The 2004 Noble Laureate for peace Professor Wangari Maathai of Kenya has come a long way from her days as a controversial environmentalist and community organizer in Kenya to winning the Noble Prize for Peace. In this interview with Joseph Omoremi, she recalls her ordeal in the hands of security agents during the Green Belt campaign and the trouble she went through to emerge the winner of the Noble peace award. It is a must read.
Inquirer: You are in parliament; you are a minister and you are engaged in so many speaking engagements besides the Green Belt Movement. How have you been coping since winning the Nobel Prize for peace? Maathai: It is not as if you do everything yourself. What is important is to plan and to involve people who know what to do and help you implement what you are doing.
The Belt movement is going on and I can tell you that they are thousands of people who are planting trees and they don’t know I’m in Chicago.
Inquirer: It used to be military governments in Africa until recently. How have things changed since the return of democratic governments to virtually all-53 countries in Africa?
Maathai: Democratization in Africa especially since the fall of Berlin Wall and the wind of change of the East coming to Africa has been very good. With the fall of communism it has not been necessary for many governments especially in the Western world to patronize African governments as part of the cold war rivalry. It is safe now to promote democracy and abandon dictatorship.
What Africa needs now is business and business is better managed when you have democracy. That is why democracy is so been encouraged. Democratic movements some 10 years ago found Africa many civil society organizations in Africa struggling to overcome dictators and mis-managers of national affairs. They welcomed the change that was coming.
That is why we are seeing a lot of governments now being led by people who are more democratic and are more willing to embrace people and to work for the benefit of the people. What I hope is that this is something that African leaders will do because of their own personal conviction. But it is a good thing for them to manage the affairs of their state responsibly and accountably for the benefits of their people and not so much because the world requires that they be democratic.
Inquirer: There are many African immigrants in the Western world and in sensitive places. How can African leaders tap these resources for the benefit of the continent like other continents?
Maathai: I think it is up to the Africans that are here especially in the US and other western countries who have come to look for greener pastures and have found them that they would remember their brothers and sisters back home who are not leaving in greener pastures. One way is for them to repatriate some of their resources back home and invest back home and that helps the economy at home. And that is a very good positive thing. The other is that as they are here they be good ambassadors of Africa. We need to improve our image and we need to present a different kind of Africa who is a respecter of the law, who is hardworking, honest, accountable and reliable and who can be a positive contribution wherever he is and he is appreciated and respected.
Sometimes it is unfortunate that when people come to countries like America and because they didn’t find themselves in the mainstream, because they don’t find themselves being welcomed, they end being victims of a very un-sympathetic competitive society. People back home are not always aware that our people that have come this way have responsibility towards us. They don’t know we feel that way and they don’t always understand the world beyond their borders; they hardly understand the world within their borders. I think it is more of the responsibility of those who have left and are informed and aware and understand the positions in which their brothers and sisters are at home that should assume this responsibility. And I know that people like you that write as a journalist can do a lot to bring out some of the issues we are speaking about in Africa such as the need to protect our natural resources, the need for us to be forgiven the debt.
Inquirer: Why should African countries be forgiven the debt they own the Western world?
Maathai: The word forgiven is a misnomer because we have already paid the debt many times over. What we are asking is for justice to be done because a lot of this debt, if it was a matter of paying the principle that has been paid. If it was a matter of paying a lot of interest that has already been paid. But the way these debts were structured is such that you will never finish paying. Initially, they were mismanaged. A lot of it was stolen; we were told the stolen money was re-invested in the same country that had given the loan to begin with. These are facts that readers in this part of the world can easily find out. Other people I have heard say that a lot of these resources were actually in kind. It was not actual money. It was in kind or material quite often armory for our army as we were creating new army after independence and this material did not generate cash to service the debt. So when we say forgive the debt, it is a misnomer, and it makes people feel that why should Africa be forgiven their debt. Africa has already paid this debt. We are just asking can we do business more fairly and a little more responsibly and not continue to punish people who should not be punished at all and make them look like they are debtors. They are not.
Inquirer: How can justice be done even if the debt was given in kind or armory if African leaders continue to loot the treasury?
Maathai: That is true. The other side of the coin of all these is we as Africans have to demonstrate our willingness to do better things. Many of the countries that were given the relief not to pay are African countries that are truly poor but are making use of the resources to address the issues. I feel embarrassed that we Africans should have to be told to be good to ourselves and as leaders to be good to our people. We should be able to manage ourselves like adults and responsible leaders and not to have this kind of discussions with leaders of other countries.
Inquirer: What can Africans do to make sure that democracy in Africa works like democracy in the Western world?
