ENVIRONMENT-KENYA: Wangari Maathai Running For President

Judith Achieng'

NAIROBI, Dec 13 1997 (IPS) - Wangari Maathai has risen to international fame as an environmental activist, but political analysts say she has little hope of making a name for herself as a candidate for Kenya’s top job.

A latecomer to the race, which she joined only last month, she said she had been pressured by the public to run. “I come because people have asked me to contest,” said Maathai, who heads the Greenbelt Movement, an environmentalist group.

This is not the first time the 57-year-old holder of some 14 interntional awards is venturing into politics.

In 1992, she came close to contesting when she was endorsed by a cross-section of the Kenyan population as its presidential candidate, an offer she declined, preferring to try and unite Kenya’s fragmented opposition parties.

She failed to persuade the opposition to field a single candidate against President Daniel arap Moi and, as a result, Moi and his Kenya African National Union (KANU) party were returned to office.

Maathai, who in 1971 became the first woman in East and Central Africa to acquire a doctorate in biological science, is running for the Liberal Party of Kenya (LPK), which she launched last month. “Kenyans have to look for an alternative leader,” said the environmentalist, who is also her party’s parliamentary candidate for Tetu constituency, some 200 kms north of here.

Political analysts here doubt that she will make any impact. “Maathai joins a hostile and crowded political scene where only schemers can win, unlike in environmental circles where her credibility is recognised,” political commentator Kwendo Opanga wrote in the ‘Sunday Nation’ newspaper soon after the launch of the party.

Maathai became a household name here in the late 1980s and early 1990s when she aggressively campaigned against the fraudulent allocation of gazetted government forests to wealthy individuals.

She then disappeared from the limelight following a series of clashes she had with the Kenyan security officials, after she helped to resettle people displaced by ethnic clashes in 1992.

By joining this year’s presidential race, some think she will spoil the chances of the only woman among the 15 candidates, Charity Ngilu of the Social Democratic Party, who early this year became the first woman in Kenya to declare her intention to run for president.

Ngilu, a 45-year-old businesswoman, draws much of her support from among women, especially those in the rural areas, who form about 52 percent of Kenya’s adult population.

She also identifies strongly with urban Kenyans who praise her for breaking the long-held myth that a woman could never seek the highest electable office in the East African country.

Analysts say that Ngilu, who was elected member of parliament for Kitui Central, some 300 kilometres east of here, in 1992, is the most serious of the 15 aspirants, and the one most tipped to beat Moi who is seeking re-election.

But the Ngilu factor does not seem to discourage Maathai. “Women like competition and this is no exception,” she says. “The most important thing is that come the election day and Kenyans will not be looking for a woman, but a leader.

“I don’t know how popular I am. Kenyans will decide on Dec. 29.”

But the former professor of animal science of the University of Nairobi ran into trouble when she told a news conference here that her LPK had not prepared a manifesto but was relying on that of the Green Belt Movement.

Commented Opanga: “A political party which seeks to lead Kenya must tell the people what it intends to do to solve the myriad problems facing the country and what this will mean in terms of government spending.

“If the professor does not think this question is crucial, then I would ask that she explains what the Green Belt Movement stands for.”

Opanga and other political commentators claim te Green Belt Movement is only keen on environmental issues. “If you ask most Kenyans about the Movement, they will tell you that it plants trees,” he says.

But Maathai has promised that her agenda will include issues KANU has failed to address such as destruction of the environment, general infrastructure, poverty, diseases and the exploitation of peasants.

While she is unlikely to win the presidential race, many people feel that, with her record as a human rights activist, se is likely to cop the consolation prize: the Tetu parliamentary seat.

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