UN: Situation in Sudan’s North Darfur capital grows more dire by the day

United Nations — Humanitarians warned Friday that the situation in North Darfur’s capital, El Fasher, is growing more dire by the day, as the state’s only functioning hospital has about a week’s worth of supplies left and as casualties mount.

“The fighting has reportedly forced thousands of people to flee since 10 May and caused hundreds of civilian casualties,” U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

May 10 is when clashes erupted inside El Fasher between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), who are positioned inside the city, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), who attacked surrounding towns before they entered the state capital.

According to Paris-based medical charity Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, at least 700 injured civilians arrived at that last operating hospital, known as South Hospital, in the past two weeks. Eighty-five of them have died.

“People are arriving with abdominal injuries, chest wounds, brain trauma, and open fractures,” Claire Nicolet, MSF’s head of emergency programs, said earlier this week in a statement. “Some have gunshot wounds, some have been wounded by bomb fragments, and others have been wounded by shelling.”

She said the hospital urgently needs more surgeons and supplies.

Humanitarians have been struggling for weeks to reach El Fasher, where at least 800,000 civilians are sheltering, many of them having been displaced from other parts of Darfur that have fallen to the RSF.

“More than a dozen trucks carrying aid for more than 121,000 people have been trying to reach El Fasher for over a month, but the current security situation is making this all but impossible,” Dujarric said.

He added that one World Food Program truck convoy carrying 1,200 metric tons of food and nutrition supplies for about 117,000 people was able to cross into North Darfur from Chad on Thursday, through the Tine crossing.

The government of Sudan reopened that crossing in early March, after closing it citing concerns that it could be used to supply the RSF with arms and ammunition.

Weapons accusations

The Sudanese government has repeatedly accused the United Arab Emirates of sending arms to the RSF via airports in Chad. On Friday, the Security Council met at Sudan’s request to discuss the matter. The meeting was private; Sudan would have preferred it be public.

Afterward, Sudan’s envoy said the UAE should be “censured and condemned” for its actions.

“The UAE behaves like a rogue state,” Ambassador Al-Harith Idriss Al-Harith Mohamed told reporters. “It must be punished for invading Sudan through local and foreign actors and proxies.”

He said those proxies include mercenaries from Chad, southern Libya and parts of the Sahel. Mohammed said the RSF is using arms from the UAE to kill and rape civilians, displace people and destroy the country’s infrastructure.

The UAE has repeatedly denied the accusations.

“We are aware of the baseless allegations made against the UAE, which we have already addressed, including through letters to the Security Council, most recently of which was on 25 April,” UAE Ambassador Mohamed Abushahab told VOA in a written statement.

“We see the efforts by the representative of Sudan as another attempt to distract the Security Council from the atrocities being committed by the warring parties, including attacks on civilians, hospitals and schools, and the obstruction of humanitarian aid,” he said.

A report published in January by a panel of experts mandated by the Security Council to monitor sanctions implementation in Sudan said the SAF has used aerial bombing and heavy shelling in urban areas of Darfur, causing a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

The panel also found that the RSF in July started using several types of heavy and sophisticated weapons that it did not have at the start of the war, in April 2023. The experts said this gave them a military advantage that let them quickly take over Nyala in South Darfur and El Geneina in West Darfur, while the RSF’s new anti-aircraft devices helped them to counter the SAF’s air force.

The panel said that various flight-tracking experts had since June observed numerous cargo planes originating from Abu Dhabi International Airport arriving at Amdjarass International Airport in eastern Chad, with stops in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. They said information they gathered substantiated media reports alleging the aircraft carried weapons, ammunition and medical equipment for the RSF. The UAE told the panel that they were transporting humanitarian assistance for displaced Sudanese, not arms.

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Niger’s journalists wary of red lines, arrests after military coup

Abuja, Nigeria — When Gazali Mahaman Abdou heard about the military coup in his home country of Niger last July, he went to work reporting on developments.

A journalist for more than 20 years, Abdou reports for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle from his base in Niger’s capital, Niamey.

But with a transitional military leadership in power, Abdou said, covering the situation has become too risky, with some journalists detained.

“Sometimes the menace is not coming from the junta directly but the supporters of the junta. That’s why we are afraid,” he said. “Someone can attack you anywhere. That is why we’re so careful. It’s not easy.”

Some journalists left Niger because they couldn’t work, Abdou said, adding, “After three or four months, they returned to the country, but they can’t critique the junta directly.”

Risky to report

Media advocates say that since the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Bazoum, journalists are at risk of arbitrary arrests and intimidation by transitional authorities.

In January, the junta suspended Niger’s media association, known as the Maison de la Presse, replacing it with a committee headed by the Interior Ministry’s secretary general.

Abdou said journalists like himself who have stayed have changed how they report to ensure their safety.

“We’ve become more careful with our choice of words,” he said. “When I work, I know that the junta doesn’t like to hear about the number of soldiers who died at the front line. We have to be more careful — we don’t give the number, but the government number is not the good [correct] number.”

It’s a situation that worries press freedom and rights advocates. Groups that include Amnesty International report Niger’s transitional leaders are targeting and arbitrarily arresting journalists who report on the conflict and security-related topics.

Amnesty has called for the immediate release of journalists unjustly detained, including Soumana Maiga. Authorities detained the newspaper editor in April over a story about Russian agents allegedly installing listening equipment in state buildings.

Days before that arrest, authorities detained a journalist and former adviser to the ousted president.

A regional trend

Busola Ajibola, deputy director of the journalism program at the West Africa-focused Center for Journalism Innovation and Development, says the trend is concerning.

“When journalists are arrested arbitrarily and held incommunicado, it sends signals to other journalists to begin to self-censor,” she said. “That pattern is spreading not just in Niger but in places like Burkina Faso.

“What we worry about is not just the shrinking of the atmosphere for accountability journalism, but … the total shrinking of the civic space,” she said.

VOA’s attempts to reach the transitional government were unsuccessful. But the military has said that those journalists detained are accused of trying to undermine national security and destabilize the country.

In a tense environment, Ajibola said, media collaboration is one way for Niger’s journalists to get their stories out.

“This is the time we need to begin to advocate for regional collaboration among journalists themselves,” she said. “The government of Niger does not constitute a major threat to a journalist in Ghana, Mozambique or Nigeria, so we can now have a situation where journalists that are in Niger find a way to amplify their voices. They necessarily do not have to be the ones telling the stories, especially if they can’t tell the stories within a safe zone.”

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, or RSF, last year joined with 80 media groups and journalists to demand the military respect press freedom. But since the coup, Niger has dropped 19 points on the RSF World Press Freedom Index rankings.

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Southern Africa worst hit by climate change

Windhoek, Namibia — The Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management (SASSCAL) met in Namibia’s capital on Thursday to discuss ways to blunt the impact of rising temperatures in the region.

