Homo sapiens arrived much earlier than believed, a fossil trove in Morocco suggests
NEW YORK - Fossils discovered in Morocco are the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens, scientists reported, according to the New York Times.
Dating back roughly 300,000 years, the bones indicate that mankind evolved earlier than had been known, experts say, and open a new window on our origins.
The fossils also show that early Homo sapiens had faces much like our own, although their brains differed in fundamental ways.
Until now, the oldest fossils of our species, found in Ethiopia, dated back just 195,000 years. The new fossils suggest our species evolved across Africa.
“We did not evolve from a single cradle of mankind somewhere in East Africa,” said Phillipp Gunz, a paleoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Liepzig, Germany, and a co-author of two new studies on the fossils, published in the journal Nature.
Today, the closest living relatives to Homo sapiens are chimpanzees and bonobos, with whom we share a common ancestor that lived over six million years ago.
After the lineages split, our ancient relatives evolved into many different species, known as hominins. For millions of years, hominins remained very ape-like. They were short, had small brains, and could fashion only crude stone tools.
Until now, the oldest fossils that clearly belonged to Homo sapiens were discovered in Ethiopia. In 2003, researchers working at a site called Herto discovered a skull estimated to be between 160,000 and 154,000 years old.
A pair of partial skulls from another site, Omo-Kibish, dated to around 195,000 years of age, making these the oldest fossils of our species.
Findings such as these suggested that our species evolved in a small region — perhaps in Ethiopia, or nearby in East Africa. After Homo sapiens arose, researchers believed, the species spread out across the continent.
Only much later — roughly 70,000 years ago — did a small group of Africans make their way to other continents.
Yet paleoanthropologists were aware of mysterious hominin fossils discovered in other parts of Africa that didn’t seem to fit the narrative.
In 1961, miners in Morocco dug up a few pieces of a skull at a site called Jebel Irhoud. Later digs revealed a few more bones, along with flint blades.
Using crude techniques, researchers estimated the remains to be 40,000 years old. In the 1980s, however, a paleoanthropologist named Jean-Jacques Hublin took a closer look at one jawbone.
The teeth bore some resemblance to those of living humans, but the shape seemed strangely primitive. “It did not make sense,” Dr. Hublin, now at the Max Planck Institute, recalled in an interview.
Since 2004, Dr. Hublin and his colleagues have been working through layers of rocks on a desert hillside at Jebel Irhoud. They’ve found a wealth of fossils, including skull bones from five individuals who all died around the same time.
Just as important, the scientists discovered flint blades in the same layer as the skulls. The people of Jebel Irhoud most likely made them for many purposes, putting some on wooden handles to fashion spears.
Many of the flint blades showed signs of having been burned. The people at Jebel Irhoud probably lit fires to cook food, heating discarded blades buried in the ground below. This accident of history made it possible to use the flints as clocks.
Dr. Hublin and his colleagues used a method called thermoluminescence to calculate how much time had passed since the blades were burned. They estimated that the blades were roughly 300,000 years old. The skulls, which were discovered in the same rock layer, must have been the same age.
Despite the age of the teeth and jaws, anatomical details showed they nevertheless belonged to Homo sapiens, not to another hominin lineage such as the Neanderthals.
Resetting the clock on mankind’s debut would be achievement enough. But the new research is also notable for the discovery of several early humans rather than just one, as so often happens, said Marta Mirazon Lahr, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge who was not involved in the new study.
“We have no other place like it, so it’s a fabulous finding,” she said.
The people at Jebel Irhoud shared a general resemblance to one another — and to living humans. Their brows were heavy, their chins small, their faces flat and wide. But all in all, they were not so different from people today.
“The face is that of somebody you could come across in the Metro,” Dr. Hublin said.
The flattened faces of early Homo sapiens may have something to do with the advent of speech, speculated Christopher Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the National Museum in London.
”We really are at very early stages of trying to explain these things,” Dr. Stringer said.
The brains of the inhabitants of Jebel Irhoud, on the other hand, were less like our own.
Although they were as big as modern human brains, they did not yet have its distinctively round shape. They were long and low, like those of earlier hominins.
Dr. Gunz, of the Max Planck Institute, said that the human brain may have become rounder at a later phase of evolution. Two regions in the back of the brain, known as the parietal lobe and the cerebellum, appear to have become enlarged over thousands of years.
“I think what we see reflect adaptive changes in the way the brain functions,” he said. Still, he added, no one knows how a rounder brain changed how we think.
The people of Jebel Irhoud were certainly sophisticated. They could make fires and craft complex weapons, such as wooden handled spears, needed to kill gazelle and other animals that grazed the savanna that covered the Sahara 300,000 years ago.
The flint is interesting for another reason: Researchers traced its origin to another site about 20 miles south of Jebel Irhoud. Early Homo sapiens, then, knew how to search out and to use resources spread over long distances.
Similar flint blades of about the same age have been found at other sites across Africa, and scientists have long wondered who made them. The fossils at Jebel Irhoud raise the possibility that they were made by early Homo sapiens.
And if that’s true, Dr. Gunz and his colleagues argue, then our species may have been evolving as a network of groups spread across the continent.
John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the new study, said that it was a plausible idea, but that recent discoveries of fossils from the same era raise the possibility that they were used by other hominins. The only way to resolved the question will be to find more hominin fossils from the time when our species emerged.
High cost of Russian gains in Ukraine may limit new advance
By Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and Eric Tucker in Washington
WASHINGTON/KYIV -After more than four months of ferocious fighting, Russia claimed a key victory: full control over one of the two provinces in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland.
But Moscow’s seizure of the last major stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in Luhansk province came at a steep price. The critical question now is whether Russia can muster enough strength for a new offensive to complete its capture of the Donbas and make gains elsewhere in Ukraine.
“Yes, the Russians have seized the Luhansk region, but at what price?” asked Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst in Ukraine, noting that some Russian units involved in the battle lost up to a half their soldiers.
Even President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Monday that Russian troops involved in action in Luhansk need to “take some rest and beef up their combat capability.”
That raises doubts about whether Moscow’s forces and their separatist allies are ready to quickly thrust deeper into Donetsk, the other province that makes up the Donbas. Observers estimated in recent weeks that Russia controlled about half of Donetsk, and battle lines have changed little since then.
What happens in the Donbas could determine the course of the war. If Russia succeeds there, it could free up its forces to grab even more land and dictate the terms of any peace agreement. If Ukraine, on the other hand, manages to pin the Russians down for a protracted period, it could build up the resources for a counteroffensive.
Exhausting the Russians has long been part of the plan for the Ukrainians, who began the conflict outgunned — but hoped Western weapons could eventually tip the scales in their favor.
They are already effectively using heavy howitzers and advanced rocket systems sent by the U.S. and other Western allies, and more is on the way. But Ukrainian forces have said they remain badly outmatched.
Ukraine’s Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said recently that Russian forces were firing 10 times more ammunition than the Ukrainian military.
After a failed attempt at a lightning advance on the capital of Kyiv in the opening weeks of the war, Russian forces withdrew from many parts of northern and central Ukraine and turned their attention to the Donbas, a region of mines and factories where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Since then, Russia has adopted a slow-and-steady approach that allowed it to seize several remaining Ukrainian strongholds in Luhansk over the course of recent weeks.
While Ukrainian officials have acknowledged that their troops have withdrawn from the city of Lysychansk, the last bulwark of their resistance, the presidential office said Tuesday the military was still defending small areas in Luhansk.
Zhdanov, the analyst, predicted that the Russians would likely rely on their edge in firepower to “apply the same scorched earth tactics and blast the entire cities away” in Donetsk. The same day that Russia claimed it had taken the last major city in Luhansk, new artillery attacks were reported in cities in Donetsk.
But Russia’s approach is not without drawbacks. Moscow has not given a casualty count since it said some 1,300 troops were killed in the first month of fighting, but Western officials have said that was just a fraction of real losses. Since then, Western observers have noted that the number of Russian troops involved in combat in Ukraine has dwindled, reflecting both heavy attrition and the Kremlin’s failure to fill up the ranks.
The limited manpower has forced the Russian commanders to avoid ambitious attempts to encircle large areas in the Donbas, opting for smaller maneuvers and relying on heavy artillery barrages to slowly force the Ukrainians to retreat.
The military has also relied heavily on separatists, who have conducted several rounds of mobilization, and Western officials and analysts have said Moscow has increasingly engaged private military contractors. It has also tried to encourage the Russian men who have done their tour of duty to sign up again, though it’s is unclear how successful that has been.
While Putin so far has refrained from declaring a broad mobilization that might foment social discontent, recently proposed legislation suggested that Moscow was looking for other ways to replenish the ranks. The bill would have allowed young conscripts, who are drafted into the army for a year and barred from fighting, to immediately switch their status and sign contracts to become full professional soldiers. The draft was shelved amid strong criticism.
Some Western officials and analysts have argued that attrition is so heavy that it could force Moscow to suspend its offensive at some point later in the summer, but the Pentagon has cautioned that even though Russia has been churning through troops and supplies at rapid rates it still has abundant resources.
U.S. director of national intelligence Avril Haines said Putin appeared to accept the slow pace of the advance in the Donbas and now hoped to win by crushing Ukraine’s most battle-hardened forces.
“We believe that Russia thinks that if they are able to crush really one of the most capable and well-equipped forces in the east of Ukraine ... that will lead to a slump basically in the Ukrainian resistance and that that may give them greater opportunities,” Haines said.
If Russia wins in the Donbas, it could build on its seizure of the southern Kherson region and part of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia to try to eventually cut Ukraine off from its Black Sea coast all the way to the Romanian border. If that succeeded, it would deal a crushing blow to the Ukrainian economy and also create a corridor to Moldova’s separatist region of Transnistria that hosts a Russian military base.
But that is far from assured. Mykola Sunhurovsky of the Razumkov Center, a Kyiv-based think tank, predicted that growing supplies of heavy Western weapons, including HIMARS multiple rocket launchers, will help Ukraine turn the tide of the war.
“The supplies of weapons will allow Ukraine to start a counteroffensive in the south and fight for Kherson and other cities,” Sunhurovsky said.
But Ukraine has also faced massive personnel losses: up to 200 soldiers a day in recent weeks of ferocious fighting in the east, according to officials.
“Overall, local military balance in Donbas favors Russia, but long term trends still favor Ukraine,” wrote Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military and program director at the Virginia-based CNA think tank. “However, that estimate is conditional on sustained Western military assistance, and is not necessarily predictive of outcomes. This is likely to be a protracted war.”
By Hilde Vautmans, The Euobserver, 04 July 2022
BRUSSELS - This week the now-expired French EU presidency is set to announce the agreed relocation pledges under their solidarity plan.
Together with an agreement on Eurodac and screening, the European Council wants to show its willingness to move on the running migration files by taking these files out of the complete package. The faster the better.
It goes without saying I welcome their pursuit for solidarity and their desire to conclude Eurodac and screening. Both files are essential to accelerate the protection of our borders, enhance security on European soil, as well as to improve information sharing across the EU. For instance, currently we cannot link irregular border crossings to specific persons.
Therefore, it can happen we record three irregular crossings, but in reality, they are linked to the same person.
Secondly, we want to protect victims of trafficking, specifically minors, and assist with the identification and protection of missing children. Today, we do not record fingerprints of six-year olds, which makes it impossible to identify or locate minors when they go missing.
Another reason we need to update our current system is the fight against irregular border crossings in se, as well as to identify secondary movements of resettled third-country nationals. The update of Eurodac will tackle these issues if we do it the right way, with the necessary safeguards.
Screening is equally important. It is essential to know exactly who enters the EU and when. Not only to enhance security in Europe, but also to provide migrants with the necessary support.
By including this screening procedure we will know if the person is a threat to security, which vulnerabilities he, she or X has, and if they need specific medical attention or concrete accommodation for example. We need a tailored migration approach and this regulation will make this happen.
Finally, the council mandate was accompanied by a political declaration, stating that relocation will remain on voluntary basis, or member states accept a minimum of 10,000 migrants per year or they contribute through financial aids to help other states receiving migrants.
In order to make this engagement operational and concrete, a solidarity platform will be created for the receiving states to exchange information on their real needs on the ground and for the other to contribute in a way that matches these needs.
No sanctions are foreseen in case a state will not act in line with the declaration. Financial sanctions might be introduced at a later stage.
The total solidarity offer on the table after the council meeting is around 7,000 relocations. The aspiration is to bring the number to 10,000. This clear message of solidarity is important as it should not only be the member states at the frontline who should invest in managing migration and supporting refugees. All states should do their part.
However, this declaration, the screening procedure and Eurodac are an empty shell if we do not adopt the other files of the migration package.
The majority of the European Parliament is still convinced of the package approach and equally wants to move forward on other essential files touching upon the core of our European policy, such as relocation, migration management and procedures for example.
Security is only one element of the debate, the issue is much more complex than one could think.
These files are like a chain, if you take out one link, the chain seizes to exist. We must tackle the core of our current migration system, in a 360-degree manner. Otherwise, it is a given our policy will fail, putting the most vulnerable refugees such as children, women and LGBTIQ+ persons at risk.
In 2016, already 6! years ago, 10.000 children on the move went missing, and in the meanwhile, more could not be accounted for. Since the European Commission has presented its communication on unaccompanied minors and the updated migration package, nothing has changed on the ground.
The opposite, the current climate crisis, pandemic and wars all around the world only exacerbated the existing problems. We record pushbacks all around Europe, deaths across the seas, more missing and exploited children and women, lengthy procedures, refugees without housing, and so on.
A real crisis of our system, not a crisis of migrants. It is not their responsibility to tackle the current issues, it is ours.
Today 100 million people are displaced worldwide and last year alone there were 650,000 asylum applications in the EU.
We must ensure the EU is ready to finally deal with the issues that come along. By only screening, fingerprinting or relocating (some) refugees, or by outsourcing our border control to Turkey and giving Erdogan our keys, we will not solve the current problems.
Therefore, it is time to be courageous, thoroughly reform our current migration policy and take back control.
We must achieve a real common European asylum system, which protects our security, but also protects vulnerable people such as children. I call on the Council to do the same and to move on all open files. That is what the European citizens expect from us.
Hilde Vautmans is an MEP with Renew Europe and Open Vld and a member of the European Parliament LIBE Committee, shadow rapporteur of the Eurodac file and co-chair of the intergroup on children's rights.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver or CEMAS.
By Michael O'Hanlon, The Washington Post, 01 July 2022
The Ukraine war is killing hundreds of people every day, exacerbating world hunger, driving up gas prices and inflation rates, and threatening escalation between Russia and the West. It must be brought to an end as soon as possible. That task will be difficult, to be sure — but we have to try.
To be clear: It is up to Ukraine to decide its own fate. The United States and its allies should not be in the business of dictating terms. But that doesn’t preclude working to catalyze talks. The West can propose creative ideas that draw on history and our collective experiences.
Any progress toward peace would likely begin with a cease-fire, perhaps sometime this summer or fall, roughly along the lines of current combat.
With this approach, Russia would remain in control for the foreseeable future of most of the land it holds now — much of the East, the Crimean Peninsula and the land bridge between the two. No agreement would be reached on permanent borders. Kyiv and Western countries could maintain their principled position that all of the disputed land is Ukrainian. They could hold out hope that a future Russian leader after Vladimir Putin might see things the way they do and finally return the land — perhaps in the 2030s, once Putin is finally gone.
Until then, Russia would remain under sanctions. As an inducement to Putin, however, the West could signal that these sanctions would not get any tougher or broader once a cease-fire was reached (ensuring, for example, that Russian natural gas exports to Europe would not be targeted). Some type of international peace observation mission might be deployed to monitor the cease-fire lines while also making it harder for Putin to resume the attack (since doing so would risk the lives of soldiers from many countries, even if the peacekeepers did not have a mandate or the capacity to stop a Russian attack).
Ukraine might not be prepared to accept such an interim arrangement today — but Kyiv might well change its mind after a few more weeks or months of intense fighting and likely futile attempts at recapturing most of the territory Russia now holds, even after the arrival of more sophisticated Western arms like the HIMARS long-range artillery system.
Then, once a cease-fire was in place, the parties might also quickly begin discussions on a more lasting solution. Though unlikely to succeed in the near term, this option is worth investigating. During talks, materiel support for Ukraine must continue, and sanctions on Russia must stay in place.
Henry A. Kissinger recently made waves by suggesting that any such deal would require territorial compromise by Kyiv. But even if the 99-year-old statesman was too blunt for some, he raised a topic that should be explored. It need not boil down to outright concessions of Ukrainian land. At least three other concepts could be invoked — indeed, all three might be needed, depending on which part of Ukraine’s territory is at issue.
One approach could envision a future referendum to determine sovereignty over disputed territories, after a multiyear cooling-off period. The choices for voters could include staying in Ukraine, joining Russia or becoming independent. To be specific: This scenario would specifically exclude staged events such as the referendum that Moscow conducted in Crimea in March 2014 after Russian troops had seized the territory. A proper referendum would require international supervision of the process and would have to include the right to vote for those who formerly lived in the area in question but had to flee because of the war. Partial precedents for such an approach can be found in Kosovo, East Timor, South Sudan and elsewhere.
Another option would create autonomous zones where both Ukraine and Russia claimed sovereignty. This idea has been implemented in places such as Brcko in Bosnia, a town that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all badly wanted in the 1990s. Perhaps this idea could apply to Mariupol and other regions forming the “land bridge” from Ukraine’s east and Russia to Crimea.
A third approach would simply defer some difficult situations. Under this arrangement, the two sides would agree to disagree for now. Russia would hold onto some swaths of land; Ukraine would insist that the land was still its own; negotiations could be scheduled for the future to reconsider the topic. For an instructive historical analogy, consider how the Western nations never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states — maintaining that position for half a century until those nations could work themselves free of Moscow after the Cold War.
To be sure, even with some mix of the above ideas, negotiating specifics would be very difficult. But a framework could in theory be proposed and debated in the coming weeks and perhaps adopted later in the summer. The alternative — a potentially indefinite continuation of this terrible war — is so bad that we should try, working with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, to jump-start the conversation.
Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research for the foreign policy program of the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Philip H. Knight chair in defence and strategy.
Is China a challenge to Nato? Beijing responds
By Mission of the People's Republic of China to the EU, The Euobseprver, 05 July 2022
BRUSSELS - At last week's 2022 Madrid summit, Nato adopted a new Strategic Concept, claiming that Nato member states would work together to address the systemic challenges posed by China.
A look at history and reality tells us a different story.
In recent years, certain Nato countries, clinging to a Cold War mentality and the hegemony logic, have pursued bloc politics and exhausted their efforts in containing China, seeking to expand Nato's geographical parameters under the pretext of addressing the so-called China challenge.
But one cannot help but wonder, does China, a country tens of thousands of miles away, really pose any challenge to Nato, an organisation that "seeks to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area"?
Who is waging wars and increasing military build-up, and who is challenging global security and threatening world peace? It's clear for all to see. Facts are facts, which cannot be distorted by disinformation.
The Chinese nation always loves peace, and the pursuit of peace is part of its cultural DNA. As one of the world's most powerful countries for a long time in history, China has never colonised or invaded others.
After the Age of Discovery, the fleets of European powers rampaged to seize colonies.
However, nearly 100 years before Columbus discovered the Americas, a Chinese navigator named Zheng He led what was then the most powerful fleet in the world on seven expeditions to the Pacific Ocean and the western Indian Ocean, visiting over 30 countries and regions without taking a single inch of land.
Over the past 70 years since the founding of the People's Republic, China has pursued an independent foreign policy of peace and a national defence policy that is defensive in nature. China follows the path of peaceful development and remains a contributor to world peace and a defender of the international order.
China has never initiated a war or invaded an inch of another country's land.
China is still the only country in the world that undertakes to follow a path of peaceful development in its constitution. China does not interfere in others' internal affairs and export ideology, still less engage in long-arm jurisdiction, unilateral sanctions, or economic coercion.
For the sake of pursuing fairness and justice and getting rid of bullyism, we invite Nato, an organisation that gathers the most developed and self-proclaimed most civilised countries, to take the same position.
On the exact same day that China successfully tested its first atomic bomb, the Chinese government declared its "No First Use" (NFU) policy, making China the only nuclear-weapon state to have made such an explicit commitment.
We'd love to invite the three nuclear countries in Nato make the same commitment. Given that China has fewer nuclear weapons than any of them, one cannot think of any reason why they should be afraid to do so.
At present, China's military spending is only a quarter of that of the United States and even smaller if compared with that of Nato as a whole. China's military budget accounts for about 1.3 percent of its GDP, much lower than the threshold of Nato countries.
China's per capita military spending is below the global average and less than one-fifth of that of Nato. It would be a fair and reasonable demand to ask Nato countries cut their military spending to the same level as China before pointing fingers.
China upholds true multilateralism and global strategic stability. China is the largest contributor of peacekeepers among the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the second-largest contributor among all countries to the UN peacekeeping budget. China has sent more than 40,000 peacekeepers, making positive contributions to maintaining world and regional peace and stability.
Which 'rules-based international order'?
Nato claims that it is committed to upholding the rules-based international order. But the question is what kind of rules and order it is going to defend. If it is an international multilateral system centred on the UN, an international order underpinned by international law and basic norms of international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, it will certainly be welcomed with open arms.
However, if Nato attempts to impose its own rules or even "rules of gang" on the global community, it will be rejected flatly.
Nato claims to be a defensive organisation, but what we have seen is that it waged wars against sovereign states, creating huge casualties and leaving tens of millions displaced. Has the UN Security Council authorised those actions? If not, hadn't Nato distorted and abused the right to self-defence? Don't such actions constitute breach of international law?
Nato claims that its defence zone will not go beyond the North Atlantic, but its presence is everywhere.
In recent years, it has flexed its muscles in the Asia-Pacific region and sought to stir up bloc confrontation here, as it has done in Europe. How many wars waged by one of its member states, whose 240-plus-year history only sees 16 years without war with others, were defensive?
