Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | March

01 April 2021
 


The March edition of InTouch Monthly includes the attack on Palma in Mozambique, the political and health crisis in Brazil and the debate sparked by the killing of Sarah Everard in the UK. We also cover the new interim government in Libya and the deadly fire at a camp for Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh.

AFRICA

Mozambique | On Wednesday 24 March, suspected Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaa (ASWJ) militants launched a coordinated assault on the northern town of Palma in Cabo Delgado province. The attack came a day after the French energy-giant Total announced that it would resume operations at the nearby liquified natural gas project (LNG) off the Afungi peninsula. Insurgents stormed the town from several directions, cutting off the road to the village of Man’Guna to the south-west of Palma while another group entered from the north. The force, estimated to include more than 100 fighters, were heavily armed and the raid appeared to have been well planned. The local security forces were outnumbered and outgunned, and within hours the militants were in control of large areas of the town.

Thousands of local residents were forced to flee by foot into the surrounding bush; some walked for days without food and water north to the border with Tanzania. Boats also evacuated people from the beaches near Palma and from Afungi and took them south to the port city of Pemba. Hundreds remained trapped inside the town, including a large group at the Amarula Palma hotel compound. Following an attack on a nearby camp on Friday, a convoy of 17 vehicles left for the beach when they were attacked. Only seven of the 17 vehicles made it through the ambush. There were seven confirmed deaths from the seven vehicles; the passengers in the remaining 10 vehicles are all presumed dead (estimates of 40-50 people). Local sources also reported seeing decapitated bodies across the town and nearby beach. The South Africa-based Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which is contracted to the Mozambique government to help the security forces fight the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, managed to rescue small groups who were hiding in the bush outside Palma.

The security forces launched a counter-offensive on Sunday, and earlier this week officials claimed that the insurgents had started to withdraw from the town. Those statements were premature; a group of journalists with a military escort came under fire on Tuesday when they travelled to the town to report on the assault. They were forced to withdraw to Afungi with no injuries reported. The militants were hiding out in residential houses and a small number are still believed to remain in the town, which is largely abandoned. "They are small groups, often mixed with some remaining population that have been making these wear and tear shots at our forces. But, surely, there is not a large terrorist group in the village of Palma, I can assure you," said Chongo Vidigal, Mozambique Defense and Security Forces Spokesperson. Troops are conducting clearing operations but it will likely take several days until Palma is fully secured. Total suspended its operations at the LNG site and the project, worth an estimated $15bn, is not expected to resume until the situation is resolved. “Total trusts the government of Mozambique, whose public security forces are currently working to take back the control of the area,” the company said in a statement on Saturday.

The ASWJ pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in 2019 and adopted the title Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). On Monday ISCAP claimed responsibility for the attack via its Amaq news agency, stating that it had killed 55 “Christians” from “crusader states”. They released an image of dozens of militants gathered together, although it appears to have been taken in 2020 near Mocimboa da Praia. IS also has a history of claiming responsibility for attacks that it had little or no involvement in. However, it is clear that the insurgency that started in 2017 is growing in strength and the Mozambican security forces remain unable to deal with the threat. Portugal announced this week that a team of around 60 special forces troops will be dispatched to help train the local security forces in its former colony. The US also said it was "committed to working together with the government of Mozambique" to combat the militant group.

More troops and fresh counter-terrorism strategies will not deal with the root causes of the insurgency. ASWJ first emerged as a small group back in 2008 that followed Kenyan Muslim cleric Sheikh Rogo. The group eventually moved to Cabo Delgado, where they attracted former fishermen, local bandits and young men who felt disenfranchised, especially from the Kimwani tribe. Poverty and unemployment is high in northern Mozambique, while there is widespread distrust of the central government and the security forces. Foreign nationals, including large numbers from neighbouring Tanzania, also joined the group’s ranks. The insurgency has parallels with others, such as the rise of Boko Haram (BH) in north-east Nigeria. ASWJ and BH both started as small religious sects that quickly developed into guerrilla groups that attracted mostly young men from poor local communities. A military-focused strategy has failed to end the conflict in Nigeria and the same approach is delivering identical results in Mozambique.

