Nigerian Government, Union Workers Launch Strike Over Inflation

Abuja, Nigeria — Nigeria’s government and union workers began a new nationwide strike Tuesday that threatened to shut down key services while people are angry about soaring inflation and growing economic pain. 

Since assuming office in Africa’s most populous country last year, President Bola Tinubu has enacted policies that include doing away with fuel subsidies and unifying the country’s multiple exchange rates, leading to a devaluation of the naira against the dollar. 

Gasoline prices have more than doubled and inflation has shot up as a result, reaching close to 30% last month, the highest in nearly three decades, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. 

“We are hungry. There is nobody that doesn’t know this,” said Joe Ajaero, president of the Nigerian Labor Congress. 

Others said the protest was the only way to get the government’s attention. 

“Things are getting out of hand,” said Christian Omeje, a shop owner in the capital, Abuja. “Prices keep soaring, the aid the government said it would dole out has not been provided.” 

This is just the latest strike action. In October, government labor unions reached a deal with the government to end strikes in return for monthly stipends and subsidies to cushion the blow of the new policies. Still, the unrest continued. 

Unions say the government has failed to deliver on promises that included a monthly wage increase of approximately $20 for all workers for six months and payments of approximately $15 for three months to millions of vulnerable households. 

A pledge to roll out gas-powered buses for mass transit last year also failed to materialize. 

Most services appeared to continue Tuesday with a reduced workforce. 

UN Member States Focus on Environmental Crisis at Nairobi Meeting

The U.N. Environment Assembly, known as UNEA-6, is meeting in Nairobi this week to chart solutions to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Juma Majanga reports from the U.N. Environment headquarters in Nairobi.

Ethiopia Arrests French Journalist

washington — A French journalist on assignment in Ethiopia is in custody after being arrested in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Antoine Galindo, who works for the Paris-based media outlet Africa Intelligence, was arrested at a hotel while interviewing Bate Urgessa, a spokesperson for the opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) party.

Police also detained Bate, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ.

Police accused the reporter of “conspiracy to create chaos,” according to a statement by Galindo’s employer. He was detained Thursday and a court on Saturday ordered that the journalist be held until March 1.

Africa Intelligence in a statement said that a lawyer for the publication attended the hearing Saturday.

The publication added that it “condemns the unjustified arrest … and calls for [Galindo’s] immediate release.”

Galindo heads the Eastern Africa and Horn section of Africa Intelligence. He traveled to Ethiopia on February 13 to cover the African Union summit and other local reporting assignments, according to his employer.

The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

International press freedom groups condemned the arrest and called for Ethiopian authorities to free Galindo.

“The baseless and unjustified detention of Antoine Galindo for carrying out his legitimate journalistic duties is outrageous,” said CPJ’s Angela Quintal in a statement.

Quintal, who heads CPJ’s Africa program, said that Ethiopia has a “dismal” press freedom record and is detaining at least eight other journalists.

The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders or RSF said in a statement that Galindo’s arrest comes amid a difficult climate for media in Ethiopia.

“The authorities are trying to control the narrative of recent social and political tensions, [and] there is growing hostility towards independent journalism that seeks to cover any national issues,” said Sadibou Marong, who is director of RSF’s sub-Saharan Africa bureau.

“The authorities are also targeting foreign media and journalists. Antoine Galindo’s totally arbitrary detention is a terrible example,” Marong added.

Human rights activists have criticized Ethiopia’s restrictions on media, including coverage of conflicts and security issues.

Foreign journalists have been expelled from Ethiopia or denied accreditations to work in recent years. The last case of foreign journalists being detained was in 2011, when two journalists from Sweden were arrested.

They were sentenced to 11 years in prison for helping and promoting a rebel group and entering the country illegally before being pardoned and released the following year, Reuters reported.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed freed dozens of jailed members of the media when he came to power in 2018 as part of a raft of political reforms.

But critics say his government has cracked down hard on dissent as civil conflicts, including a 2020-2022 war in the northern Tigray region, have broken out.

Abiy says he is guaranteeing stability and law and order in the multiethnic nation.

Some information in this report came from Reuters.

Experts Doubt ECOWAS Easing Sanctions on Juntas Will Have Impact

Abuja, Nigeria — The decision by West African regional bloc ECOWAS to suspend sanctions against Niger and to ease sanctions on Mali and Guinea has been mostly welcomed by regional political analysts. ECOWAS said its decision, announced Saturday, was based on humanitarian grounds and will pave the way for talks with the three countries’ military juntas. But some analysts are skeptical the decision will have much effect.

Forty-eight hours after ECOWAS announced its decision, there’s excitement over the development in Niger and parts of northern Nigeria affected by the measure.

ECOWAS unfroze Niger’s assets in West Africa, suspended border closures and ended the no-fly-zone for commercial flights to and from Niger.

Idayat Hassan, a senior associate for the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the decision should make life easier for average people in Niger.

“There’s actually expected to be like an improvement in the economy of this country. Particularly when it comes to Nigeria and Niger, we expect to see even the flow of food, goods and services. Beyond that citizens will have access to services more than they used to. We expect that the price of food will reduce in this country,” said Hassan.

The sanctions were the regional bloc’s response to the July ouster of Niger’s President Mohammed Bazoum by the military.

But the measure, considered the most stringent meted out on any member state, hit Niger hard. The extreme poverty rate in Niger has surpassed 40 percent, according to the World Bank.

