Thursday, 20th September 2018


Articles that reflect opinion

Islamist militants have killed hundreds of soldiers in attacks in northeastern Nigeria in recent weeks, security and military sources say, forcing a turnaround in the course of an insurgency which the government has frequently claimed to have vanquished.

The fatigued, ill-equipped government troops have reached breaking point, they said.

The setback in the war against Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) and the Boko Haram insurgency from which it split in 2016 comes as President Muhammadu Buhari seeks a second term in elections next February.

Buhari came to power in 2015 on a promise to defeat Boko Haram, and security has once again emerged as a main campaign issue.

In the past three weeks, according to military and security sources, ISWA killed 48 soldiers at a military base and, in a separate attack, left 32 dead in Gudumbali - a town to which thousands of refugees were ordered to return in June.

“The situation in the northeast is deteriorating,” said one security source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They are running out of weapons, ammo and basic equipment. They are exhausted.”

Now, ISWA is winning almost all its battles with the military, security sources said.

That marks a contrast with the situation in early 2015 when the Nigerian army, backed by troops from neighbouring countries, pushed Boko Haram off a swathe of land that the insurgents controlled.

Before the insurgency, Nigeria’s northeast, sitting in the arid Sahel that skirts the Sahara’s southern border, had for centuries been a hub of cross-continental trade through the desert and one of the country’s agricultural breadbaskets.

ISWA’s influence extends from the Lake Chad region, including in Niger and Chad itself, and stretches about 100 miles into the Nigerian states of Borno and Yobe, where government has in many areas all but vanished after a decade of conflict. It was not immediately clear how control of that territory has changed in recent months.


A military spokesman denied the army was losing most of its clashes with ISWA.

“It’s not true,” said Brigadier General John Agim, adding that no soldiers had died at Gudumbali.

Agim declined to show battle reports or comment on the rest of the situation, other than saying the military did not have enough equipment.

In one of the army’s biggest defeats since Buhari came to power, an ISWA attack on a base in July killed at least 100 soldiers, according to people familiar with the matter. Many of the dead were interred in a mass burial, two sources said.

Other gruelling battles have been fought - at least 45 soldiers killed in Gajiram in June, scores dead and missing after a convoy ambush in Boboshe in July, and 17 killed in Garunda in August. These are just some of the recent attacks, according to military and security personnel, that are taking a heavy toll on the military.

With each victory, ISWA gets stronger, collecting weapons, ammunition and vehicles abandoned by fleeing troops. Its tactics have also improved, using trucks mounted with heavy guns to pin down ill-equipped troops, as well as suicide-bombing vehicles.


“The military are a bit like sitting ducks, waiting for a very mobile and versatile enemy to strike at a weak point or another,” said Vincent Foucher, who studies Boko Haram at the French National Centre for Science Research.

The military has kept details of its most recent challenges and defeats close, rarely acknowledging them or any loss of life, say security sources who have sought briefings.

Buhari’s administration and the military continue to issue statements about victories against an insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate that dates back to 2009. Normality is returning to the northeast, it says. 

“The country has been stable for the past three years,” Defence Minister Mansur Dan Ali told Reuters last month.

However, the minister, discussing the Jilli attack, acknowledged that a strong and well-equipped insurgent force was capable of wiping out as many as 200 soldiers.


Soldiers have become terrified of the insurgents, afraid to leave their bases, said a security source and a diplomat. While hundreds have died recently, hundreds more have deserted.

One retired general, speaking on condition of anonymity, described “a crisis of morale,” linking the frequent allegations of human rights abuses - rape, torture, shake-downs and extra-judicial killing - to broken spirits.

The Nigerian military denies such accusations, though it set up a panel last year to probe allegations. Its findings have not been made public.

Last month, Nigerian special forces mutinied at an airport, refusing to be deployed after learning that after years in the northeast they were being rotated to another, more dangerous part of the region.

“Many of our troops have been in the theatre for over two years,” said one captain. “They don’t know how their families, their wives and children, are.”

Some soldiers said though they do get a few days of leave, it is often barely enough time to go from the field to their families before they must return.

