'Ethnic Cleansing' the Best Phrase for Kenyan Violence?

Akwe Amosu, senior policy analyst for Africa at the Open Society Institute, and Joel Barkan, senior associate of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, talk about whether the situation in Kenya should be called ethnic cleansing.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to continue our conversation on the crisis in Kenya.

Now, as we said a moment ago, this country's top diplomat for Africa, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer, described the violence in Kenya as ethnic cleansing, a comment she said was based on her conversations with victims.

In a later statement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack characterized the situation in Kenya as serious, but did not embrace Ambassador Frazer's use of the term. But the comment does highlight the issue of ethnic tensions in Kenya and also the question of how exactly the international community should be involved in bringing an end to the conflict.

To talk more about this, I'm joined here in our Washington studio by two experts on Kenya and the region. Akwe Amosu is the senior policy analyst for Africa at the Open Society Institute. It's a nonpartisan organization that engages in policy advocacy in the U.S. and international issues. And Joel Barkan, he's the senior associate of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That's also in Washington.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

Ms. AKWE AMOSU (Senior Policy Analyst, Africa Open Society Institute): Good to be here.

Mr. JOEL BARKAN (Senior Associate, Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): Thank you.

MARTIN: I want to set aside for a moment the question of whether it's diplomatically useful to use the term ethnic cleansing, and I want to ask each of you first if you think it's true. Akwe?

Ms. AMOSU: No, I don't really. I mean, it's absolutely clear - you know, I understand why she was moved to say that. It's quite clear that there, you know, there are plenty of examples of one ethnic group trying to move another ethnic group out of a location. What is not so clear is the pattern. There are multiple different motivations, some of which are revenge, some of which are anti-state, some of which are political - party political for the violence that's taking place. There are multiple different groups committing violence against each other.

And I think the thing for us to understand is that Kenyan politics is very ethnically defined. And so when things go wrong politically, a lot of the expression of anger and disaffection is also ethnically expressed. And although - so I don't want to deny that there are ethnic groups fighting each other. What I think is implied in her statement that somehow there's sort of a one-directional attack on one ethnic group by another and that this is kind of crime against humanity, I think that just takes things to a wrong level.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. AMOSU: I don't think that's a good way to describe what's going on.

MARTIN: All right. Let's pause on that point, and let Joel sort of give his take on that question. And let me also apologize for my voice. It's sort of obvious that I have a cold. And, Joel, I want to also point out that you were there for the elections in Kenya December 27th, so what is your take on - do you think it's true?

Mr. BARKAN: Well, yes, I was there. But I left just at the time that these disturbances began to get under way, and particularly the killings that occurred in the wake of the announcement that President Kibaki had won reelection. And many, in fact, doubt that - as do I, I might add.

I think Akwe's very nuanced description of what's going on is true, and we can parse whether that's ethnic cleansing or not. I'd like to amplify on what she said by noting that there are systematic attempts to move one ethnic group out of certain areas, and it's occurring by both sides. It's not directly state-sponsored. It's not one side only that's doing this, as she indicated. So the parallels, to say, Srebrenica and what occurred in Bosnia are not valid. But you do have the systematic attempt in the Rift Valley to drive Kikuyus out.

They are migrants. It is not their indigenous area of the country, although it's important to point out that many have lived there for nearly a hundred years, all the way back to the 1920s, and they have rightful titles to their land. But there are also Luos who are one constituent group - not the only one - supporting Raila Odinga, who, if you see the picture in today's New York Times are being bused out of areas in Central Province. If anything, it sort of reminds one of the migrations that occurred in India prior to partition.

And just one final point here. One longstanding demand by the smaller ethnic groups - the less prosperous groups in Kenya, and this goes all the way back to the initial constitution at the time Kenya became independent, that it was then abrogated by the country's first president. And that was for some form of federalism to accommodate group rights. And I think if we're ever going to see a stable situation in Kenya, and indeed, the march on to democracy, there's going to have to be some balance of individual rights and group rights and, likewise, minority rule versus - majority rule versus minority rights. And federalism is that.

MARTIN: I want to mention that we did try to reach Ambassador Frazer. She's currently in Ethiopia at the African Union Summit. But we were unsuccessful.

Akwe, we have about a minute before we need to take a short break. But I want to ask you, to whom do you think her comments were directed?

Ms. AMOSU: It's a really great question. I mean, I think she was trying to concentrate minds outside on the seriousness of this situation. And evoking that kind of language, I'm sure she knew it would get a lot of attention. My own sense is, though, that it actually makes things worse from the ground.

MARTIN: Why?

Ms. AMOSU: Because it plays into the hands of one side. And, in fact, I think a senior official in Mr. Kibaki's party subsequently said, that's what we've been saying all along. You see these…

MARTIN: It implies that the balance is only directed at one group when, in fact, as Mr. Barkan just pointed out, it's very equally distributed. Both parties are engaging in killing other, the other.

Ms. AMOSU: Both parties are running militias. And it's quite clear that they both are in the competition to see who's the biggest victim. And Mr. Kibaki's party has been saying that they're victims of genocide and they're going to take a case to the International Criminal Court. And her comments tends to reinforce the idea that they are the victims, whereas the other…

MARTIN: Well, she made it clear that she was not saying genocide. In fact, genocide is sort of implying that the tools of the state being used to eliminate a sort of a minority group. And she was very clear to say that she was not using that term.