The regional body said Saturday its decision to suspend sanctions was based on humanitarian considerations and to enable further dialogue with Niger’s military junta.

ECOWAS has been struggling to stop a wave of military takeovers and political crisis rocking West Africa.

Last month Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, all governed by juntas, announced withdrawal from ECOWAS, criticizing the bloc’s sanctions on military governments.

Political analyst Ahmed Buhari said it is unlikely that lifting sanctions will change those countries’ position.

“I think the real question is does Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali even care about the lifting of the sanctions? The thing is those guys have moved on, those guys have put their acts together, they have a direction. Our approach on foreign affairs relationships with those countries especially as headed by ECOWAS was flawed right from the beginning,” he said.

In September, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso created a bloc known as the Alliance of Sahel States.

Last week, the alliance announced it was creating a confederation and could launch a joint currency soon.

Buhari said if that happens, it will have “serious consequences for regional integration and development.”

Uganda Authorities Say 30 Ugandans Stuck in Myanmar Scam Compounds

The Ugandan government says about 30 Ugandans are stuck in Myanmar, being forced to work as online scammers. Officials say they were lured there by traffickers with the promise of a job and are now being held by gangs who run the scamming operations. Halima Athumani and Mukasa Francis have more from Kampala where they spoke with other Ugandans who managed to make it back home.

The Rise of Female Skateboarders in South Africa

In South Africa, skateboarding is enjoying something of a revolution. The once predominantly male pursuit is attracting more and more women. VOA’s Zaheer Cassim reports from Johannesburg.

Algeria Inaugurates Africa’s Largest Mosque After Years of Political Delays, Cost Overruns

ALGIERS, Algeria — Algeria inaugurated a gigantic mosque on its Mediterranean coastline Sunday after years of political upheaval transformed the project from a symbol of state-sponsored strength and religiosity to one of delays and cost overruns.

Built by a Chinese construction firm throughout the 2010s, the Great Mosque of Algiers features the world’s tallest minaret, measuring at 265 meters (869 feet). The third-largest mosque in the world and largest outside Islam’s holiest cities, its prayer room accommodates 120,000 people. Its modernist design contains Arab and North African flourishes to honor Algerian tradition and culture as well as a helicopter landing pad and a library that can house up to 1 million books.

The inauguration would guide Muslims “toward goodness and moderation,” said Ali Mohamed Salabi, the General Secretary of world union of Muslim Ulemas.

Propagating a moderate brand of Islam has been a key priority in Algeria since government forces subdued an Islamist-led rebellion throughout the 1990s when a bloody civil war swept the country.

Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune inaugurated the mosque, fulfilling his promise to open it with great pomp and circumstance. The event, however, was mainly ceremonial. The mosque has been open to international tourists and state visitors to Algeria for roughly five years. An earlier ceremony was delayed.

The timing allows the mosque to officially open to the public in time to host nightly prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next month.

Beyond its gigantic dimensions, the mosque is also known for the delays and controversy that characterized the seven years it was under construction, including the choice of site, which experts warned was seismically risky. The state denied that in a news release Sunday posted on APS, the state news agency website. Throughout the delays and cost overruns, the project never stopped feeding Algerians’ anger, with many saying they’d rather have four hospitals built throughout the country.

The project’s official cost was $898 million.

The mosque was originally a project of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who designed it to be the largest in Africa. He wanted it to be his legacy and called “Abdelaziz Bouteflika Mosque” much like Mosque Hassan II in Casablanca, Morocco. That mosque, named after the former King of Morocco — Algeria’s neighbor and regional rival — was once marketed as Africa’s largest.

But the protests that swept Algeria in 2019 and led him to resign after 20 years in power prohibited Bouteflika from realizing his plans, naming the mosque after himself or inaugurating it in February 2019 as scheduled.

The mosque — along with a major national highway and a million new housing units — each were marred by suspicions of corruption during the Bouteflika era, with suspected kickbacks to contractors then paid to state officials.

Sudan Authorities Block Cross-Border Aid to Stricken Darfur

Port Sudan, Sudan — Authorities loyal to the army in war-ravaged Sudan have blocked cross-border aid to the western Darfur region, a move decried by aid workers and the United States.

The vast Darfur region, bordering Chad, has been one of the hardest hit parts of Sudan since war began 10 months ago between the Sudanese Armed Forces and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

RSF are descendants of the Janjaweed militia, which began a scorched earth campaign in Darfur more than two decades ago.

In their current battle against the army, which started last April, the RSF have taken over four out of the five Darfur state capitals.

More than 694,000 people have fled over the border to Chad, according to the International Organization for Migration, but many more remain trapped in Darfur and in need of assistance.

The United Nations has had to limit its work in Darfur to cross-border operations from Chad, but last week the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) country director Eddie Rowe told reporters that “authorities have restricted the Chad cross-border operation.”

State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Friday the United States is deeply concerned by the army’s “recent decision to prohibit cross border humanitarian assistance from Chad and reports that the SAF is obstructing assistance from reaching communities in areas controlled by the RSF.”

Sudan’s foreign ministry, loyal to the army, expressed “confusion and rejection” of the “false accusations” by Washington.

The ministry said the Sudan-Chad border “is the main crossing point for weapons and equipment” used to commit “atrocities” against the Sudanese.

A United Nations experts’ report in January cited credible evidence that the United Arab Emirates was funneling “military support” through Chad to the RSF. The UAE has denied the allegations.

