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Is Bell Pottinger the Turning Point for South Africa’s Anticorruption Fighters?

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At the crumbling Bell Pottinger, shock must still be setting in. Less than two years ago after the British PR firm agreed to a £100,000 per month contract with South Africa’s well-connected and widely despised Gupta business empire, the company is collapsing as its reputation for representing the worst of the worst catches up with it.

On behalf of the Guptas, Bell Pottinger engaged in a campaign to incite racial hatred. By weaving narratives of “white monopoly capital” and “economic emancipation,” it stoked still-raw divisions within South African society to launder its clients’ reputations. South Africa’s civil society was in no mood to reconcile once the truth of the nefarious campaign came to light. Instead, the dogged efforts of anticorruption campaigners in South Africa hit Bell Pottinger all the way back in London.

Acting on a complaint from South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance, the UK Public Relations and Communications Association ejected Bell Pottinger and brought the company to its knees. South African activists are now after international consultancy firms McKinsey and KPMG, which have made millions working for the Guptas. South African NGO Corruption Watch has gone straight to the US Department of Justice with complaints about McKinsey.

South African corruption watchdogs have reason to celebrate. For years, an institutionalized culture of graft has set in across South Africa, abetted by President Jacob Zuma and his family. Zuma is an “ultimate survivor.” Despite multiple attempts to oust him, 780+ charges of corruption and public indignation over his clan’s ties with the Guptas, Zuma remains in power. His children have not fallen far from the tree: it was his son Duduzane who coordinated with Bell Pottinger on behalf of the Guptas.

Now that culture of impunity may be showing cracks. In working with authorities in the UK and the US, South African civil society is showing it understands that the fight for transparency crosses borders. As Bell Pottinger, McKinsey and KPMG reap the rewards of their work, other firms will learn the rules of decency still apply south of the Sahara.

Unfortunately, not all Western firms are as sensitive to public criticism. Anticorruption fighters are notching long-overdue victories in “Guptagate,” but they may soon have to use their new international partnerships to take on one of the most ruthless industries on the planet: Big Tobacco.

In terms of global predations on Africans, tobacco might be the most nefarious. Major companies like British American Tobacco (BAT) have a disturbing strategy: if American and European consumers are turning their backs on smoking, the global tobacco industry can instead pitch its deadly products to a whole new class of consumers in “untapped” sub-Saharan Africa.

The industry’s plans are stunning in their callousness. For decades, BAT has seen developing African markets as a main driver of future profits. As a 2007 tobacco conference in South Africa, the company described the country’s “Black middle class” as – incredibly – “Black Diamonds.” Indeed, the marketing carried out by BAT and its competitors deliberately targets young people as a future population of nicotine addicts to exploit.

BAT has also cajoled African governments into toeing their line. In South Africa, though, Jacob Zuma’s friends and family haven’t needed cajoling. One of his other sons, Edward, served as a tobacco company executive at a firm allegedly involved in the same kind of tobacco smuggling BAT has been accused of. After leaving the company, Zuma found himself locked in a legal dispute with the South African Revenue Service (SARS) over unpaid tobacco taxes.

A deeper scandal shows Zuma government officials working hand-in-hand with tobacco interests. In 2014, SARS became the target of a discomfiting campaign by South African politicians trying to negotiate with the taxman on the industry’s behalf. According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, members of SARS and even Deputy Minister Marius Fransman helped the tobacco industry solicit the government’s cooperation to fight “illicit trade” and drive out SARS officials investigating its tax bills. One of the key figures in the scandal, Cape Town “kingpin” Mark Lifman, even attended Zuma’s birthday.

Fortunately, some South Africans are fighting back. Big Tobacco’s worst enemy may be Pravin Gordhan, former Finance Minister and SARS chief. Gordhan has been the tip of the spear in investigating tobacco smuggling in South Africa. He encouraged “sin taxes” on products including tobacco and initiatives like plain packaging (encouraged by the World Health Organization). Of course, this also made Gordhan a central target. His former deputies at SARS were put on trial while Gordhan himself was fired by Zuma at the end of March.

The firing has to do with far more than tobacco, but Edward Zuma (he of the cigarette tax dispute) still holds a grudge. Last month, the younger Zuma heckled Gordhan during a speech and claimed he “sold the country to the white men in Stellenbosch.” Like his brother Duduzane, Edward is apparently fond of dabbling in racial encitement.

In forcing Gordhan out, Zuma defended a corrupt system of patronage at the cost of economic crisis. As the Maverick showed, Big Tobacco may be just as guilty of “state capture” as the Gupta companies. Will the young South Africans the industry is banking on take up the fight against it? As Bell Pottinger now knows, foreign companies should be careful before assuming they can operate with impunity.

Samantha is a freshly minted graduate in International Relations based in Cairo, currently working as a research assistant in a small think tank looking at development and inequality in Africa

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‘Full scale’ humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray

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Ethiopian refugees fleeing clashes in the country's northern Tigray region, rest and cook meals near UNHCR's Hamdayet reception centre after crossing into Sudan. © UNHCR/Hazim Elhag

A “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday. 

More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan through crossing points in Kassala and Gedaref states, as well as a new location further south at Aderafi, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend, according to UNHCR

The scale of the influx is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years, according to the agency. 

“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, briefing reporters in Geneva. 

