Each year, in observance of World No Tobacco Day on 31 May, the World Health Organization (WHO) gives out prizes to people from six different regions who have done exceptional work in reducing tobacco consumption. Ahead of this year’s edition, it’s clear one region in particular could be doing more to combat what is still a major cause of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) worldwide.
Globally, of course, the trends look good overall. The number of smokers worldwide has fallen steadily over the last two decades. In fact, over the last 15 years, only 27 nations have seen smoking statistics rise. However, there is dark side to that story. 17 of those countries are in Africa, and much of the blame for this must be laid at the feet of Big Tobacco. Having been edged out of Western markets by stricter regulations, changing lifestyles and hefty taxation, cigarette companies are now exploiting lower-hanging fruits.
However, they’re not the only ones who should be held to account. Governments across the continent have been slow to adapt and have too often fallen prey to Big Tobacco’s lobbying tactics.
Dirty tactics from Big Tobacco
In recent years, governments around the globe have taken proactive measures to discourage their populations from taking up smoking, including banning advertising (in 29 countries representing 12% of the global population), pictorial warnings of health risks on packets (42 countries, 19%) and assistance with quitting (24 countries, 15%). Higher taxation has also made the habit less affordable and therefore less attractive, leading to a noticeable decline in its popularity in the Western world.
By contrast, the tobacco industry in Africa is booming. In 2010, the continent boasted the lowest death rate from tobacco of any region. Now, 80% of all smokers live in low- or low-to-middle-income countries (LLMICs) and Africa represents a rapidly swelling market. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, consumption of tobacco has risen by 52% from 1980. Its growing popularity is especially noticeable in strong economies like South Africa. And not surprisingly, Big Tobacco has taken advantage of these newly flourishing markets by exploiting loose legislation surrounding the industry to reap incredible profits.
Indeed, major tobacco firms are using every trick in the book to resist the same regulations that have hampered their business model in the West from coming into force in Africa. Despite claiming to support “sensible regulation,” organizations such as the Tobacco Institute of South Africa (TISA) continue to resist any increases in excise tax with all their might. Multinational tobacco companies have also sent letters using intimidating language to governments of at least nine countries, threatening them with litigation if they do not repeal proposed anti-smoking laws.
Adequate government response imperative
This is where the mettle of African lawmakers is so important. Despite claims to the contrary by Big Tobacco, introducing measures such as plain packaging, adequate warnings and higher taxation has dramatically curtailed the popularity of smoking in other countries. The WHO suggests a benchmark tax rate of 75% on the retail price of cigarettes, but across Africa that rate is generally far lower. Nigeria, for example, taxes stand at a mere 20% of the sale price.
Other countries such as South Africa do better (taxing 80%), though this can open the door to a thriving black market. It’s estimated that illicit trade accounts for up to 50% of all cigarettes in the country, which costs the treasury billions of rand in unpaid taxes and encourages working class South Africans to take up the habit.
Elsewhere, strides have been made by Ghana and Madagascar, which have banned all forms of tobacco advertising, and Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Kenya, which now include graphic images on packets (itself a key tool in educating illiterate members of the population). These measures have, of course, prompted a backlash from the industry – hence the aforementioned letters threatening litigation – so it remains to be seen if African governments can hold firm in their attempts to arrest the creep of Big Tobacco’s influence.
On the latter point, there are positive signs. Just a few days ago, Nigeria finally ratified the WHO’s Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, fourteen years after signing it. The Protocol requires signatories to adopt tried-and-tested measures for stopping black market tobacco. These include adopting track and trace technologies that empower authorities to track products throughout the global supply chain and make sure illicit tobacco isn’t slipping through the cracks.
Investing in a better tomorrow
If more African countries follow Nigeria’s lead, the continent as a whole will benefit from a major economic lift. A report from the WHO estimates that the poorest nations in the world could generate $350 billion by preventing and treating NCDs by 2025. For every $1 invested in curtailing tobacco use, they could see a return of $7.43. More importantly, such measures could theoretically save over eight million lives.
Of course, these public policy aims are of little interest to Big Tobacco. In 2015, the industry is estimated to have earned $62.3 billion. In the same year, over seven million people worldwide were killed from tobacco use. That equates to $9,730 per death. With such high stakes – both in fiscal and human welfare terms – the next steps taken by African governments will be crucial. Bearing in mind the significance of May 31st, the time couldn’t be riper for them to strike back through positive investment and the very same “sensible regulation” that the industry purports to support.
