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A warning for Africa on World No Tobacco Day



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.

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


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



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



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?



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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