Asia/Africa update: March 25 2019

Hello and welcome to our next-to-last week here at WordPress! I’m packing things up and moving to Substack starting next week, when I’ll be posting in both places by way of transitioning to the new site. I’m also, in case you haven’t noticed, returning from an unplanned week away due to the flu. As with all extended absences around here I’ll be mostly starting fresh today rather than trying to recap everything that happened while I was gone. I’m still not 100%, so please bear with me this week.

ASIA

KAZAKHSTAN

One thing that did happen while I was out sick last week was that Nursultan Nazarbayev, who’d been running Kazakhstan since 1989 and had been its first and only post-Soviet president since 1990, up and resigned. Nazarbayev is 78 years old and has been quietly laying the groundwork for a political transition for at least the past couple of years, so I guess he figured it was time to get on with his life’s work. Which, as it turns out, will consist mostly of continuing to run Kazakhstan as before. Nazarbayev will continue to control the country’s ruling Nur Otan party, will continue to chair its national security council, and was given the lifetime title of “Leader of the Nation” by parliament back in 2010, so he’s not actually going anywhere. The Kazakh government even changed the name of the country’s capital, formerly Astana, to “Nursultan” to signify that he’s not really leaving.

That said, somebody will have to assume the presidency and that person will presumably be the central figure in Kazakhstan after Nazarbayev kicks the bucket. For now, ex-Senate chair Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has been elevated to acting president, and he’ll stay in the office until the 2020 election. But he’s unlikely to be Nazarbayev’s long-term successor. That’s actually looking like it might be Nazarbayev’s daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, who was elevated to replace Tokayev as Senate head. Nazarbayev could pick any of several members of his family as his heir apparent, but Dariga is the only one who got a significant promotion out of this recent shakeup, for whatever that’s worth.

AFGHANISTAN

According to the United Nations, a US airstrike outside the city of Kunduz either late Friday or early Saturday killed at least 13 civilians, ten of them children. The strike was apparently carried out in support of Afghan forces who were battling the Taliban nearby. Speaking of the Taliban, it reportedly carried out an attack on an army base in Helmand province on Friday that left 26 Afghan soldiers and seven Afghan police officers dead. Elsewhere, six people were wounded in a bombing in Jalalabad on Monday for which no group has yet claimed responsibility. ISIS and the Taliban are both active in that area.

KASHMIR

Indian police said Monday that Kashmiri rebels killed a 12 year old boy they took captive in the town of Hajin on Friday. The militants took two hostages in Friday’s incident but one, an older man, managed to escape.

THAILAND

Thailand held its first election since the country’s 2014 military coup on Sunday and the results were…a mess, apparently. Official results haven’t been released yet, but unofficially the Palang Pracharath Party, which is comprised mostly of junta figures and backed junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha for prime minister, confounded expectations by winning the most votes. However, the Pheu Thai party, which is linked with former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and opposes the junta, appears to have won the most seats in the new parliament. Which means both parties have a legitimate claim to get first crack at forming the country’s next government, but only one of those parties has all the guys with guns standing behind it. And because the junta rigged Thailand’s new political system in its favor (and the election, according to Shinawatra and supported by some odd discrepancies in the vote count), it’s unlikely Pheu Thai can actually form a governing coalition.

Thailand’s new parliament will consist of a 500 seat lower chamber and a 250 seat senate, and in theory Pheu Thai only needs to get to 251 seats to form a majority coalition. But all 250 seats in the senate are appointed and all by the military, so they’ll back whatever arrangement leaves power in the hands of the junta. Because both houses, 750 seats in total, vote as one to pick the new PM, in reality Pheu Thai needs to form a 376-seat coalition in the lower house to support the next government, and they likely won’t be able to hit that mark. The junta, by contrast, only needs 126 seats in the lower house, which it should be able to get fairly easily.

CHINA

The Chinese government has invited European diplomats in Beijing to tour the wonderful sights of Xinjiang this week in what I’m sure would be a totally candid look at the conditions under which that region’s Uyghurs and other Muslims are living. The European Union, sadly, has passed on the idea, or at least says it wants to take some time to prepare for it. Presumably the intention is to prevent the tour from becoming a stage managed whitewash, but I’m not sure how the Europeans would be able to do that effectively.

TAIWAN

The US military sent two more of its vessels through the Taiwan Strait on Monday, the third of these “freedom of navigation” missions it’s undertaken in 2019 in what has apparently become a monthly exercise. One of the vessels was a Coast Guard cutter, which is interesting in that the Coast Guard doesn’t normally do that kind of thing. The Trump administration is reportedly prepared to approve a Taiwanese request to purchase 60 F-16V Vipers, the latest version of the multi-role fighter. That decision–which reverses the Obama administration’s reluctance to sell aircraft to Taiwan–is, to say the least, not likely to go over well in Beijing.

NORTH KOREA

North Korean officials on Monday reversed a decision they’d made on Friday to pull their personnel out of the inter-Korean liaison office at Kaesong. Pyongyang made the decision to quit the office after the US imposed additional sanctions against North Korea, but apparently had second thoughts after Donald Trump announced, via Twitter of course, that he’d put the kibosh on another planned set of new sanctions.