Decade of Sahel conflict leaves 2.5 million people displaced
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on Friday for concerted international action to end armed conflict in Africa’s central Sahel region, which has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes in the last decade.
Speaking to journalists in Geneva, the agency’s spokesperson, Boris Cheshirkov, informed that internal displacement has increased tenfold since 2013, going from 217,000 to a staggering 2.1 million by late last year.
The number of refugees in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger now stands at 410,000, and the majority comes from Mali, where major civil conflict erupted in 2012, leading to a failed coup and an on-going extremist insurgency.
Increase in one year
Just last year, a surge in violent attacks across the region displaced nearly 500,000 people (figures for December still pending).
According to estimates from UN partners, armed groups carried out more than 800 deadly attacks in 2021.
This violence uprooted some 450,000 people within their countries and forced a further 36,000 to flee into a neighbouring country.
In Burkina Faso alone, the total number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) rose to more than 1.5 million by the end of the year. Six in ten of the Sahel’s displaced are now from this country.
In Niger, the number of IDPs in the regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua has increased by 53 per cent in the last 12 months. In Mali, more than 400,000 people are displaced internally, representing a 30 per cent increase from the previous year.
Climate, humanitarian crisis
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating with crises on multiple fronts.
Insecurity is the main driver, made worse by extreme poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the climate crisis are also felt more strongly in the region, with temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average.
Women and children are often the worst affected and disproportionately exposed to extreme vulnerability and the threat of gender-based violence.
According to the UNHCR spokesperson, “host communities have continued to show resilience and solidarity in welcoming displaced families, despite their own scant resources.”
He also said that Government authorities have demonstrated “unwavering commitment” to assisting the displaced, but they are now “buckling under increasing pressure.”
UNHCR and humanitarian partners face mounting challenges to deliver assistance, and continue to be the target of road attacks, ambushes, and carjacking.
In this context, the agency is calling on the international community to take “bold action and spare no effort” in supporting these countries.
UNHCR is also leading the joint efforts of UN agencies and NGOs to provide emergency shelter, manage displacement sites and deliver vital protection services, including combating gender-based violence and improving access to civil documentation.
In 2021, more than a third of the agency’s Central Sahel funding needs were unmet.
This year, to mount an effective response in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, the agency needs $307 million.
SADC extends its joint military mission in Mozambique
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has collectively decided to extend its force mission mandate in Mozambique for three months to provide military support in fighting terrorism in Cabo Delgado, the northern seaside provincial district that suffered frequent militant attacks displacing thousands out of their homes.
The South African Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), according to the final communiqué released after the leaders of the southern African countries gathered to review significant issues, among them the operations of the joint military force dispatched last year as attacks reached its greater heights to Mozambique.
Chairperson of the SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defense and Security and South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa told the gathering in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, where the regional bloc held its extraordinary summit and reviewed progress in Mozambique, described SAMIM as highly successful in defeating the militant groups particularly in Cabo Delgado.
“I would like to express my appreciation and commend SAMIM for its work on the ground, as well as recognize the member states that have supported this work financially and in the deployment of military personnel and equipment,” the final report quoted Ramaphosa.
SADC cannot allow terrorism to spread to other provinces in Mozambique and to the region, and it is imperative to promote a spirit of unity among member countries as terrorism and violent extremism threaten the stability and development that the region has achieved over the past four decades, says the report.
The communiqué also approved the framework for support to Mozambique in addressing terrorism outlines, among others, comprehensive strategic actions for consolidating peace, security, and the socio-economic recovery of Cabo Delgado.
The Maputo daily Noticias wrote after the SADC summit that a budgetary allocation of US$29.5 million has been set aside for the three-month extension, after several years of high-level consultations and this would mean until at least mid-April. The SAMIM extension set from mid-January.
Addressing the opening session of the summit, the current SADC Chairperson, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, urged regional bloc member states to stick together and ensure that SAMIM remains multidimensional and comprehensive. He entreated SADC member countries not to relent, regress or even retreat on their commitments.
“What remains now is for us to stay the course and stick together. We cannot relent. We cannot regress. We cannot retreat. Our approach to this mission must continue to be multidimensional and comprehensive. It must not only focus on neutralizing the threat, but also have post-conflict plans to rebuild,” said Chakwera, added that the collective mission is paramount and the stakes for all the Member States are high because what they are fighting for is regional stability, and the sustainability of the quest for the bloc’s integration and socio-economic development.
Chakwera welcomed the comprehensive Cabo Delgado Reconstruction Plan launched by his Mozambican counterpart, Filipe Nyusi, and his government, which, among other issues, seeks to provide humanitarian support to the affected population, including internally displaced persons, and uplift their living standards.
Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi however expressed high optimism about the current military situation in Cabo Delgado. He said that all the bases from which the terrorists used to plan their actions are now in the hands of the Mozambican forces, and 2022 would be a decisive year to support the regional standby force in the final fight against terrorism in Mozambique.
For the Mozambican President Nyusi the extension of the SAMIM mission demonstrates the spirit of unity and solidarity that the Southern African Development Community members have readily and warmheartedly shown with the people of Mozambique.
Mozambique has grappled with an insurgency in its northernmost province of Cabo Delgado since 2017, but currently fast improving after the deployment of joint military force with the primary responsibility of ensuring peace and stability, and for restoring normalcy in Mozambique.
Mozambique has consistently maintained that all problems especially relating to conflicts and crises should be resolved largely based on the approaches of Africans, and of course with moral, political and material support from regional blocs such as SADC and the continental organization – African Union, and the involvement of United Nations with its UN Security Council.
With an approximate population of 30 million, Mozambique is endowed with rich and extensive natural resources but remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world. Mozambique is a member of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).
Mali: Security Council warned of ‘endless cycle of instability’
A decade after civil conflict erupted in Mali, hopes for an early resolution to insurgency and strife have not materialized, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the country, El-Ghassim Wane, told the Security Council on Tuesday.
Instead, the UN top envoy explained, “insecurity has expanded, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, more children are of out of school and the country has been affected by an endless cycle of instability.”
In fact, more than 1.8 million people are expected to need food assistance in 2022 compared to 1.3 million in 2021, the highest level of food insecurity recorded since 2014.
And more than half a million children have been affected by school closures, which the envoy believes puts “the future of the country in jeopardy”.
Despite these challenges, Mr. Wane argued that the situation “would have been far worse” without the engagement of the international community, including the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) in 2013.
The Malian Government has been seeking to restore stability following a series of setbacks since early 2012, including a failed military coup d’état, renewed fighting between Government forces and Tuareg rebels, and the seizure of its northern territory by radical extremists.
The Special Representative also briefed the Council on the current stand-off between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Malian transitional leadership, controlled by the military.
Over the weekend, ECOWAS held an Extraordinary Summit and decided that the proposed timetable for the transition, lasting up to five and a half years, was “totally unacceptable”.
Urging Malian authorities to focus on a speedy return to constitutional order, they decided to uphold individual sanctions put in place on 12 December and imposed additional ones.
The new sanctions include the recall of ambassadors from Bamako, the closing of land and air borders, suspension of all commercial and financial transactions (with some exemptions), and the suspension of financial assistance, among others.
Mali reciprocated by recalling its ambassadors and closing its borders with ECOWAS Member States.
In an address to the nation on Monday evening, however, Transition President, Colonel Assimi Goita, called for unity and calm, stating that Mali remains open to dialogue.
Mr. Wane explained that supporting the transition is a key aspect of the MINUSMA mandate, so the mission will try to find a consensual way out to overcome the impasse.
“A protracted impasse will make it much harder to find a consensual way out, while increasing hardship for the population and further weakening state capacity”, he argued, warning that such scenario would “have far-reaching consequences for Mali and its neighbours.”
Beyond the political transition, Mr. Wane believes it is also crucial that the Council continues to pay attention to the implementation of the peace agreement and to stability in the Centre of the divided nation, calling it two “building blocks” for a peaceful and stable Mali.
‘Window of opportunity’
Back in December, a process of national consultation, known as Assises nationales de la refondation, ended with a series of main recommendations, including a constitutional review, the creation of a Senate, the acceleration of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process and territorial decentralization.
For Mr. Wane, these proposals “offer a window of opportunity on which all stakeholders should build upon to move forward on the implementation of the peace agreement.”
The Special Representative also provided an update on MINUSMA’s activities, noting that 2021 saw more extremist attacks than any years prior.
The mission ended the year with the highest number of casualties since 2013, following a significant rise of attacks targeting main axes, convoys, camps, and temporary operating bases.
In total, 28 peacekeepers died, including seven Togolese in a single incident back in December.
The conflict has also had a devastating impact on civilians and the humanitarian situation.
On 3 December for instance, 32 civilians, including 26 women and children, were killed near Songho when their bus was attacked by extremist elements.
In just one year, the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) increased from 216,000 to more than 400,000.
In such difficult circumstances, Mr. Wane described the response to the humanitarian appeal as “lukewarm”, with only 38 per cent of funding received.
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