US Lawmakers: Democratic Institutions Backsliding in Sub-Saharan Africa

U.S. lawmakers convened a hearing Wednesday in Washington on what they said was an erosion of democratic institutions in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and its impact on the region’s economic growth as well as access to health and education resources.Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa are retreating from core democratic principles, said Representative Karen Bass, chair of the House subcommittee on Africa, global health, global human rights and international organizations.“Democratic backsliding includes but is not limited to the degradation of free and fair elections, infringement of freedom of speech, impairment of political opposition to challenge the government or hold it accountable [and] the weakening of the rule of law.”Bass said flawed elections remained an issue in most of Africa, with leaders manipulating laws, freedoms and elections to retain power.FILE – U.S. Representative Karen Bass, D-Calif., is pictured after meeting with refugees, July 1, 2019. (Moki Kindzeka/VOA)“Most concerning is the situation in Tanzania, which I recently addressed in House Resolution 1120, where current leadership is repressing the opposition in basic freedoms of expression and assembly in a blatant attempt to retain power,” she said. “We see similar patterns in Cote D’Ivoire as the executive branch legalizes the deviation in democratic institutions to codify nondemocratic actions.”Violence in Côte d’Ivoire has left at least a dozen people dead since last month, when President Alassane Ouattara, 78, broke a promise made this year not to seek reelection. Ouattara reversed his stance and accepted the nomination of his ruling party after his handpicked successor died suddenly of a heart attack in July.ReversalExperts testifying on Capitol Hill noted a backward trend.Christopher Fomunyoh from the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs told lawmakers that Africa went from having only two countries classified as free in 1989 to two-thirds of the countries classified as either free or partially free 20 years later.But now, he said, those democratic gains have been reversed.  Former Defense Minister Bah N’Daw waits to be sworn into the office of transitional president at a ceremony in Bamako, Mali, Sept. 25, 2020. Mali’s transitional president and vice president were sworn into office more than a month after a coup in the West African nation.“Notably, west Africa, previously commended as a trailblazer region, has seen serious backsliding,” he said. “Mali has experienced a major coup, and serious controversies have risen about candidacies of incumbent presidents in Guinea Conakry and Cote D’Ivoire. The central African region remains stuck with the highest concentration of autocratic regimes, with the three longest-serving presidents in the world.”Fomunyoh listed some of the longest-serving leaders: in Equatorial Guinea (41 years), Cameroon (58 years) and Congo-Brazzaville (nearly 40 years).Freedom and democratic governance is enjoyed by far too few Africans, with only 9% of people in sub-Saharan Africa living in countries that Freedom House categorizes as free, said Jon Temin, the Africa Program director at Freedom House.’Citizens bear the brunt’The organization’s most recent report on freedom in the world noted that of the 12 countries with the largest declines, seven were in sub-Saharan Africa.“Citizens bear the brunt of backsliding,” Temin said. “They are attacked when they peacefully protest in opposition of the government, as in Guinea and Cameroon. They are unable to use the internet when the government restricts access, as in Ethiopia and Chad. Civil society groups face excessive limitations on their activity, as in Tanzania and Burundi, and journalists are threatened and detained, as in Nigeria and Zimbabwe.”As for elections, there have been some encouraging signs, said another witness, Dorina Bekoe of the Institute for Defense Analyses.“Kenyan civil society has pioneered platforms where citizens can record incidents of fraud and harassment, and that’s been replicated in many places around the continent,” Bekoe said. “There are election situation rooms where information is conveyed to a central location and steps are taken to mitigate tension. Parallel vote tabulation is also widely practiced as a check on official results.”She also noted positive trends taking place in Ghana, Senegal, Mauritius, Bostwana and South Africa.

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US Bans Palm Oil From Malaysian Company Amid Labor Abuse Allegations

The United States said Wednesday it has banned imports of palm oil from a large producer in Malaysia after an investigation uncovered alleged company labor abuses, including forced child labor and sexual and physical violence.
 
