Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Maathai Interview (Part 2 of 2)

By Timothy J. McNulty
What other large issues are you working on?

The next area I am really interested in the climate change issue. All this time we have been trying to work for the environment and rehabilitate degraded environment, protect forest, protect soils and generally educate people on the need to take care of the environment. Now we have a new understanding of the phenomenon of global warming, and this phenomenon is going to be very negative on Africa.

As you know, we have a big desert to the north and the Kalahari Desert to the southwest. It has farmers who are still very undeveloped in terms of skills and the technologies they use are very, very primitive. They still use age-old technologies, such as slash-and-burn, that are very destructive to the environment. So I am very engaged in trying to encourage governments to protect the forest. And I have recently become the Goodwill Ambassador of the Congo forest and my responsibility is to raise awareness on the need to protect this forest, not only for Africa, but also for the world.

We usually call the Amazon, the Congo and the forests in the southwest block of Asia the three lungs of the planet. They are extremely important because they are huge carbon sinks (that help reduce) the carbon that is in the atmosphere. So whatever happens in terms of reducing emissions, we need to protect these forests so they are not cut and they do not release more carbons into the atmosphere and that, instead, they continue to help us eliminate the carbons that are already in the atmosphere.

For Africa, the Congo forest is also important because it is like a buffer between the two deserts. It has a lot of potential. It has a massive amount of water, a massive amount of resources and it’s very important that it is managed in a sustainable way. It is almost a scramble for these resources from different nations that are trying to use them either because they don’t have enough at home or they have a particular capacity to take so much – especially in upcoming markets like China and India, and also in the industrialized world.

Because Africa is still undeveloped in terms of technological advancement, she is still not able to add much value in terms of her resources. So she continues to export her resources as primary and raw materials and therefore gets very little comparatively for what she exports. Therefore she still has to import manufactured goods that are extremely expensive and at prices she cannot control.

Whereas when she sells her raw materials it is often those companies that tell her how much they will pay. And because she doesn’t add value, because they are raw materials, if you don’t sell them they will go to waste, things like cocoa, things like coffee, things like tea.

Are you discouraged that these problems seem so cyclical?

That’s why I have written this book, “The Challenge for Africa” to demonstrate that it is easier said than done. There are so many challenges that are not clear, they don’t come to you upfront and you may not experience them until you really go down to do the work. If I had stayed in the University of Nairobi as a professor, I would never really understand this. It’s when you go down in the grassroots and you see it and you recognize that as a force that can interfere with good development…

So my book is partly to reflect on my own experiences and say, yes, we have come a long way and no doubt improved. But we have not gone far enough, and we could have gone far enough if we were a little more committed, if the leadership and religious leaders were a little more committed, if individuals were a little more committed and did not just think of themselves, if they were pushing for the common good.

It is not as if I am looking for a utopian society, but in most societies, whether it is in America or Europe, or Japan, or even now in China and India, you have a critical mass of people and leadership that is really focusing on pushing forward, hopefully without sacrificing certain values and principles.

Who do most want to read your book?

My audience is Africans, intellectuals and the elite because I think I belong to that class and I believe we have a very important role to play, not only to criticize but to be actively involved. Secondly, those of us elites in leadership we are in a position that we really do have to show that we care for our people and that we do not want to continue exploiting them or allowing their exploitation. The other group that I hope will read the book are people who are involved in development, to help understand that development is not a one-track activity, that is holistic and long-term and requires a lot of commitment.

We know that development has not always been honest. There has been almost a partnership, a conspiracy between our own elites and the development partners…Partners have been using the resources that are not properly released by our leaders. The reason they do is because they make money out of it. Sometimes we are told that for every dollar that is invested in the form of aid in Africa, it comes back as four dollars (in African resources), so that is hardly “aid,” it is really very lucrative trade.

And that’s unjust and those injustices are not exposed. They are not exposed because those who are giving us the money are interested in the trade and those who are given the money, the African elites, are not sufficiently committed to their people and are willing to allow that.

Some believe that aid in its present form actually suppresses prosperity in underdeveloped countries, do you agree?

In my opinion, unless the African leadership decides to help its own people, there is nobody who can come from outside and help the people. You have to be willing to help your people…We haven’t seen anybody who will come help you manage your affairs, if you can’t help yourself.

What we have seen is people who will come and promise help but essentially what they will be doing is trade and helping themselves. Whether they are logging in the forests, investing in banks, selling equipment or merchandise, whatever they are doing, they are telling you they are helping, but they are not helping.

But the responsibility does lay to a very large extent with the African elites, especially those of us who are in the government. It is very important for us to speak about this in a transparent way, in an open way, and ask questions about justice, ask questions about equity, and ask questions about accountability on both sides.

Media often help hold leaders accountable but currently the U.S. media, especially newspapers, are in financial trouble. Is it in the same elsewhere?

In Africa, we are still very reliant or dependent on the printed word for information. Television is still not accessible to a lot of people, especially outside the towns and cities. Now radio is much more accessible. There was a time during Moi’s time, when radio was very restricted. That was part of the gains we made during our struggle for greater democracy.

If there is one thing that is a revolution is the Internet and the mobile phone. In 2002, we had an election in Kenya that was historic because for the first time we were able to get rid of (President Daniel arap) Moi, whom we had tried previously to get out of office without success. (Moi ruled from 1978 to 2002.)

There were many factors that enabled him to be defeated but one of them was the mobile phone. During the campaign, we had been able to change a very fundamental law, that is to say that votes will be counted where they are cast. Because quite often the interference with the votes was during the transfer from where they were cast to where they were counted. Sometimes boxes would disappear or they would be stashed with extra votes.

Through the mobile phone, people were able to send to the newspapers, and radio stations and television stations the results of the votes from where the votes were cast and counted and that was a transformation that must have sent shock waves to a lot of president or candidates who rely on rigging elections by interfering with the votes…

We still are a long ways to having the Internet. Most of us have to go to cybercafes to access information, to access a computer, so it will be some time. But mobile phones are moving like wildfire.

In a recent op-ed column, you wrote of your admiration for President Obama.

I think Obama represents a great opportunity for Africa because he has roots, Africa roots, and so he can use his style. He can challenge the African leadership and he can urge the African leadership to embrace good governance, which is their biggest problem. And to eliminate corruption which is another great problem. Corruption sometimes goes hand-in-hand with an excessive, luxurious life at the expense of their people.

It’s okay for you to have a private jet, to have a large entourage, to have 30-40 cars following you and going ahead of you. But really when you live in a poor country and you know that you’re people are starving, it begs the question why you feel you need so much luxury around you.

So I think these are some of the issues that I hope Obama would challenge them and they would feel obliged to do, because he is the president who is really inspiring not only the leaders but young people. Young people in Africa are very excited about Obama.

They (the leaders) need to understand that Obama is a product of a society that nurtures and allows potential to be exploited. And one of the points I raised in that article is, would African leaders be challenged to create an environment in Africa that little Obamas would not have to come to America to experience their potential, that they could do so back home. That ought to be the challenge for African leaders.



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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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