Miller, of the State Department, also expressed concern about RSF “looting homes, markets and humanitarian assistance warehouses.” 

In Brussels, Rowe said his agency was “engaging with the authorities to ensure this critical lifeline” from Chad remains operational.

It is essential, an international aid worker told AFP on Sunday from Darfur, requesting anonymity so as not to jeopardize their mission.

“Children and babies are already dying from hunger and malnutrition. There will be an immense human impact… and quite possibly large-scale mortality rates,” the aid worker said.

“The highest levels of diplomacy need to unblock this situation immediately because millions of lives hang in the balance,” the aid worker said, calling it “a huge region already facing an imminent and immense food security crisis on top of a civil war, ethnic violence and state service collapse.”

The war has killed thousands, including up to 15,000 in the West Darfur city of El Geneina alone, according to the U.N. experts.

Washington has accused both sides of war crimes and said the RSF also carried out ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Gunmen Kill at Least 15 Worshippers at Burkina Church

Abuja, Nigeria — At least 15 Catholic worshippers were killed in a Burkina Faso village on Sunday when gunmen attacked a community as they gathered for prayers in the country’s conflict-hit northern region, Church officials said.

The violence in the village of Essakane was a “terrorist attack” that left 12 of the Catholic faithful dead at the scene, while three others died later as they were being treated for their wounds, according to a statement issued by Abbot Jean-Pierre Sawadogo, vicar-general of the Catholic Diocese of Dori, where the attack happened.

No further details were provided about the attack, which no group claimed responsibility for. But suspicion fell on jihadis who have frequently attacked remote communities and security forces, especially in the northern region.

“In this painful circumstance, we invite you to pray for the rest in God for those who have died in faith, for the healing of the wounded and … for the conversion of those who continue to sow death and desolation in our country,” Sawadogo said in a statement.

About half of Burkina Faso is outside government control as jihadi groups have ravaged the country for years. Fighters have killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million people, further threatening the stability of the country that had two coups in 2022.

The country’s junta has struggled to restore peace in violent hot spots. Since the first coup in January 2022, the number of people killed by jihadis has nearly tripled compared with the 18 previous months, according to a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in August.

In addition to the junta’s limited capacity, the security situation also has been worsened by the country’s porous borders with Mali and Niger, both of which are also run by juntas and which struggle with security crises.

9 Killed in South Africa Crash After Attending ANC Election Rally

Cape Town — Nine people were killed in a road crash in South Africa on Sunday after attending an election rally by President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ruling African National Congress party.

The ANC supporters were traveling on a bus back to their home province of Mpumalanga the morning after Saturday’s rally in the eastern city of Durban, the ANC said in a statement. The bus left the road and overturned, police said.

Emergency services said 17 people were hurt in the crash near the small town of Paulpietersburg, around 360 kilometers (223 miles) north of Durban.

The ANC said that some of the injured were in critical condition. Provincial ANC officials were traveling to the crash scene and to the hospitals where the injured had been taken, the party said.

The ANC officially launched its election manifesto at Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium on Saturday in front of tens of thousands of supporters.

The May 29 national election could be the biggest threat yet to the ANC’s 30 years in government in South Africa, with opinion polls predicting the party could lose its majority for the first time since it came to power in 1994 following the end of apartheid. 

Why Aid Groups Are Warning of New Humanitarian Crisis in Eastern DR Congo

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Aid organizations fear a new humanitarian crisis in the restive eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the armed rebel group M23 is in the midst of a new advance that threatens to cut off a major city and leave millions of people struggling for food and medical help.

Eastern Congo has been beset by conflict for years, with M23 among more than 100 armed groups vying for a foothold in the mineral-rich area near the border with Rwanda. Some have been accused of carrying out mass killings.

There’s been an upsurge in fighting in recent weeks between M23 rebels and Congo army forces, and it comes as the United Nations plans to withdraw peacekeepers from the region by the end of the year.

Tensions are also rising between Congo and Rwanda, with them blaming each other for supporting various armed groups. Congo accuses Rwanda of backing M23.

This weekend, the U.S. State Department condemned what it called the “worsening violence.” A group of aid agencies has estimated that 1 million people have already been displaced by fighting in the last three months.

Who are M23?

The March 23 Movement, or M23, is a rebel military group mainly made up of ethnic Tutsis that broke away from the Congolese army just over a decade ago. They staged a large offensive in 2012 and took over the provincial capital of Goma near the border with Rwanda, the same city they are threatening again.

The conflict has regional complications, with neighboring Rwanda also accused by the U.S. and U.N. experts of giving military aid to M23. Rwanda denies that but effectively admitted on Monday that it has troops and missile systems in eastern Congo. Rwanda said that is to safeguard its own security because of what it claims is a buildup of Congo army forces near the border. Rwanda has rejected calls from the U.S. to withdraw.

There are also ties to the Rwandan genocide of 30 years ago, with M23 and Rwanda saying separately that they are fighting a threat from a Congolese rebel group that is connected to the Congo army and partly made up of ethnic Hutus who were perpetrators of the 1994 genocide.

Congo-Rwanda tensions

Relations between Congo and its eastern neighbor have been fraught for decades. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees had fled to Congo, then Zaire, in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Among them were soldiers and militiamen responsible for the slaughter of 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Two years after the genocide, Rwanda and Uganda invaded eastern Congo to try and root out what remained of those genocide perpetrators, which led to the toppling of then Congo President Mobutu Sese Seko.

