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Africa Update: Crisis in Kenya

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This week on Africa Update, we're going to take a look at Kenya and Liberia. In Kenya, the battle for political leadership continues, and former Liberian President Charles Taylor finally stands trial for war crimes.

For more, we've got Bill Fletcher. He is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and former President of TransAfrica Forum.

Hi, Bill.

Mr. BILL FLETCHER (Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies; Former President, TransAfrica Forum): Hey, I'm glad to be back.

CHIDEYA: Yes. Always glad to have you on. Now…

Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: …a quarter of a million Kenyans have been displaced in this post-election violence, hundreds of people killed, and today Kenya's newly-elected parliament met for the first time. How did that unfold?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, I haven't seen the most recent reports, but the situation there remains grim because there is a basic political deadlock. The allegedly elected President Kibaki insists that the election was legitimate. And Odinga, the head of the opposition, says exactly the contrary. And Kibaki has essentially snubbed Kofi Annan, who was going to Kenya to attempt to mediate the situation, so the situation remains tensed.

CHIDEYA: When there was this initial meeting, actually, members of the opposition party refused to stand up when President Mwai Kibaki entered the chamber and, yet, they were all there. Is that at least a hopeful sign that people are trying to negotiate these very tricky political waters?

Mr. FLETCHER: Absolutely. And I think that what's critical is that the dispute in Kenya needs to focus at the level of politics as opposed to at the level of ethnicity. In other words, international observers generally believe that the elections were rigged.

The response of the supporters of the opposition, their anger was very legitimate. The problem was that it got taken - demonstrated through ethnic violence rather than a protest around the political establishment. So the continued focus on politics, the fact that people are meeting in parliament - I think is a very, very important step.

CHIDEYA: Now, a Chinese newspaper, The People's Daily, blamed the West and its pressure to push Western democracy on Kenya as the root cause of all this. How do you parse out an argument like that, that some nations - and this has been made sometimes by other people in the context of Muslim countries or various countries around the world - Western democracy is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Is that true in this case or how do you make sense of that?

Mr. FLETCHER: I think what we have to do is we have to separate the term into its two components: Western and democracy. Democracy is suited for any person on this planet. The notion of Western democracy, however, is something else. Western democracy basically means not so much a form, but the imposition of a certain way of doing things based on how it's done in London and Washington, D.C.

And so I think that the Chinese criticism has a great deal of strength to it if you focus on the Western part of it. Now, if you take that apart and look at democracy, it's a different matter.

Kenya needs democracy. But it needs democracy that's focused on Kenya, on the issue of - issues such as that there are different ethnic groups that are there, that that borders of Kenya were not designed by Kenyans - you know, issues along those lines. I mean, democracy has to be understood in a much broader context than it is normally in the United States.

CHIDEYA: What's the next move not just within the Kenyan community, but the international community to deal with the displaced - internally displaced persons?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, hopefully, two aspects. One is that I do believe international pressure on President Kibaki is very, very important. I think that he has to understand that he may have stolen this election or engaged in conduct that might be interpreted that way, but that it will not be tolerated. I think that that's one piece.

I think the second piece, though - and which is actually more important - is that within Kenya, the political opposition regroups and turns its followers away from anti - non-Kikuyu, anti-ethnic or ethnic-based violence and more towards putting the pressure on the Kibaki regime to shift.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. It started last week. What crimes are - what is he accused of basically?

Mr. FLETCHER: Well, this is not a very nice guy. I mean, this is - we're dealing with a person who may have, in fact, started his career with a legitimate interest in justice, but over time became very corrupt and corrupted.

He is basically accused of active participation in the Sierra Leone civil war while he was the president of Liberia, and of supporting his allies there, a group called the Revolutionary United Front, in the prosecution of that war - the brutal prosecution of the war and the sale of what came to be known as blood diamonds, that is diamonds that were extracted from Sierra Leone by the Revolutionary United Front and shipped into - smuggled into Liberia and then sold on the international market.

CHIDEYA: Now, the first prosecution witness was an expert on blood diamonds. What exactly is the case that the prosecution is trying to make?

Mr. FLETCHER: They are basically saying - it was sort of dramatized in that film, "Blood Diamond." They are saying that what Charles Taylor did was that he was essentially a go-between, that he made Liberia, which itself does not export diamonds in any significance, but he made Liberia a launching pad for these smuggled diamonds to get into Europe and particularly to get into places like Belgium, and then get on the world market.

So that he was an active collaborator in the brutality of the war and supported the Revolutionary United Front in the crimes against humanity and the war crimes that they carried out. So he is directly culpable for the horrendous violence and the destruction of that country.

CHIDEYA: Briefly, what do we see ahead - how long is this trial going to last, first of all?

Mr. FLETCHER: It could last months. I would guess that he will be convicted. I - Charles Taylor does not have a great deal of international support. I think that probably the most controversial issue here, though, is not so much the facts of the trial, but that Charles Taylor left Liberia as part of a peace deal and went to Nigeria, where he believed or have been led to believe that he would be left alone as part of the arrangement for the peace deal. That did not happen. And actually, Farai, that is something that continues to worry me - that his followers, depending on whether he is convicted, may decide to go back to the bush, as they say.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Bill, thanks so much.

Mr. FLETCHER: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Bill Fletcher is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the former president of TransAfrica Forum. And he spoke with us from NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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