Kenya's can of worms

October 20, 2003

THE LID IS off in Kenya.

President Mwai Kibaki shocked the nation last week by suspending 23 top judges because of allegations of corruption and unethical conduct. Then, on same day, his government announced that a truth, justice and reconciliation commission will be formed to look into a wide range of human rights violations that have occurred in that East African country since its 1963 independence from Britain.

"We want to diagnose the disease that has ailed Kenya for the last 40 years," Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi declared. "We cannot understand the past unless we find out what atrocities were committed, who committed them, where they were committed and against whom."

This is very likely to rock Kenya to its very foundations -- yet the risk is worth taking, because only a full airing of past controversies can cleanse the country.

If the commission does its work properly, it must probe the 1969 assassination of Thomas Mboya, a charismatic labor leader and cabinet minister who was gunned down after he emerged as a challenger to Kenya's founding President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. That unsolved slaying triggered serious tribal unrest, which could be rekindled by the probe.

A thorough investigation also must include the unsolved 1990 murder of then foreign minister, Robert Ouko, who was killed after he threatened to reveal corruption in President Daniel T. arap Moi's cabinet.

There is more. Under a recommendation from a government task force, the commission also is supposed to investigate arbitrary political arrests and torture, ethnic clashes and land-grabbing by influential people, economic crimes and violence against women.

Nairobi's Daily Nation criticized this mandate as too wide; however, President Kibaki may find it difficult to narrow the scope, even if he wanted to. The International Monetary Fund is scheduled to decide next month whether Kenya has done enough to reduce corruption so that lending can resume after a three-year interruption. Kenya would have some awkward explaining to do if it tried to curb full disclosure.

In 1995, when South Africa introduced the truth and reconciliation concept, it was part of a national purification process after decades of white supremacist crimes. If anything, the Kenyan probe could be more painful because it may implicate people regarded as national icons.

What's more, this investigation could easily backfire, increasing strife and instability. Nevertheless, Kenya deserves applause for having the courage to open the can of worms without regard to what might crawl out.

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