Asia/Africa update: July 12-13 2017



It’s nice to see, centuries after it was founded, that Russia is still finding ways to keep the empire growing:

Just before President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin’s tête-à-tête at the G-20 on July 7, Russia quietly annexed “about 10 hectares” of Georgian territory on behalf of the Republic of South Ossetia, a polity recognized by just four countries (including Russia).

The move went largely unnoticed — except, of course, in Georgia proper, where President Giorgi Margvelashvili decried “creeping occupation.” That generalized silence is what the Kremlin was counting on.

Regardless of your views about how the 2008 Russia-Georgia War came about the “Republic of South Ossetia” has been annexed by Russia in all but name. So this relatively minor expansion benefits Moscow and comes at direct cost to many Georgian farmers who’ve just had all or part of their lands deemed South Ossetian territory.


Taliban fighters killed at least 10 civilians on Wednesday in two separate incidents in western Afghanistan. In one, they killed three construction workers in Herat. In the other, gunmen took seven people off of a bus in Farah province and executed them. The second attack hasn’t been claimed, but given where it happened (in close proximity to an active firefight between Taliab and Afghan forces) it seems likely that the Taliban were responsible.


Gunmen killed four Pakistani police officers in Quetta on Thursday. Both Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, and since the two groups have worked together in the past they may both be telling the truth.

The latest twist in the corruption investigation involving the family of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif involves a font, of all things. Mariam Nawaz Sharif, the PM’s daughter, has produced documents proving that she was only a trustee in an offshore holding company that purchased property in London, which would address one of the investigation’s biggest components. Except they may not prove anything other than that she’s a spectacularly bad liar. See, the documents in question are dated 2006, but they’re written in a font (Microsoft Calibri) that wasn’t widely available until 2007. Oops.


President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) issued a decree on Wednesday assuming the authority to disband non-governmental organizations without judicial oversight. The measure is targeted at Islamist organizations, in particular the increasingly influential Hizbut Tahrir. But it seemingly grants the executive branch vast powers to do away with any organization it wishes unilaterally. This understandably has human rights and civil society organizations concerned. And there’s another reason to be concerned–banning Hizbut Tahrir, which seems a mere formality at this point, is only going to drive that organization and its supporters underground, where it may prove to be a much bigger challenge to Jokowi’s government than it was as a legal entity.


As you know, Mongolia has just elected itself a new president, former wrestler Khaltmaa Battulga. As anything having to do with Mongolia later than, say, the 16th century is pretty much out of my depth, here’s an explainer that might help make some sense of the election:

As I wrote here before the election, all three candidates were tainted by corruption scandals. Their campaigns mostly lacked any substantive policy discussions; rather, the candidates relied on mudslinging via polarized traditional and social media outlets.

In particular, Battulga used a combination of Sinophobia, nationalism, and fearmongering to win votes. His supporters accused Enkhbold of having Chinese ancestry, while his campaign adopted a slogan, “Mongol Ylna,” which was interpreted by many voters as “a Mongol will triumph.” The implication that Battulga’s rival was not a true Mongolian polarized the electorate to a degree not seen before.

Furthermore, the DP barraged the electorate with uncorroborated propaganda, including numerous leaked and edited videos designed to make voters fear the MPP had stolen the past year’s parliamentary election and was now planning to rig the presidential election nationwide. Despite the implication, there was no significant evidence of electoral fraud.


Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017)

Chinese activist, Nobel laureate, and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo has died. He was 61, suffering from late-stage liver cancer, and had been imprisoned since 2009 on an 11 year sentence for the crime of suggesting that the Chinese people should be allowed to govern themselves. Beijing had been under some international pressure to allow Liu to go overseas for medical treatment–doctors in both Germany and the US had suggested there might be more options for him beyond mere palliative care, but lucky for them, I guess, he died in captivity. To honor Liu’s passing, the Chinese government has been dutifully censoring social media posts expressing any sentiment toward him.


The Trump administration is reportedly preparing a new round of North Korea sanctions, this time targeting Chinese institutions:

Frustrated that China has not done more to rein in North Korea, the Trump administration could impose new sanctions on small Chinese banks and other firms doing business with Pyongyang within weeks, two senior U.S. officials said.

The U.S. measures would initially hit Chinese entities considered “low-hanging fruit,” including smaller financial institutions and “shell” companies linked to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, said one of the officials, while declining to name the targets.

It would leave larger Chinese banks untouched for now, the official said.

The timing and scope of the U.S. action will depend heavily on how China responds to pressure for tougher steps against North Korea when U.S. and Chinese officials meet for a high-level economic dialogue in Washington on Wednesday, the administration sources told Reuters.

As this description suggests, this is more a shot across the bow than a real move against Chinese interests. Most of those smaller banks and shell companies are deliberately built to handle North Korean business without a lot of exposure to other international business, so sanctioning them probably won’t do much in a material sense. According to data from Beijing itself, overall China-North Korea trade is able to keep rising even though Pyongyang’s trade deficit with Beijing has increased because China is buying fewer North Korean exports. That data is likely the last straw for the Trump administration, which has seen its hopes for a tougher Chinese stance against North Korea largely thwarted.



One of the more troubling aspects of the Libyan civil war is the degree to which it’s been mostly fought along the country’s coast. This makes sense to some degree–the coast is where most of the big cities and the country’s people are, so naturally that’s where contenders for control of the country would focus their attention. But it means that as chaotic and dangerous as the coast has been, large swathes of the interior of the country basically exist in a state of anarchy, one that extremist groups and other paramilitary organizations have been exploiting:

Libya’s lawless, desolate center and south provides a sanctuary for militants to reorganize, recruit, train and potentially plot for a comeback. That is especially important at a time when the Islamic State group lost not only its urban holdings in Libya but is crumbling in Iraq and Syria.

