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Macron vows to keep fighting extremism in West Africa

December 21, 2019

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — France’s President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to boost the fight against Islamic extremism in West Africa as French troops killed 33 Islamic extremists in central Mali. Saturday was Macron’s second day of his three-day trip to Ivory Coast and Niger that has been dominated by the growing threat posed by jihadist groups.

“We must remain determined and united to face that threat,” Macron said in a news conference in Abidjan. “We will continue the fight.” By Macron’s side, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan announced a “historic” reform of the French-backed currency CFA Franc, established in 1945 and used by eight states in West and Central Africa.

The currency’s name will become the “eco” next year and all French officials will withdraw from its decision-making bodies, Ouattara said. In addition, the obligation for member states to keep half of their foreign reserves in France will end.

The currency will remain pegged to the euro, which guarantees its stability, Ouattara stressed. Macron, who turned 42 on Saturday, welcomed the reform and praised the financial and economic empowerment of the region.

“I don’t belong to a generation that has known colonialism … so let’s break the ties!” he said, adding that the currency was considered by some, especially the African youth, as a post-colonial heritage.

Earlier that day, Macron announced that a French military operation killed 33 Islamic extremists in the Mopti region of central Mali on Saturday morning. He tweeted he was “proud of our soldiers who protect us.” Two Malian gendarmes also were rescued in the operation, he said.

France has about 4,500 military personnel in West and Central Africa, much of which was ruled by France during the colonial era. The French led a military operation in 2013 to dislodge Islamic extremists from power in several major towns across Mali’s north.

In the ensuing years, the militants have regrouped and pushed further into central Mali, where Saturday morning’s operation was carried out. On Friday evening, Macron met with French military personnel stationed in Ivory Coast, which shares a long border with volatile Mali and Burkina Faso. The visit included commandos who were involved in the operation in Mali last month during which 13 soldiers died in a helicopter collision.

Earlier Saturday, Macron and Ouattara highlighted a new training effort being launched. The International Academy to Fight Terrorism will be in charge of “training in Ivory Coast some specialized forces from across Africa,” Macron said. “Then we will collectively be better prepared for the fight against terrorism.”

On Sunday, Macron will pay tribute in Bouake to the victims of a 2004 bombing by the Ivorian air force during the civil war in the country, which killed nine French soldiers and an American civilian who had sought shelter at the French army base.

He also will pay a visit to Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou in Niamey before returning to France, where a summit with West African leaders will be held in mid-January to clarify the strategy of the French military operation in the Sahel region.

Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to the story.

Locust outbreak, most serious in 25 years, hits East Africa

January 17, 2020

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — The most serious outbreak of locusts in 25 years is spreading across East Africa and posing an unprecedented threat to food security in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, authorities say. Unusual climate conditions are partly to blame.

The locust swarms hang like shimmering dark clouds on the horizon in some places. Roughly the length of a finger, the insects fly together by the millions and are devouring crops and forcing people in some areas to bodily wade through them. Near the Kenyan town of Isiolo on Thursday, one young camel herder swung a stick at them, with little effect. Others tried to shout them away.

An “extremely dangerous increase” in locust swarm activity has been reported in Kenya, the East African regional body reported this week. One swarm measured 60 kilometers (37 miles) long by 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide in the country’s northeast, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development said in a statement.

“A typical desert locust swarm can contain up to 150 million locusts per square kilometer,” it said. “Swarms migrate with the wind and can cover 100 to 150 kilometers in a day. An average swarm can destroy as much food crops in a day as is sufficient to feed 2,500 people.”

The outbreak of desert locusts, considered the most dangerous locust species, also has affected parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea and IGAD warns that parts of South Sudan and Uganda could be next.

The outbreak is making the region’s bad food security situation worse, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has warned. Hundreds of thousands of acres of crops have been destroyed. Already millions of people cope with the constant risk of drought or flooding, as well as deadly unrest in Ethiopia, extremist attacks in Somalia and lingering fighting in South Sudan as it emerges from civil war.

