Ghana Leads African Union, Strike Ends in Guinea

Tony Cox talks with NPR's special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault about recent news from Africa. They discuss the awarding of the African Union leadership to the nation of Ghana, the end of a general strike in Guinea and an international disagreement over two alleged al-Qaida members in South Africa.

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TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox with our Africa Update.

Today, a new head is chosen for the African Union. Plus, the latest on al-Qaida suspects in South Africa, and the end of a general strike in Guinea. Joining me now is NPR special Africa correspondent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Hello, Charlayne. How are you?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hello, Tony. I'm fine. And you?

COX: Fine, thanks, Charlayne. There's been a decision on the choice for the new head of the AU What can you tell us about that?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, this is a big news story in Africa today, because the potential deadlock over the chairmanship might have just torn this new African Union apart. Last year when they met, it was time for Sudan to assume the chairmanship. But because of the crisis in Darfur - which, as you know, the United States has called a genocide with a couple of million people displaced, thousands maimed and wounded and, you know, the fighting still continuing - the international community thought that it would be a disaster for the African Union to choose Sudan.

And obviously, the Africans agree because they chose a different candidate. This year, the same crises was looming. But just Monday, they chose Ghana, which is an almost brilliant choice. Because, as you know, Ghana is celebrating 50 years of independence this year. So symbolically, it's great. And while Sudan was pressing to assume the chairmanship, it doesn't see anything wrong with this behavior and says that running the African Union doesn't have anything to do with the war in Darfur. There were African countries like Chad and Senegal and others who had said they would walk out if, in fact, Sudan was chosen.

Now, they have their own reasons, and the international community was saying, look. Here's the African Union - which has now pledged to good governance and democracy and respecting human rights. If they want to be taken seriously, they will not put someone who has been roundly condemned as contributing to - if not sponsoring - a genocide, assuming the head of their organization. So they've avoided a huge problem internationally, as well as within their own continent.

COX: Here's another item. Over the weekend, Guinean unions called off a general strike that has crippled that West African nation and led to deadly clashes after a deal was reached with the government. Let's talk about that. But before we do, Charlayne, give us a little bit of background about Guinea.

HUNTER-GAULT: Of course, you know, Guinea is over there in West Africa, right on the Atlantic Ocean. It's a francophone country. The people there speak French, among their other dialects. As you know, Guinea has only had two presidents since gaining its independence from France in 1958. The person who is president now, Lansana Conté, seized power in a coup in 1994. He was returned in an election, but it's been criticized by the international community and others as not having been fair.

The whole strike was called because the unions had set a demand to the president, asking that he retire his cabinet and appoint some interim government officials, an interim prime minister, because they say he's mismanaged the economy. It's a very rich country with diamonds, bauxite and other natural resources, but it's dirt poor. And they say part of the reason is because of the ongoing mismanagement by the Conté government.

They also say that he is quite ill, that he is erratic. And they want some stability. And finally, after 17 days, they came - as you said earlier - to an agreement to put up an interim, a consensus prime minister, and to institute some reforms, you know, put an end to corruption to try and use more of the resources within the country.

So this is a real victory for civil society. And I think it's a good indication that, slowly but surely, democracy and the voices of the people are being heard around the continent.

COX: All right. Let's turn to your base, South Africa. There's big news there with international implications, two al-Qaida suspects in your own backyard. What can you tell us about that?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there are two cousins here whom the United States has asked the United Nations to put on their terrorist list. Now the U.N. Security Council is holding off because they say once you get on, it's very difficult to get off. South Africa is also holding off because it claims that it doesn't have enough information about the two people.

Now, the United States Treasury Department has issued a document. These two men are cousins. One's name is Farhad Docrat, the other is Junaid Docrat. And they're saying that they both finance and facilitate al-Qaida. They gave an example in the release that they put out saying that Farhad Docrat in 2001 had provided quite a substantial number of funds - about 62,000 U.S. dollars, almost 63,000 - to the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan to be forwarded to a trust in Afghanistan that was a fundraiser for al-Qaida.

Moreover, they say the other Docrat is an al-Qaida financier, recruiter and facilitator, and that he has had numerous contacts with al-Qaida operatives outside the country. The Docrat family - who have now stopped talking to the media, but before - they all claimed that they were innocent, that this - they had no idea where these charges have come from.

And, in fact, you know, Junaid Docrat's wife says that the whole family has been depressed about reports. In fact, he is the chairperson of the - his community's community policing forum, and they are insisting that they have no ties to al-Qaida.

The South African government is kind of between a rock and a hard place in a sense, because it says that it's committed to fighting terrorism. I had an interview Monday with the deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad who says that, you know, they yield to no one in their commitment to fighting terrorism.

But they have complained that the United States is borrowing a lot of South African citizens - an increasing number who are either denied entry or refused visas to travel to the United States - and that the government is concerned because they don't have any concrete evidence or information about why these people are being detained.

And so they're asking for more transparency in the United States dealing with people they regard as terrorists, or certainly suspicious people on suspicion of terrorism.

COX: Well, that's certainly a story that we'll be looking forward to talking to you again about in the future. Charlayne, thank you very much.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Tony. It's nice to hear your voice.

COX: Charlayne Hunter-Gault is NPR's special Africa correspondent. She checks in regularly with an African update for NEWS & NOTES.

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