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Kenya reconciliation faces major election test

IRIN Gender - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 13:02

Towns like Langwenda in Kenya’s central Nakuru County still bear the scars of the post-election violence that rocked the country a decade ago. With new polls just six weeks away, could history repeat itself or have the lessons been learned?

An estimated 1,200 people were killed and more than 600,000 displaced during the disputed 2007/08 presidential election, with most of the violence errupting in the central Rift Valley between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin, the two largest ethnic groups in the region.

The area has been the centre of bitter land disputes since independence in 1964, with Kikuyu “settlers” accused of appropriating Kalenjin ancestral land.

As Kenya heads towards elections on 8 August, the derelict houses in Langwenda, a small community in Nakuru’s Mau Forest, are stark reminders of that troublesome past that still haunts the country.

“When the violence started, people came to Langwenda and looted this house,” recalled Christopher Towett, a Kalenjin. “They stole the sofa, the television, and other household possessions, and [they] stole our cattle.”

Towett escaped with his family and neighbours into the forest because it was too dangerous to stay put and risk Kikuyu violence. As Kalenjin retaliatory attacks on Kikuyu properties across the valley intensified, he returned to find his house reduced to rubble and his life shattered.

Since then, as part of a government initiative to resettle those displaced by the violence, Kikuyu communities were bought plots of land in Langwenda. “Kikuyus were compensated and given land here, but we [the Kalenjins] haven’t seen anything,” protested Towett. “I had to rebuild my house with my own money.”

Despite this, Towett believes the two communities can co-exist. His son has married a Kikuyu, and children from the two communities play together. “We learnt from the past and we’re very careful now,” he told IRIN. “The Kalenjins and Kikuyus are now at peace. We don’t want to spill blood again.”

Mutual suspicion

But is Towett’s confidence misplaced? After all, the differences between the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin are long-standing, going right back to when European settlers forced the pastoralist Kalenjin from their land and brought in outside labourers, many of them Kikuyu, to work their estates.

At independence, some of the land was redistributed, with Kikuyus the main beneficiaries. In the late 1980s, the Kalenjin-led, single-party government encouraged attacks on Kikuyu communities, seen as the bedrock of the opposition pro-democracy movement. Tensions have been stirred by politicians ever since.

“The land issue, which is always [at the heart of] the structural violence in Kenya, has not been dealt with at all,” said Maurice Amollo, country director of the international aid agency Mercy Corps.

“There’s a lot of talk, but if you ask me what has concretely been done to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself, my honest answer is nothing.”

The Kenyan government and civil society groups did undertake grassroots reconciliation efforts after the shock of the 2007/08 violence, but a political alliance between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin in the 2013 election papered over these cracks.

That “lulled many into believing historic foes were on an ‘irreversible’ course to overcoming animosities,” said a recent report by the International Crisis Group. “Yet Rift Valley reconciliation remains superficial,” it noted.

Amollo agrees. “This tension has been suppressed, but not eliminated,” he said. “I think that people are confusing a lack of violent confrontation between the two communities with peace.”

Pastor Joseph Maritim, a church leader in Keringet, a majority Kalenjin town in Nakuru, told IRIN that mutual suspicion still runs deep.

“Politicians stand for their own political mileage,” he said. “If they tell their people that the land was supposed to be theirs but ‘outsiders’ are settling there, they can set communities against one another. That’s why people fight.”

Others from the Kikuyu community, including Julius Oyancha, a church elder in Molo – one of the worst-affected towns in 2007 – also feel the politicians have let them down.

“The politicians and leaders that incited us and led us into violence left us behind with the problems,” Oyancha said. “We lost most of our belongings and our land, and we came to realise what we were told was not good for our community.”

Charlie Ensor/IRIN Hate leaflets Familiar story

Politicians are once again accused of stoking ethnic violence ahead of the August elections, especially at the county level in the contests for executive governors.

According to the ICG report, seven of 19 counties listed by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission as among potential violence hotspots are in the Rift Valley.

During party primaries in April, leaflets containing hate speech began to appear in Nakuru. They encouraged Kalenjins to cleanse Kikuyu-majority towns in the country should Kikuyu aspirant Kinuthia Mbugua win the Jubilee Party’s nomination to run as governor in August.

In Uashin Gishu, a neighbouring county, Governor Jackson Mandago, a Kalenjin, has explicitly called for Kikuyus to be kicked out should he win in August. With his opponent, Bundotich Kiprop, ahead in the polls, a return to violence in the county remains a real threat.

Though a power-sharing deal under the Jubilee Party is in place between President Uhuru Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, and Deputy President William Ruto, a Kalenjin, it is fragile, argues Murithi Mutiga, a senior analyst at the Rift Valley Institute.

“The fundamental problem in the Rift Valley is that the government has relied too much on a political alliance between elites from the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities to maintain peace there. A fracture in that pact could obviously lead to instability.”

The pivotal point in that deal will come in 2022, when the Kikuyu are supposed to swing their support behind Ruto. There is unease among some senior Kalenjin that they may not. Failure to do so “almost inevitably would trigger major instability in the Rift Valley”, said the ICG.


Kenyatta and Ruto were both indicted by the International Criminal Court for their alleged roles in the 2007/08 electoral violence, but, courtesy of their political pact, they were able to whip up domestic opposition to the court in The Hague. The case was eventually dropped in 2014, a setback that has hurt the fight against impunity.

Most Kenyan IDPs displaced by the many rounds of political violence remain forgotten – without compensation or resettlement. IDPs like Mark Kipkemboi Korir, a Kalenjin, wait in vain. “The Kikuyus went to camps [after the 2007/08 election] and were easily identified and resettled. Because we came to stay with our relatives, it was difficult for the authorities to identify and resettle us,” he explained.

Korir is a member of a lobby group that has found and identified around 1,500 Kalenjin displaced throughout the 1990s who are yet to be resettled, much less win justice through the courts.

“We have written letters for a very long time, but we’ve not heard anything back,” Korir said. Even his personal messages to Ruto have been ignored. “We’ve been left to fend for ourselves,” he added.

The question of impunity, which remains a vexed issue in Kenya, was recently revived by a statement from the ICC that under a more favourable government, it could re-evaluate the dropped cases.

Korir is opposed to such a move. “If the ICC cases are brought forward again, it would open old wounds when we already sat down among ourselves and forgave one another,” he said.

But Mercy Corp’s Amollo, also a Kenyan, believes the perpetrators of ethnic violence must be brought to justice.

“I found it very, very sad that all of the cases at the ICC collapsed. That was a sad scenario because if we had even a handful of people punished that would have changed the way we do our politics in Kenya, permanently.”

He suggested that re-opening old wounds may be the only way to allow proper healing. Otherwise, he said, “it’s just a suppressed conflict that’s waiting for a spark.”


TOP PHOTO:  Christopher Towett outside his home


rift_valley_chris_house.jpg Analysis Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Kenya reconciliation faces major election test Charlie Ensor IRIN NAKURU Africa Kenya
Categories: Gender Parity

Afghan polls, Niger militancy, and vanishing Venezuelans: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 06/23/2017 - 11:29

Which humanitarian topics are on IRIN’s radar and should be on yours? Check out our curation of upcoming events, topical reports, opinion, and quality journalism:

Elections in wartime – Afghanistan sets a date

Afghanistan’s election commission has announced parliamentary and district council polls for 7 July. Past elections have seen increased attacks on civilians as polling day approaches. There’s no reason to expect anything different this time around, especially with the Taliban and al-Qaeda/so-called Islamic State elements in the ascendancy in several parts of the country. The last election, in 2014, almost triggered civil conflict as Abdullah Abdullah refused to recognise Ashraf Ghani as president. Fraud was so widespread the UN refused to release its audit of the vote – US secretary of state John Kerry had to fly to Kabul to broker a compromise. Afghanistan has been locked in a political crisis ever since, with various factions working against each other and stalling much-needed reforms. Will the upcoming elections resolve or exacerbate those tensions? We’ll soon find out.

Fleeing Venezuela

Globally, 34,200 Venezuelans sought asylum in 2016 and Venezuelans now outnumber any other nationality of asylum seeker in the United States, while the figure for those seeking asylum in the European Union in the first quarter of 2017 was five times higher than over the same period the preceding year. Many others have migrated on business and tourist visas. Before April, most were fleeing their country’s severe economic crisis rather than political persecution, and are therefore unlikely to qualify for refugee status. But since then, a wave of anti-government protests has been brutally repressed. President Nicolas Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule means more Venezuelans may qualify for international protection over the coming year. This article by the Migration Policy Institute examines the roots of the crisis and considers opportunities for engaging with the estimated two million Venezuelans now living abroad. It draws from a study that used Skype and social media to survey the diaspora about their reasons for emigrating, their interest in returning, and their willingness to participate in a reconstruction process. In another new report, the International Crisis Group highlights “systematic looting” as Venezuelans face “chronic shortages of food, medicines and other basic goods”. It urges the regional Organization of American States bloc to urgently push for negotiations with a strict timetable for a “credible plan to restore peaceful democracy”. At least 76 people have now been killed in two months of protests – the latest being a teenage boy on Monday and a 22-year-old man on Thursday.

Niger: In the eye of the storm

Niger is poor, loosely governed, and vulnerable. Although there is no home-born militant group, the conflicts in neighbouring Mali, Nigeria, and Libya have “spilled into Niger and compromised internal security, as have global jihadi terrorism and kidnapping,” notes Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings in this timely blog. As a key channel for migrants to the Sahara and to Europe, “Niger is also rife with smuggling in assorted contraband,” she adds. As IRIN reported earlier this year, the EU-funded crackdown on migration through Niger has been effective, but at a cost. It has badly hit the local economy, and has led to the use of more dangerous, circuitous smuggling routes. Gold mining had provided some alternative employment for young Nigeriens (and people from further afield), but in response to the lawlessness, the government has now cracked down on that opportunity as well. And in the south there is Boko Haram – more a response by the youth to the marginalisation of the Diffa region than any real ideological commitment to the jihadists. But despite a strong military presence, the Boko Haram threat persists. The latest attack – which was repulsed – was on a border post on 16 June near the Nigerian towns of Kanema and Gaidam. Look out for IRIN’s upcoming coverage of violent extremism in Diffa and the government’s struggling amnesty programme for ex-combatants.

Eritrea: In from the cold?

What do Donald Trump’s accession to power, the war in Yemen, Europe’s migration crisis, a Red Sea property boom, and a UN prison inspection have in common? According to this fascinating article in Foreign Policy, they’re all factors in Eritrea’s apparent emergence from years of international isolation. Several hundred Eritrean troops are said to be fighting in the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, which “has sparked a rush on Eritrean coastal real estate by Gulf states looking to base their troops there,” FP reports. To try to stem the flow of migrants to its shores, the European Union approved in 2015 a 200-million-euro aid package for Eritrea, the biggest single source of refugees to Europe between 2014 and 2016. The EU has also promised support to train judges and security services in Eritrea, while Britain plans to open an international development office in Asmara. Recently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was even allowed to tour a prison in Eritrea. And, after decades of being almost totally closed off to the international media, some 50 foreign journalists were allowed to visit in the year up to May 2016. Support for the sanctions imposed on Eritrea in the wake of its devastating 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia “is gradually eroding”, not least, according to FP, because “there is no evidence that Eritrea is still supporting al-Shabab militants in Somalia.” All this, the article says, has left Eritrea’s arch-foe, Ethiopia, in a quandary, fearful that President Isaias Afwerki will “use his growing financial resources to step up support for armed opposition in Ethiopia.”

Did you miss it?

Black sites are back

Reporting, tweeting, and talking about Yemen can feel a bit like shouting into the wind. The cholera outbreak, which has to date killed more than 1,205 people in two months and infected 179,500, received a bit of mainstream press and, as IRIN reported Monday, one million doses of a vaccine should soon be on their way to the country. But an exhaustive investigation by the Associated Press really broke through the noise this week (you know at least some corners of the internet are paying attention when Edward Snowden tweets): The AP revealed a secret network of prisons in south Yemen, run by the United Arab Emirates and Yemeni forces, used to interrogate and torture men in the hunt for al-Qaeda suspects. Oh, and the United States reportedly questions detainees there too. So, black sites are back, in Yemen at least, and the US is involved. Hundreds of men have disappeared and many tortured in a horrific fashion. The abusers are important parties to Yemen’s long war – Human Rights Watch provides more detail in this report. Are you paying attention now?

To stay and deliver, five years on

In an effort to bridge gaps in delivering assistance during armed conflicts, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, published a landmark report in 2011 – To Stay and Deliver: Good Practice for Humanitarians in Complex Security Environments. Five years later, this new study, produced for the Norwegian Refugee Council, assesses what’s changed. More specifically, it analyses shifts in the threats and risks faced by humanitarian workers; overviews institutional, operational, and cultural changes within humanitarian organisations; considers the extent to which the recommendations of the OCHA study have been adopted; and sets out ideas about how the aims of that study could be further met. The NRC report is based on field research in Afghanistan and Central African Republic and desk research on Syria and Yemen. It notes three key developments since 1991: a growing financing gap; a greater emphasis on security by international humanitarian organisations; and a greater sense of risk and vulnerability among international aid workers even though the number of incidents affecting them have seen a proportional decrease. While progress has been made in some areas, “the humanitarian community continues to grapple with how to stay and deliver effectively and responsibly in highly insecure environments” and, it concludes, “not enough has changed, particularly at the field level”, since 2011.

(TOP PHOTO: Protesters in La Castellana, a neighbourhood in the east of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. Helena Carpio/IRIN)


protest1.jpg News Aid and Policy Migration Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics This week's humanitarian outlook IRIN GENEVA Global
Categories: Gender Parity

Neglected but not over: Burundi crisis continues to bite

IRIN Gender - Thu, 06/22/2017 - 05:46

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to seek a disputed third term more than two years ago, spawning a period of unrest marked by extrajudicial killings, a failed coup, and ethnic division. Given repeated assurances from government officials and the dearth of media coverage, you would be forgiven for thinking that period ended some time ago. It did not. The country’s population continues to face armed violence, civil and human rights abuses, while food insecurity and economic hardship persist. People are still fleeing to neighbouring countries: The UN predicts the number of Burundian refugees will top 500,000 by the end of the year.

On 14 June, the Commission of Enquiry on Burundi set up by the UN Human Rights Council reported that violations such as the excessive use of force, disappearances, and arbitrary detention by security services – which all surged amid street protests in the weeks after Nkurunziza’s April 2015 announcement – have been continuing.

According to government figures, some 720 people have lost their lives since the start of the crisis – many during the heavy-handed crackdown around a failed coup attempt in May 2015. Human rights workers put the number at more like 1,200. The level of violence has subsided but there continue to be sporadic killings from gunshots and grenades, which the police often attribute to criminal activity.

Fatsah Ouguergouz, who chairs the commission of enquiry, told the Human Rights Council that testimonies collected in refugee camps “show that since late 2016, human rights violations are often committed in a more clandestine, but equally brutal, manner” than in 2015.

“For example, a victim told us that in 2016, a police commander threatened him in the following terms: ‘I can kill you. I can bury you and no one will know,’” Ouguergouz said, explaining that his team had not been given permission to carry out investigations inside Burundi itself.

“There are continuing reports of disappearances. Dead bodies are also still regularly discovered,” he added. “According to several testimonies, it is often difficult to identify the bodies. The modus operandi seems to be the same: the victims have their arms tied behind their backs and sometimes their bodies are weighed down with stones to make them sink once they are thrown into a river.”

The disappeared

In Bujumbura, residents gave IRIN first-hand accounts of loved ones going missing.

“My husband received a phone call from people he doubtless knew. He left in our car with a friend and never came back. Even the car was never found,” said the wife of a man close to the government who asked not to be named. “I contacted his old friends ­– the police, the army, the intelligence services – but to no avail. I’m losing hope, and what [bothers] me the most is that some of his old friends in the police and army don’t answer my calls.”

Another woman in the capital told IRIN about her brother, who had been a policeman for a long time. “He was arrested as he came home from work, after meeting some relatives,” she said. “Up to now, I have no information about where he went. I don’t know what to do. We haven’t even been allowed to conduct customary mourning rituals. We are crying in secret.”

The commission said refugees had told its investigators of torture sessions carried out by the National Intelligence Service and the police, sometimes assisted by the Imbonerakure – the ruling party’s youth wing. The testomony was graphic: “clubs, rifle butts, bayonets, iron bars, metal chains and electric cables [used] with the result that some victims' bones were broken and other victims lost consciousness; long needles stuck into victims' bodies or unidentified products injected into them; nails ripped out with pliers; burns; and many abuses inflicted on male detainees' genital organs.”

The commission also noted that those in exile included many journalists as well as the leaders of most opposition parties, one of which, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, was slapped with a six-month suspension in April.  

Humanitarian crisis

Dwindling food supplies have left more than a quarter of Burundi’s population, 2.56 million people, in a state of severe food insecurity. Some three million Burundians require humanitarian assistance.

In April, four people died of starvation in Muyange II, an area close to the capital, according to local leader Augustin Ntirandekura. Asked to explain the lack of doors and windows on some of the houses in Muyange II, one resident said they had been sold to pay for food. 

stringer/IRIN This man's sales have plummetted

Yields from the first of the country’s two annual agricultural seasons were down an average of 25 percent, but experts at the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system say this only partly explains the widespread food insecurity. 

“The current socio-economic crisis characterised by inflation, shortage of jobs, the depreciation of the Burundian franc and a shortage of foreign currency, aggravated by a malaria epidemic and the displacement of populations are factors which influence the level of food insecurity and create a need for a coordinated multi-sectoral approach,” the latest IPC bulletin says. 

Market prices of basic foods are between 30 and 50 percent higher than the same period last year, according to the IPC, which did, however, project much better yields from 2017’s (just beginning) second harvest. 