The further increase in locust swarms could last until June as favorable breeding conditions continue, IGAD said, helped along by unusually heavy flooding in parts of the region in recent weeks. Major locust outbreaks can be devastating. A major one between 2003 and 2005 cost more than $500 million to control across 20 countries in northern Africa, the FAO has said, with more than $2.5 billion in harvest losses.

To help prevent and control outbreaks, authorities analyze satellite images, stockpile pesticides and conduct aerial spraying. In Ethiopia, officials said they have deployed four small planes to help fight the invasion.

But one approach backfired in Kenya in recent days when the agriculture minister asked people to post photos on social media of suspected locusts, or “nzige” in Swahili. A mocking series of images of warthogs, cats, lizards and other beasts followed, with pleas for help in identifying them, and the appeal was ended.

Anna reported from Johannesburg.

Year on, Amnesty urges Sudan deliver on protesters’ demands

December 19, 2019

CAIRO (AP) — Amnesty International on Thursday urged Sudan’s new transitional government to deliver on the people’s demands for sweeping change as the country marked the first anniversary of mass protests that led to the ouster of former president and longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

A year ago, the first rally was held in Sudan to protest the soaring cost of bread, marking the beginning of a pro-democracy movement that convulsed the large African country. That led, in April, to the extraordinary toppling by the country’s military of al-Bashir, and ultimately to the creation of a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council that has committed to rebuilding the country and promises elections in three years.

To mark the anniversary, activists have organized protests in cities across the country. “The transitional authorities must honor the commitments they made to restore the rule of law and protect human rights,” Seif Magango, Amnesty’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes said in a statement. “The Sudanese people deserve nothing less.”

The global rights group said Sudan’s new government has shown positive signs of progress during its fragile transition to democracy, citing the repeal of a decades-old Islamist moral policing law and dissolution of the former ruling party — moves that have helped the Sovereign Council distance itself from al-Bashir’s disgraced rule.

Over the weekend, a court in Sudan convicted al-Bashir of money laundering and corruption, sentencing him to two years in a minimum security lockup. The image of the former dictator in a defendant’s cage “sent a strong message, on live TV for all of Sudan to see, that we are on the route toward justice,” said Sarah Abdel-Jaleel, a spokeswoman for the protest organizers.

But in the view of protesters, Abdel-Jaleel added, “al-Bashir has not been held to account.” The deposed ruler is under indictment by the International Criminal Court on far more serious charges of war crimes and genocide linked to his brutal suppression of the insurgency in the western province of Darfur in the early 2000s. The military has refused to extradite him to stand trial in The Hague.

Amnesty also called on the new government to hold security forces accountable for killing scores of people in their efforts to stifle protests against military rule, especially those behind a deadly crackdown on a huge sit-in outside the military headquarters in the capital, Khartoum, in June. Since last December, nearly 200 protesters have been killed.

The government recently appointed independent judges to oversee investigations into the killings, a major achievement for the protest movement. But even the most high-profile cases have shown no signs of official action, said Amnesty’s Sudan researcher Ahmed Elzobier. Families still find it very difficult to bring cases against security officers, he added.

Sudan is under heavy international and regional pressure to reform. With the economy on the brink, the new government has made it a mission to get Sudan removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism so that it can attract badly needed foreign aid.

Many pro-democracy protesters say the revolution remains unfinished. The poverty, high prices and resource shortages that catalyzed the original uprising continue to fuel frustration. “We’re looking at a deep state that for thirty years has been plagued by corruption and economic crisis,” said Abdel-Jaleel. “But if the nation is given an opportunity to achieve democracy and development and peace, that will be an achievement for the world, not just for Sudan.”

