TONY COX, host:
This is News & Notes. I'm Tony Cox. Time now for our Africa update. After weeks of political tension, Madagascar's president steps down. What's next in the struggle for power on the Indian Ocean island? Plus, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for aid workers. And the president of Sudan says all foreign aid groups need to go. For more now, we have got Emira Woods. She is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. And Bill Fletcher, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and former president of TransAfrica Forum. Emira, Bill, nice to have you back.
Ms. EMIRA WOODS (Co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies): Great to be with you.
Mr. BILL FLETCHER (Senior Scholar, Institute for Policy Studies, Former President, TransAfrica Forum): Glad to be on the program.
COX: Here we go with Madagascar. The president says he is stepping down and handing power to the military just one day after soldiers stormed his presidential palace. Military leaders are reportedly going to transfer power directly to the opposition leader. So Emira, let's come to you with this, first off. What is the dispute about between these two men, and is this is a coup?
Ms. WOODS: Well, it is, for all intents and purposes a coup. And for a while it seemed like the military was actually going to take over with a naval admiral, who was said to be in charge for some time. But now, it seems like the military is handing over power when Ravalomanana stepped down. They are now handing over power to the opposition leader, Rajoelina. And I think it is clearly a sense that people have had enough. Over 136 people have been killed since January. There's just a sense of disconnect with the ordinary citizens there on the streets in Madagascar. There is abject economic strife going on, like in many countries around the world. But in Madagascar, there was a sense that, yes, there would be new possibilities with new foreign interests in economic sectors like mining and elsewhere that could bring a sense of improved livelihood for people, and that has not materialized. So, I think there's been a disconnect with ordinary people's needs in a sense that things have gone awry. And so this has pushed, now, a political crisis. So clearly, there will be a transition period. It is said that within 18 to 24 months, there will be an election that takes place. We will see if that timetable still holds. But there is worrying concerns that as militaries are increasing their influence and power, not only in Madagascar but around the continent, you are seeing the sometimes-bloodless but very much coups taking place - from place to place.
COX: Well, Bill Fletcher, my question is, is Ravalomanana - is he responsible for this?
Mr. FLETCHER: I don't think that you could say, necessarily, that. Actually, I want to pick up on something that Emira was just pointing to. No matter how bad the situation is, this introduction of the military as a way of resolving the situation becomes problematic. It may seem to offer an immediate solution and in this sense, it probably offers a temporary respite. The problem, though, is the long-term democratic - the issue of long-term democratic institutions, which end up being frustrated. You had a very similar situation in Mauritania a few months ago with a coup, where there were allegations of corruption and a number of other things, and the military intervened with some level of populist support. But nevertheless, it is a military coup. The democratic institutions do not deepen their roots. They become very fragile.
COX: Well, let's move on to Somalia because - and East Africa. Yesterday, four United Nations aid workers were abducted and then freed hours later in south central Somalia. This coming, of course, just weeks after Somali Islamist insurgents killed 11 AU peacekeepers in the capital city of Mogadishu. Emira, the new president - well, Somalia's new president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, is attempting to establish government control in the country and to gain the support of the Islamist insurgents. But my question is, what are these kidnappings really about?
Ms. WOODS: Well, clearly, there is very much an insurgency going on in Somalia. There's a sense - it's the same story, it seems, Tony, you know, people not having their will represented in the political process. And I think in Somalia, there was - you know, first, a government put in place outside the country and now, a government put in place that still is not necessarily seen as representative of the people. And so you have a sense that things are still not right, that the governance situation has been so manipulated by outside forces. And the worry is that the U.S. has had such a heavy hand in selecting the leadership and the governing parties there in Somalia, that the Somali people actually have a sense of disconnect and distrust. So what you see, still, with the, you know, the targeting of aid workers in particular, I mean, is a sense that these uprisings have not yet subsided because the will of the people has still not been met. So there has got to be an opportunity for Somalis to control their own destiny, to chose their own leaders freely, and then to hold those leaders accountable. And I think there's a sense that it has not yet arrived at that point in Somalia because again, the U.S. and their proxies, Ethiopia and others, have had a heavy hand in selecting the leadership there in Somalia.
COX: Well, complicating things, it would seem, Bill, there and elsewhere on the continent, the United Nations Security Council recently, for example, clearing the way for the establishment of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Somalia. But the peacekeeping forces have been running into trouble all over the place. Are regional peacekeeping forces the problem?
Mr. FLETCHER: The problem with many of these peacekeeping forces is that they are under-resourced, so it's - you're sending, in many cases, an insufficient number of troops with a lack of the kind of weaponry that they need, and a lack of a full and clear mandate as to their responsibilities, into a very chaotic situation. Because in addition to what Emira was just saying, you also have criminal activity that is going on, and the activities of warlords. So you have the Islamists, who are themselves very divided; you have criminal actors that are in play there that create a very unstable situation for the people of the country, not to mention for the humanitarian workers.
Ms. WOODS: You also have, Tony, a region that is awash in weapons. And we have to say, many of those weapons - some, you know, come from other regions of the world, but many of those weapons originate right here in the United States. And when you have more guns than you have people, you will continue to have crises like this emerge - and will continue unabated.
COX: You know, there's another flashpoint we should talk about, taking place on the continent. In Sudan, of course, it's been just a few weeks since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes in Darfur. Emira, Bill, we have been talking about this, you know, week after week after week, it seems. Now, he says he wants all international aid groups out of the country within a year. And last week, he'd kicked out 13 foreign agencies, mostly from Darfur, including Oxfam and Save the Children. How was this playing out, Bill? It seems like very high-stakes poker, with people's lives at stake.