“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings”, he added. 

According to news reports, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has indicated the military operation that was launched in response to the reported occupation of a Government military base by Tigrayan forces nearly two weeks ago, would continue, although he said it was now in its “final phase”.  

‘Needs continue to grow’ 

UN agencies, along with relief partners have ramped up assistance – delivering food rations, hot meals and clean water, as well as setting up latrines and temporary shelters. They are also supporting the Sudanese Government in its response. But the needs continue to grow.  

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also supporting other humanitarian workers in its response, providing fuel for vehicles and generators in remote locations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP, has also increased flights from three times per week to daily flights for aid workers. 

Since Saturday, UNHCR has relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. There is however, a “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services, said Mr. Baloch. 

UNHCR has also issued an emergency fundraising appeal, through which people can help provide urgent, lifesaving assistance to refugees. Click here to make a donation

‘On standby’ in Tigray 

Meanwhile in the Tigray region of Ethiopia itself, lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel and cash, continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response, the UNHCR spokesperson said.  

“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said. 

UNHCR and partners are on standby to provide assistance to the displaced in Tigray, including basic items, when access and security allow. 

The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners.  

“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility … The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly” he warned, reiterating UNCHR’s call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.

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Russia to Build Naval Facility in Sudan

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Emerging from the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi a year ago, Russia will make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. This marks its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea.

According to the executive order, the published document says “the proposal from the government of the Russian Federation to sign an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted.”

It also authorizes “the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.”

Earlier, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the draft agreement on establishing a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit the proposal to the president for signing. The draft agreement on the naval logistics facility was submitted by Russia’s Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and preliminary agreed with the Sudanese side.

As the draft agreement says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.”

The signing of the document by the Russia president shows the positive results of negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, over the years with African countries along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.

During a visit by then-President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in November 2017, agreements were reached on Russia’s assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow.

On the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Russia had a naval base in Somalia during the Soviet days. Currently, Djibouti hosts Chinese and American naval bases. China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. In order to protect its commercial sea-lanes from piracy, it has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean.

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Will South Sudan follow its northern neighbour’s lead?

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As the world watches to see whether President Trump accepts the US election results, few have noticed thatcivil war is looming in Ethiopia, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he was sending troops to the Tigray province. This imperils not only Africa’s second most populous state but its neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, as well.

Sudan has had a good run recently and is in a better position to weather any regional conflict. In a surprise movelast month, President Trump announced Sudan’s removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST)in exchange for normalising relations with Israel. The US is understood to have sweetened the deal with a raft of economic and political incentives, including humanitarian assistance and high-level trade delegations. It would also support Sudan in its discussions with international finance institutions on economic and debt relief.

Since the toppling of President Bashir in 2019, the new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Hamdok, has focused on reviving Sudan’s economy and managing its $60bn debt burden. Hamdok faces a severe economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation and the worst flooding in decades, that has affected more than 800,000 people and destroyed homes and large tracts of farmland just before the harvest. Food, bread and medicine are in short supply.

Thesanctions removal means that Sudan can now expect substantial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bankand unlock investment into its fledgling economy.

This is good news for Sudan. But where does it leave its neighbour, South Sudan?

The international community had high hopes for South Sudan when it announced independence in 2011. But its optimism was misplaced. It never understood the Sudanese conflict that began with British colonialism and erupted after the British left in 1956. It wasn’t just a war between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese rebels. Nor was it a fight between the Islamic North and the Christian South. It was a fight over resources and power.

South Sudan continues to fight. After its first post-independence civil war in 2013 and its endless cycle of violence and retribution, South Sudan is now as unstable as it was before it seceded from Sudan. To accommodate the different factions and keep old military men in power, the South Sudanese government and bureaucracy is peopled with those loyal to the former rebels.

Few have the skills needed to manage the country properly. They have squandered their oil opportunity, through mismanagement and corruption. With falling oil growth demand, oil is unlikely to remaina sustainable revenue source. This will challenge the South Sudanese economy which is 90% reliant on oil.

South Sudan is also facing multiple sanctions. In 2014, the international communityimposed travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo. In 2018, the EU designated sanctions against individuals involved in serious human rights violations, alarmed  by “the outbreak of a destructive conflict between the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces in December 2013.” Most recently, the US added First Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai to its Global Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idry.

If US foreign policy towards Sudan was driven by religious and ideological interests in the 1990s and 2000s, what we are now seeing is a shift to transactional diplomacy. There is no reason to think that President Biden would change course.

South Sudan is watching closely. It may be why it has instructed a US lobbying  firm to allegedly lobby for their own sanctions removal. It is also why it welcomed a peace deal between Sudan and five rebel groups in September, paving the way for increased oil export cooperation with its neighbour. 

But stability in the youngest African state is fragile. Even with a recently signed peace agreement between former foes, President Kiir and Vice-President Machar, violence is always lurking. South Sudan is plagued with the same environmental challenges of flooding and poor harvests.  The fighting in Ethiopia will not help. 

As South Sudan looks to the North, it will see a New Sudan, unshackled by the weight of its history and benefitting from international goodwill. Will this encourage South Sudan to look forward instead of back? Or will it unleash demons from the past? 

Let’s hope that the international community pulls itself away from Trump’s horror show and starts paying attention to East Africa. It may be a long winter.

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