Niger | On Wednesday several soldiers were arrested after an “attempted coup” in Niamey. The detentions came after gunfire was reported in the Plateau district near the presidency in the early hours of the morning. The incident came just days before Mohamed Bazoum is set to be sworn in to replace outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou, who is stepping down after serving two five-year terms. Bazoum’s victory, which represents the first elected transition since Niger’s independence from France in 1960, was contested by former President Mahamane Ousmane. Earlier this month the constitutional court confirmed Bazoum’s victory, declaring that his ruling PNDS party won 55.66 percent of the vote against Ousmane’s RDR-Tchanji party, which won 45.34 percent. Ousmane called for peaceful marches to protest alleged fraud; however the authorities banned the event citing concerns over the spread of Covid-19.

One of the key challenges facing Bazoum when he takes office on Friday is the increasing attacks carried out by jihadist groups inside the country. In January more than 100 people died in attacks on two villages in the western Tillaberi region. This was followed by an ambush in the same area in mid-March; at least 58 people died when gunmen intercepted four vehicles transporting civilians from a market to the villages of Chinagoder and Darey Dey. On 21 March gunmen raided villages in the Tahoua region near the border with Mali, killing around 140 people. “In treating civilian populations systematically as targets now, these armed bandits have gone a step further into horror and brutality,” government spokesman Zakaria Abdourahamane said in a televised address. Several jihadist groups operate across the borders of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, including Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) - which is a coalition of Ansar al-Din, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Mourabitoun and Katibat Macina – and Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS).


AMERICAS

Brazil | As President Jair Bolsonaro reshuffles most of his cabinet, Brazil faces one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic. The South American nation recorded new daily-high death tolls several times in the past weeks and now has the second-highest total death toll in the world, only behind the US. Bolsonaro, who repeatedly downplayed the outbreak, has been the target of severe criticism over his handling of the pandemic along with his political moves aiming to centralize power in his favour; his approval ratings dropped steeply from 59 percent to 37 percent in March. A Supreme Court judge’s ruling exonerating former president Luis Inazio Lula da Silva, did not help Bolsonaro’s political outlook, as Lula gave an emotional speech on Bolsonaro’s failures and hinted at a return to politics.

After Bolsonaro removed his Minister of Defense, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, the Navy, Army and Air Force commanders resigned in response, only a couple of weeks after Bolsonaro had appointed his fourth health minister since the pandemic began. This week, Bolsonaro had to replace nine cabinet members, namely his minister of defence, the minister of foreign affairs, the secretary of government, the attorney general of the union, the chief minister in the civil house of the presidency and his minister of justice and public safety. This represents the biggest cabinet change since Bolsonaro took office.

Recently Sergio Olímpio Gomes, a Senator and former policeman died from the virus aged 58, while four percent of Brazil’s legislative upper house has succumbed to the virus. Brazil’s health system is on the brink of collapse due to the high number of cases of Covid-19. Eighty percent of intensive-care beds are occupied in 25 of Brazil’s 27 states, and 18 states have reported a shortage of drugs and ventilators. As a result, many of the hospitals have been caring for patients in emergency rooms due to Intensive Care Units being full. Moreover, Brazil is struggling to contain a variant strain which originated in the city of Manaus. The P1 strain, believed to be more contagious, is reportedly able to re-infect those that had been infected by the original strain, and some of the available vaccines have proven to be not as effective against it. The variant has been detected in 33 countries; many of them responded by closing their borders to Brazil, including neighbouring Peru and Colombia.

Governors and mayors who had implemented lockdowns had been hesitant to do so, stating that there are not enough police officers available to ensure that the measures are enforced. But these public officials are now taking them more seriously, having implemented lockdowns for the upcoming Easter Holidays including the shut-down of beaches and banning large public gatherings. Bolsonaro responded by filing lawsuits with the Supreme Court against three states who have tightened lockdowns. On 30 March, the daily death toll reached a record 3,780, surpassing the 23 March record of 3,158, after which President Bolsonaro went on television to boast about the progress of the vaccination campaign. Brazil currently tallies 12.7m cases of coronavirus along with 318,000 deaths and is set to continue to struggle as the virus remains rampant across the country.