The tragedy of the two World Wars and the Ukraine crisis tells us that hegemony, group politics and bloc confrontation bring no peace or security, but only lead to wars and conflicts.
It also reminds us that blind faith in the so-called "position of strength" and attempts to expand military alliances and seek its own security at the expense of others will only land oneself in a security dilemma.
The world has entered a new period of volatility and transformation. The rise of Cold War mentality, bloc confrontation and power politics poses a serious threat to world peace and security.
At the annual meeting of the Boao Forum for Asia this year, Chinese president Xi Jinping put forward the Global Security Initiative, calling on all nations to stay committed to the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously, peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation, and maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains.
'Jackals and wolves'
China stands ready to strengthen solidarity and cooperation with all peace-loving countries to practice true multilateralism, build a new type of international relations based on mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation. We need to be clear that we are a community in which all countries share a common stake and make concerted efforts for global peace and stability.
China needs development and longs for peace. We sincerely hope to live in harmony and develop together with all countries and organisations in the world.
However, the history of China tells us that peace can never be a gift from others. Instead, it needs to be defended firmly.
We will not be naive about Nato's Strategic Concept. There is a well-known Chinese song with these lyrics: "For our friends, we have fine wine. For jackals or wolves, we welcome with shotguns."
This piece was written by the Mission of People's Republic of China to the EU, in response to last week's Madrid Nato summit.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver or CEMAS.
By Paul McLoughlin, The New Arab, 17 June 2022
MOSCOW/TEL AVIV - Israeli strikes put Damascus International Airport out of action last week with flights diverted to Aleppo, in Syria's north, or grounded altogether.
While Israel has launched countless attacks on Iranian arms convoys in and around the airport before, the damage to the civilian annex was unprecedented.
Syrian authorities say the runway could be closed to civilian traffic for months, as the UN warned humanitarian access to regime areas will be hindered for some time due to the damage.
Israel has long argued that Damascus Airport is a den of Iranian weapons and troops smuggling and the US and several European countries have already sanctioned private Iranian carrier Mahan Air for that reason.
This, and a land bridge via Iraq, has given Tehran a direct link to Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) militias in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon - a key concern for Israel.
Damascus Airport has served as an entry point for Iranian pilgrims visiting Shia holy sites in Syria as well as being a vital component of Iran's military axis, according to Arash Azizi, author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran's Global Ambitions.
"As the Iranian intervention in Syria expanded, the IRGC was able to use even the civilian traffic for military purposes, contravening norms and rules and disgruntling many, even inside Iran's own civil aviation sector,” Azizi told The New Arab.
"Qassem Soleimani would personally use flights by Mahan Air, an airline based in his home province of Kerman, to transfer men and equipment between Tehran and Damascus. There are open testimonies about this from Iran's own officials."
But Israel's targeting of a civilian site would appear to overstep an unofficial coordination agreement with Russia on airstrikes in Syria, which have been primarily focused on Iranian and Hezbollah weapons convoys and militia bases.
The launch of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles last month during Israeli airstrikes highlighted some disgruntlement in Moscow at Israel's stance on the Ukraine conflict yet there is little to indicate a breakdown in cooperation.
Reports including in pro-Iranian media suggest that Russia was notified by Israel before the attack on Damascus Airport and air defences were not activated.
Israel is likely aware that Russia is entirely focused on the war in Ukraine to risk further destabilisation in Syria, where Moscow operates an airbase, port, and other military outposts.
"Israel’s bombing of Damascus Airport along with [Israel Prime Minister Naftali] Bennet’s open threats against Iran point to an unprecedented escalation," Azizi added.
"In more ordinary times, Russia would object to the targeting of civilian infrastructure as this goes beyond the tacit agreement Moscow and Tel Aviv had. But Moscow is now too engulfed with Ukraine to make a stand on this question."
Iran has invested huge sums of money and manpower to keep Assad afloat and his continued survival and growing acceptance from Arab states show that the gamble has paid off, Azizi said.
Yet Tehran remains bogged down with domestic issues such as its violent crackdown on protests, apparent security failures after the assassination of Iranian scientists, and the danger of Tehran losing its market share to Russia in the Asian oil market.
"Can the regime go to war to deflect attention from all this? I don't think so. The regime has shown that it is quite patient and averse to open and direct intervention against Israel. [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is quite a prudent and conservative leader...and is unlikely to head into a suicidal confrontation with Israel," Azizi explained.
"As for intervention in Syria, it will indeed continue for as long as the regime can, although it is possible that it will draw it down based on possible agreements with countries of the region."
Despite this, Omar Abu Layla, CEO of the DeirEzzor24 monitoring site, said Iran has continued to bolster its forces in Syria and increased smuggling and the drugs trade in the east - by many accounts a key source of revenue for Tehran and its proxies.
"The recent airstrikes indicate that all Iranian moves in Syria are under international monitoring," he said.
"However, I personally do not see them useful for several reasons, most notably because these strikes are intermittent and not continuous. This means Iranian militias can regain their influence even more after the bombings."
Russia's presence in Syria was seen by many regional powers - including Israel - as a useful counterweight to Tehran’s influence in the area.
These powers are likely comfortable with Israeli strikes on Iranian targets, so long as they don't threaten the Assad regime's hold on power.
Gregory Waters, Analyst at the Counter Extremism Project and fellow at the Middle East Institute, said there are no signs that reports of major Russian troop withdrawals and Iranian fighters replacing them are correct, despite the obvious ratcheting up of Israel's air campaign.
"It's important to remember that several years ago the Russians drew down a lot of their forces in Syria, shifting from doing direct on-the-ground combat support to more training, commanding, advising logistical, and air support," he said.
"So, when we talk about if and why Russians would withdraw from Syria now, the first question had to be: what would they actually withdraw? The only things that could be useful in Ukraine that are still in Syria are airframes, and if some of these were shifted over to Ukraine that's not a gap that Iran steps in to fill."
Bente Scheller, Head of Middle East Division, Heinrich Boell Foundation, agreed there are no signs of Russian troop movements from Syria to Ukraine, but Iranian militias have taken over some checkpoints in southern Syria - a red line for Israel.
"Israel would prefer not to have any Iranian-linked fighters close to its borders, so the partial Russian withdrawal that we are seeing is not in its interest. That means there will be more Russian airstrikes in Syria in the future," Scheller said.
"For Moscow, [its relationship with] Syria has been useful in many ways but it is clearly not important enough for Russia to protect it from attacks of others. We can see this in the north, but also in the hundreds of Israel airstrikes in Syria since 2011."
Scheller said that Moscow's preoccupation with the war in Ukraine poses other problems for the Syrian regime, beyond doing little to reduce Israeli airstrikes.
This includes a possible new offensive by Turkey in northern Syria, and growing tensions between Syrians living in regime areas and Iranian-backed militias, notorious for their cronyism, brutality, and missionary tendencies.
"On top of that, wheat shortages and increasing prices as a consequence of the war in Ukraine hit Syria's population hard, since before that 90 percent of the population lived in poverty already," said Scheller.
"The regime cannot really hope to obtain more support from either Russia or Iran in this situation, and after Moscow came under international sanctions it is also not that useful any longer for sanctions evasion."
With Israeli strikes decimating one of Syria’s main transport hubs, the effects on the civilian population and business could become more pronounced in the coming weeks and months.
"It is surprising that the regime has not been more vocal in condemning these strikes - possibly this is because there was more to the strikes and the regime does not want to draw more attention to it," Scheller added.
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
LONDON - Between May 10 and May 21, 2021, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militant Palestinian groups engaged in intense fighting in a tit-for-tat escalation of force – it was a surge of violence that would claim the lives of some 253 Palestinians in Gaza and 12 Israelis. Among the dead, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), were 66 Palestinian children. Two Israeli children were also tragically killed in the fighting, reports Action on Armed Violence (AOAV.
During the course of those 11 days, the IDF relied heavily on airpower, conducting airstrikes to retaliate against Hamas and discourage further rocket attacks against civilian targets leashed from Gaza. Between May 10 and May 17, 2021, the IDF conducted 1,450 airstrikes in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. In these strikes, which levied a ‘catastrophic‘ toll on the civilian population and infrastructure, weapons designed and manufactured in the United States were frequently used.
One of the American-made weapons deployed by the IDF was the common Mk-84 (pronounced Mark eighty-four), a 2,000-pound general-purpose air-dropped bomb that can be fitted with a guidance kit. This article aims to analyse which manufacturers from the United States of America (US) and the European Union (EU) may have produced the components for the Mk-84 bombs used in Gaza, as well as their associated guidance kits. This is worth examining, given what Human Rights Watch have called ‘apparent war crimes’ in the bombing campaign.
US-made Mk-84 bombs have been the weapon behind a number of civilian deaths and casualties, not only in Gaza but across the globe, either as a consequence of foreign military sales or because they were used by the U.S. military directly.
In 2016, for instance, the Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes in Yemen, killing 97 civilians, 25 of whom were children. During these airstrikes, U.S.-made Mk-84 bombs were used. Ten years previously, in July 2006, Israel used US-made Mk-84 bombs in Qana, southern Lebanon, to conduct airstrikes which would lead to the death of 57 civilians, most of whom were children.
These two incidents, and the most recent examples from Gaza, show that weapons production and exports are not only very lucrative for the manufacturers involved, but also frequently have a terrible effect on civilians.
Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) is a London-based research charity that has a central mission: to carry out research and advocacy in order to reduce the incidence and impact of global armed violence.
GENEVA - Between 1 March 2011 and 31 March 2021, 306,887 civilians were killed in the on-going war in Syria - the highest estimate yet of conflict-related deaths in the country, according to a new report published by the UN rights office (OHCHR) on Tuesday.
“The conflict-related casualty figures in this report are not simply a set of abstract numbers, but represent individual human beings,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, in a press release.
“The impact of the killing of each of these 306,887 civilians would have had a profound, reverberating impact on the family and community to which they belonged”.
Mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, the report documents 143,350 civilian deaths in detail, enhanced by statistical techniques of imputation and multiple systems estimation, to connect the dots on missing information.
Using these techniques, a further 163,537 civilian deaths were assessed to have occurred, in order to produce the stark new estimate.
“The work of civil society organizations and the UN in monitoring and documenting conflict-related deaths is key in helping these families and communities establish the truth, seek accountability and pursue effective remedies,” said Ms. Bachelet. “This analysis will also give a clearer sense of the severity and scale of the conflict”.
‘Direct result of war’
The report also disaggregates data for the documented deaths, including by age, gender, year, governorate, those likely responsible, and the weapon type used.
The 306,887 estimate translates to an average of 83 civilians suffering a violent death every day during the decade – representing “a staggering 1.5 per cent of the total population,” according to the report.
It also triggers serious concerns as to “the failure of the parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law norms on the protection of civilians”.
“Let me be clear, these are the people killed as a direct result of war operations. This does not include the many, many more civilians who died due to the loss of access to healthcare, to food, to clean water and other essential human rights, which remain to be assessed,” said the High Commissioner.
The report set out the challenges in recording casualties during a conflict, beyond the immediate risk to those trying to access the sites of attacks.
“Where civil society actors undertake casualty recording, efforts…can put the recorders themselves at risk. They also face multiple challenges in their documentation efforts, including the collapse of their usual networks of information as people are on the move, displaced or in areas where there is a general information shutdown; the limited, or lack of, access to mobile data, Internet and electricity to collect and transmit information; limitations on their movements; and surveillance,” the report stated.
Information pertaining to different periods across the 10 years covered, was sourced from various local human rights centres as well as government records and those of OHCHR itself.
Individuals, families, ‘at the centre’
The process placed “individuals, their families and communities at the centre by ensuring that those killed are not forgotten, and that information is available for accountability-related processes and to access a range of human rights,” the report states.
“Unless and until the conflict ends, there is a continued risk of civilian deaths. It is, therefore, critical that all States, the United Nations and civil society use all available means to end the conflict and support a transition to peace.”
Mediterranean cities preparing for a tsunami
PARIS - A tsunami in the Mediterranean is “very” likely within the next 30 years, an expert has warned.
Unesco’s Vladimir Ryabinin said the effects of such an event could be “catastrophic” and “we have to be prepared for it”.
Why are Mediterranean cities preparing?
Unesco, the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural organisation, said a tsunami could soon hit major cities on or near the Mediterranean, including Marseille, Alexandria and Istanbul, said The Guardian. It said there is a nearly 100% chance of a wave reaching more than a metre high in the next 30 years.
Although tsunamis are not often associated with Europe, one of the deadliest earthquakes in history hit Portugal on All Saints’ Day in 1755, generating waves six metres high in Lisbon and Cádiz.
Nature said an “enigmatic” tsunami was sparked by an earthquake in 1693, with more than 60,000 causalities and widespread destruction in southeastern Sicily.
More recently, the Greek island of Samos in the Aegean Sea was hit by a tsunami in 2020.
How are they preparing?
Next week, Unesco will announce the global deployment of the “Tsunami ready” programme, which will train at-risk coastal communities in how to prepare for a tsunami by 2030.
Bernardo Aliaga, lead tsunami expert at Unesco, said: “Work has been done to establish 12 tsunami-warning centres covering most of the ocean, including the Mediterranean.”
The Guardian said the warning centres include five in the Mediterranean and north-east Atlantic, including Greece, Turkey, Italy, France and Portugal.
Authorities in Alexandria, Istanbul, Marseille, Cannes and Chipiona are also working on “tsunami-ready” preparedness, including evacuation signs and procedures, as well as plans for warning tourists.
“We want 100% of communities, where there is a proven hazard, to be ready to respond by 2030,” said Aliaga. “They will have evacuation maps, they will have carried out exercises and they will already have in place 24-hour alerts.”
Other “readiness indicators” required by Unesco include outreach and public awareness campaigns, and the staging of a community tsunami exercise at least every two years, said The Local.
The risk of tsunamis is underestimated in most areas, including the Mediterranean, said Aliaga. “We need to get the message out,” he said. “In the Mediterranean, there is no question about it: it is not if, it’s when.”
What risk is there for the UK?
With preparations underway in Europe, could a major earthquake and tsunami hit Britain? “The short answer is no,” said the British Geological Survey, because “huge mega-thrust earthquakes” only happen in certain areas of the world – at so-called “plate boundary subduction zones”.
However, scientists have found evidence of a tsunami reaching the northeast coast of England around 8,000 years ago, noted the House of Lords Library. It is thought this was caused by an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway leading to a wave that may have been around 20 metres high crashing over the Shetland Islands.
What is a tsunami?
A tsunami is a series of ocean waves that sends surges of water, sometimes reaching heights of more than 30 metres, on to land, explained National Geographic. They can cause widespread destruction when they crash ashore.
Most are caused by earthquakes but 10% are the result of volcanic activity and landslides, and 2% come from meteorological events.
By Raouf Farrah and Hamza Hamouchene, The New Arab, 27 June, 2022
LONDON - “Why do you worry about Adrar? I know for a fact that the more it moves away from Le Pouvoir [state power], the closer it moves to the homeland”.
These are the last words Mohad Gasmi - a tireless environmentalist and human rights activist from Adrar in southern Algeria – left us on social media before his arrest in 2020 over his involvement in the hirak.
As a worker, Gasmi reflected on the world and questioned the underdevelopment of his surrounding environment, which was at odds with its richness in natural resources. These early experiences propelled him to fight against the injustices he witnessed.
He spent much of the 2000s meeting with others, organising and building political movements. During this process he quickly learned that the protection of natural resources and the broader fight for dignity and freedom, were connected struggles.
“The matrix behind all this mess is one and the same, the same i’ssaba (gang)”, he liked to repeat to young people in his hometown.
The political consciousness he espoused, he had also passed on to his wife and children. Alas, the last of his children who was four years old when he was arrested, was too young to get to know his father and the struggle for social justice that he waged.
In fact, Gasmi has been unable to see any of his children grow up because he has been in arbitrary detention for over two years after being twice prosecuted.
He was condemned to five years in prison for supposedly “advocating terrorism” in a Facebook post dating back to 2018 in which he blamed the Algerian authorities for the radicalisation of Abdesslem Termoune, head of the Movement of the Sons of the Sahara for Justice who was killed in Libya that year.
He was also additionally sentenced to three years on criminal charges after being accused of ‘sharing confidential information’ without the intent of treason and espionage.
His sentence was reduced to three years, of which one year would be under probation, following an appeal hearing earlier this month.
However, everyone is well aware that his political activism is the source of this state-led repression.
Social and economic rights
In 2011, amidst the Arab uprisings, young people from the Sahara founded the National Representative Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Unemployed (CNDDC), a movement that calls for an equitable redistribution of wealth, job creation, and socioeconomic rights. Gasmi was part of this movement.
Two years later, the CNDDC organised a huge protest in Ouargla, where thousands of protesters gathered including the working class youth they had mobilised.
“It was an immense success, and everyone had contributed to it, especially Mohad. We were very proud of having maintained nonviolence throughout the rally, which is one of the tenets Mohad has always ascribed to”, recounted one of the leaders of the CNDDC, Ibek Abdelmalek.
The Algerian authorities went on to repress the massive actions through arrests, prosecutions, harassment of activist cadres, and banning the right to protest.
The government even dubbed them a ‘gang of separatists and terrorists’ – an accusation that they would later level against the hirak activists in 2019.
Gasmi, with the young groups and activists involved in the movement were conscious of the growing greed of multinational companies like Total and Halliburton when it came to shale gas. It’s no surprise given the region contains the third largest recoverable shale gas reserves in the world, as confirmed by the US governmental agency, the Energy Information Administration (EIA).
In 2014, the Algerian government announced the success of the first pilot drilling operation for shale gas in In Salah. Immediately after, thousands of people non-violently protested against the project. Sahat el Soumoud (The Square of Resilience) brimmed with people, and the roads leading to the centre were blocked. This was the first time in independent Algeria’s history that a city in the South experienced such a large-scale mobilisation.
Gasmi understood and organised through both an ‘anti-system’ and anti-colonial lens. France’s colonial legacy and the military regime were the problem, and were complicit in the environmental and socioeconomic crises developing around them. He understood that class struggle, destructive neoliberalism, and the role corrupt elites play within the scheme of transnational exploitation are all intertwined.
What also made such activity worth noting is that through Gasmi’s involvement, the movement centred the protection of local traditions and natural resources. He subsequently became a crucial figure in the fight against shale gas exploitation.
It was not long before he became internationally recognised for his efforts. This took him to Tunisia in 2015 where he attended the World Social Forum (WSF) and brilliantly defended the struggle of the first anti-shale gas movement in the Maghreb. He also travelled to Morocco in 2016 to participate in events around the COP22, where he advocated for a holistic approach to an ecological transition that would protect resources, defend social justice, and promote democracy.
A staunch pro-democracy activist
When the hirak demonstrations first erupted across Algeria in February 2020, Gasmi took part in every protest he could. He would also regularly hold a people’s agora in order to encourage debate and discussion around the South’s place within the democratic transition that was being fought for.
The authorities feared his leading role in the hirak in the Sahara, which is why he was arrested once the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the regime capitalised on the event.
He has already spent two years in cruel detention, and requests for a probationary release that his attorneys submitted have all been rejected.
On July 5 2021, the anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, Gasmi went on a hunger strike to protest his preventive detention and the accusations held against him. In October that same year, the Adrar Court of Justice sentenced him to five years in prison for the first case, before recently reducing his judgement.
The second appeal hearing has been set for June 30, the hope is that this will lead to his early release.
Amnesty International, along with other human rights organisations, have launched a petition calling for his release. Gasmi, however, has yet to receive any form of pardon - a “gesture” sometimes made by the president’s office towards political prisoners.
It is now vital that international and local pressure is mounted in order to force state institutions to deliver his freedom. We must use every platform we have to oppose this continued unjust treatment and we must not stop until Mohad Gasmi is free!
Raouf Farrah is a geopolitical researcher specialising in North Africa and the Sahel and co-founder of Twala, an Algerian independent Media.
Hamza Hamouchene is a researcher and activist. He is currently the North African programme coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI).
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.
Arab Reform initiative, 23 June 2022
Tunis, 23 June 2022 - The Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) is releasing today two reports entitled: "Youth political participation in post-2011 Tunisia: Exploring the impact of the youth quota system through the prism of local municipal councillors" and “Youth perceptions of politics in Tunisia: Giving the floor to millennials and Gen Z post-2011” These reports are the outcome of a project conducted by ARI from January 2021 toJune 2022 in partnership with Tunisian associations We Start and Houmetna andaimed at consolidating the political participation of youth in the governorates of Kairouan, Kasserine and Beja.
This work comes in a context where youth trust in the political system is low, with 8.8% in rural areas and 31.1% in urban areas,according to the World Bank's 2014 Youth Report. This lack of trust is reflected inthe low representation of young people in political spheres: the average age of the2019-2024 parliament is 51.8 years, according to data from Marsad Majles.
These trends feed and reinforce each other, leaving an increasingly small space for young people in politics. "These reports seek to understand why young Tunisians particularly those from regions that have been marginalized have not found their way to the political space that opened up after the 2011 revolution," says Zied Boussen, a research fellow at ARI. "This issue is all the more urgent today given the crisis the democratic transition in Tunisia is experiencing."
What impact for youth quotas in municipal elections?
The report "Youth political participation in post-2011 Tunisia: Exploring the impact of the youth quota system through the prism of local municipal councillors" is the first qualitative research work to thoroughly explore the participation of elected municipal officials under the age of 35 in local politics. From the act of candidacy to the political future of these local elected representatives, through to the 2018electoral campaign, this research explores the different stages of youth participation in the municipal elections where they obtained 37% of the seats.