More supply can’t come a moment too soon. At foodstalls in the capital, IRIN found maize selling for 1,200 francs ($0.70) per kilogramme, against 400 francs less than two years ago, while green beans were up from 700 to 1,200 francs over the same period. 

Depressed economy

“When the current crisis started, the expatriate family I had been working for since 2010 left the country and my husband lost his job because his boss said he didn’t have enough money to pay him,” said Nicelate Ngayabosha, who lives in the northern Bujumbura district of Kamenge.

She said she struggles to feed her family now and that her children only eat one meal a day, which makes it hard for them to concentrate at school.

Adrienne Niyubuntu, a mother of three who said her husband had travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo because he could not bear to see his children go hungry, explained how she now has to rely on charity. “These days, it’s my relatives who try to give me food, because I have no income,” she said.

Budgetary aid suspensions imposed by the European Union and some of its member states in 2016 are also having a serious impact on Burundi’s economy, according to analyst and anti-corruption activist Faustin Ndikumana.

“The sanctions have deprived the government of a major source of foreign currency,” he told IRIN. The EU suspension affects a 43-million-euro package of direct support destined mainly for projects in energy, rural development, public finances, health, and justice reform. The European Union had been funding about half of Burundi’s annual budget.

Knock-on effects

Ndikumana said the lack of foreign currency had led to shortages of fuel, medicines, and other essential goods. “The national agricultural investment programme has not received its planned funds and the agricultural sector is unable to pay dividends,” he said. “We are in a situation where people are impoverished yet certain dignitaries continue to believe that things are normal because they are receiving their salaries or allowances.”

The International Monetary Fund has projected zero growth in Burundi in 2017 and 12.4 percent inflation.

Fuel shortages and electricity cuts have eased now but in April and May they were severe. “We had to queue outside petrol stations. Sometimes, we even waited all day without getting any,” said taxi driver Thomas Ndayiragije.

The fuel shortages also exacerbated food inflation. According to the national statistics institute, food prices went up more than 10 percent in less than a month in April.

All this has grave implications for jobs and livelihoods.

“I’m having trouble making ends meet every month because so I have so few customers,” said shopkeeper Josue. “I think I will have to try to find another source of revenue because commerce is not working well.” 

Innocent, who works at a market stall, said her boss had had asked her to look for customers to buy his potatoes. “He has already told me that if things go on like this I will lose my job,” she said. “We used to sell around 200 kilogrammer or more of potatoes a day. Now I sell less than 20.”

A cement trader in downtown Bujumbura said his sales had also fallen by a similar 90 percent. “I think fewer people are building houses,” he explained. 

stringer/IRIN Behind the semblance of normalcy, people still disappear from the streets of Burundi's capital No way forward

For exiled anti-corruption activist Gabriel Rufyiri, there is only one way forward.

“Only inclusive negotiations will provide a favourable solution to these problems of food shortages. Because once the political issues are sorted out, donors will be quick to lift sanctions against the government,” he said, speaking to IRIN from Belgium.

A government-led “inter-Burundian dialogue” involving 26,000 citizens and 600 hours of meetings produced a final report in May, asserting that the population backed various constitutional changes and putting an end to presidential term limits. But opposition parties, which were not involved, have dismissed the process and the subsequent establishment of a constitutional review commission as a sham.

Meanwhile, mediation efforts led by the East African Community are at a standstill, both because some in the opposition regard the facilitator, Tanzanian former president Benjamin Mkapa, as biased and because Nkurunziza sees the process as a violation of Burundi’s sovereignty.

This week, UN Assistant Secretary-General Tayé-Brook Zerihoun told the Security Council that implementing the report’s recommendations would likely lead to an escalation of the crisis.

Government denial, meanwhile, showed no sign of abating. Albert Shingiro, Burundi’s ambassador to the UN, told the council: “the entire country is calm,” that 150,000 refugees had returned home, and that there was no longer a political crisis at all.

(TOP PHOTO: Protestors in Bujumbura demonstrate against violence in May 2015. Phil Moore/IRIN)


Burundi crisis continues to bite Protestors demonstrate carrying placards announcing "no violence" and "free RPA" [Radio Publique Africaine], through the streets of Nyakabiga neighbourhood in Bujumbura on May 4, 2015. Analysis Food Human Rights Politics and Economics BUJUMBURA IRIN Africa East Africa Burundi
Categories: Gender Parity

Disposable Africans – migration and its consequences

IRIN Gender - Wed, 06/21/2017 - 05:13

Much ink has been spilt trying to make sense of the migration flow across the Mediterranean, a stretch of sea that has become the frontline of capitalism’s most urgent question: What’s more valuable – a human life, or the fraying concept of the sanctity of state borders?


Journalists and commentators have largely framed the boat crossings as a European crisis, and yet the vast majority of the migrants using the major route from Libya to Italy are Africans. They are also the majority of the nearly 2,000 people recorded to have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year.


Why do young Africans choose to risk all for the attainment of a precarious existence in Europe? Why is Africa home to me, but uninhabitable to my peers?


I went to Palermo, the largest city on the Italian island of Sicily, to try to get some answers.




The day I visit Palermo’s docks, volunteers anxiously await the arrival of a commercial vessel – the Tuna I – that has just rescued 470 people from the sea and is heading to port.


The energy is a little unnerving. It’s heartening to see so many people give up their time to welcome the people who have been rescued, but when the boat arrives many volunteers take selfies in front of the hungry and disoriented people hanging listlessly over the railing of the ship.


While the volunteers scream and wave their welcome to the Tuna I, the response from the ship is far less enthusiastic. There’s something perverse about this, consistent with the voyeurism that has characterised the global response to the drownings at sea.


Most of the people who disembark the Tuna I are clearly broken in ways I may never truly understand. Many weep or struggle to walk. Some have to be carried off.


Their clothes are ripped and worn, and almost none are wearing shoes. Almost none. A few stand out: An Arab man in shoes and socks is quickly cornered by the police.


There is damage here beyond the physical. Many look but don’t seem to see, moving among the volunteers as if in a trance.


Where did they break? Who hurt them?


At a halfway house in the suburbs of Palermo, I ask a group of young people who survived the same journey months earlier. They all give the same answer: Libya.

Jason Florio/IRIN Mediterranean rescue The devil and the deep blue sea


“Libya is not good. A person can’t live there. Africans are nothing to them [in Libya],” says Amir from Senegal. “[But] you can’t turn back once you’re in Libya, even if it’s not easy to come here.”


Everyone is scarred by Libya. Mention the name and eyes well up. In many ways, the reaction gets to the heart of what I went to Italy to engage with – what drives the momentum towards Europe, even when the journey becomes grotesque.


It turns out that once people are in Libya, going back is not an option. Libya is the devil to the Mediterranean’s deep blue sea.


Yet under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was a prized destination in itself for Africans from throughout the region, a place of well-paid employment. Gaddafi’s removal in 2011, helped by a European-led coalition, changed that.


For black Africans, Libya has gone from haven to hellhole in the shadow of the bloody conflict and political vacuum that followed Gaddafi’s death. Africans have been crossing through Libya for decades, but there is a tinge of vengeful anti-blackness in the horrors they survive today.


Slave markets where black bodies are displayed and bartered are popping up in Libyan towns. Many people testify to being held in dark, windowless rooms, sometimes for months on end, while waiting for relatives to pay ransoms to facilitate their crossing.


Young women will almost certainly be raped, and it is not uncommon for people to be shot for complaining about any aspect of their detention.


When I ask Amir why he didn’t just turn back once he got to Libya, he says: “Whatever I saw in Libya was worse than anything I have ever seen in my life. And the thought of going back to Libya – back to the desert – was enough to keep me going.”


No home from home


But Italy offers only a meagre respite from racism.


“I have faced many difficulties,” I hear from Boubacar, a young Gambian. “I don’t have my independence like I want to.


“To me it’s not worth leaving my home and coming to a place like this to be discriminated [against], to be insulted, to be isolated.”


Italy does more than most for Africans who survive the crossing, but it is less than a full life with few prospects of becoming home.


The people who disembark the Tuna I get a pair of shoes, a bag with food, and a medical check-up. But they will almost immediately be shipped to reception centres around the country for interviews, and many will be deported. Only minors qualify for a substantive, automatic protection of two years.


Any services provided at the dock are primarily provided by non-profit organisations like the Red Cross. European governments deliberately punish survivors by withholding key services to make a point to anyone else considering the journey.


But national policies don’t always capture what’s happening on the ground. Local politicians like popular Palermo mayor Leonluca Orlando, who insists that diversity fuels the vibrancy and success of his city, resist Brussels.


“In 50 years, I am convinced that current European leaders will be facing charges of crimes against humanity,” Orlando tells me, as he personally greets some of the people disembarking from the Tuna I.


Palermo’s lessons


A popular narrative in European capitals is that if there was less migration there would be more opportunities for Europeans. But people in places like Sicily see things with more nuance.


Orlando’s welcome of rescue boats – he welcomes each one – has not dented his popularity in Palermo, even though Sicily is one of Italy’s poorest regions.


That’s partly because of a demographic crisis – Sicilians are producing fewer children. So, the subsidised labour of migrants has become invaluable.


At the Centro Astalli, a one-stop service centre for migrants and refugees in a disused church, I meet Veronica who provides a personal insight into the situation in Sicily.


The conversation begins as an introduction to the centre. But as soon as we realise we are the same age, it becomes a familiar millennial exchange on how much harder it is to attain conventional markers of success today than it was for our parents.


“I started here as a volunteer,” she tells me, “but when we got funding to expand the project they took me on full time. But my sister is 28, and she graduated almost three years ago and still hasn’t found work.”


Astalli offers one year of free Italian lessons, access to a laundry and showers, a free breakfast and afterschool activities for children. The centre also runs an arts programme with local volunteers that brings together Italians and migrants in projects designed to foster assimilation and understanding.


The programmes are funded by the Jesuit Refugee Services and the European Union. But some Palermitanos resent that so much is available to migrants for free.


“For me, I understand because I work here,” Veronica says. “Many of the asylum seekers are my friends. But for people like my sister, it’s very difficult to understand.” 

“Why do they still come here when they know it’s so bad here?”

This leaves structural racism as an enormous challenge for Astalli’s clients. Asylum seekers find it impossible to rent houses or find meaningful work. Only one of Astalli’s clients to date has completed university.


A young Gambian man, like Seydou, who I met, would rarely experience the kindness that I experienced as a tourist with an American twang.


“Maybe no one is going to fight you on the streets, but when it comes to real integration we have many problems,” Veronika says. “The Sicilians will stay with the Sicilians, and the refugees together in another place, but they don’t mix.’’


It’s a dynamic that leaves many people like Seydou vulnerable to exploitation. He was forced to move when he threatened to report one of his first halfway houses for siphoning money from the municipality intended for supporting migrants.


“Why do they still come here when they know it’s so bad here?” Veronica wonders. It’s a question I put to the people I interview.


Seydou and the others tell me it’s about a chance at life – to escape a violent family or conflict, to being able to have optimism for the future.


None of the young people I encounter would encourage other Africans to attempt the crossing to Europe. But what European bureaucrats call pull factors, they call hope.  

Jason Florio/MOAS/IRIN Gambian migrants celebrate arriving in Italy, unaware of what is likely to follow Cold war nostalgia


“Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons and are often defended beyond reason or necessity,” wrote Edward Said in 1984.


The world then was paradoxically more and less open than it is today. On the one hand, in the shadow of empire, African and Asian citizens of various nationalities could travel to Europe and beyond without the burden of invasive, derogatory visa procedures.


For much of Africa, the Cold War opened Europe up in ways that may never be experienced again. The ideological blocs competed for influence by showering African students and technocrats with fully funded opportunities to work and travel.


In cities like Berlin, African students like my father could drink beer with their West German counterparts while East Germans like 20-year-old Michael Schmidt were shot dead for attempting to scale the wall.


African students had not yet felt the sting of authoritarianism or economic austerity at home. Struggling with racism in Europe, many treated their stay as a necessary, temporary step to professional achievement rather than a shot at staying.


Only after structural adjustment hollowed out African economies and the establishment of the new, hyper-connected European Union, did visa restrictions for non-Europeans become common. At first, they were simply administrative hurdles, but today they are laborious and dehumanising processes designed to deter all but the most tenacious. 


New realities


Yet Europe still needs migrants, especially in the south where dwindling populations have aggravated labour shortages in agricultural sectors that resist mechanisation.


Italian grapes, Greek olives, and Spanish oranges all need bodies to plant, process and harvest them. By 1992, the architects of a single Europe realised that wealth disparities between various European countries – not just along the East-West axis but also North-South, the struggling economies of Greece, Italy, and Spain – required creative interventions for successful management.

“Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons and are often defended beyond reason or necessity”

And so for much of the last 25 years, the Eurozone has both aggressively courted and turned away migrants: punishing people legally seeking asylum at airports and embassies, and more or less ignoring clandestine migration across the Mediterranean, until the European economy was pummelled by the 2007-2008 financial crisis.


Migration, or fear of migration, is today the bogeyman of European politics that might yet break up the European Union. Not because of the lie that a flood of refugees and migrants is on its way, but because of what Said observed: that the irrational and unnecessary over-policing of Europe’s borders is throwing up contradictions and triggering an existential crisis.


The impulse to keep people out at all costs leaves Europe with a paradox: While preaching humanitarianism abroad, politicians threaten to prosecute NGOs for saving migrant lives at sea because leaving people to die is considered a deterrence.


Europe is now trying to reconcile that gap with security-focused development aid. In late 2015, EU governments at the Valetta Summit promised African governments, including autocratic regimes in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan, up to two billion euros in funding to help stem African migrations.


People move


After watching the Tuna I dock, I wander into some of Palermo’s museums and encounter three fascinating exhibitions.


The first is a tour that takes you past centuries-old churches with dome-shaped towers – mosques converted into Catholic churches and a testament to Palermo’s Muslim past.


The second is an installation at the museum of contemporary art featuring family photographs intertwined with yards of jute and rope. The artist set it up to evoke drowning, and perhaps the idea that – given a different set of circumstances – any one of our family members could have drowned trying to cross the sea.


The third is an exhibition at the Royal Palace featuring art from countries banned from the United States under President Donald Trump’s executive order.


These three exhibitions challenge Palermitanos to rethink simplistic narratives about migration. To me, they evoke the timelessness of human mobility, echoing Mayor Orlando’s vision that in 50 years the world may have a different set of moral values. Perhaps freedom of movement will be claimed as a universal value. Or perhaps it will be lost forever.









Disposable Africans – migration and its consequences jason_refugees_2.jpg Nanjala Nyabola Opinion Aid and Policy Migration Human Rights Politics and Economics IRIN Africa Global
Categories: Gender Parity

IRIN wins top Asia award for video reporting

IRIN Gender - Thu, 06/15/2017 - 10:16

We are delighted to announce that the Society of Publishers in Asia has recognised IRIN's outstanding work in the region with an overall win in the video reporting category and an honourable mention for our human rights reporting. Special mention to IRIN Asia Editor Jared Ferrie and IRIN Multimedia Editor Miranda Grant for their award-winning contributions.

Winner Group B, Excellence in Video Reporting: Why this Indonesian fisherman risked it all

Shot and produced by acclaimed German filmmaker Florian Kunert, this mini documentary powerfully captures the tough position Indonesian fishermen find themselves in. Fish stocks are depleting rapidly, putting pressure on them to find ways to increase their dwindling catches to feed their families. The easiest method is blast fishing, which they do by building makeshift bombs from plastic bottles filled with explosive powder scratched off of matches.  

But blast fishing carries huge risks, both in human and environmental terms. It destroys the coral reefs that provide a habitat for fish, and exposes fishermen to mortal danger. Beautifully filmed in markets and villages, on the open water and below the ocean’s surface, this video provides a stark warning about the human costs of destroying fishing habitats.

Film Library Film Library Photo Library Back to film list Blast Fishing in Indonesia Share this film Honorable Mention Group B, Excellence in Human Rights Reporting: Myanmar says Rohingya rape and abuse allegations “made-up”, despite mounting evidence

In the face of outright denials by Myanmar’s government, IRIN Asia Editor Jared Ferrie uncovered strong evidence that the military was committing atrocities against the country’s persecuted ethnic Rohingya Muslim community. His story juxtaposes the experiences of survivors against government statements, providing a historical record of both the atrocities and the attempts to cover them up.

As Myanmar refused to allow journalists near the police border posts where the accounts were emerging, Ferrie travelled to neighbouring Bangladesh. His vital reporting there revealed that the number of people who fled across the border was far higher than previously reported and directly challenged the government’s narrative. A spokeswoman for Myanmar’s leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, insists that military operations had been conducted “with very much restraint”. And allegations of rape and ethnic cleansing? “Completely false.” With the evidence presented in Ferrie's story, such denials became impossible to believe.

Read the feature

See the full list of award winners.

(TOP PHOTO: A Rohingya woman and child in the Kutupalong informal settlement, Bangladesh, in June, 2014. Will Baxter/IRIN)

bangladesh_1_1.jpg News Environment and Disasters Climate change Conflict Food Human Rights IRIN receives Asia reporting awards IRIN Asia Bangladesh Indonesia Myanmar
Categories: Gender Parity

Child “marriage” is child labour

IRIN Gender - Mon, 06/12/2017 - 06:02

Countless underage girls around the world are being forced to work long, punishing hours. They’re cooking, cleaning, and caring for young children. They’re being denied education, access to future employment, and agency over their own bodies and lives. Every day, older men are raping these children, enslaving them, and violating their fundamental human rights.

The plight of these girls is known. They are trapped in illegal child “marriages”. Yet today, on World Day Against Child Labour, they and their work are being ignored – cast aside by the very organization that has the political clout and powerful reach required to help them.

We’re talking about the International Labour Organization. As a UN agency that operates the world’s largest global program to end child labour, the ILO is uniquely positioned to attack the problem by marshalling the resources of not just member governments, but also the private sector and unions.

