Benin sentences 3 Nigeriens amid diplomatic spat

Cotonou, Benin — A Benin court on Monday handed 18-month suspended jail sentences to three Nigeriens at the center of a diplomatic dispute as tensions escalate between the West African neighbors.

Ties between Benin and Niger have been strained since last year’s coup ousted Nigerien President Mohammed Bazoum, and Benin’s Atlantic port of Seme-Kpodji, which exports landlocked Niger’s oil, has become a flashpoint.

Five Nigeriens were arrested earlier this month at Seme-Kpodji, accused of entering the port illegally.

On Monday, Benin’s Court for the Repression of Economic Offenses and Terrorism (CRIET) sentenced three of them to 18 months in prison suspended, an AFP correspondent said.

Moumouni Hadiza Ibra, Deputy General Director of Wapco-Niger — a local affiliate of a Chinese company operating a pipeline from Niger to Benin’s coast — and two of her compatriots were jailed after their initial arrest.

Wapco has not responded to emails seeking a response.

The court on Monday reclassified the charges as “usurpation of title and use of falsified computer data.”

Lawyers for the three defendants denied all the charges, an AFP correspondent said.

Under regional sanctions imposed on Niger after last year’s coup, Benin closed the border, but it has since reopened its side of the frontier. Niger’s military rulers have refused to reopen their side.

Beninese President Patrice Talon had long conditioned the start of loading of Nigerien oil from Benin’s port on the reopening of the border.

According to Niamey, the arrested team were on a mission to Benin to oversee the loading of oil.

The military regime in Niger described the arrests as a “kidnapping” and said it was ready to “take all measures” to have them released “unconditionally.”

The day after their arrests, the military regime in Niamey closed the valves of the oil pipeline, according to Niger public television.

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Sudanese refugees in Uganda learn English to adapt to new society

One of the chief obstacles for Sudanese refugees trying to build new lives in Uganda is the language barrier. Some of the estimated 40,000 people who arrived in recent months had limited English skills but not enough to hold jobs or move easily through Ugandan society. A women’s empowerment group in central Uganda is trying to change that. Halima Athumani and Mukasa Francis report from Mukono district

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In Namibia, children with disabilities learn life’s lessons through skateboarding

In Namibia, German charity Skate-Aid has built a skate park on the National Institute for Special Education campus. Here, young learners with disabilities can practice a sport Skate-Aid says encourages empowerment, socializing and having fun. Vitalio Angula reports from Windhoek, Namibia.

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3 killed, UN peacekeepers wounded in eastern DR Congo

Goma, DRC — A Romanian “mercenary” and two Congolese soldiers were killed, and a U.N. peacekeeper was wounded in three separate incidents in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, several sources said Sunday.

A security official in the east of the country told AFP on the condition of anonymity that a private military contractor was killed, and three others wounded Saturday by a missile strike on a Congolese army base around 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Goma.

The origin of the strike was not confirmed.  

The capital of North Kivu has been surrounded to the north and west by the Rwandan army and M23 rebels for several months.

Fighting regularly takes place against the Congolese army on the outskirts of the city, while the rebels, backed by Kigali, continue to extend their hold in the east of the country.

The Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Sunday that the deceased and two injured people were Romanian nationals, and that the fourth injured person was of another nationality.

Several Romanian television channels — including the state-owned TVR Info — described the dead fighter as a “Romanian mercenary” under contract to the Congolese army.

Around 200 kilometers north of Goma, in Butembo, at least two soldiers were killed in an ambush, local administrator Colonel Alain Kiwewa told AFP.

He said he did not yet have any details of the identity of the assailants and that an investigation had been opened.

But Kiwewa said the slain soldiers had been supplying others fighting against the ADF rebels.

Since the start of the moth, around 150 people have been killed in attacks attributed to the ADF, which originated in neighboring Uganda and most of whose members swear allegiance to the Islamic State Group.

Also, around Butembo, a MONUSCO (U.N. mission in the DRC) convoy was attacked by unidentified armed men Saturday evening as it returned from a mission.

One peacekeeper was shot in the leg during the attack.

Vivian van de Perre, second-in-command of the U.N. mission, condemned “the violence perpetrated against peacekeepers” and reiterated the need for “unhindered access for the protection of civilians.”  

On Sunday, Pope Francis deplored the surge in violence in eastern DRC and appealed to the national authorities and international communities to “safeguard the lives of civilians.”

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Former South African leader Zuma’s party says it will join opposition in parliament

Johannesburg — South Africa’s uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party will join an alliance of smaller opposition parties in parliament in a bid to take on the African National Congress and Democratic Alliance-led coalition government, it said on Sunday.

The ANC and its largest rival, the white-led, pro-business Democratic Alliance, agreed on Friday to work together in a coalition it called “government of national unity,” a step change after 30 years of ANC rule.

Former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto we Sizwe party came in a surprisingly strong third in the May 29 election which saw the ANC lose its majority. MK won 14.6% of the vote, which translated into 58 seats in the 400-seat National Assembly.

However, MK lawmakers boycotted the first sitting of the National Assembly on Friday after filing a complaint at the country’s top court alleging vote-rigging, which the court dismissed as without merit.

