Asia/Africa update: June 1 2017



An audio recording has surfaced that appears to include Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev lambasting his deputy prime minister, Rustam Azimov, who may or may not have been present. This seems to be another sign that Azimov, who was expected to be part of a ruling triumvirate with Mirziyoyev and Uzbek intelligence chief Rustam Inoyatov after the death of long-time dictator Islam Karimov last year, has instead been sidelined by Mirziyoyev. Azimov’s decline in standing was made pretty clear when Mirziyoyev passed him over and appointed Abdulla Aripov as his prime minister in December.


Kabul is still recovering from Wednesday’s massive terrorist bombing on the outskirts of its main diplomatic area, and people are venting their anger and frustration at President Ashraf Ghani’s government for its inability to stabilize the country:

At informal gatherings, on social media and in several small but intense public rallies, people denounced the government of President Ashraf Ghani for failing to prevent the ongoing violence and said the country’s future seemed increasingly bleak.

“Let us turn the silence of suffering into a national voice. We must all come together to stop terrorism from going any further and raise our voices against oppression,” a young man with a bullhorn exhorted protesters gathered at the perimeter of the blast site, surrounded by watchful riot police in flak jackets and helmets.

A sewage vehicle carried the bomb to one of the entrances to Kabul’s “Green Zone,” where the bombers detonated it while at a security checkpoint. But it’s not clear how the truck could have gotten that deep into the city, and apparently there’s a bunch of Chinese-made security equipment intended to prevent that kind of thing is sitting in a warehouse in Kabul because…well, forget it Jake, it’s Afghanistan.

There’s still been no claim of responsibility, and one claim to the contrary from the Taliban. The Afghan government is blaming the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network and its Pakistani enablers, a charge that Pakistan has flatly denied. There are rumors that Ghani is planning to execute 11 Haqqani prisoners in retaliation, which drew a warning from the Taliban today.


Three people were killed in Kashmir on Thursday in cross-border shelling by India and Pakistan. Each side naturally blamed the other for shooting first.


The recent electoral defeat and then blasphemy conviction of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, AKA “Ahok,” is raising concerns about the rise of Islamic extremism in Indonesia, but also about the rise of “illiberal tolerance”:

The Ahok case thus contributes to the view that Islam as a political identity rather than as a spiritual platform appears to be increasingly mobilizing for political gain. Many of Indonesia’s emerging middle class are indeed rather pious, but not particularly radical. And Indonesian voters don’t generally prefer Islamist parties over multi-religious parties, they tend to prefer competent parties over incompetent ones. Yet exclusionary ideas can shape the political debate, even if Indonesian’s population remains generally accepting of a multi-religious Indonesian population. One such idea is that Ahok as governor upsets the natural order of Indonesian politics because he is not a Muslim.

In an important recent contribution to the study of religion and politics, political scientist Jeremy Menchik calls this tolerance without liberalism. This phrase denotes a situation in which diversity exists and is sincerely valued, but without the concomitant acceptance of the rights of individuals to criticize other faiths, or to follow “deviationist” religious traditions (such as Shiite Islam in Indonesia). Diversity, in other words, must not threaten social order.


It seemed for a brief time this afternoon (east coast time) that a new terrorist attack had struck Manila. The Resorts World Manila facility was put under lockdown after a gunman stormed in and began firing his weapon, apparently at nobody in particular. Explosions were reported, and President Donald Trump interrupted destroying the planet to decry the developing situation. At this point, though, Philippine police are saying that this looks like a robbery, not a terrorist attack. In the past few hours it’s been reported that the gunman’s body has been found, dead of an apparent suicide.

UPDATE: In just the past few minutes I’ve seen new reporting saying that some 36 people were killed in this incident from smoke inhalation after the gunman set himself on fire. This is just horrifying.


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Germany on Thursday, just a couple of days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and it’s clear that when German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she’s going to forge ahead with her own foreign policy without checking in with Donald Trump, she means it. Beijing in particular seems positively giddy about the prospect of improving ties with the European Union while EU ties with the US fray and Washington’s interests diverge from Brussels’. There are a host of reasons why Germany would want to tread cautiously when it comes to improving ties with China, but by also engaging with India Merkel can improve Germany’s position in Asia across the board without relying on any one country too much.

Li is headed to Brussels for a China-EU summit on Friday, where he’ll whisper sweet nothings at EU leaders about the Paris Climate Agreement and in return the EU will probably go easy on that whole “claiming the entire South China Sea” thing that everybody used to be worried about before Donald Trump rode into town.


