NAIROBI, DEC. 3 -- Chanting Swahili slogans and crooning songs in praise of the 12-year rule of President Daniel arap Moi, more than 3,000 local leaders of Kenya's ruling party met here today to debate political reforms in an atmosphere that seemed designed instead to celebrate the status quo.
The much-awaited conference of delegates of the Kenya African National Union, which was called to consider reforms in the wake of violent protests in favor of greater democracy earlier this year, featured spirited speeches in defense of single-party rule and fiery denunciations of Western donors, human rights activists, Kenyan dissidents and foreign journalists.
"Multi-party democracy is a stepchild of the West!" shouted one delegate to thunderous cheers and high-pitched ululations from numerous female delegates. "We say, one party, one government, one president!"
The meeting at times resembled a homecoming pep rally but nevertheless represented a timely test of whether a single-party state in Africa can truly reform itself in the face of unprecedented calls for fundamental change.
Critics charge that the union, the nation's ruling party since independence in 1963, has lost touch with the people's concerns and is rotting with stagnation and corruption.
The meeting comes at a time when many other countries in Africa are either debating or implementing changes toward political pluralism, among them Zambia, Gabon, Benin, Mozambique and Ivory Coast. Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is due to hold legislative elections this week in a process that is scheduled to lead to two-party, democratic governance by 1992 after seven years of military rule.
This morning, Moi strode onto the court at the Moi International Basketball Pavilion on the grounds of the Moi International Sports Center to enthusiastic shouts and rhythmic applause from his party faithful.
With his ever-present rungu stick of authority in hand, and attired, like thousands of others, in the bright red shirt symbolizing the party, the Kenyan leader took a seat overlooking halfcourt and urged the delegates to debate the reforms seriously.
"We are all here as servants of the people. We do not dictate to the people. Rather, we do the bidding of the people," Moi said, adding that "some people in the developed world" have a mistaken view that Kenya is governed by autocratic rule.
"Let us treat this myth of autocracy with the contempt that it deserves," he said. "We should feel free to speak our minds on anything that affects this nation and people."
Earlier this year, more than 20 people were killed in riots triggered by calls for greater civil freedom and more political parties in Kenya, a legally enforced one-party state. In the wake of the riots, authorities arrested more than a dozen political dissidents and other opponents of the government and clamped down on press freedoms.
Partly in response to pressure from Western donors, including the United States, the Moi government later announced plans to consider reforms in the political system. It invited citizens to come forward with suggestions at a series of public hearings held around the country and chaired by Vice President George Saitoti.
By the hundreds, Kenyans expressed their gripes, demanding, among other things, a limit to two five-year terms on the length of service of any president, a law allowing more political parties to operate, the lifting of the regime's ban on several outspoken publications and return to the secret ballot in elections. Currently, Kenyans vote by standing in line behind a picture of their candidate.
The Saitoti committee made its own recommendations upon the completion of the hearings, but its report was kept under wraps until today. To the surprise of few, the report recommended "no changes in the presidency" and a maintenance of the one-party state.