Asia/Africa update: January 25 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Friday Afghan President Ashraf Ghani substantially revised the number of Afghan security forces who have been killed fighting militants since he became president, to 45,000 from a previously cited figure of 28,000. Ghani, who seems increasingly irritated that he’s being completely cut out of peace talks between the US and the Taliban, compared that number to 72 international soldiers who have been killed over the same period, noting that it’s clear Afghan forces have been doing the bulk of the fighting.

The US and Taliban genuinely seem to be circling a deal that would see the US quit Afghanistan in exchange for some mostly unenforceable (except via another war!) promises from the Taliban never to play host to any al-Qaeda or AQ-esque extremist groups again. The talks have gotten a boost with the Taliban’s decision to appoint one of its co-founders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as the head of its diplomatic office in Qatar. Baradar was released from Pakistani custody last year precisely so that he could get involved in talks with the US. He’s a relative moderate within the Taliban, but because of his stature within the organization any deal he reaches with the US will carry substantial weight even among more hardline Taliban factions. He’s also a clear authoritative voice who can credibly speak for the Taliban, which has at times been hard to find as the US has tried to engage the organization diplomatically.

MYANMAR

The United Nations rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, told reporters on Friday that conditions in Myanmar still are not safe for Rohingya refugees to return home. In wide-ranging comments, Lee was critical of the governments of India and Saudi Arabia for mistreating Rohingya refugees and of the Myanmar government for mistreating several of its ethnic minorities, not just the Rohingya. She also called for the head of Myanmar’s army, Min Aung Hlaing, to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court on genocide charges.

THAILAND

Thailand’s ruling military junta is restricting social media campaigning in the run up to the country’s planned March 24 election. This is a clear attempt to hamstring progressive Thai parties that rely on social media to deliver their messages to younger Thai voters. So  it looks like the country’s return to democracy is already getting off to a great start.

PHILIPPINES

Filipino Muslims on the island of Mindanao have voted “overwhelmingly” to approve the creation of a stronger Bangsamoro regional government that will give them substantial autonomy from Manila. The referendum, which was held on Monday, was the product of a 2014 deal between the Philippine government and the rebelling Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which will demobilize and assume control of an interim regional government until elections can be held. The previous allegedly autonomous government in Mindanao was mostly powerless and starved for funds.

CHINA

Chinese authorities are investigating a “series of explosions” in the city of Changchun on Friday that killed at least one person. The incident is being treated as a criminal case but it’s much too early to say who was involved or what their motive might have been.

Things are starting to look fairly bleak for the Chinese economy as a global economic slowdown, the trade war with the US, and some ineffective domestic policy choices are all taking their toll:

For China, still the workshop of the world, an increasingly gloomy outlook for global trade is also a problem. The trade war with the United States, which began in earnest last fall, hasn’t had time to do more than dent China’s prospects so far. But if ongoing trade talks between Beijing and Washington fail to deliver a broad agreement, and if the Trump administration follows through on its vow to more than double tariffs on almost everything China exports to America, that could change dramatically.

Fundamentally, though, China’s own policies are to blame for its economic woes, stressed Magnus, who last year published Red Flags, a book about the country’s economic challenges.

Banks are forced by the government to lend, and companies of all sizes are struggling with debt, made even harder to bear now that the Chinese yuan is weaker and interest rates are rising. Also, under Xi, the economy’s resources have been increasingly channeled toward state-owned firms, which are less efficient than private sector companies.

That makes China’s planned response—another huge stimulus—unlikely to be more than a short-term Band-Aid. Beijing already started pumping more money into the economy last year, running a large fiscal deficit, and has a much bigger stimulus package planned for 2019 to reignite growth.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Two more protesters died Friday of injuries sustained while protesting against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, bringing the total killed in these protests to 30, by the government’s official count, or approaching 50, according to international organizations. Hundreds of people continued to protest in the cities of Khartoum, Omdurman, Port Sudan, and al-Qadarif. Sudanese opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi spoke at a mosque outside of Khartoum and demanded Bashir’s resignation.

MALI

A UN peacekeeping convoy struck a roadside bomb in central Mali on Friday, killing two Sri Lankan peacekeepers and wounding six others. No group has claimed responsibility but presumably al-Qaeda’s JNIM branch was behind the bombing.

NIGERIA

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court on Friday over charges that the justice, Walter Onnoghen, had not properly disclosed his assets as is required under Nigerian law. While Buhari’s action may have some factual and legal justification, it’s also raising eyebrows, since he’s running for reelection next month and Onnoghen could potentially preside over any legal case regarding that election. Buhari’s main challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, called the suspension “an act of dictatorship.”

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Tired, I guess, of merely killing people in the developing world via the mercenary business, former Blackwater boss Erik Prince has decided to switch gears and exploit them economically instead:

The founder of the military contractor Blackwater, Erik Prince, has a new project. He’s aiming to raise $500 million to invest in the discovery, exploitation, and delivery of resources required to produce electric car batteries. Minerals such as cobalt, lithium, and copper are mostly found in conflict zones such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan.

Speaking recently to CNBC, Prince said that he aimed to end cobalt’s status as a “conflict mineral” in Congo, and his plans included regular jobs and incomes for artisanal miners who toil in in horrific conditions, in “loincloth,” according to Prince. The Congolese Chamber of Mines estimated in 2015 that there may be 2 million artisanal miners in the country digging for gold, diamonds, and minerals such as cobalt. Prince told CNBC that he wanted to create an “ethical mine” so businesses invested in his project could trace the source of the cobalt and know that it was coming from a location without any abuses. Approximately 67 percent of global mined cobalt in 2017 came from Congo.

Corporations such as Apple, the electric car company Tesla, Volkswagen, Samsung, General Motors, and Renault have all pledged to source cobalt from mines in Congo and elsewhere that don’t use child labor, but human rights groups have challenged the feasibility of this project.

Whatever an “ethical mine” might look like, I feel fairly certain that it wouldn’t involve Erik Prince or his money. But chances are that any plan he has for Afghanistan in particular will involve some variation of his previously expressed idea to replace US soldiers there with private contractors.

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