Reading a statement on behalf of Zuma, spokesperson Nhlamulo Ndhlela told reporters that the MK party will join the alliance called the “Progressive Caucus,” which includes the Marxist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the center-left United Democratic Movement.

This alliance commands close to 30% of the seats in the National Assembly, Ndhlela said, sitting next to Zuma – who had a cough but answered questions after the statement – and the leaders of a number of small parties.

“This united effort is necessary because the 2024 election has also resulted in the consolidation of right-wing and reactionary forces who are opposed to economic freedom, radical economic transformation, racial equality and land repossession,” he said.

Ndhlela said that MK had decided to take up its seats in the National Assembly after receiving legal advice and that it would continue to raise its allegations of a rigged election in parliament and in courts.

The Independent Electoral Commission has said the election was free and fair.

Zuma also slammed the unity government — which includes two smaller parties, the socially conservative Inkatha Freedom Party and the right-wing Patriotic Alliance — calling it “meaningless” and a “white-led unholy alliance.”

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Pope appeals for an end to violence in eastern Congo 

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday pleaded for an end to violence and civilian deaths in North Kivu, a conflict-stricken province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. 

At least seven people were killed there on Friday and Saturday after people took to the streets to protest a surge in deadly attacks by suspected Islamist rebels. 

“Painful news continues to arrive of attacks and massacres carried out in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Francis told crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square. 

“I appeal to national authorities and the international community to do everything possible to stop the violence and safeguard the lives of civilians,” he said during his Sunday Angelus message. 

The pope deplored the “many Christians” killed in the conflict, saying “they are martyrs.” 

Francis also renewed calls for peace in Ukraine, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Sudan, Myanmar “and anywhere people suffer from war.”  

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Respiratory diseases plague Kenya as more people burn wood to save money

NAIROBI, Kenya — Piles of firewood surrounded Jane Muthoni in her kitchen made of iron sheets. The roof, walls and wooden pillars were covered in soot. As she blew on the flame for tea, the 65-year-old was engulfed in smoke.

“I’ve used firewood all my life,” she said. “Sometimes I usually cough from inhaling the smoke, and my eyes itch, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t have money to even buy charcoal.”

She was unaware of the lasting toll on her health. But experts are.

Respiratory diseases have been the most prevalent diseases in Kenya for the past several years and are on the rise, according to government authorities, with 19.6 million reported cases last year.

Burning biomass such as firewood is the largest contributor to those diseases, said Evans Amukoye, a scientist with the Kenya Medical Research Institute’s respiratory diseases research center.

“One can have itchy eyes, coughs while inhaling the smoke, and for serious cases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you find that you cannot walk as your lungs have become tight,” Amukoye said. The disease is caused by indoor or outdoor air pollution or smoking.

Data from Kenya’s health ministry shows that chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is responsible for 1.7% of deaths in the country.

People in low-income areas are diagnosed with respiratory diseases later in life compared to middle-class people in urban areas with better awareness and access to health care, Amukoye said.

Families in informal neighborhoods and rural areas are the most affected as most people rely on firewood or fossil fuels for cooking. Women hunched over a smoking fire at stalls for tea or snacks is a common sight in the capital, Nairobi, and beyond.

The government’s 2022 Demographic and Health Survey showed a high dependence on traditional fuels for cooking in Kenya. The number of households relying on biomass like firewood increased from 4.7 million to 6.7 million between 2020 and 2022.

Economist Abraham Muriu said he believes the increase in Kenyans using firewood is a result of economic shocks caused by reduced incomes during the COVID pandemic and ongoing high inflation.

“Firewood is readily available and the most accessible fossil fuel, especially in rural areas,” Muriu said.

He said more Kenyans in urban areas have likely resorted to using firewood or charcoal, too, as prices and taxes rise. Blackened sacks of charcoal are openly on sale at some Nairobi intersections, and the hunt for firewood across the country is constant.

Mercy Letting, 33, a businesswoman in Nairobi’s Kasarani neighborhood was using charcoal to make meals for customers in the first six months after opening her restaurant early last year. With time, it affected her health.

“I am asthmatic, so whenever I used charcoal to cook the smoke would always trigger an attack, forcing me to spend part of my daily earnings on medication. This happened five times,” she said.

She found it expensive, spending 4,500 Kenyan shillings ($33) per month to buy a sack of charcoal. “I eventually had to buy an ‘eco-friendly’ cooker, which has been great for my health and good for business.” It requires less charcoal.

Letting also bought an induction burner, which she said is faster in cooking and more efficient as she spends only 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.38) per day on electricity.

Although companies pursue “clean cooking” options, high prices remain an obstacle to many Kenyans.

“If we want to deliver a truly clean and efficient solution to users across Africa, it needs to be affordable for them,” said Chris McKinney, the chief commercial officer at BURN Manufacturing, which describes itself as a “modern cookstove” company based on the outskirts of Nairobi.

“This has been the key barrier to scaling for us,” he said.