Tensions between Congo and Rwanda escalated in 2021 with the resurgence of M23 attacks on Congolese soldiers after nearly a decade of relative inactivity due to a 2013 peace deal. The presence of so many armed groups is believed to be connected to illegal mining, with eastern Congo rich in gold and other minerals.

What’s happened in recent weeks?

M23 launched new attacks late last year and has ramped them up in recent weeks. The group is now threatening to take the key town of Sake, about 27 kilometersmwest of Goma. That could cause food and aid supplies to be cut off from Goma, which had a population of around 600,000 a few years ago, but now holds more than 2 million people, according to aid agencies, as people flee violence in surrounding towns and villages.

The advance of rebels on Sake “poses an imminent threat to the entire aid system” in eastern Congo, the Norwegian Refugee Council said. It said 135,000 people were displaced in just five days in early February.

The violence has also sparked protests from the capital, Kinshasa, to Goma, with angry demonstrators saying the international community is not doing enough to push back against M23 and not taking a hard enough stance against Rwanda.

What’s at stake?

The new fighting could lead to an escalation of regional tensions and involve more countries. As the U.N. winds down its 25-year peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo, a multi-national force under the southern African regional bloc is set to step in. That force will include soldiers from regional power South Africa, Malawi and Tanzania. They will help the Congo army forces, but it might put them in direct conflict with Rwanda.

There’s also the humanitarian cost. The International NGO Forum in Congo, a group of non-governmental organizations working in the region, said the escalation in fighting has involved artillery attacks on civilian settlements, causing a heavy toll and forcing many health and aid workers to withdraw.

Eastern Congo already had one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with nearly 6 million people previously displaced because of conflict, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

There are concerns a new disaster could largely go unnoticed because of the attention on the war in Gaza and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

West Africa’s ECOWAS Bloc Lifts Sanctions on Junta-Led Niger

abuja, nigeria — The West African regional bloc said on Saturday it would lift strict sanctions on Niger as it seeks a new strategy to dissuade three junta-led states from withdrawing from the political and economic union, a move that threatens regional integration. 

Leaders of the Economic Community of West African States met to address a political crisis in the coup-hit region that deepened in January with military-ruled Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali’s decision to exit the 15-member bloc. 

After closed-door talks, ECOWAS said it had decided to lift Niger sanctions including border closures, the freezing of central bank and state assets, and the suspension of commercial transactions immediately. 

In a statement, it said this was done for humanitarian reasons, but the move will be seen as a gesture of appeasement as ECOWAS tries to persuade the three junta states to remain in the nearly 50-year-old alliance. Their planned exit would bring a messy disentanglement from the bloc’s trade and services flows, worth nearly $150 billion a year. 

The bloc “further urges the countries to reconsider the decision in view of the benefits that the ECOWAS member states and their citizens enjoy in the community,” it said. 

It also said it had lifted certain sanctions on junta-led Guinea, which has not said it wants to leave ECOWAS but like other junta states has not committed to a timeline to return to democratic rule. 

ECOWAS Commission President Omar Touray said some targeted sanctions and political sanctions remained place for Niger, without giving details. 

Strategy rethink

Earlier, ECOWAS Chairman and Nigeria President Bola Tinubu said the bloc had to rethink its strategy in its bid to get countries to restore constitutional order. And he urged Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea “not to perceive our organization as the enemy.” 

ECOWAS closed borders and imposed the strict measures on Niger last year after soldiers detained President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26 and set up a transitional government, one of a series of recent military takeovers that have exposed the bloc’s inability to halt democratic backsliding. 

The sanctions have forced Niger, already one of the world’s poorest countries, to slash government spending and default on debt payments of more than $500 million. 

In its statement, ECOWAS repeated its call for the release of Bazoum and its request for the junta to provide an “acceptable transition timetable.” 

Niger’s coup followed two each in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso over the past three years, leaving a swath of territory in the hands of military governments that have also moved to distance themselves from former colonial ruler France and other Western allies. The military also seized power in Guinea in 2021. 

ECOWAS also imposed sanctions on Mali in a bid to hasten its return to constitutional order, although they were lifted in 2022. 

The three countries have called ECOWAS’s sanctions strategy illegal and grounds for their decision to leave the bloc immediately without abiding by usual withdrawal terms. 

The three have started cooperating under a pact known as the Alliance of Sahel States and sought to form a confederation, although it is not clear how closely they plan to align political, economic and security interests as they struggle to contain a decade-old battle with Islamist insurgents.  

South Africa’s ANC Launches Election Manifesto, Ramaphosa Lauds Party’s Gains

DURBAN, South Africa — South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Saturday highlighted the achievements of his African National Congress, which has ruled the country for all its 30 years of democracy, as it heads into a tight race in May’s election. 

Ramaphosa delivered the party’s manifesto to thousands of ANC supporters at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on Saturday. The rally came as South Africa faces increasing poverty, unemployment and crime and a crippling electricity crisis. 

Party supporters dressed in yellow, green and black party regalia packed the stadium and sang struggle songs praising Ramaphosa and the ANC, while others took advantage of the event to sell food, refreshments and party merchandise to the thousands attending. 

A procession of motorbikes with bikers waving ANC flags was among the first displays to entertain the crowd before Ramaphosa arrived to the delight of supporters. 

However, the tension surrounding this year’s elections was laid bare when some supporters entered the stadium grounds carrying a caricature coffin bearing the name of the uMkhonto we Sizwe political party, a new political organization formed by former ANC President Jacob Zuma. 

