Richard Leakey (Profile)

There is nothing out of the ordinary about a politician mining history for an anecdote, searching, perhaps, for a wisp of ancient evidence to make a point.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 9, 1995

Leakey, Richard (Profile)

There is nothing out of the ordinary about a politician mining history for an anecdote, searching, perhaps, for a wisp of ancient evidence to make a point. But digging back two million years?

It works if the speaker is Richard Leakey, who long before he became Kenya's most controversial politician enjoyed a celebrated international reputation as a paleontologist, scavenging for fossils throughout East Africa in search of man's origins. On this fresh September morning, Leakey has been invited to a posh country-club resort on the outskirts of Nairobi to speak about Kenya's fossils, not the country's current rough and tumble politics. But he can't resist drawing connections across the ages.

"The fossil record shows very good evidence that man distinguished himself from other species by his capacity for compassion, mercy and care," says Leakey to his visibly awed audience of two dozen American tourists who have just arrived for a holiday in Kenya and who, to a person, are wearing brand-new safari vests. Leakey tells them how fossils of early man reveal broken leg bones that had been set to heal - evidence that care for others emerged as a survival technique more than a million years ago. This entrenched compassion, Leakey suggests to the audience in his clipped accent, is enduring evidence that there is hope for man in troubled times.

These cushy surroundings are not on Leakey's usual itinerary. "I normally try to stay out of the fleshpots of Nairobi," he says with a mischievous smile to a visitor as he gazes out over lush golf fairways and a waiter glides up to pour coffee into china cups. The magnificent Kenyan vista is intruded upon only by a groundskeeper pushing a lawn mower as he shaves the practice putting green to an acceptable stubble. This is the Kenya of the wealthy, the expatriate Europeans and the tourists, and although Leakey has lived in Nairobi for all his 50 years, he says it is the first time he has ever set foot inside the club. Like Louis, his equally famous anthropologist father, who died in 1972, Leakey is Kenyan-born, speaks Swahili, and seeks to distance himself and his politics from the former British colony's small but privileged white community. "The Leakeys have never been all that welcome among Nairobi's whites," says one family friend a few days later. "They were always regarded as being suspiciously too pro-African."

But that assessment carries no weight with the target of Leakey's foray into politics: the unpopular and - most Kenyans readily acknowledge - increasingly corrupt 17-year-old government of President Daniel arap Moi and his KANU party. KANU officials greeted Leakey's participation last May in the launch of a new political party called Safina (which means Ark in Swahili) with apoplectic fury. As Safina's secretary general, Leakey is unlikely to lead the new party. But he brings flamboyant media skills and anti-corruption credentials as the party struggles to organize in time for 1997 elections.

The 70-year-old Moi, who still loves the hustings, showed up at rally after rally over the summer to denounce Leakey as a "racist," a "colonialist" and an "atheist" who would find it "extremely difficult to relate to God-fearing Kenyans." In August, a mob of KANU supporters descended upon a meeting between Leakey and journalists, beating and whipping them all. Neither Leakey nor the journalists were severely hurt, but the raw tactics were a public-relations disaster for Moi's government - at least beyond Kenya's borders. Leakey is a revered figure in the West, especially for his other claim to fame as the man who helped galvanize support for an international ivory ban in 1989, thereby saving Kenya's endangered elephants from extinction at the hands of poachers. He is also an easy physical target. Images of pro-government thugs whipping a man who lost both legs in a small plane crash two years ago and who is into his 16th year living on a transplanted kidney were hardly helpful to a country as dependent as Kenya on foreign largesse for aid, investment and tourists.

But the government's panic shows how much officials fear his challenge to their power. Leakey has intensified the glare of international publicity on the corruption riddling this country of 28 million people, from a ruling elite with its eyes fixed on kickbacks down to bent cops and bureaucrats oiled by bribes. "The people of this country are sick to death of being robbed to death," Leakey told Maclean's in his spartan new Nairobi office, its bare walls brightened only by a photograph of two bull elephants colliding head on in an explosion of dust. "The situation in Kenya has deteriorated further than a lot of people outside believe."

Over it all, of course, hangs the spectre of the chaos that has ravaged neighboring Rwanda and Somalia. Ethnic clashes and expulsions have already touched many of Kenya's 40 tribes this decade. And the country's leaders show no reluctance to invoke tribal prejudice in their determination to retain power. "It would be more difficult to rip the whole thing to pieces in a country this size, but I no longer believe that a Rwandan situation is impossible here," warns Leakey. He has entered politics, he says, to help stop the downward spiral before the descent hits bottom. For Hell, it has been written, "is truth, seen too late, duly neglected in its season."

