NAIROBI, Kenya — The day Kenya's lawyers elected Paul Muite chairman of their bar association, the Law Society of Kenya, plainclothes police kept their annual meeting under surveillance.
Over the previous weeks, Muite's car had been stoned and smeared with human feces by people he is sure were government agents. His law firm's clients were watched and questioned by authorities, and sometimes physically barred from entering his office.
During the trial of some clients charged with sedition and treason, he was threatened with contempt of court. His passport had been seized long before, after he returned from a trip to Washington to accept the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on behalf of a friend, Gibson Kamau Kuria.
So there was scant reason to expect Muite, in his maiden speech as leader of this country's 1,500 lawyers, to be conciliatory toward a one-party regime showing increasing intolerance of dissent. And he wasn't. Responding to government charges that growing agitation in favor of multi-party democracy in Kenya is undermining the country's stability, he proclaimed:
"The greatest danger to public security is the Kenya government itself."
People have been arrested and jailed without charge here for saying less. But as one of the country's most prominent human rights lawyers, Muite would have surprised his colleagues by saying anything else.
Now, with his accession March 8 to leadership of the Law Society, known as LSK, he has set up a great political drama that could have long-lasting repercussions in Kenya. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say, as did the Nairobi Law Monthly (whose editor, Gitobu Imanyara, is himself currently being held without bail on sedition charges), that Muite's chairmanship may place the society "on a permanent collision course with the government."
Muite, an impeccable dresser who looks a decade younger than his 45 years, objects to that term. " 'Collision course?' That emanates from the government and a few (legal) colleagues we perceive to be government proteges. It's a subtle threat directed at the Law Society, whose purpose is to intimidate us into silence on issues the government does not want us to speak out on."
Muite's determination to continue speaking out has provoked considerable controversy since his election. In his keynote speech that night, he addressed foursquare the most troubling political issues in the country.
For example, he called on the government to register, or legalize, an opposition political party formed by former Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, despite a 1982 constitutional amendment making the ruling Kenya African National Union, or KANU, the only legal political party. (The government later formally refused the registration, citing the 1982 provision.)
The next day KANU opened fire. "We are not amused and do not take kindly to the outburst of the newly elected leadership of the LSK," said the ruling party's secretary general, Joseph Kamotho, who warned Muite "to stop promoting hostilities toward the party and the state."
Other government spokesmen suggested that Muite's mistake was in raising political issues so bluntly. "Muite has every right as an individual to campaign for Odinga's party, but not through the Law Society," said Philip Ochieng, editor in chief of the KANU-owned Kenya Times and a leading ideologue of the one-party state.
"The tone has a lot to do with it," he added--making the implausible suggestion that a polite approach might have provoked a different response from KANU. "If you go tactfully, you gain much more than going like a fox among the chickens. Muite is behaving like a student leader."
The chairmanship vote was a landslide in Muite's favor--385 votes to 88 for his opponent, an obscure rural attorney--but the domestic press subsequently gave great play to a succession of Law Society members disavowing Muite's political stance and even urging that he resign.
Many of these are members of Parliament or otherwise attached to KANU, provoking one former Law Society chairman, G. B. M. Kariuki, to dismiss the anti-Muite campaign as "orchestrated" and "dishonest."
By March 14, the opponents had succeeded in persuading a judge to enjoin Muite from speaking out on "political" issues and from chairing a Law Society meeting until a hearing later this month.
But Muite's keynote speech was about as mild as he gets. During a recent interview in his downtown chambers, he bluntly termed the Kenya government a "dictatorship" of President Daniel Arap Moi.
"It's a one-man show," he said. Muite says this is not entirely the fault of Moi, who stepped up to the country's leadership from the vice presidency in 1972, upon the death of President Jomo Kenyatta. "That condition is not reached overnight--it goes back to the previous regime. The former president may have been more benevolent, but under him there was a systematic weakening of institutions."