"These girls are used as round-the-clock domestic servants, habitually raped, and deprived of their childhoods, their potential, and their dignity"

According to the ILO’s statistics, there are 168 million child labourers worldwide. The number of girls and boys engaged in child labour under the age of 11 is fairly equal. But by their mid-teens, about four times as many boys as girls are trapped in child labour.

Sounds like relatively good news for the girls of the world, right? Wrong.

These girls haven’t escaped child labour. They haven’t returned to their families and enrolled in school. They aren’t free. They’re still captive and they’re still working, but they’ve become invisible – erased from the ILO’s statistics because they’ve become underage, illegal “wives”.

Why does the ILO leave these girls out of its tallies, and the associated funding, programming, and support? AIDS-Free World pressed the ILO for an answer.

"Child marriage may not be interpreted as constituting a worst form of child labour for girls, given definitional primacies,” the ILO said in a letter to AIDS-Free World. In essence, the ILO claims that the labour performed by girls in illegal child “marriages” does not qualify as “work”.

“Prostitution and pornography are considered among [the worst forms of child labour] as there is a work-related aspect,” the ILO wrote. “On the other hand, incest and early child marriage, although encompassing forms of sexual exploitation, do not constitute [worst forms of child labour].”

The ILO also makes this distinction: chores performed by a child in a third-party household, whether paid or unpaid, qualify as work; household chores performed in one’s own household do not. The agency says illegal child “wives” are doing household chores in their own homes.

But to treat the home of her “spouse” as the child’s own home is indefensible. She can’t consent to the illegal “marriage” or the nature of her living arrangement. Calling the household her legal home is akin to calling a kidnapper’s household his victim’s valid home.

Look at other criteria the ILO uses for child labour — as well as hazardous work and the worst forms of child labour – and you’ll see it matches up with the conditions of child “marriage”. Does the work done by the child in the “marriage” interfere with her schooling? Yes. Does it unreasonably confine the child to the premises of her employer? Yes. Could the work result in the child’s injury, illness, or death? Yes. Does the work expose the child to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse? Yes, yes, and yes.

Yet every year, millions of girls are excluded from the ILO tallies because the men who robbed them of their childhoods – and put them to work – first married them.

These girls are used as round-the-clock domestic servants, habitually raped, and deprived of their childhoods, their potential, and their dignity. They face serious dangers, including an increased likelihood of contracting HIV because they don’t have access to contraception or they fear asking their older, more sexually experienced “husbands” to use it. These girls face an elevated risk of early childbirth that can lead to death. Men are breaking the law, and the United Nations is breaking its promise to fight all forms of discrimination against women and girls.

Child “marriage” is not merely a harmful tradition, nor a ritual that simply happens too early. It is not a condition, like abject poverty. It is a violation, a crime perpetrated by a man against a child. It is a complete violation of a girl’s human rights. And it is child labour in its worst form. To turn a blind eye is to endorse the practice.

The UN has called for ending all forms of child labour by 2025. But that’s not possible unless all child labourers are counted. The statistics matter; they indicate who needs help and who should and will get it. And the ILO is enormously powerful. Bringing together member states, trade unions, and the private sector to work on the issue of child “marriage” would provide an entirely new perspective from which to combat this scourge. So now, as we observe the World Day Against Child Labour, it’s time for the ILO to include illegal child “wives” in its data — and to use the agency’s considerable power to find funding, offer support,  hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure the labour of millions of girls is no longer ignored.

(TOP PHOTO: Taken from IRIN's recent story, Shattered war economy encourages child marriage in Yemen, this picture from Taiz Province shows Nageeba, married at 14 and now pregnant. Credit: Amal Mamoon/IRIN. According to UNICEF 2015 figures, 250 million women alive today entered into marriage under the age of 15)

To learn more about AIDS-free World's campaign to have the ILO recognise child “marriage” as child labour, please visit

Yemen child marriage 3.jpg Opinion Human Rights Child “marriage” is child labour Ruth Messinger Seth Earn IRIN Global
Categories: Gender Parity

What can save Mali?

IRIN Gender - Mon, 05/29/2017 - 05:16

Hamidou Barry has come to Bamako to find his son. His village of Ikerena, in the rural heart of Mali, is a long way from the capital, but this is where he’s been told that men detained by the security forces are taken.


Barry rented a room in the home of a very distant relative. The city is expensive: He’s running out of money and he still hasn’t made contact with anyone who can shed light on the whereabouts of his son, also called Hamidou.


Witnesses told Barry that Hamidou, 38, was arrested in mid-December at the hospital in Douentza where he had taken his friend for treatment. For some reason the police took an interest in the two Fulani men. They found a sermon by Fulani Islamist extremist Hamadoun Koufa on Hamidou’s phone, but Barry insists that does not make his son a jihadist.


Koufa is a marabout (preacher) from the central Malian town of Niafunke. He is also a protégé of the veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali, who heads Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-linked militant group.

Dialogue instead of more foreign troops might yield an answer What can save Mali? img_9597.jpg Amanda Sperber Special Report Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics TIMBUKTU IRIN Africa West Africa Mali Rebels with a cause?

The connection between the two men is just one of a web of overlapping conflicts and shifting alliances the Malian government is struggling to contain, even with generous Western military support.


Koufa fought in northern Mali with Ansar Dine and allied jihadist groups in 2012, rapidly overrunning the region’s main towns. He then led his men south. That advance, threatening Bamako, triggered a French and African Union intervention that scattered his forces.


Koufa re-emerged in 2015 as the head of the newly-founded Macina Liberation Front (FLM), a movement that seeks the revival of the 19th century Macina Empire, a Fulani-led Islamic state based in the central Mopti and Segou regions of present-day Mali.


FLM recruitment has stoked and exploited community tensions, especially between Fulani pastoralists and Bambara farmers over land and access to pasture. The Bambara have turned to government-backed Dozo self-defence militia, and there is now an unbroken tempo of tit-for-tat killings of civilians, along with more formal executions of government officials by the FLM.

Central Mali has taken over from the north as the country’s most lethal region.


“It’s a toxic mix of intercommunal violence, jihadist activities, and abuses by government forces together fuelling this vicious circle,” said Héni Nsaibia, an analyst at Menastream, a risk consultancy firm that covers the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel.


But the violence is not just narrowly sectarian. A Human Rights Watch report documenting testimonies earlier this year from both communities included the account of a Fulani youth leader who pointed out: “We, the Peuhl [Fulani], were the jihadists’ first victims… we’ve also lost imams, mayors, and chiefs at the hands of the jihadists, but no one talks about that.”


Both sides have condemned the government’s failure to provide justice for the killings and to hold its own security forces accountable.


A Bambara leader was quoted by HRW as saying: “Since 2015, so many of our people have been gunned down in their farms, at home, or on their way to market. We have reported this to local and Bamako authorities, but what we hear are excuses for why they don’t investigate – the rain, the danger, insufficient vehicles. But in the end, there is no justice and the killings keep happening.”

Hearts and minds

When the government does act, it is heavy handed. HRW has recorded a number of arbitrary arrests by the security forces, especially around Douentza, where Hamidou was picked up.


When IRIN last spoke to Barry, he had run out of money and was returning home, without his son.


Abuses fuel FLM recruitment. It has adopted AQIM’s playbook of taking advantage of a weak state by embedding within the local community, listening to their problems, and fashioning its message accordingly.


"Hamadoun Koufa came [to Mopti] preaching about the government. He said he would help, not the government," explained Amadou Thiam, a Fulani opposition politician.


“In many villages, the jihadists appear to be replacing the state actors responsible for addressing banditry; for responding to common crime, marital and family disputes; and for ensuring community reconciliation,” said Corinne Dufka, HRW’s West Africa director.


“The messages they preach in community meetings, against corruption, state neglect, and at times abusive community elders, is appearing to resonate.”


The government’s presence doesn’t extend much beyond Segou, three hours from Bamako. Even without the challenge of insurgency, successive southern-based Malian governments have failed to stamp their authority in the north, where the population is relatively small and conditions extremely harsh.

Neglected north

The Tuareg, a traditionally nomadic group, span the Sahara Desert. They are the largest ethnic group in northeast Mali. Fiercely independent, they have historically been influential in the spread of Islam in the Sahel.

Tuareg militants control the informal trade networks, from migration to drugs and contraband cigarettes, on which the region’s economy depends.

Ashley Hamer/IRIN Africa's Sahel Region

Northern Mali has been a stronghold for jihadists since 2003, when Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, fleeing a government clampdown, escaped across the border. Key to the militants’ survival was a tacit agreement with the Malian military and state officials that largely left them alone.

In 2012 they made common cause with the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The rebellion relaunched longstanding separatist demands for the secession of the neglected north.

But soon after the independence of “Azawad” was proclaimed, the MNLA was under attack by Ansar Dine and a coalition of jihadist fighters, determined to impose an extreme version of shariah law in the north.

The French military won back the region for the government. Operation Serval, an air and ground mission, was launched at the request of Bamako as the jihadists rolled south. France continues to fight in Mali as part of a regional anti-terror drive called Operation Barkhane.

Underlining that investment, Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected French president, made Mali his first official visit abroad, earlier this month.

The West’s concern is the transnational threat of jihadism. Some Malian groups have links with Boko Haram in Nigeria, and AQIM last year launched attacks on Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire. Neighbouring Senegal is concerned it could be next.

In what the International Crisis Group has described as a “security traffic jam”, more external military intervention is envisaged, from the G-5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) and/or the G-3 (Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali).

But military force alone cannot put Mali together again. The north is now splintered as competing groups emerge – some narrowly ethnic, others backing the jihadists. The government has fallen back on an old model of corrupt payoffs and the use of local proxies to manage the conflict. What is needed, though, is better governance.

View from Timbuktu

The century-old, mud-built Djenné Mosque in Timbuktu is a tourist must-see. Inside, the light refracts between its adobe pillars. It’s cool and airy and the acoustics are just how you’d imagine talking under water might sound. In the desert sky above this iconic building a UN military drone buzzes.

Within minutes of new arrivals at the mosque, a man has spread out a small blanket and set up piles of worn postcards and jewelry. He explains that no tourists have visited this famed site in five years. He looks hopeful, if only for a moment.

Timbuktu was held by the Tuareg-dominated Ansar Dine for several months in 2012. They imposed a stringent, alien version of Islamic law in what is a traditionally moderate country. Centuries-old Sufi shrines and Islamic manuscripts, cultural treasures on which Timbuktu’s fame is based, were destroyed.

Ashley Hamer/IRIN The Great Mosque of Djenné

Although the town was recaptured in January 2013, the only visitors to Timbuktu these days are UN soldiers and a smattering of aid workers and government officials. In the vast northern desert beyond the city, jihadist groups hold sway.

Timbuktu’s urbanites find the jihadist presence unsettling. But in the conservative rural areas there is far greater acceptance, a local NGO worker, who asked not to be named, told IRIN.

Timbuktu remains unsafe. On 15 May, there was a rocket attack on the airport; earlier this month a UN police base came under fire, as did a Malian army checkpoint. The raids occur despite the presence of Burkinabe and Swedish contingents of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali.

The scruffy Malian soldiers tasked with jointly securing the city with the UN peacekeeping force, MINUSMA, seem marooned, vulnerable and disconnected from any notion of nation-building. They don’t always show up for the nightly joint patrols they are supposed to undertake.

A broader conflict

MINUSMA is a 13,817-strong, $933 million operation.

Among its contributors are European countries that have brought a level of sophistication – including drones, special forces, and intelligence cells – few other UN missions possess.

But it is also the UN’s most dangerous mission, with 118 peacekeepers killed since 2013.

It hasn’t been hard for the jihadists to portray MINUSMA and the European intervention as a neo-colonial plot, propping up a corrupt regime as they steal the country’s raw materials. But the West’s strategic interests clearly go beyond countering extremism to include policing the migration routes from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean.

Ashley Hamer/IRIN January to March 2017 Displacement in Mali | UNHCR

From north to south, Mali’s state institutions are barely functioning or entirely broken. For months, earlier this year, public schools and hospitals were closed because teachers and health workers were on strike.

“It’s difficult to say what really works in Mali today,” wrote Abdelkader Abderrahmane, an international consultant on African peace and security issues, in an email to IRIN.

Kamissa Camara, a researcher based in Washington DC and specialising in Africa's Sahel region, said she doubts that any Malian children, save the ones living near Bamako, have gone to school for a straight year since 2012.

The jihadist “threat narrative has obscured a proper assessment of the Malian government’s performance and its ability to deliver basic public services and create jobs,” Camara wrote in a piece for the Africa Research Institute.

Both Abderrahmane and Camara think that corruption has eroded popular support for successive administrations, and added to the resilience of Mali’s overlapping conflicts.

Peace deal

For the past two years there has been a shaky framework for peace called the Algiers Accord, which has been unhurriedly implemented.

The two principal signatories are a coalition of Tuareg rebels known as the Coordination of the Azawad Movements, or CMA, and ostensibly pro-government armed rivals grouped in what is called the Platform.

The jihadists were not included in the agreement and have tried to wreck it. The most dramatic example was a bomb explosion in Gao in January that targeted a joint patrol of rebel fighters (the first patrol of its kind, 18 months after the accord was signed). The attack, which reportedly killed 80 people, stalled the initiative.

In March, the extremists created their own coalition, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM). It fuses AQIM, Ansar Dine, and FLM, and is led by Ag Ghali. It excludes a small faction that has sided with the so-called Islamic State.

Simply throwing more troops at the jihadists does not seem to be the answer.

But there could now be a new twist in the five-year conflict.

A Conference of National Understanding, held between the government and non-jihadist armed groups in the north, had been heading the way of other stalled provisions of the 2015 peace agreement. But after a series of boycotts, it delivered a key recommendation at its close on 2 April that has jolted Mali’s political class: the idea that the government should talk to Malian jihadists, specifically Ag Ghali and Koufa.

After initially appearing to welcome the suggestion, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has since backtracked. France has adamantly rejected it. “We are engaged in a fight. It is a fight without ambiguity against terrorism… And so there is only one way; there are not two,” France’s then-foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on a visit to Mali in April.


There are also political and legal obstacles to talking with people linked to al-Qaeda. Ag Ghali is on a US terrorist list for a start, which would complicate any potential amnesty deal. Nobody knows what concessions he would seek to extract, how reliable an interlocutor he would be, and how talks might impact on an international coalition that has shed much blood fighting in the north. Domestically, dialogue could also become hostage to Mali’s elections due next year.


But it is "worth a try”, noted well-regarded Sahelian analyst Alex Thurston in a recent blog: “A peace process that makes no room for Ag Ghali is one that will be disrupted, perhaps fatally, by regular jihadist attacks.”


That’s not to say, he added, that the Malian government “could magically find common ground with Ag Ghali, but it is to say that opening a channel of dialogue could bear fruit.”


Categories: Gender Parity

Martial law in Mindanao, Trump's plans for Somalia and global humanitarian attitudes: The Cheat Sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 05/26/2017 - 09:03

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors looks ahead at what’s on our humanitarian radar and curates a selection of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

What will martial law mean for the Philippines?

The Philippines’ tough talking president, Rodrigo Duterte, has declared martial law in the southern Island of Mindanao, and he’s threatened to extend it throughout the entire country. Duterte made the declaration as fighting raged in the city of Marawi between security forces and a group of Islamist militants who have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. Islamist militancy has been gaining strength as a peace process wavers in Mindanao, as we reported just over a year ago. The warnings came quickly. Many asked why Duterte had enforced martial law in all of Mindanao rather than confining it to the area where fighting was taking place. Others heard echoes of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled as a brutal dictator from 1972 to 1981 after declaring martial law – especially since Duterte promised that his version would “not be any different from what the president, Marcos, did. I'd be harsh.” Duterte’s words were particularly chilling in the wake of the about 7,000 people killed since he declared a war against drugs almost a year ago. Under the constitution, martial law can be imposed for 60 days. The coming days and weeks may give an indication of whether Duterte plans to extend or expand it, and whether there is a danger that the Philippines could slip back into autocracy.

Don’t do it, Donald

US President Donald Trump looks set to wage a more aggressive military campaign in Somalia. The New York Times provides cogent reasons why he shouldn’t.  More strikes do nothing to address Somalia’s root issue of state weakness and poor governance. “Instead, they may create more problems by allowing African Union forces to retreat, further militarize American policy, sideline diplomatic engagement and undercut the newly elected Somali president,” the paper says.

By declaring parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” Trump is removing an Obama-era vetting process, which “potentially lowers the bar for tolerance of civilian casualties”. Dead innocents are a powerful recruitment tool for al-Shabab, and a vote-loser for the popular new government. If humanitarian and development aid can survive Trump’s budget axe, that would seem a better investment than doubling-down on a dubious military adventure.  

Meanwhile, this timely study explores the African Union’s attempts to protect civilians during its peace operations – Somalia included. It notes that most AU operations are military-heavy, despite the fact that protecting civilians requires “a combination of policing, civilian and military expertise”. Military intervention is an instrument, not a strategy. Stability and sustainable peace entail a political process.  “In sum, the AU should put more emphasis on developing its political muscle to end armed conflicts and crises, as well as flexing its military muscle,” the study notes.

WHS one year on

After a long build up, the World Humanitarian Summit concluded in Istanbul exactly one year ago with more than 3,000 commitments from the world’s largest donors and aid agencies to reform the aid system. Twelve months on seems like a good time to reflect on what the summit achieved and what progress has been made on that bewildering array of pledges. This week UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres released a brief statement alluding to the anniversary and the Agenda for Humanity in which his predecessor, Ban Ki-Moon, set out a framework for humanitarian reform ahead of the WHS. Guterres applauded “progress that is being made by so many stakeholders to take forward the commitments they made in Istanbul”. Christina Bennett of the Overseas Development Institute takes a more critical view, noting that while the WHS sparked some much needed “self-reflection in the aid sector” and “revived and modernised some rusty yet vital debates”, its landmark agreement on reforms to aid financing – the Grand Bargain – “has been slow in inspiring real change”. Our recent report on progress towards the Grand Bargain reached a similar conclusion. The commitments on “localisation” have been particularly troublesome. Bennett notes that “it took nine months to agree on who ‘local responders’ are and what ‘funding them as directly as possible’ means.” Going forward, Bennett recommends a dose of political pragmatism and the need to identify an influential individual to lead and champion the Grand Bargain’s implementation.