The Hon. William ole Ntimama, KANU's minister of local government, self-appointed spokesman for the Masai people and self-declared enemy of Richard Leakey, has a waiting room full of petitioners and three phones in his office ringing off the hook. He juggles the intrusions, taking time to deal with a local reporter who calls to ask about a murder the day before. Masai youths taking part in a traditional rite of passage in the southwestern city of Narok had clashed with police, before spearing and clubbing to death a tailor and father of 13 who happened upon the scene. Narok is Ntimama's power base, and he often employs the Masai youths as a sort of praetorian guard. He is accustomed to criticism that he encourages the violence. "Oh, we're always the aggressors," he answers the reporter sarcastically, his head thrown back baring a gap-toothed smile. "Yes, I know they killed him," he says impatiently. "But they were provoked."

Despite his willingness to stir Kenya's volatile tribal pot, Ntimama is regarded as the most effective defender the Masai have ever had. Once largely nomadic, the Masai were pushed off the best grazing lands, first by European settlers in the late-19th century and, after independence in 1963, by the Kikuyu, Kenya's wealthiest indigenous tribe. The Masai are now scattered over the Mara region near the Tanzanian border, an area that teems with wildlife and, by extension, foreign-currency-toting tourists. That struggle for control of the Mara's riches is what led Ntimama and Leakey to butt heads.

As director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Leakey regarded the Mara as a national jewel and wanted its revenues to benefit the whole country. Ntimama (who also happens to own a share of a lucrative tourist camp in the Mara) argued that the profits belonged to the Masai. So Ntimama began a campaign to convince the Masai and other Kenyans that Leakey favored wildlife over people, a line of attack that became more convincing over time as elephant poaching declined, and the animals learned they could be more brazen. Masai crops were ravaged, their cattle killed and dozens of unlucky tribesmen trampled to death. The power struggle took five years to play out, but Ntimama prevailed. When Moi sided with the Masai leader in 1994, Leakey resigned.

"I consider Leakey to be a racketeer in a way," says Ntimama between calls. "He would not be a player in any situation where there is no money. He's got big connections overseas, and that's what scares a few people in my party - he will have too much money in a country where there is too much poverty, and he might be able to buy power."

"Nonsense" is Leakey's response to the suggestion that Safina can - or would try to - buy votes. "No one can outspend a government which can just print money." But he agrees that Moi and the coterie around him fear his clout with Western governments and international donors. That power was displayed in July when Baroness Lynda Chalker, Britain's minister for overseas development, who also happens to be a friend of Leakey, visited Nairobi and lambasted the government's record on economic and human-rights abuses. She then froze $24.5 million in aid. A furious Moi hit back that Chalker was "just a woman" acting like a "kindergarten headmistress." But the attack, coming from the minister of a country that Kenyans regard as their special partner, gave Moi a bitter taste of the West's leverage over his government.

Foreign donors are clearly worried about corruption. The most notorious scandal involved a scheme whereby almost $500 million was allegedly siphoned from government coffers by high-ranking officials under a compensation scheme for gold and diamond exporters. Kenya has little gold and no diamond deposits. "We would not like to see a situation where we disburse money to one pocket which then gets out through the other," a senior International Monetary Fund official told the Kenyan government last month while holding up $270 million in aid.

There are those in Kenya who argue that the corruption, while unseemly on the surface, is not as harmful to the country as Westerners maintain. "The establishment in Kenya is very small, and you don't always want to know how people got there," admitted one Kenyan who worked for Moi. "But the great industrialists in the West have their skeletons, too. The people getting rich here are the future Carnegies, Rockefellers and Kennedys of Kenya. We are seeing the local financial empires created and - with the odd lapse - the money filters back out into the economy."

Moi's critics sneer at the suggestion that all Kenyans benefit from the skimming of a few. "The ruling group here is not charitable at all," says Willy Mutunga, a lawyer educated at Toronto's Osgoode Hall who formerly chaired Kenya's Law Society. "They are people who just take and take, and the money disappears. They don't realize that the days of the Cold War - when you could get away with that sort of stuff as long as you stayed in one camp or the other - are over."

It is one of the sights that fulfils tourist wishes for the exotic romance of Africa: thousands of wildebeest filing southwards on their migration to Tanzania's Serengeti park during September's dry season. Viewed from across the dusty brown Kenyan plain, the wildebeest seem to hover on the horizon, black specks dancing across the huge sky like a swarm of pests. And to the local Masai farmers, the wildebeest and their travelling companions, the zebras, are just that: destructive vermin that compete with their beloved cattle for grazing space. "We should get all the money from the tourists," said scowling Masai elder Joseph Lila, 50, whose corrugated tin home borders a wildlife park just outside Nairobi. "It is our livestock which suffer and die because of Leakey's animals."