The study also questioned elected officials about their backgrounds and their entourages to better understand what distinguishes them from young people not involved in politics. Ten individual interviews were conducted with young local councillors elected in the 2018 municipal elections through the mandatory youth quotas imposed by Article 49 of the 2014 electoral law on candidate lists. The report shows that young people who entered politics thanks to the youth quotas for municipal elections are highly educated and benefit from primary(family) or secondary (student unionism, civil society) socialization that facilitated their entry into politics by familiarizing them with the public sphere. None of these elected officials initiated their own candidacy; they were co-opted by lists led by older people (former teachers or family members involved in political parties). Thework of these young elected officials in municipal councils is often made difficult by other elected officials' perception of their age (synonymous with inexperience)and, for women, their gender.
However, by intersecting age and gender, the research shows that youth is not a strong enough identity to create age-based alliances within a city council. "Mandatory quotas are quite effective in bringing young people into the spheres of representative politics.
However, they can do nothing to diversify the origin of local elected officials beforehand, which requires a more thorough work of democratic socialization through school programs to give better opportunities to all," said Malek Lakhal, researcher fellow at ARI. "Quotas are also insufficient unless supported by measures to accompany young elected representatives infamiliarizing themselves with municipal work and the laws governing it, since theyare often faced with people who have already occupied these positions during thetime of Ben Ali.”
Generations Y and Z: Is there a difference between the youth who made therevolution and those who grew up during the democratic transition?
The report "Youth perceptions of politics in Tunisia: Giving the floor to millennials and Gen Z post-2011" is one of the first research studies on youth in Tunisia to explore the hypothesis of a difference between young people belonging toGeneration Y (now aged between 26 and 35), who lived through and participated in the 2011 Revolution, and Generation Z (now aged between 18 and 25), who grew up during the democratic transition. To test this hypothesis, twelve focus groups were organized in six localities:Kairouan, Hajeb Laayoune and Chebika in the governorate of Kairouan, Kasserine and Foussana in the governorate of Kasserine, as well as Medjez el Bab, in the governorate of Beja.
In each locality, two focus groups were organized: one with young people of generation Z and one with young people of generation Y. The study shows that the differences in political perception are quite significant when it comes to the Old Regime: Generation Z, which did not experience the BenAli rule, has a more positive perception of it than Generation Y. However, both generations agree on an overall negative assessment of the transition while recognizing the benefits of a democratic political life.
The report highlights the demands for the moralization of the public sphere emanating from young people from both generations, in a context where political life is shaken by daily scandals while economic and social issues are left on the sidelines. Access to health services, transportation, and a good education are all demands that transcend generational affiliation. In fact, it is the socio-political environment of young people that shapes their understanding of politics and determines their allegiance.The "youth" does not constitute a homogeneous or politically coherent group:generations, territorial affiliations, class affiliations, and values are all necessary segments to understand the way young Tunisians think 11 years after the revolution.
The two studies call on the Tunisian authorities to maintain and strengthen themechanisms for including young people in representative politics. On the front end, arevision of school curricula, particularly in civic education, should make democracy amore lasting cornerstone of political life in Tunisia.
Looking forward, the Tunisianauthorities must put in place mechanisms to assist young local elected andfamiliarize them with their functions. ARI further call for strengthening youth quotason electoral lists, making it mandatory for legislative elections and lifting the ban onrunning for president that weighs on those under the age of 35.
These reforms wouldsend a positive message to young people by removing the paternalistic principle thathas prevailed until now: the more important the election, the less welcome young people are.This research also allowed ARI to accompany young participants in the focus groupsin Kairouan and Foussana, and help them put forward one of the public policy problems they face as young people and to provide a concrete response. This materialized in Foussana through the organization in March 2022 of the Foussana theatre days, and, in Kairouan through the organization of an advocacy campaign reinforced by a qualitative study conducted by the youth on the state of transportation in the Kairouan governorate.
This support showed that involving young people in the early stages of a project, particularly through familiarization with the research methods used, allows for a better targeting of the problems encountered by young people. Initially, workshops were organized to better identifythe needs of youth and to find answers. Then, the youth themselves executed these projects with the assistance of the associations Houmetna and We Start, which allowed them to become more familiar with the execution of projects and advocacy of public policies.
Tools of influence: Drone proliferation in the Middle East and North Africa
By Federico Borsari, European Council on Foreign Relations, 27 May 2022
States in the region increasingly design and produce their own drones. The EU should respond by investing in European drone technology and creating a shared accountability regime for the use of such systems.
Across the globe, countries are rearming – and this is especially true in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the region has imported more military equipment in the past decade than all but one other (Asia and Oceania). But countries in the Middle East and North Africa are not only enthusiastic importers of weapons. They are also increasingly aiming to create indigenous defence capabilities and become exporters themselves. Their goals are to make inroads into the lucrative defence sector, to reduce the pressure on their own budgets by being able to buy domestically, and to support allies across the region with military hardware. This trend will have consequences not only for security in the region but also for Europe and how it deals with states that do not have the same ethical standards as European countries.
Turkey has led the way in such efforts, setting an example that states across the Middle East and North Africa are now emulating. Ankara has reaped the geopolitical benefits of the production and sale of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones), especially in terms of security and deterrence capabilities. For example, Turkey has used drones to protect its foreign policy interests in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean – and to extend its influence beyond the region, such as through the support for Azerbaijan, which helped the latter win its 2020 conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey was able to play this role because it spent years developing solid technological expertise and an industrial base. Other countries are now following suit. For instance, the United Arab Emirates is also developing its own drone industry and has deployed drones to support its allies and proxies in Libya, Yemen, and Ethiopia.
Local companies are now investing heavily in unmanned systems, especially unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), as well as loitering munitions (expendable missiles capable of staying airborne for some time until they identify a target and attack). These systems have performed remarkably well in war zones such as Libya and Syria. Turkey’s Baykar and Israel Aerospace Industries have risen through the ranks of global drone manufacturers. They have expanded their market presence thanks to innovative and relatively cheap systems such as the TB-2 UCAV and the Harpy family of loitering munitions, which have already seen extensive use in battle, including in Ukraine. The expendability, affordability, and effectiveness of the Turkish TB-2 have made it the best-selling drone in history. At least ten countries already use the system. And just as many are negotiating its acquisition, paving the way for Turkey’s ascent as a global drone power.
The region is poised to become one of the largest drone hubs in the world. Without the legal limitations and ethical constraints associated with the use of US- and other Western-made systems, states in the region will capitalise on indigenous drones and loitering munitions to reduce their dependence on Western products. The benefits for them include mitigating the risk of supply chain disruptions, increasing their room for manoeuvre when diplomacy fails to deliver, and establishing advantageous security partnerships with like-minded actors. Loitering munitions are drawing increasing attention because they are more cost-effective medium- and long-range precision strike systems.
For countries in the region, greater indigenous production can help alleviate the fiscal burden on national treasuries by reducing the need for expensive imports and can support national economies by creating highly skilled workforces. And states are throwing their weight behind this effort: in the past year alone, the region has hosted four prestigious defence exhibitions, including the largest one in the world, which recently concluded in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is aiming to increase its capacity to cover its own defence procurement needs from barely 2 per cent in 2018 to 50 per cent by 2030. The UAE has already developed a capacity to manufacture arms locally, mainly through its state-owned defence conglomerate, EDGE Group, which is now ranked in 23rd place in SIPRI’s top 100 global military and defence manufacturers list, with arms sales worth an estimated $4.8 billion in 2020. The UAE has become the world’s 18th-biggest arms exporter, ahead of South Africa and Brazil, mostly by selling weapons to customers such as Egypt, Jordan, and Algeria.
Smaller-scale attempts at indigenisation have also boosted Egypt’s and Qatar’s defence industries. At Egypt Defence Expo 2021, Cairo presented the Noot tactical UAV and the forthcoming Thebes-30, a combat drone designed by local firm Industrial Complex Engineering Robots. The same company also produces the EJune-30, a licensed copy of the Emirati-designed Yabhon Flash 20, underlining the strong relationship between Cairo and Abu Dhabi in defence cooperation. In Qatar, the local incubator for military technology, Barzan Holdings, is working on several unmanned systems, including a high-altitude long-endurance drone and unmanned ground vehicles – the latter of which is being produced as part of a joint venture with German defence giant Rheinmetall.
Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are the Middle Eastern states most active in bolstering their own drone fleets with indigenously made platforms. EDGE Group recently developed the Hunter-2 series of portable tactical UAVs and loitering munitions. These are easily deployable, can operate in swarms, and will complement the group’s drone portfolio – which includes the Reach-S combat model. EDGE Group is the first Arab company to develop swarming drones with artificial intelligence capabilities. Similarly, Saudi conglomerate INTRA Defence Technologies has unveiled its newest UCAV, the Samoom, which may be a promising solution for the Saudi military and adds to the country’s indigenous Saker UAV family. Both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh have so far relied on Chinese drones such as the Wing Loong I and II, but they could progressively shift towards domestic systems that are easier to maintain and integrate into their command-and-control structures.
Like Turkey and Israel, Iran is positioning itself as a major drone power in the region. Yet Iran’s approach to drone development is remarkably different from that of its neighbours. The country built up its vast drone fleet over many years mainly out of necessity, aiming to compensate for its old and decaying air force, which has been battered by decades of sanctions. Thanks to reverse-engineering and components smuggling, Iran is now able to deploy several types of combat drones and loitering munitions, some of which have beyond-line-of-sight communications and long-range-strike capabilities. These include the new Gaza UCAV, which is a reverse-engineered copy of the US-made MQ-9 Reaper. However, Iranian drones have remained largely on the margins of the global defence market. For example, Iran has exported an undisclosed number of Mohajer-6s to Ethiopia and has delivered other systems to regional allies such as the Syrian government, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen. Indeed, for Tehran, the market dimension of drones is of secondary importance to their role in strengthening national security and buoying the regime’s propaganda for both domestic consumption and external deterrence.
Meanwhile, Algeria and Morocco are also hotspots for drone proliferation. Fuelled by their long-standing geopolitical rivalry, the two countries have in recent years significantly strengthened their drone capabilities by acquiring foreign systems. These include Rabat’s purchase of the TB-2 and the Wing Loong I, as well as Algeria’s acquisition of several models of the Chinese CH family. Algeria’s and Morocco’s attempts at indigenisation have been on a smaller scale than those of many other countries in the region. But Morocco remains ambitious in this area: it recently signed a significant aviation deal with the Israel Aerospace Industries that is likely to cover UAV technology.
The proliferation of UCAVs throughout the Middle East and North Africa has not been accompanied by effective regulation of their use; their growth has led to a vast number of civilian casualties and violations of international humanitarian law in all conflicts in the region. This is taking place at a time when overall arms imports by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar have risen 27 per cent, 227 per cent, and 73 per cent respectively. These facts should prompt the international community, including the Europeans, to assume a leading role in ensuring the use of drones meets internationally recognised standards of oversight, transparency, and accountability. The European Union has a core interest in developing its own drone technology and preserving and expanding member states’ defence partnerships. However, the EU should also invest its political and diplomatic capital in devising a shared drone accountability regime designed to limit civilian casualties and to make the misuse of such systems intolerably costly.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.
By Raed Ben Maaouia, African Arguments, June 16, 2022
President Saied has been running the country unilaterally for almost a year. The July referendum will further strengthen his rule without resistance.
Those sincerely committed to the protection of global democratic norms must avoid the strategic error of ignoring the collapse of nascent democracies such as Tunisia. The birthplace of the Arab Spring, what happens there matters not just to the country itself, but to North Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.
Since the 2011 uprisings, Tunisia has largely been a beacon of hope for democratic aspirants across the region. While its neighbours have seen the reassertion of authoritarian rule or sunk into domestic turmoil, the smallest of the North African nations has witnessed fair elections, a free press, and the establishment of the Arab world’s most progressive constitution.
All this democratic progress, however, has been on a knife’s edge for the last year. On 25 July 2021, President Kais Saied declared a state of emergency following popular protests against the economic recession and the government’s poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Saied claimed his move sought to rectify Tunisia’s political path and a dysfunctional parliament. He proceeded to shut down all political life and crippled post-uprising institutions. He sacked the Prime Minister, froze and then dissolved parliament, shut down the Supreme Judicial Council, and seized control of the election commission.
Saied’s intervention initially enjoyed overwhelming support from a citizenry that had grown frustrated at the government. According to a July 2021 poll, 87% of people welcomed his measures. However, this mood has since changed. By January 2022, that support had nearly halved.
For almost a year now, President Saied has been ruling Tunisia unilaterally with no checks and balances on his power. Though he claims to uphold respect for democracy, human rights, and freedoms, there is no evidence that this is anything but lip service and an attempt to buy time while he consolidates his power grab. The reality is that there has been increasing legal prosecution of political opponents, whom Saied has labelled as corrupt or treasonous. The free media is being stifled, and military courts are being used to quell dissent.
Tunisia’s political strife has also exacerbated the crisis in the economy, which has been weakened further by the impact of the war in Ukraine on wheat supplies and commodity prices. In March, Fitch downgraded Tunisia’s sovereign debt to junk status. Some economists predict that without the $4 billion IMF loan Tunisia is eying, the nation could face a financial meltdown.
Saied is now proceeding with a referendum on a new constitution to be held on 25 July. He is pursuing this move despite strong pushback from the political opposition, leading academics, and the one-million-member-strong UGTT trade union, which initially backed the initiative. These groups have all refused to participate in a national dialogue to draft the new constitution. The UGTT has also called for a national public strike in June after the government refused to raise wages, a move by the state aimed at helping catalyse the IMF deal.
Trust between the presidency and opposition parties, national organisations and civil society has plummeted, exemplified by back-and-forth accusations of treason between opposing sides. Yet no substantive reforms, especially economic reforms, are possible in Tunisia without effective, inclusive, and continuous dialogue between the nation’s various political actors.
Protecting Tunisian democracy
It is imperative that national democratic forces in Tunisia continue to pressure President Saied to reinstate a system of checks and balances and ensure the participation of all main political factions in any national dialogue. They must condemn human rights violations and condition any type of cooperation on political accountability and the reinstatement of democratic standards, including in the state’s deals around military and economic aid and the proposed IMF loan.
Western democracies have a role to play too. They cannot watch passively as Tunisians are condemned to a life of dictatorship and all democratic stirrings in the Arab world are destroyed. The uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 was, and remains, a chance for Tunisia and its neighbours to democratise a region entrenched in authoritarianism. The West must make good on its promise to stand up everywhere for the democratic values it aims to promote.
Tunisia lacks true democratic leaders. Tunisian civil society is also isolated and short of experience and awareness of democratic principles. Donor organisations therefore have a responsibility to support civil society by focusing on projects that will help advance fundamental (non-superficial) democratic values and norms. This will empower Tunisia’s civil society to build the vision and mechanisms to guide a new generation of democratic believers.
The survival of Tunisia’s democracy is key to any hopes for democratic governance in the Arab world. The outcome of its political crisis could reverberate across the region and beyond for a long time.
Raed Ben Maaouia is the co-founder of Tunisia’s Social Accountability Association, and a member of Political Lab (Lab 117) Initiative.
Research Papers & Reports
The Worst Hacks and Breaches of 2022 So Far
By Lily Hay Newman, wired.com 04 July 2022
From cryptocurrency thefts to intrusions into telecom giants, state-backed attackers have had a field day in the year’s first half.
Whether the first six months of 2022 have felt interminable or fleeting—or both—massive hacks, data breaches, digital scams, and ransomware attacks continued apace throughout the first half of this complicated year. With the Covid-19 pandemic, economic instability, geopolitical unrest, and bitter human rights disputes grinding on around the world, cybersecurity vulnerabilities and digital attacks have proved to be thoroughly enmeshed in all aspects of life.
With another six months left in the year, though, there's more still to come. Here are the biggest digital security debacles that have played out so far.
For years, Russia has aggressively and recklessly mounted digital attacks against Ukraine, causing blackouts, attempting to skew elections, stealing data, and releasing destructive malware to rampage across the country—and the world. After invading Ukraine in February, though, the digital dynamic between the two countries has changed as Russia struggles to support a massive and costly kinetic war and Ukraine mounts resistance on every front it can think of. This has meant that while Russia has continued to pummel Ukrainian institutions and infrastructure with cyberattacks, Ukraine has also been hacking back with surprising success. Ukraine formed a volunteer “IT Army” at the beginning of the war, which has focused on mounting DDoS attacks and disruptive hacks against Russian institutions and services to cause as much chaos as possible. Hacktivists from around the world have also turned their attention—and digital firepower—toward the conflict. And as Ukraine launches other types of hacks against Russia, including attacks utilizing custom malware, Russia has suffered data breaches and service disruptions at an unprecedented scale.
Lapsus$ Group's Extortion Spree
The digital extortion gang Lapsus$ went on an extreme hacking bender in the first months of 2022. The group emerged in December and began stealing source code and other valuable data from increasingly prominent and sensitive companies—including Nvidia, Samsung, and Ubisoft—before leaking it in apparent extortion attempts. The spree reached its zenith in March when the group announced that it had breached and leaked portions of Microsoft Bing and Cortana source code and compromised a contractor with access to the internal systems of the ubiquitous authentication service Okta. The attackers, who appeared to be based in the United Kingdom and South America, largely relied on phishing attacks to gain access to targets’ systems. At the end of March, British police arrested seven people believed to have associations with the group and charged two at the beginning of April. Lapsus$ seemed to briefly continue to operate following the arrests but then became dormant.
Conti Cripples Costa Rica
In one of the most disruptive ransomware attacks to date, Russia-linked cybercrime gang Conti brought Costa Rica to a screeching halt in April—and the disruptions would last for months. The group's attack on the country's Ministry of Finance paralyzed Costa Rica's import/export businesses, causing losses of tens of millions of dollars a day. So serious was the attack that Costa Rica's president declared a “national emergency”—the first country to do so because of a ransomware attack—and one security expert described Conti's campaign as “unprecedented.” A second attack in late May, this one on the Costa Rican Social Security Fund, was attributed to the Conti-linked HIVE ransomware and caused widespread disruptions to the country's health care system. While Conti's attack on Costa Rica is historic, some believe that it was meant as a diversion while the gang attempts to rebrand to evade sanctions against Russia over its war with Ukraine.
Decentralized Finance Platform Hacks
As the cryptocurrency ecosystem has evolved, tools and utilities for storing, converting, and otherwise managing it have developed at breakneck speed. Such rapid expansion has come with its share of oversights and missteps, though. And cybercriminals have been eager to capitalize on these mistakes, frequently stealing vast troves of cryptocurrency worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. At the end of March, for example, North Korea's Lazarus Group memorably stole what at the time was $540 million worth of Ethereum and USDC stablecoin from the popular Ronin blockchain “bridge.” Meanwhile, in February, attackers exploited a flaw in the Wormhole bridge to grab what was then about $321 million worth of Wormhole's Ethereum variant. And in April, attackers targeted the stablecoin protocol Beanstalk, granting themselves a “flash loan” to steal about $182 million worth of cryptocurrency at the time.
Data Theft From Health Care Providers
Health care providers and hospitals have long been a favorite target of ransomware actors, who look to create maximum urgency to entice victims to pay up in the hopes of restoring their digital systems. But health care data breaches have also continued in 2022 as criminals pool data they can monetize through identity theft and other types of financial fraud. In June, the Massachusetts-based service provider Shields Health Care Group disclosed that it suffered a data breach throughout much of March impacting roughly 2 million people in the United States. The stolen data included names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and billing information, as well as medical information like diagnoses and medical record indicators. In Texas, patients of Baptist Health System and Resolute Health Hospital announced a similar breach in June that exposed similar data, including Social Security numbers and sensitive patient medical information. Both Kaiser Permanente and Yuma Regional Medical Center in Arizona also disclosed data breaches in June.
Chinese Hackers Breach Telecoms and More
At the beginning of June, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned that Chinese government-backed hackers had breached a number of sensitive victims worldwide, including “major telecommunications companies.” They did so, according to CISA, by targeting known router vulnerabilities and bugs in other network equipment, including those made by Cisco and Fortinet among other vendors. The warning did not identify any specific victims, but it hinted at alarm over the findings and a need for organizations to step up their digital defenses, especially when handling massive quantities of sensitive user data. “The advisory details the targeting and compromise of major telecommunications companies and network service providers,” CISA wrote. “Over the last few years, a series of high-severity vulnerabilities for network devices provided cyber actors with the ability to regularly exploit and gain access to vulnerable infrastructure devices. In addition, these devices are often overlooked.”
Separately, hackers likely conducting Chinese espionage breached News Corp in an intrusion that was discovered by the company on January 20. Attackers accessed journalists' emails and other documents as part of the breach. News Corp owns a number of high-profile news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and its parent, Dow Jones, the New York Post, and several publications in Australia.
Honorable Mention: California Concealed-Carry Permits
Just days after a consequential US Supreme Court decision at the end of June pertaining to concealed-carry permit laws, an unrelated data breach potentially exposed the information of everyone who applied for a concealed-carry permit in California between 2011 and 2021. The incident impacted data including names, ages, addresses, and license types. The breach occurred after a misconfiguration in the California Department of Justice 2022 Firearms Dashboard Portal exposed data that should not have been publicly accessible. "This unauthorized release of personal information is unacceptable and falls far short of my expectations for this department," state attorney general Rob Bonta said in a statement. "The California Department of Justice is entrusted to protect Californians and their data. We acknowledge the stress this may cause those individuals whose information was exposed. I am deeply disturbed and angered."
Scientists Are Trying to Grow Crops in the Dark
By Matt Reynolds, Wired.com, 04 July 2022
Powering plant growth with solar panels instead of photosynthesis could be a more efficient way of using the sun’s energy for food. But it’s not all good news.
We have a lot to thank photosynthesis for. Our entire existence, for a start. About 3 billion years ago, a group of microbes called cyanobacteria evolved a way to turn light and water into energy, releasing oxygen in the process. These microbes would eventually flood our atmosphere with oxygen—turning it from a toxic miasma of mostly nitrogen and carbon dioxide into the life-sustaining mix we have today. All of it—plants, humans, dogs, Netflix, ice cream—started with photosynthesis, more or less.
