Q&A: Kofi Annan on Kenya's Tragedies

More than a decade ago, when he was head of peacekeeping for the United Nations, Kofi Annan oversaw the blue helmets who failed to prevent the massacre in Srebenica and the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda. Those twin tragedies have tarnished his reputation ever since, even after two terms as secretary-general. Now retired, Annan has been asked to mediate in Kenya, where tribal killings that began after a disputed presidential election on Dec. 27 continue to rage. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Scott Johnson about the talks, which showed some progress at the end of the week, and the shadow of those past crises. Excerpts:

Johnson: Where do the Kenya talks stand?
Annan: We're now at the critical item of resolving the political crisis. The two sides have stated their cases. The government side feels they won [the election] fair and square. The opposition thinks the government stole it fair and square. My problem is to bridge that difference.

How much do Rwanda and Bosnia weigh on you personally?
We are racing against the clock. The longer this goes on, the more killings go on, the more revenge killings you're going to see in reaction. If you're not careful you could have serious problems on your hands. We need to come up with a proposal to ensure we don't come back to this every five years.

Once again you ' re dealing with the maelstrom of ethnic cleansing.
Whether it's genocide or ethnic cleansing, it always starts with the humiliation of one individual. Some were very quick to blame me for Rwanda. [That] was rather painful and odd for most of us at the Secretariat because the member states knew more about what was going on in Rwanda than we did. But quite apart from that blame, as a human being it weighs on you. It sits on your conscience … Not on your conscience because you … you … you couldn't stop it as an individual, you couldn't. But yes, [the conflicts] molded me. Some crimes are so shameful that we cannot stand back. We should ask, what can each one of us do?

You ' ve said in the past that fratricidal wars are destroying Africa. Now it ' s happening here in Kenya.
So what is it with Africa? Yeah. I posed this question in Rwanda after the genocide: what is it in our society that makes us periodically turn on each other? Not only do we turn on each other, but then we blame the outside. I say this is a cancer from within that we need to fix.

And you were criticized for it.
I was criticized for it. But it is a fact. It's good to have the support of the international community and all that. But the root of the problem is here. We know what the problem is; we know what needs to be done.

What is the problem?
In Kenya, you have 42 ethnic groups. One needs to be very careful to let the people feel that the cloth of government is stretched to cover everybody, that nobody is left out or discriminated against in terms of economic well-being and resources, access to money and power. [Here] you have a constitutional structure that doesn't distribute power evenly. You have a very powerful presidency in an environment like this, where each group watches for what the other group is getting and what they are not getting.

You ' ve advocated the use of the Kenyan military. But there are ethnic divisions within the military.
I know. But what is the use of an army when it is not used to protect innocent civilians in harm's way? Obviously moving goods to markets to provide supplies and services is important, but what's the point if the people are dead?

What can the international community really do in this case?
It's important that the international community speaks with one voice. There are differences, but there is a convergence [of opinion]. They realize divisions between them will be exploited.

How has your thinking on this evolved?
Take Darfur—everybody knew the African Union didn't have capacity or the resources that were required, but they all went for the AU [peacekeeping mission], knowing the shortcomings, to be able to say we've done something. It is hypocritical. It's dishonest. And it's deceitful for those who are in the situation. In fact it may be better not to promise help that you know will not come.

You ' ve said it ' s difficult to understand African dictators today because they ' ve lost the ability to talk. Is that applicable here?
After independence, we got into a situation where men who hungered for power went into politics, and we created a situation of winner takes all. In many countries, people who want to make money go into business. In Africa, people who want to make money go into politics. It is very unhealthy. It's very profitable.

What about Kenya ' s leaders?
[Laughs] I think I've said enough.

Are you rooting for Barack Obama?
I have no horse in that race.

Given your experience with the Clinton administration and Rwanda, would you be worried about another Clinton administration?
I think Clinton of today is a different man than Clinton that didn't want to go to Rwanda. I suspect he's also learned. Of course, it's not Bill that is running. It's Hillary. And we don't know the team she will surround herself with. I'm confident that the reaction to a Rwanda-type situation would be quite different.