Others said their wages and rations are often embezzled by their commanders, there is too little equipment, and many vehicles are broken and gathering rust. One said his men had to buy blankets from refugees for 300 naira ($1) each to keep warm.

The United States, Britain and France support the military, mostly through training and information-sharing, but it has struggled to secure arms supplies due to human rights concerns. 

The United States and Nigeria this year finalised a $500-million deal for 12 Super Tucano fighter planes. British Prime Miniser Theresa May, on a visit to Nigeria last month, promised to increase military support in the war against the Islamists.


The exiled leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), which had previously been declared a terrorist movement by the Ethiopian government, returned home on Saturday, marking another step in political reforms driven by the new prime minister.

The OLF had fought an insurgency for self-determination for the Oromo - the Horn of Africa country’s largest ethnic group - for over three decades.

The group was initially part of a transitional government set up in 1991 by rebels that drove dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam from power, but they soon fell out with the coalition.

On Saturday, OLF leader Dawud Ibsa arrived in the capital Addis Ababa aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane. Tens of thousands of supporters attended a rally celebrating his return from neighbouring Eritrea, where he has lived in exile.

“We want to play a role in the reconstruction of the country,” Ibsa told reporters upon his arrival.

His return comes a month after the OLF signed an agreement with the government to end hostilities, part of a drive by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to improve diplomatic relations, reform institutions and open up parts of the state-controlled economy.

Abiy has also worked to mend a military standoff over a border dispute with Eritrea, reshaping the political landscape in the Horn of Africa.

The prime minister’s chief of staff Fitsum Arega used his Twitter feed to welcome the OLF leaders back to Ethiopia.

“A peaceful contest of ideas will move us from a culture of conflict into a culture of peace,” Fitsum wrote.

The OLF declared a unilateral ceasefire in July after parliament removed it from a list of banned terrorist groups.

Abiy took office in April and his reforms have included extending an olive branch to dissidents overseas.

The OLF is the second exiled opposition group to head back to Ethiopia in a week, with the leadership of previously outlawed Patriotic Ginbot 7 arriving a week ago.

The government had labelled the group as a “terrorist movement” in under an anti-terrorism law that rights watchdogs said was used indiscriminately to silence dissent.


Kofi Annan served as United Nations Secretary-General during a pivotal decade in modern world history – from 1997 to 2006. I would argue that his most important legacy was to focus the UN more on preventing and resolving deadly conflict within its sovereign members, while still trying to maintain peace and security among them.

How he developed and pursued ways and means to do this began much earlier in his UN career and persisted until his untimely death last week.

The UN was created in 1945 by 51 sovereign states and empires that had just survived two of the worst wars in history. With the winding down of empires, UN membership grew to nearly 200 countries. By the late 1990s most countries were at peace internationally. And despite their continuing ideological and other differences, they have, ever since, avoided another world war.

But domestic peace was to prove more illusive. The UN lacked the norms, institutional capacity and political resolve, to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts within states, while maintaining peace among them. Although Africa accounted for nearly a third of the UN's members, it was also the world's poorest and most conflict-ridden region. And it lacked the means to effect major reforms in the world body's post-World War II hierarchy, structures and procedures. 

Annan knew the UN system and its strengths and limitations better than anyone. He had spent 35 years working on the problems of refugees, management and finance, and peacekeeping having joined it in 1962 as a young budget officer in the World Health Organisation.

He had also felt the sting of governments and public opinion that regarded the UN as a necessary last resort, when all other options have failed, due to lack of national or regional capacity, resources or political will. This was most evident when it came to complex emergencies in Africa.

His message for Africa

Six months after becoming Secretary-General, Annan chose to address the 1997 summit in Harare of leaders of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in a way that none of his predecessors had done.

His central point was that Africa's peace and development required Africa's leaders to hold one another more accountable to how they managed their domestic affairs. This was particularly true when it came to the protection of human rights and democracy.

In language uncharacteristically passionate for such occasions he declared:

"I am aware of the fact that some view this concern a luxury of rich countries for which Africa is not ready … I find these thoughts truly demeaning…. Do not African mothers weep when their sons or daughters are killed or maimed by agents of repressive rule? Are not African fathers saddened when their children are unjustly jailed or toured? Is not Africa as a whole impoverished with even one of its brilliant voices is silenced?"