For better and for worse, wildlife in Kenya has become synonymous with Leakey. Man and wildlife have waged a bloody war for space and survival in Africa for centuries. But as Kenya's human population explodes (almost half the country is now under the age of 15) and more land disappears under the plow or the concrete sprawl of cities, never has the competition been as great. "When you have huge farms cutting across migratory routes, of course you have more conflict," explains Nehemiah Rotich, director of the East African Wild Life Society.

Leakey has become the main scapegoat for those who argue that the country's fight to save wildlife has benefited rich visiting Westerners at the expense of poor Kenyans. But when he took over the wildlife service in 1989, the peril was the imminent disappearance of wildlife, notably elephants. Kenya's elephants had suffered a near-apocalyptic decline in the previous 15 years, from about 160,000 to a mere tenth of that number, in part because the state winked or even actively conspired in the ivory trade.

To fight back, Leakey employed his characteristic penchant for autocracy, action and the grand gesture. He fired 1,500 wildlife service employees suspected of corruption. He issued a now-famous vow to the media that they would soon be filming dead poachers instead of dead elephants, and armed his rangers with better weapons, vehicles and instructions to "engage" the ivory brigands. (More than 100 poachers were killed in three years.) But Leakey's most audacious act was to summon the world's journalists to watch as Moi torched a pyre of confiscated ivory tusks, signalling that Kenya was indeed serious about saving its elephants.

The burned ivory cost the national treasury about $3.5 million, but Leakey's touch with international public opinion made it a good investment: foreign governments and the World Bank anted up $180 million for a five-year conservation program, an unheard-of amount for that purpose in Africa. "It was almost like Camelot in those days: King Richard and his Roundtable," recalled one friend of the early excitement at the wildlife service. Leakey outfitted the wildlife service in military uniforms, wore his epaulets and took salutes from the staff to inspire discipline. Whenever he had a run-in with a rival, such as a cabinet minister hoping to sell off part of one national park or run an oil pipeline through another, Leakey used his open-door access to Moi to get his way.

But his style left a swath of resentment behind. "Richard did not save the elephants," scoffs David Western, a Tanzanian-born scientist who succeeded Leakey as director of the wildlife service, and had to mollify foreign donors worried by Leakey's resignation. The two men are old rivals who do not mask their mutual dislike. "With Richard, you are dealing with an advertising machine, image-making, someone who cultivated an aura of infallibility," says Western. "We had won international support, but we were losing the local population. When elephants lost their fear of being poached, they moved out of the parks and people started to get killed again."

Western has made it his mission to create harmony between the wildlife service and the aggrieved communities. He wants local groups to manage the wildlife and to develop tourist-related industries so that they will see the benefits of conservation. On the other side are skeptics, including Leakey, who argue that man and wildlife are essentially incompatible by nature, and must probably be fenced off from one another in order for each to survive.

But almost everyone agrees that there would be more harmony between poor Kenyans and their exotic species if the huge revenues from tourism reached the pockets of ordinary Kenyans. That is where the wildlife conservation, too, falls victim to Kenya's endemic corruption. Says conservationist Rotich: "When people hear that tourists brought in millions of dollars, but they see that most of the money went to a few safari companies or a few powerful people, all that is left is bitterness."

Leakey's plunge into politics poses an intriguing question for post-colonial Africa: can a white man, even one who is third-generation African, wield political power in countries so scarred by the age of European empire? "We would be angels if this thing called color just disappeared," says Ntimama. "Color will stop Leakey, even if he was a saint - which he isn't." Indeed, a vocal part of Kenya's white community shuddered nervously this year at Leakey's audacity. The days of expatriate whites living out exhibitionist lives as they did in the so-called white mischief days before independence are mostly a cliché now, and Kenya's 60,000-member Asian community probably wields more economic clout. But most of Kenya's roughly 30,000 whites still prefer to keep their heads down to preserve their privileges.

In fact, whites have been some of Leakey's harshest critics. One broadside was launched by Leakey's younger brother, Phillip, a former KANU minister and still a loyal Moi supporter. In June, Phillip Leakey led a delegation of 88 whites to Moi's mansion to pledge fealty to the government, vowing to remain "good Kenyans." Phillip donated the kidney for his brother's 1979 transplant, but the two men have always been estranged. "I don't like to criticize my brother because he did save my life," says Richard. He then describes the white pilgrimage to see Moi as "embarrassing" and "disgraceful."

At the very least, it was another demonstration of the tribal politics that Richard Leakey says he entered politics to fight. "I do not want to be president," he says. "I make light of having no legs, but the fact is I get tired, and there are other things I want to do with my life - travel, write books, work my vineyard. But I want to retire without fear," he continues. "I want to make the future less terrifying. And I doubt we have that kind of future now." It is a warning that rings out on a continent that is sadly becoming a byword for terror and calamity, where corruption and tribal violence have already consumed hundreds of thousands of people, all of them bones now.

Maclean's October 9, 1995

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