One of the major outcomes from the WHS was a commitment by the humanitarian and development sectors to work together more closely and to partner with local and national actors towards long-term capacity-strengthening. The so-called “New Way of Working” (the aid sector loves a catch phrase!) has dominated recent discussions at aid policy conferences, including an anniversary WHS meeting in Istanbul last week. Next week, we’ll be delving more deeply into how transformative the New Way of Working really is.

Who cares?

Across the world, citizens are growing less supportive of humanitarian action and less confident that as individuals they can make a positive difference to the global refugee crisis. These are the key points of today's  2017 Aurora Humanitarian Index, which is based on a survey of 6,500 people in 12 countries on their attitudes to global humanitarian issues, the effectiveness of response, and personal motivations to intervene. The index includes a ranking of pressing humanitarian concerns: 63 percent of respondents put terrorism at the top of their list of worries. The next most frequently expressed top concerns are the widening gap between the rich and poor, hunger, climate change and forced migration. Just nine percent of those surveyed said they thought their actions could help solve humanitarian issues.

On a more positive note, the survey found that younger people bucked the trend, as a much higher proportion of them showed “positive attitudes to humanitarianism and the individual impact on the refugee crisis.”

Some other key findings:

  • 42 percent of respondents feel their countries have already taken in too many refugees.
  • 34 percent of respondents agree that immigrants make their country a better place to live, yet one-third view migrants as a threat to their religious beliefs.
  • 44 percent of respondents feel their country is threatened by ethnic minorities. This figure rises significantly in the UK (56 percent); Kenya (56 percent); Turkey (55 percent); and France (54 percent).
  • Younger respondents value diversity, with 29 percent agreeing it is better for a country if everyone shared customs and traditions. 

The Index will be presented on Sunday in Yerevan, during the Aurora Dialogues, a platform for the world’s leading humanitarians, academics, philanthropists, business leaders and civil society to bring awareness to today’s most pressing humanitarian challenges.

Did you miss it?

Who is to blame for the murders of Michael and Zaida?

The Democratic Republic of Congo is opposing an international investigation into the deaths of two UN investigators, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan. That’s disappointing because it’s exactly what is needed. In a useful examination of the current finger-pointing, the Congo Crisis Group takes issue with a recent New York Times report highlighting the “complicity” of the UN in the killings, and the insinuated involvement of an opposition politician. It argues that could play into the government’s hands, given the potential video evidence of government complicity. The CRG is also scathing about the UN’s board of inquiry, which seems more concerned with understanding whether UN rules and regulations were followed than identifying the perpetrators of this crime, and more widely the thousands of other civilian deaths in Kasai.

(TOP PHOTO: Rebels guard a base in Mindanao, June 2015. Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)


Camp Darapanan, Mindanao - Armed MILF guards patrol the grounds of a rebel camp in the southern Philippines News Aid and Policy Migration Conflict Human Rights The Cheat Sheet IRIN GENEVA Global
Categories: Gender Parity

Boko Haram: Down but far from out

IRIN Gender - Wed, 05/24/2017 - 09:56

The Nigerian government has declared victory over the Boko Haram insurgency. The capture at the end of December of Camp Zero in Sambisa Forest, the last stronghold of the jihadists, seemed to herald the formal beginning of the post-insurgency phase in northeastern Nigeria. 


The negotiated return last month of 82 of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls (an estimated 113 are still in captivity) has been presented as further evidence that the back of the seven-year-old insurgency has been broken.


The government and its development partners are already starting post-war reconstruction in the three most affected states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Humanitarian conditions remain dire, but houses and schools are being rebuilt, seedlings distributed, and empowerment training schemes launched.




Amid all this optimism, it is important to acknowledge lingering causes for concern.


While Camp Zero has been dismantled, the reality is that Boko Haram is an adaptable foe. It is reportedly both forming new enclaves in the Lake Chad Basin and melting back into civilian communities.


The rumours are of profitable business partnerships being formed – especially in the fish and cattle trade. Some fishermen, for example, are supplying their catch to Boko Haram middlemen who sell on their behalf.


And Boko Haram’s network is far deeper than commonly realised. The State Security Service is regularly turning up insurgents across northern Nigeria, and in one case as far away as the western state of Ekiti.


Boko Haram is known for its attacks on civilians and suicide bombings. So far in May there have been 12 suicide bombings (by nine women, three men) – a tempo that suggests the insurgency is far from over.


But since the movement split into two factions led by Abubaker Shekau and Abu Musab al-Barnawi back in August, there has been a change of tactics. Al-Barnawi’s group had criticised Shekau for attacking soft civilian targets, tactics that won Boko Haram few voluntary recruits. Al-Barnawi’s group is much more explicitly targeting the military.


Since November, 11 military installations have been attacked, with 40 soldiers killed. In April alone, 20 soldiers died in raids on four army posts. The weaponry they have captured, and the motorbikes instead of vehicles they favour, means they are mobile and well-armed.


Al-Barnawi’s faction still loots villages for food, fuel, and medical supplies, even if it does appear to be deliberately avoiding killing civilians – as long as they don’t resist.


The government’s inability to completely block the sources of financing for the insurgents continues to pose a challenge. Boko Haram still has money to wage its war, typically raised through kidnapping, extortion, armed robbery, cattle rustling, and taxes/levies on businesses.


The strained relationship between the vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force and the military is also affecting the government’s prosecution of the conflict. Since the arrest in February of the founder of the CJTF, Bah Lawan, over his alleged links to Boko Haram, some vigilante leaders are refusing to cooperate with the army.


The CJTF, one of the most effective weapons the military has against Boko Haram, has also been reportedly weakened by factionalism and indiscipline. Regular complaints of irregular pay from the Borno State government and the lack of health insurance and even fuel for their vehicles is affecting morale.


Power of the word


Boko Haram’s ideology, that Westernisation is evil, still has resonance. Rural northeastern Nigeria is highly conservative. While the insurgency’s violence is not approved of, its broad worldview has power and can still attract sympathy.


One 45-year-old woman who was held hostage in Sambisa, and served as a teacher in the camp, was honest enough to tell me she now regretted leaving Boko Haram.


Alleged corruption and sexual exploitation by security forces and aid workers also plays into the militants’ messaging. There is a powerful narrative that girls and women in IDP camps are either being sexually abused or forced into sex-for-food arrangements. Reports of the flagrant use of alcohol and drugs by the army and the CJTF also do not sit well with traditional cultural norms.


The government has a disarmament and reintegration plan dubbed Operation Safe Corridor. More than 4,500 former combatants have surrendered, but the framework for the strategy remains opaque, and it contains real risks.


There are fears that some so-called “deradicalised” Boko Haram are not repentant at all. There are questions over their screening, certification, and whether communities are ready for their return and reintegration.


Some ex-combatants have been deeply indoctrinated. As one man told me: “You cannot believe in one part of the Koran and not in the other part of the Koran, [which includes] killing”. 


Then there are the detainees accused of being Boko Haram – those who have suffered abuse at the hands of the security forces and have likely been radicalised as a result of that experience but are then released.




Hope that the freeing of the Chibok schoolgirls could be a step towards possible negotiations was dealt a blow by Shuaibu Moni, one of the (at least) five Boko Haram commanders swapped for the released school girls.


In a video released barely a week after he gained his freedom, he was threatening to bomb Abuja and denying there could be any dialogue with the government. “Only war is between us!” he declared.

While we must give kudos to the military and the Nigerian government for improving security in the northeast, it is safe to say the conflict is far from over.

There is still some way to go.

The government must immediately prioritise a hearts-and-minds approach. The focus of the war now should be on combatting the ideology of Boko Haram; there should be an emphasis on healing trauma in a society scarred by the violence.

And while the path of dialogue is a difficult journey, the idea of peace through negotiation must not be jettisoned.


TOP PHOTO: Nigerian refugees in Cameroon

This series of features and commentary on violent extremism in Nigeria and Sahelian Africa is part of a project with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)

cameroon_refugees_2.jpg Opinion Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Boko Haram: Down but far from out Idayat Hassan IRIN ABUJA Africa Nigeria
Categories: Gender Parity

Congo’s bad year is about to get worse

IRIN Gender - Wed, 05/24/2017 - 07:25

For a country that has witnessed millions of deaths, brutal colonial rule, and devastating dictatorship, the past year in the Democratic Republic of Congo still stands out as a bleak one. 


Civilian massacres, decapitated police officers, bloody crackdowns, and resurgent armed groups, were fed in part by a national political crisis. The resulting instability has sparked fears of triggering the kind of regional war that scarred central Africa at the turn of the century, and has sent ordinary Congolese scrambling for safer pockets of the country.


“DRC’s largely forgotten crisis in central Africa superseded all other crises in terms of the number of people forced to flee their homes,” Ulrika Blom, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director in Congo, said in a statement. “Even Syria or Yemen’s brutal wars did not match the number of new people on the move in DRC last year.”


More than 922,000 Congolese were internally displaced due to conflict in 2016 – the highest recorded globally, according to a report published by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center on Monday.


Analysts attribute part of these ills to an enduring election crisis.


President Joseph Kabila stayed in power after his constitutionally mandated two-term limit expired last December, citing heavy costs and incomplete voter lists for the delay in holding elections that were due last November.   


“The political situation is chaotic,” said Augustin Kabuya, a spokesman for the main opposition UDPS party.


Indeed, recent months have seen violent street demonstrations, media shutdowns, and the arrests of opposition leaders, journalists, and activists.


The government and the opposition coalition, known as the Rassemblement, engaged in two rounds of talks last year to resolve the crisis. The first, mediated by the African Union, a key regional player, failed after criticism that it excluded much of the opposition.


A second deal, brokered by the Catholic Church on New Year’s Eve, called for elections before the end of 2017 and a transitional government. But that agreement too has been stuck after many quarrels – the most fractious being the nomination of the prime minister.


Kabila picked Bruno Tshibala, a dissident who had split from the Rassemblement, for the post in April, angering the opposition, who said the accord had been violated.

Habibou Bangré/IRIN Back to the barricades? Opposition protests in Kinshasa last year Natural resource curse


If you count the years since the overthrow of kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko by Kabila’s father Laurent in May 1997, the family has been in power for two decades. Joseph Kabila began to rule the country in 2001, after his father’s assassination.


Despite this long period of time in the public eye, not many Congolese are familiar with the media-shy Kabila, said Fidel Bafilemba, a former Mai Mai rebel turned NGO consultant.


“We just woke up one day and he’s the president,” he said.


A Bloomberg News investigation last year found that the Kabilas have “built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo’s economy and has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the family”.


“The reality is that [the] natural resource potential we have tends to be a curse,” said Bafilemba, who also coordinates GATT-RN, a coalition of 14 civil society groups that acts as a watchdog for oil, gas, timber, gold, and other minerals. “All it has done is invite predators, not just foreigners but also the government and on top of it Joseph Kabila.”


A government spokesman was unreachable by phone and text message, but the Kabilas have routinely denied any suggestion of wrongdoing.


Opposition woes


In February, Etienne Tshisekedi, the charismatic leader of the opposition UDPS, died in Brussels. The Rassemblement has since been riven by infighting and suspicions that some members are hand-in-glove with Kabila.


Even Tshisekedi’s body has become a source of political tension. The government has not agreed on a location to bury him in Congo and the body has remained in Brussels, raising speculation that the delay is to staunch protesters from rallying around the corpse.


“We want to bury him, but Kabila doesn’t want it,” said Kabuya, the UDPS spokesman, later adding: “They are illegally shutting down the offices of opposition political parties; they are burning down offices; opponents are being arrested because of their opinions.”


“UDPS, which is the core of this country, the engine that turns the wheels of democracy and freedom in this country, it’s being hunted, tracked down by the political family of Joseph Kabila,” he added.


More troubling perhaps for Kabila’s opponents, few takers have emerged to fill the void left by the death of Tshisekedi.


Moise Katumbi, an opposition leader, remains the most popular choice by far, according to an opinion poll conducted this year. But Katumbi remains in exile. Less than a quarter of the survey’s respondents had a favorable view of Kabila.




While political uncertainty grows, reports of new violence have proliferated in recent months.


In the central Kasai region, hundreds have been killed – including two UN investigators in March – since armed clashes broke out last August between the Congolese army and a local militia known as Kamuina Nsapu.


UN investigators found about 40 mass graves in the area, according to its emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

Siegfried Modola/IRIN Not a lot of love for MONUSCO

“The Kamuina Nsapu militia, which is loyal to a local customary chief killed by the army on 12 August last year, has been accused of recruiting hundreds of children into its ranks, and targeting state agents and symbols, including government premises, schools, hospitals, police stations, as well as churches,” a statement from the UN agency noted.


But the notion that the Kamuina Nsapu is on the rise and that Congo is facing some kind of new emergency is challenged by some who see it as a politically expedient narrative for Kabila and the ruling party.


“This story is a fiction of the majority in power to avoid as far as possible the holding of elections,” said Kabuya of UPDS. “The image that is presented of these people does not correspond with reality.”


“Today, you learn that they are in one corner, tomorrow they are in an another place: No! It's a fabrication,” said Kabuya, adding that if officials were sincere about countering the group, they would entrust the case to international investigators.


In previous years, the vacuum of the state has allowed the rise of armed groups in lawless corners of the country where no public infrastructure or civil society exist.


Critics fear a failure to transfer power peacefully could be an opportunity for other countries to interfere as they have in the past. Congo’s rich resources and location – surrounded by nine countries in the heart of Africa – makes it a tinderbox.


“The time that I started my activism, the president was legal,” Rebecca Kabuo, a 23-year-old activist from the youth movement Lucha, which raises awareness about citizen rights and grapples with Congo’s long legacy of conflict, told IRIN. “But now he’s ruling illegally. He’s not supposed to be a president at this time.”


Ghislain Muhiwa, 27, another Lucha activist, said free speech doesn’t exist in Congo. “They want to block all voices. They don’t want people to be conscious, to know their rights. It will bring people to revolt.”


“Never-ending cycle”


Congo, which ranks 176 of 188 countries on the world’s human development index, is home to hundreds of international aid agencies, some of which have been around for decades.


Despite this, “the crisis is still going on… poverty, insecurity is still raging,” said Bafilemba. “It’s kind of a never-ending cycle.”


The World Bank ranks Congo 184th out of 190 countries in terms of the ease of doing business there. A slump in commodity prices and staggering 25 percent inflation has further pummelled the economy.


“There hasn’t been a collective strategy,” Baraka Kasali, country manager of the Eastern Congo Initiative, an advocacy and grant-making NGO, said about the international community’s investment in the country.


“I think that this piecemeal effort has actually produced an environment where reform isn’t at the top of the agenda.”


Congo boasts the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, but stability remains a problem.


And critics paint a cynical portrait of MONUSCO, saying it’s in the mission’s interest to do little to combat armed groups in order to justify staying in the country for years.


“No more FDLR [rebels], no more job for MONUSCO,” said Bafilemba. “No more chaos, no more job for MONUSCO.”


Séverine Autesserre, a researcher and author of the book, “The Trouble with the Congo”, disagrees.


“Yes, there are lots of problems with NGOs and with peacekeepers but they also provide very important services to the population,” she said. “It makes armed groups think twice about whether or not they’re going to harass the population, whether or not they are going to commit atrocities.”


Although African countries could perhaps address the crisis, Congolese have so far watched them with suspicion.


The Congo Research Group poll found that neighbours such as Rwanda and Uganda, with whom Congo has had a fractious past, are not viewed favourably. Angola, a migration destination for Congolese, is viewed in a better light, but European governments and the United States are seen most favourably.


Previously, the United States and the EU have deployed targeted sanctions in Congo. President Barack Obama’s US administration, in particular, pressured the government about constitutional term limits and human rights.


That is now likely to change. President Donald Trump has barely cast an eye on Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, Kabila saw Trump’s victory as good news. Hours after Trump won the vote, Kabila praised him for his “brilliant election”.


FARDC commandos on patrol in Virunga National Park, Rutshuru Territory, North Kivu Province Analysis Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Congo’s bad year is about to get worse Sruthi Gottipati IRIN KINSHASA Africa East Africa DRC
Categories: Gender Parity

Venezuelan voices: The real-life stories beyond the protests

IRIN Gender - Fri, 05/19/2017 - 04:54

Venezuelans have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands over the past seven weeks in anti-government protests that have left at least 43 demonstrators dead and hundreds injured. They show no signs of abating.


But lurking behind the political protests is a deepening humanitarian crisis that gets less press: Malnutrition has risen sharply, maternal mortality jumped by 65 percent last year, infant mortality by 30 percent. The protests are just the tip of a much more alarming iceberg. The truth is that many of the worst-off Venezuelans are too poor and too hungry to protest, even if they wanted to.


Over the past two years, falling oil prices have sent Venezuela’s economy into freefall. The result: chronic shortages of food and medicines, rampant crime, and an inflation rate estimated to be 720 percent and rising.


The anger on the streets is prompted in part by the denial of President Nicolás Maduro’s socialist government that there is a crisis (the health minister was sacked shortly after her department released the infant and maternal mortality figures) and its refusal to allow in international aid.

Helena Carpio/IRIN Protesters in La Castellana, an eastern Caracas neighborhood

While the protest movement has been led by the predominantly middle-class opposition, those suffering the most from the food shortages and lack of functioning health services are the poorest households that once backed former President Hugo Chavez. While many no longer support the government, they feel little affinity with the opposition and are often too preoccupied by the daily search for food to join the protests. Their individual stories reveal as much about Venezuela’s crisis as the near daily scenes of protesters clashing with riot police.