Global warming has surpassed the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold agreed upon in the Paris Agreement, with January 2024 marking the hottest year on Earth since pre-industrial times.

The rising temperatures, experts say, are making environmental disasters worse.  

Climate expert Francois Engelbrecht cautioned of “tipping points” if Southern African nations don’t adapt to climate change and limit their carbon dioxide emissions by moving from coal and oil to cleaner energies like wind and solar.

“In Botswana and Namibia, one of the biggest risks is that we are running the risk of completely losing the cattle industry,” Engelbrecht said. “Because if the world should warm to about 3 degrees Celsius globally, it means in Botswana and obviously Namibia, the warming will be about 6 degrees Celsius, and that heat stress is so aggressive to the cattle that no breed can survive. All the cattle breeds will become unsustainable in terms of farming with them.”

Tipping points are events where climate systems change in such a way that they can no longer be reversed. As an example, Engelbrecht said, a prolonged drought in the Gauteng Province of South Africa that lowered water levels in dams and led to shortages in the city of Johannesburg, making it inhospitable.

Zambian geology scholar Kawawa Banda says research conducted under SASSCAL shows groundwater supply in the Zambezi Catchment Area shared by Botswana, Namibia and Zambia could be another tipping point.

“In the TIPPECC project, what we want to do is understand the risks associated with these drought conditions,” Banda said. “We also want to understand the risks associated with tipping points around the quality, as well as possible complete depletion of this resource, so that actions around adaptation and risks are better informed from a water management perspective.”

TIPPECC stands for Tipping Points Explained by Climate Change. It is funded by SASSCAL. Jane Olwoch is the executive director of SASSCAL, which includes Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

She says there is a need to integrate climate change into goverment policy, and information is a tool in sensitizing leaders to act on climate change by supporting renewable energy. 

“We use science especially in green hydrogen to support demonstration pilot projects. In that way, we are bringing in new technology, new know-how, and giving our countries capability to respond to these new subjects like green hydrogen and renewable energy,” Olwoch said.

Namibia’s green energy ambitions involve the production of hydrogen and ammonia for foreign markets using solar and wind energy, some of which will be sent back into the electrical grid.

A clean source of energy, experts say, can replace oil, coal and gas in the near future.

In the Southern Hemisphere, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia are hit hardest by global warming, with SASSCAL research showing a 6 percent increase in the second half of the 21st century if nothing is done about it now.

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Scientists: Climate change, rapid urbanization worsen impact of East African rains

NAIROBI, Kenya — The impact of the calamitous rains that struck East Africa from March to May was intensified by a mix of climate change and rapid growth of urban areas, an international team of climate scientists said in a study published Friday.

The findings come from World Weather Attribution, a group of scientists that analyzes whether and to what extent human-induced climate change has altered the likelihood and magnitude of extreme weather events.

The downpours caused floods that killed hundreds of people, displaced thousands of others, killed thousands of livestock and destroyed thousands of acres of crops.

To assess how human-caused climate may have affected the floods, the researchers analyzed weather data and climate model simulations to compare how these types of events have changed between today’s climate and the cooler pre-industrial one. They focused on regions where the impacts were most severe, including southern Kenya, most of Tanzania and a part of Burundi.

It found that climate change had made the devastating rains twice as likely and 5% more intense. The study also found that with further warming, the frequency and intensity of the rains would continue to increase.

“We’re likely to see this kind of intensive rainfall happening this season going into the future,” said Joyce Kimutai, research associate at Imperial College London and the lead author of the study.

The study also found that the rapid urbanization of East African cities is increasing the risk of flooding.

Highly populated urban areas, especially high-density informal settlements, were significantly impacted by the downpours. Torrential rain flooded houses and roads, in some places exposing weaknesses in urban planning to meet the demands of fast-growing populations.

March to May is “long rains” season in East Africa. It’s when most of the region’s average annual rainfall occurs, and is typically characterized by torrential rains.

East Africa also suffered flooding during the “short rains” of October to December 2023 and before that, it endured a three-year drought. WWA scientists found that both events were worsened by climate change.

Philip Omondi, climate change specialist at the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre in Nairobi and wasn’t involved in the study, said human-caused impacts result in intense and high-frequency extreme floods and droughts.

Shaun Ferris, senior technical advisor for agriculture and climate change at Catholic Relief Services in Nairobi, said more intense weather put a new level of pressure on old and unplanned buildings and basic infrastructure and there’s a need to put up infrastructure that will be more able to cope with climate change.

“There is huge pressure on basic services,” he said giving the example of Nairobi, whose population has doubled over the past 20 years.

Ferris said that the global community needs to start using the loss and damage fund for climate disasters so they can repair and upgrade their basic infrastructure.

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Africa home to nearly half of global displaced population, IDMC reports

Nairobi, Kenya — A record 75.9 million people are living in internal displacement due to conflict, and nearly half that number is in sub-Saharan Africa, according to a recent report.

The report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, or IDMC, shows 34.8 million people in the region were displaced in 2023, up from the previous year. The biggest increase came in Sudan, which is currently in the midst of civil war.

Sudanese doctor Aisha Hassan is among the millions of people newly displaced last year. 

The doctor said that when she arrived for work at a hospital to tend to those injured in the country’s ongoing civil war, she faced threats from the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and gangs. The RSF has been at war with the Sudanese armed forces since April of last year. 

The threat forced her to leave her patients and her city, Omdurman, northwest of the capital, Khartoum. Hassan said she and her family fled to safety. 

“From there I went to North Sudan Al-Shimaliyya, it’s called Karima. We stayed there for three months, and my family and I went to Port Sudan. From there we displaced here to Uganda,” she said. 

Fighting between the Sudanese armed forces and the RSF has displaced 9.1 million since April 2023, making Sudan the country with the most displaced people globally. According to the IDMC, the number marks “the most ever recorded in a single country since records began in 2008.” 

The conflict has made it difficult for aid agencies to reach the millions in need, triggering more displacement as people search for food, water, medicine and safety.  

Elsewhere, fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo between the army and rebels has displaced close to 7 million people. Conflict in Ethiopia that began with a two-year war in Tigray in 2020, and erupted in many parts of the country, displaced 790,000 people last year.  

Africa’s conflicts are usually over territory, community politics, and control over resources, with at least 10 African countries, predominantly in West Africa, dealing with terrorism-related conflicts. 

Burkina Faso is the most affected of the West African countries, with 700,000 people displaced last year, up 61 percent from 2022.  

“A rising conflict is really contributing to the rising trend, and especially weather-related disasters, including floods, storms, and drought, are also contributing to pushing the figures to an all-time high,” said Vicente Anzellini, coordinator and lead author of the IDMC report. “So all of this is really a concerning trend. It’s important to underscore, however, that governments and humanitarian actors are taking more action and are producing more data. And this, of course, influences the trend.” 

Anzellini said governments need to improve their capabilities to resolve conflicts and cope with natural disasters.  

