Freedom in the World 2000 - 2001

Trend Arrow: 

Kenya received a downward trend arrow due to lack of progress on constitutional reform and episodic political violence.



Kenya failed to make progress in promoting political rights and civil liberties in 2000.  An inconclusive and controversial constitutional reform process made little headway. President Daniel arap Moi signaled his intention to keep power firmly in hand, despite widespread calls for meaningful change.  National elections are scheduled to take place no later than 2002, and Kenyan African National Union (KANU) members began to float trial balloons about the possibility of revising the constitution to allow Moi to run again.

Britain conquered Kenya in the late eighteenth century in order to open a route to control the Nile River headwaters in Uganda.  In 1963 Kenya achieved its independence. The  nationalist leader Jomo Kenyatta was president until his death in 1978, when he was succeeded by Moi. Moi’s ascent to the presidency kept KANU in power, but gradually diminished the power of the previously dominant Kikuyu ethnic group.

In 1992, after a lengthy period as effectively a one-party state, multiparty elections were held as a result of domestic unrest and pressure from international aid donors. Moi was reelected president in controversial polling.  In December 1997 presidential and parliamentary elections were held, and Moi again secured victory over a divided opposition, gaining 40.1 percent of the vote; KANU won 107 of the 220 seats in the newly expanded  national assembly.   An additional 12 seats were appointed by the government, which in effect gave KANU a majority.  Moi's reelection was ensured by massive use of state patronage and the official media to promote his candidacy and by harassment of the divided opposition. Today, there is no clear successor to the longtime president; it is not even clear whether KANU will seek to change the constitution to permit Moi to seek reelection after his current term expires in 2003.

Kenya's politics are divided along ethnic lines.  KANU has maintained power through the support of the president's own minority ethnic grouping, the Kalenjin, while combining an alliance of other minority groups and playing the two largest ethnic groups, the Kikuyu and the Luo, off against each other.   The country is divided into seven provinces run by provincial commissioners appointed by the president.

In November 1997 the government instituted a number of constitutional changes.  These allowed the formation of a coalition government, the review of the constitution by an independent commission (disbanded in 1999), and an increase in the number of directly elected seats in the parliament from 188 to 210.  While President Moi initially tried to derail the review process that had been in effect forced on him, in 1998 he changed tack and accepted most opposition demands.  However, by mid-1999 Moi changed tack once again and announced that any constitutional review would take place within the government-dominated parliament and would not involve public consultation, promoting suspicions that little will change. This provoked controversy within parliament and prompted public demonstrations in Nairobi.

The 1999 appointment of Richard Leakey, a respected opposition leader and man of unquestioned honesty, as head of the corruption-plagued civil service, and the adoption of an economic reform policy, did result in temporarily improved relations with the IMF and World Bank.   It is not clear, however, whether the economic reform program will move ahead, given the political implications of the need to reduce the size of the government bureaucracy, enact anticorruption legislation, and reduce or eliminate extra-budgetary expenditures.   In December, the high court declared the Kenya Anti-Corruption Authority (KACA) unconstitutional and therefore illegal, emasculating a body that had been in the process of prosecuting several influential people for graft.  Kenya was rated 82nd out of 90 countries in Transparency International’s 2000 Corruption Perception Index.

Despite Kenya’s history of authoritarian rule, many necessary elements for the development of a democratic political system exist.  Opposition parties are active and vocal.  The parliament is the setting for much of the nation’s political discourse.  A varied and energetic civil society plays an important role in public policy debates.  The printed press at times adopts independent and probing stances.  These elements, however, do not often succeed in translating into actual policy change.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Kenyans have been unable to exercise their right to choose their leaders in genuinely open and competitive elections. Moi's election victories have been achieved through political repression, media control, and dubious electoral procedures.  His shrewd ability to play upon divisions within the opposition and to use the form, but not the spirit, of democratic institutions to advance his own interests and those of KANU are legendary.  Physical violence, a usually docile judiciary, police powers, and executive decrees have been used against political opponents and in efforts to undermine the wider civil society. Power is heavily concentrated in the executive branch of government.   In July 2000, Kenyan ministers called for changes to the constitution to allow Arap Moi to stay in office after 2002. 