Mexico | After constantly down-playing the pandemic during his routine morning press briefings, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) announced he would get vaccinated for Covid-19 next week; the president had contracted the virus in January and recovered. Even though the president has agreed to get vaccinated, Mexico’s vaccine roll-out has been sub-par thus far. An extreme cold front in the north of the country (and the southern US) earlier in the year caused a bottleneck in logistics which resulted in delays and considerable losses of vaccine shipments. Unfortunately, Mexico had only secured a few vaccines by then and went on to complain to the UN about certain countries hoarding them. Today, Mexico has only administered around 6.5m doses to its 128m population with help from the US who agreed to send 2.5m AstraZeneca vaccines in an agreement struck with Mexico and Canada. Meanwhile, new data showed that more than 321,000 Mexicans have died from Covid, a 60 percent increase from the previous count.

Hospitals in Mexico have been overwhelmed throughout the pandemic, highlighting a weak public health system and infrastructure. AMLO and his government had to subsidise ventilator production early in the pandemic in order to make up for a significant lack of supply. Additionally, Mexico has continued to struggle with its ongoing violence. At the beginning of March, AMLO deployed several thousand National Guard troops to the most violent states, namely Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Zacatecas and Querétaro, in order to curb rising levels of violence. AMLO also sent some National Guard troops to halt migrants from Central America heading to the US border under pressure from US President Joe Biden. Reportedly, one of the biggest caravans was halted in Honduras on 31 March after gathering and leaving from San Pedro Sula en route to the US.

As Mexico’s slow, yet improving, vaccine roll-out seeks to alleviate the crisis, Mexico’s economy keeps struggling with tremendous losses from the cancellation of a new international airport, a highly inefficient state-run oil company, illegal activity and drug-related violence. AMLO has his desk full for the upcoming months as he looks to placate the population ahead of elections scheduled for 2022.

Paraguay | The streets of Paraguay have seen a constant wave of civil unrest against President Mario Abdo Benítez and his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Thousands of protesters have been involved in clashes with police, with reports of several dozen injured and many others arrested. President Benítez announced a reshuffling of his cabinet in response to the unrest, replacing his chief of staff and ministries of health, education, women’s issues and civil affairs. However, the ongoing protests not only call for the resignation of President Benítez, but also for an overhaul of the healthcare system and state infrastructure which the government has clearly failed to provide. With a population of seven million, Paraguay has only received 4,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and 20,000 as a donation from China’s Sinovac.

The protests have been staged mainly in front of Congress in Asunción, the nation’s capital. Health officials claim they constantly submit reports about a lack of availability in hospital beds and Intensive Care Units and claim little or no response from the government has been received. Paraguay’s slow vaccine roll-out has also highlighted corruption in the government, with claims of preferential treatment for people in power. What began as peaceful demonstrations by health workers, quickly gained intensity as infection rates rose and turned violent as police met protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Though President Abdo’s impeachment has been called for in the last weeks, the president seems to be safe at the moment thanks to Horacio Cartes, the former president and business tycoon who leads the ruling Colorado party, which holds enough of a presence in Congress to block the impeachment vote. A tougher task will be subduing the massive nationwide wave of civil unrest which calls for his removal and improving public health policies.

 

ASIA

Australia | Clean-up efforts remain underway across much of New South Wales (NSW) following severe flooding last month. Days of extreme torrential rain and flash floods inundated parts of NSW and neighbouring states, leaving at least three people dead while two others remain unaccounted for. The floods caused extensive damage as tens of thousands were evacuated.

The floods affected regions from the North Coast to the Sydney Metropolitan area in the south, with parts of western Sydney experiencing the worst flooding in six decades. Bordering areas of south-east Queensland were also impacted by flooding and heavy rainfall. The severe adverse weather was the result of a major weather system hitting the eastern coast, before colliding with a second weather system as it made its way up the NSW coastline. The Australian government declared parts of the east coast a natural disaster zone after some 18,000 people were forced to evacuate and more than 1,000 flood rescues were carried out. Those killed amid the floods included an elderly man who crashed his vehicle into a tree during heavy rain in Mona Vale, a 25-year-old man who was found trapped in his car some 20 feet underwater in Glenorie, and a 38-year-old male whose body was found in an overturned vehicle in floodwaters in Canungra. Two others remain missing and are presumed dead: a male in his 60s who disappeared in Coffs Harbour, and an elderly woman whose car was found submerged in water.

The floods have hit less than a year-and-a-half after much of the country was affected by the Black Summer bushfires. The recent flooding has impacted many towns which were still recovering from the 2019 disaster. The government praised emergency workers and the volunteer response, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison encouraging those in disaster zones to heed warnings to stay safe and follow the instructions of local authorities. Amid the aftermath of the floods, the NSW government announced it was broadening its disaster recovery assistance to cover additional local government areas in Sydney. Climate change activists have highlighted the close succession of bushfires followed by floods as an example of extreme weather phenomena occurring more frequently because of climate change.

