Kenya's watershed elections.

Author:Vesely, Milan

Kenya's population will be going to perhaps the most important polls in their history on December 29. What is the significance of the forthcoming election and after.

Is Kenya mature enough, its people forgiving enough, and its politicians pragmatic enough to survive the bitter upcoming election and its unknown aftermath? Is Kenya entering a stage of full democracy and a renewed period of stability? Or will it go the way of the Congo, Somalia, and the Sudan, and be ripped apart by tribal politics?

The run-up to the elections have not been auspicious: political violence and civil unrest, IMF loans suspended due to government corruption, the tourist industry in a nose-dive, a general belief that Kenya is disintegrating as President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi hangs on precariously after 19 years of unquestioned power.

"What's happened to Kenya's much vaunted stability, its economic prosperity, and its example to Africa' image?" Mr Raymond Matiba, a Kenyan hotel operator asks, concerned at cancellations affecting his Diani Beach holiday complex on Mombasa's south coast. His views are echoed up and down the country and those worried are not just from the business community.

But then Kenya has always been 'on the brink of disaster' ever since independence in 1962, and yet it has grown into one of the most sophisticated and, in many ways, progressive nations in Africa. "If you compare Kenya to say, Switzerland, then Kenya has been a disaster; if on the other hand you compare it to Uganda or Tanzania or Rwanda or Zaire or Nigeria or a score of other African countries, then it has been a shining star," said a London based diplomat.

A lost decade

A respected African journalist begged to differ. "You cannot compare Kenya to countries that have failed and then say, well, it hasn't failed and therefore it has succeeded. You can only compare the present reality of the country with its potential. It has not achieved its potential. When a Kenyan long distance runner comes second in the Olympic Games, he is considered to have failed. Other countries are delighted if any of their athletes even qualify for the Olympics. So to say that Kenya is not as corrupt as Nigeria is nonsense - given its background, Kenya should not be corrupt at all."

By whatever yardstick you judge Kenya, there is no doubt that the past decade has been, at worst, a lost decade and at best, a decade of opportunities missed.

But now change is in the offing. The elections are likely to set the seal for at least the next decade. And this is making people very nervous. President Daniel arap Moi is standing for his last term. Whether he wins or loses, this is the watershed - Kenya will never be the same again.

"It's the final transition to a full democracy," Mr Charles Njonjo, the respected ex-Attorney General states confidently. "This is a necessary step to Kenya's full maturity."

But for anxious investors, skittish tourists, and foreign government officials, it is a nerve wracking time. "To make a realistic assessment, one has to understand the aspirations that sustained us through the independence struggle under our venerated Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first President," Mr Kenneth Njindo Matiba, the opposition FORD-Asili (Forum for the Restoration of Democracy) chairman states confidently. "These aspirations haven't yet been satisfied."

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the US State Department, and most knowledgeable observers agree on one point. What happens after the election - which insiders believe will be the last week of November or early December, following the dissolution of parliament on 30...

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