“What we’re really seeing in the region should be a reason for concern and more efforts need to be put in conflict resolution, of peace building, and disaster risk reduction across this region to reduce the trend that, again, highly influences the global trend,” Anzellini said. “So if internal displacement is addressed and reduced in Africa, the global trend will also successfully reduce. And it’s unfortunately not a trend that we’re seeing in the last couple of years. And for this to happen more government leadership and investments will be needed.” 

The Swiss-based agency says the overwhelming majority of the displaced stay in their own countries as they struggle to survive and rebuild their lives. 

For Hassan, it was too dangerous for her to stay, as armed groups started to loot her family’s home while she was working in the hospital in Sudan. 

“After two months or so, the Rapid Support team came and resided in our home,” she said. “Now they are living in our home. I don’t know how many of them there are, but they told us they are living there. They took my father’s car, and they are living there.” 

The IDMC says no country is immune to disaster displacement and that conflicts in Sudan, the DRC, and the Palestinian territories drove up the number around the world.

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Investors line up for South Africa’s nuclear energy technology

International investors have been lining up for South African nuclear energy technology this year. Two partnerships have been announced aimed at financing the manufacture of a new prototype, small-scale reactor developed in South Africa. One partner includes a collective of family farmers whose businesses are suffering from the country’s unreliable power grid. Marize de Klerk reports from South Africa’s capital, Pretoria.

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Kenyan climber found dead on Mount Everest in Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal — A climber from Kenya attempting to scale the world’s highest mountain has been found dead near the summit, officials said Thursday.

The body of Cheruiyot Kirui was found on Mount Everest, said Khim Lal Gautam, a government official at the mountain’s base camp. It was unclear when the body would be recovered because it would be difficult to carry at that altitude due to the low oxygen level.

The climb by Kirui, a 40-year-old banker at Kenya Commercial Bank, had been closely followed in Kenya, and fellow climber James Muhia had posted frequent updates about the attempt online.

“It is a sad day,” Muhia wrote Thursday on X. “Our brother is now one with the mountain. It will be a difficult time. Go well my brother.”

Kenyan foreign ministry secretary, Korir Sing’oei, said he had met with Kirui before his trip to Nepal, and described him as fearless and audacious.

“Really gutted by this news,” Sing’oei wrote on X. “I have been following his exploits until this unfortunate end. He is a fearless, audacious spirit, and represents the indomitable will of many Kenyans. We shall miss him.”

Officials said more than 450 climbers have scaled Mount Everest from the Nepali side of the peak in the south this season. Three climbers were reported killed and four are still missing on Mount Everest this season, which ends in a few days.

Most climbing of Everest and nearby Himalayan peaks is done in April and May when weather conditions are most favorable.

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Chad swears in president, ending years of military rule

DAKAR, Senegal — Chad swore in Mahamat Deby Itno as the president on Thursday after holding elections earlier this month, completing a disputed transition to democratic rule after he seized power three years ago. 

Deby Itno, also known as Mahamat Idriss Deby, took power after his father Idriss Deby Itno was killed fighting rebels in 2021 after ruling the country for three decades. The long-delayed May 6 election came after three years of military rule. 

His main rival, Succes Masra, who contested the results earlier this month, resigned from his post as prime minister on Wednesday. Masra had been involved in protests against Deby Itno’s decision to extend his time in power and fled the country in 2022. He was allowed to return last year and was appointed prime minister. 

Masra, who claimed to have won the election, filed an appeal to challenge the preliminary results, which showed Deby Itno had won, but it was dismissed. The oil-exporting country of nearly 18 million people hasn’t had a democratic transfer of power since it became independent in 1960, after decades of French colonial rule. 

In his first presidential address, Deby Itno said his government would focus on boosting Chad’s agricultural and farming sectors, and investing in education, access to water and health care. 

“I’ve heard your yearning for change, and I’ve understood you. Let’s all play our part, individually and collectively, to bring about the change we all hope, desire and expect,” he said. 

Western leaders congratulated Deby Itno despite irregularities in the vote, which included Chad’s decision to ban 2,900 EU-trained observers from monitoring the election. 

Chad is seen by the United States and France as one of the last remaining stable allies in the vast Sahel region following military coups in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in recent years. The ruling juntas in all three nations have expelled French forces and turned to Russia’s mercenary units for security assistance instead. 

“Although there were troubling shortcomings, we welcome the milestones in Chad’s transition process,” the U.S. State Department said last week. 

The British government also said the election marked an important milestone in the return to civilian rule. “The U.K. commends the engagement of the Chadian people and welcomes the largely peaceful way in which the elections and campaign were conducted,” it said in a statement. 

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US elevates security relationship with Kenya at state visit

The White House — The United States will designate Kenya as its first major non-NATO ally in sub-Saharan Africa, the White House said as President Joe Biden on Thursday welcomed President William Ruto for a state visit. The significant strategic move signals the shifting of U.S. security cooperation to East Africa just as U.S. troops prepare to depart Niger, leaving a vacuum that Russian forces have begun to fill.

The designation gives non-members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization access to military and financial advantages that NATO members enjoy, but without the mutual defense agreement that holds NATO together. A senior administration official told reporters late Wednesday that Biden would inform Congress of the designation, which takes 30 days to take effect.

The official said the move aims at “elevating and really acknowledging that Kenya is already a global partner of ours.”

In the meantime, Ruto and Biden are using their daylong deliberations to iron out Kenya’s plan to send 1,000 security officers to the fragile, chaotic Caribbean nation of Haiti. The initiative, toward which the United States has pledged $300 million in support, faces stiff political and legal challenges in Kenya. The mission was also delayed when Haitian armed gangs took control while the nation’s leader, Ariel Henry, was visiting Kenya in March. Henry resigned in April and has not returned to the island.

The official said that Ruto would meet with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss the mission but promised no progress.

“This is definitely an ongoing area of collaboration,” the official said.

And the White House on Thursday also rolled out a number of security-related agreements, which include training opportunities and military exercises, assistance in managing refugees, U.S. investments in Kenya’s security sector, counterterrorism efforts including increased information sharing and, on top of all this, 16 helicopters and 150 armored vehicles.

From bombs to bonbons

Washington also made millions of dollars of commitments toward a number of efforts the U.S. sees as key to development. Those include areas like democracy, health, education, arts and culture, climate management, trade, technology, and the one item Ruto said was his main priority on his four-day swing through the United States: work to restructure African nations’ crippling debt to the world’s largest creditor, China.

But the lengthy list of American pledges was absent the roads, bridges and railroad projects that African leaders have long said they need to keep up with their exploding populations. For those, they turn to China’s sprawling Belt and Road Initiative, which counts the African continent as the largest beneficiary of its massive, $1 trillion global project.

This, analysts say, represents Africa’s new stance as its young democracies mature, less than a century after liberation from colonialism: In a world of competition among the world’s great powers, they want to be somewhere in the middle.

