Son of Kenya's first president doles out reform promises and hard cash


Two decades after the death of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya's first president and the revered "Father of the Nation", his son Uhuru is making a bid for political office. Standing for the ruling KANU party in next week's general election, Uhuru (37) hopes his reformist ideas can help steer the discredited regime of President Daniel arap Moi back on course.

"I want to breathe fresh life into KANU and Kenya," he says. But standards have slipped so far since the early days of Kenyan independence that vote-rigging and vote-buying are widespread. Uhuru (whose name means Freedom in Swahili) has become prisoner of the rotten system, handing out handfuls of cash to woo voters.

"Sometimes I have to do it," he admits. "I can't just stand there and say `No, I'm not going to give you money'. People expect you to give out money." A businessman with interests in hotels, farming and horticulture, Uhuru is known as a generous man. He is expected to win a seat the Gatundu South constituency of Thika, the place immortalised by Elspeth Huxley in her autobiography, The Flame Trees of Thika. But it is doubtful that he can resuscitate the prosperous Kenya of his father's day.

"My father would be concerned about the condition of the country," he confesses. "Public funds have not been used as they should have been. Our infrastructure has taken a beating, our health service and education system too." Uhuru Kenyatta is in an invidious position. He is contesting a constituency in the traditional homeland of the Kikuyus, Kenya's largest tribe. In his father's day, this was staunchly pro-KANU territory. Not only is Kenyatta a Kikuyu name: it is also synonymous with KANU, of which Jomo Kenyatta became president in 1960 while serving a sentence for his part in the Mau Mau anti-colonial uprising.

But the Kikuyus have become so disillusioned with the KANU of President Moi that Central Province is now resolutely antigovernment. KANU failed to win a single seat in the province in the first multi-party elections in 1992. "I'm on a KANU ticket because of strong family ties and because I believe in the party's principles," Uhuru told The Irish Times as he campaigned in coffee-growing Thika, just outside Nairobi. "But if I crossed over to the [opposition] Democratic Party, I wouldn't even need to campaign, I could just stay at home."

Observers point out the government had to gerrymander the former constituency of Gatundu, dividing it into North and South, to give Uhuru a more-than-even chance. They also say that at voter registration time the government imported KANU supporters into the constituency from outside. Jomo Kenyatta's son is wary of criticising his father's successor openly. But he makes no secret of his wish to loosen Moi's autocratic hold on power. "I'm very much in favour of weakening the presidency," he says. "It should be separated from the running of government. It would be better to have a prime minister as head of government so the president could retain the dignity of his position. We need to change the system of government, everyone is unhappy about the state the country is in."

This is brave, probably foolhardy talk even if he is the son of Jomo Kenyatta, the man is whose symbolic footsteps the nation is urged to follow. But it is the sort of talk that appeals to the Kikuyus who have seen their former dominance eroded by Moi's complex web of tribal alliances.

The people who turn out to listen to Uhuru Kenyatta at the hustings are poor farmers; many of them are barefoot. They listen attentitively and raise a small cheer when prompted.

"We will vote for him even though he didn't do what he did in other places," says one man. "Usually he dishes out a lump sum and it's shared. But today there was no money."

Cash is expected to pour from KANU coffers during the coming week - and the farmers of Thika will be there to collect their share.