Power slipping away from Moi's grasp in Kenya


On Friday, the people of Kenya, rated the sixth most corrupt country in the world, will chose a new president. Declan Walsh, in Nairobi, reports on the massive task facing the winner

Just  off Nairobi's main highway a massive iron fist, brandishing a baton, thrusts into the air.

The monument was erected in the 1980s as a tribute to the great rule of President Daniel arap Moi. These days it is a fitting symbol of Kenya's crumbling decline.

The tiles are flaking away and the fountain has run dry. Drug addicted children sleep by the steps. And most embarrassingly of all, the fist has lost three fingers. Now the baton, the famous mark of presidential potency, rests delicately between one finger and a thumb. Power is literally slipping from his fingers.

Standing below the statue, Jethro Mwikisha mused on the Moi legacy. "This is a looted country. Nothing has gone right for 24 years," he said as a homeless woman hassled him for change. "We will be very happy to see him go."

Kenya is the grip of high excitement in the run up to next Friday's presidential poll, the country's biggest election ever. After 24 years in charge President Moi, one of Africa's quintessential Big Men, is stepping aside. In his place will come either his chosen successor, the young Uhuru Kenyatta or - far more likely - the opposition leader Mwai Kibaki.

Kenyans are struggling to imagine life without Moi, the 78-year-old former schoolmaster who has come to dominate their lives.

His face is everywhere - printed on banknotes, stamped on coins and hanging from every office wall.

Hospitals, streets, schools and airports are named after him. The president's gravely pronouncements to the nation in farm boy Swahili have become woven into the fabric of life. Some say they might even miss the old man. "Although we dwell on the bad things, Kenyans have some emotional attachment to him," says Walter Mongare, a comedian who is famous for a cutting TV satire that portrays Moi as a bumbling fool.

However, there is likely to be little sentimentality in Friday's vote.

Some weeks ago the International Republican Institute gave Kibaki a 47 point lead over Kenyatta.

Yesterday the respected East African newspaper said the gap between the two men was at least one million votes. Kenyatta, a young dynamic man, should be doing better. But as the candidate of Moi's Kanu party, he is paying for the sins of the past.

Corruption and mismanagement have swept through Kenyan like a killer virus. State companies to run tea, coffee, water, electricity and phones have been sucked dry by political cronies appointed to run them. At the lowest end, badly paid policemen flag down motorists on the road to extract a little money.

According to watchdog organisation Transparency International, Kenya is the world's sixth most corrupt country.

HIV/AIDS is decimating society. One in Kenyans is infected with the HIV virus.

Notwithstanding a miracle cure, all will die from it. Moi's first response was to advise Kenyans to abstain from sex. Since recognising the crisis, his ministers have done practically nothing about it.

Millions of peasants have left the countryside and poured into Nairobi in search of jobs. All they find is misery. Patricia Atieno lives in a corner of Kibera, a sprawling sea of shacks that houses 800,000 people. It is the second largest slum in Africa.

She has not decided whom to vote for, but it may not matter - she is dying of AIDS. "I may not still be alive by then," she said, her face barely discernible in the gloom of the mud and cardboard shack.

Anger has prompted the diaspora to come home en masse, especially to vote.

Lawrence Wahome returned from Afghanistan, where he works with the United Nations. "I cannot think of anything good that man has done. He should have left a long time ago," he said.

In a matter of months the newly formed National Rainbow Coalition - a grouping of opposition parties led by Kibaki - has whipped up massive nationwide support. But it is no union of white knights. Although Kibaki has a clean record, some of his lieutenants - such as former vice-president George Saitoti - were Kanu stalwarts until a couple of months ago, where they sycophantically served Moi.

There are still worries the landmark election could be derailed at the last minute.

There are daily reports of localised vote rigging and violence, although there is no sign of a co-ordinated push to try and steal the vote.

Opposition firebrand Raila Odinga sparked controversy by proclaiming his supporters would storm State House if Kanu cheated its way to victory.

President Moi's reaction: "Let him try."

But there are also positive signs for a peaceful transition. The election will be monitored by 40,000 international and local observers. The vigorous local press is publicising all cases of possible malpractice.

Then last weekend over 200 army troops gathered in a city park to practice a power handover ceremony slated for January 5th.

In place of Kenya's next president stood an ordinary soldier. President Moi stayed at home.