“I think many U.S. officials see this very much as a zero-sum game in this kind of great power competition to gain influence,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “African countries don’t see it that way. They actually see the benefit of being able to partner with China on trade, with Russia on security and with Washington on development, and they don’t see any inconsistency in that approach.”

“And I think unless and until Washington becomes much more comfortable with seeing their privileged relationships become partnerized with other countries, I think it’s going to be very difficult for Washington to really chart a course forward with many of these countries,” he added.

This is the first White House state visit by an African leader in nearly 16 years, and that significance was not lost on first lady Jill Biden, who, ahead of her sixth state dinner, spoke of a glass-ceilinged pavilion set under the stars, of a gospel choir and shag carpets and “the glow of candles in a space saturated with warm pinks and reds.”

White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford narrated a menu of chilled green tomato soup touched with sweet onions and drizzled with white balsamic vinegar and fine Californian olive oil, of butter-poached lobster and seasonal bounties reminiscent of American summer. She lavished words on the bed of kale and roasted corn and corn puree and roasted turnips and sweet potatoes and squash but touched just briefly on the one item that is seen as a hallmark of a fine Kenyan feast:

“Red meat,” she said.

Specifically, she said, they are marinated and smoked short ribs, perched atop that farmers’ market worth of produce.

But it was the unnamed administration official who teased the star that could outshine all the others on this glittering night: the first and only American president of Kenyan ancestry.

When asked by a journalist if former President Barack Obama – born to a Kenyan father and an American mother – would make an appearance at the lavish dinner, the official hesitated.

“I’ll go to a quote from another former president, President Trump,” the official finally replied. And then: “‘We’ll see what happens.’”

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Tunisia sentences two journalists to one year in prison

TUNIS — A Tunisian court on Wednesday sentenced two journalists to one year in prison on charges of publishing false news that harms public security, a judicial official said, amid growing fears of a crackdown targeting all critical voices. 

Mourad Zghidi and Borhan Bsaiss, both journalists with IFM radio, were detained this month over political comments made on the radio. 

Tunisia has now imprisoned a total of six journalists, including Zghidi and Bsaiss, while dozens of others face judicial prosecution, according to the national journalists syndicate, which is the country’s main union for journalists.  

In May, police arrested 10 people, including journalists, lawyers and officials of civil society groups, in what Amnesty International called a deep crackdown targeting activists and journalists. Human Rights Watch has called on Tunisia to respect free speech and civil liberties. 

“The judge decided to imprison them for a year following social media posts and radio comments that harm public security,” said Mohamed Zitouna, the Tunis court spokesperson. 

Lawyers for Bsaiss and Zghidi were not immediately available for comment. 

During his trial session, Bsaiss said, “I am a program presenter who presents all issues, and what I did was journalistic work.”  

Zghidi also defended himself during the session. 

“I did not make a mistake. …. My work requires analyzing the political and economic situation … and I bear my responsibility,” he said. 

Tunisian journalists gathered near the court on Wednesday, demanding an end to ongoing restrictions against journalists. 

“Tunisia has become an open prison for journalists,” said Zied Dabbar, head of the national journalists syndicate. 

“Threats and restrictions facing journalists in Tunisia are unprecedented. We will move to escalation,” he added, without giving details. 

Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, the country has been considered one of the more open media environments in the Arab world. 

But politicians, journalists and unions say freedom of the press faces a serious threat under the rule of President Kais Saied, who came to power following free elections in 2019. 

Two years later, he shut down the elected parliament and moved to rule by decree. He also assumed authority over the judiciary, a step that the opposition called a coup. 

Saied rejects accusations of authoritarian rule and says his steps aim to end years of chaos and corruption.

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Migrant encounters at the US-Mexico border drop

The latest numbers show migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border have dropped. Illegal crossings usually increase in the spring, but officials say this April they fell by more than 6% compared with March. VOA’s immigration reporter Aline Barros has more.

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Habari! White House to welcome Kenyan president

The White House will roll out the red carpet for the first African leader to be hosted for a state visit since 2008. Kenyan President William Ruto will get a lavish state dinner and some deals, the White House says. But also on the table are Nairobi’s aims to leverage Washington’s largesse and influence after Kenya offered to send a peacekeeping force to Haiti. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House.

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Habari! White House to welcome Kenyan president

The White House — The White House gave three reasons for inviting Kenyan President William Ruto on Thursday to break the 16-year drought during which no African leader has been honored with a pomp-filled state visit.

Those include the two governments’ shared democratic convictions and their like-minded approach in leveraging the private sector to meet government aims. 

But the primary reason, the administration’s new top Africa policymaker told VOA, is Kenya’s recent decision to assert itself globally by offering 1,000 peacekeepers for Haiti. The first tranche of boots on the ground are expected to hit Haitian soil this week.

“We chose Kenya for a few reasons,” Frances Brown, senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council, told VOA during her first media interview since taking the post. “No. 1 is the Kenya-U.S. partnership has really grown from a regionally focused one to a globally focused one. We’ve been really pleased by the way that Kenyans have stepped up to play leadership [roles] beyond their region.”

Analysts say a state visit is a big deal. 

“It is the highest diplomatic honor that our president can bestow,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow in the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“It’s typically an indicator of a very close and important bilateral relationship. And so, elevating Kenya to the level of, let’s say, a Japan, which was the most recent country to have a state visit, I think it is symbolic. And it’s important for all the reasons that I just described as far as Kenya being on a level that we would give it the same privileges as one of our oldest and longest security partners,” Hudson said.

Brown said the administration aims to use the visit to reach agreements in areas like technology, climate management, debt relief and health. 

And on the Haiti mission, Washington has signaled its approval: with $300 million in support.

“We’ve been working really closely with them,” Brown said. “As you may know, there’s been planning underway for a number of months. It has included policing experts from around the world working to develop a concept of operations. Kenya is not going it alone.”

Other priorities 

Meanwhile, the Kenyan leader says his focus is on debt restructuring, and activists in the East African nation are sounding the alarm over human rights concerns. 

Ruto, in Atlanta for his first stop of his four-day U.S. visit, said he’d use his time in Washington to “make a case for many countries in Africa, including Kenya, seeking to adjust international financial architecture.”

“Many countries are in economic and debt distress occasioned by climate change and compounded by an unjust international financial architecture and also an imperfect multilateralism,” he said. 

“We now run the escalating risk of democracy and free markets being associated with poverty, and lending credit to the widespread lamentation that democracy is or has been on the retreat in many parts of the world, including Africa,” Ruto added.

But human rights advocates in Nairobi told VOA they hope American leadership will also raise what they see as serious concerns, like reports of abuses by Kenyan police, who are taking the lead in the Haiti mission. 

“We see this as a really excellent opportunity to focus on governance, human rights and rule of law, for many reasons,” Irungu Houghton, executive director for Amnesty International Kenya, told VOA. “Both the United States and Kenya are nations that projected themselves as essentially, nations that believe in these values, and the state dinner is an opportunity really to focus on that.”

