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Key Figure in Kenyan Reform Effort Is Killed

Slaying sparks fears that the government is trying to thwart plans to limit the president's power.

September 16, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — The slaying of a key member of this country's constitutional review commission sparked protest marches and fears Monday that the government was attempting to thwart plans to decentralize power and limit Kenya's imperial presidency.

Odhiambo Mbai, a political science professor at the University of Nairobi, had been chairing a committee of the National Constitutional Conference, which seeks to restructure government to give greater executive power to local districts. The conference is working to create a bicameral parliament and, most controversially, a prime minister's post that by 2007 would assume many of the presidency's powers.

At least three gunmen entered Mbai's two-story university townhouse here Sunday afternoon and shot him four times, in the head and stomach, before fleeing on foot, authorities said. Mbai's grown daughter, who was upstairs, was the only other family member home at the time.

"I heard repeated bangs. I could smell gunpowder," said Catherine Mbai, 21. "I went downstairs and saw all the broken furniture and saw him behind his seat. There was a lot of blood." She said the killers stole nothing.

Mbai died at Nairobi Hospital several hours later.

Violent crimes are not uncommon in Nairobi, and it wasn't immediately clear whether the slaying was political in nature.

Despite worries that Kenyan politics is descending again into bloodshed, delegates for the country's second round of constitutional talks showed few signs of retreat.

"We're more determined than ever," Rose Owino said. "The legacy of Mbai's death is that we will give this country a constitution."

Hundreds of protesters marched peacefully through downtown Nairobi on Monday, led by University of Nairobi students. Smaller demonstrations over the killing took place Sunday.

Mbai's slaying comes at a fractious time in Kenya. The country's ruling National Rainbow Coalition, known as NARC, appears to be fraying only nine months after the nation's longtime leader, Daniel Arap Moi, made way for President Mwai Kibaki, who won in a landslide in December.

The two parties that make up NARC -- the Liberal Democratic Party and the National Alliance Party -- are in a deadlock over power-sharing agreements reached before the election.

Liberal Democrats complain that more than a third of Kibaki's Cabinet appointees are members of his own National Alliance Party and Kikuyu ethnic group. They also accuse Kibaki of reneging on a promise to give the Liberal Democrats a prime ministerial post and two new vice presidential positions.

A third party, the Kenya African National Union, which dominated Kenyan politics for four decades, is leaderless after Moi retired Friday as its chairman, five months later than expected. One party leader said the organization was late finding a successor and had failed so far to provide a credible alternative to the faltering government.

In August, Vice President Michael Kijana Wamalwa, a leader of the FORD-Kenya political party, died of natural causes at a hospital near London. His death left open the question of succession should harm befall Kibaki and has started a round of feuding as politicians jockey for the position.

Most political observers expect Kibaki to choose a replacement before he travels to Washington next month for a state visit.

The professor's slaying also comes amid a corruption investigation that has tainted the image of Kibaki's administration, which rose to power on promises of reform and transparent governance. Recent revelations have led to allegations that top government officials, including a Cabinet minister and treasury secretary, pocketed millions of dollars in kickbacks from insurance companies in the 1990s.

The constitutional review, however, is at the center of tensions. The talks could radically alter every branch of government. Some delegates attending meetings Monday said they suspected that Mbai was killed to intimidate conference attendees.

"It is very likely that the motive for the killing is political," said Yash Pal Ghai, the director of the National Constitutional Conference. "Delegates have told me that there have been attempts by many people, including government officials, to derail the conference through bribes and threats."

"The majority of delegates blame a core group of government officials around Kibaki," said Ghai, who is a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Kibaki's government has denied any wrongdoing.

The constitutional review was born more than three years ago out of dissatisfaction with Moi's rule, which stretched back to 1978. As his grip on power weakened, the movement became broader and more ambitious.

By January 2002, hearings were being held around the country to determine what sort of government most people wanted.

The answer was a less powerful presidency that retained the position as head of the state and the military but relinquished its power to appoint ministers. A prime minister would be able to hire and fire Cabinet members and would shape national policy. The president would be able to dismiss the prime minister only with the approval of parliament and the judiciary.

Constitutional planners also say Kenyans want a Senate system to complement the existing House of Representatives. The conference has started to try to strengthen local representation.

During his campaign for the presidency, Kibaki supported those reforms and promised to implement them during his first 100 days in office, but recently he has changed his position.

"There is only one head of state, and I am the one," Kibaki said while speaking at a Nairobi church last week. The president and his ministers have repeatedly criticized the reforms for being impractical.

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