Shipments of palm oil and its products from FGV Holdings were banned immediately, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Trade, which said the ban was the result of a year-long Associated Press investigation.
 
FGV, which has long faced allegations of labor and human rights abuses, is the world’s largest crude palm oil producer and is closely linked to the Malaysian government’s Federal Land Development Authority (Felda).
 
Some of the alleged abuses occurred on Felda plantations, which produced palm oil that was traced to well-known food and cosmetics companies such as L’Oreal, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble and Unilever.
 
FGV did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but the company said in recent statement that “Despite ongoing criticism and allegations against FGV, we will continue with our effort to strengthen our practices to respect human rights and uphold our labor standards.”
 
The investigation also exposed labor abuses in Indonesia’s palm oil industry. Together, the two countries produce about 85% of the world’s palm oil valued at $65 billion annually.
 
More palm oil is consumed worldwide than any other vegetable oil. It is an ingredient in about half of all products on supermarket shelves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says global production of palm oil soared from 4.5 million metric tons in 1999 to 65.3 million today. 

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Republican Lawmakers Grill Comey on Leadership of Russia Probe

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday confronted former FBI Director James Comey about his oversight of the Trump-Russia investigation during a politically charged hearing that focused attention on problems with the probe that have become a rallying cry for President Donald Trump’s supporters.Comey, making his first appearance before Congress since a harshly critical inspector general report on the investigation, acknowledged under questioning that the FBI’s process for conducting surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser was “sloppy” and “embarrassing.” He said he would not have certified the surveillance had he known then what he knows now about applications the FBI submitted in 2016 and 2017 to eavesdrop on the aide, Carter Page.The questioning of Comey, conducted with the election just weeks away, underscores the extent to which the FBI’s investigation four years ago into potential coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia remains front and center in the minds of Republican lawmakers, who see an opening to rally support for the president and cast him as the victim of biased law enforcement. The hearing was part of a review of the Russia probe by the GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee.Just a part of investigationThough Comey acknowledged the FBI’s shortcomings in the surveillance of Page, he also described that aspect of the probe as a “slice” of the broader Russia investigation, which he defended as legitimate and valid.But those answers, including Comey’s repeated assertions that he had been unaware at the time of the extent of problems, frustrated Republicans who point to the surveillance flaws to try to discredit the overall Russia investigation.Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asks questions to former FBI Director James Comey, during an oversight hearing to examine the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation, Sept. 30, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington.A Justice Department inspector general report identified errors and omissions in each of the four applications that the FBI submitted to obtain warrants to surveil Page, who was never charged with any wrongdoing. The FBI relied in part on Democratic-funded research in applying for those warrants. The inspector general report and documents released in recent months have raised questions about the reliability of that research.The FBI relied on that documentation “over and over and over” again, even though it was “fundamentally unsound,” said the Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.’That’s the way it goes'”What do we do? We just say, ‘Well, that was bad, that’s the way it goes’? Does anybody get fired? Does anybody go to jail?” Graham said. “To my Democratic friends, if it happened to us, it can happen to you.”Comey was fired by Trump in May 2017 but has remained a prominent and complicated character for Republicans and Democrats alike. Republicans have joined Trump in heaping scorn on Comey, but Democrats have not embraced him either, angered by his public statements made during the Hillary Clinton email case that they believe contributed to her loss.Democrats lamented the backward-looking nature of Wednesday’s hearing, saying the FBI had good reason to investigate contacts between Trump associates and Russia and that the committee’s time could be better spent on other matters.Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 30, 2020, to examine the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”Most people think we should be talking about other things, except maybe President Trump,” said Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.Comey defended the investigation, which was opened after a campaign adviser boasted that he had heard Russia had damaging information about Clinton. The probe examined multiple contacts between Russians and Trump associates during the 2016 campaign. Comey noted that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation resulted in criminal charges against dozens of people.”In the main, it was done by the book. It was appropriate, and it was essential that it be done,” Comey said.He later added: “The overall investigation was very important. The Page slice of it? Far less, given the scope.”But Comey, the latest high-profile former official from the FBI or Justice Department to testify in Graham’s investigation, acknowledged “embarrassing” problems in the handling of surveillance applications. He said had he known then about the problems, he would not have certified the surveillance “without a much fuller discussion” within the FBI.”I’m not looking to shirk responsibility,” Comey said. “The director is responsible.”Legitimate probeA Justice Department inspector general report did not find evidence of partisan bias and concluded the investigation was opened for a legitimate reason. But Republican lawmakers have seized on the critical aspects of the watchdog report to cast broader doubt on the Russia investigation. They have also released documents they say support the conclusion that the probe was flawed.On Tuesday, Graham revealed that he had received declassified information on the probe from national intelligence Director John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist, even though Ratcliffe has said he does not know if it is true.In a letter to Graham made public Tuesday, Ratcliffe said that in late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained “insight” into Russian spycraft alleging that Clinton had “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against” Trump.But Ratcliffe added that American intelligence agencies do “not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”Comey brushed aside questions about that document, saying, “I don’t understand Mr. Ratcliffe’s letter well enough to comment on it. It’s confusing.”The Senate panel has already heard from Rod Rosenstein and Sally Yates, both former deputy attorneys general, and has scheduled testimony from ex-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
 