Others highlight a tightening of public expression, especially over the hot-button issue of the Gaza war. Many African nations have criticized Israel’s behavior in the conflict, but Kenya’s government has kept largely quiet. 

“Especially within the Muslim community in Kenya, we’ve had persons trying to protest them and to picket on this issue, but they had a very, very hard time having access to the streets, because every time they go out, the police arrest them,” said Demas Kiprono, who leads the Kenyan section of the International Commission of Jurists.

Others say they hope American leadership will voice concerns over a pending Kenyan law that they say targets sexual minorities.  

“It’s criminalizing things even like pronouns. It’s criminalizing things like using [gender] neutral toilets. It’s a horrible, horrible law that is being financed by Family Watch International — that’s the same organization that financed the Uganda bill and all the (LGBTQ)-related bills basically in Africa and even in the U.S.,” said activist and organizer Yvonne Muthoni. 

Family Watch International is a conservative Christian American lobbying group. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups, says it “works within the United Nations and with countries around the world to further anti-LGBT and anti-choice stances.” 

“We are looking at violence that is coming from this. Whether it’s online or physical violence, we are seeing a rise in the number of cases that are being reported, in the number of complaints, in the rallies that are being called for. So, it is quite a scary time for Kenya right now,” Muthoni said.

The view from here and there

At the White House this week, a large Kenyan flag was displayed alongside an American flag, each covering the height of an entire story of the hulking gray Eisenhower Executive Building. Workers erected massive white sails around the White House’s North Portico, where the Bidens plan to formally welcome the Rutos. 

Meanwhile, the day after Ruto departed Nairobi — likely traversing the new Chinese-built superhighway that cuts the city in half and ends at the airport — one had to scroll far down on news to find mention of his American jaunt.

Instead, the nation’s prominent newspapers focused on issues that Kenyans wrestle with daily. The Standard’s front page wrote of 850,000 new jobs last year — close to the 900,000 the World Bank says is needed to sustain economic growth in the lower middle-income country. 

That coverage mirrors Kenyans’ priorities, Houghton said. 

“Most Kenyans are economically distressed,” he said. “They are very concerned about the cost of living. Thousands of them went onto the streets last year and almost rendered the country ungovernable in certain counties because they felt that the crippling number of taxes that had been introduced were essentially not making it possible for them to survive. We’ve seen a deterioration in terms of the services, education, health and otherwise. … So, there is a very clear disproportionate, I guess, energy around this visit.” 

Farhad Pouladi contributed to this report from the White House. 

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Women in Botswana watch from sidelines as country prepares for election

Gaborone, Botswana — As Botswana prepares for general elections in October, the number of women running for office remains low.

Political parties have finalized their list of candidates for the 2024 vote, and the majority of contestants are male. In the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), out of nearly 200 candidates for the National Assembly, only 20 are women.

In the last general election, only 5% of women were elected to the National Assembly.

Gender activist Pamela Dube said the situation is concerning, especially given how few women were elected in 2019.

“The pertaining state of affairs in women’s political participation in Botswana is saddening. While statistically, women make [up] more than 50% of voters, women’s representation in elected positions remains very low,” Dube said. “I have serious doubt that we will see an improvement in the upcoming October elections.”

Botswana falls short of the framework established by the regional bloc the Southern Africa Development Community for achieving gender parity. The group’s policy advocates equal representation in political and decision-making positions.

Dube said the governing BDP should create gender quotas in order to push for legislated seat allocation.

“Botswana has no such laws, or even constitutional provisions. It is even sadder that the constitution review bill that is before parliament is silent in this regard,” Dube said.

Spokesperson for opposition coalition the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), Moeti Mohwasa, said the country’s electoral laws do not favor women.

Botswana uses the first-past-the-post system, where voters choose a single candidate, as opposed to a list.

“You cannot expect the very same set-up or situation that is patriarchal, conservative to allow women to rise and occupy positions of authority,” Mohwasa said. “Our position is that you need to have the mixed system, which will have the current first-past-the-post and also the list system. If you look at countries that have the list systems, you realize that women are much more empowered.”

Maputo-based Women in Political Participation (WPP) programs officer Sifisosami Dube said Botswana should have amended its electoral laws under a recent constitutional review process.

“There is a need to handhold women in political leadership from the time they are campaigning, or when they are thinking about campaigning, to the time they will be in elections and to the time they are in political leadership positions. Because once they are in political offices, it is quite cold out there; they need to be continuously motivated,” WPP’s Dube said.

While Botswana struggles to get more women into politics, countries like Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have more than 30% women representation in upper and lower houses of parliament.

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UN official: ‘Real and growing’ risk of genocide in Sudan

New York — The U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide warned Tuesday that Sudan exhibits all the risk signs of genocide, and it may already have been committed.

“The protection of civilians in Sudan cannot wait,” Alice Nderitu said. “The risk of genocide exists in Sudan. It is real and it is growing, every single day.”

Nderitu addressed a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to mark the 25th anniversary of a resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflict and the 75th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

She said many Sudanese civilians are targeted based on their identity.

“In Darfur and El Fasher, civilians are being attacked and killed because of the color of their skin, because of their ethnicity, because of who they are,” Nderitu said in a video briefing. “They are also targeted with hate speech and with direct incitement to violence.”

El Fasher is the capital of North Darfur, where fighting has recently escalated between the rival Sudanese Armed Forces, or SAF, based inside the city, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, who have now reportedly advanced into it.

El Fasher is the only city in the Darfur region that the RSF has not captured. More than 800,000 civilians are sheltering there, and a full-scale battle could unleash atrocities similar to those of 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 today’s RSF.

“Ethnically motivated attacks targeting these specific groups — the Masalit, and also the Fur and the Zaghawa — have been, and reportedly continue, being conducted primarily by RSF and allied armed Arab militias,” Nderitu said. “They are reported to act in patterns whereby attacks against specific locations and individuals tend to be announced in advance, which could constitute indication of clear intent to destroy.”

Intent to destroy is a key part of the crime of genocide.

Nderitu said attacks reported on villages around El Fasher appear intended to cause displacement and fear, rather than accomplish specific military objectives.

“It is imperative that all possible actions aimed at the protection of innocent civilian populations, in El Fasher as in the entire territory of Sudan, are expedited,” she said. “It is urgent to stop ethnically motivated violence.”

Nderitu visited refugees in neighboring Chad in October and said she saw camps set up there in the early 2000s to house civilians fleeing that genocide, side-by-side with camps for the new refugees.

In West Darfur, she said Masalit communities have been targeted, with many people killed as they fled to Chad or during the conflict.

She criticized both the RSF and SAF for ignoring international human rights and humanitarian law, for using heavy weaponry in densely populated areas, for arresting youth and men at checkpoints, and for using hate speech and inciting people to violence.