International court sentences Congo warlord to 30 years

November 07, 2019

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The International Criminal Court passed its highest ever sentence Thursday, sending a Congolese warlord known as “The Terminator” to prison for 30 years for crimes including murder, rape and sexual slavery.

Bosco Ntaganda was found guilty in July of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role as a military commander in atrocities in a bloody ethnic conflict in a mineral-rich region of Congo in 2002-2003.

Ntaganda showed no emotion as Presiding Judge Robert Fremr passed sentences ranging from eight years to 30 years for individual crimes and an overarching sentence of 30 years. The court’s maximum sentence is 30 years, although judges also have the discretion to impose a life sentence. Lawyers representing victims in the case had called for a life term.

Fremr said that despite the gravity of the crimes and Ntaganda’s culpability, his convictions “do not warrant a sentence of life imprisonment.” Ida Sawyer, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, welcomed the ruling.

“Bosco Ntaganda’s 30-year sentence sends a strong message that even people considered untouchable may one day be held to account,” Sawyer said. “While his victims’ pain cannot be erased, they can take some comfort in seeing justice prevail.”

Ntaganda, who has always insisted he is innocent, became a symbol for widespread impunity in Africa in some seven years between first being indicted by the global court and finally turning himself in in 2013 as his powerbase fell apart.

Judges at his trial said he was guilty as a direct perpetrator of a murder and as an indirect co-perpetrator of a string of crimes including murders, rapes of men and women, a massacre in a banana field behind a building called The Paradiso and of enlisting and using child soldiers. Child soldiers also were raped by Ntaganda’s troops and forced into sexual slavery, leaving them with lasting physical and psychological scars. Ntaganda himself used child soldiers as bodyguards.

“Some individuals who survived or witnessed the murders and attempted murders that Mr. Ntaganda was convicted of still bear permanent scars, both physical and psychological, including long-term memory loss, neurological disturbances and extensive physical scarring,” Fremr said.

Ntaganda testified for weeks in his own defense, saying he wanted to put the record straight about his reputation as a ruthless military leader, but was unable to convince the three-judge panel of his innocence.

Ntaganda was the deputy chief of staff and commander of operations for rebel group the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. The force’s leader, Thomas Lubanga, was convicted by the ICC in 2012 of using child soldiers. He is serving a 14-year prison sentence.

Ntaganda earned a higher sentence because he was convicted of far more crimes. He has already launched an appeal against his convictions and has 30 days to appeal against his sentence. In their unanimous 117-page ruling, the three judges said they could find no mitigating factors that warranted reducing Ntaganda’s sentence.

But they found plenty of aggravating circumstances, identifying in the murder convictions the “particular cruelty” of several crimes, the “defenselessness of some of the victims” and the fact that Ntaganda, as a high-ranking commander, personally committed a murder in front of his subordinates.

The Hague-based court was set up to prosecute atrocities around the world where national authorities are unable or unwilling to hold trials. It has faced opposition and criticism, most notably from the United States, which is not a member state of the court.

President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, last year said the U.S. wouldn’t cooperate with the court, adding that “for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

‘This man lives forever’: Zimbabwe’s Mugabe is buried

September 28, 2019

ZVIMBA, Zimbabwe (AP) — A priest asked God to take pity on Robert Mugabe as the family of the longtime Zimbabwean leader buried him Saturday at his rural home. They chose a private farewell for one of Africa’s most divisive figures after a weeks-long dispute with the administration that forced him from power.

“This man lives forever,” declared the priest, to cries of approval. Mugabe died this month in Singapore at age 95 after leading the country for nearly four decades and being pushed into a shocking resignation as thousands danced in the streets. “I was ridiculed,” a relative said Mugabe told them.

His coffin, draped in the country’s flag, was carried by military pallbearers as his black-veiled wife, Grace, looked on. On display was a photo of Mugabe holding up his fist in a classic gesture of defiance, and a floral arrangement spelled out “Dad.” Many mourners wore T-shirts saying “Liberator” and “Torch bearer.”