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Even legal African visitors to Europe face hurdles

ALGIERS, Algeria — France has twice rejected visa applications from Nabil Tabarout, a 29-year-old web developer from Algeria who hopes this year to visit his sister there.

He’s among the many people navigating the often-arduous visa process throughout Africa, which faces higher visa rejection rates than anywhere else in the world when it comes to visiting Europe’s Schengen Area. Appointments are often difficult to secure. Applicants often must prove a minimum bank balance, substantiate the purpose of their visit and prove they plan to return home.

“That’s how it is. Every pleasure deserves pain,” said Tabarout, who has succeeded just once in obtaining a French visa.

Though much of Europe’s debate about migration centers on people who arrive without authorization, many more people choose to come by legal means. It’s painful, then, to discover that following the rules often fails.

The disproportionate rejection rates — 10% higher in Africa than the global average — hinder trade, business and educational partnerships at the expense of African economies, according to an April study from U.K.-based migration consultancy firm Henley & Partners.

The study called the practices discriminatory and urged Schengen countries to reform them.

Nowhere are applicants more rejected than in Algeria, where more than 392,000 applicants were rejected in 2022. The 45.8% rejection rate is followed by a 45.2% rejection rate in Guinea-Bissau and 45.1% in Nigeria.

Only one in 25 applicants living in the United States were rejected.

While the study found that applicants from poorer countries experienced higher rejections in general, it noted that applicants from Turkey and India experienced fewer rejection than applicants from the majority of African countries.

The reasons for that anti-Africa bias could be political, according to the study’s author, Mehari Taddele Maru of the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Center. Visa rejections are used as a political tool by European governments, including France, to negotiate the deportation of those who migrate to Europe without proper authorization. North African governments have refused to provide consular documents for their citizens facing deportation.

In an interview, Maru said Algeria has continent-high rejection rates because its number of applicants outpaces those from other African countries for geographic, economic and historical reasons. Many Algerians apply for visas in France, where they speak the language and may have family ties. And North Africa’s proximity to Europe means flights are short and cheap compared to flights from sub-Saharan Africa, leading more people to apply, he said.

Beyond rejection rates, the difficulty of applying is also a policy choice by European governments, Maru said. “When we talk about increasing barriers for potential applicants, it’s not only the rate of rejections, it’s also the restrictions to apply.”

That means the challenges can be local too.

For Algerians like Tabarout, VFS Global is a new player in the visa application process. The subcontractor was hired by French consular authorities after years of criticism about the previous system being dominated by a so-called “visa mafia.”

Applicants previously faced challenges securing time slots, which are quickly reserved by third-party brokers and then resold to the public — similar to how scalpers have dominated concert platforms. Rumors swirled about intricate computer programs connecting to appointment platforms and gobbling up slots within moments.

“They’re a bunch of swindlers who’ve been at it for years, making fortunes on the backs of poor citizens by making them pay dearly to make an appointment to apply for a visa,” asserted Ali Challali, who recently helped his daughter submit a French student visa application.

Under the previous system, applicants told The Associated Press they had to pay 15,000 to 120,000 Algerian dinars (103 to 825 euros) just to get an appointment.

In Algeria, many decide to pursue opportunities in France after not finding adequate economic opportunities at home or seek residency after going to French universities on student visas. According to a 2023 report from France’s Directorate General for Foreign Nationals, 78% of Algerian students “say they have no intention of returning to Algeria” upon finishing their studies.

The visa issue has historically been a cause of political tensions between the countries. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune is scheduled to visit France later this year.

“Everything that can contribute to increasing trade between France, Europe and Algeria must be facilitated in both directions,” French Ambassador Stephane Ramotet said at a recent economic conference in Algiers. “Algerians who want to go to France to develop a business must be able to benefit from all the facilities, particularly visas.”

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Frustrated Ghanaians brace for more disruptions in power

Accra, Ghana — Exasperated Ghanaians already grappling with frequent, unplanned power outages are steeling themselves for more misery after electricity distributors announced increased disruption to the grid in the coming weeks. 

The blackouts — known as “dumsor” in Ghana’s Akan language — are making it harder to run businesses already struggling due to the country’s economic crisis — the worst in a decade.  

On Thursday, the Ghana Grid Company and the Electricity Company of Ghana, which distribute power throughout the West African country of 33 million people, said there would be three weeks of load management because of maintenance work by a gas supplier in Nigeria. 

Nigeria provides Ghana with a percentage of the gas it needs to fire its power-generating plants. 

The announcement came a day after WAPCo, the operator of the pipeline importing gas from Nigeria, also warned there would be a drop in the quantity of gas available because of maintenance work in Nigeria.   

The news has exasperated Ghanaians already dealing with frequent power cuts. 

“The current unannounced power cuts are already making it very hard to keep my poultry frozen,” Judith Esi Baidoo, a 50-year-old frozen poultry vendor in Accra, told AFP. 

She added: “Now, with this three-week load management plan, I fear my entire stock will spoil. I don’t know how my business can survive this.” 

The erratic power supply is tipped to become a key topic in the campaign for December’s presidential election. 

