Asia/Africa update: November 27 2017

Obviously I’ve been away for a bit. I’m not going to even begin to cover everything that’s happened in the past week, but I will try to get caught up on a few major things.



Afghanistan’s next general election is scheduled for July, and as you may know Ashraf Ghani just canned the head of the country’s elections board because his incompetence and/or foot-dragging has put that schedule in jeopardy. One of the board’s primary responsibilities before July is to come up with a better way of election representatives to parliament wherein this kind of thing doesn’t happen on the regular:

This voting system leads to several peculiar — and problematic — results. First and foremost, the system allows for candidates to win elections having secured only a very small number of votes. The results of the 2010 parliamentary elections are a case in point. In Kabul, where 664 candidates sought one of 33 seats, the top candidate Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, secured a mere 3.6 percent of the vote. At the 2017 Herat Security Dialogue, Professor Thomas Johnson presented his analysis of the election results in Kabul where “65 percent of voters [voted] for losing candidates.” In other provinces, winning candidates received as few as 2,000 votes (under 1 percent of the vote). With such a large number of candidates vying for a small number of posts, winning candidates end up being highly non-representative of their constituents. Furthermore, the nature of the SNTV system encourages voter buying and relying on ethnic votes, thereby increasing the likelihood of corruption and division.

But it’s going to be nearly impossible to revamp the electoral system in eight months. The board should have been making progress on this already, and its failure to do so is part of the reason why Ghani sacked its chair.


On Monday, the Pakistani government forced out its law minister, Zahid Hamid, in order to end a weeks-long standoff with protesters who had been disrupting traffic at one of the main entrances to Islamabad. The protesters, from the fundamentalist Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labaik movement, were angered at what they saw as a watering down of the country’s electoral law, specifically the oath that candidates are required to take, in order to make it more palatable to Ahmadi candidates. The electoral law changes were quickly reversed, but that didn’t mollify the protesters, who wanted Hamid’s resignation. Hamid’s resignation seems to have been negotiated by the Pakistani military, which was deployed after clashes between police, who mangled the operation, and protesters on Saturday left six dead and over 200 injured.

Late last week a Pakistani court released Hafiz Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Taiba founder and alleged Mumbai attack mastermind who was put under house arrest in January in part due to pressure from the US. Although his release wasn’t orchestrated by the Pakistani government, to the extent that anybody in Islamabad wants to repair relations with Washington this isn’t going to help. Saeed’s career path has taken him from terrorism into politics–he’s recently founded a political party, the Milli Muslim League, as an offshoot of his LeT front charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.


Speaking of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the BBC reports on the Kashmiri town of Hajin, which has become a main operational hub for the terrorist group and has also therefore become a prime target for Indian security forces. The town is well-situated for groups of fighters crossing from Pakistani Kashmir to use it as a staging area for attacks throughout the province and particularly in its main city, Srinagar.


Nepali voters began electing a new parliament on Sunday, the country’s first election since 1999. There’s a second phase of the voting in early December, so results won’t be known until sometime later that month at the earliest. Maoist rebels are being blamed for a number of small explosions that took place in the days leading up to the vote, as well as for a number of bombs that were found by police and other incidents intended to disrupt the proceedings.


Pope Francis is in Myanmar, and one of the big questions about his visit is whether or not he’ll use the word “Rohingya.” Officially the Myanmar government doesn’t recognize the Rohingya–it calls them “Bengalis” because it considers them illegal migrants from Bangladesh. For Francis to use the term–which he’s already used, but obviously not in Myanmar itself–could be taken as an insult by the Myanmar government.

Whether Francis uses the word or not, though, it’s clear that his visit is mostly about the Rohingya situation–his first meeting was with the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar military, General Min Aung Hlaing. The general, who despite the country’s movement toward democracy still effectively runs Myanmar alongside Aung San Suu Kyi (whose civilian authority doesn’t extend to the military), is apparently planning to run for president in 2020, and because humanity is irredeemably vile his ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has actually made him almost unassailably popular among Myanmar voters.


The Marawi battle is finally kaput, and with it most likely the Maute Group, one of the two groups behind the attack. But analyst Michael Hart explains that Abu Sayyaf, the other group involved in Marawi, is likely too entrenched to fade away after just one defeat:

But now that Hapilon and his comrades have been killed in Marawi, what is left of Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines? Will his death signal the end of the ASG’s recent ideological turn? And, what kind of threat will the group pose in the coming years?


Whilst most of Hapilon’s faction is assumed to have fought in Marawi, it is unclear exactly how many ASG fighters took part in the siege. However, there is evidence that a significant proportion of ASG’s estimated 400 members stayed behind in the group’s maritime strongholds.

It’s tempting to think the Philippines could be a prime target for an ISIS organization looking for a new home now that its Syria-Iraq vista has largely been closed up. And it very well could be. But despite their recent (albeit temporary) success, it’s not clear just how many ISIS-aligned fighters there are in the Philippines. It seems pretty clear, for example, that not all and maybe not even most of Abu Sayyaf was behind Hapilon’s decision to declare allegiance to ISIS and seize Marawi.