The right of citizens to effectively participate in the political life of the country is limited.  Legislation that had established the constitutional review process with the participation of a wide range of civic and associational groups was revised in 1999, and the process was channeled through the KANU-controlled parliament.  The review proceeded very slowly in 2000, and a competing, unofficial, commission, sponsored by the religious community, was organized.  These activities took place against the backdrop of national elections, which must be held by 2002.  It is unclear whether meaningful reforms can be enacted by then and if, not, whether the opposition would boycott these elections.

Meanwhile, ten opposition MPs scheduled to address a July rally against the government review process were attacked and held hostage in parliament by ruling party youths who also damaged their cars in the presence of police, who did nothing to stop the mayhem.   The violent gangs also sealed off the venue of the meeting which the police then cancelled, citing security reasons. 

In 2000 the Kenyan parliament published a “list of shame” identifying by name a number of high-ranking government officials who were implicated in corruption.  These included Vice President George Saitoti, trade and tourism minister Nicholas Biwott,  a son of Moi and nearly a dozen cabinet members.   Under government pressure the report was subsequently revised and the names deleted.

The security forces regularly violate constitutional guarantees regarding detention, privacy, search, and seizure. An American priest who was a long-time human rights campaigner was killed, allegedly by pro-KANU assassins.  Groups such as the Kenyan Human Rights Commission and the National Council of Churches of Kenya have publicized abuses and demanded respect for civil and political liberties.  The government’s attitude towards civil society, however, is generally hostile and suspicious.  In 1999, for example, a senior government minister warned nongovernmental organizations that "meddle in politics" that they risked deregistration, although such an action would be of questionable legality.

A number of judicial reforms have been announced in recent years.  A report on judicial corruption was issued in 1999. Courts, however, are still heavily influenced by the executive and cannot be relied on to protect constitutional rights or offer fair trials. Local chiefs still exercise sometimes arbitrary and violent power.  Prison conditions are harsh and often life-threatening.

Freedom of expression is severely limited by lack of access to the dominant state broadcast media and continued repression of the private press. The country's few private radio and television stations are either pro-Moi or carefully apolitical. Private print media remain vibrant, but under serious threat.  Journalists have been charged with criminal libel, and independent publications are subject to harassment in their business operations. Moi has decreed that it is a crime to "insult" him, and sedition laws have been employed in efforts to silence any criticism. 

Trade unions generally follow government policy on key issues.  For example, the general secretary of Central Organisations of Trade Unions (COTU) instructed members not to support calls by opposition parties and civil society groups for demonstrations over constitutional reform. Unions have occasionally defied a 1993 ministry of labor decree that forbids all strikes, despite constitutional guarantees to the contrary.  Civil servants and university academic staff may join only government-designated unions.  Approximately one-fifth of the country's 1.5 million industrial workforce is unionized.

Ethnically based tension continues in parts of Kenya.  Competing land claims often provide the spark.  In August, for example, three people were killed in ongoing tribal clashes between the Masai and Kipsigis communities in central Kenya.  Pro-KANU elements have been accused of instigating ethnic cleansing for political purposes.  A Judicial Commission on Tribal Clashes has been appointed, but it has had little effect.

Kenya’s economy and infrastructure continued to deteriorate significantly.  Most of Kenya's 29 million people are poor and survive through subsistence agriculture.  Nepotism and fraud inhibit economic opportunity and discourage greater foreign investment.  Excessive government regulation concerning economic activity breeds corruption.

In general there is freedom of religion, although uneasy relations between Muslims and other faiths at times result in violence.  For example, a mosque erected by newly converted Muslims in the Rift Valley, the scene of considerable ethnic conflict, was burned, allegedly by police officers.  In early 2000 rioting between Catholics and Moslems occurred in central Kenya.

Women in Kenya continue to face serious obstacles in the exercise of their freedoms.  A draft gender equity bill created considerable public controversy, with some Muslims  protesting that it was too sweeping in scope.  Some evidence suggests that violence against women in increasing.   A survey carried out by a women’s rights group states that more than 49 women were murdered by their spouses in 1998 alone, a 79 percent increase in cases since 1995.  Many of the cases have gone unpunished, despite repeated complaints by women’s groups that Kenyan laws remain too lenient in sentencing offenders in cases of violence against women.

Women are also seriously underrepresented in Kenya’s politics and government.   With only 7 women legislators in a 222-member parliament, Kenya ranks last among the 15 eastern and southern African countries, in number of women legislators.

2001 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)