Africa Update: Ethiopia, Kenya For the latest news from the continent, NPR East Africa Correspondent Gwen Thompkins talks about the release of 38 political prisoners in Ethiopia, Mungiki gang activity in Kenya and the latest on an African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.
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Africa Update: Ethiopia, Kenya

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Africa Update: Ethiopia, Kenya

Africa Update: Ethiopia, Kenya

Africa Update: Ethiopia, Kenya

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For the latest news from the continent, NPR East Africa Correspondent Gwen Thompkins talks about the release of 38 political prisoners in Ethiopia, Mungiki gang activity in Kenya and the latest on an African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

It's time for Africa update. This week, we'll run through headlines from the eastern part of the continent including political prisoners released in Ethiopia and an update on the brutal Mungiki gang in Kenya. But let's start in Sudan where President Omar al-Bashir made an unusual trip to Darfur over the weekend. Negotiations over who gets to keep the peace have hit a snag. Darfur's residents are still under threat of raids by militias and also face disease and starvation. Will a possible U.N.-African Union force get to go ahead to watch over the region?

NPR's east Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins has the latest.

GWEN THOMPKINS: President Bashir went to Darfur for a three-day appearance. This is highly unusual. He never goes there. He attended an extraordinary meeting of the cabinet there. And the order of the day was to discuss infrastructural plans and problems in Darfur. Now you have to realize that Darfur has - it's, you know, the size of France, and yet it has very, very little by way of infrastructure. There are no roads, there are very few public services or public facilities.

If the cabinet and Mr. Bashir wanted to talk about infrastructure in Darfur, they could actually be there until doomsday. In fact, it was frustration over lack of infrastructure and any other kinds of public facilities - that prompted black militia groups four years ago to start a rebellion against the government in Khartoum. And that's the rebellion that has escalated into what the Bush administration calls genocide - government-sponsored genocide - 200,000 people dead, two and a half million people displaced.

The African Union and the United Nations are planning peace talks in Tanzania next month. And then now, as you mentioned, the African Union and the United Nations are experiencing a new glitch in their plans for a 26,000 strong peace keeping force in Darfur because the government in Khartoum is now saying we don't want this force to be able to use force when they're on the ground in Darfur. The AU soldiers who were there right now are under constant attack. They've been losing their lives in Darfur for the past several months.

So if you bring in 26,000 people and tell them that they can't shoot back or that they can't use force to disarm any of the people who are already on the ground in Darfur, then that's trouble. So it will be very interesting to see how this is going to unfold or whether this glitch is actually going to stall the process even longer.

CHIDEYA: So, Gwen, you have news from Ethiopia, the government releasing political prisoners. What's going on with that?

THOMPKINS: Well, on the surface, this looks like a very magnanimous gesture on the part of the Ethiopian government. There are 38 political prisoners. Many of them were sentenced to life in prison and other stiff penalties for their activism, really, against the Ethiopian government. And the government has pardoned these folks. Their incarceration began about two years ago during the last round of elections in Ethiopia. These folks were, for all intentional(ph) purposes, guilty of no wrongdoing.

They were rounded up, beaten up, paraded through the streets of (unintelligible) as a warning to others to not defy the government or challenge the government and they were put in jail. There are many, many more than the 38 who were just pardoned, who are still in jail, languishing. And there have been many people who have been picked up since then as political opponents of the government and who are in jail and no one knows really anything about them.

Now, this is the underside really of the Ethiopian government, which is an ally of the United States and is thought to be a very dependable ally in the U.S. sponsored war on terror in East Africa.

CHIDEYA: So, Gwen, just to make it clear, when you talk about these political prisoners being rounded up largely without cause, what exactly do you mean by that?

THOMPKINS: Well, the 38 political prisoners were political activists as well as seat holders in parliament. These are folks who were outspoken opponents of the government that is led by Meles Zenawi. And they were doing what political opponents do during election season, speaking out against the government, holding public rallies. And the government, which has a very repressive side and is very jealous of its authority, moved to catch these people during the elections and in the aftermath of the elections two years ago.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's move on to another topic and actually revisit a subject we talked about a couple of weeks ago - it's the Mungiki gang violence in Kenya. Give us an update.

THOMPKINS: Well, this is the scary story of Kenya, actually - the Mungiki, which is an important engine behind organized crime here. They have purportedly been at war with thousands of bus drivers from whom they extort thousands and, well actually, from whom they extort millions of dollars per year. They've also been at war with the police in Kenya, and reportedly, they've been at war with themselves. There's reportedly dissension within the group.

Now, the Mungiki had been relatively quiet in recent days. It's the police who were making headlines here because they're reportedly killing a lot of young men who've been associated with the gang. And some of the police have been disciplined for their actions and others are under questioning for their conduct, you know, a series of really deadly slum raids.

CHIDEYA: You also interviewed one of the founders of the Mungiki and he's now a minister?

THOMPKINS: That's right. Ndura Waruinge is now a minister. He's an evangelical minister. He told me that the recent surging Mungiki related violence has only helped him in recent months. Here's a clip of tape from that interview.

Mr. NDURA WARUINGE (Founder, Mungiki): (Unintelligible). Wherever I go, I wish I would walk with you around the streets. People respecting me because they fear me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WARUINGE: So, whatever they are doing now works for me completely. And I see that's God's.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: Now, Waruinge is also running for a parliamentary seat in the upcoming elections here. And he says he has aspirations of creating a nationwide Mungiki organization that will concentrate on what he calls developing young people. And he says that Christianity is a good vehicle -that's his word - a good vehicle for achieving that goal.

CHIDEYA: People respect me because they fear me. Very interesting. Well, one last topic. NPR is running a worldwide series on climate change. And this month, the network is focusing on Africa. Now, I understand, you're just back from a region in northwestern Kenya called Turkana and tell us what you saw.

THOMPKINS: Well, northwestern Kenya is home to an ongoing feud between cattle rustlers. Now, the cattle rustlers are of different ethnic groups. One is called the Turkana, the other called the Phukot(ph). And if this sounds like a movie western, it should because the story has a lot of parallels with the Old West.

But the climate is changing here, Farai, in East Africa. It's getting drier. The water is getting more scarce. Rain is getting more unpredictable. And so that has serious implications for people who keep cattle, who keep herds of camels, of goats, of cows. And so this is also creating a desperate situation among the people who are living in northwestern Kenya. They are raiding each other's herds in order to replenish their own, in order to amass wealth or is sometimes just for feuding purposes, just for revenge. So many people are killed each year due to these cattle raids.

And I actually have some cape of one Turkana man called John Mark Edan(ph) who runs a non-profit organization called Realm-Realm(ph), promoting peace between the ethnic groups, between the cattle rustlers. In this clip, he is remembering a raid that he experienced near the Ugandan border back in 2000.

Mr. JOHN MARK EDAN (Founder, Realm-Realm): Around 5:00 in the morning we heard the first gunshots. There were lots of pandemonium and called the young men and the middle aged men had to run out and form a ring around their cattle. Shooting, defending, shooting and (unintelligible) of continuous gunfire.

THOMPKINS: Now, Farai, you know, these raids are going on, on a daily basis in some areas of northwestern Kenya and more are expected.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gwen, thank you so much for that update. Fascinating story.

THOMPKINS: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: NPR East Africa correspondent Gwen Thompkins, speaking with us from Nairobi, Kenya.

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