AFRICA

ALGERIA

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika–or, to be clear, whoever is acting on his behalf–reportedly fired the head of Algeria’s state TV network on Monday. It’s unclear exactly why, but reporters for state media have been chafing, sometimes publicly, at restrictions on their ability to cover the nationwide protests against Bouteflika and his government.

MALI

At least 134 ethnic Fulani (Peulh) Malians were massacred on Saturday when a raiding party from the Dogon ethnic group attacked the village of Ogossogou in central Mali. There has been a steady increase in tensions between the predominantly herding Fulani and their predominantly farming neighbors across the Sahel over the past couple of years as population growth and climate change has forced them into closer (and, given their competing interests, unsustainable) contact with one another. That’s been the case in Nigeria and it’s increasingly the case in Mali, where the conflict has become tangentially related to the rise of Islamist extremism.

The Dogon, who mostly practice a traditional African religion, have accused the Fulani in general of supporting extremist militants, while the Fulani claim that Dogon militias are being armed by the Malian government and sent to attack Fulani on the off chance that the Fulani have been radicalized. Whether the Malian government is aiding the Dogon or not is unclear, but what is clear is that the Malian government is too weak to assert itself and try to restore order. It has outlawed the main Dogon self defense force, the Dan Na Ambassagou, in the wake of Saturday’s attack, but Dan Na Ambassagou insists that it wasn’t involved.

SOMALIA

Amnesty International has released a new report finding that, lo and behold, US airstrikes in Somalia are in fact killing civilians, contrary to the Pentagon’s insistence that its airstrikes never kill civilians and, for all we know, actually bring them freshly baked cookies or something. The report looked at five airstrikes in which 14 people were killed and found that civilians were killed in four of them and probably in the fifth as well. US Africa Command has, unsurprisingly, been categorizing its kills as “combatants” based not on actual investigation but on unreliable criteria. Which means if you’re a man of military age and you happen to get killed in a US airstrike because you’re physically in close enough proximity to al-Shabab fighters to be in the blast zone, you’re considered al-Shabab unless proven otherwise. And the US military never bothers to check after the fact, so you’ll never be proven otherwise.

COMOROS

Comorian police dispersed opposition-led protests on Monday in the wake of Sunday’s presidential election, in which incumbent President Azali Assoumani almost certainly won (results haven’t yet been announced). The opposition has declared that the whole exercise was fraudulent and international observers have noted numerous irregularities with the vote. Assoumani was only able to run again thanks to a referendum that passed last year that ended the practice of rotating the country’s presidency among its three largest islands. That’s generated a significant amount of unrest on Anjouan, the archipelago’s second largest island, since it puts any Anjouanian candidate at a severe disadvantage against candidates from Grand Comore.

CAMEROON

New polling finds that Cameroon is coming apart at the seams, no matter what the Cameroonian government is doing to try to hold on to its anglophone region:

Afrobarometer has interviewed nationally representative samples of 1,200 adult Cameroonians in 2013, 2015, and May-June 2018, producing results with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level. We did our analysis based on region, rather than primary language.

Here’s what we found. Most Cameroonians living in Anglophone regions no longer view their country as a functioning democracy. That’s a drastic shift from four years ago — and contrasts sharply with the views of their compatriots in Francophone regions. The proportion of Anglophone residents who consider Cameroon “a full democracy” or “a democracy with minor problems” dropped from more than half (52 percent) in 2015 to just 1 in 8 (12 percent) in 2018. Among those living in Francophone regions, the proportion of those who agree has slowly increased from 36 percent in 2013 to 45 percent, as you can see in the figure below.

Only seven percent of anglophone Cameroonians say they’re “satisfied with democracy,” while 62 and 58 percent say they have no trust in the army and police, respectively.

MOZAMBIQUE

Mozambique has been absolutely devastated by the effects of Cyclone Idai, which hit the country on March 14 and caused massive initial damage as well as ongoing flooding and impacts to the country’s healthcare sector, its power grid, and its transportation networks. At Africa Is a Country, Ruth Castel-Branco writes about the impact of the storm, likely exacerbated by climate change, on a country whose economy was already hollowed out by mismanagement and austerity:

Admittedly, few countries could adequately respond to a disaster of this magnitude—certainly not Mozambique, a country in the midst of a debt crisis, whose annual Gross Domestic Product barely tops US$12 billion. The debt crisis is the result of a combination of factors including an over reliance on the extractives sector, which has made the country vulnerable to fluctuating commodity prices; public borrowing for large-scale infrastructure projects; and extensive fiscal incentives to lure multinational corporations.

The discovery in 2016, of $2.2 billion in odious loans, illegally incurred by leading figures of the Frelimo government, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. According to a recent US indictment, $700 million remain unaccounted for, while $200 million were channeled as bribes and kickbacks to bankers and politicians. Frelimo’s attempt to retroactively legalize the loans at a significant cost to taxpayers, triggered a counter-movement by citizens under the hashtag, #eunãopagodívidasocultas (I won’t pay secret debts).

In an ironic twist, the International Monetary Fund and donors (who until then had tolerated—even promoted—a national bourgeoisie embedded in political patronage networks and allied to global capitalist interests), froze general budget and sector support. With little space to maneuver, the government imposed a series of austerity measures, including a civil service hiring freeze, and cuts to social sectors such as health, education, social welfare, sanitation and hygiene. As Idai, swept across Mozambique, it encountered a state weakened by an extractivist development model and captured by global capital.

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