WHETHER AMERICANS can locate Kenya on the map or not, the East African nation is important to the United States. It has been one of the few stable countries on a troubled continent -- and is a staging area for military operations in the Middle East.
On Friday, change will come to Kenya. Voters will elect a successor to President Daniel arap Moi, who has been in power for the past 25 years. It is likely that his party and its favored candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta, will be trounced. If that happens, the next president would be Mwai Kibaki, the 71-year-old former vice president who is the top challenger.
Although President Bush recently hailed President Moi as a person that "the American people can count on," many Kenyans are ambivalent about the United States. Some even suspect that President Moi's cooperation with Americans has brought about the incidents of terrorism, including the recent attacks on a seaside hotel and an aircraft.
The Horn of Africa region -- from Ethiopia to Kenya -- has become a pivotal staging area in the U.S. war against international terrorism. The United States is setting up a military base off the coast of Djibouti; U.S. troops have also held repeated exercises near the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa, where the dominant Muslim population has exhibited visible signs of anti-Americanism.
Both Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Kenyatta, the leading contenders, would likely continue cooperation with the United States.
Meanwhile, Kenya's next president also must address pressing domestic issues that, if allowed to fester, could undermine stability. In contrast to rapid expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, Kenya's economy last year registered negative growth. Joblessness is a big problem, as is out-of-control crime and governmental corruption.
A wily politician who ruled with an iron hand, Mr. Moi was able to keep internal strife in check. His successor may not be so lucky. Acute problems have been ignored for far too long. The country is restless. Whoever wins Friday will face a difficult challenge.