He concluded by emphasising that "human rights are African rights", noting that "Africa needs external assistance, and Africa deserves it, but in the final analysis, what stands between us and the future is ourselves".

Four years later, the OAU was replaced by the African Union (AU). What was notable was the unprecedented inclusion of a provision for collective intervention to protect any group of Africans facing local threats of mass violence or genocide.

Less extreme, but more generally applicable, was the principle of non-indifference in each other's internal affairs. This is most evident in its auxiliary African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance which was unanimously endorsed in 2007 and finally ratified in 2012.

As a result, all African governments are now obligated to hold regular periodic national elections. They are also obliged to invite the AU to send teams of pan-African observers to monitor and judge whether they are a credible reflection of the popular will.

Annan would not claim credit for these developments. But, his efforts were surely prescient and gave political impetus and legitimacy to the hard diplomatic work of South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, and other advocates of a more capable regional organisation and sub-regional organisations.

Embracing civil society

Also notable in his 1997 address to the OAU was his call for civil society to play its part. This reflected what was to become one of his major innovations as UN Secretary-General – his openness and willingness to reach out, listen too, cooperate with and occasionally adopt policies advocated by civil society groups.

I personally know of at least four examples. All were Africa-related but also global in nature and very much to his credit as we honour his legacy.

  • During the 1980s he participated in a series of efforts by the International Peace Academy, an NGO established to help train and better inform and prepare for expected UN peacekeeping operations, mostly in Africa. This capacity should have been institutionalised in the UN, but was thwarted by the US and Soviet Union. Both feared that the other might somehow gain a Cold War advantage. The NGO never fully succeeded and would have probably failed without Annan’s frequent personal and sustained engagement.

  • As Secretary-General he made cooperation with the independent Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflicts his personal priority. He attended commission meetings and encouraged the involvement of key offices across the secretariat. As a member of the commission staff, I appreciated how extensively he used policy relevant scholarship by teams of academics on a range of conflict prevention topics. His aim was to build support within and beyond the UN for more comprehensive efforts to prevent complex emergencies within states.

  • After leaving office he continued to promote, and often lead, civil society efforts to help the UN and the world, beginning in Africa. In 2006 he became the founding chair of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). AGRA aims to increase the incomes and improve the food security for 30 million farming households in 11 African countries by 2021.

  • In his home country Ghana, I watched with admiration how his Foundation sponsored presidential debates in which candidates publicly pledged to support the decision of the national electoral commission. And when the opposition won by less than .005% of the votes in the 2008 election, their pledge held.

  • And, best known, has been his chairmanship of the Elders, a group of world leaders committed to advancing peace, especially in Africa, and founded by Nelson Mandela.

The importance of persistence

I last met with Annan several years ago when he was on Elders' business and I asked what he thought of Robert Mugabe holding on to power more than a decade after his pro-democracy appeal to the OAU Summit in Harare.

He told me that near the end of his UN term he had visited Mugabe and inquired whether he might consider bidding farewell to his people after decades of service. He said, Mugabe asked in reply: "Why? My people aren't going anywhere."

Annan noted that this response was both a sign of the limits of diplomacy, as well as the reason never to stop trying.

John J Stremlau, Visiting Professor of International Relations, University of the Witwatersrand

On August 28, British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Cape Town, South Africa, for a one-day working visit. This visit was part of a three-nation tour of South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria designed to strengthen Britain's trade ties with African nations.

During the course of her visit, May made a brief appearance on South African TV channel eNCA, which all but confirmed her willingness to mollycoddle African strongmen and do business with administrations which hold shaky and homicidal claims to power.

When asked if she endorses President Emmerson Mnangagwa's strongly disputed victory in Zimbabwe's July 30 presidential election, a wily-looking May immediately alluded to the commission of inquiry which the former vowed to establish to look into the army's violent crackdown on opposition supporters.

On August 1, six people died after Zimbabwe Defence Force (ZDF) soldiers used live rounds on hundreds of angry protestors and innocent pedestrians in Harare. Supporters of the opposition MDC Alliance were demonstrating against the alleged rigging of the election in favour of Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF party when the violence erupted. 

