NAIROBI, KENYA — There had been a series of arrests in Kenya, a small group of leftists seized for producing pamphlets in dimly lit kitchens. Searches had turned up tattered paperback editions of Karl Marx. In so clear-cut a case, defense attorneys were considered unnecessary and the trials were short.
It was another of those times when rumors loped through the capital like starving dogs, finding scraps of explanation in the refuse of every coincidence.
"I hear the army is on alert for Madaraka Day."
"All police leaves have been canceled."
"It's the Kikuyu, you know. They are very unhappy. My cook was telling me the other day . . . . "
No more than a handful of African capitals are immune to this sort of rumor, in societies where the press is commonly muzzled and most insider information is passed by word-of-mouth, subject to distortion and exaggeration.
After spending years living in Nairobi, I had my own network of sources and sounding boards, so I went to see them.
None seemed particularly upset about the spate of arrests. But a couple of diplomats predicted that Kenya was in for a "major social upheaval" within five years. Pressures were building, one said.
Another observer, an old hand at studying the mysteries of Kenyan politics, discounted these predictions as nonsense. He took what he called the long view that Kenya, while it might have some difficult times, would continue to be peaceful and relatively prosperous.
The older hand was probably right. But who knows? If President Daniel Arap Moi were to be deposed overnight, no one would be surprised. One could look back and point to ominous signs.
This unpredictability still holds sway more than a quarter of a century after most of Africa became independent. In the history of nations, 25 or 30 years is not much time, and it has not been time enough for Africa to develop institutions that take precedence over the cult of personal, chief-like power.
In Africa, personality counts, the man at the top, not the constitution and not the party and certainly not the "people," over whom so much fuss is made by autocratic leaders.
Nigerians believed they had recorded a major achievement when, in 1979, they promulgated a new constitution based closely on the American model. Nigerians like to think of themselves as the pre-eminent people of Africa--the most sophisticated, the most powerful and influential--and their new constitution seemed to give them added swagger.
This document, this new "institution," with its separation of powers, its guarantee of basic freedoms, would set Nigeria still further apart. The constitution lasted four years; then the army came back to power and swept it aside.
And yet, while constitutions and the courts and the African press remain weak in the face of so much presidential authority, some positive changes have gradually become evident in the past six years, mainly in economic affairs.
The leading economic influence in Africa during the 1980s has been Western, represented by the International Monetary Fund. As the bringer of largely bad news, the IMF is not much liked . African presidents have lashed it for years as a tool of "imperialist" or "neocolonialist" exploitation, and presented themselves as the unwilling victims of IMF dictates.
As the lender of last resort--in effect, the doctor called to the emergency room when the patient is bleeding on the table--the IMF does in fact exact stiff conditions.
But the IMF's free-market philosophy seems to be steadily gaining ground , if not with African presidents then certainly with post-independence economists who see free enterprise as a return to something far more "authentic" to African culture than the Marxist or socialist ideologies imported 30 years ago when the New Africa was regarded as a sort of proving ground for political visionaries.
The most famous of the visionaries failed grandly. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, left his country in such political and economic ruin that it has taken nearly 20 years to begin (with IMF help) to repair the damage.
The other leading visionary is Julius Nyerere, who stepped down last year as president of Tanzania. His great legacy will not be the African socialism of his dreams but, rather, the lesson that the theory would not take root in the real soil of his country--or the continent--despite the deep appeal of his early writings.
Nyerere's influence in Africa was, in fact, massive. With mwalimu (the teacher) as a guiding light, many African governments tried to do too much for their people--Zambia is a good example--and went broke in the effort.