Timothy Oddoye, who repairs mobile phones in the Accra suburb of Kokomlemle, said, “The government had failed us. They’ve had years to fix these problems, yet we are still suffering from the same issues. 

“How can we grow our businesses when we can’t even rely on basic electricity?” 

Despite being one of the African countries where electrification is most advanced, Ghana continues to experience chronic power shortages.  

Domestic electricity production — generated by power plants that are in many cases old and poorly maintained — has struggled to expand in line with rising demand. 

According to International Energy Agency figures, Ghana generates 34 percent of its electricity from hydropower and 63 percent from gas.  

The country produces both oil and gas but still needs to import gas from Nigeria via the 678-kilometer (420-mile) West African Gas Pipeline through Benin and Togo. 

“The reliance on gas, especially from external suppliers, leaves us vulnerable,” said Ben Boakye, executive director of the Africa Center for Energy Policy. 

“The government must prioritize investments in renewable energy and upgrade our existing hydro and thermal plants to ensure [a] consistent power supply.” 

Public frustration at the power cuts erupted on June 8, when hundreds of Ghanaians, led by prominent celebrities, took to the streets of Accra to protest the erratic supply under the slogan #DumsorMustStop.  

These power cuts are even more disturbing for Ghanaians as the country emerges from an economic crisis that saw inflation soar to 54 percent in December 2022. 

It fell back to 25 percent in April 2023, but the population still suffers. 

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Nigeria’s annual inflation rate hits 28-year high: 33.95%

abuja, nigeria — Nigeria’s annual inflation rose to a 28-year high of 33.95% in May, official data showed Saturday, worsening hardships that have fueled public anger against President Bola Tinubu’s economic reforms.

It was the 18th straight month that inflation has risen, up from 33.69% a month earlier.

Price pressures have been spurred by Tinubu’s reforms, chiefly slashing petrol and electricity subsidies and devaluing the naira currency twice within a year.

Labor unions, which suspended a strike called to demand a new minimum wage, have argued that the reforms hurt the poor and have left millions grappling with the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades.

Data published by the National Bureau of Statistics showed food and non-alcoholic beverages continued to be the biggest contributor to inflation in May.

Food inflation, which accounts for the bulk of Nigeria’s inflation basket, rose to 40.66% from 40.53% the previous month.

High food prices and a weaker naira are the main drivers of inflation in Nigeria, analysts say.

The central bank raised interest rates in May for the third time this year in response to the continued rise in inflation.

Governor Olayemi Cardoso of the Central Bank of Nigeria has indicated that rates will stay high for as long as necessary to bring inflation down.

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Surge in rebel attacks sparks deadly protests in Democratic Republic of Congo

BUTEMBO, Democratic Republic of Congo — At least seven people have been killed in unrest in Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, local officials said on Saturday, after people took to the streets to protest a surge in  deadly attacks by suspected Islamist rebels. 

The Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel group affiliated to the Islamic State group, are alleged to have killed more than 40 people in an attack on Mayikengo village this week and more than 80 in attacks on other villages in the eastern province the previous week. 

The insecurity has fueled public frustration, leading to the killing of two soldiers and their driver in Lubero territory by a crowd who torched their vehicle overnight on Friday, local official Julio Mabanga told Reuters. 

On Saturday, further clashes in the area between security forces and local residents led to the deaths of another three people: a civilian, a soldier, and an agent of the ANR national intelligence service, Mabanga said. 

A similar protest broke out in the city of Butembo on Saturday, with hundreds of youths taking to the streets, wielding sticks, chanting and singing songs to denounce the widespread insecurity, according to a Reuters reporter. 

“I’m here at this roundabout, barricading the road. We sympathize with our killed compatriots,” said Daniel Sivanzire Paluku, one of the protesters, who said they needed to block the roads to monitor who was coming and going. 

Butembo Mayor Mowa Baeki Telly confirmed one civilian was killed during clashes between security forces and protesters in the city.  

The ADF originates in neighboring Uganda but is now based in mineral-rich eastern Congo. It has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and mounts frequent attacks, further destabilizing a region where many militant groups compete for influence and resources. 

It has not been possible to reach the ADF for comment on the attacks. 

The U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which follows militant websites, said on Friday the Islamic State had published communiques from its so-called Central Africa Province division claiming responsibility for the killing of 51 people in attacks in North Kivu this week. It has also claimed to have beheaded more than 60 people in a single attack in the province on June 7.  

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University of Cambridge returns 39 traditional artifacts to Uganda

Kampala, Uganda — The University of Cambridge has repatriated more than three dozen traditional artifacts to Uganda in a major act of restitution welcomed by the local officials who sought them. 

Some of the objects were shown exclusively to AP journalists on Wednesday. The British university returned the 39 items, which range from tribal regalia to delicate pottery, to the East African country on Saturday. 

The items remain the property of the collection of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, which is loaning them to Uganda for an initial period of three years, said Mark Elliott, the museum’s senior curator in anthropology. 

Elliott described it as “very much a museum-to-museum collaboration” that stems from years of talks about the possibility of returning objects deemed “exceptionally powerful and exceptionally sensitive to communities whose belongings they were.” 