The same process is also right at the beginning of everything we eat. Plants use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to grow, and then humans either eat those plants directly or after they have become part of an animal, mushroom, or anything else we like to munch on. All of the energy that ends up in our bodies starts with sunlight captured by plants through photosynthesis. There’s just a tiny hitch in this system—plants are actually pretty bad at turning sunlight into growth. By some estimates, plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into new biomass at an efficiency as low as 1 percent.
Robert Jinkerson, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, looked at the lackluster efficiency of photosynthesis and saw an engineering problem. If we can squeeze more energy out of every square inch of sunlight, then we can reduce the overall amount of land we need to grow food. “Our ultimate goal is to transform the way that we think about how to produce crops and agriculture,” says Jinkerson. “If we can be more efficient with the area needed to produce the food needed for humanity, then we can turn agricultural lands back to natural lands.”
One way to do that might be to grow crops in the dark using electricity provided by solar panels, which are many times more efficient than plants at turning sunlight into energy. In a new scientific paper published in the journal Nature Food, Jinkerson and his colleagues describe using solar panels to power a process called electrocatalysis, which creates a liquid that algae, yeast, and plants can use to grow instead of sunlight.
The researchers used solar panels to run a machine that converts carbon dioxide, electricity, and water into acetate—a molecule that can be diluted in water and used to feed plants. They then fed this mixture to algae, yeast, mushrooms, and a selection of commonly grown plants, including cowpea, tomato, canola, and rice. The algae and yeast both grew pretty efficiently on the acetate mixture, which isn’t exactly surprising, as scientists already know that these species can eat acetate. What was more surprising was that the crop plants also consumed the acetate and grew, even though they were growing in complete darkness.
But before you shut away your tomato plants in a cupboard, a word of warning. Jinkerson and his colleagues only knew that the plants were eating the acetate because they dissolved them after they’d grown for a little while and analyzed them to see whether they contained any carbon molecules from acetate. But giving the plants enough acetate to grow on ended up proving toxic to them—so although plants can technically grow on acetate, they don’t exactly thrive on it.
This means that we’re a long way from being able to grow any common commercial crops in the dark. But this technology could be of interest for vertical farms, which already run up huge electricity bills on LED lights that power photosynthesis for their plants. Jinkerson thinks that if researchers can find a way to grow tomato plants that really thrive on acetate, it could be a much more energy-efficient way for vertical farms to divert electricity to acetate production instead of lighting.
But even if we could bring more tomato plants indoors, that wouldn’t necessarily free up much land to return to nature. The majority of agricultural land is used for pasture to graze animals or to grow feed for animals. A lot of the remaining land is used to grow commodity crops, such as wheat, soy, or corn, with only a relatively small amount of land used to grow fruits and vegetables. These commodity crops are extremely cheap to grow outside, so investing lots of time and money to grow them indoors doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Growing plants in the dark might be useful in places where energy and space are scarce—like on a spaceflight to Mars—but it’s not suitable for most crops on Earth. (Jinkerson’s project was also one of the winners of the first phase of NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge. For the next phase, the team will build a prototype food-growing device to share with the space agency.)
There are already lots of ways that we can use cropland more efficiently, points out Elizabete Carmo-Silva, a professor of crop physiology at Lancaster University in the UK. Reducing food waste, eating less meat, and burning fewer crops for biofuels all help us get more edible calories out of every hectare of land. And we shouldn’t write photosynthesis off yet, either.
“We have nothing else that provides oxygen and food at basically very little cost to us,” says Carmo-Silva. She’s currently working on a project to increase the photosynthetic efficiency of cowpea—an important crop in Africa and Asia. “If we really want to tackle the challenge of food security and have food security everywhere in the world, we need to address it with multiple solutions,” she says. Her team is exploring whether it’s possible to use breeding or gene-editing to make versions of cowpea that are 20 percent more efficient when it comes to photosynthesis.
Finding ways to improve photosynthesis rather than bypassing it altogether might end up having a bigger impact on the world, says Amanda Cavanagh, a plant scientist at the University of Essex in the UK. “For things like soybean or maize or wheat, our inefficient photosynthesis is likely still to be our best bet for realizing gains in those crops.”
But Jinkerson’s work also raises some tricky questions about the kinds of food people will accept. Much of the work on improving photosynthesis involves gene-editing plants, which is still a controversial technology in parts of the world—particularly in the EU. Which is more natural: a gene-edited plant, or one that has never seen a ray of sunlight? And if one day we manage to grow tomatoes in the darkness, Cavanagh says, would they still be as tasty as those grown in the open air? If Jinkerson’s prototype food-growing device works as planned, NASA astronauts might be the first to have an answer.
Paris/Rome - The global agrifood sector faces fundamental challenges over the coming decade, particularly the need to feed an ever-increasing population in a sustainable manner, the impacts of the climate crisis and the economic consequences and disruptions to food supply linked to the war in Ukraine, according to a report released today by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2022-2031 focuses on assessing the medium-term prospects for agricultural commodity markets. The findings of the report underscore the crucial role of additional public spending and private investment in production, information technology and infrastructure as well as human capital to raise agricultural productivity.
Prices of agricultural products have been driven upward by a host of factors, including the recovery in demand following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting supply and trade disruptions, poor weather in key suppliers, and rising production and transportation costs, which have been further exacerbated recently by uncertainties regarding agricultural exports from Ukraine and Russia, both key suppliers of cereals. Russia's role in fertilizer markets has also compounded already existing concerns about fertilizer prices and near-term productivity.
The report provides a short-term assessment of how the war may affect both global agricultural markets and food security. It underlines major risks to key commodity markets: equilibrium prices for wheat could be 19% above pre-conflict levels if Ukraine fully loses its capacity to export and 34% higher if in addition Russian exports are 50% of normal amounts.
A scenario simulating a severe export shortfall from Ukraine and Russia in 2022/23 and 2023/24, and assuming no global production response, suggests a further increase in the number of chronically undernourished people in the world following the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Without peace in Ukraine, food security challenges facing the world will continue to worsen, especially for the world’s poorest,” OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann said. "An immediate end of the war would be the best outcome for people in both Russia and Ukraine and for the many households around the world that are suffering from sharp price increases driven by the war.”
“These rising prices of food, fertilizer, feed and fuel, as well as tightening financial conditions are spreading human suffering across the world,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “An estimated 19 million more people could face chronic undernourishment globally in 2023, if the reduction of global food production and food supply from major exporting countries, including Russia and Ukraine, results in lower food availability hitting worldwide.”
Whilst addressing the immediate problems, the global community should not lose sight of the need to work towards achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the Outlook, global food consumption, which is the main use of agricultural commodities, is projected to increase by 1.4% annually over the next decade, and to be mainly driven by population growth. Most additional demand for food will continue to originate in low- and middle-income countries, while in high-income countries demand will be limited by slow population growth and a saturation in the per capita consumption of several food commodity groups. Diets in low-income countries, however, will likely remain largely based on staples and food consumption will not increase sufficiently to meet the Zero Hunger target by 2030.
Over the next decade, global agricultural production is projected to increase by 1.1% per year, with the additional output to be mainly produced in middle- and low-income countries. The Outlook assumes a wider access to inputs and shows that increased productivity-enhancing investment in technology, infrastructure and training will be critical drivers of agricultural growth. However, a prolonged increase in energy and agricultural input prices – such as fertilisers – will raise production costs and may constrain productivity and output growth in the coming years.
The Outlook highlights the significant contribution of agriculture to climate change. Direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture are projected to increase by 6% during the next decade, with livestock accounting for 90% of this increase. Agricultural emissions are, nonetheless, projected to grow at a lower rate than production, thanks to yield improvements and a reduction in the share of ruminant production, indicating a decline in the carbon intensity of agriculture. Greater efforts will be needed for the agricultural sector to effectively contribute to global reductions in GHG emissions, as set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change, including large-scale adoption of climate-smart production processes and technologies, especially in the livestock sector.
The Outlook provides an assessment of how potentially competing objectives of the agricultural sector can be achieved. Average agricultural productivity must increase by 28% over the next decade for the world to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 2) on Zero Hunger, while simultaneously keeping agricultural emissions on track to reach the Paris Agreement targets. This is more than triple the increase in productivity recorded in the last decade.
Ensuring well-functioning global trade and markets is essential for addressing both short- and medium-term challenges to food security. Globally, trade in the main agricultural commodities and processed products is projected to grow in line with production over the next decade. However, some regions are expected to export a growing share of their domestic production, while others are foreseen to import a growing share of their total consumption. This increasing interdependency between trading partners underscores the critical importance of a transparent, predictable and rules-based multilateral trading system.
For the full report, visit: https://www.agri-outlook.org/
COVID-19 drives global surge in use of digital payments
WASHINGTON - The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred financial inclusion – driving a large increase in digital payments amid the global expansion of formal financial services. This expansion created new economic opportunities, narrowing the gender gap in account ownership, and building resilience at the household level to better manage financial shocks, according to the Global Findex 2021 database.
As of 2021, 76% of adults globally now have an account at a bank, other financial institution, or with a mobile money provider, up from 68% in 2017 and 51% in 2011. Importantly, growth in account ownership was evenly distributed across many more countries. While in previous Findex surveys over the last decade much of the growth was concentrated in India and China, this year’s survey found that the percentage of account ownership increased by double digits in 34 countries since 2017.
The pandemic has also led to an increased use of digital payments. In low and middle-income economies (excluding China), over 40% of adults who made merchant in-store or online payments using a card, phone, or the internet did so for the first time since the start of the pandemic. The same was true for more than a third of adults in all low- and middle-income economies who paid a utility bill directly from a formal account. In India, more than 80 million adults made their first digital merchant payment after the start of the pandemic, while in China over 100 million adults did.
Two-thirds of adults worldwide now make or receive a digital payment, with the share in developing economies grew from 35% in 2014 to 57% in 2021. In developing economies, 71% have an account at a bank, other financial institution, or with a mobile money provider, up from 63% in 2017 and 42% in 2011. Mobile money accounts drove a huge increase in financial inclusion in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“The digital revolution has catalyzed increases in the access and use of financial services across the world, transforming ways in which people make and receive payments, borrow, and save,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass. “Creating an enabling policy environment, promoting the digitalization of payments, and further broadening access to formal accounts and financial services among women and the poor are some of the policy priorities to mitigate the reversals in development from the ongoing overlapping crises.”
For the first time since the Global Findex database was started in 2011, the survey found that the gender gap in account ownership has narrowed, helping women have more privacy, security, and control over their money. The gap narrowed from 7 to 4 percentage points globally and from 9 to 6 percentage points in low- and middle-income countries, since the last survey round in 2017.
About 36% of adults in developing economies now receive a wage or government payment, a payment for the sale of agricultural products, or a domestic remittance payment into an account. The data suggests that receiving a payment into an account instead of cash can kickstart people’s use of the formal financial system – when people receive digital payments, 83% used their accounts to also make digital payments. Almost two-thirds used their account for cash management, while about 40% used it to save – further growing the financial ecosystem.
Despite the advances, many adults around the world still lack a reliable source of emergency money. Only about half of adults in low- and middle-income economies said they could access extra money during an emergency with little or no difficulty, and they commonly turn to unreliable sources of finance, including family and friends.
“The world has a crucial opportunity to build a more inclusive and resilient economy and provide a gateway to prosperity for billions of people,” said Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the supporters of the Global Findex database. “By investing in digital public infrastructure and technologies for payment and ID systems and updating regulations to foster innovation and protect consumers, governments can build on the progress reported in the Findex and expand access to financial services for all who need them.”
In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the lack of an identity document remains an important barrier holding back mobile money account ownership for 30% of adults with no account suggesting an opportunity for investing in accessible and trusted identification systems. Over 80 million adults with no account still receive government payments in cash – digitalizing some of these payments could be cheaper and reduce corruption. Increasing account ownership and usage will require trust in financial service providers, confidence to use financial products, tailored product design, and a strong and enforced consumer protection framework.
The Global Findex database, which surveyed how people in 123 economies use financial services throughout 2021, is produced by the World Bank every three years in collaboration with Gallup, Inc.
Global Findex 2021 Regional Overviews
In East Asia and the Pacific, financial inclusion is a two-part story of what is happening in China versus the other economies of the region. In China, 89% of adults have an account, and 82% of adults used it to make digital merchant payments. In the rest of the region, 59% of adults have an account and 23% of adults made digital merchant payments—54% of which did so for the first time after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Double-digit increases in account ownership were achieved in Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand, while the gender gap across the region remains low, at 3 percentage points, but the gap between poor and rich adults is 10 percentage points.
In Europe and Central Asia, account ownership increased by 13 percentage points since 2017 to reach 78% of adults. Digital payments usage is robust, as about three-quarters of adults used an account to make or receive a digital payment. COVID-19 drove further usage for the 10% of adults who made a digital merchant payment for the first time during the pandemic. Digital technology could further increase account use for the 80 million banked adults that continued to make merchant payments only in cash, including 20 million banked adults in Russia and 19 million banked adults in Türkiye, the region’s two largest economies.
Latin America and the Caribbean saw an 18 percentage -point increase in account ownership since 2017, the largest of any developing world region, resulting in 73% of adults having an account. Digital payments play a key role, as 40% of adults paid a merchant digitally, including 14% of adults who did so for the first time during the pandemic. COVID-19 furthermore drove digital adoption for the 15% of adults who made their first utility bill payment directly from their account for the first time during the pandemic—more than twice the developing country average. Opportunities for even greater use of digital payments remain given that 150 million banked adults made merchant payments only in cash, including more than 50 million banked adults in Brazil and 16 million banked adults in Colombia.
The Middle East and North Africa region has made progress reducing the gender gap in account ownership from 17 percentage points in 2017 to 13 percentage points—42% of women now have an account compared to 54% of men. Opportunities abound to increase account ownership broadly by digitalizing payments currently made in cash, including payments for agricultural products and private sector wages (about 20 million adults with no account in the region received private sector wages in cash, including 10 million in the Arab Republic of Egypt). Shifting people to formal modes of savings is another opportunity given that about 14 million adults with no account in region—including 7 million women—saved using semiformal methods.
In South Asia, 68% of adults have an account, a share that has not changed since 2017, though there is wide variation across the region. In India and Sri Lanka, for example, 78% and 89% of adults, respectively, have an account. Account usage has grown, however, driven by digital payments, as 34% of adults used their account to make or receive a payment, up from 28% in 2017. Digital payments present an opportunity to increase both account ownership and usage, given the continued dominance of cash—even among account owners—to make merchant payments.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile money adoption continued to rise, such that 33% of adults now have a mobile money account—a share three times larger than the 10% global average. Although mobile money services were originally designed to allow people to send remittances to friends and family living elsewhere within the country, adoption and usage have spread beyond those origins, such that 3-out-of-4 mobile account owners in 2021 made or received at least one payment that was not person-to-person and 15% of adults used their mobile money account to save. Opportunities to increase account ownership in the region include digitalizing cash payments for the 65 million adults with no account receiving payments for agricultural products, and expanding mobile phone ownership, as lack of a phone is cited as a barrier to mobile money account adoption. Adults in the region worry more about paying school fees than adults in other regions, suggesting opportunities for policy or products to enable education-oriented savings.
To download the report The Global Findex Database 2021, visit: https://www.worldbank.org/en/publication/globalfindex
Russia’s narratives about its invasion of Ukraine are lingering in Africa
By Mary Blankenship and Aloysius Uche Ordu, Brookings, June 27, 2022
Through social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube, many around the world have been following the unfolding havoc wreaked on Ukraine by Russia. Ukrainians have been able to effectively utilize these platforms to show the
atrocities of war in real time, raise funds, and rally support from the international community, but face challenges posed by Russia’s attempts to obscure facts through disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda.
In fact, these campaigns serve to create divisions, sow distrust, and pivot the conversation to other issues that cloud judgement and weaken the collective response of Ukrainian allies. Notably, any delay in response might have devastating consequences, as Ukraine is in dire need of everything from weapons and medical supplies to political and moral support.
The information spaces in Africa and other regions of the Global South like India and China have been heavily targeted by Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns in recent months and years. In the case of Africa at this moment, Russia’s objectives are not only to justify its invasion of Ukraine, but to sway African countries to support Russia’s actions and secure Russia’s influence over the region, especially as the country becomes increasingly isolated from the United States and Europe.
Africa has economic and political ties with both Russia and the European Union and seems to be caught in the middle of this conflict as demonstrated by the divided African vote for the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war and Russian control of Ukrainian land and sea exacerbate energy, fertilizer, and food insecurities within the African continent. At the same time, Europe’s pivot away from Russian imports of gas and oil serve as an opportunity for African nations to substitute those supplies and generate much-needed revenue.
Given the importance of Africa’s partnership and cooperation with Ukraine and the EU, it is crucial to track the pervasiveness of Russian narratives and online disinformation that aim to dissuade such coalescence. We can begin to peer through the fog of information pollution by analyzing Twitter data of users in Africa or discussing Africa in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war to gain insights into which Russian narratives and disinformation topics are most widely spread, how they evolve over time, and who has the most input in the conversation.
For this two-part series, we analyzed over 2.5 million of such tweets between February 14 to June 9, 2022 (nonconsecutive) that discuss Ukraine and/or Russia. In this first part of the series, we examine the broader Russian narratives that continue to proliferate throughout the African continent. In the second part, we will focus on specific disinformation topics resulting from Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine (see the bottom of this blog for a note on our methodology).
Russian narratives exploit existing tensions and grievances
Sentiments in Africa concerning the crisis vary dramatically in the tweets. While many Africans stood (and continue to stand) in solidarity with Ukraine, a significant portion of the relevant discussions trending online initially focused on African students fleeing Ukraine and the racism they faced.
In the first two weeks of the war (through March 9), the most-tweeted Russian narrative (over 178,000 tweets) concerning the war claim that all Ukrainians and Europeans—but not Russians—are racist. For example, some of these tweets accuse the EU of instructing Ukraine not to let African students escape. Other narratives include more general anti-West rhetoric. Many of these tweets allude to past conflicts, particularly in Libya and Afghanistan, and how the world ignored conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Other tweets go to a somewhat more extreme direction, calling the EU and U.S. “economic bandits” or stating that Russia does not have a history of slavery and colonialism while Europe does (spoiler alert: Russia has a long history of subjugation and imperialism). Another popular claim is that the war would have been avoided if NATO met Russia’s security concerns, even though Vladimir Putin made it clear in the past and more recently that his goal is to return to an imperial Russia.
Over 105,000 tweets employ “ whataboutism,” where users avert the conversation to other topics, disregard the crisis, reject criticism of Russia’s actions and political influence, or proclaim hypocrisy. These tweets often discuss conflicts going on in other parts of the world—particularly in Yemen, Syria, and Ethiopia—or how domestic issues in countries like Nigeria are far more dire than in Ukraine. The general sentiment is that “ Ukrainian lives are worth more than others.” Certain tweets specifically mention the blocked humanitarian aid to the Tigray region and the emergency UN General Assembly meeting that was called upon for the war in Ukraine, but not for other wars and conflicts.
Tweets employing whataboutism are growing
As the war continued through the beginning of June, the focus on racism decreased substantially, with 17,000 tweets discussing the racism fleeing African students faced. Over 122,000 tweets contain general anti-West rhetoric—with some users acknowledging that the security concerns that Russia is using to justify the invasion are part of “Putin’s propaganda,” but that Western media has pushed its own propaganda in cases like Ethiopia as well as in conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan. By far, whataboutism is now the most popular strategy used within the discussions with over 198,000 tweets. A significant number of these tweets also focus on the weaponization of food supplies and how the attention remains on Ukraine while Africans face daily food shortages that will only intensify. Those tweets focus on Tigray region of Ethiopia and the conflict in Somalia, highlighting selective outrage or mobilization of the international community and media (e.g., chiding users with a Ukrainian flag emoji in their profiles to react with the same intensity to crises in Africa).
Beyond text, hashtags and emojis serve as powerful tools for expressing opinions and emotions to events. Further analysis of hashtags used in tweets discussing racism prominently feature #africansinukraine, #racisteu, and #blacklivesmatter. Hashtag usage in tweets with more general anti-West rhetoric feature hashtags like #nato and #eu but also others like #istandwithputin, #istandwithrussia, #hypocrisy, and #abolishnato. The hashtag usage of whataboutism tweets feature #ethiopia, #tigraygenocide, #somalia, #freemazinnamdikanu, #biafrareferendum, and many other hashtags concerning issues that do not relate to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The following and more can be seen in Figure 1 below, which shows the top 200 hashtags used in the 2.5 million tweet collection examined.
Who drives the discussion?
Since retweets comprise the majority of content on Twitter about Ukraine, one way to examine who steers the conversation is by looking at the top 100 most retweeted accounts. In the first two weeks of the invasion, general users and activists comprised the largest share of the top retweeted accounts across all three of the narratives—media outlets and journalists (mostly independent) followed.
State-affiliated Russia Today was among the most retweeted platforms for tweets with whataboutism and anti-West rhetoric, both in the beginning of the invasion and more recently. Russian government accounts, like the Russian Embassy of South Africa and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also play prominent roles in these discussions.
Notably, February 2022 (specifically the first two weeks of the war) saw the largest number of newly created accounts in tweets and retweets generated in that time period—a 190 percent increase compared to the average new accounts per month in the previous year (Jan 2021-Jan 2022). The greatest number of individual accounts made in a single day occurred on February 24, evidently the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. Such spikes in new accounts are seen in other studies, which have been suspected to be bot networks amplifying Russian-affiliated tweets.