Unimpressed by her cagey response, the interviewer asked May a second time whether she endorsed the Zimbabwean president. "Mnangagwa is an elected president," said the British PM, "He is taking an important step in saying that he will set up a commission of inquiry. I think this is a very important signal from him about the Zimbabwe he wants to see." 

May also mentioned how South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa attended Mnangagwa's inauguration ceremony, in an apparent attempt to justify her endorsement. 

But May should not have endorsed Zimbabwe's new president without condemning the needless loss of innocent lives and expressing concern over the much-documented electoral shortcomings and illiberal practices, which the European Union's election observation mission to Zimbabwe also reported on

Commission of inquiry as political ruse 

This is not the first time ZDF soldiers have been accused of killing innocent civilians and a commission of inquiry has been set up to pacify public outrage and whitewash gross human rights violations orchestrated by high-ranking civil servants and army officials in Zimbabwe. 

The ZDF, along with influential actors from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), was accused of committing torture, holding public executions, causing forced disappearances and murdering unarmed civilians during the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland and Midlands between 1983 and 1987. 

Human rights groups allege soldiers killed up to 20 000 people in a politically and ethnically motivated, violent crackdown on mainly Ndebele-speaking opposition Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) supporters and officials in the country's Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

As domestic and international condemnation and political pressure to explain horrific reports of mass killings of civilians in southern Zimbabwe mounted, then-President Robert Mugabe established a commission of inquiry, led by Judge Simplicius Chihambakwe, a former judge and highly regarded lawyer.

Prior to this investigation, Mugabe had set up another commission of inquiry to investigate clashes between Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) that took place during the 1981 Entumbane uprising. Judge Enock Dumbutshena, the country's first black judge, had chaired this commission.  

But the findings of both the Dumbutshena and Chihambakwe commissions have not been made available for public examination to this day.

According to a 2000 affidavit by Mnangagwa, who was then serving as justice minister, the Dumbutshena report had simply vanished into thin air and nobody could find it. Unsurprisingly, not a single person has been held to account for the Gukurahundi killings to this day.

There was a single man at the centre of this deadly drama from beginning to end: Mnangagwa. As minister of security between 1980 and 1988, he exercised control over the much-feared CIO and is believed to have helped in the planning and implementation of the Gukurahundi massacres.

However, he refuses to apologise for his perceived role in the massacres and established a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission earlier this year to smother comprehensive investigations into historical atrocities.  

In light of all this, Mnangagwa's decision to establish a commission of inquiry into the events of August 1 cannot be interpreted as an honest attempt to hold guilty parties to account. His government is extremely reluctant to face judicial scrutiny and will likely use this commission for the very same purpose its predecessors used the ones that came before it: to whitewash the role the Zimbabwean government played in the violence.

The findings of the commission will likely not even be made public or acted upon if they do not match its political agenda or narrative of events.

Mnangagwa, ZDF Commander General Valerio Sibanda, Home Affairs Minister Obert Mpofu and the ZRP have already assigned the blame for the August 1 violence to opposition leader Nelson Chamisa and the MDC Alliance.

Human rights and economic engagement

Theresa May seems to have turned a blind eye to the new Zimbabwean government's democratic shortcomings in order to secure trade deals, and she is not the only Western leader to do so.

When Mnangagwa became Zimbabwe's interim leader on November 24, following the military coup that removed Robert Mugabe from power, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a letter to him: "Germany will support you as a partner in your endeavours to start a new chapter in the history of Zimbabwe - one characterised by democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights."

Mnangagwa has failed to fulfil the above mentioned democratic thresholds, but Germany remains unconcerned.

Late last month, only a few days after Mnangagwa's inauguration as Zimbabwe's new president, Germany once again demonstrated its intention to work closely with his administration. Germany's Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Mueller visited Zimbabwe and launched a joint commission with Zimbabwe's finance minister, Patrick Chinamasa, to identify areas of cooperation that could help promote economic development.

Mueller also met Mnangagwa during his visit and announced that Germany will open new lines of credit for Zimbabwean businesses. 

Sadly, the German minister glossed over Harare's dismal human rights record and only said Germany "believed the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa would uphold the rule of law and pass friendly policies". The German government says its foreign policy champions democracy and human rights, but it appears to be ready to ignore Zimbabwe's human rights abuses for economic benefits.

