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Kenya Pol Profile:  Kenyatta - 2002-10-25

In December, Kenyans go to the polls to replace President Daniel arap Moi, who is stepping down after 24 years in power. The man considered most likely to succeed him is Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta. But there is a controversy surrounding Mr. Kenyatta's nomination and it may affect his chances of winning the presidency.

This is an exciting time for Kenyans, most of whom cannot remember living under any president other than 78-year-old Daniel arap Moi.

Kenya's constitution forbids Mr. Moi, one of Africa's longest-serving rulers, from running again.

The president now wants to hand power over to 41-year-old Uhuru Kenyatta, a political novice whose main selling point is that he is the son of Kenya's founding father, Jomo Kenyatta.

As the man who led the country to independence in 1963, Jomo Kenyatta has legendary status in Kenya. But his son, Uhuru, has, until recently, maintained a low profile within the family's vast business empire. The wealthy Kenyattas have interests in banking, timber, dairy, hotels and the service industry.

Uhuru, as he is commonly known to differentiate him from his father, has had a meteoric rise in politics.

One year ago, most Kenyans had barely heard of him. Today, Mr. Kenyatta is the ruling KANU party's presidential candidate despite never having won an elective post in his life.

President Moi has persistently promoted Mr. Kenyatta despite protests both within and outside the party. President Moi's support for the man his critics have nicknamed Project Uhuru has split the party. Several senior ministers were so angry that they crossed over to the opposition in frustration, allowing Mr. Kenyatta to be elected unopposed.

But President Moi's support has disadvantages as well as advantages for Mr. Kenyatta. Wambua Sammy, a political analyst with The East African newspaper, says there are risks for Mr. Kenyatta in being linked too closely with a government that many Kenyans consider corrupt.

He says, "He's being seen as an extension of the Moi regime. If you check, his friends are people who have been implicated in corrupt deals. They are people who are not known to be very democratic. Even the president has been doing more of the campaigning than the candidate himself."

One of Mr. Kenyatta's supporters who has come under strong criticism is cabinet minister Julius Sunkuli. According to a recent judicial report, he is alleged to have played a key role in ethnic violence that erupted ahead of the last two elections.

Mr. Sunkuli, who denies any wrongdoing, is part of a clique known as the Young Turks. He says their time has come to take over the reins of power in Kenya and Mr. Kenyatta is the ideal man to lead them.

He says, "I believe that Uhuru does represent that generation of Kenyans who are meant to inherit the fruits of independence. And Uhuru is full of youth and is full of vigor. He is a well-educated person who perceives the world clearly and he fits into this computer age."

Kenyans are agreed that they need a younger leader. But many of them are suspicious of President Moi's support for the inexperienced Mr. Kenyatta. They believe the president chose him because he can manipulate him from behind the scenes. Analysts say Mr. Moi fears that, once out of office, he might be prosecuted for the widespread corruption that has occurred during his time in office.

Mr. Kenyatta, whose own family would likely come under scrutiny if any investigations were launched, made it clear in a recent interview with Kenya Television Network that he has no interest in investigating past abuses.

He says, "I do strongly believe that a time has come in this land where we must now learn to say let us forgive, let us forget, let us look at the common problems that we have, the common issues that we face and understand that within an environment of recrimination, within an environment of retribution, we will not be able to focus our energies properly on the issues that we have."

The theme of healing is a popular one with Mr. Kenyatta. He is eager to portray himself as a consensus-building team-player who is willing to listen to the views of others.

Mr. Kenyatta says his priority, if he becomes president, would be to revive Kenya's economy, which is going through its worst recession since independence. This strikes a chord with all Kenyans.

But many are uncomfortable that a man with such a scant political record can rise so fast just because of his family name.

Mr. Kenyatta argues that it is unfair to judge him adversely simply because he was born into the elite.

He says, "The fact that I am the son of a former president, does that necessarily say that the son of a doctor is a poor surgeon or a son of a barber is a poor barber. It probably equips you even better. The fact that you were around a political life, a leadership family, I think it's an asset if anything else, not a minus."

Mr. Kenyatta's greatest challenge between now and the December elections is to shake off his image as President Moi's puppet and establish his own identity with Kenyan voters.

Fear that Mr. Moi wants to continue to rule by proxy has increased the opposition's determination to oust the ruling KANU party -- something they have not managed to do in the 39 years since independence.

An alliance of 14 opposition parties along with dozens of defectors from the ruling KANU party has united behind a single presidential candidate - Mwai Kibakki -- to stand against Mr. Kenyatta.

If they are able to overcome their personal ambitions and stick together, Mr. Kenyatta is likely to be defeated. The opposition won two-thirds of the vote in the last election, but lost the presidency because their votes were divided among several parties.

But the only real certainty in the upcoming election is that tensions are increasing. Several people have already been killed in clashes between rival supporters.