Kenya's electoral commission today set Dec. 27 as the date for elections that will mark the end of President Daniel arap Moi's rule after 24 years in power.
Kenyans' enthusiasm over the prospect of electing a new leader was muted, however, by anger over Moi's decision last week to dissolve a panel that recommended far-reaching constitutional changes and by the timing of the election.
Opposition leaders said many Kenyans who are registered to vote in urban areas where they live and work would travel to rural areas to spend Christmas with their families and would be unable to return in time for the election.
With tension running high, Samuel Kivuitu, chairman of the electoral commission, warned against a repeat of the kind of violence that claimed hundreds of lives before Kenya's first multiparty election, in 1992, and flared again before the 1997 election. "There's a lot of tension, which could lead to violence," Kivuitu said. "These elections are crucial. So we urge calmness and peace."
One of Africa's most well-known and most controversial leaders, Moi has ruled this East African nation since the death of independence leader Jomo Kenyatta in 1978. While Kenya has been relatively peaceful under Moi's leadership, the economy is in ruins and crime is a fact of daily life. His government is accused of widespread corruption and sustains itself through a thriving system of patronage.
One-party rule made opposition to Moi almost impossible until 1992, when he was forced to adopt some political reforms, including a measure limiting the president to two five-year terms. But even as Moi's rule neared its mandatory end, newspapers and radio stations today voiced fears that he and his influence would never really disappear.
"You would call this day a turning a point in our country's history," said Churchill Otieno, an editor with the Nation newspaper. But he said "the person who is expected to go home" -- meaning Moi -- was "not listening to the will of the people. So instead of hope, Kenyans are a disenchanted lot."
Moi hand-picked the candidate of his ruling Kenya African National Union, Uhuru Kenyatta, 42, the son of Jomo Kenyatta and a political novice. Kenyatta's chief rival will be the standard-bearer of the 10-party National Rainbow Coalition, Mwai Kibaki, 71, a former vice president who has lost two presidential elections.
"There is no doubt that Moi is rushing around the country feeling the democratic sweat and supporting Uhuru," said John Githongo, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya, which is monitoring the elections. Though Moi should have stepped aside, he said, "there still is hope. If we survive this transition, we will have a much stronger government."