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South Sudan: Progress on peace agreement ‘limps along’

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Although the transitional government in South Sudan continues to function, with state governors now appointed, among other developments, progress on the 2018 peace agreement “limps along”, the top UN official in the country told a virtual meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday. 

David Shearer, head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), updated ambassadors on the country’s ongoing political and security situations, which are unfolding amid the COVID-19 pandemic and an upturn in inter-communal violence in Jonglei and other states. 

“COVID-19 has slowed implementation of the peace agreement, including meeting key benchmarks, but the pandemic is not entirely to blame”, he said, speaking from the capital, Juba. 

“We are seeing a reversion to ‘business as usual’ where progress on the peace agreement itself limps along.” 

The peace agreement was the latest deal in efforts to end political infighting and violent conflict in South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation. 

The country gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but descended into chaos roughly two-and-a-half years later following an impasse between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar. 

Progress ‘painfully slow’ 

Today, South Sudan now has five vice presidents who head clusters of ministries where activities are progressing well, according to Mr. Shearer. 

“Elsewhere, however, progress has been painfully slow”, he reported.  “Cabinet meetings occur irregularly, and the South Sudanese want to see the President and vice presidents meeting and working collectively.” 

Meanwhile, there has been “almost no movement” on security sector reform, while the Transitional National Legislative Assembly has yet to be reconstituted, which is delaying progress on the Constitution. 

Mr. Shearer said these continuing delays risk pushing elections out well beyond the timeline prescribed under the agreement, which will only add to the people’s growing disillusionment. 

Inter-communal tensions remain high 

The UN mission chief also briefed on the violence among Nuer, Murle and Dinka communities in Jonglei State over the past six months, which has left 600 people dead and homes torched, with women and children kidnapped. The situation has since calmed though tensions remain high. Mr. Shearer said a recent meeting among senior leaders, organized by UNMISS, was encouraging. 

However, the mission was thwarted in attempts to deploy peacekeepers following attacks launched by the National Salvation Front armed group in areas of Central Equatoria state, which were met by heavy government fire. 

“For the past three weeks, the usual mechanisms through which UNMISS coordinates its movement have seriously deteriorated. COVID-19 can be partly blamed but the influence of hardliners in the security forces is the principal obstacle,” he said. 

Later in the meeting, South Sudanese activist and feminist, Nyachangkuoth Rambang Tai, shared her concerns about the ongoing inter-communal violence and the need for greater women’s participation in governance and peacebuilding.   

She called on the international community to urgently support local civil society organizations, particularly those led by women. 

“Another way to help address the cycle of violence is to ensure transitional justice is made a priority. We cannot except citizens who lost their loved ones, or whose loved ones have been killed, to forgive and move on without healing and accountability.  This is unrealistic and will only encourage conflict,” said Ms. Tai, the Gender and Social Justice Manager with Assistance Missions for Africa. 

Violence impacts humanitarians 

Mr. Shearer outlined how South Sudan is faring in the wake of recent floods affecting some 500,000 citizens.  

On Wednesday, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that it is reaching vulnerable families with urgently needed assistance. 

Aid workers have been striving to help communities impacted by the flood waters, as well as the violence, and now the pandemic.  Sometimes they pay a heavy price, as Mr. Shearer pointed out. 

 “This year, seven aid workers have tragically lost their lives and another 144 have been evacuated because of sub-national violence”, he said. 

“This meant an upturn in violence stemming from splintering between and within groups. The difference this year is that external political actors are fuelling these local conflicts with military advice and with heavy weapons.” 

Millions in need 

COVID-19 has only added to the ongoing suffering in South Sudan. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator reported that during the annual hunger season a few months back, some 6.5 million people, or more than half the population, faced severe food insecurity.  

“Overall this year, 7.5 million people now need humanitarian assistance –and that’s close to levels in 2017 when we warned of famine”, Mark Lowcock told the Council.  He added that some 1.3 million under-fives are forecasted to be malnourished: the highest figure in four years. 

The UN relief chief urged ambassadors to fund a $1.9 billion response plan to meet the ever-growing needs. 

Changes at POC sites 

With the transitional government in place and a ceasefire holding, the UN Mission in South Sudan is looking at how to better support peace efforts and protect civilians. 

More than 180,000 people are still living in Protection of Civilian (POC) sites at five UNMISS bases across the country, and Mr. Shearer said the conditions which led to their establishment no longer exist. 

As a result, UNMISS has gradually withdrawn its troops and police from “static duties” at the Bor and Wau POC sites, following consultations with the Government and others, including displaced persons. 

“The spike in subnational violence is occurring in remote areas, not near our POC sites. Therefore, we have to deploy our forces to provide protection where there is greatest need,” he said, emphasizing the need for the UN force to be robust,  nimble and proactive. 

