Tuesday, July 13, 2004

What Can Kenyans Learn from Liberia? An Interview with Emira Woods

Commentary by Onyango Oloo

Kenya may seem as far away from Liberia as you can travel geographically and politically.

One country is on the eastern coast of Africa, kissing the Indian Ocean, while the other one is an expanse way away on the west, embracing the Atlantic.

Liberia has been ravaged by a decades-long violent civil war that led to the loss of thousands of lives; Kenya, in spite of its intermittent political conflicts, has so far been spared the horrors of Liberia.

Technically, Liberia was never colonized while Kenya had a White settler population to underscore the 68 years it endured British orthodox colonialism.

Superficially, the conventional wisdom is that Liberia is largely populated by "returned Slaves "from the United States; on the surface, lazy Western journalists reduce the myriad and complex social and political problems in Kenya as a tribal tug of war between the Luos and the Agikuyu-ignoring the 40 plus other nationalities and the legacy of foreign domination in Kenya.

When one scratches beneath the surface, however, one is startled by the parallels and the similarities rather than the inevitable discontinuties between Kenya and Liberia.

Both are neocolonial societies on the African continent with comprador bourgeois elites who work at the behest of international finance capital to keep both countries poor and backward while beholden to the IMF, the World Bank and weighed down by the crippling foreign debt.

Both have been more than bit players in the US geopolitical machinations in Africa; in both societies, ethnicity and religion, not to speak of race, gender and class, have been used with devastating effect, to keep the wananchi confused and divided.

Even what appears to be the biggest constrast between the two countries-the Liberian civil war-has very close echoes in Kenya once you start examining the root causes of that conflict.

The question of how African societies can achieve democracy and social progress while grappling with poverty and underdevelopment within the context of neocolonial oppresion has occupied the thoughts of political activists and civil society formations in Kenya and Liberia.

One of the most instructive pointers Kenyans can glean from the tragic Liberian experience is the need for a well thought out, organized response to civilian and military dictatorships.

Liberians learnt to their collecive national cost that one cannot reduce complex political problems to mere personalities-imagining naively that if a Doe replaced a Tolbert there would be an automatic African Nirvana.

The most important lesson that activists in Liberia are probably pondering right now is the question of how best to create a stable and progressive CIVILIAN sustainable democratic society after the nightmarish reign of terror and error of the quixotic Samuel Doe, the tyrannical Charles Taylor and all the brutal, bloody side shows of Prince Johnson et al.

In the Liberian scenario, a section of that country's progressive forces once thought of taking a short cut-shooting their way to political power, by passing the donkey work of years of routine, patient and protracted long-term organizing in creating a solid, politically conscious viable national democratic movement with a rock steady international solidarity movement.

The just, deeply felt historic aspirations of the Liberian people for freedom, democracy and social progress were brutally and cynically hijacked and side tracked by a demagogic, selfish, and as it turned out, a very violent series of opportunistic populists of which the recently deposed Charles Taylor is but the latest example.

Impatient for change, some well-meaning Liberian militants romanticized guerrilla warfare and armed struggle forgetting the famous dictum of the late Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso that a soldier who is not political becomes nothing but an armed criminal if they ever taste the whiff of political power-East Africans saw this most graphically with the tragedy that unfolded in neighbouring Uganda during the notorious interruption of Idi Amin Dada.

In Liberia, the "armed struggle" quickly degenerated into a drawn out, bloody criminal enterprise and macabre contest with feuding war lords locked in mortal combat to see who could emerge on top after years of mindless carnage and sadistic brutality- not sparing children-that as Emira Woods informs us in the interview you hear at the end of this- has touched EVERY LIBERIAN HOME directly or indirectly.

The civil war itself has of course forced the question of a sustainable peace on the national democratic agenda of Liberia and civil society groups have spent years mulling over and struggling with each other on how best to demilitarize and democratize Liberian society without at the same time giving in to the bullying of the marauding lumpen rag tag armies with their blood thirsty, amoral and apolitical war lords.

In the opinion of this writer, the present NAK faction in Kenya-of which President Kibaki is a member-has so retrabilized Kenyan society as to leave it EXTREMELY vulnerable to manipulation by past, present and future war lords who can be found among the present ruling circles as well as several of the former KANU chieftains.

In the 1990s, the east African country was rocked with a series of very violent politically motivated ethnic clashes in places such as Molo, Burnt Forest, Trans Mara, Likoni and elsewhere.

About two years ago, the Akiwumi Commission published its findings:

on the clashes in the Rift Valley
on the clashes at the Coast
on the clashes in Nyanza and Western
on the clashes in North Eastern province

The report fingered several high profile politicians among them former powerful cabinet ministers like Nicholas Biwott and Julius Sunkuli and present powerful cabinet ministers like Karisa Maitha and William Ole Ntimama.

Yet even two months BEFORE he was elected President, Mwai Kibaki had begun singing the "forgive and forget" song that saw Mzee Jomo Kenyatta let foreign and local war criminals walk scot free after the horrors they had perpetrated during the Mau Mau war for national independence.