The objects, selected by Ugandan curators, represent a small fraction of about 1,500 ethnographic objects from Uganda that Cambridge has owned for a century. Cambridge acquired most as donations from private collections, and many were given by an Anglican missionary active in Uganda in the 1890s and early 20th century. 

Uganda was declared a British protectorate in 1894. Independence came in 1962. 

“It’s about putting these objects back in the hands of the Ugandan people,” Elliott said. “These objects have been away from home for so long.” 

The next step is to “research their contemporary significance and to help make decisions about their future,” he said. 

The Uganda Museum in the capital, Kampala, is expected to put on a temporary exhibition of the objects next year. 

Uganda’s agreement with Cambridge is renewable, allowing for the possibility of a permanent loan and perhaps local ownership, said Jackline Nyiracyiza, Ugandan government commissioner in charge of museums and monuments. 

“Sixty years that have passed for us now to get 39 objects,” she said. “We are working now with the Cambridge team to … see that we talk to other museums and be able to repatriate others maybe next year or within the near future.” 

Ugandan officials, seeking such restitution, first traveled to Cambridge in 2022 as more African governments started to demand accountability over items of aesthetic or cultural value that were looted before and during the colonial era. 

Elsewhere in Africa, including the West African nation of Nigeria, there have been successful restitution events in recent years. 

Nelson Abiti, principal curator of the Uganda Museum, spoke of the Cambridge deal as a breakthrough that could prove exemplary for other museums with ethnographic items from Uganda. 

“This is the biggest single movement of objects returned to the African continent” in recent years, Abiti asserted. 

Still, restitution remains a struggle for African governments, and the African Union has put the return of looted cultural property on its agenda. The continental body aims to have a common policy on the issue.

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Report: Highly potent opioids now show up in drug users in Africa

ABUJA, Nigeria — Traces of highly potent opioids known as nitazenes have for the first time been found to be consumed by people who use drugs in Africa, according to a report released Wednesday by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a nonprofit organization.

Nitazenes, powerful synthetic opioids, have long been in use in Western countries as well as in Asia where they have been associated with overdose deaths. Some of them can be up to 100 times more potent than heroin and up to 10 times more potent than fentanyl, meaning that users can get an effect from a much smaller amount, putting them at increased risk of overdose and death.

The report focused on Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau and is based on chemical testing of kush, a derivative of cannabis mixed with synthetic drugs like fentanyl and tramadol and chemicals like formaldehyde. Researchers found that in Sierra Leone, 83% of the samples were found to contain nitazenes, while in Guinea-Bissau it was identified in 55%.

“The GI-TOC ( Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime) believes that these results are the first indication that nitazenes have penetrated retail drug markets in Africa,” the report said.

Many young people in West and Central Africa have become addicted to drugs with between 5.2% and 13.5% using cannabis, the most widely used illicit substance on the continent, according to the World Health Organization.

In Sierra Leone where kush is one of the most widely consumed drugs, President Julius Maada Bio this year declared war on the substance, calling it an epidemic and a national threat.

Nitazenes have been detected repeatedly in substances sold to young people in the region such that users are most likely ingesting them “without knowing the risks they face,” Wednesday’s report said.

The authors said their findings suggest that nitazenes are being imported into Sierra Leone from elsewhere and that the substance being sold as kush in Guinea-Bissau was of similar chemical composition to that found in Freetown.

Officials in the two countries must deploy chemical testing equipment as a first step in tackling drug abuse, the report said. “Without this, it is impossible for the government of Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and the wider subregion to accurately monitor the countries’ illicit drug markets and develop evidence-based responses,” it said.

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UN experts say Sudan paramilitaries are recruiting in Central African Republic

United nations — Sudanese paramilitary forces are using the Central African Republic as a “supply chain,” including for recruitment of fighters, according to a report published Friday by U.N. experts who are concerned about a “spillover effect.” 

Sudan descended into war in April 2023 when the generals in charge of the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) took up arms against each other in a fight for control, rejecting a plan to integrate. 

“The spillover effect of the conflict in the Sudan has significantly affected the situation in the Central African Republic,” said the expert committee, formed by the U.N. Security Council to monitor sanctions on C.A.R. 

They highlighted in particular the humanitarian situation, as the country sees an influx of millions of Sudanese refugees, as well as incursions by the two warring Sudanese parties – plus air raids by the Sudanese army in and around the Umm Dafog border post, where the RSF is present. 

This “continues to constitute a security threat to civilians and an impediment to humanitarian activities in the area,” the experts said. 

They insist the paramilitaries are also using the Am Dafok area in C.A.R. on the border “as a key logistical hub.” 

Because the RSF can “move between the two countries easily through a long-standing network,” they have been able to recruit “from among armed groups in the Central African Republic.” 

“Opposition armed groups from the Central African Republic have been reported to have actively recruited for, and sent members of their own groups to fight in, the Sudan under RSF,” the experts said. 

They noted in particular fighters in Sudan since as early as August 2023 from the Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central Africa, a C.A.R. rebel group.

The experts said they are aware that this armed group and others “are still able to cross between the Sudan and the Central African Republic at will and use Sudanese territory to launch attacks.” 