The US Treasury Department on Thursday blacklisted nine entities and three individuals over ties to North Korea. Included in the list were at least three Russian firms and one Russian individual, which was not well-received by Moscow and could complicate efforts, possibly as soon as Friday, to get the United Nations Security Council to consider new sanctions against Pyongyang. Washington has been negotiating with China over the idea of new sanctions and won’t bring a measure to the council unless it has Chinese support…but if Russia exercises its veto then China’s support won’t matter.



During last week’s factional fighting in Tripoli, a force allied with Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord was able to take control of Tripoli’s international airport, and on Thursday it said it was taking steps to “secure” the facility. The airport hasn’t been used since it was shut down in 2014 due to the heavy damage it had taken in the country’s ongoing civil war, but bringing it under GNA control is a step toward consolidating control of Tripoli under one government, and if the GNA could somehow find the resources to rebuild it and get it running again, that would certainly help boost its prestige.


The Moroccan government is trying to restore calm to the city of Hoceima even as it comes under pressure for its heavy-handed response to recent protests there. Tensions have been high in Hoceima since October, when a fish seller was crushed to death by a trash compactor while trying to retrieve fish that had been confiscated and thrown out by Moroccan authorities. He quickly became viewed as a martyr by the Riffian people who inhabit that part of the country and are socially and economically marginalized. The recent arrests of protest leader Nasser Zefzafi and dozens of other protesters have sparked other protest movements across the country, among people angry at government corruption and a weak economy.


Nigerian historian Max Siollun explains concerns about the health of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who is once again on indefinite medical leave in the UK. Although Buhari hasn’t wowed anyone with his performance in office, and the last time he took an extended medical leave the country seemed to do just fine under his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, the fact is that Buhari is Muslim, and Osinbajo is Christian, and under the most important of Nigeria’s unwritten political rules it would be extremely problematic for Osinbajo to succeed Buhari mid-term:

The unwritten power-sharing agreement obliges the country’s major parties to alternate the presidency between northern and southern officeholders every eight years. It was consolidated during Nigeria’s first two democratic transfers of power — in 1999 and 2007 — and it alleviated the southern secessionist pressures that had festered under decades of military rule by dictators from the north. For a time, this mechanism for alternating power helped keep the peace in a country with hundreds of different ethnic groups and more than 500 different languages. But it was never intended to be permanent, and as Buhari’s illness demonstrates, it has increasingly become a source of tension rather than consensus.

If Buhari, a northerner, doesn’t finish his term of office, and power passes to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian from the south, it will be the second time in seven years that the north’s “turn” in the presidency has been cut short. In late 2009, then-President Umaru Yar’Adua, who like Buhari was a Muslim from the north, traveled abroad for treatment for an undisclosed illness. When Yar’Adua died in office the following year, his southern Christian vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, succeeded him, setting the stage for an acrimonious split within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) over whether Jonathan should merely finish out Yar’Adua’s term or run to retain the office in the 2011 election.

In the end, Jonathan ran and won in 2011. But not before 800 people were killed in riots in the north after the PDP allowed Jonathan to contest the election. The anti-Jonathan faction later resigned in protest and defected to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) party. Buhari led the APC to victory over the PDP in 2015.

Buhari (L) and Osinbajo
There’s a risk that replacing Buhari with Osinbajo could inflame northern resentment and give Boko Haram a boost at a time when it’s really struggling. On the other hand, forcing Osinbajo to step down because he’s Christian could inflame southern resentment and give Delta and Biafra separatists a boost. Southern Nigeria may be getting the better of the power-sharing arrangement, but it’s also where much of Nigeria’s oil is and yet the people living on top of that oil often see little from Nigeria’s oil industry apart from the terrible pollution it leaves on their lands. Basically everybody’s got a grievance here and nobody seems to know how to settle them all.


The Treasury Department today also blacklisted General Francois Olenga, DRC President Joseph Kabila’s top military adviser. Olenga is accused of carrying out violent acts of suppression against Kabila’s political opponents, including killing protesters.


A batch of leaked documents released on Thursday appear to seriously bolster corruption claims against South African President Jacob Zuma:

Investigative journalists at AmaBhungane, a non-profit group that has a strong track record of exposing what it says are government corruption scandals, released some of more than 100,000 leaked emails and documents.

It says they prove Gupta-owned companies unduly influence the awarding of government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars – including the building of locomotives and pre-payments for coal deliveries before a deal was signed.

A Gupta family spokesman did not respond to questions by phone and said he may reply to emailed inquiries from Reuters later. The Gupta family and Zuma have denied wrongdoing when similar allegations have been made in the past.

The African National Congress has resisted repeated calls to remove Zuma as party leader, which has to happen later this year anyway in the run-up to the 2019 elections. Zuma is obviously angling to put one of his loyalists in that post, but the bigger this scandal gets the more likely it seems the ANC will opt to go in another direction.

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