Mr. Shearer explained that following the gradual withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, the POC sites will be under the control of the Government.   

He stressed that no one will be pushed out or asked to leave when this transition occurs, while humanitarian services will continue. 

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Africa

Reducing industrial pollution in the Niger River Basin

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The Niger River is the third-longest river in Africa, running for 4,180 km (2,600 miles) from its source in south-eastern Guinea, through Mali, Niger and Nigeria, before discharging via the Niger Delta into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. Tributaries that run through a further five countries feed into the mighty Niger.

Hundreds of millions of people in West Africa depend on the river and its tributaries, for drinking water, for fish to eat, for irrigation to grow crops, for use in productive processes, and for hydroelectric power.

The health of the Niger River Basin is vitally important for the people and for the environment of West Africa. But this health is endangered by land degradation, pollution, loss of biodiversity, invading aquatic vegetal species and climate change.

To both assess and address these environmental issues, a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project has brought together international, regional and national entities to work on integrated water resources management for the benefit of communities and the resilience of ecosystems. (Project details can be found here.)

One part of the early project research found that as the Niger River passes through Tembakounda, Bamako, Gao, Niamey, Lokoja and Onithsa – major trading, agro-processing and industrial cities – wastewater and other polluting substances are discharged directly into the river, often without consideration for the environment. National governments of the countries which the river runs through are either unable to deal with the accumulated environmental problems and/or are ineffective at preventing, regulating, reducing and managing pollution from industrial activities.

For this reason, one component of the GEF project, implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), will facilitate the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) to reduce wastewater discharges and pollution loads into the Niger River.

Despite the limitations on travel resulting from measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, in August this year, UNIDO successfully identified and engaged with 19 pilot enterprises in various sectors, including pharmaceuticals, mining and agribusiness, operating in ‘pollution hotspots’ in the countries of the Niger River Basin. This number exceeds the original target of one enterprise per country. 

UNIDO experts are now introducing and sharing the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) methodology with the pilot enterprises. In essence, this will mean the application of a set of tools including Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production, Environmental Management Systems, and Environmental Management Accounting, which will lead to the adoption of best practices, new skills and a new management culture.

Armed with these tools, the enterprises will be able to reduce product costs and increase productivity, while reducing the adverse environmental consequences of their operations. An awareness-raising campaign will be carried out so that the demonstration effect resonates across the Niger River Basin, prompting other enterprises to follow suit.

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Wagner: Putin’s secret weapon on the way to Mali?

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Soldiers from the Wagner Group (source: middleeastmonitor.com)

France is outraged at the prospect of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group arriving in Mali. However, Paris is seeking a way out of an unwinnable conflict.

On September 13, a Reuters news agency article citing unnamed sources and reporting advanced negotiations between Mali and the Russian mercenary company Wagner sparked a firestorm of reactions. The United States, Germany, and the United Nations have all warned Bamako’s military against such collaboration. According to them, the arrival of Russian mercenaries – a thousand have been estimated – would jeopardize the West’s commitment to fighting the jihadists who control a large portion of Malian territory.

But France, understandably, is the most vocal against such a move. The former colonial power has maintained a military presence in the country since 2013, when it halted the jihadists’ advance on the capital. Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, visited Bamako on September 20th to warn Malian colonels in power following two coups in August 2020 and May 2021. Wagner’s choice, she said, would be that of “isolation” at a time when “the international community has never been so numerous in fighting jihadists in the Sahel”.

What the minister does not mention is that France’s commitment to Mali is waning. Emmanuel Macron used the second Malian coup d’état last June, less than a year before the French presidential election, to announce a “redeployment” of French forces in Mali. Although Paris refuses to discuss a de facto withdrawal, even if it is partial, the truth is that the tricolored soldiers will abandon the isolated bases of Kidal, Timbuktu, and Tessalit in the country’s north by next year, concentrating on the area further south of the three borders with Niger and Burkina Faso.

Europeans, who are expected to be more supportive of France, are also perplexed. The humiliation of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has served as a wake-up call. The Afghan government’s sudden collapse in the face of the Taliban has demonstrated how difficult it is to build a strong army and institutions. This scenario appears to be repeating itself in Mali.

The possibility of a rapprochement between Bamako and Moscow is taken seriously because Putschists in Mali have always been sensitive to Russian offerings. Colonel Sadio Camara, Mali’s Defense Minister, visited Russia on September 4. Disagreements over a reversal of Mali’s alliances are said to have been one of the causes of the Malian colonels’ second coup, which ousted the civilian transitional government last May.

