The Insiders' Newsletter #19

Biya and Bemba stand again, Abiy and Afewerki stand together and Boko Haram is still going

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The follow-up:

DR Congo: Bemba enters the race?

Newly free, Jean-Pierre Bemba now appears to be a candidate for the Congolese presidency.

Bemba saw his conviction by the International Criminal Court overturned less than two months ago. He had been sentenced to 18 years in prison for crimes against humanity and war crimes linked to atrocities committed by troops under his command in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003. In June, the Appeals Chamber determined that he could not be held responsible for those actions.

Now his rebel group-turned-political party, Movement for the Liberation of Congo, has nominated Bemba to be their presidential candidate in elections scheduled for December. Formerly the country’s vice president, there is some expectation that he could mount a challenge to President Joseph Kabila’s successor (or to Kabila, himself, if the term-limited leader decides to flout the constitution).

It’s unclear, however, if Bemba will be in a position to run. He must return to the DRC by 8 August to register his candidacy, but he’s currently stuck in Belgium waiting for the ICC to determine his sentencing for a separate witness tampering conviction.

It’s also unclear if he really wants to. The last time he challenged Kabila for the presidency, in 2006, he ended up fleeing to Belgium after his bodyguards clashed with government forces.

Compiled by @_andrew_green

Ethiopia/Eritrea: high-speed normalisation of relations continues

The historic visit of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to Asmara was soon followed by equally historic visit of Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki to Addis Ababa, where he reopened the Eritrean embassy.

AFP Africa@AFPAfrica

Champagne and selfies aboard first commercial flight in a generation between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Demand so great that Ethiopian Airlines scheduled a 2nd flight that took off just 15 mins later. @AFP

July 18, 2018
Ethiopian Airlines has re-established regular flights between the two capitals and work to recondition the roads between Ethiopia and the Eritrean port of Assab have reportedly started. Assab is a curious choice, given its proximity to the already established gateway of Djibouti and its comparable inaccessibility from the Ethiopian highlands, but it is likely that the details of Ethiopian transit through Eritrea will be worked out on fly, given the speed of the transition.

In a sign that both leaders recognise the challenges posed by this transition, they vowed to take action against anyone who would attempt to block the peace deal from coming into effect. On a very encouraging note, the Ethiopian Deputy Chief of Staff of the military, Berhanu Jula, has confirmed that the army stands ready to withdraw its troops from border regions that were awarded to Eritrea in a 2000 arbitration that ended fighting between the two countries, but not the state of war.

Compiled by @PeterDoerrie

What everyone is talking about:

Biya to stand again, even as Cameroon falls apart

Even as evidence of new atrocities committed by his troops surfaced, Cameroon’s Paul Biya announced his plans to compete in the presidential election in October. In office since 1982, he is the second-longest serving executive on the continent, despite spending much of his time abroad and only holding cabinet meetings every three years.

The announcement comes amid mounting evidence of his regime’s increasingly brutal attacks on the country’s citizens. That includes the horrific killing of two women and two young children in the far north, which was captured on video and which Amnesty International confirmed was likely carried out by government forces.

When the video first appeared, the administration dismissed it as “fake news.”

This is the latest in the catalog of atrocities that rights groups have documented. It appears, in this instance, that soldiers killed the women and children because they suspected them of being linked to Boko Haram. The government has been accused of atrocities against suspected Boko Haram fighters and sympathisers in the past.

This is in addition to the ongoing violence in the country’s Anglophone region. That conflict stems from a divide between the country’s majority French-speaking regions, which dominate the government, and English-speaking sections in the west. In 2017, separatists declared the region its own country of Ambazonia. The government rejected that declaration.

The situation is now teetering on the brink of civil war. Anglophone separatists are suspected of  attacking the minister of defense’s convoy last week. And with every separatist action, the government responds by further ratcheting up the violence.

Biya has not backed away from the actions of his soldiers either in the Anglophone region or in their efforts to combat Boko Haram, though he did call for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the video.

There’s no reason to think he won’t win the October vote. Previous elections have been marred by irregularities and accusations of fraud. And there’s no reason to think he will reign in his forces.

Image Credit: United Nations Photo

Compiled by @_andrew_green

What we are talking about:

The Boko Haram insurgency is far from over

The Nigerian military and government has repeatedly labelled the various groups collectively known as Boko Haram as "defeated" or "on the run" and called the situation in the North-Eastern regions "post-conflict". Unfortunately, this seems to be over optimistic, as a couple of recent attacks on army units demonstrate.

Insurgents first attacked a convoy of troops and militia fighters near the village of Boboshe, North-East of Maiduguri, likely after being tipped off. Casualty estimates range from ten dead, to several dozen dead and missing, as well as several vehicles lost to the insurgents.