The special adviser expressed particular alarm about the use of rape and gender-based violence, the burning and looting of villages, the bombing of medical facilities and the lack of access to water and electricity.

Famine is also stalking parts of Sudan due to the 13-month-old war, and Nderitu said access to humanitarian assistance is urgent.

She told Security Council members they have a “special responsibility” to consider measures to prevent another genocide in Sudan.

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African spelling bee cultivates students’ passion for reading

Children across Africa are competing for a spot in the finals of the African Spelling Bee, which will be held in Abuja, Nigeria, in December. We caught up with one hopeful speller at the recent South African regional finals. VOA’s Zaheer Cassim reports.

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Gunmen kill some 40 people in attack in north-central Nigeria

Lagos, Nigeria — Gunmen riding motorbikes killed around 40 people in a raid on a mining community in north-central Nigeria, opening fire on residents and torching homes, the local government said on Tuesday.

The attack late Monday in Wase district in Plateau state was the latest violence in an area that has long been a flashpoint for disputes over resources and outbreaks of intercommunal clashes.

Armed men invaded Zurak community, shooting sporadically and torching houses, Plateau’s state commissioner for information, Musa Ibrahim Ashoms, told AFP by telephone.

“As we speak, about 40 people have been confirmed dead. Zurak is a popular mining community,” he said.

Local youth leader Shafi’i Sambo said at least 42 people had been killed in the raid.

Wase has deposits of zinc and lead, while Plateau as a whole is known for its tin mining industry.

Sitting on the dividing line between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south, Plateau often sees outbreaks of violence sparked by disputes between nomadic herders and pastoral farmers.

Climate change has escalated tensions over grazing land, water access and other resources, such as the state’s metal reserves.

Parts of northwest and north-central Nigeria have also been terrorized by heavily armed criminal gangs, who raid villages to loot and carry out mass kidnappings for ransom.

In January, intercommunal clashes erupted in Plateau’s Mangu town that left churches and mosques burned, more than 50 people dead and thousands displaced.

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Southern Africa seeks $5.5B in aid to fight El Nino effects

Gaborone, Botswana — Southern African leaders have launched a $5.5 billion humanitarian aid appeal as the region faces acute grain shortages due to El Nino-induced droughts.

Leaders from the region’s bloc, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), met Monday to deliberate on the crisis following widespread drought and flooding that has left millions without enough to eat.

In a communiqué released after the virtual meeting, leaders from 15 SADC member states agreed to launch an appeal to help affected populations.

The leaders said the SADC Regional Humanitarian Appeal will augment domestic resources in response to the impact of El Nino weather patterns.

El Nino resulted in warmer and drier conditions, leading to record-breaking droughts across the region in 2023 and the beginning of 2024.

SADC executive secretary Elias Magosi said the humanitarian appeal will be revised in August as more member states finalize their assessments on the impact of El Nino and look toward an expected change to the La Nina weather pattern later this year.

“Summit called member states to be proactive and strengthen anticipatory action programs to mitigate climate risks such as the La Nina phenomenon, which is projected for the 2024-2025 season,” Magosi said.

Magosi said the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Food and Agriculture Organization have pledged a combined $43 million toward the humanitarian appeal.

Angolan President Joao Lourenco, who chaired the Monday meeting, appealed to the international community to respond.

“This is a very important step taken by the organization (SADC) by launching this humanitarian appeal and we hope that there will be good feedback on the part of the international community of support to help us overcome this difficult moment that the region is facing,” Lourenco said.

El Nino has resulted in widespread crop failure within Southern Africa and has resulted in national emergency declarations in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

 

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3 Americans accused of involvement in Congo ‘coup attempt’

DAKAR, Senegal — Three Americans involved in a brazen weekend attack on Congo’s presidential palace formed an unlikely band under the leadership of eccentric opposition figure Christian Malanga, who dabbled in gold mining and used cars — before persuading his Utah-born son to join in the foiled coup, according to officials’ description of events.

Six people, including Malanga, were dead and dozens arrested, including the three Americans, following that attack and another on the residence of a close ally of President Felix Tshisekedi, the Congolese army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Sylvain Ekenge said.

Ekenge said Malanga was killed in a shootout early Sunday with presidential guards. The situation “is under control,” he said.

Authorities said they were still trying to untangle how Malanga’s 21-year-old son, Marcel, went from playing high school football to allegedly trying to unseat the leader of one of Africa’s largest countries.

“My son is innocent,” his mother, Brittney Sawyer, wrote in an email to The Associated Press, declining to elaborate.

Sawyer had regularly posted proud family photos on social media, including one in December showing Marcel, a young sister and a toddler hugging in matching Christmas pajamas. In 2020, she posted photos of Marcel lifting weights and dancing during COVID lockdown.

In a Facebook post early Monday, Sawyer angrily wrote that her son had followed his father. “This was an innocent boy following his father. I’m so tired of all the videos being posted all over and being sent to me. God will take care of you people!”

One video that circulated on social media showed her son alongside a bloodied white man, whose identity was unclear, both covered in dust and surrounded by Congolese soldiers. Marcel has his hands raised and a frightened look on his face.

It was far from the persona that Marcel appeared to have been building in videos recently posted on Facebook and TikTok showing him posing with stacks of dollar bills and talking about women.

His father, Malanga, had described himself on his website as a refugee who thrived after settling in the U.S. with his family in the 1990s. He said he became a leader of a Congolese opposition political party and met high-level officials in Washington and the Vatican. He also described himself as a devoted husband and father of eight.

Court records and interviews paint another picture.

In 2001, the year he turned 18, Malanga was convicted in Utah in incidents including assault with a firearm that resulted in a 30-day jail sentence and three years of probation. That same year, he was charged with domestic violence in one assault incident, and battery and disturbing the peace in another, but he pleaded not guilty, and all counts were dismissed.

In 2004, he was charged with domestic violence with threat of using a dangerous weapon, but he pleaded not guilty, and the charges were dismissed. Since 2004, records show several cases related to a custody dispute and a child support dispute. It is unclear if the disputes involved Sawyer.

Malanga described himself as the organizer of the United Congolese Party, a movement aimed at organizing emigres like him against the “current Congolese dictatorship government regime.” He also described himself as president of the “New Zaire” government in exile and published a manifesto with plans for creating business opportunities and reforming Congo’s security services.

Photos on Facebook and his website show him meeting then-senior U.S. political figures, including former Utah Rep. Rob Bishop and New York Rep. Peter King.

Bishop told the AP he did not recall the meeting and couldn’t tell when the photo was taken. King could not be reached for comment.

Dino Mahtani, an independent researcher into African issues, said he first heard of Malanga in 2018 while serving as a political adviser to the United Nations in Congo. He said Congolese authorities voiced suspicions that Malanga was involved in a purported plot to kill then-President Joseph Kabila.