China | The recent trials of two Canadians detained in China have highlighted strained tensions between the two countries. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were both arrested on espionage charges in 2019 amid a diplomatic tit-for-tat row between Ottawa and Beijing. The row was initially sparked over the detention of Meng Wanzhou - a senior executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei - by Canadian authorities on a US warrant. The trials come as an extradition hearing for Meng - the daughter of Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei - enters its final months. Meng faces charges that she and the company violated US sanctions on Iran. Kovrig - a former diplomat - and Spavor - a former businessman - are believed to have been arbitrarily arrested amid the diplomatic spat, prompting Canada to accuse China of “hostage diplomacy”.

Beijing has denied such allegations, accusing both Kovrig and Spavor of stealing state secrets. The closed-door trials of Kovrig and Spavor have been typical of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) justice system, prompting criticism from Canada over the lack of transparency after Canadian and American diplomats were barred from the courts. Chinese courts have also come under fire for refusing to share evidence with the defence - further fuelling accusations that the judicial process for the trials is pre-ordained by the CCP in a politically-motivated case. Charge d’affairs of the Canadian embassy in Beijing Jon Nickel stated that the lack of access and non-transparency of the legal process was “very troubling” as he reiterated calls for Kovrig’s and Spavor’s release. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also demanded the pair be released, criticising their detention and the lack of openness around court proceedings as “completely unacceptable”. Chinese court officials have maintained the position that no entry was allowed because the trials were both national security cases. Both trials ended without a verdict being announced.

Chinese-Canadian relations have further fractured over recent sanctions imposed over Beijing’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim ethnic minority in the Xinjiang province. Both countries issued sanctions on each other last month in a growing row over the alleged persecution of Uighur Muslims, with a Chinese diplomat recently dismissing Trudeau as a ‘boy’ and accusing him of making Canada a ‘running dog of the US’. China has previously used similar rhetoric amid diplomatic spats with other Western countries, calling Australia a ‘puppet of the US’ last year in a row over investigations into the origin of Covid-19. During a news conference held last month, Trudeau stated that recent sanctions imposed on four Chinese officials by Ottawa were not linked to the detention of Kovrig and Spavor and were solely motivated by ongoing human rights abuses suffered by the Uighur minority.

Bangladesh | A massive fire that broke out in the Kutupalong Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar last month killed at least 15 people while 400 others remain missing and are feared dead. The camp is home to tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled persecution from neighbouring Myanmar. The blaze spread rapidly through four blocks of the densely-populated camp, causing extensive damage and displacing roughly 50,000 refugees. Multiple food distribution warehouses were destroyed, along with thousands of shelters, key health clinics, mosques, and community centres. It’s estimated that somewhere between 17,000 - 40,000 shelters, most of them makeshift constructions, were destroyed in the fire.

Investigations suggest the fire may have started when liquified petroleum gas cylinders used for cooking exploded. In the aftermath of the disaster, the use of barbed wire fences surrounding camps has come under heavy criticism, with some human rights observers arguing the fences prevented people from escaping the fire, potentially contributing to the overall death toll. The UN aid groups, and Rohingya leaders have suggested the military-erected fences encircling camps trapped many victims of the fire and hampered rescue efforts during the 12-hour blaze - leading international humanitarian agencies to call for the removal of the fences. Bangladeshi authorities have rejected claims that the barbed wire indirectly caused deaths, stating that “the fencing was not a major issue”, instead blaming the high casualty figures on the speed with which the fire spread. A major contributing factor to the fire spreading was the closely-cramped quarters of camps and the use of highly flammable material in makeshift shelters. Human rights groups Amnesty International have also raised concerns over the frequency of such fires in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, pointing at systemic failure to adequately identify causes and implement preventative measures. Aid agencies estimate between 87,500 - 123,000 people have been affected by the fire, with potentially thousands more yet to be affected as cyclone season approaches.

