He was one of the last of the giants who led Africa to independence. For 15 years he kept his country stable and, in African terms, prosperous. But conflict may still be among the legacies of Jomo Kenyatta to Kenya. For Kenyatta was unwilling to relax his ruthless hold on power sufficiently to encourage a clear-cut succession to the presidency before his death late last month at 89. This may now lead to eruptions along tribal lines and may also tempt acquisitive neighbors on Kenya’s borders.
Kenyatta emerged on the world scene in the early 1950s as the “bloody butcher” of the Mau Mau rebellion, however unjust the reputation. Then he became the “African equivalent to George Washington” for ushering the British colony into the realm of nations in 1963. The more recent sobriquets, “statesman” and “tyrant,” complicate the picture.
To the extent that he maintained stability among rival tribes, kept the country’s economy healthy and growing, and took Kenya from obscurity to Africa’s front rank, he was a stand-out among Third World leaders. But the price of that bloom was a free, open society. Only one political party was permitted to exist, and Kenyatta had no qualms over cancelling elections or proroguing the national assembly. His government was widely suspected of having ordered the murder of two opponents— Tom Mboya and Joseph Kariuki— who might have taken his place; and corruption and nepotism were a part of life, finding their most blatant expression in the person of Mama Ngina, Kenyatta’s fourth wife.
Ngina’s most flagrant indiscretion was her virtual theft of a fabulously rich ruby mine from a U.S. geologist in 1974. The American was deported soon after announcing his discovery and the next day the mine was registered in the name of a director in Ngina’s business firm. In a country where many top people operated with a hand in the public till, Kenyatta’s family was said to be up to the elbow.
Despite a calm start, debate over the succession could become bitter struggle if tribal rivalries, suppressed for years, once again re-emerge as the pivot of political life. Kenyatta had manoeuvred his fellow Kikuyu to a dominant position over the less numerous Luo, Kamba, Luyia and Kalenjin tribes who might now feel the chance has come to right old wrongs.
Those who were concerned to prevent a bitter internal struggle look to Vice-President Daniel Arap Moi, who will guide the country until the next president is elected, to provide a neutral candidacy. A Kalenjin, he nevertheless has powerful Kikuyu support. For this reason. Attorney-General Charles Njonjo and Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki, both Kikuyus, are also likely candidates.
But Kenyatta’s family risks losing tremendous luxury and influence if its link to the presidency is cut and may well make a bid for survival through former foreign minister Njoroge Mungai, a nephew of Kenyatta. Mungai has held several portfolios in the government, and some Kenyans say he is “obsessed” with the wish to become president.
Kenya’s internal problems are complicated by the political and financial tensions that plague its relations with its partner states in the East African Community, Uganda, Tanzania—and neighbors like Somalia which have longstanding claims to Kenyan territory. Somali communities in northern Kenya fought a savage guerrilla war against the Nairobi government in the 1960s.
Socialist Tanzania closed its border with Kenya in 1977 over a financial disagreement, and ideological differences have chilled the connection for years. To Kenya’s east, Uganda’s ldi Amin claimed in 1976 that large parts of Kenya were historically part of Uganda, and war was only narrowly averted when Kenya helped Israeli commandos during the Entebbe raid.
Kenyatta used such tensions to rally support for the government and cement national unity. His successors will have to do that and more if Kenya’s stability, Kenyatta’s chief legacy, is to survive the leader his countrymen called Mzee, The Wise Old Man.
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