Forced to choose: diapers or medicines


Barbara Mendez marks the end of each day in her mental calendar as another day that ‘Nely’, her eight-month-old daughter, has survived. Nelysmar was born with a heart condition resulting from a blood vessel that failed to close after birth. Blood now moves erratically between her heart and lungs. 


“It is a miracle that she is still alive,” says Bárbara, who is only 16 but has the care-worn face of someone much older. 


There is no treatment for Nelysmar’s condition. The only solution is a surgical procedure for which she has been on a waiting list since the day she was born. At the Children’s Cardiology Hospital in Caracas – the only hospital in the country that performs such procedures – less than half the operating rooms are functioning, due to a lack of maintenance. Nationally, less than 10 percent of operating rooms are fully operational and 40,000 people are now on waiting lists for surgery, according to the Venezuelan Health Observatory (OVS). 


Nely’s condition often leads to infections that require antibiotics, a major expenditure for Bárbara, who dropped out of high school to care for her daughter and now relies on her boyfriend’s parents for support.

Mariana Zuñiga/IRIN Eight-month-old Nelysmar was born with a heart condition that requires surgery, but less than 10 percent of operating rooms in Venezuela are fully functioning

According to the Venezuelan Federation of Pharmacies, around 85 percent of medicines are unavailable here. People are forced to travel to neighbouring countries to find the medicines they need. Those that can be found within the country are often sold on the black market at prices unaffordable for people like Bárbara.


At a certain point, she had to choose between buying diapers or medicines. She chose medicines and substitutes rags for diapers. As a result, Nely suffers from painful rashes.


Bárbara and Nely have spent countless sleepless nights at the hospital because of Nely’s respiratory problems. Bárbara listens terrified as Nely gasps for breath. 


“I'm well aware that she can die at any moment,” she says. “I'm praying every day for that call from the hospital.”  


Teachers and pupils go hungry

Vanessa Posada, 36, grew up in what she describes as an average, middle-class family in Caracas. She went to university and then found a job as a school-teacher, before getting married and having a child. “Everything was on the right track. I was happy,” she says. 


Then Venezuela’s economic crisis hit her family. Starting in 2014, the cost of food began to rise much more rapidly than the wages earnt by Vanessa and her husband, Adolfo. They sold their car and were forced to move into the house they had been building but couldn’t afford to finish.  


Last year, Vanessa had an accident that damaged her right knee and kept her at home for four months. She was fired from her morning teaching job and left with only a few hours of teaching at another school in the afternoon. Her and Adolfo’s salaries combined had been just enough to buy food. Now, there wasn’t enough money even for that. First, the family eliminated meat from their diet; then they subsisted on rice and beans. Now, many evenings, the couple eat only one plantain or skip a meal to ensure their six-year-old son, Armando, can eat. 


Vanessa has lost more than 10 kilos in less than a year and only weighs 46 kilos. According to an annual survey of living conditions in Venezuela conducted by three universities (ENCOVI), three out of every four Venezuelans lost an average of 8.7 kilos last year. The same study found that 93 percent of Venezuelans have insufficient money to buy food. 


At the school where Vanessa works in the afternoon, the situation is no better than at home. Students are increasingly skipping school because they are too weak from lack of food. An estimated one million Venezuelan children are now out of school and classes are regularly cancelled due to teachers being absent.

Helena Carpio/IRIN Vanessa Posada teaches one class a day at this public elementary school in the middle-class neighborhood of El Hatillo on the outskirts of Caracas

A few weeks ago, one of Vanessa’s students stole her classmate’s lunch because she was hungry. Now, Vanessa shares her lunch with the girl.


“They’re like my children; I can't let them starve, no matter how hungry I might be.”


Extrajudicial killings


His name was Keleller Gallegos Reverte and he died one morning last May when a group of 12 soldiers burst into his house and shot him as he woke up next to his wife. He was 19. 


The raid on Keleller’s house was part of an anti-crime offensive called OLP (Operation Liberation and Protection of the People), which launched in 2015 with the goal of reclaiming neighbourhoods controlled by criminal gangs. Critics of the initiative say it has spread more violence and fear in the country and has been responsible for grave human rights violations. 


Keleller was innocent, says his mother, Natalie Gallegos, who suspects the soldiers were looking for her brother, Luis Carlos Reverte, aka El Coqui, a well-known criminal in the area who has been dodging the authorities for more than 10 years. “Nobody picks their family,” says Natalie with a sigh. 

Mariana Zuñiga/IRIN Natalie Gallegos holds up a picture of her son, Keleller Gallegos Reverte, shot dead by soldiers carrying out Operation Liberation and Protection of the People

Venezuela’s crime rates have been climbing in recent years, as the financial crisis has deepened. They are now among the highest in the world. The Venezuelan Observatory for Violence estimates there were 28,479 violent deaths in 2016, including 5,281 classified as resulting from “resistance to authority”.


The security forces’ heavy-handed response to crime has been blamed for decimating Venezuela’s poorest neighbourhoods. Local human rights group Proveo claims the OLP was responsible for the extrajudicial killings of more than 700 people between July 2015 and September 2016. Many of the victims were innocent young men with no criminal records like Keleller. According to Natalie, after killing her son, the soldiers fired bullets all over the room to make it look like the scene of a confrontation.


A year after his death, the complaint she lodged with the Attorney General's office has gone unanswered. Amnesty International has noted that only three percent of complaints relating to the OLP result in the culprits facing criminal charges.


“In this country, there's no justice,” says Natalie. 

[TOP PHOTO: A tearful woman shaking a bag of flour was among hundreds of people who'd been waiting in line for hours outside a supermarket in western Caracas, only to be told there was no food left for them to buy. Meridith Kohut/IRIN]


Venezuelan voices: The real-life stories beyond the protests mkohut_venezuela-food-shortages-unrest-003.jpg Mariana Zuñiga Feature Food Health Human Rights Politics and Economics CARACAS IRIN Americas Venezuela
Categories: Gender Parity

Local aid workers on the front line of South Sudan’s civil war

IRIN Gender - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 11:59

Gunshots suddenly crackled as Stephanie and her colleagues went about a routine seed distribution in a small farming community in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.

The moment she heard the bullets zipping through the air, the young aid worker knew the country’s civil war had caught up with her.

 “[There were] bullets everywhere. Rampant shooting and three dead – one was a child, one was a pregnant woman and one was a man,” said Stephanie, whose real name has been changed to protect her identity.

Back then, the 26-year-old from the south-central town of Kajo Keji worked for a local aid agency without the means to coordinate or pay for a rapid evacuation of employees. 

With the help of other staff on the ground, Stephanie had to formulate her own evacuation plan: She used the river to navigate to Ethiopia, rented a car, and drove to the Ethiopian city of Gambella. Once in Gambella, Stephanie bought a plane ticket back to the relative safety of Juba, the South Sudanese capital.

“I think that if it was an [international] NGO evacuation perhaps they would have sent a flight to pick me up, but I had to find my [own] way out. At the end of the day, I was reimbursed,” she explained, matter-of-factly.

Easy targets

Danger is by no means a rare experience in the aid world, where agencies provide help in the most difficult of circumstances. But no aid workers risk quite as much as national staff.

Eighty percent of the estimated 208 aid workers killed, kidnapped or seriously wounded worldwide in 2016 were local, according to the Aid Worker Security Database’s most recent records. 

Last year, South Sudan overtook Afghanistan in the list of countries with the most attacks on aid workers, with an estimated 82 humanitarians murdered since the start of the country’s civil war in December 2013. There were 24 deaths in 2016 alone, according to the UN’s humanitarian chief in South Sudan, Eugene Owusu.

The worst month so far for humanitarians was March this year, when six aid workers and their driver were killed in an ambush in Pibor, in the country’s east. Four of the dead were national staff, all belonged to Grassroots Empowerment and Development Organisation, a UNICEF partner.

No one has been held accountable for the murders, though a vigorous blame game has ensued between the warring factions.


Stefanie Glinski/IRIN Local aid workers are on the front lines of the humanitarian response


Access problems

The humanitarian needs are immense in South Sudan. As a result of a vicious civil war between sides loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, 5.8 million people are in need of aid, about 3.6 million have been forced from their homes, and famine has been declared in parts of Unity State.

The proliferation of armed groups hinders humanitarian access and the delivery of aid.

“The spread of conflict across South Sudan has made humanitarian access negotiations more protracted and complex, impacting the work of aid organisations,” said Ian Ridley, head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination office in South Sudan.

“Humanitarians face repeated challenges to reach people in dire need as a result of clashes, insecurity and access denials,” explained Ridley. “Aid workers continue to be killed, injured and harassed across the country, and humanitarian compounds and supplies continue to be looted and vandalised.”

Checkpoints are manned by soldiers and rebels, making road travel risky – both in terms of insecurity and the bribes demanded. Similarly, the heavy presence of armed groups on the Nile’s leafy banks means the river is off limits. UN charter flights are therefore the only safe option for aid delivery and staff transport to remote areas – something smaller national organisations cannot always afford.

Forty-year-old Panther is the country director of a local NGO that works to improve living conditions for vulnerable youth. According to him, limited funding to smaller local NGOs can result in recklessness and bad decision-making.

“Our project support is entirely from donors and if funding isn’t there then decisions like these are made,” he said in reference to the six aid workers killed in the March ambush.

“Their organisation could have done better. The road [they were on] is only used by traders. I’ve never heard of humanitarians [using it],” said Panther, who asked that his surname and the agency he works for not be disclosed for security reasons. “I think it was probably negligence,” he added.

Whose side are you on?

According to OCHA’s Ridley, there is a limited willingness by donors to give directly to national NGOs.

“National NGOs are on the very front lines of the humanitarian response in South Sudan and therefore face multiple challenges. This includes threats and harassment by parties to the conflict,” he said.

“As the conflict has spread and deepened, [national] NGOs have faced allegations of bias, based on perceived political affiliations or alleged allegiance due to ethnicity,” said Ridley.

Regardless of whether they operate in a small local organisation or a powerful international one, on an individual level, South Sudanese humanitarians will always be exposed to one overarching risk: the conflict’s ethnic dimension.

The government and its army are seen as Dinka-dominated. The Nuer are associated with the rebellion, although much of South Sudan is now a patchwork of ethnic militias.

“Locals have ethnic and tribal challenges, and their own families are affected. They are heroic, resilient people,” said Perry Mansfield, country director for World Vision. “National staff are keeping the country alive.”

However, having a team that is comprised primarily of local staff is not without its challenges.  “We can’t put Nuer to work in a Dinka community,” explained Mansfield, a reference to the fault line between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups.



Nowhere to run to

Johnson Beek, a Nuer and World Vision employee, recalled the day one of his friends, a World Food Programme worker, was murdered by armed men.

“He was arrested and killed. So many guys in the humanitarian world have been threatened or even killed,” said Beek, standing amid rows of white tents in a Protection of Civilians site near Juba. Just like the thousands of people in the camp, he too has been displaced by this conflict.

South Sudan has nearly 200 organisations delivering emergency programmes, including community-based groups, national NGOs, international NGOs, and UN agencies.

World Vision is one of the biggest, and is where Stephanie works today. A multi-billion dollar organisation, it can afford to be thorough when it comes to security procedures, although it cannot expunge all risks.

“I think I feel safer than when I’m in a local NGO,” said Stephanie. “When I was signing my contract, [I asked:] ‘is there any means of evacuation should there be any insecurity’. This is my first priority when I’m taking an offer.”

But she is also aware that when a conflict takes a turn for the worst, it is the national staff and national NGOs that remain.

“International NGOs can leave, but these NGOs remain always on the ground, always with their people,” she said, with more than a hint of pride.


TOP PHOTO: Aid worker and children CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski

Local aid workers on the front line of South Sudan’s civil war aid_worker_2.jpg Sofia Barbarani Feature Aid and Policy Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics JUBA IRIN Africa South Sudan
Categories: Gender Parity

The real crisis in North Korea is not the one you’ve been hearing about

IRIN Gender - Thu, 05/18/2017 - 08:28
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been in the news a lot lately, with the DPRK testing new missiles and the United States moving a naval strike group off the Korean peninsula. The commentary almost always revolves around strategic issues, especially North Korea’s nuclear programme.   In focusing so narrowly on the country’s military and its leader, Kim Jong-un, however, the debate largely overlooks the North Korean people.    This has two major implications.   First, it perpetuates an image of the country that is not in line with reality. In fact, the younger Kim does not enjoy the kind of monolithic influence held by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, or his father, Kim Jong-il. Power structures in North Korea began to disintegrate under Kim Jong-il and are now widely ramified. Security apparatuses are no longer under one single point of command; neither are military corps. This is something that the administration of US President Donald Trump seems to be oblivious to, but it should take into account when formulating policy.   Second, and most important, the world’s myopic attention to Kim Jong-un precludes recognition of the nearly 26 million people that live in the country. They represent the true issue at stake, once the current regime – which is living on borrowed time – is gone.    What do we know about DPRK and its people?   Oddly enough, since the early 1990s the international community has accumulated a larger knowledge base on North Korean society than intelligence agencies have ever had on its military. Yet, most media insist on reporting obsessively on the latter. This is shortsighted.   The questions we ought to ask instead, if we are to understand where the country is headed, are: What is the current state of North Korea? What do we know about its society and economy? What kind of country will emerge once the regime is gone?    These questions matter, because with each crisis, the possibility of regime change or collapse becomes more real. With that, the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe increases, and neither South Korea nor China are well prepared to respond.              North Korea represents an anomaly, for both aid organisations and experts of international politics. But things are changing.    For a long time, the country may have deserved its moniker of the hermit kingdom. But today, after 22 years of humanitarian assistance and development, the DPRK is an aid-dependent country, stuck in a paradoxical situation. Its economy crashed in the mid-1990s and never recovered, while its social indicators went from good, to terrible, to decent over the last two decades.    The North Korean development indicators for children’s welfare, as well as immunisation and education, are well above countries with a much higher GDP, but the economy does not reflect this relatively healthy development status. The DPRK produces very little of value, and its people find survival in the black market rather than state-provided jobs.     North Korea, in other words, has the economy of an underdeveloped country, with levels of social development of a middle-to-high income country. It is time to take a look at the country beyond military parades.   How did North Korea get so poor?   Upon the demise of its first leader, Kim Il-sung, in 1994, the DPRK faced a combination of domestic and international factors that negatively affected all sectors of society and state institutions. External circumstances included the loss between 1991 and 1993 of its main allies and economic partners, the Soviet Union and China. In addition, in 1993, China started to demand payments at regular market rates for oil and fuel, which had until then been provided at very low prices and constituted the main source of energy for the DPRK.    In this rapidly changing international scenario, the DPRK, which had become heavily dependent on subsided trade with its former communist partners during the Cold War, found itself with no economic safety net. At the same time, the country was hit by a series of droughts and floods, along with a sudden shortage of energy sources. This devastated an agriculture system almost entirely dependent on chemical fertilisers and mechanised irrigation.               With diminishing amounts of food, the effectiveness of the Public Distribution System that regulated the allocation of basic goods decreased gradually, forcing the population to seek alternative means of subsistence. Housewives, factory workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and students alike had to fend for themselves in order to secure food and heating material during winter.   The crisis caught many North Koreans by surprise, and it was aggravated by economic mismanagement. It should be noted that the Public Distribution System did not collapse altogether, but the degree of functioning of the system varied between different provincesBetween 1994 and 1998, GDP declined by almost half. This, in combination with the progressive dysfunction of the PDS, severely reduced access to food, medications, and primary goods, leading to a famine and to the general deterioration of the population’s ability to withstand further calamities.   The economy: China dominates   Today, it is safe to say that, in effect, China runs North Korea’s economy. Chinese currency is widely used in the unofficial markets that have mushroomed around the country since the crisis of the mid-1990s.    China gets the lion’s share of trade with North Korea and provides the bulk of its food and energy. Luxury items, if and when they manage to come into the DPRK, do so from across the border region of Yanbian or Chinese ports.    To be sure, North Korea does have a few economic niches, but these too are largely influenced by China’s presence. The DPRK’s significant mineral resources are almost exclusively exploited by Chinese companies, and Chinese visitors make for the majority of customers in North Korea's trade fairs and Special Economic Zones.    In other words, simply by looking at the economy of North Korea, one could surmise that as long as China is there to support it, the country could muddle along with no substantial changes for a very long time. A look at North Korean social indicators, however, offers a different perspective.   Demography is destiny   The key indicators of a country’s state of health and future prospects are its social statistics, particularly those on demographics. According to combined data from the Central Bureau of Statistics in Pyongyang, the World Bank Institute, and the UN gathered in 2008, and data by UNICEF gathered in 2014, the DPRK’s average population growth rate for 1990-2004 was 0.9 percent, or equivalent to that of upper middle-income countries. The same data provide trends for 2004-2020 that place growth at 0.4 percent, or equivalent to that of high-income countries.    At the same time, North Korea’s birth rate dropped to 16 per 1,000 people in the late 2000s – the level of middle-income countries – whilst the fertility rate is slowly approaching the levels of most Western countries. It sits between parity – two children, which is the minimum requirement for a population to continue replacing itself over time – and one child or none per couple, which is deemed not enough to avoid extinction in the long run. The latter is where Germany, Italy, and most EU countries are at present.              What does this mean for the future of North Korea?    If we read population increase as an indication of economic and social stability, the DPRK looks further removed from the so-called “failed states” it is often compared to – like Somalia, Yemen, or South Sudan – which are all on the verge of famine (or, in the case of parts of South Sudan, already experiencing it). North Korea is in fact undergoing the same "cradle crisis" that characterises advanced countries, from Japan to Germany.    However, the same statistics, viewed from the standpoint of overall death rates and infant mortality rates suggest the DPRK is right there with low-income countries. Its average death rate is as high as 11 per 1,000 people, and rates of infant mortality that have not yet fully recovered from the 1990s crisis.               This has a number of implications: North Korea doesn’t have the problems that South Korea has at the moment, with an increasingly aging population placing stress on the social welfare system. As a matter of fact, the DPRK welfare system has been simply downsized and slowed to a minimum since the 1990s. Today, North Koreans live on average six to eight years less than South Koreans and about nine years less than the Japanese.    In Malthusian terms, this means that the government has less to worry about in the short-term. Considering the chronic economic stagnation, most North Koreans alive today could well get old before they even have a chance to elevate their economic status.              At the same time, with a slow but steady recovery from the famine and the crisis of the mid-1990s, the DPRK seems to have reached a level of relative social comfort at which most middle-to-high income countries stop having enough children for the maintenance of native population. At this stage, they will slowly begin to fade out unless they adopt open immigration policies – an option that is unpopular in South Korea and Japan, and next to impossible in the DPRK.    If the trend continues – and the figures from 2008 and 2014 suggest it will – North Korea may one day run out of people to maintain its workforce. That would be one more reason for the regime to push towards reunification. While its rival state south of the demilitarised zone is also growing older, it is still twice as populous, and immensely richer by comparison. Still, if nothing changes at the economic level, any effort of reunification will require the equivalent of a mini-Marshall Plan for the entire peninsula.     This is the real North Korean conundrum: The country has faced challenges it is hard to imagine any other regime surviving: famine, floods, droughts, economic collapse, energy shortages, sanctions, and leadership changes. This has left a North Korea that is a mass of contradictions.   Few consider that the country making headlines for its nuclear technology has a basket case economy, but also one of the highest literacy rates in the world. There is no other country with such low economic indicators that can at the same time build and at test nuclear devices and achieve universal literacy, while still being aid-dependent.    Is aid the answer?   To explain the North Korean anomaly, we have to look at the nature of aid itself with three key questions: What is aid? Why is aid provided? Is it accomplishing what it is supposed to?   From an economic perspective, we can think of aid as a measure of socioeconomic welfare, like the one used for families and individuals, but on a much bigger scale. Welfare policies are supposed to work as a safety net in times of emergency – fostering growth and preventing recession when families and individuals go through hardships. At any rate, welfare is conceived to be a temporary measure and aid doesn’t come for free.    Aid represents an extension of foreign policy from donor states to recipient nations. Donors and international organisations expect recipients to correct their course and adopt policies that move them towards a free market economy, and adherence to international treaties on human rights, environmental protection and sustainability.   North Korea has become chronically dependent on aid since the mid 1990s. Yet, it has remained impervious to outside pressure for change. When it shows any degree of compliance with international norms, it does so only in fields where its interests converge with those of international organisations. Education and environmental protection are two examples.    On the other hand, North Korea has no relationship with global economic bodies like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund. It makes no concessions on the issues of nuclear proliferation and allows no inspections from human rights organisations. But its population does require foreign assistance in order to survive.   The socioeconomic emergency that swept the country between 1995 and 1999 was rooted in a combination of political, climatic, structural, and geopolitical factors. By 2005, the government declared the food emergency to be over and asked a number of NGOs – but not UN agencies – to leave. Nevertheless, the country has continued to rely on foreign assistance, just as the UN agencies at work in the DPRK kept monitoring a situation that requires periodical emergency assistance, year in-year out, in combination with development programmes.    If North Korea were a family, or an individual who has been in need of aid for 22 consecutive years, would this be considered normal? It’s unlikely. Yet, aid needs to reach the people of the DPRK on a yearly basis or a new humanitarian emergency may break out, according to the UN.   There is a consensus among humanitarians that as the North Korean people have no say on their government policies, they should not be the ones suffering the consequences. Therefore, the international community has responded with aid. However, a look at what North Korea has become since 1995 reveals that aid has not made North Korea strong enough to stand on its own.   This is the most pressing problem with North Korea, aside from its periodically aggressive military posture. The country needs aid because what once was a functioning infrastructure for a command economy, in which the state plays the primary role, has ceased to exist. More than this, it needs important economic and political reforms. Currently however, North Korean politics withhold economic restructuring and growth. At the same time, aid agencies and donors tend to look at technical issues and do not tackle the lack of political decisions that could steer the country away from perpetually looming humanitarian disasters.    A new approach?   Aid has been invaluable in pulling the country out of the humanitarian catastrophe of the mid-1990s, and it has helped North Korea maintain decent levels in development indicators such as health and education since then on. But aid cannot help the country provide a decent standard of living on its own for its people. That can only be done through political reform.    The real political story about North Korea today is that the "Stalinist fortress" – the impenetrable polity devoted to hardline communism – is no longer Stalinist, nor a fortress. North Korea scholars and South Korean government experts concur in saying that Kim Jong-un holds a fraction of the power that his father and grandfather wielded.    The elites that have emerged from two decades of black market activity are aware that there are only a few obstacles to a reunification that could see them prosper, while lifting millions of North Koreans out of poverty. These factors are their "political guilt" (for they contributed to keeping the country in a state of repression over decades), and the risk of losing whatever wealth they have accumulated.    If the United States and South Korea could agree to leave some of these families in power, providing them amnesty, they could ask in return for a soft removal of the Kim family, and open the door for a gradual economic rebuilding of the country. Financial incentive, or the lack thereof, in North Korea is the key issue. The average annual income in North Korea is a little below $1,000. In the South, it is over $30,000. No amount of foreign aid can ever bridge this difference.   gs/jf/ag   (TOP PHOTO: Agriculture in North Korea relies heavily on manual labor with few machines in sight. During harvest season, students and pupils are often drafted in from cities to help bring in the crops in time before the autumn rains. CREDIT: Devrig Velly EU/ECHO)   For more on North Korea, see:  

