It certainly looked like a crime scene: scattered ashes, singed cloth and human bones. They lay not three miles from where the abandoned four-wheel-drive Suzuki of a missing British tourist turned up, 11 years ago, in a remote corner of Kenya's most famous game park.

But officially, the death of Julie Ward at first was dismissed as a suicide. When that finding collapsed under the strain of envisioning a 28-year-old woman cutting off her head and leg before setting herself on fire, blame was shifted to wild animals--and her death certificate was altered to say so.

At this point hotelier John Ward stepped in, spending $800,000 on private investigations into his only daughter's demise, writing a book, "The Animals are Innocent," and finally forcing Kenyan officials to move on the case.

Yet by the time a Nairobi judge read his verdict in a long-awaited murder trial on Sept. 17, the outcome--not guilty for the game warden who found her remains--was almost irrelevant. The Ward case by then had passed from the realm of criminal investigation into something Kenyans know only too well: a political potboiler.

No one, say critics of the government that has ruled Kenya since 1963, expects a full accounting to emerge in any of several controversial cases, muddled from the start by investigators accountable only to President Daniel arap Moi. But in the half-light of Kenyan democracy, where freedom of expression thrives but real power is concentrated in the executive, each scandal has gained sufficient notoriety to alarm the outside donors who provide financially strapped Kenya with a large fraction of its budget.

And that, critics say, keeps at least the appearance of inquiry alive year after year.

"What is operating here is deliberate incompetence," said Kivutha Kibwana, a law professor at the University of Nairobi. "The judiciary is going through the motions."

The Ward case, which dates back the longest, seems the least likely to be seen as political. When Julie Ward vanished, the single, cheerful young Briton had been photographing the abundant game in the Masai Mara game reserve, where helicopters filmed the swooping backdrops to "Out of Africa."

Death in such a setting ensured attention; the London tabloids dubbed her "the safari girl." But it was the efforts of Kenyan authorities to call an obvious murder by any other name that kept John Ward's investigation in the spotlight for more than a decade.

Elaborate political theories gained currency in that time. One involved senior Kenyan officials, Israelis and a smuggling ring. Another implicated the president's son. Ward discounted them all--returning to the park rangers he suspected of having abducted and abused his daughter.

The tourist's murder was sandwiched between two strikingly similar deaths. The burned and mutilated body of Foreign Minister Robert Ouko was found in 1990, that of populist legislator Josiah Kariuki in 1975.

Ouko's death caused such an uproar that Moi invited Scotland Yard to investigate. The detectives later complained that political interference had impeded their investigation but named two senior ministers as suspects, including current Regional Cooperation Minister Nicholas K. Biwott.

Scotland Yard also was invited to investigate the Ward case, and its investigators pointed the finger at two park rangers who had been tried and acquitted in 1992. But critics contend that the very fact outsiders were called in reflects two unbecoming realities about Kenya.

One is its national police force. In political circles, Kenyan police are notorious for using whips to break up opposition rallies. Shaking down motorists and beating suspects are routine, Kenyans say.

Critics added that by opening the Ward investigation to British police, Moi not only implicitly acknowledged the inadequacy of the Kenyan force, he also showed outsiders a sensitivity that Kenyans seldom enjoy.

"The government is no longer accountable to the Kenyan people," said Gibson Kuria, chairman of the Law Society of Kenya, which is at the forefront of a broad movement favoring a new constitution. "It is accountable to donors."

CAPTION: Simon Ole Makallah was tried in Julie Ward's death and exonerated.

CAPTION: Julie Ward was taking photos in a game park when she vanished.