Grace later stood motionless as the coffin was lowered into the grave and a choir sang “Remember me.” Mugabe, who led the bitter guerrilla war to end white-minority rule in the country then known as Rhodesia, was Zimbabwe’s first leader and ruled from 1980, overseeing a years-long slide from prosperity to economic ruin and repression. He was forced by the military and ruling party to retire in late 2017 after bitter political feuding centered in part on his wife’s political ambitions.

Some of Mugabe’s political rivals, including opposition figures who were routinely arrested or harassed during his 37-year rule, attended the service while longtime colleagues did not. Notably absent were senior officials from the ruling party that he led for more than four decades, including during the fight for liberation.

Just a handful of people in the gathering of some 200 wore party regalia, a sign of how the bookish, combative former leader died isolated from the people he called comrades for much of his adult life.

Mugabe’s family earlier had agreed to a government request to bury him at the National Heroes Acre shrine in the capital, but only after a hilltop mausoleum was built to set him apart from the rest. Then the government on Thursday abruptly announced the family had changed its mind, leaving it with scaffolding around the partially completed memorial.

While some might blame his widow for the move, it was Mugabe himself who wanted the private ceremony instead of one presided over by the people who removed him from power, Grace’s sister Junior Shuvai Gumbochuma said in a speech on Saturday.

“Some may be surprised by this small crowd given this man’s greatness,” she said. “I remember he presided over many burials of heroes that were attended by busloads of people. I thought one day such crowds would attend his own burial. What we did today was his wish.”

She added: “I asked him why he didn’t want to be buried at Heroes Acre and he responded: ‘I was ridiculed.'” A spokesman for the ruling ZANU-PF party, Simon Khaya Moyo, called the choice of a private burial “most unfortunate.”

In a statement, Moyo added that “we indeed respect the wishes of families of deceased heroes, hence we are saddened when maneuvers that border on political gimmicks begin to unfold on an issue concerning an illustrious liberation icon.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a once-trusted deputy who helped oust Mugabe from power, was not attending the burial. State-run media reported that the government would be represented by the home affairs minister.

Only approved guests and funeral parlor vans were allowed, a decision out of sync with the local tradition that funerals are free for all to attend. One elderly neighbor threw a tantrum after being blocked at the gate.

“This gathering is a paradox,” the priest told the gathering. “We are mourning at the same time we are celebrating because this man lived his life in a manner that many of us would want to emulate.” Later, standing by the coffin, he prayed: “God, take pity on him. Don’t judge him harshly.”

South Sudan’s opposition leader warns of return to civil war

October 20, 2019

JUBA, South Sudan (AP) — South Sudan’s opposition leader Riek Machar warned Sunday that the country could return to civil war if a coalition government is formed by a Nov. 12 deadline and he asked for another months-long delay for the crucial step in a fragile peace deal.

Machar made an impassioned plea to a visiting United Nations Security Council delegation that met with him and President Salva Kiir to urge speedier progress in pulling the country out of a five-year civil war that killed almost 400,000 people.

“Suppose we form a government on the 12th, you know what’s going to happen? The ceasefire we’ve been enjoying for over a year will erupt,” said the visiting Machar, whose opposition has said he won’t return to South Sudan for good until security arrangements are in place.

The previous attempt at Kiir and Machar sharing power ended in renewed fighting and Machar fleeing the country on foot in 2016. The issues being discussed today are the same ones that led to that earlier failure, the opposition leader said.

But the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, said the council was “disappointed” by Machar’s warnings. The U.S. has said it would reevaluate its relationship with South Sudan if next month’s deadline isn’t met.

The Security Council still wants the Nov. 12 deadline met, South Sudan government spokesman Michael Makuei said: “No change of schedule nor change of program.” The opposition, however, now wants a three-month delay, Makuei said.