In an interview, Mahtani said he had never met Malanga but thinks Malanga was obsessed with capturing some form of power in Congo.

He also speculated Malanga had been set up or betrayed in the weekend attack, given the implausible way it was carried out.

“Somebody put him up to this. It could be external plotters but given his previous close relationship with at least one of Tshisekedi’s current military commanders, there’s some chance the plot was known about internally and this allowed them to move quickly,” Mahtani said.

The alleged coup attempt began at the Kinshasa residence of Vital Kamerhe, a federal legislator and a candidate for speaker of the National Assembly of Congo. His guards killed the attackers, officials said.

Malanga, meanwhile, was live-streaming video from the presidential palace in which he is seen surrounded by several people in military uniforms wandering around in the middle of the night. He was later killed while resisting arrest, Congolese authorities said.

Congo officials have not commented on how the attackers were able to get inside.

“It’s really difficult to imagine how 20, 30 guys thought that by storming the presidential palace when nobody is around at 4 a.m. in the morning could somehow take over the Congolese state,” Mahtani said.

A second American allegedly involved was identified as Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, according to images of a U.S. passport circulated by Congolese media. He graduated from the University of Colorado and attended business administration classes at Georgetown University, court records indicate. He later started a commodity trading business and worked as a courier and Uber driver — the records show.

His connection to Malanga appeared to be through a gold mining company that was set up in Mozambique in 2022, according to an official journal published by Mozambique’s government, and a report by Africa Intelligence newsletter.

No information was released on the third American.

The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa said it was aware “U.S. citizens might have been involved in Sunday’s events,” adding in a statement that it would cooperate with authorities “as they investigate these violent criminal acts.”

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Rwanda deploying another 2500 soldiers to help Mozambique fight Cabo Delgado insurgency

Maputo — Rwanda is deploying an additional 2,500 soldiers to help Mozambique fight resurgent attacks by Islamic State insurgents in the oil-rich Cabo Delgado province. Attacks have been on the rise in the area as a force known as SAMIM, deployed by the Southern African Development Community, prepares to withdraw.

President Filipe Nyusi was quoted by state-run radio late Sunday as saying the troops are being deployed not because Mozambique cannot ensure its own defense, but because the country cannot fight terrorism alone.

Nyusi, who is due to step down in January 2025 at the end of his second five-year term, said it is clear that Rwanda is cooperating with Mozambique, adding that his greatest pride would be to leave things well done to ensure continuity.

He said more contingents are disembarking, not to exchange, but to add flow. And this is mainly because of the departure of SAMIM, and when it definitively leaves the hotspot area we will occupy it.

Nyusi made the statement during a review of the visit he made to Rwanda’s capital last week.

He was in Kigali to attend the Africa CEO forum, and he seized the opportunity to meet with his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, and the chief executive officer of French company TotalEnergies, Patrick Pouyanné.

Cabo Delgado has been facing an armed insurgency since 2017 that has disrupted several multi-billion oil and natural gas projects. Three years ago, Rwanda deployed 1,000 soldiers to fight alongside Mozambique’s armed defense and was joined by SAMIM.

The regional intervention force will completely withdraw in July, forcing the Mozambican Armed Defense Forces (FADM) to fill the security vacuum.

TotalEnergies is building a plant near Palma for the production and export of natural gas, at the cost $20 billion, but the project has been suspended since 2021.

Rwanda’s additional military support to Mozambique was welcomed by TotalEnergies chief Pouyanné, who said the natural gas project district will soon resume.

He said, I believe we have progressed very positively with contractors, and from this point of view we are ready to resume. He said we are also working with all the credit agencies to resume the financing of the project and it’s progressing very well.

ExxonMobil, with partner Eni, is also developing a liquified natural gas project in northern Mozambique and said last week it was “optimistic and looking forward” for the security situation to improve.

SAMIM’s withdrawal from Mozambique, the result of financial difficulties, comes at a time when terrorist attacks have increased in Cabo Delgado. A week ago, Islamic State-backed insurgents ransacked the major town of Macomia in Cabo Delgado province following a dawn assault in which over 20 soldiers may have been killed, according to local media reports.

A senior project leader for South Africa-based Institute of Justice and Reconciliation, Webster Zambara, said SADC should reconsider its withdrawal.

“Actually it’s the first time in Southern Africa where we would have a troop from east Africa stationed in one country to fight a war that actually is affecting not only one country Mozambique, but others like Tanzania, also Malawi and probably the whole region, and the bigger picture is that terrorism issues tend to be very long if we are to look at al-Shabab in East Africa and also Boko Haram in West Africa, so we may actually need to see SADC revisiting its position on this,” said Zambara.

Last month, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), issued an appeal for almost half a billion dollars in emergency aid to support affected and displaced Mozambicans in Cabo Delgado.

The humanitarian crisis there has left 1.3 million people needing humanitarian aid.

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In Kenya, media hub helps journalists in exile

Journalists living in exile in Kenya are finding support to continue working in their professions, thanks to a fellowship provided by media groups. From Nairobi, Victoria Amunga has more. Camera and video: Jimmy Makhulo

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South Africa’s top court rules Zuma can’t run in election

Johannesburg — South Africa’s top court says graft-tainted former president Jacob Zuma is not eligible to run for parliament in the country’s May 29 general election.

Zuma left office in 2018, dogged by corruption allegations, and was briefly jailed for contempt. He has since founded a party to challenge his successor Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC has won every South African election since the country became a democracy in 1994, and Zuma served as the party’s fourth president between 2009 and 2018.

But his era has become synonymous with the corruption allegations haunting the former anti-apartheid movement, and electoral authorities argued that Zuma’s 2021 conviction barred him from the ballot.

Zuma and his new party, named uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) after the ANC’s former armed wing, challenged that ruling which has now been upheld by the constitutional court.

After a South African general election, the president is chosen by MPs from among their own ranks, so if Zuma is not on the ballot he could not become president.

Tight race

Under section 47 of the South African constitution, anyone convicted of an offense and sentenced to a year or more cannot stand for office until five years after the end of their jail term.

Monday’s ruling could have deep and destabilizing political consequences.

Ramaphosa’s ANC is still all but certain to remain South Africa’s largest party after the May 29 vote, but some polls indicate that it may struggle for the first time to win an absolute majority.

Zuma’s MK does not poll well nationwide but in his native KwaZulu-Natal province and among Zulus he retains support — more than 30,000 supporters cheered him at a Soweto stadium rally Saturday.

If Zuma’s party cuts into the ANC’s traditional support base, Ramaphosa may be forced to negotiate a coalition with one or more of the country’s many small opposition parties to ensure he is re-elected to the presidency.

Strike Zuma from the ballot may also trigger a deadly wave of unrest. Rioting after his 2021 imprisonment left more than 350 people dead.

Soaring unemployment

South Africa’s respected Independent Electoral Commission says ballot papers have already been printed with Zuma’s image on them, but he will be unable to sit as an MP.

