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Africa: Year In Review

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Africa: Year In Review


Africa: Year In Review

Africa: Year In Review

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Africa spans more than 50 countries and hundreds of millions of people living in cities, desert, rain forest and savannah. The year included ethnic violence in Kenya following a disputed presidential vote. Voices around the world called for the end of the rule of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe after state-sponsored brutality followed voting there. And now — just before the new year begins — there's been a military coup in Guinea.


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. I want to talk about the year in Africa now, which, of course, included ethnic violence in Kenya following a disputed presidential vote there. Then, state-sponsored brutality after voting in Zimbabwe, as voices around the world called for the end of the rule of President Robert Mugabe, who answered:

President ROBERT MUGABE (Zimbabwe): They can shout as loud as they like from Washington, Europe, or London, or from any other quarter. Our people, our people, only our people will decide, and nobody else.

(Soundbite of applause)

SIMON: And now, just before the New Year begins, a military coup in Guinea. Of course, Africa spans more than 50 countries and has hundreds of millions of people living in cities, deserts, rainforests, and savannah. Between them, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton and Gwen Thompkins cover events in as many of those countries as they can get to. They join us on the line now from their respective bases in Dakar, Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya. Ofeibea and Gwen, thanks so much, both of you, for being with us.


GWEN THOMPKINS: Thank you, Scott. Hi.

SIMON: Hi there. And now, let me get you to talk in turn about some of the power struggles you've witnessed on the continent this year between Zimbabwe, but yet you had a peaceful change of power in South Africa. And of course, has been pointed out, we're now going to have someone of Kenyan ancestry from the Luo Tribe become president of the United States before that seems to be possible in Kenya.

THOMPKINS: Well, these power struggles have certainly been spectacular on the continent this past year. But the thing that has resulted from many of these power struggles that we've seen has been sort of a sign of how intractable motivations of self-interest can be here. You know, in Somalia, in Congo, in Sudan, even in Kenya, you know, the compact between citizen and political leader is shaky at best. And once in office, these leaders, they appear to become deaf to the will of their constituents.

SIMON: Ofeibea, what have you seen?

QUIST-ARCTON: You know, Scott, what Gwen is talking about is all about leadership, or lack of leadership in Africa, which is why Africa has had such a bad year. And we have to admit it's had a terrible year. It's true that in South Africa, and I spent quite a lot of time there in 2008, that the African National Congress, the governing party in South Africa, decided to recall, that euphemism for fire, its president Thabo Mbeki.

And he stepped down, but it was a poisonous, poisonous political battle between Thabo Mbeki and the new head of the ANC, Jacob Zuma. Of course, the second country I spent a lot of time in this year is in Zimbabwe. This is a country where inflation is running at goodness knows what hundreds of percent and where the prices change everyday. This woman teacher in Bulawayo, in the south, says she can't afford to live and that it's hell now in Zimbabwe.

Unidentified Woman (Teacher): Things have changed. Things have gone up. They go up on daily basis, like bread. You go to buy in the morning, 600 million. After five hours, it's gone up to 900 million. The following day, it's about one billion. I can't afford it. I'm surviving on God's grace.

QUIST-ARCTON: Scott, that teacher's not the only African who is saying this year that they're surviving on God's grace. I'm afraid it's been hard to do any stories that haven't had to do with conflict, with fraudulent elections, with flawed elections, with conflicts post-election. That seems to have been the name of the game. Of course, there are African countries that are pressing ahead and doing well. Ghana, my own country, tomorrow goes for its second presidential runoff, and the first round was peaceful. People are looking up to Ghana saying, yes. This is an example on the continent.

But Ghanaians are also complaining about the economy, about the high cost of living. So I think our leaders in Africa are the ones who really have to be questioned about whether they know what the word leadership really means.

SIMON: I'm going to ask both of you two to talk about Somalia and Eastern Congo, which Doctors Without Borders recently said were the two most pressing humanitarian crises in the world. Gwen?

THOMPKINS: Well, Scott, you know, I've got - I've been to Eastern Congo twice in the last couple of months, and it is quite a sight to behold. Years and years of war there have depleted the population to such an extent that most people pledge allegiance to whoever's standing in front of them with a gun. And when that guy leaves, they pledge allegiance to the next guy with a gun. And fighting between a Tutsi-led rebel group, Hutu militias, and the Congolese army crashed in on about a quarter of a million people this year.

You know, those 250,000 people who are on the roads, and I'm sure you saw the pictures, you know, people with all their possessions on their heads, walking, not really knowing where they're going, those people are farmers. And they've not been able to plant this year, and so we can only imagine what the food crisis is going to be in the coming months.

QUIST-ARCTON: I second that, Scott. I mean, Doctors Without Borders could have mentioned Chad, could have mentioned the Central African Republic, could have mentioned Guinea-Conakry, where just as the year is ending, junior officers in the army have staged a coup d'etat after the veteran also military leader died. Any number of African countries could fall into the category of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Some are silent tsunamis, they're calling them.

SIMON: Let me ask you each, if I could, about any international response. There are some nations recently trying, China most specifically, that has sent warships to the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, to try and combat piracy. At the same time, the international interest in trying to broker some power-sharing arrangement in Zimbabwe, at least as of this week, seems to be off. What have you seen in terms of the international response over the past year?

QUIST-ARCTON: Often too little too late, I'd say, Scott. But then, Africans keep crying, African solutions to African problems. But sometimes, the West cherry-picks which crises, which conflicts, which messes it's going to talk about. Zimbabwe is all over the international media. But who hears about what's happening in the Central African Republic?

THOMPKINS: What I wanted to mention, though, Scott, is that there is no underestimating the power of the International Criminal Court, at least in East Africa. You know, the hint of a possible indictment clings to a lot of these leaders like toilet paper on a shoe. The Kenyan leaders fear indictment, Sudanese President Bashir, even the Congolese Tutsi rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, has been reported to keep a copy of the internationally agreed-upon list of war crimes, you know, at his side.

That's not to say that the fear of an indictment promotes better leadership in these places. The Tutsi-led rebels are said to have killed plenty of people, but now they're avoiding burying them in mass graves. But international pressure is what a lot of ordinary people feel is the only thing they can count on to see anything close to justice. They want to see these people at the Hague.

SIMON: In closing, have you - each of you in your reporting this year witnessed some kind of milestone?

THOMPKINS: On the day of the U.S. presidential election, I was in Kogelo, Kenya, which is the ancestral home village of President-elect Barack Obama. You know, for many Kenyans, especially, this has by far been the most exciting thing that has happened in 2008. You know, that village, Kogelo, didn't have a television set before Election Day, but one was brought in for the people to see. And even though the people don't speak English, I mean, most of them do not speak English. They said it was wonderful just to hear Mr. Obama's voice. And it was very moving to hear the president-elect speaking, you know, to them.

(Soundbite from Election Day)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: And all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared. The new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

SIMON: Ofeibea?

QUIST-ARCTON: I'm not sure that I can better that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, you know, before we heard the clip, I was going to say top that, Ofeibea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Dakar, Senegal and Gwen Thompkins in Nairobi, Kenya, thank you so much. So nice talking to both of you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Happy new year.


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