The party is set to compete in this year’s elections after Zuma denounced the ANC. 

In what has become somewhat of a popularity contest between parties to show who can pull in the biggest crowds to their election rallies, thousands of ANC supporters were bussed in from various parts of the country to ensure the stadium was full as early as possible. 

The ANC also brought in popular musicians to entertain supporters. They performed after Ramaphosa’s speech, concluding with ANC slogans and colorful fireworks and confetti. 

However, millions of South Africans will likely be more interested in whether the ANC can deliver on its promises and address the many challenges the country faces. These include stagnant economic growth, rising levels of poverty, unemployment, crime and a crippling electricity crisis that has resulted in rolling power blackouts. 

According to Ramaphosa, the ANC plans to create more than 2.5 million job opportunities in the next five years. He said some of these would come from South Africa’s transition from coal-based power generation to cleaner energy. 

“Our strategy will also meet the new global challenges of climate change. A balanced just transition to a cleaner, greener future can lead to new jobs and secure the competitiveness of our exports,” he said. 

Ramaphosa dismissed the opposition parties looking to unseat the ANC in this year’s elections. “We are the only organization that can take South Africa forward,” he said. 

The ANC manifesto attributes some of the challenges faced by the country to the COVID-19 pandemic, the electricity crisis, global political conflicts, the July 2021 unrest and climate change. 

It also points out that the country’s economy has grown since 1994, that the ANC continues to provide social welfare and housing for millions of poor South Africans. 

South Africa’s elections are expected to be highly contested, with some opposition parties joining forces to form a coalition if the ANC receives less than 50% of the national vote. 

Over the last few weeks opposition parties have also launched their manifestos, promising to create jobs and bring an end to the electricity crisis, among other promises. 

Tunisia’s Ex-President Marzouki Sentenced to 8 Years in Absentia

TUNIS, Tunisia — A court in Tunisia sentenced former President Moncef Marzouki to eight years in prison in absentia as part of the country’s crackdown on opponents of President Kais Saied. 

The charges against Marzouki, who lives in Paris, stemmed from remarks he made that authorities said violated laws against incitement and calling for the overthrow of the government, court spokesperson Mohamed Zitouna told Tunisia’s state news agency TAP on Friday evening. 

His attorney, Samir Ben Amor, told The Associated Press that the sentence illustrates “the hardening of the political line taken by the government against opponents.” 

Marzouki served as the first democratically elected president of Tunisia from 2011 to 2014, after Arab Spring protests led autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down and flee the country. A longtime human rights activist, Marzouki has emerged as a vocal critic of President Kais Saied’s moves to consolidate his own power and revise Tunisia’s post-Arab Spring constitution. 

Marzouki’s statements, which the court did not specify, amounted to fomenting “an attack designed to overthrow the government, inciting people to take up arms against each other and provoking disorder, murder and pillaging on Tunisian soil.” 

He has routinely called on foreign powers to withdraw support to Tunisia amid the ongoing reversal of the country’s democratic gains and called Saied a dictator who needs to be overthrown. 

It’s the second time that Marzouki has been sentenced for remarks made at demonstrations and on social media, following a December 2021 four-year verdict for undermining state security. 

Marzouki is among more than 20 political opponents who have been charged or imprisoned since Saied consolidated power in 2021 by suspending parliament and rewriting the country’s constitution. The president’s opponents, including Marzouki, have likened the moves to a coup — a charge that Saied has denied. Voters approved his constitutional changes in a low turnout 2021 referendum. 

“Is it normal in a democratic country for someone to be prosecuted simply for having expressed an opinion and point of view on his country’s politics?” Ben Amor asked in regard to Marzouki’s sentence. 

Saied has previously called those who make remarks like Marzouki’s “traitors to the nation” and called on authorities to investigate them. Others targeted in his crackdown include Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, businessman and former presidential candidate Nabil Karoui, and Free Destourian Party leader Abir Moussi, a potential challenger in the country’s 2024 presidential elections. 

“All the achievements of the revolution have suffered setbacks due to (Saied’s) seizure of power,” Ennahda spokesperson Imed Khemiri said in a statement. “Fundamental liberties have deteriorated, restrictions have been imposed on political party activities, opponents have been prosecuted and the independence of the judiciary has been called into question.” 

West African Heads Meet to Keep Junta-Led Nations in Bloc

ABUJA, Nigeria — Heads of state across West Africa are meeting Saturday to call again on three junta-led nations to rescind their decision to quit the regional bloc and to review sanctions imposed on Niger following a coup there.

The summit of the 15-nation regional economic bloc known as ECOWAS in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, comes at a critical time when the 49-year-old bloc’s future is threatened as it struggles with possible disintegration and a recent surge in coups fueled by discontent over the performance of elected governments whose citizens barely benefit from mineral resources.

Decisions to be made at the summit “must be guided by our commitment to safeguarding the constitutional order, upholding democratic principles and promoting the social and economic well-being of the citizens,” Nigerian President Bola Tinubu, current chairman of ECOWAS, said at the start of the summit.

Top of the agenda is the recent decision by Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to leave ECOWAS, or the Economic Community of West African States, over “inhumane sanctions.” That move is unprecedented since the bloc was established in 1975 and grew to become the region’s top political and economic authority.

“We must re-examine our current approach to the quest for constitutional order in our member states,” Tinubu said. “I therefore urge them to reconsider the decision … and not to perceive our organization as the enemy.”