The experts thus called on C.A.R. authorities to “counteract the surge in arms trafficking from neighboring countries, particularly given the current conflict situation in the Sudan.” 

They also asked the leaders to combat “the infiltration of foreign fighters into the Central African Republic, which poses a significant long-term threat to the region.” 

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World Bank approves $2.25B loan to support economic reform in Nigeria

ABUJA, Nigeria — The World Bank has approved a $2.25 billion loan for Nigeria to shore up revenue and support economic reforms that have contributed to the worst cost-of-living crisis in many years for Africa’s most populous country. 

The bank said in a statement late Thursday that the bulk of the loan — $1.5 billion — will help protect millions who have faced growing poverty since a year ago when President Bola Tinubu came to power and took drastic steps to fix the country’s ailing economy. 

The remaining $750 million, the bank said, will support tax reforms and revenue and safeguard oil revenues threatened with limited production caused by chronic theft. 

President Tinubu’s economic reforms — including ending decadeslong but costly fuel subsidies and unifying the multiple exchange rates — have resulted in surging inflation that is at a 28-year high. 

Under growing pressure from citizens and workers protesting the hardship, Tinubu’s government said in May that it was seeking the loan to support its long-term economic plans. 

Mohamed Malick Fall, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, told a U.N. news conference in New York that about $800 million will go to a cash transfer program that will enable the number of households benefitting from social support to increase from 3 million to 15 million. That will help alleviate immediate suffering and could impact up to 70 million people, considering every household has five to seven people, he said. 

Fall said the government has put about $450 million into a social protection scheme, and to sustain the social safety net in the long term, the U.N. is advising it to develop a sustained investment program that isn’t dependent on foreign assistance as part of its poverty alleviation plan. 

The government said it was also taking steps to boost foreign investment inflows, which fell by 26.7% — from $5.3 billion in 2022 to $3.9 billion in 2023, according to the Nigerian Economic Summit Group think tank. 

Nigeria already has a high debt burden that has limited how much money the government can spend from its earnings. Its reliance on borrowing for public infrastructure and social welfare programs saw public debt surge by nearly 1,000% in the past decade. 

The World Bank, however, said it was “critical to sustain the reform momentum” under Tinubu. The government’s economic policies have placed the country “on a new path which can stabilize its economy and lift its people out of poverty,” according to Ousmane Diagana, the World Bank vice president for Western and Central Africa. 

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600 US troops remain in Niger as withdrawal continues

Pentagon — About 600 U.S. military personnel remain in Niger, as American troops continue to withdraw from the country before a mid-September deadline, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

“We are on track to be done before the 15th of September,” the senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues. However, the official cautioned that the rainy season could potentially slow withdrawal efforts.

Last month, U.S. and Nigerien leaders agreed to a phased withdrawal of American forces from Niger after being in the country for more than a decade.

At that time, there were about 900 U.S. military personnel in Niger, including active duty, civilians and contractors, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity ahead of the withdrawal agreement.

The withdrawal agreement between the U.S. and Niger confirmed protections and immunities for U.S. personnel and approved diplomatic clearances for withdrawal flights “to ensure smooth entries and exits.”

American forces were deployed in Niger to help local militaries combat Islamist terrorists in the Sahel.

The United States has used two military bases in the country — Air Base 101 in Niamey and Air Base 201 in Agadez — to monitor various terror groups. Most U.S. forces in Niger are currently based in the latter, which cost the U.S. $110 million to build, and began drone operations in 2019.

Niger’s natural resources have increased its importance to global powers, and its location had provided the U.S. with the ability to conduct counterterror operations throughout much of West Africa.

Countries in the region, including Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, have seen an expansive rise in extremist movements.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, an annual report covering terrorist incidents worldwide, more than half of the deaths caused by terrorism last year were in the Sahel.

Niger’s neighbor, Burkina Faso, suffered the most, with 1,907 fatalities from terrorism in 2023.

Unless the U.S. can find another base to use in West Africa, counterterror drones will likely have to spend most of their fuel supply flying thousands of kilometers from U.S. bases in Italy or Djibouti, severely limiting their time over the targets and their ability to gather intelligence.

“That’s a significant policy matter that the U.S. is grappling with right now,” the senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday.

Coup forced withdrawal 

Tensions between the U.S. and Niger began in 2023 when Niger’s military junta removed the democratically elected president from power.

After months of delay, the Biden administration formally declared in October 2023 that the military takeover in Niger was a coup, a determination that prevented Niger from receiving a significant amount of U.S. military and foreign assistance.

In March, after tense meetings between U.S. representatives and Niger’s governing military council, the junta called the U.S. military presence illegal and announced it was ending an agreement that allowed American forces to be based in the country.

During that meeting, the U.S. and Niger fundamentally disagreed about Niger’s desire to supply Iran with uranium and work more closely with Russian military forces.

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Sudanese army kills US-sanctioned RSF commander in Darfur

CAIRO — Sudan’s army said on Friday it had killed Ali Yagoub Gibril, a senior commander for the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces who was under U.S. sanctions, during a battle in the besieged north Darfur city of al-Fashir.