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, this actually relates to something we talked about, I think, last week, man, where this arrest warrant, I think, was absolutely incorrect. It may have been morally justified, but I'm not sure that anyone thought through the consequences. Unless you can go in and literally pick up this guy, grab him and pull him out of the country, and even then, as I said last week, there is a regime in place. This is not just an individual. So of course, an arrest warrant is being issued, his back is up against the wall, and now he's lashing out. Why should this surprise anybody?
Ms. WOODS: So this is probably where my brother and I take different ends on this. I'm - you know, Tony, just getting back from Liberia last night, and this issue of the arrest warrant was a raging discussion on the streets of Liberia. Clearly, you know, the Charles Taylor example, where an indictment and - followed by an arrest of one individual can go a long way towards bringing peace and holding people accountable at all levels. And I think that's often - there's this false debate being set up. You know, do we want peace or do we want justice? And what you hear, time and time again, is that people want both. There's got to be a way to hold accountable those who commit gross atrocities against, you know, ordinary civilians. And there's got to be a way to hold even those in the highest offices, including those, you know, not just in Africa but in many other regions of the world including here in the U.S., accountable for their actions that are inhumane, unjust and immoral. And I think there is a sense that this indictment, while it is controversial, you know, that it is in keeping with setting up an international rules-based system and then holding everyone accountable to that system.
COX: Well, you know, that brings me to Barack Obama. But before I ask the question about that, I want to remind our listeners that this is News & Notes and I'm Tony Cox, and we are talking in our Africa Update with Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Bill Fletcher, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and a former president of the TransAfrica Forum. As you know, this is our last time doing Africa Update. Our show is going off the air after Friday. And both of you have been participating on the show since 2002, and you've been through several incarnations of it, and I want to get your reflections on what you think the importance of what we do - we meaning all of us, in terms of trying to get the word out about Africa.
But before you do that, let's go back to talk about Barack Obama because there are a lot of people thinking that with his election, there will be a new direction and a new light shined on Africa, and some may disagree with that. What would you suggest, Bill Fletcher, to the president in terms of issues that he should address immediately on the continent?
Mr. FLETCHER: Well, there is a quite a number of issues. One is the need to demilitarize the continent. The whole AFRICOM issue, I mean, Africa needs more weapons the way we need smallpox. I mean, it's just - it needs to be a demilitarized situation, and the United States should not be encouraging any further militarization. That's one thing. A second thing is the - around HIV-AIDS, a much greater commitment by the United States to the U.N.'s program, not Bush's pet program that existed, that I think was fundamentally in competition with the U.N.'s effort. So I think that that's a second thing. A third thing is a much closer relationship with the African Union in terms of peacekeeping and working towards settlements. For example, in the Great Lakes region, whereas we're talking about the Horn of Africa, we need to have capable, objective people deployed. And it's a long-term commitment, whether you're talking about those regions or you're talking about the western Sahara. You need to have a long-term commitment of resources and individuals backed up by the White House. So I think that those are several things that need to happen.
COX: Briefly, Emira, what are your thoughts? I know that you've been - you've talked quite a bit about AFRICOM on this program over the years.
Ms. WOODS: Absolutely, and I say, hear, hear to Bill's genius on that one because I think it is the dominant scene right now in terms of U.S.-Africa relations. There has been a Senate committee hearing today, a House committee hearing tomorrow and the following day, focused on AFRICOM, and I think it is important for listeners to understand that AFRICOM was sort of the send-off gift from the Bush administration that really must be closely examined by the Obama administration. And it is incumbent on taxpayers, on members of Congress, to play their role in asking questions to make sure that prioritizing a relationship with Africa's militaries does not end up actually harming, bringing much more harm than good and putting a military face towards U.S. engagement with the continent. We've gone down that road many, many times before. It would be disastrous to go there again. I think the other issue is around Africa's resources. Africa is incredibly rich, and when you see the - especially the oil that is now coming to the U.S., the cobalt from the Great Lakes region that powers our cell phones and computers, the U.S. needs to begin to engage with Africa in a different way as an equal partner in trade, trade that brings - fair trade really, that remembers the needs of workers and the needs of the environment, you know, in creating these trading relationships. So, I think it is renegotiating a relationship, downplaying the military far differently than it is now, and increasing opportunities in which to engage in the continent in ways that bring benefit to the continent and not more destruction. I think those are the critical elements that could, you know, begin to put in place a new type of engagement between an Obama administration and the African continent.
COX: We are down to our last, our very last minute of Africa Update, so, Bill, any reflections?
Mr. FLETCHER: I think this is an incredibly sad day, and it's probably reflected in my voice in this interview, that this program has been exceptional in raising issues that the mainstream media, by and large, ignores. When it comes to Africa, the treatment is extremely superficial, and I think that NPR was to be applauded for having this program. And I'm hoping and praying that wisdom emerges somewhere, and that they realize the need to restart this effort.
COX: Thirty seconds for you, Emira.
Ms. WOODS: There is none other than News & Notes that provided a space for stories, in-depth stories, on Africa on a weekly basis, but also provided an opportunity to not just talk about the negative side but to have positive images of Africa coming out to mainstream America. This is a gift that News & Notes provided for the country, for the world, that many of us are really saddened now at the loss of such a valued treasure for this nation.
COX: On behalf of the staff of News & Notes, I want to thank both of you for participating in Africa Update, and for sharing with us and for sharing with our audience. Thank you again.
Mr. FLETCHER: Thank you very much.
Ms. WOODS: Thank you for all your vision and work.
COX: Emira Woods is co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Bill Fletcher is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, and the former president of TransAfrica Forum. He's also the co-author of "Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path towards Social Justice." They both joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C.
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