The summit is also expected to review the harsh sanctions imposed on Niger. This week, one of the bloc’s founding leaders and Nigeria’s former military ruler, Yakubu Gowon, urged regional leaders to lift the sanctions, noting that the bloc is “more than a coalition of states [but] is a community established for the good of our people.”

In the past year, however, the bloc has struggled to resolve the region’s most pressing challenge: The Sahel, the vast, arid expanse south of the Sahara Desert that stretches across several West African countries, faces growing violence from Islamic extremists and rebels, which in turn has caused soldiers to depose elected governments.

The nine coups in West and Central Africa since 2020 followed a similar pattern, with coup leaders accusing governments of failing to provide security and good governance. Most of the coup-hit countries are also among the poorest and least-developed in the world.

The sanctions against Niger and the threat of military intervention to reverse the coup were “the likely triggers to an inevitable outcome” of the three countries’ withdrawal from the bloc, said Karim Manuel, an analyst for the Middle East and Africa with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

With their withdrawal, “the West African region will be increasingly fragmented and divided (while) the new alliance between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger fragments the West African bloc and reflects an axis of opposition to the traditional structures that have underpinned the region for decades,” Manuel added.

Some Question Malawi President’s Claim That Cyberattack Caused Passport Problems 

blantyre, malawi — Malawi’s government is not issuing passports, President Lazarus Chakwera said, claiming it is because of a cyberattack. But some observers question whether such an attack occurred.

Chakwera told parliament on Wednesday that a cyberattack had compromised the country’s security and that measures were in place to identify and apprehend the attackers. He said the attackers were demanding millions in ransom but his administration will not pay it.

He said the hackers have prevented the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services system from printing passports for the past three weeks.

However, the immigration department stopped printing passports weeks ago, after it announced in January it was grappling with technical glitches.

The situation has left hundreds of passport applicants stranded. Rights groups have vowed to hold mass demonstrations if the glitch isn’t resolved within days.

Then on Wednesday, Chakwera told parliament the suspension was caused by what he called digital mercenaries who had hacked the system responsible for printing passports.

“This is a serious national security breach,” he said, “and although Malawi is not the first in the modern world to be the target of and suffer this kind of cyberattack, we have taken very decisive steps to regain control of the situation.”

Chakwera, who has been president since June 2020, said on Wednesday that he has given the immigration department three weeks to provide a temporary solution and resume the printing of passports. At the same event, he said he had told the hackers never to expect ransom from the Malawi government.

“As long as I am the president, the government will never pay the ransom money you have demanded after hacking the system,” he said, “because we are not in the business of appeasing criminals with public money, nor are we in the business of negotiating with those who attack our country.”

Contract termination

Malawi has faced passport issuance challenges since 2021, when the government terminated its contract with Techno Brain, which had been the supplier of Malawi’s passports since 2019.

In 2023, the government, unable to find a replacement, re-engaged the company on a temporary basis. Still, the immigration department had to scale down production many times because of a shortage of materials or failure to pay outstanding bills.

Sylvester Namiwa is the executive director of the Center for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives, whose organization is vowing to hold protests if the situation isn’t resolved within days. He told VOA that he doubted the veracity of Chakwera’s statement on the hacking of the system.

The president “should have revealed the identities of the hackers” and could have said more about how communications with the alleged hackers are occurring — “for example, if they are using computers, if they are using phones,” Namiwa said. “Today’s technology is easy to trace.”

Namiwa pointed to reports circulating on social media and a local radio station suggesting that the contractor, Techno Brain, had deliberately shut down the system after noticing improper activity by suspected government agents.

According to local media reports, Techno Brain is demanding millions of dollars in compensation from the Malawi government before it unblocks the system.

When approached for comment, Tiwonge Chipeta, general manager for Techno Brain in Malawi, would not deny or confirm the company’s alleged involvement in the shutdown, saying she could not speak with reporters about the matter.

However, some IT experts working with government agencies, who refused to give their names for fear of reprisals, told VOA that no hackers had demanded any ransom from the government.

Security expert Sheriff Kaisi told VOA that if the passport system had indeed been hacked, Malawi’s government needed to ensure its software has since been made hacker-proof.

“There could be some lapses here and there, but every system by nature would have other software to encounter that,” Kaisi said. “And of course the system used by the government needs to be sophisticated.”

Malawi Information Minister Moses Nkukuyu told a local radio station Thursday that the information Chakwera presented in parliament came from experts working at the immigration department.

Immigration department spokesperson Wellington Chiponde did not respond to calls and texts from VOA.

Somali Boy Cares for Neglected Animals

In Somalia, Hussein Abdurahman has taken it upon himself to feed the neglected dogs and cats he finds on the streets of Mogadishu. The boy’s inspiring mission is a call to action. Jamal Ahmed Osman reports from Mogadishu. Camera: Abdulkadir Zubeyr.

Cameroon Hosts Conference on Chronic Child Malnutrition

DOUALA, CAMEROON — Health workers, officials and humanitarians from 15 French-speaking sub-Saharan countries are meeting in Cameroon’s economic capital, Douala, to discuss chronic child malnutrition in the region.

Many of the children in crisis have been displaced from Sudan and other conflict-ridden countries. Their chronic malnutrition, say those at the meeting, has been compounded by climate shocks that make food and safe water increasingly scarce in sub-Saharan Africa.