Russia also acts as a boogeyman for the Malian military. According to a Daily Beast investigation, the Malian army organized a supposedly spontaneous demonstration last May demanding Russian intervention. This was also a warning to the international community, which is growing weary of the country’s poor governance and repeated coups.

Is Mali transitioning from the French to the Russian spheres of influence? Since Moscow gained a foothold in the Central African Republic, the scenario is not a figment of the imagination. Russian instructors and Wagner’s mercenaries have proven their worth in this former French backyard. Even though the UN condemns Russia’s atrocities in this conflict, the Russians were able to push back the rebels who were threatening the capital Bangui last December with the help of UN peacekeepers and Rwandan reinforcements.

The Kremlin denies any involvement with the Wagner group. However, the company is actually run by a close associate of Vladimir Putin. The use of private mercenaries allows Moscow to avoid military commitments abroad, as it did previously in Ukraine and Libya. “Russia is not negotiating a military presence in Mali,” said a Kremlin spokesman in mid-September. When questioned by the magazine Jeune Afrique on September 20th, Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra swore that he had “not signed anything with Wagner.” “In the Central African Republic, we have companies that were established in accordance with the law and operate on liberalized markets,” he explained.

Nothing has been decided on Wagner, it is repeated in Bamako. According to the military, the selection of foreign “partners” is a matter of Mali’s “sovereignty.” They regard these “rumors” as an attempt to “discredit the country.” The Malian junta is under siege, not only from jihadists but also from the international community. The latter is calling for elections to be held in February to return power to civilians, as stipulated in the military-agreed transition charter. Electoral reform must come before the election. However, Colonel Assimi Gota, the transitional president, has shown little interest in preparing for these elections. The Malian junta may also be hoping that Russia’s partners will be less stringent on democratic requirements.

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Google Drives Deeper into Africa

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As the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the new initiative that places emphasis on intra-African trade – including free movement of goods, capital  and people – foreign players have accordingly raising eyes on using the new opportunity to expand their operations in Africa.

Foreign enterprises are gearing up to localize production in industrial hubs and distribute their products across the borderless territory considered as a single market in Africa. Thus, by its description, Africa’s estimated population of 1.3 billion presents itself a huge market – from baby products through automobiles and to anything consumable.

Google LLC, the U.S. Global Technology Gaint, has primarily set its eyes on business, with a comprehensive plan to expand its operations into Africa. Google made known its plans to commit US$1 billion over the next five years in tech-led initiatives in Africa. It is investing this US$ 1 billion in Nigeria and African countries to support and transform the digital market over the next five years.

In its media release, it said the investment would include landing a subsea cable into the continent to enable faster internet speeds, low-interest loans for small businesses, equity investments into African startups, skills training and many more directions determined in future.

This is in a bid to enable fast, affordable internet access for more Africans, building helpful products, supporting entrepreneurship and small business, and helping nonprofits to improve lives across Africa.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Google and Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, noted that the company was building global infrastructure to help bring faster internet to more people and lower connectivity costs. Through the Black Founders Fund, Google will invest in Black-led startups in Africa by providing cash awards and hands-on support.

The developing world represents the best chance of growth for large internet companies, and today, one of the very biggest set out its strategy for how it plans to tackle that.

“We’ve made huge strides together over the past decade – but there’s more work to do to make the internet accessible, affordable and useful for every African. Today, I’m excited to reaffirm our commitment to the continent through an investment of US$1 billion over five years to support Africa’s digital transformation, to cover a range of initiatives from improved connectivity to investment in startups,” said Pichai.

According to him, this is in addition to Google’s existing support through the Google for Startups Accelerator Africa, which has helped more than 80 African startups with equity-free finance, working space and access to expert advisors over the last three years. The subsea cable is set to cut across South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria and St Helena, connecting Africa and Europe.

According to Managing Director for Google in Africa, Nitin Gajria, it will provide approximately 20 times more network capacity than the last cable built to serve Africa. It is projected to create about 1.7 million jobs in Nigeria and South Africa by 2025 as the digital economy grows.

Google further announced the launch of the Africa Investment Fund, where it will invest US$50 million in start-ups across the continent providing them with access to Google’s employees, network, and technologies to help them build meaningful products for their communities.

It will additionally disburse US$10 million in low-interest loans to small businesses in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa in order to alleviate hardships brought about by the Covid pandemic.

Google is bringing venture capital into the continent. The fund might work in a similar fashion as the Google for Startups Accelerator programme.

Although Africa has a Big Four (Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt) in terms of startup and venture capital activity on the continent, the accelerator has made sure to accept applications from startups in less-funded and overlooked regions. These countries include Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Founded in September 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google is considered as one of the Big Five information technology companies alongside Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Google specializes in internet cloud services, software and hardware as well as online advertising technologies.

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