POLITICS-KENYA: Powell’s Visit Generated High Expectations

Katy Salmon

NAIROBI, May 28 2001 (IPS) - In Kenya, there were high expectations ahead of US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s historic visit. Would he quiz President Daniel arap Moi on the suspected murder of American priest Father John Kaiser?

Would Kenyan victims of Nairobi’s 1998 US embassy bomb blast win additional compensation? What about the persistent rumours that Moi will stand in next year’s election, violating the constitution’s two-term rule?

After Powell’s frank attack on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for his “totalitarian methods” of clinging on to power after 20 years in office, the assembled audience were hoping for an equally fiery outburst here in Kenya.

Powell did not mince words in his candid criticism of Mugabe last week. “It is for the citizens of Zimbabwe to choose their leader in a free and fair election and they should be given one so that they can make their choice,” he said.

Generally, Moi’s State House press conferences are little more than photo opportunities. The president labours through a prepared speech and shakes hands with the visiting dignitary while the photographers dutifully snap away. Everyone is very polite, full of praise and thanks, keen to emphasise their “close and cordial relations” with one another.

When one impertinent journalist asked the question everyone had been dying to put – “Given Powell’s comments about Mugabe, would President Moi stand down after 23 years in power?” – there was nervous laughter all round.

Moi hardly ever takes questions from the press. He didn’t even seem to understand that he was expected to reply until Powell prompted him to step up to the mic.

The president’s answer was as evasive and cryptic as ever. “I think it is too much for always trying to undermine the intelligence of the African people,” Moi said. “Those who will decide the destiny of Kenya or other countries will be the people themselves. I don’t know what’s worrying you.”

Powell did not want to get bogged down in sensitive domestic issues. He had made it clear that his visit to Africa would focus on the broad issues of HIV/Aids and regional conflicts, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.

The new US administration needs to make amends for President George Bush’s gaffe when he dismissed the world’s poorest continent as “not a priority area”. This trip was deliberately scheduled ahead of visits to Asia or South America to convince Africa that the US has not forgotten it.

“Africa matters to America, by history and by choice,” Powell, America’s first African-American secretary of state, told his South African audience last week. “Our futures are closely intertwined. I will enthusiastically engage with Africa on behalf of the American people.”

One of the main reasons for visiting Kenya – which President Bill Clinton steered well clear of – was because of the US’s interest in resolving the long-running conflict in neighbouring Sudan. Moi has been at the centre of diplomatic efforts to end the war, under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

At State House, Powell started out by re-affirming “President Bush’s determination that Africa will be a priority in American foreign policy”. As evidence, he pointed to Bush’s 200-million- dollar commitment to the Global Development Fund to deal with the HIV/Aids pandemic and the African Growth and Opportunity Act follow-on forum to be held in Washington later in the year.

But it was his hearty commendation of President Moi’s democratic credentials that really hurt in light of the mounting political violence in Kenya. Moi’s government has been widely criticised for its poor human rights record and suppression of the opposition.

Tension is high ahead of next year’s elections. Although Moi is constitutionally bound to step down, there are fears that he will find a way to run again. He it reluctant to comment on the issue and has done nothing to silence several Cabinet Ministers who are noisily clamouring for him to stay on.

Freedom of speech and association are regularly violated. In recent months, several opposition rallies have been broken up by the police, or hired thugs. Only last week, the leader of the official opposition, Mwai Kibaki, was petrol bombed at a rally in the western town of Busia.

After a rally in April – at which several politicians agreed to unite behind a single presidential candidate so as to defeat the ruling Kanu party – one parliamentarian was arrested and charged with treason. Moi then ordered the police to video tape all future political gatherings.

Yet Powell appeared oblivious to all this. “Kenya is an example to the rest of the region of what can be accomplished with elections that allow people to make a choice as to how they will be governed,” he said. “We look forward to the election in 2002 for the people of Kenya once again to come forward and express their desires with respect to how they will be governed.”

He made an even greater blunder by expressing his “clear understanding and belief in the constitutional system that exists here in Kenya”. The importance of constitutional reform is widely acknowledged as a top priority to create a level playing field for democracy after Moi was pressurised to abandon his one-party dictatorship in 1990.

Powell scored some points with his comments that Moi needs to step up anti-corruption efforts before the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) can agree to resume lending. Donors suspended 300 million dollars in loans to Kenya late last year after the government backtracked on promises on privatisation and the fight against corruption.

But the culture of corruption is so deeply entrenched in Kenya that this is not such a burning issue for most people. They have been born and raised under a system where it is normal to pay the police or government officials a little “tea money” for their services.

Powell, on a six-day African tour, visited Mali, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda.

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