IF YOU took a quarter-century worth of His Excellencies the African Leader and tossed them in a blender, you would come up with a Big Man like this:

His face is on the money. His photograph hangs in every office in his realm. His ministers wear gold pins with tiny photographs of him on the lapels of their tailored pin-striped suits. He names streets, football stadiums, hospitals and universities after himself. He carries a silver-inlaid ivory mace or an ornately carved walking stick or fly whisk or a chiefly stool. He insists on being called "doctor" or "conqueror" or "teacher" or "the big elephant" or "the number-one peasant" or "the wise old man" or "the national miracle" or "the most popular leader in the world." His every pronouncement is reported on the front page. He sleeps with the wives and daughters of powerful men in the government. He shuffles ministers without warning, paralyzing policy decisions as he undercuts pretenders to his throne. He scapegoats minorities to shore up popular support. He bans all political parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections. He emasculates the courts. He cows the press. He stifles academia. He goes to church.

Yet more than 150 leaders, many of them "President for Life," have come and gone as the continent has been sucked downward in a spiral of declining per-capita food production and unpayable foreign debt, of civil war and rampant corruption. Africa was poorer at the end of the 1980s than it was when Big Men first usurped the authority of tribal chiefs and welded it to the power of the modern nation-state.

At first blush, then, the reign of Daniel arap Moi in Kenya does not seem so destructive. After all, Kenya is an island of sanity in comparison to its East African neighbors, and Moi does not sanction the public mutilation of his enemies or write books about African utopia. Instead, he is a stolid, slow-speaking, not-very-bright Big Man who deftly uses the tools of his trade -- payoffs and coercion -- to stay in power.

Yet it is precisely because of Kenya's success that Moi's rule has proved so pernicious. The logic of Moi's survival has been a recipe for national stagnation. His survival requires constant manipulation of the Big Man levers. His need to bleed the business community and grab all political power for himself is inversely proportional to his legitimacy. Since he comes from a tiny tribe, has little personal charisma, was never elected president and cannot reasonably expect to rule with the consent of the Kenyan majority, he needs larger and larger amounts of money to reward supporters, more and more power to silence enemies.

According to the government's own press releases, Kenya must break its dependence on coffee, tea and tourism. There is no other palatable option. All the arable land is already planted. Game parks are severely overcrowded, and poaching has decimated elephant and rhino populations. But Kenya does have a competitive edge. It is well placed to become a manufacturing and service industry hub for East and Central Africa. It has the best port, the best roads, the best climate, the best work force, the best communications network, the best international reputation and the most vigorous free-market tradition in East Africa.

To run with these advantages, the country desperately needs foreign and domestic investment. To compete internationally, the government has to reward efficiency rather than sycophancy. The law has to provide a level playing field for industry. These economic imperatives, which are the sine qua non of any country competing in the world marketplace, do not suit Moi's Big Man system. Wealth that Moi does not control is dissidence. Prosperity is far more destabilizing than stagnation. It should come as no surprise, then, that Kenya's economy -- outside of tourism, coffee and tea -- is dead in the water. Manufactured exports have declined in the 1980s and a parade of foreign manufacturers has pulled out. Almost no new ones have come in. Every year 150,000 young people flood into Kenya's job market. But industry generates only 3,000 new jobs a year. A diplomatic cable sent to Washington by the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi cited a pervasive pattern of "favoritism as well as corruption in the Government of Kenya's treatment of the country's industries."

What grows is what Moi controls: government. In the first seven years of the 1980s, the number of government employees grew at an annual rate of 5.4 percent -- faster than the population, faster than the private sector, faster than the gross national product. It makes no economic sense. But it is perfectly consistent with Moi's need to buy loyalty.

In the Moi years, an ethic of corruption has percolated deep into the civil service. In the mid-1980s, a friend of mine who works in the Finance Ministry told me with great pride that his mid-level civil servant colleagues were highly motivated and relatively honest. By the end of the decade, he despairingly said that "every bureaucratic bottleneck is now presided over by somebody asking for money."

Kenya's descent into greed is by no means unique. Nor, by African standards, is it exceptionally venal. Yet Kenya is an African nation that has an opportunity not to unravel, and each day, as the population grows, as Moi's rot spreads, the window of opportunity closes. The future of 22 million Kenyans (in less than 20 years it will be 44 million) is being squandered to preserve one boring unelected president. The simplest cure for Big Man disease in Kenya, as across black Africa, would be Moi's replacement with a new, improved Big Man. If such a leader commanded personal authority he did not have to buy, if he were willing to operate within a framework of laws, if he exploited Kenya's potential for accelerated industrial growth, and if he was convinced of the need to resuscitate parliament and other decision-making bodies that allowed Kenyans to participate in their own governance, then the decline of Kenya could be turned around.

On a trip to Ghana I asked military leader Jerry Rawlings -- who is a new and improved Big Man -- what is the best treatment for a slowly disintegrating country like Kenya. "An enlightened dictator," he whispered.

The dismal history of leadership in independent Africa, however, suggests that the odds are against Moi's successor being an enlightened despot, a philosopher king. Gibson Kamau Kuria, the gutsy Kenyan lawyer whom Moi jailed, vilified and this year forced into exile, told me again and again that Africans must learn not to place their future in the hands of a big chief, who may or may not turn out to be benevolent. Big Man disease, he said, can only be cured by vigorous institutions that limit individual power while increasing popular participation in government. To that end, Western governments and multilateral lending agencies may be able to play a supporting role in preserving or rebuilding Africa's democratic institutions. In that spirit, a top World Bank official recently urged the Kenyan government to do more to bring about democratic change.

The power of the West to influence policy in poor African countries grew enormously in the 1980s. The poorer Africa became, the more it had to accept conditions on aid. Outsiders have become the architects of economic policy in much of black Africa. Kenya is particularly beholden to the West. The IMF demands devaluation of the Kenyan shilling and Kenya devalues. The choice is simple: reform or no loan money.

For the time being, at least, Kenya has a legal tradition and democratic institutions. Both are wobbly, but they still exist. There are still large numbers of trained and committed people who believe in the rule of law and the usefulness of parliament. These individuals, however, are helpless in the face of Moi's one-man state, which is propped up by hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and tourist money. What they desperately need is for Western donors to insist on free elections in the same way that they insist on a rationally valued currency. The U.S. Congress acted properly when it voted recently to freeze $15 million in military aid, linking its resumption to political freedom.

After an explosion of of international press criticism in 1987, Kenya's Big Man temporarily stopped his police from torturing people. He even stooped so low as to grant me -- a journalist whom he once described as "serving foreign masters" and using "dirty words" -- an interview. He did so for the sake of continued aid and to preserve an international reputation that keeps the tourists coming. Considering Moi's weak political base, his paranoia, and his boundless greed, my bet is that he also will stop stealing elections, bullying judges, and dismantling the constitution. That is, if he has no other way to get the money.

Blaine Harden, Warsaw bureau chief for The Washington Post, previously was based in Nairobi. This article was adapted from "Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent," published by Norton.