Asia/Africa update: October 9 2018



Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has managed to convince the leader of a small party called Prosperous Armenia, plus several individual members of the opposition Republican Party, to agree to hold a snap election in December. This gives Pashinyan the election he’s wanted in order to build a genuine parliamentary majority and eases what had threatened to become another major political crisis in Yerevan. Thousands of people protested in the Armenian capital last week in support of Pashinyan and his call for an election.


A suicide bomber killed at least eight people at a campaign rally in Helmand province on Tuesday, including the candidate holding the rally. There’s been no claim of responsibility.

The Trump administration’s Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, met with Pakistani officials in Islamabad on Tuesday to encourage them to in turn encourage the Taliban to engage in peace talks. Khalilzad is on a multi-nation tour that will eventually take him to Qatar, where he may meet with Taliban representatives at their diplomatic office in Doha.


The Pakistani government has decided to withdraw from the anti-piracy Combined Task Force in the Indian Ocean after the CTF–which is run by the US–declined to pay for its fuel costs. CTF participants change all the time, so this doesn’t seem like that big a deal and Pakistan may rejoin later. But it could reflect the deterioration in the US-Pakistan relationship.


Analysts argue that Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah remains the most important jihadi terrorist organization in Southeast Asia, despite recent fears that ISIS is establishing itself in the region. In fact, the attention being paid to ISIS has helped JI by getting authorities to turn a blind eye to its activities or even cooperate with it:

As ISIS is foremost on the global and regional radar of security planners, JI has effectively been given a green light to operate freely. Some Indonesian security agencies also believe in using the JI to counter ISIS, as part of the balance of power and divide and rule game. As JI continues to have the largest number of terrorist detainees in jail or those who have been released, as well am sthe largest number of trained and ideologically fortified fighters with combat and bomb-making experience, it remains the key threat to Indonesian security. Analysts such as Sidney Jones and Rakyan estimate the strength of hardcore JI members today to be between 2,000-3,000, with many more thousands as supporters and sympathizers.


The Chinese government over the weekend revealed–to nobody’s real surprise–that it disappeared the now-former president of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, in late September after Meng had traveled to China from France. Meng, who had also been a vice-minister of security in China, was allegedly detained on corruption charges under a new system that allows Chinese authorities to hold him for up to six months without access to his family or counsel. It is intended to be an improvement on China’s previously more arbitrary detention and torture policies, but probably isn’t much different in any practical sense. Interpol received Meng’s letter of resignation over the weekend, though of course it’s impossible to know whether he resigned of his own accord. Without knowing anything about the charges against Meng it’s impossible to say whether they have merit or are politically motivated, but either way this isn’t exactly going to inspire other international organizations to appoint prominent Chinese political figures to leadership positions in the future.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited China on Monday where, reflecting the Trump administration’s recent escalation of hostile rhetoric toward Beijing, he was subjected to a bit of a dressing down by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi:

In a face-to-face exchange with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the foreign minister, Wang Yi, chided the Trump administration for “ceaselessly elevating” trade tensions and “casting a shadow” over relations between the two countries.

Mr. Pompeo, who sat across the table from Mr. Wang at the start of talks in Beijing, said in a tart response that the United States had a “fundamental disagreement” on the issues that China raised.

Pompeo was not permitted to have a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which presumably also was intended as a snub.


A day earlier, Pompeo had been in North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-un, and that seems comparatively to have gone better than his China visit. The two firmed up plans for a future second Trump-Kim summit, though they didn’t settle on a date or place (Trump said on Tuesday that it will happen after the midterms). Kim apparently agreed to allow outside inspectors to assess the dismantling of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. They also allegedly discussed steps the US could take to reward North Korea’s denuclearization efforts so far. They do not, however, appear to have made much progress on actual denuclearization in the sense of North Korea dismantling its current stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Kim has now apparently invited Pope Francis to visit Pyongyang. While Francis has in the past expressed an interest in facilitating the Korean peace process, it seems unlikely that he’ll accept the invitation.



With a handful of exceptions, the United Nations-mediated ceasefire agreement reached by Tripoli’s feuding super-militias late last month seems to be holding. However, the tensions underpinning the violence remain in place. The Seventh Brigade, a militia based south of the capital, says it attacked Tripoli in August in an attempt to “liberate the capital from the militias that are robbing public funds and dominating the capital while paralyzing the government.” Those militias remain in control of Tripoli and the government, and more importantly neither they nor the Seventh Brigade has been or really can be held accountable for the civilians they’ve killed or the property they’ve destroyed in their clashes. So there’s little reason to expect the fighting not to resume at some point.