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UNMISS Chief: South Sudan Peace Process Limping Along

A top U.N. official says South Sudan’s peace process is limping along and faces serious challenges that could lead to a further escalation in violence. David Shearer, the special representative of the U.N. Secretary General in South Sudan (UNMISS) told reporters in Juba Tuesday urgent action is needed to put the peace process back on track.“The cabinet is meeting irregularly, and people tell me that they want to see the president and vice presidents meeting and working closely together more often. The transitional National Legislative Assembly is yet to be reconstituted, so necessary new laws are not being passed and progress on the constitution has been delayed. Critically, there has been almost no movement on the areas of security sector reform,” said Shearer.
The UNMISS boss, who recently returned to Juba from New York, where he briefed the U.N. Security Council on the situation in South Sudan, said military forces that were supposed to be trained, unified, and deployed are losing hope and have started deserting the country’s training centers.“As a result of lack of food and of logistics and other things being supplied to these training centers, people started to leave, moving back. This is worrying because people are being disillusioned which leads to frustration and anger, and possibly which could mean more violence,” Shearer told reporters.Trainees parade during the visit of the defense minister to a military training center in Owiny Ki-Bul, Eastern Equatoria, South Sudan, June 27, 2020.He said continued delays in implementing the peace deal risk postponing elections beyond the timeline stipulated in the agreement, something he says will deny South Sudanese an opportunity to choose their leaders.
“We really do need to urgently breathe new life into the peace process. The international community and regional partners play an important role but the parties themselves must also step up their efforts to regain lost momentum,” added Shearer.
While the peace process limps along, said the U.N. chief, the country’s military must change its approach in dealing with U.N. peacekeepers. He noted that last month, 92 peacekeepers were blocked from deploying in Lobonok, a civilian area about 120 kilometers southeast of Juba town, which came under threat of more violence after government forces clashed with National Salvation Front rebel forces loyal to Thomas Cirilo.
“For a number of years, we have had an agreement to notify the South Sudan authorities when our peacekeepers move around the country and we do this because we have respect for the sovereignty of South Sudan. However, there is no sign of similar respect from SSPDF for our need to have freedom of movement to protect civilians and build peace,” said Shearer.He added the incident “tarnishes the reputation of the SSPDF.”Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army addresses the media in Juba, South Sudan, Aug. 29, 2017.SSPDF spokesperson Brigadier General Lul Ruai Koang strongly denied that charge, asserting there was insufficient time given for communication regarding the movement of peacekeepers to Lobonok.
“What had happened on that day, yes, they were given permission but there was no sufficient time for our forces to be notified in advance. And as a result as they were headed there, they were stopped and were asked about where they were going and they produced the evidence showing that they were given permission.
“The only thing that was done at that particular checkpoint was for them to stop for a minute so that the commanding officer could establish communication with SSPDF general headquarters, and it was at that time that they started reporting that they had been denied access to Lobonok,” Koang told South Sudan in Focus.
Shearer said the peace process “is stuck,” adding that security reforms “have not moved past the first stage, where forces are trained and graduated.”
 