There was no immediate comment from the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF.

Gibril was a leading commander for the RSF in al-Fashir, the last major city in the Darfur region of Sudan that the paramilitary force does not control.

The army said in a statement Yacoub was killed as an RSF attack was thwarted early Friday by its troops and allied “joint forces” fighting alongside it — a reference to non-Arab former rebel groups from Darfur that are aligned with the army.

The RSF has been besieging al-Fashir, a city of 1.8 million people, for weeks, and top United Nations officials have warned that the worsening conflict there could trigger widespread intercommunal violence.

The U.N. Security Council called Thursday for a halt to the siege.

War between the army and the RSF erupted over conditions for a transition to democracy in mid-April last year in the capital Khartoum, soon spreading to other parts of the country.

The conflict has led to the world’s largest displacement crisis, renewed ethnic violence in Darfur blamed on the RSF and its allies, and a sharp increase in extreme hunger.

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UN: 60 million people in southern Africa food insecure

HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The U.N. says an estimated 60 million people in southern Africa are food insecure due to the El Nino-induced drought — and the problem is not only in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, countries that have made international appeals for help.

In a statement, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said Angola, eSwatini, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Tanzania are also being affected by the drought hitting southern Africa.

Plaxedes Madzikatire, who lives about 100 kilometers south of Harare, is one of the millions struggling to cope with the drought. She is getting $65 a month from the World Food Program (WFP) which she is using to take care of her four children after her crops dried up and died.

She said from the money, $25 is used to pay for food and $20 for school fees. She uses the remaining $20 to finance and upgrade her business of selling hoes and axes she makes from scrap metal. She’s hoping the WFP can extend its assistance by a few more months.

WFP winds up assistance in Madzikatire’s area next month, but the organization hopes to restart soon — and in the whole of Zimbabwe — as the effects of the El Nino drought intensify.

In a recent interview via Skype from Zambia’s capital Lusaka, WFP Executive Director Cindy McCain, who was visiting the region to assess the impact of drought, described it as a disaster.

“These people have lost everything,” she said. “They have no income. They have no way of surviving without assistance for the whole year because their next growing season will not be harvested until next May. These people depend on the stores they get from their crops, they didn’t get any this time.”

McCain said the recurrence of droughts due to climate change calls for greater investment into weather forecasts so people can be prepared for what is coming.

And that’s not all, she said. Drought-resistant crops and good water-management practices can help, too.

“We should treat and manage this drought crisis, the same way we would an emergency crisis in a war zone, let’s say,” she said. “This is very serious and can devastate a country. So, it’s important that we can better use the tools we have and offer new science and technology to help farmers to be able to grow.”

Last month, at a virtual summit of SADC heads of state and government on the El Nino-induced humanitarian crisis, regional leaders appealed for $5.5 billion.

The FAO says as El Nino’s grip loosens, La Nina looms and the region should brace for new challenges, as that weather phenomenon usually leads to heavy rainfall and flooding, leading to crop damage and displacement of people.

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UN Security Council demands halt to fighting in Darfur’s El Fasher

united nations — The U.N. Security Council demanded Thursday that the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) halt their siege on the North Darfur capital, El Fasher, as they are poised to take the last remaining city in Sudan’s Darfur region from the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).

The council adopted a British-drafted resolution in a 14-0 vote. Russia abstained. The council also called for de-escalation in and around the city, where more than 800,000 civilians have been sheltering, many of them displaced from other parts of Darfur that have fallen to the paramilitary group. 

“This council has sent a strong signal to the parties to the conflict today,” British Ambassador Barbara Woodward said. “This brutal and unjust conflict needs to end.”

It was not immediately clear if the parties would heed the council’s demands. An earlier resolution in March that called for a cease-fire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was ignored.

The situation in North Darfur’s capital escalated on May 10 when clashes erupted inside El Fasher between the SAF, who are inside the city, and the RSF, who attacked surrounding towns before entering the state capital. Thousands of people have since tried to flee, and humanitarians report hundreds of civilian casualties. 

Sudan’s deputy U.N. ambassador said El Fasher is facing “great and unprecedented dangers,” and he urged the council to hold responsible external actors who are fueling the conflict. 

“The support by some countries to these militias directly contributes to the continuation of violence and destruction in the Sudan,” Ammar Mohammed said. “And we name here the official and regional sponsor of the criminal militias — namely the United Arab Emirates — whose support and weaponry leads to entrenching the suffering and misery of civilians in the Sudan.” 

The United Arab Emirates has repeatedly denied sending arms to the RSF. But a report by a U.N. panel of experts earlier this year said there was substance to media reports that cargo planes originating in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, had landed in eastern Chad with arms, ammunition and medical equipment destined for the RSF. 

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation grows more dire by the day. The United Nations warns that 5 million Sudanese are on the brink of famine, including tens of thousands of people in the Darfur region. 

The council demanded in its resolution Thursday that the parties ensure the protection of civilians and facilitate rapid, safe and unhindered aid access. 