Bellicose North Korea gives aid donors the jitters

Sanctions make delivering aid hard in North Korea

    Agriculture in North Korea relies heavily on manual labor with few machines in sight. During harvest season, students and pupils are often drafted in from cities to help bring in the crops in time before the autumn rains. Opinion Aid and Policy Environment and Disasters Conflict Food Health Human Rights Politics and Economics The real crisis in North Korea is not the one you’ve been hearing about Gianluca Spezza IRIN Asia North Korea
Categories: Gender Parity

Mozambicans pay dearly for a president’s financial mistake

IRIN Gender - Tue, 05/16/2017 - 12:40

Diagnosed HIV-positive two years ago, Kayana Kandagona* suffers regular episodes of dizziness. However, this is not the cause of the 34-year-old’s anxiety as she waits for a routine appointment at a faith-based organisation’s outpatient clinic in the Mozambican capital, Maputo.


Cradling her three-month-old HIV-negative daughter she explains that her 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are always saying: “Mama, we are hungry”. The collapse of the single mother’s cross-border trading business and her sudden relegation to the ranks of the urban poor was as swift as the sharp slump in Mozambique’s macro-economic fortunes.


Kandagona, like many Mozambicans, blames former president Armando Guebuza for the financial scandal at the end of his final term in office that has wrecked one of Africa’s most hopeful economies.


The scandal involved loans amounting to $2 billion – roughly equivalent to one third of the national budget – to build a tuna fishing fleet and buy maritime security vessels in 2013 and 2014. The problem was those loans were taken out when the local currency was falling, Mozambique’s gas exports were down, and export prices on its coal and aluminium were also taking a knock.


Compounding the problem, the loans breached commitments to the International Monetary Fund and were hidden from both the Fund and parliament. When they were discovered, in 2016, the IMF and other international partners suspended financial assistance, amounting to $300 million, or nearly 40 percent of the government’s social spending budget.




On these revelations, the once-stable local currency, the meticais, crashed. Steep price rises quickly followed, while interest rates tripled in order to brace the currency as it threatened to go into freefall, further squeezing economic growth. In March 2017, the inflation rate was 21.57 percent.


Kandagona used to import beds and bedding from neighbouring South Africa and turned a monthly profit of about $700. Owed money by customers, she set monthly repayment schedules of $15, but found, “people can’t afford to pay that, so maybe they pay me back 50 ($0.80) or 100 meticais ($1.60) each month”. Her income has now dropped to as little as $25 a month.

Guy Arnold Clam pickers at low tide, Maputo

The family eats two meals a day of rice, occasionally supplemented by seasonal vegetables from her mother’s rural plot 50 kilometres from Maputo. The school does not provide lunch or snacks for her older children. The father pays no child support.


Cacilda Massango, coordinator for the Catholic church-funded Association for the Right to Health and Treatment for AIDS, tells IRIN: “Everyone is complaining about food prices and asking for food because they are hungry. But we cannot just hand out food. It’s difficult for all of us.”


The provision of free, efficient diagnosis and assessment, coupled with the widespread availability of antiretroviral drugs, has been a game-changer in blunting the country’s HIV/AIDS pandemic. UNAIDS estimated an HIV prevalence in 2015 of between 8.3 percent and 13.3 percent out of a population of 28 million, with infection rates falling.


But, Massango says, good nutrition remains an essential part of the equation for the efficacy of retroviral therapy, and in its absence the patients will not respond to treatment.


In 2015, Mozambique achieved the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger. Even so, the World Food Programme’s current country briefing notes: “The vast majority – 80 percent – of the population cannot afford the minimum costs for an adequate diet, and the situation is made worse by inflation and a rise in food prices, which in October 2016 recorded a five-year high.”


The financial scandal was unearthed by investigative journalists in April 2016. The loans were negotiated with European private bank Credit Suisse and Russian bank VBT. Among the deals struck was the purchase of naval patrol boats from France – current President Filipe Nyusi was defence minister at the time.


The $2 billion loans were not hedged and the currency’s devaluation has sharply increased the repayment burden on “all Mozambique’s other external debt, including $2.6 billion owed to the World Bank, $3.5 billion owed to other governments, and $1 billion owed to other multilateral institutions,” explains Tim Jones of Jubilee Debt International, which campaigns for the cancellation of unsustainable international debt.


Blame Guebuza


This year, Mozambique, which had a GDP of $15 billion in 2015, began to default on debt repayments. Public opinion has heaped the blame squarely on Guebuza, a two-term president with a checkered history of corruption scandals and human rights concerns.


“Guebuza took the money. I hate him,” says Antonio Simba, an independent taxi driver by day and diploma accountant student by night.


“Everything is expensive. Bread [rolls] used to be seven mets [$0.11] and now it’s 10 [$0.16]. Rice (5Kg) cost 200 mets [$3.15] and now it’s 500 [$7.90],” he said. “Electricity used to be 300 mets [$4.70] a month. Now it’s more than 500 mets [$7.90]… I only eat breakfast and dinner.”


After fuel and monthly mechanical costs, Simba, 30, earns about $90 from his taxi work, just shy of his policewoman partner’s wage.


They live with Simba’s brother, 33-year-old Serge, and his partner in a four-room concrete block house in the Santa Maria area, a few kilometres north of Maputo. The house does have sanitation and a standpipe, although the water has to be boiled to be potable.


Serge describes himself as part of the urban lower middle-class and earns about $400 a month in commissions as a rental accommodation agent, servicing mainly foreign nationals from Portugal, Brazil, China, South Korea, and Turkey.


“Before, the rents were all paid in dollars. Now it’s in meticais and there are too many empty properties in the city,” Serge explains. “Most people don’t understand what is happening [to the economy]. They just say: ‘It’s Guebuza’.”

Guy Arnold Belt tightening


Nercia Pedro, 29, suffered a difficult first pregnancy in early 2016. She gave up her $191-a-month restaurant chef job with a tacit agreement to resume work after the birth of her child. In the intervening months the debt crisis struck and when she returned to the workplace her employer reneged on the deal.


She has established a home-based catering business for family celebrations and other functions and makes about $63 a month, half of which she gives to her parents. The family’s bank repayments on a home improvement loan have increased from $78 to about $110.


Her husband’s $283 monthly wage at the city’s international airport is the last strand keeping the family afloat, and his job is far from secure.


“LAM [the national airline] is falling apart,” says Kim Harnack, senior adviser at the Center for Public Integrity, an anti-corruption NGO. Mozambique’s flag carrier has reportedly grounded half of its eight passenger jets, unable to pay maintenance costs. The schedule of domestic flights between the main cities along the country’s 2,500-kilometre coastline is becoming increasingly haphazard.


Harnack says the IMF, “as a good faith broker”, will assist once the ruling Frelimo party government has adopted a credible macro-economic programme, which includes a schedule to settle all external debt.


But that will come at a price. General subsidies, which include bread, fuel, and transport – accounting for about 2-3 percent of GDP – are seen as an inefficient and costly expenditure by the IMF, as they indiscriminately benefit the rich.


And the subsidies are unlikely to survive expected government cuts aimed at hauling Mozambique out of its self-imposed financial quagmire – inflicting yet more pain, especially on the poor.


*Not her real name



TOP PHOTO: Vote Guebuza - election poster. CREDIT: Eduard Grebe

moz_election_poster.jpg Feature Food Health Human Rights Politics and Economics Mozambicans pay dearly for a president’s financial mistake Guy Oliver IRIN MAPUTO Africa Mozambique
Categories: Gender Parity

Language of peace hard to find as Cameroon crisis festers

IRIN Gender - Tue, 05/16/2017 - 04:38

It’s a Monday evening in Bamenda, the main city in troubled English-speaking Cameroon. The gates of the Vatican Express bus depot are shut, just like five other coach companies in town.


Any other day and there would be at least five long-distance buses ready to leave for the rest of the majority French-speaking country. But once a week there’s a near-complete shutdown of businesses and public services. Mondays are now “ghost town” days throughout Cameroon’s two anglophone regions: Northwest and Southwest.


The boycott action has been called by a civil society coalition protesting English speakers’ “oppression, marginalisation, and deprivation”. They are demanding the return to a pre-1972 federal constitution, when the entire western part of the country was self-governing.


On this ghost town day, one bus company, Professional Drivers Express, is defying the ban. Fifty passengers are squeezed onto a single 30-seater, negotiating its way through the massive potholes outside the depot, heading to the capital, Yaoundé, an eight-hour drive away.


It is an uneventful trip until near the end. A few kilometres from the presidential palace, the seat of executive power, a middle-aged man stands up and begins to declaim.


“The struggle must continue,” he says. “If we stop now, we will be buried by La République. Francophones will dominate us even more.”


Before he sits down, he issues a final warning, which is greeted by silence from his fellow passengers: “But let us make sure we don’t end up dead or arrested!”


The cause


Breaking the boycott does not mean abandoning the cause. But it does demonstrate the contradictions triggered by this long-running crisis, in which six protesters have been shot dead, dozens injured, hundreds arrested, and two regions further impoverished.


Cameroon is a bilingual country; the constitution gives equal status to both English and French. But the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions are seething over their alleged marginalisation; accusing the government of giving preferential treatment to Cameroon’s eight other administrative regions.


The discontent, known in Yaoundé as the “anglophone problem”, is fanned by the perceived lack of investment by the government; a lack of political advancement for anglophones; and the general difficulty faced in the job market by those for whom French is not their first language.


Public unrest began in October 2016. It started as a strike by lawyers and then teachers over the “francophonisation” of the regions’ legal and education systems. It quickly coalesced into a general outcry over poor governance, “cultural genocide”, and the heavy-handed crackdown by the authorities.


Western Cameroon is 20 percent of the population but reportedly produces 60 percent of Cameroon’s GDP, and has little to show for it. It was under British colonial rule after World War I and was administered as part of neighbouring Nigeria until choosing to join French Cameroon in a 1961 referendum.

Mbom Sixtus/IRIN Anglophone activist Mancho Bibixy

That union is now under intense pressure. The government argues that a return to a two-state federal system is a non-starter. It instead suggests that existing constitutional provisions for decentralisation should meet the self-governing demands of anglophones. But critics point out that these provisions have never been implemented, in a country ruled by a single party since independence.


No, Non


For a crisis that ostensibly has language at its root, there has been little talking. Dialogue between the government and an umbrella opposition group, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium, collapsed way back in January when the authorities began rounding up protest leaders.


Internet access in the anglophone regions was also switched off, on the grounds that activists were using social media for "spreading false news". It was restored only in April after an international campaign #bringbackourinternet and economic losses estimated at $3 million by the NGO Access Now.


President Paul Biya, in power for 35 years, has described anglophone activists as “extremists”. He has used anti-terrorism legislation, which carries the death penalty, to charge some protesters. More than 25 people are currently facing trial at a Yaoundé military tribunal.


These include consortium leaders Felix Agbor, a human rights lawyer, Fontem Neba, a university lecturer, and activist Mancho Bibixy. The government has ignored calls by human rights groups for their release.


Two other leaders, Tassang Wilfred and Bobga Harmony, have fled to Nigeria and the United States respectively. They are now calling for the independence of “Southern Cameroons” (see map) – otherwise known as Ambazonia – a reflection of the growing secessionist sentiment among anglophone Cameroonians at home and abroad.


Religious schism


That radicalisation has extended to the ghost town protests. They are increasingly being enforced by intimidation. In March, more than 60 shops were burnt down in Bamenda’s food market by unidentified youths as punishment for breaking the boycott, according to a government official.


There have been similar arson attacks in Limbe and Mutengene, in Southwest region. Schools have been burnt down too, and only remain open now with police acting as guards.


Even the Church has been split by the protests.


Anglophone bishops who publicly sympathised with the protests have been charged after making statements that the government said could “compromise national unity”. The government adjourned those hearings when confronted by a threatened march on the courts in Bamenda and Buea, the main city in the Southwest region.


But the National Episcopal Conference, led by Archbishop Samuel Kleda – appointed as a mediator by Biya in February – has swung behind the government, condemning the protests and calling on children to return to school. On a tour of the western region, parents reportedly told Kleda they would only send their children back to classes when protest leaders were freed.


The consortium has said dialogue can be based "on one agenda only – the practical modalities for the putting in place of a two-state federation, and in the presence of representatives of the United Nations, and the UK".