We need to take a short break right now. We're going to have more with our guests Akwe Amosu and Joel Barkan about the ongoing violence in Kenya and whether the international community is being helpful in creating a peaceful solution.

And we also have a conversation with two women - an Israeli and a Palestinian -about how women's leadership might affect security issues in their parts of the world. And that's all coming up next on TELL ME MORE.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The conversation continues on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the broadcast, another of our conversations with women who believe that women should play a bigger role in national security issues around the world. Today, we're talking with a former Israeli army colonel and a Palestinian official. That's in just a moment.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the crisis in Kenya with Joel Barkan. He's a senior associate of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And also, Akwe Amosu. She's senior policy analyst for Africa at the Open Society Policy Institute.

Before the break, Akwe, you were making the point that this might be counterproductive, that it suggests that the U.S. is tilting to one side in the conflict in referring to the use of the term ethnic cleansing by our top diplomat for African affairs, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer.

Mr. Barkan, has the U.S. been seen to be an honest broker in Kenya to this point?

Mr. BARKAN: Well, up until the elections, we were seen as an honest broker. If anything, the government had some qualms about us. But we made a premature statement on December 29th congratulating the electoral commission of Kenya and the people of Kenya for the election that had occurred. That was interpreted by the opposition as endorsing the questionable victory by President Kibaki. And so almost from the outset, you had an asymmetry here.

That statement was amended on the 31st to take a more balanced position. Since then, we've been rather even-handed, but haven't been particularly proactive -although the assistant secretary was out there earlier in January. Now, this week, we've started to turn up the heat. And I think that Jendayi Frazer's comment was part of this effort. Unfortunately, the language she used may not be accomplishing the intent. That, perhaps, would be more effective if it was communicated privately to hardliners on both sides - perhaps, in fact, even threatening them that they would be exposed for their particular operations in this regard. But to make the comment in the manner that she did may now be counterproductive.

MARTIN: And the State Department didn't seem to back her up, which I found curious. You know, that headquarters seem to walk away from her statement and - but Akwe, what levers does the U.S. have in this situation? We were able to speak to Ambassador Frazer earlier in the week before she left for the summit. And we asked, you know, what steps are being contemplated? And she's mentioned a travel ban, but she said that there was really no desire to cut off aid at this point because it's all humanitarian aid. So what leverage does the U.S. have?

Ms. AMOSU: That is actually not quite the case. Kenya is a recipient of very large amounts of security-related aid. The U.S. has seen Kenya as a vital partner in the war against terror. And there is, in fact, quite substantial aid that could be frozen. And that would be sending a very strong message to all Kenyan political elites, and certainly to the Kenyan army, that the U.S. wants to see this matter solved. And I think we have to understand from the U.S. interest's point of view that nothing is more important to the U.S. than that Kenya is a stable country. You can't expect a fragile or a failing state to be a reliable ally. And we have seen this in Pakistan. We've seen this in so many other places. And so really getting into a deep resolution of these problems is in the U.S. interest. And I think they do have the leverage to make a big difference.

MARTIN: Mr. Barkan, are there other players in the international community who could be helpful here? I mean, as we mentioned, Kofi Annan is there now. Ban Ki-moon is expected to head to the region.

Mr. BARKAN: Well, the U.S. is strongly backing - at least rhetorically - former Secretary General Annan's initiative in this regard. And it's my understanding that we are working closely with the U.K. and the E.U. I must say, on the aid thing, we do not have the levers that we had back in the early 1990s when Kenya was aid-dependent. Kenya is not aid-dependent now. The lever here is really in the private sector. And one would have thought by now that particularly the hardliners around President Kibaki - many of whom were businessmen - would have been sensitive to the business community, which is largely dominated by their own ethnic group, and would start taking a moderate - more moderate position. And it's puzzling that they have not.

MARTIN: Well, the tourist industry is all ground to a halt.

Mr. BARKAN: It's finished.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. BARKAN: And so is - horticulture is taking a hit, particular with these standoffs in Naivasha. That's the main source of horticultural exports. The road to Uganda has been intermittently blocked. Uganda is also suffering in this. So there are real ripples all around, economically.

MARTIN: Finally, Akwe, very, very, very briefly then. What would you have the U.S. do at this point, too? Is there anything that the U.S. could do to have an immediate impact? As briefly as you can.

Ms. AMOSU: I think the U.S. needs to send a very strong message both with the threat of a travel ban, an assets freeze, warning on aid, to both sides, saying you must go down to the proper, serious talks. There will be serious consequences if you don't.

MARTIN: Akwe Amosu is senior policy analyst for Africa at the Open Society Policy Institute. Joel Barkan is senior associate of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. They were both kind enough to join me here in our studio in Washington.

Thank you both so much. And I do hope you'll come back and keep us updated as this situation continues.

Ms. AMOSU: Sure.

Mr. BARKAN: Yeah. Definitely. Thank you for having us.

Ms. AMOSU: Thank you.

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