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Friday, January 18, 2008

Kenya's Kibaki sheds gentleman image

NAIROBI (Reuters) - When President Mwai Kibaki was inaugurated on December 30, 2002, a million Kenyans thronged a city park to hail him as savior after 24 years of repressive rule.

Five years later, he was hurriedly sworn in, watched by a few close aides, on the lawn of his heavily guarded residence, as smoke rose from protests in nearby slums.

The contrasting ceremonies mirror Kibaki's changed reputation both inside and outside Kenya after his disputed re-election and tough handling of the turmoil afterwards.

"Sorry for the cliches, but the popular 'reformist president' is beginning to look a bit more like an old-fashioned African strongman these days," one Nairobi-based diplomat said.

There was nationwide euphoria when Kibaki beat the party of authoritarian former President Daniel arap Moi in 2002.

Though some Kenyans later became disillusioned over issues like corruption, there was still respect for a man regarded as a gentleman, statesman and "Mzee" -- Swahili for respected elder -- above the messy fray of daily politics.

Now, however, Kibaki has turned into a hate figure for many who believe he stole the December 27 presidential vote and is crushing protests with brutality.

The man with a penchant for P.G. Wodehouse novels and a round of golf at the colonial-era Muthaiga Club, who was previously often satirized as a genial but bumbling leader, has shown unexpected steel in facing the crisis.

After swearing himself in within minutes of being declared winner from a hotly-contested vote count, Kibaki, 76, has gone on to outlaw public demonstrations, put hardliners in his cabinet, deploy riot police daily, and ban live TV broadcasts.

"We are seeing a creeping regression to the totalitarian methods of the past," said Kenyan columnist Macharia Gaitho.

"The government is going out of its way to curb the inherent rights of the people to associate, express themselves, communicate and assemble."

Not so, cry Kibaki supporters, who say opposition leader Raila Odinga is forcing the government to take tough action by whipping up civil disobedience and ethnic massacres.


Diplomats are beginning to ask if Kibaki is following in the footsteps of others -- like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, or Yoweri Museveni of Uganda -- whose authoritarianism cut short their early status as favorites of the West.

Kibaki opened up the economy, which stagnated under Moi, to achieve average annual growth of five percent, and ended many restrictions on free expression. He was also seen as a reliable Western ally against al Qaeda.

But question-marks that began emerging towards the end of his first term, when, for example, police controversially raided a newspaper office, are now seen as an early warning signal.

"He risks going down as the president who squandered the opportunities of the post-Moi democratization in Kenya, even though he was the one who first enabled them," said Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential newsletter.

"The old stereotype of the genial but weak leader surrounded by bad people does not fit any more. That image was gradually chipped away. Then events since December 30 finished the process."

Analysts point out, however, that Kibaki has still led from the shadows during the crisis rather than become a dominant frontman like, say, Meles or Museveni.

And U.S. ambassador Michael Ranneberger was adamant that comparisons made by Kibaki's most strident critics with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe were wrong.

"Kenya is nowhere near anything like Zimbabwe so such comparisons are completely beyond the point," he said.

Still, there is a mounting chorus of criticism from Kenyan rights groups and activists who say Kibaki staged a "civilian coup" and is looking increasingly dictatorial.

"The decline into a police state has been so swift and so organized that one can be forgiven for thinking that some within the government may have actually anticipated the chaos," said lawyer Karim Anjarwalla in Nairobi.

Kibaki faces early tests of his international standing.

First, he is due at an African Union (AU) summit at the end of January, where it is not clear how fellow heads-of-state will treat him. Uganda, Swaziland, Morocco, Somalia and Egypt are the only African nations to recognize Kibaki so far.

Then there are threats in the air by Western powers to cut direct aid. But as Kenya gets less than five percent of its budget that way, the impact would be largely symbolic.

Some who know Kenya well say that rather than a dramatic transformation in the last three weeks, Kibaki is in fact only showing qualities he has hidden for decades.

As a legislator in every parliament since 1963 independence, Kibaki has exhibited plenty of political guile and strength during a career that includes a decade as vice-president for Moi -- the man with whom he was seen as representing a clean break.

And while he belatedly benefited from the advent of multi-party politics in the 1990s, critics remember his comments in previous years likening those seeking to end one-party rule to daydreamers trying to fell a tree with a razor blade.

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