In Libya’s remote stretches near the borders with Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Algeria, Niger and Tunisia, multiple armed groups already operate freely. Arms are easily available. Human trafficking and cross-border smuggling, especially fuel, are rampant and lucrative.

Lack of effective border controls has allowed militiamen fighting the Sudanese and Chadian governments to set up camp inside Libya. Alongside them came soldiers-for-hire from places as far afield as Cameroon. Tribal and ethnic rivalries frequently boil over into deadly strife.

Militants “travel back and forth near the southern borders and all the way to the central parts of the country, robbing travelling cars and attacking civilians,” said Brig. Gen. Abdullah Nouredeen of the Libyan National Army. “They sometimes work close to the borders since there is money to be made from smuggling and arms trading.”

ISIS, for example, is working in the south of Libya trying to coalesce support around opposition to Khalifa Haftar. Haftar’s intention is to secure the entire country, as I’m sure is also the intention of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. But working together these two rivals would have a hard time controlling the country. Working separately and against one another, they’ve got no chance.


At The Nation, Columbia University’s Hisham Aidi has written a great piece on a little-known bit of modern North African history–the briefly (1923-1926) independent Rif Republic, whose sentiment can still be seen today in the protests that are sweeping across the Rif right now:

Just a decade ago, this turn of events—thousands marching nationwide waving pan-Berber flags and chanting, “Long live the Rif!”—would have been hard to imagine. Since the advent of Islam and the first wave of Arab migration in the eighth century, Morocco has been a melting pot between Berbers and Arabs, with Arab tribes adopting Berber languages and Berbers becoming Arabized. While official census data are unavailable, scholars estimate that today 45–50 percent of the Moroccan population speaks a variation of Berber either as a first or second language. Berber-speaking communities are concentrated in the northeast Rif, Central Atlas, and southern Sous regions, speaking Tarifit, Tamazight, and Soussi. But because of the Rif’s geostrategic location and distinctive colonial past, since Morocco gained independence in 1956 the north has had a more antagonistic relationship with the Moroccan government than any other Amazigh (Berber) region.

From 1923 to 1926, the Rif was briefly an independent state—the Rif Republic was the first and only independent Berber state in modern history—ruled by Abdelkrim Al Khattabi, before it fell to Spanish colonial rule. And unlike the French, who in their North African territories mobilized Berber nationalism against Arab-Muslim nationalism, Spanish policy in northern Morocco up until the 1950s sought to counter Berber nationalism with pan-Arabism and Islam, sending local elites to study in Cairo and creating a lasting suspicion that Riffian leaders were a Nasserist fifth column. After independence, decades of repression and economic abandonment by Rabat would harden northern nationalism and sear the memory of the Rif Republic. The Rif—the “Berber question,” more broadly—remains a pressing question for Moroccan politics and a test for the Moroccan regime.


Surprisingly, the Trump administration did not permanently lift sanctions against Sudan on Wednesday as it had appeared it would. President Donald Trump said in a written statement that “more time is needed” to assess Sudan’s progress on counter-terrorism and humanitarian issues before a permanent lifting of economic penalties (including blocks on Sudanese banks accessing the global financial system) could be implemented. This is, probably, good news, because while Sudan has gone all in on counter-terrorism assistance (something the Sudanese government says it will continue to do) in an effort to escape these US sanctions, its humanitarian record continues to be wretched.

However, the reason why this delay came about may not be great news. In all likelihood, the reason Washington needs more time to review Sudan’s performance because this administration’s State Department is still, almost six months in, basically Rex Tillerson, a couple of interns, and a janitor. In particular, there’s nobody managing the Africa file. So this isn’t really a high-minded statement on Sudan’s human rights record so much as it’s an attempt to paper over the administration’s incompetence in staffing itself with something that sounds high-minded.

Adam Taylor at the Washington Post suggests another possible reason for the delay–North Korea, which was explicitly mentioned in Trump’s statement. North Korea’s ties to various African governments, including Khartoum, have been important in keeping that country afloat despite international sanctions–China is far and away Pyongyang’s biggest lifeline, but African nations have been helping as well. It’s possible that Washington is going to start going after those African ties in an effort to further isolate North Korea.


Four Boko Haram suicide bombers killed 19 people in Maiduguri on Wednesday. On the plus side, at least from a national stability perspective, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo apparently visited President Muhammadu Buhari in London and said that Buhari is “recuperating very quickly” and should return to the country soon.


CNN is reporting that two Somali “pirate kingpins” are being investigated for links to al-Shabab and with the al-Shabab breakaway faction that has formed the country’s small ISIS affiliate. This is a troubling development that’s been allowing those extremist groups to smuggle weapons into the country.

US and Somali forces reportedly raided an al-Shabab controlled village in southern Somalia on Thursday, killing “several” of its fighters.


At least 12 people were killed by two suicide bombers in the northern town of Waza on Wednesday night. There’s been no claim of responsibility but the location, close to the Nigerian border, makes Boko Haram the prime suspect.


With the US and Uganda having ended their missions to eliminate the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that, according to the UN, the LRA is making a comeback. The group reportedly kidnapped 61 civilians in the northern DRC just last month.


Although the African National Congress has been surrounded by scandal under the country’s current president, Jacob Zuma, polling suggests that it’s not paying that much of a price for it. Part of the reason for this could be the country’s ultra-fractured political opposition, which has prevented the rise of one party or candidate to challenge the ANC’s post-apartheid grip on power at a time when it probably should be reeling. But research finds two signs that the ANC may be heading toward a more challenging future anyway, for two reasons: one, its support among young South Africans is weak, and two, it’s losing support among people who have been hard hit by the country’s economic downturn. Unless the party figures out how to turn the economy around it may really start to see its support slipping.

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