Nine people were injured on Monday when Mauritanian police clashed with protesters outside of the parliament building in Nouakchott. The demonstrators were demanding the release of anti-slavery activist and legislator Biram Ould Dah Abeid, who was arrested by the government in August. Though slavery is illegal now in Mauritania and has been since all the way back in, uh, 1981, it was only criminalized in 2007 under a law that still remains largely unenforced.


Former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar will be the People’s Democratic Party candidate for president in next year’s election, challenging incumbent Muhammadu Buhari. Alex Thurston has some thoughts on his nomination:

As of now, I do not rate the PDP’s chances highly. In fact, they are exposed to some of the same dilemmas that confront the ruling APC: (1) only one person can be the nominee, which creates restlessness among other politicians and can lead to repeated party-switching; and (2) seniority, and money, weigh heavily in parties’ selections of presidential nominees, meaning that the nominees are not always the best candidates, nor are they always well positioned to promise genuine change to voters. The PDP had to pick a nominee, of course, but picking Abubakar may now make them vulnerable to some of the defections that have plagued the APC this year (and that plagued the PDP during the lead-up to the 2015 elections). Meanwhile, one wonders whether the prospect of choosing between Buhari and Abubakar will not leave many southerners indifferent, not just because both candidates are northerners but also because both men represent the class of military officers and their proteges that have dominated presidential politics for decades. Abubakar, moreover, seems to me to be someone with clout and influence but without widespread personal popularity. Buhari, despite his many weaknesses as a president and a candidate, still has a charisma that Abubakar lacks.

The Allied Congress Party of Nigeria, meanwhile, has nominated Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister and vice president of the World Bank who may be the most prominent woman ever to run for the Nigerian presidency. She’s a decided long shot, but her credentials, her anti-corruption message, her appeal to women, and her relative youth (she’s in her 50s running against two men in their 70s) may work in her favor.


Analyst Mehari Taddele Maru suggests that Eritrea’s recent opening to the world can be traced to Great Power rivalry–specifically, to US fears that China might expand its presence in Djibouti and threaten the US naval base there. That fear led the US, with some help from its Gulf allies, to look to Eritrea as an alternative:

For this to happen, Eritrea first had to emerge from its diplomatic isolation, especially by normalising relations with Ethiopia. To achieve that, the US launched a quiet campaign last year involving church officials and US diplomats lobbying the two sides to come together and resolve their differences.

Soon after US senior diplomats and senators voiced official calls for normalisation of relations between Eritrea and all neighbouring countries. US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE also played an important role.


A US airstrike north of Kismayo over the weekend reportedly killed one al-Shabab fighter.

The UN, meanwhile, says that Iran and the UAE have become the main conduits for an illicit, sanctions-busting trade in Somali charcoal that is financially benefiting al-Shabab:

The report says that since March the main destination for shipments – using fake country of origin certificates from Comoros, Ivory Coast and Ghana – has been ports in Iran, where the charcoal is packaged into white bags labeled “Product of Iran”.

“The bags were then reloaded onto smaller, Iran-flagged dhows (boats), and exported to Port Al Hamriya, Dubai, UAE, using certificates of origin falsely indicating the ‘country of manufacture’ of the charcoal as Iran,” the monitors wrote.

Iran became a transit point for the shipments — which breach a U.N. ban on Somali charcoal exports — after Oman tightened its customs procedures, said the report.

The report looked broadly at al-Shabab’s financing, which comes from taxing the charcoal trade but also from extracting vehicle tolls and levying agricultural taxes in the areas it controls.


In what would have to be considered a monumental upset, Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto has declared victory over incumbent Paul Biya in Sunday’s presidential election. No official results have been released and Kamto didn’t offer any numbers to back up his contention. He may even have opened himself up to arrest for treason by prematurely declaring victory. Chances are pretty good, especially given the low turnout, that the official results will show that Biya won–or that Biya’s government will make sure that’s what they show, if you catch my meaning.


South African Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene announced his resignation on Tuesday after admitting that he’s had dealings with the infamous Gupta family. The Guptas are at the center of corruption allegations that continue to swirl around former President Jacob Zuma.

The right-wing Afrikaans nationalist organization AfriForum has announced that it will partner with Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini to develop agricultural land controlled by the king. Both AfriForum and the king (along with other South African tribal leaders) oppose potential land redistribution efforts by the South African government over fears that it will dispossess white farmers and take land from the king’s possessions.


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