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National Agenda : A Matter of Democracy : Kenya's multi-party elections last December brought changes. But President Moi has resisted serious reform, fueling speculation that the African nation is headed for trouble.


NAIROBI, Kenya — For years, Karim Karmali, restaurateur, suffered a particularly pungent problem. It came from across the street, from the big bins that accept the daily refuse of the City Market, a prime tourist attraction in a town that calls itself the Green City in the Sun.

The problem was that a neglectful city government would fail to empty the bins for weeks and even months on end. And a miasma of putrefied fish and rotting meat would rise as the containers baked in the tropical sun, the stench enveloping the market's basket sellers and fruit vendors and figurine carvers and invading Karmali's upscale Indian restaurant. Customers walked away in droves.

No more.

In a small victory amid Kenya's troubled transition to democracy, Karmali now routinely seats patrons on his tidy terrace overlooking the culprit bins.

As a result of Kenya's first multi-party elections in 26 years last December, Nairobi replaced its appointed city commission with an elected council, and it got a new mayor in the process. An opposition figure with a keen sense of public relations, one of the first things he did was to get the garbage trucks running on time.

"They're here every day, practically, emptying the bins," said a pleased Karmali. The new mayor, Stephen Mwangi, has a simple explanation for the improvement: If he doesn't do his job right, he loses it. His job depends on the backing of the city's elected councilors. "They vote a motion of no confidence," he said, "and I'm gone."

But the mayor, other elected opposition politicians and even Kenya's democratization process itself face what Kenyan and foreign analysts say is a major obstacle: a central government still dominated by a ruling party that shows signs of disregarding the pluralistic norms to which it is a reluctant convert.

International donors, who have maintained an arm's-length relationship since cutting aid in late 1991 to force political and economic reform, remain adamant that President Daniel Arap Moi's government must carry out further reforms. Prominent domestic critics concur.

Their freedom to speak, and the presence of a strong minority of opposition legislators in the single-chamber Parliament, points up the undoubted differences between Kenya after the landmark Dec. 29 elections and Kenya in the mid- to late 1980s. Then, public discourse was hushed, and government foes were imprisoned without fair trials. But critics say the new democratic opening, which Moi resisted long after other African countries had begun moving toward pluralism, has failed to change the way Kenya is governed.

"Consistently the government is resisting accountability, transparency--whatever multi-party means--and is seeking to go back to the days of command operations, where you don't ask questions and do as you're told," Lee Muthoga, a prominent lawyer and coordinator of a political watchdog group, said in an interview.

The travails of Mwangi, the new Nairobi mayor, offer a small case in point.

Since his investiture, no senior government figure aside from two associated with tourism has had official contact with him--a situation that, given Nairobi's disproportionate weight in national life, is rather like New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and his staff spurning contact with the mayor of New York City.

More serious than the lack of comity, the minister for local government recently issued a circular seeking to strip powers from elected local officials--opposition figures, for the most part--and hand it to appointed town clerks, who are mainly holdovers from single-party days. The circular also barred mayors from entering their offices more than three times a week.

Mwangi said in an interview that he will not comply with the order, characterizing it as "hostile (and) bordering on ridicule."

Some foreign observers express alarm over the course of a country viewed until recently as a rare success story on a continent replete with warfare and economic collapse. Granted, Kenya retains assets available in few other African countries. Among these are reasonable, if dilapidated, road and telephone networks, diverse if struggling small-scale industry and a well-developed, albeit slumping, tourism industry built upon a verdant coast and spectacular game parks. More important than any of these, however, are the country's people: Kenya has managed to develop a large and well-educated middle class, and it harbors large pools of entrepreneurial talent.

The country has enough resources to avoid going the way its neighbors have, said one diplomat, weighing Kenya's chances of sliding to Ugandan or Tanzanian levels of deprivation. "That's what makes it really, really a tragedy. Kenya didn't need to go that route."

The diplomat's inadvertent use of the past tense reflects a discouraging series of developments, beginning with the landmark elections themselves.

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