Maathai: We don’t have perfect democracy in Africa, and there is no perfect democracy in any part of the world. But we have images of democracy. We are starting to begin to manage ourselves using democratic principles. But we still have very weak institutions of government. We have very few checks and balances and we do not have leadership that is willing to create checks and balances for itself. We still have a lot of remnants of leaders who want to exploit the situation in which they find themselves. Democracy in Africa is still not democratic but we are working towards democracy. One of the best ways we can strengthen democracy in Africa is to strengthen the civil society because in any other country especially here in America if President Bush wanted to do certain things he may find it very difficult because the whole country may go up in flames because the civil society will not accept. But in Africa when our leaders wanted to do whatever they wanted to do, our people are so disempowered and they are not going to raise any voice against such things. In any country a strong democracy includes a strong civil society, informed people, people who are not disempowered, people who are not too poor because people who are too poor will not fight for their rights. In the past when US has such inhuman practices such as slavery, a critical mass of the people here both Blacks and whites who were willing to stand up and that system came to an end. Look at democracy in Europe; they fought for many years itching to introduce better government. Leaders don’t give up privileges willingly.
Inquirer: Why are you advocating for the eradication of poverty worldwide in your speech to the Rotarians? Maathai: As citizens and as members of the society in which we live throughout the world, we need to work for initiatives that reduce poverty because if we have poor people we can’t have democracy. They would be exploited, they would be marginalized, and they would be perceived as the weak and vulnerable.
Inquirer: What is your advice to Africans in the western world?
Maathai: Just do the best you can. Be good ambassadors. Inquirer: What is the future of Africa in the next years ahead?
Maathai: The future of Africa is bright judging from the kind of leadership we are having at the moment. I see more African leaders who are willing to practice greater justice, greater respect for human rights. African leaders at a conference I attended in March this year were willing to create a body, an organ of civil societies within the African Union to advise African head of states on how better to govern. That I think is a milestone for the African leaders to give a window of opportunity for their people to advise them because normally they don’t care about advice from their people. With this kind of approach, I see a lot of hope in Africa.
Inquirer: How did you start the green belt movement?
Maathai: The government did not see anything wrong with planting of tree. They started sensing something when we organized women into groups and even more when we started giving them education on democracy, on human rights, on environmental rights, on women rights and emphasizing that if you do not have certain rights such as right to information, right to movement, right to assemble, it is very difficult for you to protect your environment. That was the way we approached it. And we could demonstrate that because the government had a law that says you could not meet if you are more than nine in our country. Therefore if you have a group of 25, that group is illegal and when we wanted to bring them together to give them instruction on how to establish a nursery, how to nurture their siblings, how to plant a tree, you need more than nine people.
People need to understand that the government did these things deliberately. The government understood the power of organizing and the power of movement and sharing of information. That was why the government was stopping us. I understood that and when I realized that the government was preventing us, I was greatly encouraged to persuade the people because I wanted the people to have the power. I explained to the people why the government didn’t want you to have power. They wanted people to be vulnerable and weak.
Inquirer: With all those efforts to stop you, why did you believe this is what you just have to do?
Maathai: I was very lucky because I was educated. I’ve come to this country and I had studied for almost five and half years. I had gone home and joined the University of Nairobi. Then I went to Germany for almost two years. I was sufficiently exposed to understand what the leaders were doing. Education is extremely important in these issues.
Inquirer: What is the situation in Kenya now in regard to freedom to information, human rights and the rights to organization?
Maathai: It is there but it is not 100 percent. It is much, much better than when we started. We started when we had one political party, now I think we have about a hundred political parties. We started when we could not meet, now we could meet anytime. We don’t have to tell the police that we are meeting. We started when we had a president who was extremely powerful almost like an absolute monarch; we have been cutting down his wings. We are re-writing the constitution and one of the reasons why we had a very hot debate in Kenya is to try to reduce the power of the president and to give some of those powers to parliament and to give some of those powers to judges. We have succeeded in giving a good amount of some of those powers to parliament and we are still trying to give some powers to judges so that they do not depend on the executives.
Inquirer: What are other areas that need to be improved upon?
Maathai: We need to reduce the power of the president.
Inquirer: Can you elaborate more on that?
Maathai: We are trying to have a situation where parliament decides when the parliament opens and when it closes but presently, it is the prerogative of the president. Also if parliament passed a bill and the president refuses not to sign, there is nothing you can do. He can veto the law and parliament cannot override the veto. We need to change that. The president can appoint judges and fire them at will. Judges don’t have security of tenure. They are vulnerable. We want judges to have security of tenure. These are some of the things we are changing. Inquirer: Thank you for your time.