Josh Keating notes that China is increasing its proactive diplomacy around the world at the same time that the United States is paring back (more on that part later):

The Financial Times published an investigation last month on the increasing influence, under Xi, of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, whose “broad aims are to win support for China’s political agenda, accumulate influence overseas and gather key information.” This can include anything from exerting control of overseas Chinese student associations to the dispute over the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. The FT also reportedtoday that EU leaders are increasingly concerned that Eastern European governments, feeling spurned by Brussels over refugee resettlement and other issues, are cementing ties with China.


This was just developing as I was wrapping this post up, but the Japanese government said Tuesday morning that it’s picking up radio signals that suggest North Korea could be preparing for another missile test. There are no apparent physical signs that they’re preparing a test, though, so this could be a false alarm.



Janjaweed militia leader Musa Hilal has reportedly been arrested by Sudanese forces in north Darfur. Hilal is a former ally of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir–they collaborated on crimes against humanity in Darfur–but Hilal’s militia refused to disarm when Khartoum demanded it, and so he and Bashir have been on the outs for some time now. On Sunday, prior to Hilal’s arrest, ten Sudanese soldiers were killed in Darfur when their column was ambushed.


Malian officials are delaying scheduled regional elections, which were supposed to happen on December 17 but are now planned for April, over security concerns.


Boko Haram fighters temporarily took over a town in northeastern Nigeria oon Satuday. Nigerian forces drove the fighters out of Magumeri on Sunday.


Fighting between ethnic Oromo and ethnic Somali villagers last week reportedly killed more than 20 people and resulted in the arrests of more than 100 others.

This is potentially very bad news:

Egypt has officially announced that the technical negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan over the Renaissance Dam have failed. The announcement came following a round of tripartite deliberations between all the countries’ ministers of water in Cairo on Nov. 11 and 12 regarding the completion of the impact assessment of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.


Egyptian Minister of Water and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aty said in a Nov. 12 statement, “Egypt is worried about the failure of the technical negotiations because it jeopardizes the future of cooperation between Sudan and Ethiopia and their ability to agree on the Renaissance Dam and to avoid its potential risks while preserving Egypt’s water security.”

These technical negotiations are/were supposed to, in part, keep tensions over the dam from escalating. A dam might seem like a silly reason to go to war, but water most definitely is not, and that’s what Egypt feels is at stake here.


Uhuru Kenyatta will be sworn in for another term as Kenyan president on Tuesday, while supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga are planning to hold a prayer meeting in Nairobi. Kenyan authorities could try to shut the opposition event down, in which case things could turn violent yet again.


Africa Is a Country published a number of worthwhile pieces while I was offline. One looks at Cameroonian dictator Paul Biya as he commemorates 35 years in power:

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya did not partake in any of the public events marking his thirty-fifth anniversary in power last Monday. The country’s armed forces did not parade in front of their supreme commander along Yaounde’s boulevard de 20 Mai. In the Anglophone regions, there were few ebullient spectacles of loin wearing party militants waving banners bearing Biya’s youthful image. Instead, most of this year’s celebrations led by officials of Biya’s Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM) took place indoors in small clusters in their respective regions of origin. Across the country, these “elites” mostly implored their militants to vote for Biya in next year’s elections.


Well, Robert Mugabe is no more. Or, at least, he’s no longer president of Zimbabwe. After bizarrely delivering a resignation speech last week that didn’t actually include a resignation, Mugabe finally agreed to resign last Tuesday. But he’s not going away, and he’s certainly not going to face any punishment for decades of human rights abuses and embezzlement. Instead, Mugabe will reportedly be treated as an “elder statesman” in Zimbabwean politics, and is being paid a cool $10 million for his trouble–along, of course, with legal immunity for himself and his family. He’s also getting a national holiday in his honor–February 21, so mark your calendars now.

There are any number of retrospectives and insider reports available as to how the whole Mugabe saga played out. Reuters has one. The Guardian has one. At War on the Rocks, Alexander Noyes explains how Mugabe’s military turned on him in the end:

While I previously underestimated the risk of a coup in Zimbabwe, in the August article I also noted that if Mugabe handed the reins to his unpopular wife, instead of Mnangagwa, the military’s preferred candidate to succeed the aging leader, the chances of a coup would increase significantly. This precise scenario played out this month, and has proven to be a game-changer.


Over the past several years, Mnangagwa had emerged as the clear front-runner in the succession race, which historically has been a precarious position in Zimbabwe (in 2014 Mugabe fired his then-vice president and likely successor, Joice Mujuru). After coming away largely unscathed from the Mujuru ouster, Mugabe appears to have believed he could do the same with Mnangagwa.

Attention has now shifted to new Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was sworn in on Friday in a large public ceremony. His cabinet choices will signal whether he plans to govern by broad consensus or simply maintain ZANU-PF’s hold on power, but to be honest his succession itself maintains ZANU-PF’s hold on power, and arguably to a greater degree than if Grace Mugabe had eventually inherited the presidency. At least her support was largely rooted in the party’s youth wing–Mnangagwa’s base is essentially Mugabe’s, the party’s old guard. Hell, Managagwa is 75, which makes him a young man compared with Mugabe but objectively old. Despite what you may have heard, this is most likely not the first step on the road to real democracy in Zimbabwe.


Another piece worth your time from Africa Is a Country, this time looking at new Angolan President João Lourenço’s moves since taking office. For the most part, he’s been distancing himself from his predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos, to a degree I don’t think many expected, at least not so quickly.

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