doesn't make false promises. He's young. He has a good strategy for running the country."
So Kenyatta has it both ways. He's a low-key campaigner. The opposition promises universal free education; Kenyatta says he'll try to make schooling more affordable. "I am a pragmatist," he says. He dismisses a recent poll that showed him running well behind NARC's Kibaki. Opposition strategists say their chief defense against vote-rigging will be to pile up a landslide. But meantime the KANU machine does its work. Already the opposition is screaming about campaign irregularities. Yesterday the local branch of Transparency International cited $81 million in government disbursements that the opposition claims are disguised payments to the Kenyatta campaign. "They will stop at nothing," says Odinga.
The clean-government forces are ready. American and European aid has paid to train 30,000 local poll watchers. Embassies will field hundreds of additional observers. "If KANU rigs, we will know-real early," says one Western diplomat. There may be little outsiders could do about it. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have already cut off Kenya over fiscal irregularities. Still, this month's attacks on Israeli tourists in Mombasa--four years after Al Qaeda's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi--have underscored Kenya's importance to the war on terror. And even outsiders who have heavily invested in a transition from backroom to legislative politics in Kenya find Kenyatta attractive. They say hopefully that he may be positioning himself to lead a newly credible KANU opposition once he loses the coming election to those who promise to bring about real institutional reform. But he may yet claim an upset victory.