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The need to walk a fine diplomatic line in Kenya

Alphonso Van Marsh

By Alphonso Van Marsh
CNN Correspondent

October 22, 1999
Web posted at: 1:09 p.m. EDT (1709 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

Internal debate

A question of sovereignty

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- Madeleine Albright's visit here this week likely will be remembered for her tribute to those who died in last year's U.S. Embassy bombing and the dedication of America's new diplomatic mission here.

But concern over Kenyan political and economic disarray is said to equally drive the secretary of state's agenda. And the solution she is pushing with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi is economic and constitutional reform, according to U.S. officials.

Promoting democracy and reform in Kenya is not just a U.S. concern, though.

There's an international perception of widespread corruption here -- so much so that the International Monetary Fund cut off loans to Kenya in 1997 and has yet to reinstate them pending further talks.

More than 40 percent of Kenya's people live in poverty. Economic growth dropped from 4.9 percent in 1995 to around 1.7 percent in 1997, government statistics show, and local analysts say the economy is not expected to reach the government's 2.3 percent growth projection for this year. Violent crime is on the rise.

"Kenyans are very worried because the country has been one of the most stable in the continent, but the way the economy and governance are moving, this causes people to fear that we may have a failure," said Gibson Kamau Kuria, chairman of the Kenyan Law Society, an association of legal professionals advocating economic and political reform.

Americans and other members of the international community should care, Kenyan opposition leaders say, because it is their money supporting Moi's government in the form of international aid.

Even Moi, addressing the nation, has come to admit publicly that corruption runs through his government: "Regrettably, corruption and laxity within the public service not only cause serious wastage of our scarce resources, but also undermine the confidence investors have in our country."

Internal debate

Many Kenyans blame their country's woes on Moi's KANU political party, which has been in power for 36 years, and on Kenya's constitution. Moi, in office for 21 years, serves as KANU party chairman.

Moi promised reform after violence marred Kenya's 1997 national election.

Some observers suggest the first sign of follow-though was his appointment last summer of Richard Leakey, of the famed paleontologist family, as head of Kenya's civil service and secretary to the Cabinet.

Leakey's mandate to root out corruption and jump-start the economy has taken the very public form of streamlining Kenya's bureaucratic system from 27 to 15 ministries. But Kenya's opposition parties have widely dismissed the appointment of the white, third-generation Kenyan as window-dressing to appease international donors.

Some Western diplomats here say Moi has been stalling true reform until after his presidential term ends. Moi has suggested he will retire after his current five-year term.

Advocates for constitutional reform say the current constitution, created when Kenya won independence from Britain in 1963, protects the interests of a small elite while poorly serving the rest of the country. The critics claim it keeps KANU in power.

Only recently has Moi suggested Kenya's national Parliament conduct a constitutional review.

His suggested approach disappoints a growing number of Kenyans who, through street demonstrations and petitions, have been demanding a so-called "people-driven" constitutional review. They don't trust Parliament's KANU majority to grant sought-after freedoms, such as allowing other political parties greater influence on national policy, prior to the 2002 election.

But Kenyan Minister of State Julius Sunkuli, also a KANU member of Parliament, disagrees. He says that as elected representatives of the people, Parliament is the "people-driven" constitutional process.

"President Moi recognizes the fact that Parliament ought to make the laws of this country," Sunkuli says. "Going back to the citizens without educating them is not of any use at all."

A question of sovereignty

More recently, internal debate on constitutional and economic reform has generally been tolerated. Police have been observing, not breaking up, student protests. Both state-controlled and state-censored media have been rife with pro-reform coverage.

But pressure from the international community, in the form of suspended financial aid and tough talk from visiting dignitaries, has soured Kenyan officials.

After South Africa's high commissioner, or ambassador, in Nairobi publicly suggested this month that Kenya model its constitution after South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, Moi chose his nationally broadcast Moi Day speech to offer rebuke.

"They come here and lecture us -- do they think we are fools?" Moi asked in the speech to Kenyans who packed Nairobi's football stadium. "I have never gone to any country or asked my high commissioners or ambassadors to interfere with any other country. We don't need their constitution!"

Minister of State Sunkuli told CNN ahead of Albright's visit that she should be sensitive to Kenya's sovereignty.

"Every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes to Kenya to represent his people believes that he has a right to discuss how he thinks we should govern ourselves, either now or in the future," Sunkuli said.

"I don't think sovereignty would have any meaning if we allowed everybody to tell us how to govern."

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