Kenya: The Safest Pair of Hands

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Kenyans had good reason to cheer when Uhuru Kenyatta was heavily defeated in the presidential election at the end of last year.

Kenyatta was the chosen successor of Daniel arap Moi, the man who ruled the country for 24 years from 1978. It was probably a surprise to many people that Moi did not fiddle the result this time--as he did in 1992 and 1997. Such blatant rigging was passed over by Moi's western backers, who saw him as a valuable agent of 'stability' in the region. Moi got on very well with the British Tories. Kenya's prestigious Moi University proudly boasts the Margaret Thatcher library. During the first Gulf War in 1991 against Iraq, Moi lined up completely with US demands. In return he won financial aid from the British government and military support from the US.

The Kenyan vote is a sign of mounting resentment at years of poverty, lack of democracy and a tiny elite creaming off most of the wealth. It also demonstrated how Africans can overcome efforts to divide them on 'tribal' lines. The ruling party's crude efforts to play on regional and ethnic backgrounds completely failed.

But there is very little chance that the new man in charge, Mwai Kibaki, is going to bring any real change. Opponents of dictatorial regimes can be elected on the basis they stand for 'democracy' without in any way offering an alternative to the capitalist economic policies that are the root of the repression. This is what happened two years ago in Ghana, where John Kufuor was elected. He put forward a 'fresh start' after the Jerry Rawlings era. But Kufuor then worked cosily with the privatisers and the bankers while they turned the screw on ordinary people.

We can expect the same from Kibaki. He spent years at the centre of Moi's governments, and is committed to working alongside the western governments and international agencies. Such a 'safe pair of hands' was why in the end the west may have preferred an opposition win to a desperate effort by Moi's man to cheat his way to power with all the violence that would entail.

Given that the US may want to use Kenyan bases in a war against Iraq, George W Bush wanted calm in East Africa, not turbulence and embarrassment for the west about its support for dictators. The hope in Kenya is that the massive feeling for change, evidenced in the election, will find a real focus based on struggle from below.