“All United Nations agencies are very worried that several million children suffering from acute malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa risk dying before they celebrate their fifth birthday,” said Simeon Nanama, UNICEF’s regional nutrition adviser for West and Central Africa. “Close to 7 million children affected by acute malnutrition are in dire need of help to save their lives.”

In December, officials in Cameroon pointed to the mass immigration of women and children seeking to escape communal violence and Boko Haram terrorists who operate in Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria and other countries. 

Last week, Chad’s President Mahamat Idris Deby declared a food and nutritional emergency throughout the central African state. Deby pleaded for international support, especially for children under the age of five, who he said were suffering from acute malnutrition. 

The United Nations says malnutrition is the second-leading cause of death among children after malaria in sub-Saharan African countries. 

The Douala meeting aims to update health and humanitarian workers on U.N. guidelines issued in December about how to prevent and manage acute malnutrition to save the lives of millions of malnourished children. 

“For the first time, WHO is providing guidance on how to prevent malnutrition and also for the first time we have guidance on how to detect earlier those children that are at risk of poor growth and development,” said meeting participant Laetitia Ouedraogo Nikiema, a World Health Organization consultant and former public health, nutrition and research expert with WHO’s Africa region.

Ouedraogo said the new plan envisages more integration of nutrition services into health systems.

The U.N. has said it intends to give more food and health assistance to the governments of countries most unable to care for malnourished children. The U.N. has a goal of eliminating acute malnutrition by 2030. 

The U.N. said the plan faces challenges as the proportion of children with acute malnutrition persists at what it calls worrying levels; at least 216 million African children still suffer from stunting and malnutrition. 

Upsurge in Violence in Northern Mozambique Displaces Thousands

Maputo, Mozambique — A new outbreak of unrest in northern Mozambique, scene of a jihadi insurgency, has forced thousands to flee their homes, according to United Nations figures and sources in Cabo Delgado province.

An alert from the U.N. migration agency IOM said recent attacks in the Macomia, Chiure and Mecufi districts had displaced 13,088 people, most of them children, by bus, canoe and on foot.

Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi confirmed there had been new population movements but played down the threat and insisted security forces had the situation under control.

“There are a significant number of people who move from one area to another and complain about support,” he said, after a meeting with military commanders.

“Terrorists try to recruit in this province, which is why we see these movements,” he said.

A recent flight of people from the town of Ocua, he said, was a result of revenge attacks after Mozambican and Rwandan forces had thwarted an attempt to kidnap children.

“The last month recorded significant movements by non-state armed groups towards the southern districts of Cabo Delgado” a spokesperson from the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHRC, told AFP.

“This wave of attacks has essentially been characterized by a high level of destruction, namely residences, churches and social infrastructures as schools and health centers.”

Forces from Rwanda and countries of the Southern African Development Community, deployed to Mozambique in July 2021 after years of jihadi attacks.

They have helped the country retake lost territory in Cabo Delgado, but unrest continues.

One civil servant in Cabo Delgado confirmed to AFP that the situation had deteriorated. He spoke anonymously on government orders.

“It seems they have returned with great fury,” he said, of the armed groups behind the attacks.

Tobias Miguel, a researcher following the crisis, said those displaced seem to be seeking refuge in the northern town of Pemba or crossing out of the province to neighboring Nampula.

“We have received reports that terrorists have stopped some cargo transport vehicles to demand monetary payments,” he said.

The secretary of state for Nampula Province, Jaime Neto, confirmed that the National Institute for Disaster Management was seeking to open a transit center to accommodate displaced people.  

Zimbabwe Launches New Polio Vaccination Campaign Amid Outbreak

Zimbabwe has launched an emergency polio vaccination campaign to contain a new outbreak, even as it fights a cholera outbreak that has claimed close to 500 lives. Columbus Mavhunga reports from Harare. Camera: Blessing Chigwenhembe.

Red Sea Conflict Hits Egypt, Other Parts of the Region

cairo — Egypt’s economy is facing serious hurdles after revenue from the country’s most strategic asset — the Suez Canal — has dropped by nearly half. Attacks by the pro-Iranian Houthi militia group on ships passing by Yemen has made merchant ships avoid the Red Sea and the canal.

The Greek-flagged grain ship Sea Champion was slightly damaged Wednesday by two ballistic missiles fired by the northern Yemen-based Houthi group, which says it is attacking Western ships in solidarity with Hamas militants fighting Israel.

Because of such attacks, many ships that normally pass by Yemen, headed to or from the Suez Canal, now avoid the area and take the longer route around the Horn of Africa.

That is cutting deeply into Egypt’s revenue from ships passing through the canal and is just the latest challenge to the country’s economy, Egyptian President Abdel Fatteh el-Sissi said.

First, el-Sissi said, were the two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then the Russia-Ukraine conflict added to economic issues, as well as pressure from conflicts in border countries of Libya, Sudan and Gaza. Now, el-Sissi said, Egypt is seeing Suez Canal revenue of approximately $10 billion a year decline by nearly 40% to 50%.

Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology in Alexandria, said Egypt isn’t the only country affected by fewer ships transversing the canal.

“If the conflict continues,” he said, “supply chains all over the world will be affected, especially since many of the cargoes that pass through the canal are oil and gas ships heading to Europe, and that will make the European economy suffer a lot.”

Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East studies program at the University of Oklahoma, tells VOA the conflict in Gaza has had repercussions on many Middle East fault lines, in addition to the Red Sea conflict affecting world shipping.