More troubling were revelations that well-conected figures in Kenya were themselves investing very heavily in "security enterprises" like Executive Outcomes and Sandline international. One of these individuals named is none other than one of the low profile sons of the former head of state that no one ever hears about:

the Papua New Guinea connection

very detailed
a PDF document from the Tear Fund
another one on mercenaries

The current internal conflicts WITHIN NARC are potentially very dangerous for the future political stability of Kenya and the deepening of the national democratic renewal.

I now want to advance three reasons why I think this is the case.

I am suggesting that we should not underestimate these three reasons, while not letting go of a wider progresive vision that locates the mobilization for the Kenyan democratic and progressive national project among the popular sectors and the more ideologically grounded forces within the broader forces fighting for change in Kenya.

One, these internal NARC dog fights are NOT based on ideology by and large but around paranoia about certain individuals who are seen by others either to be clinging on to power or trying to grab the same.

Two, these intra-factional tussles within the Kenyan rulic bloc are overlaid with heavy undertones and overtones of tribalism and regionalism which threatens to conjure up ethnic based responses like creating tribal militias to defend the interests of this or that community or region.

Three, many of the adversaries in NAK, LDP, KANU and even Ford-People have either being tagged to being actual war lords with their tribal militias waiting in the wings or are actually capable of morphing into ethnic war lords with entire communities waiting for their call.

These three reasons threaten to transform any worsening of the current impasse within the fractious and raucous neo-colonial comprador bourgeois Kenyan dueling factions into a full-fledged ethnic conflagration with tribal massacres, internal refugees and burning crops in abandoned fields taking place all over Kenya.

It matters little to the present writer if he is met with the usual dismissive and derisive charges of being an "alarmist." I am sharing an opinion and challenging my detractors to provide an ALTERNATIVE and CREDIBLE counter analysis that challenges the basis of my arguments, or refutes my position altogether. I do not claim to be an oracle or a twenty first century Jeremiah speaking grimly of a nation torn asunder.

All I am doing is making what I think are valid projections based on what continues to be very disturbing sabre rattling by war-like politicians who keep hinting darkly and smugly that they have their secret armies lurking in the shadows waiting to shock the wananchi with an abrupt eruption of a brutal fight to the finish to "settle" once for all who will be the top dog among these neo-colonial hounds...

As a matter of fact, I want to go ahead and WARN PUBLICLY, AHEAD OF TIME that if the Kenyan democratic forces do not move fast enough to anticipate, contain and transcend the fall out from the brewing crisis within NARC; if we do not move with sufficient speed and create an ALTERNATIVE, INDEPENDENT, NATIONAL BASE of LEFT WING political organizing, we may be all consumed with these internal NARC flames; we may actually be helpless witnesses as Kenya goes the way of Somalia, rather than a Liberia- with selfish and ideologically bankrupt Kenyan politicians opting to carve up Kenya rather than giving up and growing up from their narrow navel gazing and unquenchable narcissism in their mad quest for ephemeral power.

That is why I think that ALL patriotic and progressive Kenyans-irrespective of where they stand in the current debates and controversies-to listen to Emira Woods.

Who is Emira Woods?

For those who watch CNN and other North American media channels, she is that articulate voice, that intelligent face who has been championing the cause of a new and alternative Liberia for a number of years now.

We were very fortunate when she agreed to take a moment from her hectic schedule to talk to us sometime back. And the words she stated then have not dated...

Emira Woods is co-director of
Foreign Policy in Focus

a "Think Tank Without Walls". She holds a BA in International Relations from Columbia , a certificate in Public Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, a Master's in Government from Harvard, and is ABD in Political Economy and Government at Harvard. She recently was Program Manager for the Committee on Development Policy and Practice at InterAction, serving as a principal staff contact for advocacy at the UN, and the international financial institutions, USAID and the Department of the Treasury. She designed and implemented a strategic campaign around the Monterrey Financing for Development conference, working with both InterAction members and a broader coalition of Southern and Northern agencies. Prior to this position, she served as Program Officer of Oxfam America's Africa program, which involved outreach to the heads of major international institutions and grassroots groups in the most remote communities.She has played a critical role in networking NGOs based in New York and Washington, D.C. around the Financing for Development process. Originally from Liberia, she has experience in supporting civil society in all regions of the continent- West, Southern, Horn, and Central. She also worked at the World Bank where she did research on Africa. She serves on the Africa Panel of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and is involved with the Association of Women in Development (AWID).

Emira Woods had an extensive interview with the DUNIA show which airs Wednesday mornings on CKUT 90.3 FM, one of the community-based radio stations in Montreal. The interview took place via phone on Tuesday, July 22, 2003.

Click here to LISTEN to the interview that Emira Woods had with Onyango Oloo

To supplement that interview, perhaps Kenyans can pay attention to the Kiswahili lyrics of this popular song by the militant underground, Nairobi-based hip hop group, Sinpare singing, "Jivunie Ukenya":

click here to listen to Sinpare's Jivunie Ukenya

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