“The impact of today’s vote will be measured by the results on the ground,” said U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “So, the RSF and SAF must heed the demands of this council. We will be watching closely. If the situation on the ground doesn’t change for the better, this council must take further action.” 

She said that could include authorizing cross-border aid access from Sudan’s neighbors. 

Catastrophe unfolding 

The head of Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab, which has been tracking action on the ground in Sudan for months using satellite and other technology, told reporters on a conference call Thursday that an SAF defeat in El Fasher could be imminent. 

“We are talking hours and days before the potential fall of El Fasher,” Nathaniel Raymond said. “And we are talking about a Sudanese Armed Forces contingent — the 6th Infantry Division — that we can assess is clearly outnumbered and surrounded by RSF, who are gaining ground … from multiple directions inside El Fasher city.” 

He said the lab has also observed growing damage in and around El Fasher in the past 10 days, equivalent to the size of more than 200 football pitches. That includes signs of significant looting at the city’s last remaining hospital. People are also on the move in large numbers. 

The United Nations and others fear a full-scale battle for El Fasher could unleash atrocities similar to the genocide carried out by Arab Janjaweed fighters against African Zaghawa, Masalit, Fur and other non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur in the early 2000s. Janjaweed fighters make up elements of today’s RSF. 

Paris-based medical charity Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, said Thursday that only one surgical hospital is still functioning in El Fasher since South Hospital was shut down after being raided and looted by the RSF. 

Both the RSF and SAF were added to the annual U.N. list of shame, published Thursday, for perpetrating grave violations against children during 2023. They were blacklisted for killing and maiming children, for attacking schools and hospitals, and in the case of the RSF, for sexual violence and recruiting and using children in their ranks. 

“We have to alert the international community that there is a catastrophe happening in El Fasher of a magnitude that we have not seen before,” said Omer Ismail, a former Sudanese diplomat who was born in Darfur and documents war crimes for The Enough Project and The Sentry organizations. 

“I know the attention of the world is not on Sudan at this point, but we call for that urgently,” he told reporters in a briefing call. 

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FBI chief visits Kenya to bolster security collaboration

Nairobi — The top U.S. law enforcement officer has concluded a five-day visit to Kenya, pledging to continue working with the East African nation to ensure peace and stability in the region. FBI Director Christopher Wray said there was a need for continued cooperation and collaboration with Kenyan security agencies to deal with ongoing terror threats from groups such as al-Shabab.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation will partner with Kenya’s security agencies to enhance operations for the stability of Kenya and the region.

Speaking at Kenya’s Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI), FBI Director Christopher Wray said there was a need to work together to stop criminals who threaten the country and global peace and stability. 

“I have said before that the bad guys are not constrained by international borders, so the good guys should not be either. And together, leveraging our collective insights and authorities and perspectives, we’re making a huge impact on the threats we face. Terrorism, of course, is very much top among them,” he said.

While in Kenya, the FBI head visited shopping malls, a national park, and the Dusit D2 Hotel, which was attacked by al-Shabab militants in January 2019, resulting in the deaths of 21 people.

In February 2020, a year after the Dusit D2 hotel terror attack, the FBI and the U.S. State Department partnered to assist Kenya in creating the Joint Terrorism Task Force, which consists of the country’s security agencies and some ministries. The agencies rely on each other’s expertise to fight threats.

Kenyan security agencies have been accused of lacking coordination in dealing with terrorists when they storm populated areas like the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and the Garissa University attack in 2015. 

Kenya’s head of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, Amin Mohamed, said the Joint Terrorism Task Force has helped his country provide better security to its citizens and visitors.

“Our various security agencies were operating in silos. Then we said, why can’t we all bring them like a one-stop shop, whereby now we can exchange information and ideas. And we have really registered a lot of success,” he said.

Kenyan security expert Richard Tuta said a security collaboration can defeat criminals who have defied borders.

“I think what is of importance is that aspect of collaboration. Collaboration in terms of intelligence gathering, intelligence analyzing and intelligence dissemination. That is something that is very important because one thing that we should agree among us, all of us, is that it takes a network to beat a network. Criminals are networked, so security agencies must be networked,” said Tuta.

He said there are also more persistent security threats and challenges in the world that will require U.S. support for Kenya to manage.

“Some aspects of crime defies country boundaries, like, for instance, matters to do with human trafficking, drug trafficking, terrorism, other issues, like, for instance, matters to do with cybercrime. All of it now, it requires a concerted effort to counter such like aspect of crime,” said Tuta.

The al-Qaida-linked terror group al-Shabab has been unsuccessful in conducting terror attacks in the capital, Nairobi, for the last couple of years, but the group continues to carry out attacks against government forces and civilians in northeastern and coastal regions that border Somalia.

In his five-day visit to Nairobi, Wray met with the ethics and anti-corruption agency head and officials, and focused on countering corruption, money laundering, and other economic crimes.

Washington said it will provide support, training, and modern investigation tools to help agencies prosecute economic crimes suspects that have contributed to terrorism and insecurity in the continent. 

Kenyan government agencies hope the visit will make them better prepared to manage the security of the country and, if need be, the region. 

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