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Woman Running for Kenya Presidency

November 14, 1997

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ In her short political career, Charity Kaluki Ngilu has been beaten by riot cops, tossed into jail cells and tear-gassed by police breaking up opposition rallies.

Now, the 45-year-old opposition figure wants to be Kenya’s next president in order to turn around the decline of the East African nation.

Few expect Ngilu, who will file her candidacy in the name of the tiny Social Democratic Party ticket, will win. But she stands a good chance of spoiling the possibility of a fifth straight term for President Daniel arap Moi in the Dec. 29 election.

In Kenya, women are expected to leave politics to the men, and most do. In this land of African machismo, Ngilu’s bid is downright impudent.

``Women belong to the kitchen,″ said currency trader Gerald Kariuki. ``Once they become leaders, they begin behaving like men. They divorce husbands and generally harass men.″

Ziporah Kittony, chairwoman of the Maendeleo ya Wananake Organization, the country’s largest women’s group, was more polite.

Kenya is not yet ready for a woman president, and besides, there is no one qualified, she said.

``Until then, we need a father figure to guide us,″ said Kittony, who is close to Moi’s Kenya African National Union party.

``I am saying I qualify for the job, and since I qualify, I am applying for the post,″ Ngilu said in an interview. ``The voters will decide.″

Ngilu has three children. Husband Michael Ngilu, who owns an electrical engineering firm, generally tries to keep a low profile.

But at an Oct. 24 rally, he urged men to let their wives take part in politics, reassuring them that his wife still makes his breakfast.

In Kenya’s first multiparty elections in 26 years, Ngilu was elected to Parliament in 1992 on the Democratic Party ticket. She is straightforward and outspoken, and quickly made a name for herself.

In a recent poll, Ngilu placed fourth after first-place finisher Moi, a formidable opponent with a well-oiled political machine and compliant state bureaucracy.

But the poll did not take into account Kenyans’ penchant for voting along ethnic lines and the fact that 65 percent of the estimated 10 million registered voters are women.

To water down the strength of Kenya’s large tribes, electoral law dictates that the winner must capture 25 percent of the votes cast in five of Kenya’s eight provinces.

In 1992, voters cast 3,338,871 ballots for three opposition candidates compared with 1,927,640 for Moi, including 290,000 from Eastern Province, home of Ngilu’s Kamba tribe.

At the least, Ngilu could be expected to win most of the Kamba vote and deny Moi the fifth province he is banking on. That would mean a runoff between the top two candidates, the winner being determined by a simple majority.

Ngilu is playing down tribal and gender arithmetic, portraying herself as a unifying national figure.

``I have gone to Kenyans and told them what I plan to do with them and for them,″ she said.

Her candidacy acquired momentum in February when the League of Women Voters in Kenya endorsed her.

Since then, she has been photographed shaking a fist at riot police and marching at the front of demonstrators demanding the repeal of laws deemed oppressive.

She is comfortable on the campaign trail, wading into crowds of rural women who have waited hours to touch her hand, or comforting victims of political violence on the Indian Ocean coast.

Ngilu says she is seeking a single term only ``as a bridge between the present undemocratic and oppressive system and the future democratic one Kenyans yearn for.″

A graduate of the Kenya Institute of Management and operator of a successful plastics business, Ngilu promises to end officially sanctioned corruption and ``to lay the ground for a viable economic growth.″

Kenya’s economy has been wracked by major scandals that have shaken investor confidence and by suspension of a $220 million International Monetary Fund loan because of the government’s failure to curb high-level corruption and mismanagement.

Hospitals have no medicine, roads are crumbling, unemployment is rising and crime is on the increase _ including armed robberies in the center of Nairobi, in broad daylight.

In northern Kenya, violent cattle-rustling is routine, and bandits use policemen for target practice.

Ngilu promises ``a swift turnaround″ in five years.

``Kenyans are resourceful and will be ready to work hard as soon as they see a committed, willing and able leader. That is what is lacking,″ she said.

Whether Ngilu wins or not, she will have accomplished one of her goals _ demystifying political power among women.

``Women are saying, `If she can take on Moi, why shouldn’t I take on some other (male) politician?‴ said Dorothy K. Munyakho, a journalist and Ngilu’s high school classmate.