A second, more devastating attack later befell an understrength battalion of the Nigerian army stationed at Jilli, on the border with Niger. The base manned by about 1,000 soldiers recently arrived from Lagos was completely overrun. Some reporting indicates that the soldiers had not yet received their heavy support weapons and tanks and had to fight off insurgents with anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup-trucks with small arms. Hundreds of soldiers were initially unaccounted for, with several officers and more than 60 troops confirmed dead.

The Nigerian military first denied that either attack happened and then that they led to significant casualties, but it has a long history of underreporting its own losses and overestimating casualties inflicted on Boko Haram.

The two attacks, which were likely carried out by different factions, demonstrate that parts of Boko Haram retain significant offensive capabilities and organisational strength, as well as at least some local intelligence gathering capabilities. The attacks could also be seen as demonstration of power between warring factions of Boko Haram. In July, the faction led by Abubakar Shekau, who has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, reportedly split, with former spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi challenging Shekau for control. At the time, some analysts predicted that the split would increase attempts of the factions to recruit fighters and stage attacks.

While massive military commitment in the North-East has succeeded in pushing Boko Haram into rural areas, it has also incentivised Boko Haram to cross borders into Niger and Cameroon. Killings have receded from the peak in 2014, when up to 3,000 lives per month were lost, but levels of insecurity remain high, nonetheless.

Nigeria will have to continue to invest in army reform, as well as tackle the root causes of the insurgency: corruption, underdevelopment, state violence and lack of transparency.

Compiled by @PeterDoerrie

Democracy at work:

Election watch

Mali: President

  • The campaign officially started on 7 July, with the first rallies of incumbent IBK and his most serious challenger Soumaila Cisse drawing tens of thousands of supporters.

  • The election will take place on 29 July. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, a run-off is scheduled for 12 August.

  • Incumbent Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (73) is standing for his second term. He is facing more than 20 rival candidates, including Soumaïla Cissé (68) who lost in the run-off in 2013.

  • Keïta (known as IBK) is considered the favorite, but is unlikely to get over 50% in the first round. In 2013, he beat Cissé in the run-off by 78% to 22%, but only managed about 40% in the first round. In a representative opinion poll last year, IBK had an approval rating of 63%, although security has deteriorated since then and the economy is essentially flatlining.

  • The government doesn't have effective control over some parts of the country, where Islamist groups and ethnic militias are present. The campaign and election day will likely experience some violence. Polling stations may not be able to open in all places, opening the door to irregularities.

  • Turnout is expected to be low, with average turnout for the last three presidential elections barely exceeding 40% (first round).

  • Essential reading:

  • Recent headlines:

Zimbabwe: President, National Assembly and Senate

  • Zimbabweans will vote in a general election on 30 July. A presidential runoff will be held on 8 September if no candidate gets over 50% in the first round.

  • For the National Assembly, 210 seats are elected directly by constituents in a first-past-the-post system. The same votes are also allocated proportionally by party to elect six women in each of the ten districts to arrive at 270 seats total.

  • For the Senate, 60 seats are allocated by proportional vote from a party list, with each of the ten districts receiving six seats. Party lists must alternate between female and male candidates. Two seats are reserved for people with disabilities and 18 for traditional chiefs, bringing the Senate to 80 seats.

  • After Robert Mugabe was forced to resign last year, the upcoming elections are seen as a potential watershed moment. Mugabe's successor as president, Emmerson Mnangagwa (75) has promised some economic and political reforms, but was also intimately involved in decades of political repression and autocracy.

  • In a representative poll from April/May, President Mnangagwa gained a 49%/33% approval/disapproval rating. 86% of respondents said they would vote, indicating to a strong turnout. President Mnangagwa and the ruling ZANU-PF are considered favorites with 42% of respondents saying they will vote for them. Nelson Chamisa, leader of MDC–T, the most significant opposition party, can rely on 30% of the vote. With 26% of voters undecided, Chamisa will likely hold Mnangagwa to a runoff, but would have to rely on a broad alliance of opposition organisations and parties to have a shot of dethroning the ZANU-PF, which retains complete control over state resources. It is unclear, if Mnangagwa and his party would even accept a loss, or repeat the 2017 coup.

  • Essential reading:

  • Recent headlines:

Comoros: Referendum on presidential term limits

  • President Azali Assoumani has callen a referendum on 30 July to change the constitution to allow for two 5-year presidential terms, instead of the current maximum one 5-year term. This would allow him to stay in power until 2029, instead of leaving after his current term ends in 2021.

  • The current system of presidential term limits is designed to allow the presidency to rotate between the three Islands of the nation. Prior to its introduction in 2001, the Comoros experienced frequent coups and rebellions on islands that felt marginalised by the central government.

  • With the constitutional court suspended and prominent opposition politicians in jail or under house arrest, a transparent and credible referendum is in doubt.

  • Essential reading:

  • Recent headlines:

This week's updates by: @PeterDoerrie

End matter:

What else you should be reading

This week's editorial team: @PeterDoerrie, @_andrew_green, @jamesjwan