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Female Candidates Vie for Kenya's Presidency

Africa: They're deemed longshot contenders. But their entry into race is seen as a victory for nation's women.

December 25, 1997|ANN M. SIMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NAIROBI, Kenya — Many here question why Charity Kaluki Mwendwa Ngilu would want to endure the hassle of running for the presidency of this East African nation. In her short political career, she has been beaten by riot police and teargassed by cops breaking up opposition rallies, and her convoy has been stoned while she has campaigned. To boot, she claims that members of Kenya's ruling party are trying to harm her.

"It's worthwhile simply because somebody has to do it," the 45-year-old politician said of her candidacy in a recent interview. "I cannot sit back and watch and wait and say, 'Who can do this?' I must do this. I am qualified because I am what Kenyans are looking for--a committed, dedicated, honest person who can lead them through the problems they have."

Her aim, she has said, is to seek a one-term mandate as "a bridge between the present undemocratic system that Kenyans have rejected and the future democratic one that Kenyans are yearning for."

Although political pundits say Ngilu, who declared her candidacy in July, is a longshot to win the presidency, most agree that she is capable of spoiling the chances of a fifth straight term for Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi in Monday's election.

In recent months, Moi's government has been beset by a host of political and economic problems. International donors have penalized Kenya for widespread corruption, while human rights groups have condemned the Kenyan authorities' excessive use of force at opposition rallies--which only recently were legalized--as well as police brutality and arbitrary arrests. In addition, scores of people have been killed in politically related ethnic violence in the country's coastal region. The bloodshed has severely affected Kenya's lucrative tourism industry.

The precedent Ngilu set as Kenya's first female presidential aspirant was nearly matched by the recent announcement by another woman--Wangari Maathai, a 57-year-old environmentalist and professor of veterinary anatomy--that she too will be seeking the nation's top job.

Analysts contend that although their chances of victory may be slim, the mere participation of Maathai and particularly Ngilu in the presidential race scores a major victory for Kenyan women in this land of African machismo. The myth that women cannot play hardball politics is being dispelled.

"This is something that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago," said John Githongo, a political observer and respected columnist for the weekly East African newspaper. "Our entire political class has been reluctant to take women seriously. Women politicians will be taken a lot more seriously after this, just through [Ngilu's] ability to mobilize people. She's changed the ground rules of women in politics."

More than 70 women have declared their intention to vie for various civic and parliamentary seats. During the last elections, in 1992, six out of 19 female candidates won parliamentary seats, and there were only two female ministers, one an assistant minister, out of a total of 22. That parliament was recently annulled.

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Maathai's campaign has yet to get off the ground. The former university don and the first woman in Kenya to get a doctorate announced her decision to seek the presidency only Nov. 20, throwing in her bid on the ticket of the newly registered Liberal Party.

Ngilu's campaign, on the other hand, has had several months to gather full steam, and many observers consider her to be Moi's most serious challenger out of a field of 15.

Ngilu's influence will be strongly felt if she captures the vote of her native Kamba ethnic group in Kenya's Eastern province. This would deny Moi the crucial 25% of the vote he will need in Eastern province--which he swept in 1992--to win the presidency. The winning candidate must secure 25% of the vote in five of Kenya's eight provinces (Eastern was Moi's fifth province in 1992). Failure to win the provincial minimums would mean a runoff between the top two candidates, with the winner being determined by a simple majority.

Ngilu, who entered politics in 1992 when she was elected to parliament in Kenya's second multi-party elections since independence in 1963, is making her presidential bid on the ticket of the tiny Social Democratic Party.

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With unemployment on the rise, crime plaguing Kenya's big cities, roads crumbling and hospitals and schools lacking basic supplies, Ngilu's promise to eradicate most of these problems appeals to the sentiments of the masses.

"She's a different animal," said Walter Oyugi, a professor of political science at the University of Nairobi. "This lady has a lot of courage. She's been all over the country, and she's made a very positive impression."

Ngilu emphasized four main elements in her vision for Kenya's future: reconciliation, reconstruction, restructuring and sustenance.

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