Favorite son

September 23, 2002

KENYA IS SUCH an important African country that it matters to the rest of the world who will succeed President Daniel arap Moi when his 25-year rule ends in four months.

That question matters so much to Mr. Moi as well that he wants the ruling party to consider only his choice. When Vice President George Saitoti dared to promote his own candidacy, he was summarily fired.

Since its independence from Britain in 1963, Kenya has had only two presidents. And Mr. Moi insists that the first president's son, Uhuru Kenyatta, should succeed him, although half a dozen other ruling party officials of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party would want to run as well. In a rare open challenge to Mr. Moi, they have formed an alliance to press for open elections.

The Kenyatta bandwagon, which may now be unstoppable, began gaining speed in July when former first lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta said her 41-year-old son should lead the country. The idea was quickly endorsed by the dominant Kikuyu tribe that has felt sidelined under Mr. Moi.

The Kenyatta dynasty is enormously powerful. Mr. Kenyatta's sister, Margaret, was a longtime mayor of Nairobi and head of the country's leading women's organization, which is pushing him. Yet just five years ago Mr. Kenyatta himself failed to win a seat in the parliament. His career took off only after he was appointed chairman of the Kenya Tourism Board and later became government minister and vice chairman of KANU.

Under the manipulative Mr. Moi, Kenya has avoided the fate of many of its neighbors, economic collapse or genocide. But as political and economic power has concentrated in few hands, the country has stagnated. Corruption is endemic, and the infrastructure is falling apart.

A closed presidential election would not be in Kenyans' interest. It would limit debate about serious problems, which run from high unemployment to rampant AIDS infections. It might also fan tribal tensions, which Mr. Moi has skillfully kept in check during his long rule. And it would do nothing to increase accountability and democracy in a country that often has trouble understanding and practicing either concept.

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