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Notorious Hate Group Proud Boys Celebrates Trump’s Debate Comments

The Proud Boys are fired up.The notorious hate group has been celebrating since President Donald Trump refused to directly disavow them and other white supremacists during Tuesday night’s presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio.Trump, who has been criticized for never explicitly denouncing right-wing extremism, was asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News if he would condemn white supremacy.“Who would you like me to condemn?” Trump asked before Democratic challenger Joe Biden mentioned the Proud Boys, a pro-Trump right-wing group. “The Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by,” Trump responded cryptically.“But I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you what,” Trump continued. ”Somebody’s gotta do something about antifa and the left, because this is not a right-wing problem, this is a left-wing problem.”Prominent leaders of the Proud Boys, who frequently appear at Trump rallies, took that as a ringing endorsement of their fight against anti-fascist activists known as antifa.On Instagram, Enrique Tarrio, a well-known Proud Boys leader, wrote that he was “excited about the mention on the debate stage.”“Him telling the ProudBoys to stand back and standby is what we have ALWAYS done,” Tarrio wrote.Joe Biggs, another Proud Boys organizer, went further.”Trump basically said to go [expletive] them up!” Biggs wrote.  “This makes me so happy.”Members of the Proud Boys cheer on stage as they and other right-wing demonstrators rally, Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore.Apparent shiftIn the wake of widespread criticism of his refusal to denounce white supremacy, Trump on Wednesday appeared to shift his stance.”I don’t know who the Proud Boys are,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Whoever they are, they need to stand down.”Asked if he denounced white supremacy, Trump said, “I’ve always denounced any form, any form of any of that you have to denounce.”Among Proud Boys, the apparent reversal in Trump’s position was anticipated and is unlikely to diminish their enthusiasm.”Don’t be surprised if he makes a statement on us in the upcoming days to appease the masses,” Biggs wrote Tuesday night. “But he knows we are the good guys.”Biden was highly critical of Trump’s debate performance. Asked by a reporter in Ohio whether he had any advice for the Proud Boys, the former vice president responded, “Cease and desist.”The controversy comes as Trump continues to blame the violence at racial justice protests around the country almost exclusively on antifa, contradicting his own FBI director’s assessment that violent white supremacy remains the biggest domestic national security threat.Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said far-right white supremacists are thrilled with what they see as Trump’s endorsement of the Proud Boys — who are making money off Trump’s comment by selling T-shirts.“And all the talk in those sectors is about how great this is, how they’re ready to support the president,” Beirich said. “President Trump basically gave the Proud Boys a new slogan.”Members of the Proud Boys and other right-wing demonstrators rally, Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore.Who are the Proud Boys?The Proud Boys describe themselves as a drinking club of “Western chauvinists.” But extremism watchdogs say that’s just a guise for what is at its core a misogynistic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant group. Although the group has never advocated a white ethnostate championed by white nationalists, its bigotry is just as extreme, Beirich said.”The organization itself says it stands for Western chauvinism, sometimes Western civilization, which are code words for the white supremacist movement,” Beirich said.In an FILE – Members of a group wearing shirts with the logo of the far-right Proud Boys group argue with counterprotesters during a small protest against Washington state’s stay-at-home orders, May 1, 2020, in downtown Seattle.InterminglingJason Kessler, a former member of Proud Boys, was the main organizer of the 2017 far-right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally, which brought together neo-Nazis, anti-government militiamen and members of the Klan, ended in the death of a counterprotester. Conversely, in recent years, far-right nationalist groups have attended rallies organized by Proud Boys.“We believe that there are streams of white supremacy and white nationalism that run deep through what they do,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.Last year, a Connecticut police officer was forced to retire after the Lawyers Committee exposed him as a Proud Boys member, Clarke said.While Proud Boys publicly disavow violence, their members have engaged in violent acts over the years.FBI Director Christopher Wray testified on Capitol Hill last week that white supremacists and anti-government extremists have been responsible for most of the recent deadly attacks by extremist groups within the United States.Last year, two Proud Boys were convicted of assault and riot charges in connection with beating up antifa activists in New York City in 2018.This year, members of the Proud Boys have taken part in violent clashes between right-wing and left-wing activists in Portland, Oregon, and several other cities. On August 22, Proud Boys fought with left-wing counterprotesters in Portland, engaging in multiple acts of violence, according to ADL.
 