The continuing perpetuation of these narratives demonstrate why we must pay close attention to the sentiments, rightly or wrongly, that African users on these online platforms hold. While these narratives take the focus away from the war in Ukraine, they contain legitimate concerns of food insecurity and uncomfortable truths, like the selective outrage of the West that undermines partnerships with African nations. The disinformation topics to be discussed in the following post are far less grounded in reality and contain everything from Nazis to bioweapons to complete confidence that the war in Ukraine is … you guessed it, a staged cover-up for Hunter Biden.
Note on methodology: Over 60 million tweets were compiled using an open-source command line tool known as Twarc, which archives tweets that contain a specific qualifying term—in this case, any tweet containing the word or hashtag “ukraine” “ukrainian” “russia” “russian,” and their variations, from February 14 to March 14, and April 26 to June 9, 2022. Then, a subcollection was made of users who specified they were in Africa using the self-identified “location” in the user’s profile or discussed Africa within the text of a tweet.
The then-smaller collection of 2.5 million tweets was sorted; tweets corresponding to a specific narrative were grouped together into “clusters.” Tweets that did not fit into a topic were dropped for the purposes of this analysis. Each tweet contains more than 150 different data variables, but for the analysis shown here, we focus on the time when the tweets was created, location of the user, when the account of the user was created, the user’s bio, the full text of the tweet or retweet, and who originally generated the tweet. Hashtag and emoji usage were extracted from the full text of the tweet, the emojis were converted from Unicode to their written-out names, and the hashtags were formatted to account for inconsistencies in spelling and capitalization.
A “Deal with the Devil” in the Heart of the Great Lakes
International Crisis Group, 29 June 2022
Cyclic violence has raged in the eastern DRC for almost 30 years. Crisis Group experts Onesphore Sematumba and Nicolas Delaunay visited Beni, in North Kivu, shortly after Uganda launched a military operation against the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist insurgency based in the region.
Onesphore Sematumba (O.S.)
Scattered laughter breaks through the patter of Congolese rumba at Inbox, a restaurant in the centre of Beni, a major town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu province. I make some small talk, too, amid the hubbub, but then the conversation turns serious. The man I’m speaking to, a member of the local administration and a long-time contact of mine, looks down at the plastic table between us, contemplates his beer and grimaces lightly. I have just asked him a “ticklish” question.
The date is 13 December 2021. For the last fortnight, and with Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi’s approval, the Ugandan army has deployed to the countryside around Beni to fight the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist militia originally from Uganda but based in the DRC’s east for many years.
The Ugandan army’s intervention is a direct response to a triple bombing on 16 November 2021 in Uganda’s capital Kampala, which was attributed to the ADF. Uganda may also be looking to secure its economic interests in Congo – notably the construction of a road that will eventually link Ugandan border towns to Beni, Butembo and Goma in North Kivu, which should boost trade between the two countries. Uganda strengthened its deployment from 1,700 to more than 4,000 troops in the first few months, extending their range to the northern province of Ituri this past February. For Kinshasa, its neighbour’s military support is a boon. The “rapid and robust” response to insecurity in the country’s east that Tshisekedi promised when he assumed office in January 2019 has so far yielded mixed results.
My colleague Nicolas and I are in Beni to take the temperature of this town, which counts over 350,000 inhabitants, and to peek underneath the Congolese and Ugandan leaders’ positive portrayals of the military collaboration. We want to know what the people of Beni think about the Ugandan presence in their region. This is the question that now “tickles” my companion at Inbox.
Despite the rosy projections in Kinshasa and Kampala, the Ugandan deployment in the eastern DRC is far from straightforward. Uganda has a fraught history with North Kivu and, farther north, Ituri. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Ugandan armed forces occupied large parts of these two provinces, engaging in looting, murder and rape, and leaving painful memories among the people. On 9 February, the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest judicial body, ordered Uganda to pay $325 million to the DRC in damages.
I expected Beni’s residents to be angry that Ugandan soldiers were coming back, but I found much milder reactions. “It takes what it takes”, says a man Nicolas and I meet on the street. A young civil society representative later adds: “I hope the Ugandans will help us”. Another interlocutor, a woman of local prominence, replies with another question: “And why not?”
Do the people of Beni have short memories? I share my astonishment with my companion at the restaurant. He pauses for a moment, then gives me a determined look: “You know, Onesphore, a desperate situation calls for desperate measures. And if we have to make a deal with the devil to defeat the ADF, so be it”.
I’m taken aback by his response, but then it starts to make sense. Perhaps naïvely, I had forgotten for a moment that for the past three decades, we have been powerless to quell the violence in the eastern DRC. My contact has reminded me of all that the people of this region have suffered for so long – the death and destruction that has made them so disillusioned with the Congolese government and army that they’ve become fatalistic. It does not matter where the help comes from, as long as it comes.
Nicolas Delaunay (N.D.)
The town of Beni (not to be confused with the Beni territory that surrounds it) is at the heart of a zone in which several armed groups, including the ADF, operate. The safest way to get there is by air. Onesphore has often driven to Beni, in the province’s grand nord, from Goma, the economic and administrative capital of North Kivu, but the road is difficult and dangerous. Just 10km north of Goma, the tarmac disappears, giving way to 340km of poorly maintained dirt road that turns into a muddy rut when the rains come.
Travelling on the slippery, bumpy track is a minor inconvenience, however, compared to the other dangers along this vital route for the region’s economy. For years, armed groups have been extorting, racketeering, kidnapping and killing along this narrow road surrounded by a lush forest, an ideal setting for ambushes. Since 2016, provincial authorities have established a military escort system on a long stretch of the road, but with mixed results. It was on this road, some 20km north of Goma and on the edge of the Virunga National Park, that Luca Attanasio, the Italian ambassador to the DRC, was shot dead on 22 January 2021, when the UN World Food Programme convoy in which he was riding was attacked.
So it is on a flight organised by MONUSCO, the UN mission in the DRC, that we travel to Beni to carry out our research and document it in pictures. As we near our destination, the plane window lets us glimpse a patch of reddish earth, laying in the middle of a dense thicket of green.
Over the years, Beni has often been spared the worst of the various armed groups’ depredations. Its city centre is bustling. Motorcycle taxis and trucks rumble by the stalls set up along the main road, which are overloaded with clothing, palm oil and bananas. Sitting on plastic chairs under parasols, money changers swap Congolese francs for U.S. dollars and vice versa, while loudspeakers inform passengers of arriving buses.
Our sense of normality is short-lived, however, as signs of the 30 years of violence that have marked the eastern DRC abound. Alongside the back-and-forth of motorbikes and trucks is a constant stream of Congolese army pick-ups, mounted with guns, and UN peacekeeper armoured vehicles. Here and there, we see graffiti proclaiming: “No to violence!” Other scrawls call for the departure of MONUSCO, which some consider too passive.
Cocoa beans lie drying on large tarpaulins, their powerful smell another reminder of the pervasive insecurity. Cocoa, which transits mainly through Uganda before being exported outside the African continent for processing, is an integral part of the war economy that has developed around the Great Lakes region’s natural resources. “There is gold in Bunia, coltan in Masisi, cassiterite in Walikale, and then there is cocoa in and around Beni”, says Christophe, a farmer who used to grow the plant in Mbau, north of Beni, before armed groups forced him out of his fields. “Unfortunately, the same thing often happens”, he explains. “We work hard to grow cocoa and then the ADF come and take over our crops at harvest time”. “Whenever we produce a lot of cocoa, the massacres increase”, adds a woman farmer we meet in Kipriani, a neighbourhood in northern Beni.
With Beni the closest thing to a safe haven – here, a very relative term – in the area where the ADF operate, thousands of internally displaced people (IDP) have found refuge there. They often live with family members, friends or acquaintances, as there is no IDP camp in the town. “My three uncles and three aunts were killed in the same house in 2015. The bandits cut them to pieces”, recalls Divine, a 25-year-old woman who survived a massacre. “It was the ADF. They attacked my village a few weeks ago”, murmurs a young man we meet in the dark corridor of a school a few steps from the town hall, his arm carefully wrapped in a sling. “A blow from a machete... but it’s better now.”
The day after we arrive, as if to confirm what everyone already knows, the local media headline a deadly ADF attack near the town of Mangina, about 25km west of Beni.
The daily violence and displacement takes a profound toll on people we meet here in Beni; they feel suffocated under its weight. Aside from the brutality of the massacres they described, what I find striking is the difficulty they have in making medium- or long-term plans: they can do no more than live from day to day. It is as if an entire population is forbidding itself to dream or to envision a future that might be snatched away at any moment by a bullet or a machete’s edge.
For the consequences of insecurity have been vicious. Between 2018 and 2020, the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri experienced the second-largest Ebola outbreak in history, resulting in over 2,200 deaths. At the time, a journalist friend of mine returned deeply affected by what he had seen and heard in North Kivu, where the violence was hindering the health officials’ efforts to respond to this deadly virus. “A blow that worsens the effects of another”, as he put it.
Onesphore, who was born in the eastern DRC, sums up the fragility of life here with his usual sense of humour. “We have a saying here: ‘Life expectancy is 24 hours, renewable each day’”.
Violence in the eastern DRC is an extremely complex cocktail, and its main victim is the civilian population. Since the 1990s, armed groups have come and gone in this resource-rich region. Most of these groups, those commonly known as Mai-Mai, consider themselves defenders of their communities in a competition for political or customary power, land resources or access to infrastructure. Add the failings of the Congolese state in providing basic services, the proven links between some politicians and local militias, and the lack of socio-economic opportunity, and you have ideal conditions for the recruitment of young militiamen.
Other sources of violence lie in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, the DRC’s neighbours to the east. Some armed groups, such as the ADF, originated there before retreating to the lawless zones in the eastern DRC – and operating there. But the regional nature of this insecurity goes further: the deep rivalries among these three neighbouring countries – manifested mainly in competition over the DRC’s mineral resources – also fuel violence, while impeding regional and international diplomacy. All three countries have intervened militarily in the eastern DRC in the past. While, officially, they were seeking to thwart rebellions hostile to their governments, they were also waging proxy wars by supporting rebel groups opposed to their rivals.
The human toll of these cycles of violence is extremely high. Despite some controversy over the method of calculation, the most common estimates hold that armed conflict in the eastern DRC and the related humanitarian crises have resulted in some 6 million deaths since 1998.
When he came to power in January 2019, President Tshisekedi said a top priority was to tackle insecurity in the eastern DRC. After two years with no tangible results, he enacted two key measures. First, in May 2021, he declared a state of siege in North Kivu and Ituri, the two provinces most affected by the violence. Then, from 30 November 2021, he agreed to military cooperation with Uganda.
These two measures have something in common: they illustrate the Congolese authorities’ tendency to favour a military response to insecurity in the east, to the detriment of measures that could resolve land disputes, give youth better economic prospects, prosecute politicians that have ties to armed groups, or build effective and peaceful regional diplomacy.
As a Congolese citizen, I tell myself that, at least, the Congolese authorities have not abandoned the fight to bring security to my region, despite the endless cycles of violence. But the realism imposed by my research into these conflicts’ causes leads me to harsher judgment of our leaders and their stubborn belief that someday they will achieve peace mostly through force of arms. While force has its uses, its victories will remain inconsequential until they are accompanied by measures that get at the root of the problem.
After authorities established the state of siege, army and police officers replaced governors and mayors in Ituri and North Kivu. Residents greeted this measure with the same mix of enthusiasm and resignation that attended the Ugandan soldiers’ arrival. When I visited the town of Bukavu in South Kivu in May 2020, some inhabitants even said they felt jealous that the government had not declared a state of siege in their province, too. Just a few months later, however, this exceptional legal measure had failed to stop massacres in North Kivu and Ituri, and these same people no longer asked for it to be applied where they lived.
The “pooling” of Congolese and Ugandan forces, as it was described by Kinshasa, initially involved a Ugandan military deployment between Beni and the border. This deployment has since been extended to Ituri. The term “pooling” is misleading: in reality, the Ugandan and Congolese troops conduct their operations in parallel. They keep each other informed of their respective actions but do not fight in mixed units. For the time being, their operations have seen only limited success. Several ADF camps have indeed been taken, hostages have been released, weapons seized and rebels arrested. The epicentre of the ADF attacks has even shifted slightly to the north. But the massacres go on.
Moreover, the ADF seem to have made a point of reminding everyone of their striking power, despite the military pressure they face. On 25 December 2021, the day after the capture of Kambi Ya Yua, one of the group’s main camps, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a Beni restaurant crowded with customers celebrating Christmas. At least eight people were killed in the attack. That restaurant was Inbox, where I have met with contacts a dozen times.
To top it all off, the Ugandan operations on Congolese territory – which both countries’ armies extended for two months on 1 June – could pave the way for a dangerous proliferation of uncoordinated, and even competing, foreign interventions in the eastern DRC. Since Kampala received authorisation to deploy its forces, the Burundian army has entered South Kivu to hunt down rebels from the Burundian RED-Tabara group. Last February, Rwandan President Paul Kagame raised the possibility of sending his country’s troops to the DRC to fight the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, FDLR), a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia that massacred much of the Tutsi minority and many moderate Hutu during the 1994 genocide. Kagame justified his talk of intervention with allegations of links between the FDLR and the ADF. More recently, he has accused the Congolese army of working with the FDLR to fight another militia, the March 23 Movement (M23).
As I was saying: a complex cocktail...
We sit in the town hall’s waiting room under the gaze of Félix Tshisekedi, whose portrait hangs on the wall. We are patiently waiting for the police colonel who, by the terms of the state of siege, is standing in for the mayor. Silence reigns inside the building, occasionally interrupted by the clatter of boots as soldiers and police officers come in, and the echoes of a distant market street.
A police officer inspects our papers, including the document from the information ministry authorising us to film and take photos. “That’s a nice bit of paper you’ve got, but it’s not the right one. You should have gone to the defence ministry, not information. We’re under a state of siege here, remember?”
Two days later, after several meetings with the mayor, his councillors and the intelligence services, it seems that our papers are in order after all.
One of our contacts gives us some perspective on the situation when we meet one evening in our hotel bar: “It’s their way of reminding you that they’re in charge during the state of siege”. We tell him how surprised we are to see Beni’s town hall so quiet. As Onesphore remembers it, the building used to swarm with visitors on administrative errands or seeking a favour from the mayor. “People are suspicious now. They don’t trust the police or the army”, he explains. “That’s why there’s no one there”.
Indeed, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or FARDC, are also a piece of the puzzle of violence in the east. The population, the UN, diplomats and human rights organisations often accuse the military of collaboration or even complicity with armed groups operating in their area. These links develop around activities such as mining or running illegal checkpoints. UN investigators and human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have also accused the Congolese armed forces of taking advantage of the region’s instability to carry out extortion, murder and rape of their own.
“I choose peace, I support the FARDC”. The faded billboard at the northern entrance to Beni does not fool anyone. Local wits even say its appearance – old and dilapidated – reflects the actual state of relations between the population and the army.
The broken ties between the eastern Congolese and the security forces – and authorities more broadly – explain the guarded optimism we found in Beni regarding military cooperation with Uganda. In the end, though, even this faint hope for progress was dashed.
Seeing the reaction of Beni’s inhabitants, I feel I recognise a phenomenon that I have unfortunately observed many times in the eastern DRC. I call it “the transfer of expectations”: the Congolese are so tired of their army and government’s ineffectiveness that they no longer expect much from them, preferring to place their trust in foreign actors. But if these actors, too, let them down, then they will hold those “venus d’ailleurs” to account.
On 20 November 2012, the M23, a Congolese rebel movement backed by Rwanda and Uganda, attacked Goma, the town in which I have lived for 32 years. After putting up weak resistance in the northern part of city, the Congolese army retreated to Minova, a town 50km to the west. Like thousands of other Goma residents who crowded along the roads, I watched in stupefaction as the columns of tanks and soldiers moved westward, leaving the city at the rebels’ mercy. “This is a politicised war”, some soldiers said to justify their departure when questioned. They were referring to the supposed links between the rebels and certain politicians or officers, which apparently dissuaded front-line troops from fighting the M23. And yet the next day, when several hundred young people demonstrated against this “strategic withdrawal”, they gathered in front of the UN base in Goma. They demanded explanations from the Uruguayan peacekeepers, not from the fleeing Congolese leaders and soldiers.
The population’s hostility toward MONUSCO is also understandable. The Congolese people see soldiers marching through their streets who are better armed and trained than the FARDC, but who carry out few military operations (there are exceptions, such as the Force Intervention Brigade that was created in 2013 after the M23 took Goma). Anger at MONUSCO’s perceived indifference is fermenting in the streets of Butembo, Beni and Goma. Young people from citizens’ movements and pressure groups have mounted demonstrations against MONUSCO, even blocking the passage of its convoys or pelting them with stones. In response, MONUSCO tirelessly repeats that the population’s security is first and foremost the responsibility of the Congolese defence and security forces. The peacekeepers can support the Congolese forces, the UN mission says, but cannot replace them.
Does “the transfer of expectations” onto foreign forces mean that Congolese have definitively turned their backs on their leaders? No, as some events show.
The Beni town hall, where we met the mayor, is brand new. It was inaugurated barely a year ago to replace the old town hall, which was burnt down in November 2019 by demonstrators protesting the authorities’ failure to end violence. Of course, I would never condone demonstrations that take such a turn for the worse. But I tell myself that if Congolese still take their frustrations out on the government from time to time, it means that they have not completely given up hope that the authorities will one day manage to mitigate their problems. And that is as it should be, because while external actors can help in many ways, it is up to the Congolese to build peace if they want it to last.
Until that day comes, life in the eastern DRC continues to unfold to the rhythm of various cycles: hope and despair; bursts and lulls of violence; ill-conceived negotiations that end in failure; elections that give rise to new violence; regional tensions that heat up and cool down. And so on.
Although the ADF was the centre of attention when we visited Beni in December, another rebel group is now making waves in North Kivu. The M23, which retreated in 2013 shortly after it captured Goma, resurfaced at the end of 2021 in Rutshuru, a territory about 100km north of Goma and bordering Uganda and Rwanda. Thought to be moribund, the group caught the military authorities off guard. Since November 2021, it has carried out numerous attacks on the Congolese army, forcing civilians to flee their homes. On 13 June, the M23 even took control of the Bunagana post on the DRC-Uganda border. At the same time, diplomatic tensions have intensified in recent months, with Kinshasa accusing Kigali of supporting the M23, while Kigali accuses the FARDC of cooperating with the FDLR in fighting the M23.
These cycles of which Onesphore speaks, and the eastern DRC’s inability to break out of them, come up in every encounter, in every conversation we have during our research in Beni.
On the last day of our visit, this research takes us along a road in the city’s south, where every passing truck, car or motorbike raises clouds of dust, irritating the eyes and lungs. Leaning against the counter of his shop, a dark and cramped room of a few square metres on the ground floor of a concrete building, Ibrahim recounts how, a few years ago, at the age of 17, he joined a Mai-Mai group.
With no vocational prospects, and appalled by the proliferation of violence, he thought – naïvely, by his own admission – that he could help change things by joining a militia. “I saw the mess this country was in and I felt disappointed”, says Ibrahim, who claims to have given up fighting for good now that he has a job selling drinks.
What about the grievances that drove him to join an armed group? “Well, the situation is still the same”. He says it timidly, but his judgment brooks no appeal. He points out that he found his job through a Congolese NGO that helps rebels demobilise and then, in a second phase, rebuild their lives, so as not to take up arms again. Indeed, while not unusual, Ibrahim’s reintegration is the exception rather than the rule. The Congolese government launched a new disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program in the east in March. It remains to be seen whether it will be more successful than previous ones, whose effectiveness has been minimal.
“The DDR programs are neither well-designed nor well-funded, so obviously many demobilised young people return to the bush sooner or later”, says Noëlla Muliwavyo, a Beni civil society leader and member of the African Association for Human Rights, a Congolese NGO. “Take, for example, the way we treat the communities in which we want to reintegrate ex-rebels. We don’t prepare the communities for it. We don’t communicate with them. We don’t give them any resources. And then, overnight, without any explanation, we bring a former rebel into a community that has suffered a great deal from violence, that has seen many of its members killed. How can you expect this to work? How can you expect this community to welcome that person?”
In general, our contacts in Beni deplore the fact that the state is not addressing the root causes of the eastern DRC’s conflicts, the factors that drive so many young people to take up arms. As long as the state does not provide adequate responses to land disputes between communities, to ties between armed groups and politicians, or to the lack of economic opportunities, rebel groups and militias will continue to find willing young recruits. At the same time, some of the people we speak to regret that the Great Lakes countries are unable to end the dangerous power struggles that have fuelled instability in the eastern DRC for too long.
Onesphore had warned me before I arrived in the DRC. The numerous issues linked to insecurity in his country’s east are completely intertwined, forming a tapestry whose complexity is sometimes difficult to grasp. And yet I leave Beni convinced that although the violence in the eastern Congo has brought the region to its knees, it will not yield.
Before boarding the plane back to Goma, I ask Onesphore if our life expectancy has been prolonged by another 24 hours. In a burst of laughter, he replies: “One day, we will do better than 24 hours”. In the meantime, he says: “You must understand that humour is our form of resilience. It is our way of making an unbearable daily reality a tiny bit bearable, in the hope that one day, things will be better”.
Onesphore Sematumba: Analyst, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi
Nicolas Delaunay: Senior Communications Officer for Africa
Africa’s middle class struggles to keep pace with rising inflation
By Lesley Wroughton and Borso Tall, The Washington Post, June 14, 2022
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — This was meant to be the time when Jayde Koen and her generation could finally settle into a better life.
A mixed-race South African in Cape Town, she was 9 years old in 1994 when the country’s first democratic election ended White minority rule. Koen was the first in her family to graduate from college, then become a lawyer. She married and worked hard with her husband to build a middle-class life — three kids, a house, two cars.
Today her family is struggling to keep up. The covid-19 pandemic that first hammered South Africa in early 2020 brought hard lockdowns, record unemployment and economic dysfunction as global supply chains shut down. Russia’s war in Ukraine this year has led to spikes in fuel prices and the cost of everyday commodities such as wheat, barley and sunflower oil.