The duplicitous approaches of May and Merkel towards Zimbabwe evokes memories of former British PM Magaret Thatcher's policy towards the country. In 1983, Thatcher's administration reportedly downplayed the killings of civilians in the Gukurahundi massacres, simply to protect its economic investments in the region. Now, Thatcher's successor also appears to believe an equally unconscionable approach to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe is the diplomatic way to go.

Zimbabwe undoubtedly needs a massive injection of direct foreign investment. But it also needs to respect human rights and embrace political and legal accountability for its politicians.

Rewarding murderous political leaders with unconditional legitimacy when innocent people have been shot and killed is hardly suggestive of progressive international engagement.

At what point will political accountability extend beyond measured sound bites in public forums and well-scripted statements and result in legal convictions and lengthy jail terms for officials who flout basic laws and order the killings of unarmed civilians?

Overlooking political impunity for economic expediency will likely result in further deaths if Mnangagwa's hold on power is ever challenged seriously again or indeed overhauled through constitutional means. This political and electoral dilemma has repeated itself time and again since 1980. 

Suffice it to say, diplomatic silence and official solidarity with shady characters like Mnangagwa will always metamorphose into lethal complicity down the line. Worse still for Zimbabwe's long-suffering people, May and Merkel's awkward diplomatic dance with Mnangagwa hardly suggests democratic and electoral change is in the offing now - or in the 2023 elections.

Tafi Mhaka is a Johannesburg-based social and political commentator.

Bread shortages have hit Sudan, with wheat traders blaming a foreign currency crisis for shortages of the staple that have left people queuing for hours outside bakeries.

Sudan’s economy has been struggling since the south seceded in 2011, taking with it three-quarters of its oil output and depriving it of a crucial source of foreign currency.

The crisis has deepened over the past year as a black market for U.S. dollars has effectively replaced the formal banking system after the Sudanese pound was devalued, making it more difficult to import essential supplies such as wheat.

A doubling of the price of bread in January triggered demonstrations after the government eliminated subsidies, although so far there was no sign of protests this time.

At Banet neighbourhood in the town of Omdurman, in Khartoum, dozens of people stood in a long line outside the Modern Bakery.

“This is unbearable,” said 53-year-old Abdullah Mahmoud, a day labourer, who said he had been queuing for two hours for bread. “I had been here since the morning and I still don’t have any bread.”

Fatima Yassin, 36, in a queue for women, said: “Everything is expensive and bread is not available. We have a difficult life and the government doesn’t care about us.”

Similar queues were seen in other cities near the capital.

Sudan imported 2 million tonnes of wheat in 2017, the government said in December, compared with 445,000 tonnes produced locally.

One Khartoum bakery owner, Ahmed Saleh, said he had had no flour since Monday.

“We stopped working since yesterday because we did not get our share of flour,” he told Reuters.


Any flare-up over shortages could prove tricky for the government. In January, authorities arrested a prominent opposition leader and confiscated newspapers to try to stop unrest from spreading.

Only last week, Sudan’s ruling party announced that it would back any new bid by President Omar al-Bashir, to run again in the 2020 election, a move that would require a constitutional amendment.

Government officials were not immediately available to comment on the crisis.

But the Khartoum state governor, Abdel-Rahim Mohammed Hussein, said in remarks carried by state news agency SUNA on Monday that the state would receive its share of wheat supplies in the “next couple of days”, without elaborating.

Private sector wheat traders, who were given responsibility for imports by the government at the start of this year, blamed the flour shortages on the foreign currency shortages.

One trader said that businessmen were increasingly being forced to buy foreign currency at a higher rate on the black market to finance imports.

“At the same time, the government sets the sale price for flour at an unreal dollar rate,” one trader told Reuters. “We cannot sell flour at a loss,” he added.

The price of the Sudanese pound had been declining since the beginning of the year after the government devalued the currency to 18 per U.S. dollar, more than double its peg of 6.7 pounds to the dollar.

The pound, which has since been devalued further and is now officially set at 29 pounds to the dollar, was trading at 40 pounds to the dollar on the black market on Tuesday.


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