NAIROBI, Kenya — The government's way of marking the end of Kenya's last year of single-party rule was not a particularly encouraging one: A squadron of presidential guards invaded a provincial hotel a few days before Jan. 1 and attacked a group meeting in support of Kenya's leading opposition party. At least four people were beaten and robbed.
But the incident in Nakuru, a prosperous farming town, failed to obscure a sea change in the politics of this East African nation. The administration of President Daniel Arap Moi, who as recently as two months ago seemed to have a stubborn grip on national politics, is in desperate retreat.
Since late last month, when Moi legalized multi-party politics under pressure from foreign aid donors, the authority of his Kenya African National Union (KANU)--until then the sole legal political party in the country--has crumbled. Serious debate on national policies, previously the province only of a handful of officially harassed publications, has flowered in the local press to an extent not seen in more than a decade.
That atmosphere promises to become even more intense in the run-up to nationwide elections, which Moi is expected to call early this year. Already one new party has registered with the government: the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, or FORD, which was instrumental in pressuring the donors, and thus Moi, into ending KANU's political monopoly. At least one other group with strong political credentials is likely to register shortly, and smaller parties have begun organizing.
All this is happening amid wide uncertainty over how the balloting might unfold. Moi, who has ruled Kenya since October, 1978, is constitutionally required to call an election by 1993, but his timing is sure to hang on his appraisal of the relative strength of KANU and other parties.
FORD leaders have said they would not be organized for an election before October, but other observers argue that a relatively early election would be to the new party's advantage. That way it can ride the current wave of popular enthusiasm for new politics--and finish a campaign before inevitable policy and factional splits appear among its own leaders.
Few can guess how Kenyans will behave in a multi-party election. Before the latest events, Kenya's last opposition party to contest an election was the Kenya Peoples Union, which was banned in 1969.
Moi's own core popularity is difficult to judge. Political observers in the country believe he is likely to lose in the big cities, such as Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu, but his political strength in rural districts is hard to measure. Moreover, no one can say today even what KANU and FORD will represent by the time of an election, as scores of politicians have been defecting from KANU to join FORD or form their own new parties.
Moi himself, one of the last African leaders to publicly embrace the concept of multi-party democracy, has been increasingly isolated, even within the councils of KANU. When the party scheduled a session of its leadership council for last Monday, rumors swept the political community that several party officials were plotting to force him to step down.
"He's lost all of his top supporters and friends in KANU," observed a Western diplomat with extensive political contacts. "He's got no one."
As it turned out, there was no ouster. But nevertheless the president is finding himself ruler of an ever-diminishing domain.
Over the last three weeks, six ministers--including three of Cabinet rank--have voluntarily left the government and the party. Two others, including Peter Oloo Aringo, a minister for manpower development and a leading reformist, were dismissed by Moi amid the government turmoil. Aringo, who had been KANU's national chairman, evidently realized his days were numbered when he was left off a party committee drafting its election manifesto. He later announced he had joined FORD, where he became one of its most important members from the influential Luo tribe. Scores of other officials have resigned from the party, most of them to join FORD.
Perhaps the most important defection came on Christmas Day, when former Vice President Mwai Kibaki announced his resignation as minister of health, a Cabinet post. One week later he said he would leave KANU, of which he was a founding member, and form a new opposition party.
"It was a bombshell," said Kwendo Opanga, a political writer for the Daily Nation, one of Kenya's three English-language newspapers. A vice president under Moi for 10 years, Kibaki has emerged as the leading challenger for the presidency.
For all that, many political observers here see some reason for dismay in how Kenyan politics have begun to take shape in the new era of liberalization. As many feared and Moi himself predicted, political alliances have taken shape through tribal identifications.