A good man in Africa

December 1, 1995

Palaeontologist turned politician Richard Leakey makes no bones about corruption in his beloved Kenya. Aisling Irwin reports. I have been accused by the president of Kenya of being a racist and of being a foreigner. I will never accept that as long as I stand." Thus spoke Richard Leakey, palaeontologist turned Kenyan politician, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London last week.

It was an ironic statement, given that Leakey was only able to stand in front of his eager audience because of his artificial legs. Ironic because they were the result of an aircraft crash in 1993, popularly believed to be the result of sabotage by supporters of the Kenyan president.

The question of whether Leakey will be standing for much longer gives his comment another sad twist. His warning to his London audience last week that Kenya is in danger of becoming another Nigeria will not endear him to the Kenyan president, Daniel arup Moi, who has broadcast a daily invective against Leakey since he set up an opposition political party last May.

"A parallel between Nigeria and Kenya should be drawn," Leakey told the meeting of the SOAS politics society. "We need to make certain that we don't go too far down the road in that regard."

Leakey, third generation Kenyan, declared last May that his beloved country had descended into corruption and that his new party, Safina, would help contest Kenya's next elections, due in 1997.

Forming an opposition party in Kenya is more awkward, and a little more terrifying, than doing the same here. In August youth members of Moi's party beat him up with whips and clubs. He says that Kenyan radio regularly broadcasts warnings that certain opposition leaders risk beatings and other problems if they venture into various parts of the country. And last week he reported that he is still unable to get his party registered. "As far as we know there is no legal impediment," he told the London audience.

But Leakey also had good news to report. This remarkable man claims there is now an unprecedented unity among the opposition parties in Kenya, which are mainly divided along tribal lines. Only through a coalition, he believes, will Moi be voted out. One problem is that coalition governments are at present unconstitutional - but that seems a smallish obstacle compared with others.

Kenyan commentators have remarked that the fact that Leakey is white might enable him to be a unique bridge between tribally based opposition parties. But Leakey has other qualities at his command: qualities that enabled him first to make major contributions to palaeontology, then to take the lead in draconian conservation methods in Africa, and to save the African elephant from extinction.

Leakey, 50, left school at 15. By 24 he was director of Kenya's national museums, having followed his father and mother, Louis and Mary Leakey, into palaeontology. His team discovered a skull in northern Kenya which was claimed to be the oldest ever found. This and other fossil finds were controversial but made his contribution to palaeontology undisputed. He made the museum a success. In 1988 President Moi announced that Leakey was to take over Kenya's mess of a wildlife service, and Leakey, who heard the news after it was broadcast on the radio, agreed. His strategy for saving wildlife was aggressive, highly disciplined and spectacular. His rangers effectively became a small army. The dead, he announced, would in future be the poachers rather than the elephants. The most dramatic moment of his campaign, a moment which was broadcast around the world, was his burning of a pile of ivory tusks worth Pounds 3 million.

But his relationship with Moi turned sour and in 1994 he left the wildlife service, convinced that corruption was destroying Kenya. He told last week's meeting that corruption was endemic "across the length and breadth of our country". The roots of the corruption go back further than the present government, he said, pinpointing in particular the late 1960s, when "superpower rivalry was at its height. It was much easier then to close your eyes to bad governments, to dramatic abuses of human rights."

What makes this six-foot-four, charismatic man angry is the West's surrender to the idea that "corruption is African".

"The concept of fair play and the reasonable expectation of fair play in your daily life is not a Western concept," he said. "African society was as fair and structured as any other society before the advent of colonialism. The system has failed. It is accountability that we desperately need."

Leakey says he is fighting for democracy, which he says is the ability to "speak out when things are not going right". His obstacles include the fact that "the radio and the television are totally controlled by the government and it is virtually impossible for anything that the opposition does, unless it is seen as negative, to be reported. Can we expect to have a free and fair election unless these issues are addressed?" In the last elections, in 1992, Moi reached power with one third of the country's votes because the other two thirds was divided between tribal opposition parties. So Leakey's strategy is to encourage a coalition between the opposition parties. "The opposition doesn't have a head, a brain. It is everywhere and nowhere. It must have an administration, a policy body."

Leakey and the opposition parties are setting up a secretariat, a kind of civil service, that will provide the coalition with an infrastructure to combat the civil service that supports Moi. The secretariat has, he says "been endorsed at the highest level of the opposition". The policies are already being thought out: a bill of rights; policy on Kenya's role in the wider region, on the surplus of manpower, on how to compete with southern Africa, and on regional environmental issues.

To avoid unnecessary infighting, Leakey has said that his party, Safina, may not field many candidates in the next election but may act as an enabler instead. His progress in preventing infighting seems promising. For example, he had with him, for a trip to the United States from which he had just returned, a letter signed by the opposition leaders "mandating me to talk on any issue. That could not have happened six months ago." And, he said, "I expect there to be an announcement about developments that will make certain that in the next election, the opposition alliance will field an candidate for the presidency and one in each and every constituency of the country drawn from whichever party happens to be strong in that area". He says that "each of the party leaders with one exception has agreed to stand down and allow a consensus to be reached" about how to choose a presidential candidate.

This man has been described as arrogant, self-centred and domineering as well as competitive, thorough and determined. Will he succeed? Will he even live? Leakey was reported in The Times a few months ago to have said: "I don't have a death wish. But I have no wish to sit and watch a country I love dearly go down the wrong road without trying to stop it".

Last week he said: "If we lose, pessimism will set in with enormous consequences. I know that there are people who are slightly cynical about the prospects of getting anything done. They may be right. I think they are wrong."

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