One key outstanding issue is security. Machar and Kiir were told Sunday that it would take at least three months to train at least 41,500 fighters and troops into a unified national army along with a 3,000-member VIP protection force.

South Sudan’s government has said the international community should help fund that process. The Security Council “is of the view that nothing is impossible, nothing is unsurmountable,” said South Africa’s ambassador to the U.N., Jerry Matthews Matjila. The remaining issues can be discussed by an inclusive government, he said.

One South Sudan expert said the international community is making a mistake. “The U.N. Security Council took the wrong approach today,” Alan Boswell, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told The Associated Press.

“Rather than fixate on Nov. 12, everyone should be focused on pressuring the parties to resolve the issues necessary to form a viable government at less risk of collapse,” he said. “There are much worse scenarios than another delay.”

Another expert suggested a different approach. South Sudan’s government “has consistently acted in bad faith,” said Klem Ryan, former coordinator of the Security Council’s panel of experts monitoring sanctions against South Sudan. “They need to be treated as illegitimate through increased international isolation by the diplomatic community until such time as they show a genuine desire to meet the needs of the people of South Sudan.”

The world’s youngest nation erupted in civil war just two years after winning independence from Sudan as Kiir and his deputy, Machar, clashed and their supporters took up arms. Millions have since been displaced and the oil-rich country’s economy has been shattered.

Nigeria’s leader in South Africa after attacks on foreigners

October 03, 2019

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — South Africa’s president on Thursday said “early warning mechanisms” will be put in place to avoid the kind of deadly attacks on foreigners that angered many African countries and led to an extraordinary airlift of Nigerians, while Nigeria’s visiting leader again condemned such violence as “unacceptable.”

What originally was planned as a business meeting between Africa’s two largest economies turned into talks by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on how to calm the unrest that has erupted regularly in South Africa in recent years.

South Africa has been making efforts to mend ties with Nigeria and others after its government faced criticism for not explicitly speaking out against xenophobia at first but instead framing the violence as crime. Ramaphosa on Thursday again stressed the need for immigrants to obey local laws but called the xenophobia “regrettable.”

More than 12 people were killed and more than 700 arrested after bands of South Africans in Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, launched attacks against foreign-owned shops and stalls, looting and burning the small businesses and attacking some shopkeepers.

Nigeria’s foreign minister called the attacks “sickening” and the government recalled its high commissioner to South Africa. South Africa temporarily closed its diplomatic missions in Nigeria, citing concerns over staff safety. In Nigeria’s megacity Lagos, operations of South African telecommunications giant MTN were targeted in retaliatory attacks.

South Africa’s president now says his government is “totally committed” against attacks on foreign nationals. He acknowledges frustration about the country’s high unemployment and sluggish economy but has told countrymen not to take it out on foreigners.

It was not immediately clear how the “early warning mechanisms” to avoid further unrest would work between South Africa and Nigeria. Buhari said police and intelligence forces in both countries should be alert to avoid further violence.

The periodic attacks against Nigerians and citizens of other African nations include accusations by South Africans that foreigners are peddling illegal drugs or taking jobs. The attacks on Nigerians led some in Nigeria to call for the closure of South African companies doing business in the West African powerhouse _ a move that would create instant pain for a bilateral relationship that saw more than $3.3 billion in trade in 2018.

“Relations between our two countries are very strong and we want to welcome more businesses from Nigeria to come here,” Ramaphosa said. He noted that Africa’s population should double to 2.5 billion people by 2050, calling the continent “the next great growth market.”

The violence against foreigners in South Africa is in sharp contrast to the hospitality that other African nations showed to black South Africans during their long fight against the harsh system of white minority rule known as apartheid, which ended in 1994.

“We will not forget how Nigeria spearheaded the call for political and economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa following the Sharpeville Massacre of 21 March 1960, which left many unarmed demonstrators dead,” Ramaphosa said Thursday evening. “Without Nigerian support, our freedom would have come at a much greater cost.”

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