Political scientist Mathias Owona Nguini argues that the “perspective of a francophone-anglophone federalism based on two federated states corresponding to the former respective territories of France and Great Britain is not negotiable”.


But given the deadlock and poisoned political atmosphere, external mediation may be the only way forward.


In careful comments last month, the UN’s special representative for the secretary-general in Central Africa, François Louncény Fall, encouraged the government to consider the release of detained anglophone leaders as a confidence-building measure.


In a statement he also called on the leaders of the protest movement to engage, "to find a consensual and lasting solution to the situation". To help achieve that, Fall said the UN was ready to "continue to accompany the two parties in their dialogue efforts".


As both sides struggle to find a common language of peace, grievances fester and a country is increasingly divided.



TOP PHOTO: Cameroon flag being burnt in Bamenda. CREDIT: Mbom Sixtus

mbom_1_flag.jpg Analysis Conflict Human Rights Politics and Economics Language of peace hard to find as Cameroon crisis festers Mbom Sixtus IRIN Bamenda Africa Cameroon
Categories: Gender Parity

Libya crimes, gang-violence refugees, and an Afghan surge? The cheat sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 05/12/2017 - 10:44

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors looks ahead at what’s on our humanitarian radar and curates a selection of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

Libya migrant crimes under the ICC spotlight

News of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean – most having set off from Libya in flimsy smugglers’ dinghies – has become numbingly routine. At least 245 people have died or gone missing attempting the crossing in the last week alone, bringing the total who have succumbed to the route so far in 2017 above 1,300. That people are still attempting such dangerous journeys is a sign not only of how bad things are in their home countries but also in Libya, where IRIN and others have reported human trafficking, extortion, and forced prostitution (among other horrors). This week, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told the Security Council that the court was exploring the possibility of an investigation into migrant-related crimes. If you’re curious what that might look like in a court that doesn’t appear to get much done, stay tuned – we’re looking into it. Meanwhile, despite violent disputes over oil – Libya’s main source of income – the country is now pumping more of the stuff than it has since 2014. That’s a good sign, as is a recent meeting between two rival leaders. Just returned from the country, having visited migrant detention centres and lunched in Tripoli, UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson writes in the Spectator that Libya “can have a great future. All it takes is political will and the courage to compromise.” Unfortunately, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

IDP or refugee? Spot the difference

For the millions forced to flee their homes every year because of conflict, natural disasters, or other kinds of crisis, crossing a border changes everything. One’s status is immediately elevated from that of an internally displaced person, or IDP, to that of a refugee. The former, despite being twice as numerous, enjoy few if any binding rights under global humanitarian law, even if recommended assistance is spelled out in great detail under the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. In 2012, Africa signed up to a continent-wide instrument for IDPs known as the Kampala Convention, but it has yet to gain proper traction on the ground, as our recent article on Ethiopia illustrates. Refugees, on the other hand, receive a range of international protections outlined in a landmark piece of international law adopted in 1951. Almost 20 years ago, in an effort to redress the balance, the Norwegian Refugee Council set up the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre as a source of detailed data and analysis on IDPs across the world. The distinction between IDPs and refugees is often spurious and generally inequitable. The links between the two categories, and what drives internally displaced people to cross borders, are the focus of the IDMC’s 2017 annual report, to be released on 22 May. It will also examine the issue of refugees being forced to return to their home countries, sometimes against their will and often into a state of internal displacement. If we told you now how regularly someone somewhere in the world is forced to flee a home, IDMC would be very cross with our embargo-busting thunder theft, but the time frame is shocking.

Understanding Venezuela

Venezuelans have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands over the past six weeks in anti-government protests that have left at least 39 demonstrators dead and hundreds injured and show no signs of abating. The trigger was an attempt by the pro-government Supreme Court to seize power from the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The court backed down under pressure, but the protests have continued as Venezuelans vent their anger against President Nicolas Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian socialist government, which they blame for chronic shortages of food and medicines, soaring crime, and triple-digit inflation. If you want to really understand how a country with one of the largest oil reserves in the world went from being so rich to so poor, listen to the latest edition of The Inquiry by the BBC World Service. Expert witnesses tell a story that begins with Venezuela’s oil-rich hay day and moves on to the dramatic rise to power of Hugo Chavez, who served as president from 1999 until his death in 2013. His policies, which included subsidising basic foods and imposing foreign exchange controls, temporarily improved the lot of the poor and reduced inequality but were dependent on a high oil price. The experts all agree: The seeds of Venezuela’s downfall have been sown by successive governments’ failure to recognise the dangers of an over-dependence on oil. The latest news is that the health minister has been sacked for revealing massive spikes in infant and maternal mortality. The alarming situation in Venezuela represents a deepening humanitarian emergency not just a political meltdown.

Will Trump try (another) troop surge in Afghanistan?

US President Donald Trump is reportedly considering a proposal to send about 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and is expected to make a decision before a NATO summit on 25 May. US troops have now been fighting in Afghanistan for more than 15 years. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, tried to wind down the mission, pulling all but around 9,000 soldiers out at the beginning of 2015. Since then, security has deteriorated further. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported recently that, as of November, the government held control or influence over only 57 percent of the country’s 407 districts. The proposed “mini-surge” is reportedly aimed at pressuring the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, it’s unclear how effective such a strategy would be. After all, the Taliban refused to negotiate when the United States had 100,000 troops in the country.

Did you miss it?

Central America’s gang-violence refugees

Last September, IRIN highlighted the epidemic of gang-related violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This week, Médecins Sans Frontières released a report that lays bare its humanitarian impacts. They are similar to those in a war zone, including pushing hundreds of thousands of people to flee the region in search of safety. Based on data gathered over two years of providing medical care to 33,593 migrants and refugees from the Northern Triangle at clinics and migrants centres throughout Mexico, MSF’s findings are startling. Thirty-nine percent of those interviewed reported fleeing attacks or threats to themselves or their families, while 44 percent had lost a relative due to violence in the past two years. Nearly 70 percent had been victims of violence during their journeys north towards the United States. The perpetrators of the violence were members of gangs and criminal organisations, but also members of Mexico’s security forces. Nearly one third of women reported having been sexually abused during their journey. MSF notes that few of those fleeing the violence are recognised as refugees in either Mexico or the United States. Instead, they are usually treated as economic migrants and deported. MSF calls on the governments of both countries to rapidly scale up legal protections, cease deportations and expand access to medical and mental health services.

(TOP PHOTO: Afghan security services travel in convoy. Catherine James/IRIN)


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Categories: Gender Parity

Raqqa, Trump’s big decision, and the death of a Dadaab icon: The cheat sheet

IRIN Gender - Fri, 05/05/2017 - 11:20

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors looks ahead at what’s on our humanitarian radar and curates a selection of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

Au revoir Paris: Will he, won’t he?

Fresh from a first legislative victory (after the House of Representatives passed “Trumpcare”), US President Donald Trump has a potentially even more momentous and far-reaching decision to make: Should he honour his campaign promise to pull out of the Paris climate accord? The White House is split, but a final decision is expected as early as next week. While most of humankind, from global leaders to the world’s largest oil company, have urged him to stay in, it’s not quite that simple. As keen observers point out, Trump’s decision could hinge on whether staying in allows him to renege on most US commitments regardless. By this token, remaining could be as bad exiting, perhaps worse. Keep your eyes peeled for IRIN’s deeper dive into how this might play out.

Onwards to Raqqa?

Early this week, the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces – a coalition of mostly Kurdish fighters – said they’d taken the old quarter of Taqba from so-called Islamic State. It’s a key win for the militia, who need to take the Syrian town (located on a strategic dam) before they head to Raqqa, the last major remaining stronghold IS has in Syria. But, as Aron Lund highlights in this piece for IRIN, Turkey’s ramped-up military involvement in northern Syria – targeted at Kurdish groups it considers terrorists (including the SDF and its main constituent, the YPG) – may throw a wrench in the long-planned campaign. It’s not yet clear when the battle for Raqqa proper will kick off, but civilians are already finding themselves uprooted in its wake. Nearly 56,000 people have been displaced from around Taqba since the start of April, and last week UN relief chief Stephen O’Brien said four out of five people in the camps outside Raqqa city lack appropriate shelter. There are also reports of children dying due to a lack of medical care. Meanwhile, as IS loses territory it is lashing out elsewhere, killing a reported 38 at a checkpoint and refugee camp in northeast Syria on Tuesday. And while there has been some tentative progress at negotiations in Astana, IS is not part of the agreement. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Trump mid-May, Raqqa will surely be high on the agenda.

Aid workers under attack in CAR

Violence continues unabated in Central African Republic. Now, four international aid agencies have suspended operations in the north due to attacks by armed groups. Reuters is reporting that Solidarités International, Intersos, Danish Church Aid, and Person in Need Relief Mission are withdrawing staff to Bangui. There have been 16 attacks on aid workers since March, most of them in the northern prefecture of Ouham, according to the UN emergency aid coordination office, OCHA. In the central prefecture of Ouaka, reprisal killings between two factions of the predominantly Muslim Séléka armed group have left at least 45 people dead and 11,000 displaced, according to Human Rights Watch. For more on one of the world’s most neglected humanitarian crises, read this powerful IRIN report.

Dangerous distractions in the Med

This week, representatives from the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) charity appeared before an Italian parliamentary hearing investigating claims they and several other search-and-rescue NGOs have been “colluding” with smugglers in Libya. With summer fast approaching (peak season for migrant crossings), indications that conditions in Libya are worsening and that more migrants are risking their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean are being overshadowed by the scandal. In February, the director of EU border agency Frontex suggested search-and-rescue NGOs are a pull factor for migrants and aren’t cooperating sufficiently with law enforcement agencies. Last month, chief prosecutor of the Sicilian port of Catania Carmelo Zuccaro told La Stampa he had evidence NGOs, including MOAS, were in “direct contact” with smugglers. Zuccaro’s office has been investigating since February, but speaking before the parliamentary committee on Wednesday, he admitted he had no proof of phone calls between the aid groups and smugglers. Amnesty International has described such allegations as a distraction from EU policies aimed at intercepting migrants and refugees before they leave Libyan waters. The Italian government has been training and equipping the Libyan coast guard to patrol the coast and return migrants to detention centres in Libya, where conditions have been described by numerous observers as inhumane and rife with abuse. Between 1 January and the end of April, 37,000 migrants had been rescued and taken to Italy after setting off in smugglers’ boats from Libya, up from 27,000 during the same period last year. Despite the efforts of groups like MOAS, more than 1,000 have died trying, also up from last year.

Did you miss it?

Boko Haram: Is Nigeria winning the battle but losing the war?

Nigeria’s spectacularly grisly Boko Haram conflict now seems to be coming to an end. The momentum is finally with the military, and for the first time a post-war future is beginning to be imagined. Key to peace is what happens to the Boko Haram fighters now surrendering. The government wants to return “deradicalised” ex-combatants back to their communities. The problem is those communities don’t want them. In the first of a series of in-depth reports on violent extremism in West Africa, a partnership with the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Africa editor Obi Anyadike travels to northeast Nigeria to explore issues of forgiveness and reconciliation. He finds a fractured and deeply traumatised society that has little trust in the government, with people prepared to kill to prevent the reintegration of ex-Boko Haram.

Hope must survive Somali minister’s slaying

On Wednesday evening, Somalia’s minister for reconstruction and public works, Abbas Abdullahi Sheikh Siraji, was shot dead near the presidential palace in Mogadishu by bodyguards of the auditor general. Aged just 31, he was the youngest government minister in the country’s history. The killing – it’s not yet clear whether it was a targeted assassination or an accident – prompted one of Siraji’s close friends, Moulid Hujale, to write a moving tribute in the Guardian in which he described Siraji as a “beacon of hope”. The two men grew up together in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee complex, from where Hujale, who now lives in London, cut his teeth as a journalist with first-hand reports for IRIN about the challenges of camp life and prolonged exile.

In remarks to IRIN, Hujale said Abbas “was an icon for Dadaab refugees, whom the world seems to have forgotten”, and noted that the Kenyan government wants to close the complex. “The fact that Abbas was killed by government soldiers makes it hard for Dadaab refugees to trust the Somali government, which had been persuading them to return to their home country, and that they will guarantee their protection,” said Hujale, who divides his time between a post-graduate journalism course and advocating for refugees. “As much as I am disappointed about his passing, I am sure my friend would never want me to stop and give up. I have to work hard and help revive the hope of the Somali youth by achieving what he stood for. He was our ambassador. I will not allow myself to be silenced by those who want to kill our future.”

In other news, we've started taking donations. So if you like what we do and think it's important that quality journalism is put at the service of the world's most vulnerable people, please support us. Every little bit helps.

(TOP PHOTO: A displaced woman at Evalache camp in Central African Republic. Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN)


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Categories: Gender Parity

End of Joseph Kony hunt breeds frustration and fear

IRIN Gender - Wed, 04/26/2017 - 13:44

Uganda and the United States have ended a six-year hunt for elusive warlord Joseph Kony and his notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.


But calling off the mission, focused on Central African Republic, has left the commander of Ugandan forces in the country frustrated and advocacy groups concerned that the failure to “kill or capture” Kony could see the insurgency rebound.


Uganda began withdrawing its officially 2,500 troops from their base in eastern CAR last week. The pull out of 100 US special forces, who worked alongside the Ugandan soldiers, began today.


The mission, known as the African Union Regional Taskforce (AU-RT), was almost from the start a wholly Ugandan affair.




It was supposed to have been 5,000-strong, drawing troops from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the CAR. But the neighbouring countries, with security problems of their own, either never deployed or quickly withdrew their contingents.


The task force failed to win donor funding, and Uganda ended up footing the bill. Since 2011, armed US special forces advisors have provided intelligence and logistics support.


Colonel Richard Otto is the commander of Uganda’s contingent in the CAR. At his divisional headquarters in Uganda’s northern city of Gulu, the amiable, decorated, former senior military intelligence officer, explained the difficulty of his three-year posting.


“In CAR, the area we are operating in is almost the size of Uganda. You can imagine [the vastness], and I don’t have enough troops,” he told IRIN.


The task force was drawn from all units of the Ugandan army, but may not have exceeded 1,500 men, according to media reports.


Hiding out


CAR has been the perfect hideaway for the LRA. It has been convulsed by violence since 2013, when a predominantly Muslim coalition of rebels known as the Séléka overthrew the government. The UN mission, MINUSCA, has been unable to end ongoing violence between Christian militia and the former Séléka.        


“The armed forces of CAR are yet to be organised,” said Otto, who before his deployment in CAR served as chief operations planner with African Union forces in Somalia.


“Some of them are undergoing training by [the] UN [and the] European Union Training Mission, and they are not yet deployed in the eastern part of the country.”

Colonel Richard Otto briefing troops in CAR

The lawlessness of the CAR has attracted not only “Séléka” from neighbouring Chad, but also the “Janjaweed” militia from Sudan’s Darfur region coming in to poach elephants, among other armed men.


“We have quite a number of armed groups,” said Otto. “So, when you encounter them in the jungle, sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you are fighting LRA or other [forces].”


But the Ugandan troops have recorded significant successes. Four key LRA commanders have been captured, and an insurgency of 2,000 fighters that terrorised a huge swathe of territory across central Africa has been sharply degraded.


On the run


The LRA, now believed to be down to less than 120 armed men, has splintered into small units operating in the remotest regions of eastern CAR, northeastern Congo, and Darfur.


“The enemy is permanently on the run,” said Otto, claiming that there had been a steady trickle of defections and that “over 1,000 civilians” that were abducted by the LRA had been rescued.


Kony, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity, has a $5 million bounty on his head. He is believed to be hiding in the Kafia-Kingi enclave, a disputed border area between Sudan and South Sudan. 


Khartoum is not a member of the regional task force and, as a historical supporter of the LRA, appears to have given Kony safe haven.


But, crucially, he no longer leads his men. “He has lost command, control, and communication,” said Otto. “For the first time, the LRA has factions. There is a group… who has decided to leave [the] LRA and operates on [its] own.”


Two senior LRA commanders, Bosco Kilama and Peter Ochora, who defected last month in Congo, agree with Otto’s assessment on the group’s disintegration.


“The LRA is disarray. The LRA has been completely disorganised with no central command. Kony is growing old and losing the grip on the soldiers,” Kilama told reporters at Uganda’s Entebbe airbase last week. The two men will receive a government amnesty.


Mission accomplished?


The LRA’s apparent toothlesness has allowed the Ugandan army and the US Africa Command to trumpet Kony’s irrelevance as justification for their withdrawal from the hunt.


But Otto, an Acholi from northern Uganda, the original heartland of the LRA, acknowledges that the group remains a threat.


“The will to fight and attack the security forces is not there. However, they still remain a problem to the general population,” he told IRIN.


“They are involved in looting food, looting gold, diamonds, killing elephants in [Congo’s] Garamba national park and Zemongo national park in CAR,” he said. It is a revenue stream that could keep them armed for years.

Richard Mugisha/IRIN The terrain doesn't favour the hunters Abductions


The LRA was responsible for 563 abductions in 171 attacks in 2016, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker, a monitoring group. It’s a drop from the 737 people kidnapped in 2015 in 222 attacks, but still significant.


As of 30 March this year, they are believed to have kidnapped 147 people in 43 incidents.


“Completely abandoning the mission will create security vacuums for already extremely vulnerable communities, particularly in the Central African Republic and northeastern DRC,” said Holly Dranginis, a senior analyst at the US-based Enough Project to End Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity.


“Leaving now will also dismantle key defection sites, leaving individuals with scarce options if they want to leave the LRA and reintegrate into civilian life,” she told IRIN.


Lino Owor Ogora, director of the Gulu-based Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives, noted: “The LRA has always taken advantage of any lapses in combat to regroup and reorganise.


“People in northern Uganda have enjoyed peace for close to 10 years now, and the region is on a firm road to recovery. It would be unfortunate if the LRA returned because they were allowed too.”


