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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Profile: Dr Richard Leakey
Dr Richard Leakey
His combative style earned him plenty of enemies
By Andrew Harding in Nairobi

Imagine an ageing Indiana Jones - ruthless, unwell and still itching for another adventure - a man with powerful enemies, huge talents, and an almost insatiable appetite for controversy.

Dr Richard Leakey may not carry a bullwhip or look much like Harrison Ford, but at the age of 56, Kenya's most famous white man sometimes seems like a character from some implausibly wild comic strip.

"He is a wild man, a fighter," says a former colleague who'd rather not give his name. "He works these crazy hours. I have huge respect for what he's achieved. But as a man, well, he can be difficult - an egomaniac."

World famous

Tall, red-faced and powerfully built, Leakey is a pugnacious Kenyan patriot whose achievements are as remarkable as they are diverse.

He has been (and you can attach the prefix "world famous" to most of these) a fossil expert, author, conservationist, opposition MP, anti-corruption campaigner, economic reformer, and head of the country's civil service.

He has been beaten up, threatened and badly injured in a plane crash which took away both his legs. He has been branded a racist by the president, lauded by the president, and hired and fired by the president.

Now he is facing a possible jail sentence over allegations that he abused his civil service job.

"I think pressure probably suits me," Leakey said recently with urbane understatement.

'Energetic and ruthless'

His first job was studying fossils. His parents, Louis and Mary were famous archaeologists and palaeontologists who spent decades exploring Kenya's Rift Valley, searching for the origins of mankind.

In his 20s, Leakey almost eclipsed his parents work, making his own important finds and writing books.

In the late 1980s, Leakey switched careers to take over as head of Kenya's Wildlife Service (KWS) at a time when the organisation was close to collapse and poachers were busy wiping out the country's entire elephant and rhino populations.

Energetic, ruthless and seemingly incorruptible, Leakey told his rangers to shoot poachers on sight and organised the public burning of a huge cache of ivory.

Career changes

Leakey's methods were successful but his combative style earned him plenty of enemies. It was a pattern that would be repeated again and again.

When, in 1993, the single-engine plane he was flying lost power and crashed, many speculated that it was sabotage. Both legs were amputated below the knee.

In 1994 Leakey changed careers once again, quitting the KWS to enter the equally ruthless world of Kenyan politics and helping to form an opposition party called Safina.

Dr Leakey shows the marks left by the hired thugs
Dr Leakey shows the marks left by the hired thugs
Some saw it as his launch pad for the presidency. On one occasion he was whipped by hired thugs. President Moi described him as a racist, an atheist and a foreigner.

But in 1999 President Moi shocked the country by appointing Leakey as head of Kenya's civil service and of a so-called dream team of reformers hired to rescue a country, now being branded one of the world's most corrupt, from a deepening economic crisis.

Supporters said Leakey had been recognised by the president as the only man tough enough and honest enough to pull Kenya out of its troubles but questioned whether he would last long enough in the job to do any real good.

'Dream team'

Critics said the appointment of a white man with no university education was an insult to Kenyans and one which had clearly been orchestrated by colonial mentalities still lurking in the IMF and World Bank.

In his new job Leakey certainly helped to improve relations between Kenya and international lending institutions. His appointment may well have been crucial in persuading the IMF to resume lending the government money.

For a while Leakey enjoyed unprecedented popularity as his dream team started a radical overhaul of the country's bloated, corrupt, nepotistic bureaucracy.

But as usual, Leakey ran into trouble. Some complained again about his uncanny ability to make unnecessary enemies. Others said his anti-corruption drive was threatening the interests of too many powerful figures. In March this year, Leakey stepped down - without giving any public explanation.

At a recent talk he gave at Kenya's National Museum, Leakey said he planned to retire from active political life.

He wanted instead to grow grapes on his farm in the Rift Valley. But few Kenyans seem to believe he will ride off into the sunset without so much as a sequel.

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