Stories like Koen’s are happening throughout the world, but the crisis is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where inflation is the highest it has been since the 2008 global financial crisis, according to the International Monetary Fund. Families already on the brink are slipping further into poverty, while many who had joined the region’s fast-growing middle class are falling behind.
The savings Koen built slowly over the years are dwindling. Her husband, who works in the auto industry, hasn’t had a wage increase since the start of the pandemic. Earnings from his second job repairing cars on weekends once paid for family outings and vacations; now they are spent on groceries.
“We’re just pushing through,” Koen said, “hoping we can breathe again soon.”
She is cooking less to conserve power — with electricity costs up 14 percent compared with last year — and trying to make enough food each time to last several days. With gas prices in South Africa up nearly 30 percent year over year, Koen has traded in her vehicle for a smaller fuel-efficient model and travels outside rush hour twice a week when she goes to the office.
At the dawn of the 21st century, Africans were seeing unprecedented upward mobility. By 2011, the African Development Bank estimated that the continent’s middle class had tripled over three decades to 313 million people, or more than 34 percent of the population at the time. Years of strong economic growth allowed many people to transition away from traditional agriculture to more stable, salaried jobs.
From South Africa to West Africa, that stability is now threatened by the lingering impacts of a global health crisis and galloping inflation.
Senegal was forced to close its borders during the pandemic and suffered a massive loss of tourism revenue. Exploration on new oil and gas fields, which was supposed to help power the country’s economic future, was delayed.
In the capital of Dakar, Aminata Gueye, 34, a single mother of two young sons, is unable to make ends meet despite having a good job in the private sector.
“Things are getting tougher financially,” said Gueye, who works as an executive assistant at a company that builds houses. “My parents help me at the end of every month in spite of my monthly pay, otherwise we just can’t make it.”
Gueye struggles to afford the cornflakes and juice her children have come to expect at breakfast every morning. She thinks the government should invest more in local products so consumers are less reliant on expensive imported goods. “This way, we can have the same quality for lower prices,” she said.
Saliou Diouf, 21, works at Dakar’s Kermel market, where he began as a bag carrier and now fills shopping orders for wealthy clients. “Business is always better until prices go up. Then we lose clients,” he said.
Diouf said the pandemic had already taken a toll on the market. This year, traffic has slowed to a crawl: “Today, I may have five clients, tomorrow two. I can never predict. Sometimes I go all day without seeing anyone.”
Serigne Bamba Gaye, an expert in international development, said the longer the downturn lasts, the greater the odds of regional unrest.
“This can lead to social problems with disputes, riots, a rise in tensions that can weaken African states,” said Gaye. “Africa is at a crossroads and we must find ways and means to stop this inflationary spiral.”
Kevin Urama, acting chief economist at the African Development Bank Group, agrees, but he says debt-saddled governments are limited in what they can do to protect their people from soaring prices.
“It’s like having an earthquake followed by aftershocks,” Urama said about inflation coming on the heels of the pandemic. “All of these global head winds are creating huge challenges for countries. For households, inflation is eating deeper into their pockets.”
At My Father’s House, a community kitchen in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, Pastor Shadrick Valayadum has spent more than 20 years feeding the homeless and the destitute. During the pandemic, people from all walks of life began turning to “Pastor Shaddie” for a hot meal.
“There were people in affluent areas, who lived in big houses, who we never thought would call on us. Then they did,” he said.
Demand for food assistance fell as South Africa’s economy began to rebound at the end of last year; now, he said, rising prices are again pushing people to the brink, and his kitchen is struggling to meet the need.
“We can’t use cooking oil anymore [because] it’s too expensive,” Pastor Shaddie said. “We use water, mix it with sugar and caramelize it in the pot, and then once it starts to brown you throw in water and then you throw in onions.”
The charity used to be able to afford meat four times a week. These days, most of the meals it prepares are vegetarian. It is a vital lifeline for the 1,500 people it feeds every day, a number the pastor expects will keep growing.
“Families can’t feed themselves anymore,” he said. “People are trying to catch up and catch up and catch up, and they can’t.”
Tall reported from Dakar, Senegal.
ECOWAS pushes launch of single currency to 2027
By NAN, The Guardian, London, 15 June 2022
Mr Jean-Claude Brou, President of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, has said that the community has resumed convergence to launch of the ECOWAS single currency “ECO” in 2027.
Brou made this known on Tuesday while delivering reports of the ECOWAS Commission before the ECOWAS Parliament during the ongoing 2022 First Ordinary Session of the Parliament in Abuja.
Brou said that the process of launching the single currency was stalled following the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020, as countries needed to focus on handling the pandemic.
He explained that the convergence criteria had to be thorough so that the currency once implemented will serve the citizens effectively.
“We had to suspend that in 2022, 2021. We are looking at 2022 to 2026 to be able to create conditions that will enable us to stabilise the economies.
“And so, 2027 we go back to the currency. The process of the performance criteria is always prioritised if we want to be in a very favourable condition to introduce a single currency.
“Because you can introduce the currency but what is required is that it should be of quality.
“In other words, it should serve the needs of the population and also should inspire confidence and trust in in the population.
“So that is the main objective, to ensure that the convergence criteria is been followed,” Brou said.
Rep. Awaji Abiante, Member of the ECOWAS Parliament and Nigerian lawmaker representing Andoni-Opobi/Nkoro Federal Constituency of Rivers, said that the delay in the launch of the currency is to avoid any form of crisis.
Speaking to journalists on the sideline of the session, Abiante said that the single currency is work in progress and there is hope that sometimes it will work.
“Every good thing comes with its challenges so getting the economies of the 15 member states to agree on that transaction and how it can be moved forward.
“If it is hurried, definitely it could run into crisis so it is good to have every aspect of it discussed, agreement reached, such that it will be implementable,” Abiante said.
On the sustainability and benefits of the currency, Abiante said that until it is implemented, one cannot say how viable it would be.
“Whatever anybody says, it is just going to be mere projections, it is only when it is implemented that you will see the benefits.
“But simply put, it will ease transactions, it will open up the economies, it will make it freeer for people to engage in both commercial and industrial activities,” he said.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that in June 2019, the Authority of ECOWAS Heads of States and Government committed to having a single currency and adopted the name “ECO” during its Extraordinary Session in Abuja.
The currency was expected to be launched in 2020.
Un « pacte avec le diable » au cœur des Grands Lacs
International Crisis Group, 29 juin 2022
Dans l’est de la RDC, les cycles de violence s’enchaînent depuis bientôt 30 ans. Les experts de Crisis Group, Onesphore Sematumba et Nicolas Delaunay, se sont rendus à Béni, au Nord-Kivu, peu après le début d’une opération ougandaise contre les Forces démocratiques Alliées, un groupe islamiste basé dans la région.
Onesphore Sematumba (O.S)
Sur un fond de rumba congolaise, quelques rires percent le brouhaha du restaurant Inbox, dans le centre de Beni, une des principales villes de la province du Nord-Kivu, dans l’est de la République démocratique du Congo (RDC). Après un bref échange de banalités, la conversation devient sérieuse. Mon interlocuteur, contact de longue date et membre de l’administration locale, détourne le regard, scrute sa bière posée sur la table en plastique qui nous sépare et esquisse un léger sourire. Je viens de lui poser une question qui « chatouille ».
Nous sommes le 13 décembre 2021. Depuis deux semaines, et avec l’accord du président congolais Félix Tshisekedi, l’armée ougandaise est déployée dans les territoires autour de Beni pour combattre les Forces démocratiques alliées (ADF), une milice islamiste aux origines ougandaises mais basée depuis de nombreuses années dans l’est de la RDC.
L’intervention de l’armée ougandaise est une réponse directe à la triple attaque à la bombe menée le 16 novembre 2021 à Kampala, la capitale de l’Ouganda, et attribuée aux ADF. Cette présence militaire peut aussi être vue comme un moyen pour l’Ouganda de sécuriser ses intérêts économiques au Congo – notamment le chantier d’une route qui reliera à terme les villes frontalières ougandaises aux agglomérations de Beni, Butembo et Goma, au Nord-Kivu, et devrait faciliter les échanges commerciaux entre les deux pays. Pour Kinshasa, l’appui militaire de son voisin, qui est passé de 1 700 soldats à plus de 4 000 en quelques mois et a été étendu à la province septentrionale de l’Ituri en février 2022, est une aubaine. En effet, la réponse « robuste et rapide » à l’insécurité dans l’est du pays promise par Tshisekedi lors de son accession au pouvoir en janvier 2019 n’a pour le moment connu que des résultats mitigés.
Si nous sommes à Beni, Nicolas et moi, c’est pour prendre le pouls de cette ville de plus de 350 000 habitants et regarder au-delà de la communication positive des dirigeants congolais et ougandais vis-à-vis de cette collaboration militaire. Nous voulons savoir ce que pensent les habitants de Beni de la présence ougandaise. C’est cette question qui « chatouille » mon interlocuteur de l’Inbox.
Malgré l’optimisme affiché par Kinshasa et Kampala, le déploiement ougandais dans l’est de la RDC est loin de couler de source. Après tout, l’Ouganda a un lourd passé au Nord-Kivu et, plus au nord, en Ituri. A la fin des années 1990 et au début des années 2000, l’Ouganda a en effet occupé de larges territoires de ces deux provinces, où ses forces armées, coupables de pillages, de meurtres et de viols, ont laissé de douloureux souvenirs. Le 9 février dernier, la Cour internationale de justice, le plus haut organe judiciaire des Nations unies, a d’ailleurs condamné l’Ouganda à verser 325 millions de dollars à la RDC pour les dommages causés à cette époque.
Je m’attendais donc à une réaction hostile de la part des habitants de Beni face à l’annonce du déploiement ougandais. Ce n’est pas le cas. « Il faut ce qu’il faut », affirme un homme que nous croisons dans une rue de Beni. « J’espère que les Ougandais vont nous aider », renchérit plus tard un jeune représentant de la société civile, tandis qu’une notable de la ville me rétorque : « Et pourquoi pas ? »
Les Béniciens auraient-ils la mémoire courte ? Alors que je partage mon étonnement avec mon compagnon de tablée, ce dernier marque un silence, puis m’adresse un regard insistant : « Tu sais Onesphore, à situation désespérée, solution désespérée. Et si on doit faire un pacte avec le diable pour vaincre les ADF, ainsi soit-il ».
Cette réponse me choque, mais l’évidence me saute alors aux yeux. Naïvement peut-être, j’avais oublié l’espace d’un instant qu’au cours des trois dernières décennies nous avons vécu impuissants face à la violence dans l’est de la RDC. Mon interlocuteur est venu me rappeler tout ce que les habitants de cette région subissent depuis si longtemps. La violence, la mort et le fatalisme, qui les ont conduits à une désillusion totale vis-à-vis des dirigeants et de l’armée congolaise. Peu importe d’où vient l’aide, pourvu qu’elle vienne.
Nicolas Delaunay (N.D.)
Beni, la ville (à ne pas confondre avec les territoires de Beni, qui entourent l’agglomération) se trouve au cœur d’une zone dans laquelle opèrent plusieurs groupes armés, dont les ADF, et le moyen le plus sûr de s’y rendre est par les airs. Onesphore a déjà maintes fois emprunté la route reliant Goma, la capitale économique et administrative du Nord-Kivu, à Beni, dans le « grand nord » de la province, mais la route est difficile et dangereuse. A une dizaine de kilomètres à peine au nord de Goma, le goudron s’efface, faisant place à 340 kilomètres de piste en mauvais état qui se mue en patinoire de boue dès que la pluie s’en mêle.
Le désagrément d’une piste glissante et cabossée n’est toutefois que peu de chose comparé à l’insécurité qui règne sur cet axe vital pour l’économie de la région. Depuis des années, des groupes armés extorquent, rackettent, kidnappent et tuent le long de cette piste étroite qu’entoure une luxuriante forêt propice aux embuscades. Depuis 2016, les autorités provinciales ont mis en place un système d’escorte militaire sur un long tronçon de la route, mais les résultats sont mitigés. C’est sur cette route, à une vingtaine de kilomètres au nord de Goma et en bordure du parc national des Virunga, que l’ambassadeur italien en RDC, Luca Attanasio, a été tué par balles le 22 janvier 2021, lors de l’attaque du convoi du Programme alimentaire mondial des Nations unies dans lequel il voyageait.
C’est donc un vol de la MONUSCO, la Mission des Nations unies en RDC, qui nous emmène à Beni, où nous allons mener nos recherches et les documenter en images. A l’approche de notre destination, le hublot laisse entrevoir un îlot de terre rougeâtre posé au milieu d’un massif forestier dense et vert.
Au fil des ans, Beni a été relativement épargnée par les attaques des divers groupes armés présents dans la région. Son centre bouillonne d’activité. Les motos-taxis et les camions vont et viennent à proximité des étals installés le long de la route principale, qui débordent de vêtements, d’huile de palme et de bananes. Assis sur des chaises en plastique sous des parasols, des agents de change troquent des francs congolais contre des dollars, et vice versa, tandis que des haut-parleurs informent les passagers des arrivées des bus.
Ce sentiment de normalité que nous éprouvons en arrivant n’est toutefois qu’éphémère tant abondent les signes des 30 ans de violence qui ont marqué l’est de la RDC. Au va-et-vient des motos et camions s’ajoute celui, incessant, des pick-up de l’armée congolaise surmontés de fusils mitrailleurs et des véhicules blindés des Casques bleus. Çà et là, des graffitis clament : « Non à la violence ! » D’autres appellent au départ de la MONUSCO, qu’une partie de la population juge trop passive.
L’odeur puissante des fèves de cacao séchant sur de larges bâches, elle aussi, nous rappelle à cette violence diffuse. Le cacao, qui transite principalement par l’Ouganda avant d’être exporté en dehors du continent africain pour être transformé, fait partie intégrante de l’économie de guerre construite autour des ressources naturelles de la région des Grands Lacs. « Il y a l’or à Bunia, le coltan à Masisi, la cassitérite à Walikale, et puis il y a le cacao à Beni et dans ses alentours », résume Christophe, un agriculteur qui cultivait des cacaoyers à Mbau, au nord de Beni, avant que les groupes armés ne le forcent à fuir son champ. « C’est malheureusement souvent la même chose », raconte-t-il. « On travaille dur pour cultiver le cacao et puis les ADF viennent prendre le contrôle de nos cultures quand la récolte approche ». « A chaque fois qu’on produit beaucoup de cacao, les massacres se multiplient », ajoute une agricultrice rencontrée à Kipriani, un quartier du nord de Beni.
Beni étant ce qui se rapproche le plus d’un havre de paix – très relatif – dans la zone où opèrent les ADF, des milliers de déplacés internes y ont trouvé refuge. Ils vivent souvent chez des membres de leur famille, des amis ou des connaissances, car la ville ne compte pas de camp de déplacés. « Mes trois oncles et mes trois tantes ont été tués, dans la même maison, en 2015. Les bandits les ont coupés en morceaux », se souvient Divine, une jeune femme de 25 ans rescapée d’un massacre. « C’était les ADF. Ils ont attaqué mon village, il y a quelques semaines », murmure un jeune homme rencontré dans le couloir sombre d’une école à quelques pas de la mairie, le bras en écharpe soigneusement pansé. « Un coup de machette… mais ça va mieux maintenant ».
Comme pour confirmer ce que tout le monde sait déjà, le lendemain de notre arrivée, les médias locaux titrent sur une attaque meurtrière perpétrée par les ADF non loin de la ville de Mangina, environ 25 kilomètres à l’ouest de Beni.
L’impact humain de cette précarité sécuritaire est profond, et le quotidien rythmé par la violence et les déplacements pèse de tout son poids sur une population asphyxiée. Outre la brutalité des massacres que décrivent les personnes que nous rencontrons à Beni, ce qui m’interpelle, c’est la difficulté qu’elles éprouvent à planifier leur existence à moyen ou long terme, à vivre autrement qu’au jour le jour. Comme si une population entière s’interdisait de rêver ou de se projeter dans un futur qui risque de leur être arraché par une balle de fusil ou un coup de machette.
D’autant que l’insécurité a des conséquences vicieuses. Entre 2018 et 2020, les provinces du Nord-Kivu et de l’Ituri ont connu la deuxième plus importante épidémie d’Ebola de l’histoire, qui a fait plus de 2 200 morts. A l’époque, un ami journaliste était revenu profondément marqué d’un reportage réalisé au Nord-Kivu, où les violences armées ont compliqué la réponse sanitaire à ce virus mortel. « Une plaie qui décuple les effets d’une autre », avait-il résumé.
A son tour, Onesphore, qui est né dans l’est de la RDC, résume avec son humour habituel toute la fragilité de la vie dans cette région. « Ici, on a un dicton qui dit : “L’espérance de vie, c’est 24 heures, renouvelables chaque jour” ».
La violence dans l’est de la RDC, c’est un cocktail extrêmement complexe dont les populations civiles sont les principales victimes. Depuis les années 1990, les groupes armés se succèdent et se ressemblent dans cette région riche en ressources naturelles. La plupart de ces groupes, ceux communément appelés maï-maï, se considèrent comme les défenseurs des communautés dont ils sont issus et sont en compétition pour le pouvoir politique ou coutumier, les ressources foncières, ou encore l’accès aux infrastructures. Ajoutez à cela un Etat qui ne fournit pas les services de base, des liens avérés entre certains politiciens et des milices locales et un manque de perspectives socio-économiques, et vous obtenez un cadre propice au recrutement de jeunes miliciens congolais.
La violence trouve aussi sa source en Ouganda, au Rwanda et au Burundi, voisins orientaux de la RDC. Certains groupes armés, comme les ADF, y sont nés avant de trouver dans l’est de la RDC une zone de non-droit où se replier et opérer. Mais la dimension régionale de l’insécurité va plus loin : les profondes rivalités entre ces trois voisins de la RDC, articulées principalement autour de la compétition pour les ressources minières du pays, nourrissent aussi les violences, tout en faisant obstacle aux efforts diplomatiques régionaux et internationaux. Ces trois pays sont tous intervenus militairement par le passé dans l’est de la RDC. Si, officiellement, ils cherchaient à y poursuivre des rebellions hostiles à leurs gouvernements, ils y ont dans le même temps mené plusieurs guerres par procuration en soutenant des groupes rebelles opposés à leurs rivaux.
Le bilan humain de ces cycles de violence est extrêmement lourd. Les chiffres les plus communément utilisés, malgré certaines controverses sur la méthode de calcul, estiment que les conflits dans l’est de la RDC et leurs conséquences humanitaires ont fait quelque 6 millions de morts depuis 1998.
Lors de son accession au pouvoir, en janvier 2019, le président congolais Félix Tshisekedi avait fait de la lutte contre l’insécurité dans l’est de son pays une priorité. Après deux années marquées par l’absence de résultats tangibles, il a pris deux mesures phares : l’instauration, en mai 2021, de l’état de siège dans les provinces du Nord-Kivu et de l’Ituri, les plus touchées par les violences, puis, à partir du 30 novembre 2021, la coopération militaire avec l’Ouganda.
Ces deux mesures ont un point commun : elles illustrent la tendance des autorités congolaises à donner la primauté aux réponses militaires pour contrer l’insécurité dans l’est, et ce au détriment de mesures cherchant à résoudre les conflits fonciers, à donner des perspectives économiques aux jeunes, à poursuivre les politiciens ayant des liens avec les groupes armés, ou encore à construire une diplomatie régionale efficace et apaisée.
En tant que citoyen congolais, je me dis qu’au moins, les autorités congolaises n’ont pas abandonné la lutte contre l’insécurité dans ma région, malgré la succession sans fin des cycles de violence. Mais le réalisme que m’impose mon travail de recherche sur les causes de ces conflits entraîne un jugement sans appel sur l’obstination de nos dirigeants à penser qu’une stratégie de stabilisation axée principalement sur le militaire pourra un jour ramener la paix. L’usage de la force a son utilité, mais ses victoires resteront sans lendemain tant qu’il ne sera pas accompagné de mesures allant à la racine du problème.
Suite à l’instauration de l’état de siège en Ituri et dans le Nord-Kivu, les gouverneurs et les maires ont été remplacés par des officiers de l’armée et de la police. Cette mesure a été accueillie avec le même enthousiasme résigné que l’arrivée des soldats ougandais. Lors d’une visite dans la ville de Bukavu, dans la province du Sud-Kivu, en mai 2020, certains habitants se disaient même jaloux de cet état de siège qui n’avait pas été décrété chez eux. Mais quelques mois plus tard, ce dispositif juridique d’exception n’avait pas arrêté les massacres dans le Nord-Kivu et en Ituri, et ces mêmes personnes ne demandaient plus qu’il soit appliqué dans leur région.
La « mutualisation » des forces congolaises et ougandaises, telle qu’elle a été qualifiée par Kinshasa, prévoyait initialement un déploiement militaire ougandais entre Beni et la frontière. Ce déploiement a depuis été étendu à l’Ituri. Le terme mutualisation est trompeur : dans les faits, Ougandais et Congolais mènent leurs opérations en parallèle. Ils se tiennent au courant de leurs activités respectives, mais ne combattent pas au sein d’unités mixtes. Pour le moment, ces opérations n’ont enregistré que de timides succès. Certes, plusieurs camps des ADF ont été pris, des otages libérés, des armes saisies et des rebelles arrêtés. L’épicentre des attaques des ADF s’est même déplacé légèrement vers le nord. Mais les massacres continuent malgré tout.
Plus encore, les ADF semblent avoir mis un point d’honneur à rappeler à tous leur force de frappe, malgré la pression militaire exercée sur eux. Le 25 décembre 2021, le lendemain de la prise de Kambi Ya Yua, un des principaux camps du groupe, un kamikaze a fait exploser une bombe dans un restaurant de Beni bondé de clients venus y célébrer Noël. L’attaque a fait au moins huit morts. Ce restaurant, c’était l’Inbox, où je me suis rendu une dizaine de fois pour rencontrer des interlocuteurs.