Elsewhere across Bangladesh, multiple deaths have been reported amid protests against the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendrea Modi. Increasingly violent anti-Modi demonstrations by religious hardliners have been taking place throughout the last week, with more than a dozen killed amid clashes between protesters and police. Amid the deadly clashes, protesters set fire to furniture and tyres, stormed police stations, and blocked major roads - prompting police intervention as officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds. There have also been reports of protesters attacking police officers with projectiles, while others allegedly attacked a train carrying passengers from Dhaka to Chittagong. Protests have mostly been fuelled by the religious hard-line group Hefazat-e-Islam, which has accused Modi of stoking communal violence against Muslims within India. The group has a nationwide network and has staged multiple large-scale protests in the past, including demonstrations calling for the introduction of blasphemy laws in Bangladesh. Other groups - including students, leftists, and other political outfits - also staged anti-Modi protests. The demonstrations came as Bangladesh marked 50 years of independence in March.

North Korea | The recent testing of two ballistic missiles by North Korea has heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, prompting neighbouring South Korea to hold an emergency National Security Council meeting. North Korea fired two “new-type tactical guided projectiles” into the Sea of Japan in a move that directly violates a UN Security Council resolution banning the testing of ballistic missiles. A statement from North Korean officials was broadcast by state media shortly after the test, stating that the two missiles struck a test target 600km off North Korea’s east coast, disputing Japanese assessments that the missiles flew just over 400km. The North Korean statement also claimed the new type of missile was capable of carrying a payload of up to 2.5 tons - making the missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The missile test has widely been seen as a threat to inter-Korean relations, which have seen peace talks stall in recent years.

The missile test is the country’s first ballistic launch in almost a year and the first since the US administration changed earlier this year. US President Joe Biden responded to an initial missile test, which saw two short-range missiles fired just days before the ballistic missile launch, saying he didn't consider the short-range test a provocation. The launching of the short-range missiles came after Pyongyang criticised the US and South Korea for conducting joint military exercises - which the North has long regarded as a provocation. The US administration has so far maintained its position that it aims to continue to attempt to re-establish diplomatic contact with Pyongyang ahead of an upcoming review on North Korea policy. However, following the more recent test launch of two ballistic missiles, Biden condemned the test along with Japan and South Korea, stating that while the US remains open to diplomacy, it will “respond accordingly” if North Korea chooses to escalate matters. In response to Biden’s comments, North Korea threatened a further military build-up.

South Korea’s intelligence agency suggests the recent missile launches were a protest from Pyongyang over the extradition of North Korean citizen Mun Chol Myong from Malaysia to the US, as well as the recent UN Human Rights Council resolution against North Korea. It is suspected that the North is sending a message to the world and potentially testing the limits of the new US administration by warning the US not to cause “a stink” as it flexes its military muscles.  Many observers have interpreted recent activity from the North as a threat that it will respond to the US policy review with further tests. As Washington enters the final stages of its policy review on North Korea, recent developments are likely to push the US administration towards a firm line on de-nuclearisation, sanctions, and human rights.


EUROPE

UK | The issue of female security has been brought to the fore in the UK, following the recent death of 33-year-old Sarah Everard, who went missing in London whilst walking home from a friend’s house last month. After extensive search efforts, Everard’s body was later discovered in woodland near Ashford in Kent. Met police officer PC Wayne Couzens, 48, was arrested in connection with the case and has since been charged with Everard’s kidnap and murder. Couzens remains in custody and is due to appear in court on 9 July ahead of a trial set to start 25 October.

Everard's case has prompted public debate over women's safety, inspiring a protest at Parliament Square. Following confirmation of Everard’s death, an event called 'Reclaim these Streets' was planned but was later called off after police allegedly failed to engage with organisers on how the event could be held in a Covid-secure setting. A vigil was later held in her memory on Clapham Common, which led to the police coming under intense criticism for handcuffing women and removing them from crowds. The details of Everard’s disappearance and subsequent death have also increased scrutiny over policing in London. The extensive media coverage has been called a “public relations disaster” for the police, causing significant damage to public confidence in policing. An inquiry into police conduct found officers acted “appropriately” at the vigil in line with Covid-19 public health restrictions but could have improved “communication between police commanders about changing events on the ground”.

