NAIROBI, DEC. 2 -- Under intense international and domestic pressure to liberalize Kenya's tightly controlled political system, leaders of the ruling party agreed today to give up its constitutional monopoly on power and follow an Africa-wide trend toward multi-party elections.

President Daniel arap Moi, one of the last holdouts among Africa's political "big men," made the recommendation for a switch to multi-party politics at a hastily called meeting of the governing board of his Kenya African National Union party.

District and regional representatives must still approve the change at a separate meeting on Tuesday, but their consent is considered a foregone conclusion.

Today's decision came after "a lively discussion" among the party's leadership, according to a government source close to Moi, who chaired the session. The source said most of the party leaders who spoke out voiced a preference for the single-party system because of Kenya's post-independence history of parties dividing along tribal lines. "But they said if more parties are to come, we are ready to fight it out in the next election," the source said.

The decision to allow multi-party politics marks a dramatic reversal for Moi, who only weeks ago was warning that more pluralism would plunge this relatively peaceful East African nation into the kind of factionalism and tribal bloodletting that has beset many of Kenya's neighbors. But with pressure mounting from democrats at home and aid donors abroad, Moi has shifted his position in recent days, first announcing that multi-party politics would come "in two to three years" and then revising that to "soon."

Today's change comes after events that included a Nov. 16 rally for democracy that was violently dispersed; a presidential inquiry into the murder of a popular foreign minister that produced charges of high-level intrigue and corruption; the firing and later arrest of a powerful cabinet minister close to Moi in connection with the murder; and the decision of the World Bank last week to suspend all assistance to this aid-dependent country for six months coupled with a demand for progress on democratizing the political system and curbing widespread graft.

In making the shift, Moi appears to be meeting at least one of the demands of the donors in time for the six-month deadline governing resumption of aid. But in trying to dictate the nature and pace of change here, Moi also appeared to be attempting to avoid the fate of Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, one of the founding fathers of African independence, who was roundly trounced last October in an election that he only reluctantly had agreed to hold.

The party leaders made no specific mention of when elections might be held here, but analysts predicted Moi will opt for early next year in an effort to leave the opposition little time to organize. The government source also said he expected elections within a few months.

Most opposition leaders reacted cautiously, saying they want a national convention to rewrite Kenya's constitution before elections while criticizing Moi for trying to manipulate the timing of the shift.

"If you want elections in three months, is it really fair to those who are trying to organize?" asked Martin Shikuku, a former member of the National Assembly and a founder of the broad-based Forum for the Restoration of Democracy. "It takes time to organize. It takes time to become known."

Shikuku said his group will insist on the convention and, among other things, will want it to set limits on the presidential term of office, repeal laws inhibiting freedom of assembly and political organization and outlaw detention without trial, which has often been used to harass the opposition.

The opposition is already showing signs of splintering. While the forum's leaders have said they want to transform their pressure group into a political party advocating free-market principles, a separate group of lawyers among the opposition has said it plans to form a party consisting of legal scholars and academics and excluding those, like Shikuku, who are old-time politicians with past links to the government.

Makau Matua, a prominent exile now with a human rights project at Harvard University's law school, said in a telephone interview, "If the government agrees to a national conference, we will be there to participate."

Matua, who left Kenya a decade ago, said, "the country needs a political, moral, economic and generational change" but that with some of the current opposition leaders "there is a possibility of recycling the same leadership."

"I expect a split to develop" in the opposition, Matua said. "I expect for people to split along ideological lines, along generational lines, along the lines of those who serve in government and those who never served in government." He said it would be "a mistake" for the opposition inside Kenya to resent the exiles expected to return now since "we spoke for the movement when the movement had no voice inside the country."