There is also unease in CAR. On 16 April, civilians in Obbo town, which has been the tactical headquarters for Ugandan and US forces, demonstrated, calling for the troops to stay.


Otto, who spoke to IRIN last week, is now back in CAR finalising the return home of the last of his men.


What happens next? 


But the Ugandan government has hinted that it will not step away altogether from an insurgency that began in Uganda almost three decades ago, and was then exported to its neighbours.


Richard Karemire, the military spokesman, said last week that Uganda could join the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR under a strengthened mandate to tackle the LRA.


He also suggested Uganda could support “capacity-building” of the CAR Armed Forces for “counter-LRA operations”.


Ogora, the head of the Gulu-based foundation, also favours a military option, drawing on the UN and regional armies to “neutralise” the LRA once and for all.


“Short of that, the LRA will continue roaming the jungles of Garamba at will, trading in ivory and arms, and abducting and killing civilians.” 


But Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, says the military option has been tried and has failed. “This requires a political solution, with amnesty at its core,” he told IRIN.


According to Dranginis, “the United States should continue supporting defection campaigns” as it has proved successful in “weakening the group and creating opportunities for fighters and abductees to leave.”


Demobilisation and reintegration is a complex process, she added, but it “can pay dividends for security in the region”.



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Syria: Return of the red line

IRIN Gender - Wed, 04/26/2017 - 06:04

As Syria’s warring parties take stock of US President Donald Trump’s cruise missile strike and of his warnings against the use of chemical weapons, the dominant theme seems to be one of confusion. Has Trump’s policy toward Syria changed, or was the missile attack strictly about deterrence? If so, what was it intended to deter, and what would cause Trump to strike again?

Trump is a longstanding sceptic of American involvement in the war in Syria and a harsh critic of the mostly Islamist rebels fighting Syria’s authoritarian government. Since taking office three months ago, he has kept a low profile on Syrian affairs, but in late March the new president’s priorities began to manifest themselves.

On 30 March, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced at a press conference in Ankara that the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would now “be decided by the Syrian people”, which is to say, it won’t, but the United States will no longer try to get him to leave. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley followed up by telling reporters, “our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting al-Assad out”, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer piled on: “with respect to al-Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now”.

Not the most eloquent formulation of a new policy, but clear enough. However, only a few days later, the US suddenly seemed to reverse course once again.

The massacre in Khan Sheikhoun

On 4 April, the rebel-controlled city of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria was the scene of a massacre, with dozens of civilians reportedly poisoned by the nerve agent sarin. Horrifying pictures of choking children spread first across social media and then through the world press. Local activists said the attack had come from the air, indicating that the Syrian government was behind it.

The international reaction broke along familiar lines. Al-Assad and his foreign allies, notably Russian President Vladimir Putin, denied involvement and accused the Syrian opposition of having staged the incident, though they presented conflicting narratives about what had actually happened. Meanwhile, pro-opposition governments like the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Israel insisted they had evidence the Syrian government had fired sarin-tipped rockets from a MiG-22 jet. The Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons later concluded that the Khan Sheikhoun victims had been poisoned with “sarin or a sarin-like substance”, though Russia and Syria dispute these findings.

If the Syrian air force had indeed used sarin gas, it would represent a flagrant breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention that Damascus signed in 2013, and a direct challenge to the UN.

The issue was particularly sensitive for the United States, which was close to striking Syrian military installations in September 2013 after concluding al-Assad’s forces had breached a US “red line” by killing hundreds of people with sarin near Damascus. Instead, then-president Barack Obama decided to use the momentum created by his threat of intervention to work together with Putin to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The ensuing deal was hailed as an “ugly win” by administration officials but criticised by Obama’s opponents and some of his allies, including many supporters of the Syrian opposition who had hoped for US military intervention against al-Assad.

To many Americans, the September 2013 crisis has come to epitomise a wider debate over how Obama should have handled the Syrian crisis. It also shaped Trump’s posture before Khan Sheikhoun. Although Trump had demanded congressional authorisation before launching airstrikes and called on Obama to “stay out of Syria” in 2013, he later turned around and began to use the red line affair to portray his predecessor as feckless and weak. On his watch, he promised, America would not back down from a challenge like Obama had.

With Khan Sheikhoun, Trump had his own red line moment. According to the White House, US intelligence agencies quickly concluded that al-Assad was responsible and that the weapon used was sarin. Unlike in 2013, there was little hope of recourse to a UN investigation – Russia had spent the previous three years undermining Obama's 2013 deal and seemed determined to veto anything put forth in the Security Council, regardless of what UN and OPCW investigators came up with.

Trump made clear he had reacted strongly to the images coming out of Khan Sheikhoun. “My attitude toward Syria and al-Assad has changed very much,” he said. “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal – people were shocked to hear what gas it was. That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines.”

The US missile strike

Just before dawn on 7 April, the United States launched a barrage of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian military air base at Shayrat, southeast of Homs, from where the White House claimed that a MiG-22 had taken off to bombard Khan Sheikhoun. Storage depots, hangars, and several jets were reportedly destroyed; US Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the attack had taken out some 20 aircraft, which, if true, would represent a very significant loss to the Syrian air force.

To no one’s surprise, the US attack was condemned by the Syrian government and its allies, and welcomed by Syrian opposition leaders, many of whom called for continued air strikes and a no-fly zone. Regional allies of the opposition took the same line, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exclaiming that the cruise missile attack was “positive” but “not enough”.

Reactions in the United States were also largely positive, but the strikes triggered a tense debate over how to interpret Trump’s decision and, relatedly, what to do next. In announcing the missile strike, the Pentagon had described it as a “proportional response” and said that the “use of chemical weapons against innocent people will not be tolerated”, which indicated that Trump had now drawn his own red line against the use of chemical weapons. But the statement made no mention of other goals or policies in Syria.

Some of those involved in US debate over Syria wanted the Trump administration to keep raising the pressure on al-Assad. Having previously advocated deeper US intervention in the war, they argued that the 7 April strike had proven that military means were effective and posed limited risks to US forces. In their view, the United States should not stop at a one-off strike. Instead, the Shayrat attack should be incorporated into a broader strategy to resolve the Syrian conflict on American terms, by tipping the military balance and engineering a political transition away from al-Assad’s rule.

However, intervention sceptics cautioned against what they viewed as demands for irresponsible escalation, warning that Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran would not stand idly by if regime survival were threatened, and that the United States risked wading into a quagmire of open-ended and unproductive intervention. Now, they said, administration officials needed to exercise “rhetorical discipline and restraint” and make clear that the Shayrat attack was indeed a one-off punitive strike, in order not to squander the lesser but potentially achievable goal of a reestablished chemical weapons deterrence.

Mixed messages

The Trump administration seemed largely oblivious to these finer points of strategy, focusing instead on seeking domestic praise for the strikes. But for all the rhetoric about Trump as a man of action who had defended US red lines, there was still very little clarity about what the president considered those red lines to mean.

The confusion revolved around two issues: whether Trump had reasserted the old policy of seeking al-Assad’s removal, and what had motivated him to use military force in Syria. Would the United States strike again if there were new reports about large massacres of civilians, or would Trump only react against the use of chemical weapons? If so, would he seek to deter the use of military-grade nerve gas, like sarin, or would he also respond to less lethal and improvised chemical munitions, like the chlorine bombs that have been in widespread use in Syria since 2014?

Related Story: Illegal weapons – a global guide

A couple of days after the strike, Haley declared that the United States could not envisage “any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with al-Assad at the head of the regime”, which many took to mean that Trump had indeed backtracked from his view of al-Assad as a “political reality”. But Haley was quickly contradicted by Tillerson, who said the strike “was related solely to the most recent horrific use of chemical weapons” and “other than that, there is no change to our military posture”.

Later, however, Tillerson indicated that although the United States was not about to overthrow al-Assad, it was prepared to engage in very intensive policing of the battlefield: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said at a press conference in Italy. Right after Tillerson’s remarks, White House press secretary Sean Spicer casually asserted that Trump would attack anyone who bombed civilians in Syria, with or without poison gas: “If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb into innocent people, I think you can – you will – see a response from this president,” he said.

The term “barrel bomb” refers to helicopter-dropped explosive charges that are very widely used by the Syrian air force. According to a pro-opposition human rights group, the Syrian government dropped nearly 13,000 such bombs in 2016 alone. Preventing their use against civilians would require considerably more effort than one or two punitive strikes.

It was only at this point that the Trump administration seemed to realise it had a messaging problem, and that it was seen to be drawing red lines it wasn’t prepared to defend. The White House quickly rolled back Spicer’s statement, saying he had meant only chlorine-filled barrel bombs, not the conventional high-explosive kind.

Trump has backed off from seeking regime change in Syria, but, at the same time, he has retraced Obama’s red line against chemical weapons, while leaving open a possibility of additional retaliation against massacres committed with conventional arms

The following day, Mattis attempted to clear up both the al-Assad issue and the extent of Trump’s red lines in Syria. “Our military policy in Syria has not changed. Our priority remains the defeat of ISIS”. But Mattis warned that Syrian officials should expect to “pay a very, very stiff price” for any continued use of chemical arms, which, he noted, “could be considered a red line”. When asked whether his definition of chemical arms included chlorine gas, Mattis answered in the affirmative: “Chemical weapons are chemical weapons,” he said. “It is not about whether it's delivered with an artillery shell or it's delivered by a helicopter with a barrel bomb, or a fighter aircraft with a bomb. It’s about chemical weapons.”

This seems to be a considerably more expansive red line than the previous administration was prepared to enforce with military means. The Syrian opposition reported more than 130 chlorine attacks in the first two years after the 2013 red line affair. Though few of these cases have been fully investigated, a Security Council-designated UN-OPCW team of experts concluded last year that the Syrian government committed at least three chlorine attacks in 2014-2015. In response, the Obama administration unsuccessfully pushed for UN sanctions and, when blocked by Russia, moved to unilaterally sanction Syrian officials. This did not stop the reports of chlorine attacks, however, and they have continued since Trump took office. Though the UN-OPCW panel has not yet investigated the recent allegations, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic has accused pro-government forces of carrying out four chlorine attacks between 30 January and 21 February in the eastern Ghouta region. Anti-Assad activists in that area also reported a new chlorine attack immediately after the US cruise missile strikes.

On 12 April, the Wall Street Journal finally got Trump himself to explain his policy. The president confirmed his view of the missile attack as a one-off punitive strike, rather than an argument in the debate over al-Assad’s future. While he said he believed al-Assad’s ouster is probably “going to happen at a certain point,” he did not feel it should be America’s doing. “We have other fights that are fights that are more important as far as our nation’s concerned,” Trump said. “We don’t need that quicksand.” Asked what would prompt him to strike in Syria again, the president said any renewed use of chemical weapons by al-Assad would trigger another attack.

That, then, seems to be current US policy: Trump has backed off from seeking regime change in Syria, but, at the same time, he has retraced Obama’s red line against chemical weapons, while leaving open a possibility of additional retaliation against massacres committed with conventional arms.

How stable Is the new US policy?

Michael Anton, who serves as head of strategic communications at the US National Security Council, recently told Politico the cruise missile attack fits well into Trump’s non-interventionist policy and should not be “touted as some major change”. But he also praised Trump for being “a very flexible person” who “responds to events” rather than adhering to a particular ideology or strategy. According to Anton, “the only thing maybe predictable about his foreign policy is that he says to the world, ’I'm going to be unpredictable,’” which, he said, would help the United States “keep adversaries, competitors alike, sort of off-balance”.

That’s one way of looking at it. From the other end of the table, one could argue that it is in fact the United States that is now off-balance – swaying from one idea to the next according to the whims of its commander-in-chief, while State Department and Pentagon officials struggle to interpret and implement unclear guidance in ways pleasing to the president, all working toward the Oval Office in dissonant concert.

It also raises the question of how permanent Trump’s new Syria policy will be, considering his reluctance to communicate his views at length or in depth, his apparently less than fully-formed ideas on the subject, and the forces within his own administration that are quietly pushing for more aggressive intervention in Syria. And what to make of the fact that this famously popularity-obsessed president was showered in praise by former critics after his missile strike, while his otherwise poor poll ratings experienced a quick uptick? The Tomahawk effect already seems to be wearing off, but it is hard to shake the suspicion that Trump might be tempted to seek the role of war president again.

What that means for Syria remains to be seen, but a red line has been drawn. It is unlikely to remain untested.

(TOP PHOTO: An injured woman in Idlib pictured soon after losing her husband and two children to a Syrian army strike in 2012. CREDIT: Freedomhouse2/Flickr)


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Categories: Gender Parity

Threatened attack on Yemen port will trigger catastrophe, aid groups warn

IRIN Gender - Tue, 04/25/2017 - 11:13

Aid groups in Yemen are warning that an impending assault by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition on the rebel-held western port of Hodeida could tip the country into famine.


“It would be catastrophic, and the impact would be felt immediately,” said Caroline Anning of Save the Children. “Hodeida is one of seven provinces already on the brink of famine, and an attack could trigger it.”


The port, in the hands of Houthi rebels, normally handles more than 70 percent of all Yemen’s imported goods, including aid, food and fuel. Airstrikes in 2015 damaged four of the port’s five cranes, reducing capacity, but Hodeida remains the country’s lifeline.


“There is no viable alternative,” Anning told IRIN. “[Trucking aid] overland, airlifting, using other ports – there is nothing else that would be able to fill the current gap.”


Aid and human rights groups are ringing the alarm as a donor conference on Yemen opened in Geneva today, with the UN urging action to tackle what it describes as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.


More than 17 million Yemenis are short of food out of a population of 27 million, with close to seven million on the brink of starvation. The UN has appealed for $2.1 billion for this year, and by the end of Tuesday has received $1.1 billion in pledges.


Yemen’s deep humanitarian emergency has been exacerbated by two years of fighting. The conflict pits a Saudi-led coalition of Middle Eastern and African states that supports the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi against Houthi rebels and loyalists of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.


The coalition and the US government accuse Iran of arming the rebels, a charge Tehran denies. Hodeida is near the Bab al-Mandab strait, a choke point through which nearly four million barrels of oil pass daily. Both Riyadh and Washington regard Iran as a strategic threat to the waterway.


Hodeida is one of two remaining ports on Yemen’s Red Sea coast under Houthi control. Capturing it would deprive the rebels of the taxes they levy on imports, but is an operation that would be unlikely to be surgical or quick.


An attack on Hodeida would halt aid operations at a desperate time for Yemen, and would have an immediate impact on the population of the densely-packed city.


“Any military campaign in its vicinity, from the ground or air, would have devastating civilian consequences,” the Yemen UN Country Team warned in a statement.

FAO/IPC Famine map Blocked aid


Already, aid blockages mean agencies cannot keep pace with needs. According to the International Rescue Committee, it currently can take six months to get life-saving medical supplies from outside the country into health facilities in Yemen.


“Sea and air blockades that are already in place mean essential humanitarian supplies in Yemen are scarce, and will become even scarcer if these attacks go ahead,” the relief agency said.


All vessels carrying humanitarian cargo are inspected at sea by coalition forces. Commercial shipments to Yemen’s western ports are subject to a UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism to ensure enforcement of a Security Council arms embargo.


The inability to offload new cranes to replace the damaged ones in Hodeida is an example of the impact of the current restrictions.


According to the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and international sanctions, Idriss Jazairy, the blockade and long clearance procedure “involves grave breaches of the most basic norms of human rights law, as well as of the law of armed conflict”.


Saudi concerns over the monitoring of cargo, ostensibly aimed at preventing weapons reaching the rebels, could be achieved by strengthening and expanding the current UN verification mechanism, or bringing Hodeida under third-party management, possibly a UN agency.


“That would depoliticise the process and keep what is a lifeline for northern Yemen open,” said one aid official, who asked not to be named.


The military option seems to be top of the coalition’s list, with the port a key prize on the way to the Houthi held capital of Sana’a. But Oxfam has warned that if Hodeida is attacked, “the Saudi-led coalition will not only breach International Humanitarian Law, they will be complicit in near certain famine”.


Enter the “Janjaweed”


An assault would probably happen before the holy month of Ramadan, due at the end of May, and would likely include Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces – better known as the “Janjaweed” militia.


The RSF are “shock troops”, with a long history of abuse against civilians, drawing complaints from even Sudan’s regular army. Several thousand have reportedly been sent to Yemen, according to a new Small Arms Survey report.


The Darfur-recruited militia are directly answerable to President Omar al-Bashir and the intelligence service.  “What we don’t know is how much control will be extended over the RSF [by the military commanders of coalition forces],” said Magnus Taylor of the International Crisis Group.


Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are believed to have provided Sudan with $2.2 billion in aid since 2015, as part of a political deal to “keep Khartoum afloat and in the coalition of Sunni states opposed to Iran”, said Taylor.


Although regular Sudanese troops are fighting and dying in Yemen, the RSF’s deployment is seen as a reward for the loyalty of their commander, Mohammed Hamdan ‘Hemmeti’, to al-Bashir. But that could turn sour if they become cannon fodder for the attack on Hodeida.


Stop the war


Yemen’s conflict has already claimed more than 10,000 lives. According to Amnesty International, all sides in the war “have carried out unlawful attacks that have killed or injured civilians and failed to distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives”.


Advocacy groups are warning that more aid is not enough to save Yemen from catastrophe. Amnesty has called on the international community to suspend transfers of military equipment to all parties to the conflict.


Oxfam has also urged the British government to “pressure all parties to the conflict to resume peace talks, to reach a negotiated peace agreement”.


It pointed out that while aid is desperately needed to save lives now, “many more people will die unless the de-facto blockade is lifted and major powers stop fuelling the conflict”.



TOP PHOTO: Aftermath of a coalition air strike in Yemen

201503262019390973.jpg News Conflict Food Human Rights Threatened attack on Yemen port will trigger catastrophe, aid groups warn IRIN Middle East and North Africa Saudi Arabia Yemen
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