Pour couronner le tout, les opérations ougandaises en territoire congolais – que les armées des deux pays ont prolongées de deux mois le 1er juin dernier – pourraient ouvrir la voie à une dangereuse multiplication des interventions étrangères non coordonnées, voire concurrentes, dans l’est de la RDC. Depuis l’autorisation accordée à Kampala, l’armée burundaise s’est invitée au Sud-Kivu pour traquer les rebelles burundais de RED-Tabara. En février dernier, le président rwandais Paul Kagame a évoqué la possibilité d’envoyer son armée en RDC pour combattre le groupe rwandais des Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), un vestige de la milice hutue rwandaise qui a massacré une grande partie de la minorité tutsie et de nombreux Hutu modérés pendant le génocide de 1994. Kagame a d’abord justifié une potentielle intervention en alléguant de liens entre les FDLR et les ADF. Plus récemment, il a accusé Les Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo (FARDC) de s’être associées aux FDLR pour combattre une autre milice, le Mouvement du 23 mars (M23).
Un cocktail complexe, vous disais-je…
Nous sommes assis dans le hall de la mairie sous le regard de Félix Tshisekedi, dont le portrait est accroché au mur. Nous attendons patiemment le colonel de police qui, en vertu de l’état de siège, fait office de maire. Le silence règne dans l’édifice, rompu de temps à autres par les claquements de bottes des soldats et policiers affectés à la protection de la mairie et par les échos d’une lointaine rue commerçante.
Un officier de police inspecte nos papiers et documents, notamment l’autorisation de photographier et filmer obtenue auprès du ministère de l’Information. « Il est beau votre papier, mais ce n’est pas le bon. Vous auriez dû vous adresser au ministère de la Défense, pas à celui de l’Information. C’est l’état de siège ici, vous comprenez ? »
Deux jours plus tard, après plusieurs réunions et explications avec le maire, ses conseillers et les services de renseignements, il semble que nos papiers soient malgré tout en règle.
« C’est leur manière de te rappeler que ce sont eux qui sont aux commandes pendant l’état de siège », relativise un de nos interlocuteurs, rencontré un soir au bar de notre hôtel. Nous lui faisons part de notre surprise de voir la mairie de Beni aussi calme et déserte. Dans le souvenir d’Onesphore, le bâtiment était une fourmilière grouillant de visiteurs venus effectuer des démarches administratives ou chercher à obtenir une faveur du maire. « Les gens sont désormais méfiants, ils ne font pas confiance à la police et à l’armée, c’est pour cela qu’il n’y a plus personne », nous explique-t-il.
De fait, les forces armées congolaises sont elles aussi une pièce du puzzle complexe de la violence dans l’est de la RDC. La population, l’ONU, des diplomates et des organisations de défense des droits humains accusent souvent des militaires de collaboration, voire de complicité, avec les groupes armés opérant dans leur zone. Ces liens se développent autour d’activités telles que l’exploitation des ressources minières ou le contrôle de « checkpoints » illégaux. Des enquêteurs de l’ONU et des organisations de défense des droits humains, dont Human Rights Watch, ont également accusé les forces armées congolaises de profiter de l’instabilité dans la région pour racketter la population et d’avoir commis des meurtres et des viols de civils.
« Je choisis la paix, je soutiens les FARDC ». Le panneau publicitaire installé à l’entrée nord de Beni ne trompe personne. Pour les esprits les plus malicieux, il est même à l’image du lien de confiance entre l’armée et la population : délavé, vieux et obsolète.
Ce lien brisé entre les Congolais de l’est et leurs forces de sécurité, et de manière plus générale avec leurs autorités, explique la réaction initiale des Béniciens face à la coopération militaire avec l’Ouganda. En fin de compte, leur timide espoir d’une amélioration aura été une nouvelle fois déçu.
J’ai le sentiment de reconnaître dans la réaction des Béniciens un phénomène que j’ai malheureusement eu l’occasion d’observer à maintes reprises dans l’est de la RDC. Je l’appelle « le transfert des attentes » : les Congolais sont tellement las de l’inefficacité de leurs propres armée et gouvernement qu’ils ont cessé d’en attendre quoi que ce soit, préférant placer leurs espoirs dans des mains extérieures. Et si ces espoirs sont déçus, c’est aussi à « ces venus d’ailleurs » qu’ils demandent des comptes.
Le 20 novembre 2012, le M23, un mouvement rebelle congolais soutenu par le Rwanda et l’Ouganda, a attaqué Goma, la ville dans laquelle j’habite depuis 32 ans. Après une timide résistance au nord de l’agglomération, l’armée congolaise s’est repliée vers la ville de Minova, à 50 kilomètres à l’ouest. Comme les milliers d’autres habitants de Goma massés sur le bord des routes, c’est le regard médusé que j’ai vu les colonnes de chars et de soldats partir vers l’ouest, laissant la ville à la merci des rebelles. « Cette guerre est politisée », se justifiaient certains militaires interpellés par la population, faisant référence aux liens supposés entre les rebelles et certains hommes politiques ou officiers, qui dissuaderaient les soldats au front de combattre le M23. Malgré cela, quand plusieurs centaines de jeunes ont manifesté le lendemain contre ce « retrait stratégique », c’est devant la base de l’ONU à Goma qu’ils se sont rassemblés. C’est aux Casques bleus uruguayens qu’ils réclamaient des explications et non aux dirigeants ou soldats congolais en déroute.
L’hostilité de la population vis-à-vis de la MONUSCO est, par ailleurs, compréhensible. Les Congolais voient défiler dans leurs rues des militaires mieux armés et mieux entraînés que les FARDC, mais qui ne mènent que peu d’opérations militaires (des exceptions notables existent, dont la « Force Intervention Brigade » créée en 2013 suite à la prise de Goma par le M23). Face à ce qui est perçu par une partie de la population comme de l’indifférence, la colère gronde dans les rues de Butembo, Beni ou Goma. Les jeunes des mouvements citoyens et des groupes de pression y manifestent parfois contre la MONUSCO, allant jusqu’à bloquer le passage de convois ou les caillasser. En réponse, la MONUSCO répète inlassablement que la responsabilité de la sécurité des populations incombe d’abord aux forces de défense et de sécurité congolaises et que les Casques bleus leur apportent leur appui mais ne peuvent se substituer à elles.
Ce « transfert des attentes » sur des forces étrangères signifie-t-il que les Congolais ont définitivement tourné le dos à leurs dirigeants ? Non. Nous avons pu le constater sur place.
Le bâtiment de la mairie de Beni, dans lequel nous avons rencontré le maire, est flambant neuf. Il a été inauguré il y a à peine un an, en remplacement de l’ancienne mairie, incendiée en novembre 2019 par des manifestants protestant contre l’incapacité des autorités à mettre un terme aux violences. Je ne cautionnerais bien sûr jamais une manifestation qui tourne mal. Mais je me dis que si les Congolais interpellent encore de temps à autres les autorités, c’est qu’ils n’ont pas totalement abandonné l’espoir qu’elles trouveront un jour le moyen de soulager leurs maux. Et heureusement, car si les acteurs extérieurs peuvent nous aider à bien des égards, il échoit aux Congolais de construire la paix, s’ils veulent qu’elle dure.
En attendant ce jour, la vie suit son cours dans l’est de la RDC, au gré de cycles divers. Cycles d’espoirs et de désespoirs ; cycles de violences perpétrées par des groupes armés, qui s’en vont puis réapparaissent ; cycles de négociations mal ficelées et inabouties ; cycles électoraux, qui suscitent de nouvelles violences ; cycles de tensions régionales à température variable…
Si l’attention était résolument portée sur les ADF lors de notre passage à Beni en décembre, un autre groupe rebelle fait désormais parler de lui au Nord-Kivu. Le M23, qui avait été mis en déroute en 2013, peu après sa prise de Goma, a refait surface fin 2021 dans le territoire de Rutshuru, situé à une petite centaine de kilomètres au nord de Goma, et frontalier de l’Ouganda et du Rwanda. Alors qu’on le pensait moribond, le groupe a pris les autorités militaires au dépourvu. Depuis novembre 2021, il a mené de nombreuses attaques contre les forces armées congolaises, forçant les civils à fuir leurs foyers. Le 13 juin, le M23 a même pris le contrôle du poste-frontière de Bunagana, qui relie la RDC à l’Ouganda. En parallèle, les tensions diplomatiques se sont intensifiées ces derniers mois : Kinshasa reproche à Kigali de soutenir le M23, et Kigali accuse les FARDC de coopérer avec les FDLR dans la lutte contre le M23.
Ces cycles dont parle Onesphore, et l’incapacité de l’est de la RDC d’en sortir, apparaissent à chaque rencontre, dans chaque conversation que nous menons dans le cadre de nos recherches à Beni.
Le dernier jour de notre visite, ces recherches nous emmènent le long d’une route du sud de la ville, où chaque passage de camion, voiture ou moto soulève des nuages de poussière, irritant les yeux et les poumons. Accoudé au comptoir de son magasin de boissons, une pièce sombre et exiguë de quelques mètres carrés au rez-de-chaussée d’un bâtiment en béton, Ibrahim raconte comment, il y a quelques années, lorsqu’il avait dix-sept ans, il a rejoint un groupe maï-maï.
Sans perspective d’avenir ou d’emploi, révolté par la prolifération de la violence, il se disait – naïvement, de son propre aveu – qu’il pourrait contribuer à changer les choses en rejoignant une milice. « J’ai vu les désordres qui se déroulaient dans ce pays et j’étais déçu », dit Ibrahim, qui affirme avoir définitivement renoncé à se battre car il a maintenant un travail.
Qu’en est-il des griefs qui l’ont poussé dans les bras d’un groupe armé ? « Bon, la situation est toujours la même », répond-il timidement, mais sans appel. Il souligne qu’il a obtenu son emploi actuel grâce à une ONG congolaise aidant les rebelles démobilisés à déposer les armes puis, dans un second temps, à reconstruire leur vie – et donc à ne pas reprendre les armes. En effet, sans être rare, la reconversion d’Ibrahim relève plus de l’exception que de la règle. Le gouvernement congolais a lancé en mars un nouveau programme de Désarmement, Démobilisation et Réinsertion dans l’est de la RDC. Il reste à voir s’il aura plus de succès que les précédents, dont l’efficacité a été très limitée.
« Les programmes de DDR ne sont pas bien conçus et pas bien financés, donc évidemment que beaucoup de jeunes démobilisés retournent tôt ou tard dans la brousse », nous affirme Noëlla Muliwavyo, une cadre de la société civile bénicienne et membre de l’Association Africaine pour les droits de l’Homme, une ONG congolaise. « Prenez par exemple la manière dont on traite les communautés dans lesquelles on veut réinsérer les ex-rebelles. On ne prépare pas les communautés à cela, on ne communique pas avec elles, on ne leur donne aucuns moyens. Et puis du jour au lendemain, sans explications, on amène un ancien rebelle dans une communauté qui a beaucoup souffert des violences, dont de nombreux membres ont été tués. Comment voulez-vous que cela fonctionne ? Comment voulez-vous que cette communauté accueille cette personne ? »
De manière générale, nos interlocuteurs sur place déplorent le fait que l’Etat ne prenne pas à bras-le-corps les causes profondes du conflit dans l’est de la RDC, celles qui poussent tant de jeunes à prendre les armes. Tant que l’Etat n’offrira pas de réponses adéquates aux conflits fonciers entre communautés, aux liens entre groupes armés et politiciens, ou aux manques de perspectives économiques, groupes rebelles et milices continueront à trouver dans la région un terrain propice au recrutement des jeunes. Dans le même temps, certains de nos interlocuteurs regrettent l’incapacité des pays des Grands Lacs à mettre un terme aux dangereuses luttes d’influence qui nourrissent l’instabilité dans l’est congolais depuis trop longtemps.
Avant mon arrivée en RDC, Onesphore m’avait prévenu. Les innombrables problématiques liées à l’insécurité dans l’est de son pays se lacent et s’entrelacent en permanence, formant une tapisserie dont il est parfois difficile de saisir toute la complexité. Et malgré une violence accablante, je repars de Beni convaincu que si l’est du Congo courbe aujourd’hui l’échine, il ne rompra pas.
Avant de reprendre l’avion pour Goma, je demande à Onesphore si notre espérance de vie a bien été renouvelée pour les 24 heures à venir. Dans un éclat de rire, il me répond qu’« un jour, on fera mieux que 24 heures ». En attendant, dit-il, « il faut comprendre que l’humour, c’est notre résilience. C’est notre manière de rendre un peu supportable un quotidien qui ne l’est pas, en espérant qu’un jour, ça ira mieux ».
Onesphore Sematumba: Analyst, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi
Nicolas Delaunay: Senior Communications Officer for Africa
Mali : Rester engagé malgré les désaccords
International Crisis Group, 25 Mai 2022
Après deux coups d'Etat en autant d'années, Bamako continue de combattre les insurgés jihadistes au Mali. Dans cet extrait de l'édition de printemps de la Watch List 2022, Crisis Group exhorte l'UE et ses Etats membres à soutenir des pourparlers visant un retour à l'ordre constitutionnel, à renforcer leur aide à la société civile et à encourager les réformes électorales.
Le conflit opposant le gouvernement malien aux insurgés jihadistes est entré dans sa dixième année, sans résolution en perspective. Les autorités de transition au pouvoir depuis 2021 ont adopté une position populiste et anti-occidentale, rejetant la responsabilité de l’impasse sur la France, son alliée de longue date dans la lutte contre les insurgés. Elles ont également intensifié leurs offensives militaires, ce qui a entraîné une augmentation du nombre de victimes civiles. Frustrés par la rhétorique de Bamako et son rapprochement avec la société de sécurité privée russe Wagner, la France et d’autres Etats membres de l’Union européenne (UE) retirent leurs troupes du Mali, à l’exception de celles affectées à la mission des Nations unies dans le pays. L’armée malienne a récemment remporté quelques victoires limitées dans le centre du pays, mais le départ de ses alliés les mieux équipés pourrait affecter la dynamique du conflit, revigorer les militants et aggraver l’interminable crise humanitaire. Les autorités de Bamako ont jusqu’à présent rechigné à relancer un accord de paix conclu en 2015 avec les groupes armés (non jihadistes) du nord. Entretemps, l’Etat a engagé des poursuites judiciaires contre ses opposants politiques et restreint l’espace de débat public, tandis que les attaques en ligne contre les médias indépendants se multiplient.
Les actions de Bamako ont considérablement compliqué la tâche des acteurs extérieurs impliqués dans la stabilisation du Sahel. Le bras de fer entre le gouvernement et la France semble lui avoir octroyé un large soutien interne, mais il a inquiété les pays voisins qui luttent pour contenir la violence jihadiste sur leur propre sol. Bamako s’est également opposée à la tenue d’élections début 2022, conformément à l’accord conclu entre le précédent gouvernement de transition et d’autres capitales d’Afrique de l’Ouest. Ses relations avec la plupart de ses voisins sont au plus mal depuis que la Communauté économique des Etats de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (CEDEAO) a imposé des restrictions commerciales au Mali en réponse à l’intransigeance des autorités sur la question des élections.
Malgré le retrait progressif des troupes françaises et européennes et l’antagonisme croissant du Mali vis-à-vis de l’Occident, l’UE et ses Etats membres devraient s’efforcer de maintenir la communication avec les autorités maliennes. Ils devraient éviter les différends publics avec Bamako, qui pourraient saper les efforts déployés par la CEDEAO pour aider à restaurer un régime civil au Mali, tout en travaillant discrètement avec les partenaires régionaux afin d’orienter les autorités vers une transition consensuelle.
Pour ce faire, l’UE et ses Etats membres devraient :
- Soutenir les pourparlers pilotés par la CEDEAO, qui visent à trouver un consensus sur le calendrier d’un retour à l’ordre constitutionnel au Mali, en exhortant les parties à rechercher la désescalade et les compromis.
- Renforcer leur soutien diplomatique et financier aux organisations de la société civile malienne, en particulier aux groupes qui soutiennent les libertés de mouvement et d’expression et surveillent les restrictions de ces droits
- Proposer et, le cas échéant, fournir leur soutien aux initiatives de réformes électorales, notamment en travaillant avec les organisations de la société civile et les autorités compétentes lorsque l’occasion se présente. Un progrès important, que l’UE et les Etats membres devraient soutenir, consisterait à mettre en place un organisme électoral indépendant.
Le Mali se détourne de ses partenaires traditionnels après un second coup d’Etat
Après avoir renversé le président Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta en août 2020, l’armée a mis en place un gouvernement essentiellement civil qui a établi de bonnes relations de travail avec ses partenaires étrangers et les pays voisins. Cet arrangement s’est cependant avéré instable. Les chefs militaires ont continué à influencer les décisions du gouvernement, provoquant l’irritation des acteurs civils.
Les tentatives du gouvernement de limiter l’influence des militaires ont incité des officiers de l’armée à opérer un second coup d’Etat en mai 2021. Ils ont alors nommé président de la transition le colonel Assimi Goïta, qui occupait précédemment le poste de vice-président, et installé Choguel Kokalla Maïga comme Premier ministre. Exploitant la montée du ressentiment contre la politique de la France, qui résulte en partie des griefs accumulés au cours des années de présence militaire française, Maïga a imputé la détérioration de la situation sécuritaire au Mali à la stratégie de stabilisation promue par Paris, qui s’articule depuis 2014 autour d’une campagne militaire de contre-insurrection, l’opération Barkhane. En outre, le nouveau gouvernement a considérablement ralenti la mise en œuvre de l’accord de paix signé en 2015 avec les groupes armés du nord et soutenu par l’UE et d’autres acteurs internationaux.
Une série d’accrochages verbaux de plus en plus violents a ensuite attisé les tensions entre le Mali et ses partenaires occidentaux et régionaux. Ces derniers ont vivement critiqué le projet de Bamako de faire appel à des mercenaires du groupe russe Wagner, ce qui a conduit à une impasse. En parallèle, le gouvernement a remis en cause l’accord que le précédent gouvernement de transition avait conclu avec la CEDEAO et qui prévoyait la tenue d’élections en février 2022. En janvier, en réponse à ce qu’elle considérait comme une provocation de Bamako, qui proposait une transition allant jusqu’à cinq ans, la CEDEAO a restreint le commerce régional avec le Mali et gelé ses actifs financiers. Le bloc a également imposé des sanctions individuelles aux hauts fonctionnaires du gouvernement. Ces sanctions ont profondément contrarié les dirigeants maliens, qui ont appelé la population à manifester, affirmant que la CEDEAO agissait sous pression étrangère.
L’impasse régionale a également touché un autre groupement, le G5 Sahel. Son objectif était de promouvoir la sécurité et le développement dans les cinq pays, même s’il n’a obtenu que peu de résultats tangibles. Le Mali a d’ailleurs quitté le groupe à la mi-mai, lorsque ses partenaires ont refusé de céder la présidence tournante aux autorités militaires à Bamako.
Dans ce contexte, les relations entre le Mali et ses partenaires européens se sont rapidement dégradées. Le 24 janvier, les autorités maliennes ont demandé au gouvernement danois de retirer immédiatement un contingent de 90 personnes qui devait opérer au sein de Takuba, une force opérationnelle européenne que la France avait contribué à mettre en place pour compléter l’opération Barkhane. Les autorités maliennes affirmaient que le Danemark avait enfreint la procédure. Une semaine plus tard, en réponse aux remarques désobligeantes du gouvernement français sur la légitimité des autorités de transition, Bamako expulsait l’ambassadeur de France. Le 4 février, à l’instar de la CEDEAO, l’UE a imposé des interdictions de voyager et des gels d’avoirs à cinq personnalités, dont Maïga, qu’elle accusait d’avoir saboté la transition.
Depuis lors, le fossé a continué à se creuser. Lorsqu’il est devenu évident que, bien que les autorités démentent formellement une quelconque association avec Wagner, des Russes en tenue de camouflage arrivaient effectivement sur les bases militaires du centre du Mali, le président français Emmanuel Macron a déclaré que la présence de la force antiterroriste française dans le pays était devenue intenable. Le 17 février, il a annoncé que les troupes françaises et européennes participant aux opérations Barkhane et Takuba se retireraient du Mali et seraient redéployées dans d’autres pays du Sahel d’ici juin. En avril, l’UE a suspendu ses activités de formation de l’armée malienne. Elle continue cependant à proposer des cours de droit humanitaire et à prodiguer des conseils stratégiques et organisationnels au commandement militaire et au gouvernement, en particulier au ministère de la Défense. À peu près au même moment, la situation sécuritaire au centre du pays s’est légèrement améliorée grâce à la pression exercée par l’armée sur les groupes jihadistes, ce qui a permis le retour de personnes déplacées et un timide regain d’activité économique.
Le gouvernement malien affirme que la situation sécuritaire s’est améliorée parce qu’il a « diversifié ses partenariats », arguant que ses efforts créent un environnement propice à d’éventuelles élections. Les autorités semblent croire sincèrement que l’aide russe, qui comprend la livraison rapide d’armes et la présence de paramilitaires russes aux côtés des forces armées nationales lors des combats, pourrait leur permettre d’avancer dans leur campagne anti-insurrectionnelle, et ainsi de répondre aux attentes du peuple malien dans ce domaine. Ils attribuent l’amélioration de la sécurité dans certaines localités aux nouveaux équipements militaires et aux « instructeurs » russes. L’armée a donné un coup de fouet médiatique à ses avancées à travers une campagne de communication énergique.