The ANC was the leading political force in the struggle of black South Africans against the former apartheid regime, and has led the country for 30 years.

But late liberation leader Nelson Mandela’s party has struggled in the polls in the run up to this year’s vote, dogged by corruption allegations and soaring crime and unemployment rates.

Just under a third of the working-age population is unemployed and the murder rate has reached 84 a day.

But Ramaphosa’s party still has a formidable nationwide electoral machine and has overseen the creation of a broad social welfare system. Many older South Africans remain loyal to its historic role.   

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Companies trying to attract more smartphone users across Africa, but there are risks

Accra, Ghana — Anita Akpeere prepared fried rice in her kitchen in Ghana’s capital as a flurry of notifications for restaurant orders lit up apps on her phone. “I don’t think I could work without a phone in my line of business,” she said, as requests came in for her signature dish, a traditional fermented dumpling.

Internet-enabled phones have transformed many lives, but they can play a unique role in sub-Saharan Africa, where infrastructure and public services are among the world’s least developed, said Jenny Aker, a professor who studies the issue at Tufts University. At times, technology in Africa has leapfrogged gaps, including providing access to mobile money for people without bank accounts.

Despite growing mobile internet coverage on the continent of 1.3 billion people, just 25% of adults in sub-Saharan Africa have access to it, according to Claire Sibthorpe, head of digital inclusion at the U.K.-based mobile phone lobbying group GSMA. Expense is the main barrier. The cheapest smartphone costs up to 95% of the monthly salary for the poorest 20% of the region’s population, Sibthorpe said.

Literacy rates that are below the global average, and lack of services in many African languages — some 2,000 are spoken across the continent, according to The African Language Program at Harvard University — are other reasons why a smartphone isn’t a compelling investment for some.

“If you buy a car, it’s because you can drive it,” said Alain Capo-Chichi, chief executive of CERCO Group, a company that has developed a smartphone that functions through voice command and is available in 50 African languages such as Yoruba, Swahili and Wolof.

Even in Ghana, where the lingua franca is English, knowing how to use smartphones and apps can be a challenge for newcomers.

One new company in Ghana is trying to close the digital gap. Uniti Networks offers financing to help make smartphones more affordable and coaches users to navigate its platform of apps.

For Cyril Fianyo, a 64-year-old farmer in Ghana’s eastern Volta region, the phone has expanded his activities beyond calls and texts. Using his identity card, he registered with Uniti, putting down a deposit worth 340 Ghanaian Cedis ($25) for a smartphone and will pay the remaining 910 Cedis ($66) in installments.

He was shown how to navigate apps that interested him, including a third-party farming app called Cocoa Link that offers videos of planting techniques, weather information and details about the challenges of climate change that have affected cocoa and other crops.

Fianyo, who previously planted according to his intuition and rarely interacts with farming advisors, was optimistic that the technology would increase his yields.

“I will know the exact time to plant because of the weather forecast,” he said.

Kami Dar, chief executive of Uniti Networks, said the mobile internet could help address other challenges including accessing health care. The company has launched in five communities across Ghana with 650 participants and wants to reach 100,000 users within five years.

Aker, the scholar, noted that the potential impact of mobile phones across Africa is immense but said there is limited evidence that paid health or agriculture apps are benefiting people there. She asserted that the only beneficial impacts are reminders to take medicine or get vaccinated.

Having studied agricultural apps and their impact, she said it doesn’t seem that farmers are getting better prices or improving their income.

Capo-Chichi from CERCO Group said a dearth of useful apps and content is another reason that more people in Africa aren’t buying smartphones.

Dar said Uniti Networks learns from mistakes. In a pilot in northern Ghana designed to help cocoa farmers contribute to their pensions, there was high engagement, but farmers didn’t find the app user-friendly and needed extra coaching. After the feedback, the pension provider changed the interface to improve navigation.

Others are finding benefit with Uniti’s platform. Mawufemor Vitor, a church secretary in Hohoe, said one health app has assisted her to track her menstruation to help prevent pregnancy. And Fianyo, the farmer, has used the platform to find information on herbal medicine.

But mobile phones are no substitute for investment in public services and infrastructure, Aker said.

She also expressed concerns about the privacy of data in the hands of private technology providers and governments. With digital IDs in development in African nations such as Kenya and South Africa, this could pave the way for further abuses, Aker said.

Uniti Networks is a for-profit business, paid for each customer that signs up for paying apps. Dar asserted that he was not targeting vulnerable populations to sell them unnecessary services and said Uniti only features apps that align with its idea of impact, with a focus on health, education, finance and agriculture.

Dar said Uniti has rejected lucrative approaches from many companies including gambling firms. “Tech can be used for awful things,” he said.

He acknowledged that Uniti tracks users on the platform to provide incentives, in the form of free data, and to provide feedback to app developers. He acknowledged that users’ health and financial data could be at threat from outside attack but said Uniti has decentralized data storage in an attempt to lessen the risk.

Still, the potential to provide solutions can outweigh the risks, Aker said, noting two areas where the technology could be transformative: education and insurance.

She said mobile phones could help overcome the illiteracy that still affects 773 million people worldwide according to UNESCO. Increased access to insurance, still not widely used in parts of Africa, could provide protection to millions who face shocks on the front lines of climate change and conflict.

Back in Fianyo’s fields, his new smartphone has attracted curiosity. “This is something I would like to be part of,” said neighboring farmer Godsway Kwamigah.

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US to complete withdrawal from Niger by Sept. 15 

NIAMEY — Niger and the United States have reached an agreement on the withdrawal of American troops from the West African country, a process that has already begun and will be finished by Sept. 15, they said in a joint statement. 

Niger’s ruling junta last month told the U.S. to withdraw its nearly 1,000 military personnel from the country. Until a coup last year Niger had been a key partner in Washington’s fight against insurgents in the Sahel region of Africa, who have killed thousands of people and displaced millions more. 

The agreement between Niger’s defense ministry and the U.S. Department of Defense, reached after a five-day commission, guarantees the protection of U.S. troops until their withdrawal and establishes procedures to ease the entry and exit of American personnel during the withdrawal process.  

“The Ministry of Defense of Niger and the U.S. Department of Defense recall the common sacrifices of the Nigerien and American forces in the fight against terrorism and welcome the mutual efforts made in building up the Nigerien armed forces,” they said in a joint statement.  

“The withdrawal of American forces from Niger in no way affects the pursuit of relations between the United States and Niger in the area of development. Also, Niger and the United States are committed to an ongoing diplomatic dialogue to define the future of their bilateral relations.” 

Niger’s decision to ask for the removal of U.S. troops came after a meeting in Niamey in mid-March, when senior U.S. officials raised concerns about issues such as the expected arrival of Russian forces and reports of Iran seeking raw materials in the country, including uranium. 

Russian military personnel have since entered an air base in Niger that is hosting U.S. troops. 

 

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