Three months ago Richard Leakey was one of the world's foremost conservationists. Today, to hear Kenya's president tell it, he is a neocolonial anarchist.
Leakey, 50, has launched a new party that has pushed him to the forefront of Kenya's political arena and drawn a torrent of vitriol from President Daniel arap Moi and his party, the Kenya African National Union.
Moi has alleged that the former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and his party, Safina, are sponsored by foreign supporters and are linked to a Kenyan terrorist organization. Last week the ruling party blamed Nairobi's latest surge of violence on Safina, saying the opposition group's embrace of civil disobedience had sparked a crime wave.
Moi repeatedly has assailed Leakey's involvement in Kenyan politics, saying politically active whites are interlopers seeking only to return the east African nation to its former status as a British colony. The president's critics have noted that Leakey, who is known worldwide for his anthropological research as well as his conservation efforts, is a third-generation Kenyan whose brother is one of the country's small white population who supports the ruling party.
Such rebuttals have not daunted Moi. Critics respect freedom of expression only in their own country, he told local reporters recently, singling out the American media. "What about my freedom of speech?" Moi asked.
Violent speech turned into violent action earlier this month when a mob, which included members of the ruling party's youth wing, assaulted Leakey and several Safina members outside a courthouse. As onlookers held signs that read, "We do not want Safina and colonialists here," others whipped and clubbed Leakey and his supporters. Assailants also threw rotten eggs and smashed the windows on Leakey's vehicle.
"I guess I'm a lightning rod," Leakey said in an interview last week.
No government officials have been officially linked with the attack. But after the assault, some ruling party members suggested that Leakey and Safina's followers deserved such treatment.
The incident prompted outrage from Western diplomats and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch/Africa, which urged Attorney General Amos Wako to begin an immediate investigation.
But the ruling party's leader has persisted in lambasting Leakey, accusing him last week of misusing funds while head of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Joseph Kamotho, secretary general of the Kenya African National Union, also suggested that Safina was to blame for a recent spate of violent crime in Nairobi.
"It is unfortunate that recent criminal incidents against innocent Kenyans took place after irresponsible statements . . . by some opposition leaders who openly expressed their intentions to agitate for civil disobedience," Kamotho said.
Leakey said that since leaving the Kenya Wildlife Service two years ago, he has waited for an opportunity to be politically active. He said he believed this was the right moment after meeting with some of Kenya's most prominent politicians, who said they wanted him to serve primarily as a fund-raiser and point man for their new party.
"I don't want to run for president or any office of any kind," Leakey said. "It would be improbable for a white man to achieve the presidency anyway."
Members of Safina say their organization seeks to halt political corruption, rebuild Kenya's crumbling infrastructure, restore its once vaunted education system and resurrect a crippled public health system.
Party leaders say they support civil disobedience to bring about political change, prompting Moi and other government officials to brand Safina members as anarchists.
"We represent a new generation of leaders who feel disenchanted and frustrated by the political landscape, particularly the lack of political reforms we have seen since adopting a multi-party system" in 1992, said Paul Muite, a prominent human rights lawyer and a founding member of Safina.
Muite and Leakey said they had not expected the government's virulent response to their party. In fact, the government has not officially registered Safina and has promoted legislation that would make it virtually impossible for any new political parties to be formed.
There currently are seven opposition parties, not counting Safina, which generally have been splintered by official pressure and by their own disorganization and internal quarrels.
The legislation, known as the Political Parties Bill, would prohibit new parties for a spate of reasons, from appropriating a religious name or symbol (Safina means "ark" and refers to Noah's ark) to receiving funds from foreign governments or nongovernmental organizations.
"It is a crude and obvious attempt to try to make sure that Safina never gets registered," said businessman Robert Shaw, an outspoken member of the new party.
The government appears to have abandoned the bill for now but continues to contend with Safina-related crises, including the assault on Leakey, which occurred in Nakuru, three hours northwest of Nairobi.
Leakey, recalling the incident, said he was walking into Nakuru's courthouse when he saw a knot of people milling near the entrance. He said he did not become alarmed until he saw a sign that said "The country will not be divided by a mzungu." Mzungu means "white man" in Swahili.
He said he was then pelted with eggs and assaulted as he stumbled to his car on artificial legs; his own were amputated after a plane crash three years ago.
"This was clearly organized and condoned by the government," Leakey said, adding that police in and around the courthouse did not intervene during the incident. "I never thought they would be so brazen."
Leakey and his supporters say Moi's party is in a state of panic as it hustles to recover from the massive public relations damage caused by the Nakuru attack. But members of Safina acknowledge that they still face the daunting task of effectively communicating their message to the public, 80 percent of whom live in rural Kenya.
"We have to transform political interest into votes," Leakey said. "That can be a very difficult transition to make. . . . Right now we're just an idea." CAPTION: DANIEL ARAP MOI CAPTION: Conservationist and anthropologist Richard Leakey, after his travails, said, "I guess I'm a lightning rod."