Mais il est loin d’être certain que l’armée arrivera à maintenir sa position dans le centre. Les derniers développements montrent que les forces armées n’ont pas les moyens de maintenir un contrôle durable sur les zones qu’elles occupent. Les groupes jihadistes reviennent rapidement, et souvent déterminés à se venger des civils qu’ils identifient comme ayant aidé les autorités. Pendant ce temps, l’insécurité sévit toujours dans d’autres régions du pays. Le départ imminent des troupes attachées à Barkhane et Takuba pourrait donner aux jihadistes l’opportunité d’élargir leurs opérations. De plus, la force de l’ONU sera privée d’une partie de ses ressources, car elle dépendait de la couverture aérienne ainsi que du soutien médical et logistique français. La situation humanitaire reste désastreuse, tant en termes de personnes déplacées que de victimes civiles. En outre, si la mission française a eu sa part de plaintes pour violation des droits de l’homme, les antécédents de Wagner donnent à penser que les abus ne vont faire qu’empirer avec le départ des troupes européennes et l’influence des « instructeurs » de Wagner sur le comportement de l’armée.
En effet, les récentes actions de l’armée malienne révèlent un non-respect des règles du droit international humanitaire chez les soldats maliens et le lourd tribut payé par les civils. En avril, l’armée a déclaré avoir tué 203 militants lors d’une opération dans le village de Moura. Selon de nombreux rapports d’organisations de défense des droits de l’homme et de médias internationaux, l’opération a tourné au bain de sang, les troupes maliennes et les mercenaires de Wagner exécutant sommairement des centaines de civils qu’ils accusaient de collaborer avec les jihadistes. Le gouvernement a empêché les Nations unies d’enquêter sur l’incident.
Les signes d’une restriction de l’espace politique semblent également s’accumuler. Les autorités judiciaires ont arrêté ou lancé des procédures contre certains leaders de l’opposition, notamment les plus critiques à l’égard du Premier ministre, les accusant d’être impliqués dans des activités déstabilisantes et d’inciter à la division ethnique. Elles ont d’ailleurs mis en prison deux hommes politiques pour avoir critiqué le chef du gouvernement. (Leurs critiques ne constituent pas le motif officiel de leur arrestation). Le gouvernement s’appuie également sur une forme de rejet de l’Occident pour justifier des restrictions en matière de débat public, en accusant ses opposants de prendre parti pour des puissances étrangères. Activistes, journalistes et membres de l’opposition politique expriment une inquiétude croissante quant à leur capacité à travailler librement ou à contester le discours officiel.
Comment l’UE peut maintenir son implication
L’UE a longtemps cherché à adopter une approche globale de la situation au Mali, en mettant l’accent sur les solutions politiques aux défis auxquels le pays est confronté, la bonne gouvernance et le développement social, environnemental et économique. Ces dernières années, elle a promis un soutien accru aux dirigeants civils du Sahel pour les aider à promouvoir une bonne gouvernance, mais avec la montée de la violence, sa mise en œuvre s’est avérée difficile. Aujourd’hui, confrontés à l’impasse avec Bamako, les diplomates européens peinent tant à mettre en œuvre leur stratégie qu’à préserver leurs relations avec les autorités maliennes. Toutefois, les Etats membres de l’UE devraient rester impliqués dans la mission de l’ONU au Mali, à l’instar de l’Allemagne qui a annoncé le 11 mai son intention d’augmenter son contingent sur place. Ensuite, l’Union et ses Etats membres pourraient et devraient prendre trois initiatives importantes.
Tout d’abord, l’UE et ses Etats membres devraient activement soutenir la voie diplomatique employée par la CEDEAO, qui tente de persuader Bamako d’accepter un délai raisonnable pour le retour à l’ordre constitutionnel. Les récentes déclarations des deux parties indiquent que les tensions entre Bamako et le bloc pourraient s’apaiser, ce qui renforce les perspectives d’un accord. Une diplomatie discrète et, le cas échéant, un soutien public permettraient à l’UE d’user de ses bons offices pour faire progresser ces négociations vers un consensus. À ce stade, de nouvelles sanctions risqueraient de compliquer des négociations déjà délicates. L’UE devrait plutôt signaler son intention de commencer à réduire les sanctions en cas de progrès avec l’organisation ouest-africaine.
Deuxièmement, l’UE devrait renforcer son soutien actuel aux organisations de la société civile malienne face au durcissement des restrictions en matière de liberté d’expression. Les groupes internationaux de défense des droits humains et les médias étrangers ayant de plus en plus de mal à travailler au Mali, les acteurs nationaux seront amenés à jouer un rôle essentiel, à la fois en mettant en lumière les abus et les restrictions et en permettant un débat public dynamique. Mais ils sont confrontés à une pression croissante. Le soutien diplomatique et financier de l’UE pourrait les aider à poursuivre leurs activités, qui sont importantes tant à court terme que dans la perspective d’élections à venir. Même s’il existe un certain risque que les financements occidentaux sapent la crédibilité des ONG locales, l’UE pourrait l’atténuer en travaillant avec des organismes bien établis dans leurs régions et leurs localités, notamment les nombreux groupes de femmes qui travaillent en dehors de la capitale. Pour l’instant, étant donné l’atmosphère politique tendue, l’UE devrait toutefois éviter les initiatives fortement médiatisées.
Troisièmement, l’UE et ses Etats membres devraient proposer leur soutien aux initiatives de réformes électorales. De nombreux diplomates européens à Bruxelles et au Sahel craignent, à juste titre, que les autorités ne s’appuient sur des promesses de réformes majeures, voire d’amendements constitutionnels, pour retarder la transition vers un régime constitutionnel. Un large consensus prévaut néanmoins sur la nécessité de certaines réformes et l’UE devrait indiquer clairement qu’elle est prête à aider à élaborer les restructurations nécessaires pour avancer vers des élections.
Parmi les réformes en cours de discussion, l’une des plus importantes est la création d’un organisme électoral indépendant, que l’UE et les Etats membres devraient soutenir. Un tel organe pourrait reprendre le rôle du ministère de l’Administration territoriale dans l’organisation des élections, tout en limitant la compétence d’arbitrage des litiges électoraux de la cour constitutionnelle. Ces deux mesures permettraient de renforcer la confiance du public dans l’intégrité des élections, de nombreux Maliens accusant l’administration territoriale et la cour d’avoir manipulé les résultats des élections législatives de 2020 en faveur du parti au pouvoir. La création d’une autorité électorale indépendante semble bénéficier d’un soutien national solide – elle a été identifiée comme une priorité dans des forums tels que le dialogue national inclusif de 2019, les journées de concertation nationale de 2020 et les assises nationales de la refondation de décembre 2021. Mais sa mise en place tangible serait une entreprise d’envergure, nécessitant des modifications législatives complexes et des ressources supplémentaires. L’UE devrait indiquer clairement qu’elle souhaite y contribuer par un soutien technique et financier.
Arab Reform Initiate, 23 Juin 2022
Tunis, 23 juin 2022 – L’Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) publie aujourd’hui deux rapports intitulés : « Participation politique des jeunes en Tunisie : Explorer l’impact des quotas jeunes à travers le prisme des conseillers municipaux » et « Compréhensions politiques des jeunes dans la Tunisie post-2011 : La parole donnée aux générations Y et Z ».
Ces rapports sont le fruit du projet mené par l’ARI de janvier 2021 à juin 2022 en partenariat avec les associations tunisiennes We Start et Houmetna visant à consolider la participation politique des jeunes dans les gouvernorats de Kairouan, Kasserine et Béja. Ce travail s’inscrit dans un contexte où la confiance des jeunes en le système politique est faible : 8,8% dans les milieux ruraux, 31,1% dans les milieux urbains selon le rapport sur la jeunesse de la Banque Mondiale en 2014. Cette absence de confiance se traduit par une faible représentation des jeunes dans les sphères politiques : la moyenne d’âge du parlement 2019-2024 étant de 51,8 ans (d’après les données de Marsad ). Les deux phénomènes s’alimentent et se renforcent mutuellement, laissant un espace de plus en plus exigu pour les jeunes en politique.
« Ces rapports cherchent à comprendre pourquoi les jeunes Tunisien∙nes notamment issu∙es de régions longtemps marginalisées ne se sont pas retrouvé∙es dans l’espace politique qui s’est ouvert après la révolution de 2011 » déclare Zied Boussen, chercheur associé à ARI. « Cette question est d’autant plus urgente aujourd’hui vu la grande turbulence que connait la transition démocratique en Tunisie. »
Quel impact pour les quotas de jeunes dans les élections municipales ?
Le rapport « Participation politique des jeunes en Tunisie : Explorer l’impact des quotas jeunes à travers le prisme des conseillers municipaux » est le premier travail de recherche qualitatif à explorer en profondeur la participation des élu∙es municipaux∙les agé∙es de moins de trente-cinq ans à la vie politique locale. De l’acte de candidature à l’avenir politique de ces élu∙es locaux∙les, en passant par la campagne électorale de 2018, ce travail de recherche explore les différentes étapes de la participation des jeunes aux municipales où ils ont obtenu 37% des sièges.
L’étude interroge aussi les élu∙es sur leurs parcours et leurs entourages pour mieux comprendre ce qui les distingue des jeunes non-engagé∙es en politique. Dix entretiens individuels ont été menés avec des jeunes conseiller∙ères municipaux∙les élu∙es lors des élections municipales de 2018 grâce aux quotas obligatoires de jeunes imposés par l’article 49 de la loi électorale de 2014 aux listes candidates.
Le rapport montre que les jeunes ayant fait leur entrée en politique grâce aux quotas jeunes imposés lors des élections municipales sont non seulement parmi les plus diplômés, mais bénéficient en outre d’une socialisation primaire (famille) ou secondaire (syndicalisme étudiant, société civile) qui a facilité leur entrée en politique en les familiarisant à la sphère publique.
Aucun de ces élu∙es n’a été à l’initiative de sa candidature, ils et elles ont été coopté∙es par des listes menées par des personnes plus âgées (anciens professeurs, membres de la famille engagé∙es dans des partis). Le travail de ces jeunes élu∙es au sein des conseils municipaux est souvent rendu difficile par la perception que les autres élu∙es ont de leur âge (synonyme d’inexpérience) et pour les femmes, de leur genre. Toutefois, en croisant l’âge et le genre, la recherche démontre que la jeunesse ne constitue pas une identité suffisamment forte pour créer des alliances basées sur l’âge au sein d’un même conseil municipal.
« Les quotas obligatoires sont bien efficaces pour faire entrer des jeunes dans les sphères de la politique représentative. Toutefois, ils ne peuvent rien pour diversifier la provenance des élu∙es locaux∙les en amont, cela nécessite un travail de socialisation démocratique plus approfondi dans les programmes scolaires pour donner de meilleures chances à toutes et tous » déclare Malek Lakhal, chercheuse associée à ARI, « Les quotas sont par ailleurs insuffisants s’ils ne sont pas soutenus par des mesures d’accompagnement des jeunes élu∙es pour les aider à se familiariser avec le travail municipal et les textes de loi le régissant, puisque face à eux, se trouvent souvent des personnes qui ont déjà occupé ces postes du temps de Ben Ali. »
Générations Y et Z : Y a-t-il une difference entre les jeunes qui ont fait la revolution et ceux qui ont grandi durant la transition democratique?
Le rapport « Compréhensions politiques des jeunes dans la Tunisie post-2011 : La parole donnée aux générations Y et Z » est quant à lui, l’un des premiers travaux de recherche sur la jeunesse en Tunisie à explorer l’hypothèse d’une différence entre jeunes appartenant à la génération Y (aujourd’hui âgés entre 26 et 35 ans), qui ont vécu et participer à la Révolution de 2011 et génération Z (aujourd'hui âgés entre 18 et 25 ans), qui ont grandi durant la transition démocratique.
Pour tester cette hypothèse, douze focus groups ont été organisés dans six localités : Kairouan, Hajeb Laayoune et Chebika dans le gouvernorat de Kairouan, Kasserine et Foussana dans le gouvernorat de Kasserine, ainsi que Medjez el Bab, dans le gouvernorat de Beja. Dans chaque localité, deux focus groups ont été organisés : l’un avec des jeunes de la génération Z et l’autre avec des jeunes de la génération Y.
L’étude montre que les différences de perception politique sont assez importantes lorsqu’il est question de l’Ancien Régime : la génération Z, qui n’a pas connu le régime de Ben Ali a une perception plus positive de ce dernier que la génération Y dont la plupart des membres ont connu la dictature. Toutefois, ces deux générations s’accordent dans une évaluation globalement négative de la transition, tout en reconnaissant le bienfait d’une vie politique démocratique. Le rapport met en lumière les demandes de moralisation de la sphère publique émanant des jeunes issu∙es des deux générations, dans un contexte où la vie politique est secouée de scandales et polémiques quotidiennes tandis que les questions économiques et sociales sont laissées à la marge. L’accès aux services de santé, aux transports, à une bonne éducation sont autant de demandes qui transcendent l’appartenance générationnelle. De fait, bien plus que la génération, c’est l’environnement socio-politique des jeunes qui forge leur compréhension de la politique et détermine leurs appartenances. La « jeunesse » ne constitue donc pas un groupe homogène ou politiquement cohérent : générations, appartenances territoriales, appartenances de classe, et valeurs sont autant de segmentations nécessaires pour comprendre la manière de se penser des jeunes tunisien∙nes onze ans après la révolution.
Les deux études recommandent aux autorités tunisiennes de maintenir et renforcer les mécanismes d’inclusion des jeunes à la politique représentative. En amont, une révision des programmes scolaires, notamment en éducation , doit inscrire plus durablement la démocratie comme pierre angulaire de la vie politique en Tunisie. En aval, les autorités tunisiennes doivent mettre en place des mécanismes d’assistance aux jeunes élu∙es locaux, les familiarisant avec leurs fonctions. ARI recommande par ailleurs le renforcement des quotas jeunes sur les listes électorales, en le rendant obligatoire pour les élections législatives et en levant l’interdiction de se présenter aux élections présidentielles qui pèse sur les personnes âgées de moins de trente-cinq ans.
Ces réformes enverraient un message positif vers les jeunes en supprimant le principe paternaliste ayant eu cours jusqu’à aujourd’hui : plus l’élection est importante, moins les jeunes sont les bienvenus.
Ces travaux de recherches ont aussi permis dans un second temps à ARI d’accompagner de jeunes participant∙es aux focus groups à Kairouan et à Foussana, pour les aider à mettre en avant un des problèmes de politique publique auxquels ils et elles sont confronté∙es en tant que jeunes, et à y donner une réponse concrète. Cela s’est matérialisé à Foussana par l’organisation en mars 2022 des journées théâtrales de Foussana, et, à Kairouan par l’organisation d’une campagne de plaidoyer renforcée par une étude qualitative menée par les jeunes eux-mêmes sur l’état du transport dans le gouvernorat de Kairouan.
Cet accompagnement a montré que la participation des jeunes dès les premières étapes d’un projet, notamment à travers une familiarisation avec les méthodes de recherche utilisées, permet de mieux cibler les problèmes rencontrés par les jeunes. Dans un premier temps, des ateliers de travail ont été organisés pour mieux cerner les besoins des jeunes et trouver des pistes de réponses à apporter, puis, les jeunes ont eux-mêmes exécuté ces projets avec l’assistance des associations Houmetna et We Start, ce qui a permis de les familiariser davantage à l’exécution de projets et de plaidoyer de politiques publiques.
Les opinions représentées dans cet article sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement les vues de l’Arab Reform Initiative, de son personnel ou de son conseil d'administration.
Apaiser les Tensions dans l’Est de la RD Congo et les Grands Lacs
International Crisis Group, 25 Mai 2022
Les combats s'intensifient dans l'est de la République démocratique du Congo, où des forces ougandaises et burundaises pourchassent des rebelles pendant qu’une insurrection congolaise renaît. Kinshasa, soutenue par ses alliés, devrait redoubler d’efforts diplomatiques pour éviter que le pays ne devienne à nouveau un champ de bataille régional.
Que se passe-t-il ? Le président Félix Tshisekedi a autorisé l’Ouganda à déployer des troupes pour combattre des rebelles basés en République démocratique du Congo (RDC) et permis tacitement au Burundi d’en faire de même. Le Rwanda semble également envisager une incursion dans la zone. Pendant ce temps, un groupe armé congolais, le M23, se réorganise.
En quoi est-ce significatif ? La décision de Tshisekedi de convier des troupes étrangères pourrait bouleverser l’est de la RDC, déjà instable, en déclenchant une guerre par procuration ou en revigorant les rebelles congolais. Depuis des années, les rivalités entre voisins de la RDC ont engendré d’innombrables insurrections qu’ils pourraient utiliser les uns contre les autres. La campagne militaire de l’Ouganda a particulièrement irrité le Rwanda.
Comment agir ? Tshisekedi devrait réglementer les interventions étrangères sur le sol congolais, et redoubler d’efforts pour dissuader le Rwanda de déployer des forces armées en RDC. Avec le soutien du Kenya, il devrait organiser de nouveaux pourparlers avec ses voisins afin de repenser toute nouvelle action militaire et élaborer un plan général de négociation avec les groupes armés.
Le président Félix Tshisekedi a peut-être ouvert la boîte de Pandore en invitant des troupes de pays voisins à combattre les rebelles basés en République démocratique du Congo (RDC). En novembre 2021, à la suite d’attentats meurtriers dans la capitale ougandaise, Kampala, Tshisekedi a autorisé des unités ougandaises à entrer dans la province congolaise du Nord-Kivu à la poursuite des Forces démocratiques alliées (ADF), une coalition rebelle ougandaise dont la plus grande faction a prêté allégeance à l’État islamique. Le mois suivant, des soldats burundais auraient pénétré en RDC pour y combattre le groupe rebelle RED-Tabara. Ces interventions provoquent de nouveaux bouleversements dans un pays qui a déjà beaucoup souffert des rivalités régionales. Le président rwandais Paul Kagame envisage lui aussi d’envoyer des soldats. Des pourparlers menés par le Kenya ont relancé une proposition de force d’intervention est-africaine. Tshisekedi devrait établir des règles claires pour les opérations militaires étrangères en RDC. Avec l’appui du Kenya, il devrait redoubler d’efforts pour convaincre Kigali de ne pas envoyer de troupes, en soulignant les risques pour la réputation du Rwanda et en répondant à certaines des préoccupations de Kagame.
Les relations entre les pays des Grands Lacs, instables depuis des années, avaient commencé à s’améliorer ces derniers mois. En janvier, Kagame et Yoweri Museveni, le président ougandais, avaient amorcé un rapprochement après trois ans d’impasse. Les deux poids lourds de la région s’étaient brouillés à la suite d’une série de récriminations mutuelles, chacun accusant l’autre de soutenir les rebelles opérant depuis l’est de la RDC. Le Burundi et le Rwanda étaient également en meilleurs termes après qu’Evariste Ndayishimiye ait succédé à Pierre Nkurunziza, décédé subitement en juin 2020, à la présidence burundaise. Mais les activités des milices dans l’est de la RDC mettent à nouveau à rude épreuve ces liens historiquement tendus, ce qui risque d’accentuer les clivages entre le Rwanda et l’Ouganda, voire entre le Rwanda et le Burundi. La réapparition surprenante du M23, une insurrection congolaise inactive depuis près de dix ans, est particulièrement préoccupante étant donné ses liens antérieurs avec Kampala et Kigali.
Pendant des années, les voisins de la RDC ont utilisé les milices de l’est du pays – congolaises et étrangères – comme des intermédiaires. Kigali et Kampala en particulier cherchent depuis longtemps à exercer une influence dans la région dont les riches ressources minérales soutiennent les économies rwandaise et ougandaise.
Depuis son entrée en fonction en 2019, Tshisekedi a tenté de s’attaquer aux dizaines de groupes de la région en rétablissant les relations avec ses voisins – en utilisant la diplomatie régionale dans un premier temps, puis grâce à des initiatives bilatérales. Ses actions ont d’abord connu un certain succès, principalement en réunissant Kagame et Museveni dans un cadre quadripartite avec leur homologue angolais João Lourenço. Mais ses efforts ont tourné court. L’intégration de la RDC au sein de la Communauté d’Afrique de l’Est en mars a dynamisé la diplomatie régionale. Le Kenya a notamment organisé des pourparlers à Nairobi. Permettre une ingérence militaire étrangère sur le territoire congolais pourrait toutefois compromettre les perspectives diplomatiques, voire engendrer une confrontation plus large. La présence de troupes rwandaises en RDC pourrait raviver les rivalités territoriales et stimuler les insurrections locales, sapant ainsi l’objectif annoncé par Tshisekedi de stabiliser la région.
Plusieurs mesures pourraient contribuer à réduire les risques d’escalade dans l’est. Le président congolais pourrait fixer des règles pour toute intervention étrangère en clarifiant les objectifs, la durée et potentiellement la zone d’opération de celles qu’il a déjà approuvées, notamment pour l’Ouganda. Il pourrait également tenter de persuader Kagame de ne pas envoyer de troupes en RDC. Plus de transparence sur les opérations de l’Ouganda pourrait contribuer à rassurer Kagame, mais pour renforcer ses arguments Tshisekedi pourrait également souligner l’impact d’une éventuelle intervention rwandaise sur la réputation de Kigali. Le président congolais, qui vient de prendre la tête du mécanisme régional de surveillance du Cadre de paix, de sécurité et de coopération (PSC) de 2013, pourrait profiter de son mandat pour redynamiser sa diplomatie régionale. Le Kenya devrait pousser Tshisekedi à élaborer un plan global pour les négociations avec les groupes armés. Enfin, la Conférence Internationale sur la Région des Grands Lacs, un organe composé d’États de la région et garant du PSC, devrait continuer à réunir des preuves relatives au soutien étranger aux rebelles de la RDC.
Nairobi/Bruxelles, 25 mai 2022
Pour l’integralite du rapport, visiter: https://www.crisisgroup.org/fr/africa/great-lakes/democratic-republic-congo/b181-easing-turmoil-eastern-dr-congo-and-great-lakes