“It’s ratcheted up the war between Iran and the U.S., it’s increased violence in countries like Iraq and Syria, along borders that had become stalemates,” he said. “It’s increased instability from one end of the Middle East to the other. It’s like throwing a firecracker into the middle of a beehive.

Landis said that Iran, which controls many of the proxy militias that are participating in far-flung corners of the Gaza conflict, “has the United States by the short hairs,” pulling it into conflicts, not only with the Houthis in Yemen, but also with Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria.

Paul Sullivan, a Washington-based Middle East and energy analyst at the Atlantic Council, warns the Houthis are not deterred by any of the U.S. and British retaliatory airstrikes that have been made against them. He said that may indicate “that they have more sources of financing, training and weapons than was previously known.”

“Yemen,” Sullivan added, “has been at war for a good part of its history [and] many of those involved with the attacks are battle-hardened. They also live by a mountain code, which rules out not responding to threats like many others have.”

Kenya’s Government Says it is Taking Steps to Ease Cost of Living

Nairobi, Kenya — Kenya’s government says it is committed to building the economy by increasing revenue collection, reducing government spending, and ensuring the country is able to repay its debt and live within its means.

The government announcement comes days after the African Development Bank, in its outlook report for 2024, said many nations continue to grapple with higher commodity prices, citing weak domestic currencies and slow economic activities in countries that import more than they export.

The financial institution warned that the high cost of essential food items in some African countries like Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria will likely cause civil unrest. 

Speaking to journalists Wednesday, Kenyan President William Ruto said his government has done just enough to reduce the economic burden on Kenyans. 

“The strategy we have put in place over the last one year has seen the cost of living come down, whether you talk about the cost of food, whether you talk about inflation, and what we have done with the management of the debt situation in the country,” he said. 

Ruto blamed the previous government for burdening the country with foreign debt and failing to collect enough revenue to balance the country’s accounts. 

The government removed fuel subsidies which were meant to cushion Kenyans from the high prices of food as part of its economic reform agenda. That reform, the African Development Bank said, could cause unrest. 

According to AfDB research, 19 African countries recorded double-digit inflation rates last year. Earlier this month, The Central Bank of Kenya’s Monetary Policy Committee warned citizens to brace for high food prices due to soaring inflation and expensive imports because of the depreciation of the local currency. 

Kenya has also witnessed protests over high food prices, but people continue to express their displeasure with the country’s economic status in public gatherings and on social media networks. 

Samuel Nyandemo, economics lecturer at the University of Nairobi, says some Kenyans are losing patience with Ruto’s 18-month-old government. 

“Kenyans, their patience is eroding unless some of these issues are addressed with urgency. There will be some animosity whether you like it or not,” Nyandemo said. “You can even see it in political meetings. People are now so courageous they are shouting at the president. What does that show you? It shows you that people are getting disgusted. We better start addressing key issues first and the first thing is reducing the cost of living.” 

Kenya’s government says it has managed to lower food prices, and the economy is improving despite spending much of its revenue repaying loans. 

Ruto says Kenya needs to reduce its reliance on food imports to strengthen the currency and reduce food prices. 

“The 500 billion Kenya shilling we spend every year to import food into Kenya will only go down the day we produce that food in Kenya. That’s a step we are taking and we made a commitment as a government that we want to reduce imports by 50 percent in the next five years,” he said. 

Nyandemo the economist says the shilling’s loss of value against the dollar and other currencies will impact the country’s food prices and economy. 

“All macroeconomic valuables have shown red lights. We should not be fooled that the shilling is going to stabilize soon. A shilling cannot stabilize because of some mischievousness through the Euro bond,” Nyandemo said. “I think it is a short-lived phenomenon. And as long as the shilling is not going to be stable, as long as the interest rates are going to be very high, businessmen are not going to be able to source loans for investments. In any case, you can see from the Kenya Revenue Authority the revenue being collected is not in line with the targets.” 

Africa’s economic growth is expected to grow at 3.2 percent. The African Development Bank urged African countries to build resilience in a world of rising uncertainty and geopolitical competition. 

US Ambassador Meets With Gabon Coup Leader

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON — A U.S. delegation met with the military ruler of Gabon on Tuesday and reiterated the need for a quick return to constitutional order six months after the nation’s August 30 coup.

Even so, the U.S. ambassador to Gabon who led the delegation, Vernelle Trim FitzPatrick, said economic and diplomatic relations with the Central African state will be reinforced despite sanctions imposed on Gabon’s coup leaders.

Military ruler General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema pleaded for U.S sanctions to be lifted.

Speaking later on Gabon’s state television, FitzPatrick said the United States finds it important to discuss strengthening trade and commercial relations with Gabon to gain the support of the U.S Congress in fostering ties with the nation.

FitzPatrick, who has been ambassador to Gabon for about a month, also said the United States will assist with the transition to civilian rule but did not say how.

Gabon’s military, led by Nguema, ousted President Ali Bongo Ondimba in a bloodless coup on August 30. The military accused Bongo of rigging Gabon’s August 26 elections and ruining the country’s economy.

After the coup, Washington suspended most nonhumanitarian aid and asked for a quick return to constitutional order. Gabon’s military leaders said elections would be held in August 2025, after an inclusive national dialogue this April.

Nembe Patrice, an economic adviser at Alternance 2023, a group of opposition parties created in 2023 to fight for political change in Gabon, said civilians want Nguema to organize elections and hand power to democratically elected officials.

He also said he hopes the United States will advise Nguema not to be a candidate.