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Sudanese Women Keep Pushing for Democracy

Sudanese women played a pivotal role in ousting former president Omar al-Bashir in 2019.  As Sudan’s transitional government moves toward democracy, for the first time in decades, women are again playing a key role in seeking justice and equality.  Naba Mohiedeen reports from Khartoum.Camera: Naba Mohiedeen Produced by: Robert Raffaele 

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British PM Receives Rare Rebuke in House of Commons

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson received a rare reprimand Wednesday by the speaker of the House of Commons for treating lawmakers with contempt by rushing through far-reaching COVID-19 restrictions without proper review by lawmakers.Just before the prime minister’s weekly “question time” with members of Parliament, Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, admonished Johnson for making rules in a “totally unsatisfactory” way.Hoyle said that several of the COVID-19-related measures were published and brought before Parliament only hours before they were to take effect, and some after the fact. The speaker said the actions showed total disregard for the House of Commons and called on Johnson and his government to prepare measures more quickly.The speaker did hold back a rebellion within Johnson’s own Conservative Party, where more than 50 members had threatened to join an opposition-led measure demanding more say over future rules to stop the spread of the virus and accusing ministers of governing “by decree.”But they were denied a chance to vote on the proposal after the speaker ruled there was not enough time for a proper debate.Later Wednesday, during a news briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson said the government would not hesitate to put even stricter pandemic restrictions in place if evidence supported such a move.Britain reported 7,143 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the highest one-day figure to date for the country, which has the highest official death toll in Europe.Areas of Britain, particularly in the northeast where a second wave of COVID-19 infections is surging, are faced with local restrictions designed to slow its spread. Britain has reported more than 42,233 deaths from the virus, the world’s fifth-highest total.

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Zimbabwe Officials Blame Bacterial Disease for Elephant Deaths

Zimbabwe parks authority officials say they suspect a bacterial disease called hemorrhagic septicemia is behind the recent deaths of at least 34 elephants in the northwestern part of the country.The elephant deaths, which began in late August, come soon after hundreds of elephants died in neighboring Botswana in mysterious circumstances. Authorities subsequently blamed the deaths on toxins produced by another type of bacterium.FILE – A combination photo shows dead elephants in Okavango Delta, Botswana, May-June, 2020. (Photographs obtained by Reuters)Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority Director-General Fulton Mangwanya said Tuesday they have discovered 34 dead elephants, but suspect more may be found.  The elephants were found lying on their stomachs, suggesting a sudden death.Mangwanya said the dead elephants were discovered in an area between the Hwange National Park and Victoria Falls in west-central Zimbabwe, suggesting to him the outbreak has been isolated.Mangwanya said postmortems on some of the elephants showed inflamed livers and other organs. Samples have been sent to the UK and South Africa to confirm the type of disease.Experts say that Zimbabwe’s current elephant population could be close to 90,000.Elephants in Botswana and parts of Zimbabwe are at historically high levels — roughly half of the continent’s 400,000 elephants, according to estimates — but elsewhere on the continent, especially in forested areas, many populations are severely depleted, researchers say. 
 

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