Outside of London, violent ‘Kill the Bill’ protests have broken out in Bristol, leading to clashes between protesters and police. Multiple arrests were made following several nights of protests in the city, which – with hundreds in attendance - were a direct violation of Covid-19 lockdown measures which prohibit large outdoor gatherings. The protests came as Covid-19 cases fell significantly leading up to the first phase of relaxing lockdown restrictions across England as part of the government’s roadmap out of lockdown. As of 27 March, the stay-at-home order has been lifted, prompting Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urge the public to proceed with caution to avoid another spike in cases that would compromise the government’s phased approach to easing restrictions. Easter bank holiday weekend has been of particular concern, due to the potential for a delayed spike caused by increased social movement and interaction. If rates of infection remain low and virus mutations don’t significantly impact vaccination efficacy, the second stage of easing lockdown measures will come into effect on 12 April.

The Netherlands | In a general election held last month, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte secured his fourth term in office. Out of 37 political parties competing in the election, Rutte’s centre-right liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party was the favourite to win the election from the start. Turnout for the election was high, at 82.6 percent. The VVD managed to win 35 out of 150 seats in the House of Representatives, while centre-left Liberal Democrats 66 (D66) won 24 seats. The results were enough to provide the PM with a mandate to form a new coalition government. Rutte's victory comes despite a turbulent year following a governmental scandal and the delayed roll-out of the country's vaccination programme. Rutte’s last government resigned in January over a child welfare fraud scandal and the election was widely seen as a referendum on the Dutch government’s pandemic response.

The surge in support for the socially liberal, pro-EU D66 party, is indicative of a shift in political leanings of the electorate and could see the party snag some powerful posts in a future coalition. The party was a member of Rutte’s outgoing coalition, so is well-positioned to make another alliance, although environmental issues such as climate change remain a sticking point between the two parties.

The Dutch election was unique in that it was the first "Covid election" in the EU this year and was held as the country remained under a strict lockdown. The election was the first in a string of polls this year with the potential to shake the Continent’s political landscape as it begins to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis. Rutte’s win indicates a preference amongst Dutch voters for stability over change, despite the government scandal and its mediocre handling of the pandemic.

The strict lockdown in the Netherlands has been in effect since mid-December last year. Over the last month, anti-lockdown protests and demonstrations have been taking place with increasing frequency in major towns and cities. The police in Amsterdam have responded to multiple demonstrations by using water cannons to disperse large crowds. Last week, the Dutch lockdown was extended to 20 April, with some curfew relief. All lockdown measures currently remain in place, although the nightly curfew will begin an hour later, changing from 21:00 – 04:30 local time to apply between the hours of 22:00 – 04:30.

During a recent press conference, Rutte stated that the country was at a crossroads in its pandemic response, where lockdown restrictions could either be strengthened or relaxed. Rutte indicated that a relaxation of measures could rely on vaccination progress and improved infection rates across Europe.

Germany | German Chancellor Angela Merkel was forced to make a surprising U-turn on Covid-19 lockdown plans in March. After announcing plans to enforce a strict lockdown over the Easter holiday period amid rising cases and fears of a third wave, Merkel reversed the decision a day later, calling the move a “mistake” for which she accepted responsibility. The reversal came about following a crisis meeting which was held in conjunction with consultation from leading scientists and business leaders. Although the proposed tightening of lockdown restrictions from 1 – 5 April had been agreed by regional leaders, the move was widely criticised by consulting groups during the crisis meeting, prompting Merkel’s government to review necessary measures. The proposed lockdown would have been the country’s strongest restrictions thus far, forcing almost all shops to close and limiting social gatherings. Along with scientists and business leaders, retailers and religious leaders have also welcomed the U-turn. In place of the lockdown, Merkel confirmed the country’s existing partial lockdown measures would instead be extended until 18 April.

Despite the partial lockdown, Covid-19 cases have continued to rise in Germany, prompting new rules requiring all air passengers to provide a negative coronavirus test. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced last week that the country will be increasing checks on all land borders to ensure compliance with the new rules. The latest measures come as the head of the country’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) warned that the number of daily cases being reported could rise to 100,000 a day if the current rate of infection is not curbed.

Separately, Berlin also announced last week it was halting the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine for anyone under the age of 60 due to concerns over blood clotting. The move comes despite a European medicines regulator investigation concluding there was no association between the vaccine and an increased risk of blood clots after a number of countries temporarily halted its rollout, confirming the benefits of the vaccine far outweighed any risks. The decision to halt the use of the vaccine has been described as a “precaution” after 31 cases of blood clots were reported in vaccine recipients in Germany.


MENA

Israel | Another election, another stalemate. Israelis went to the polls last week for the fourth time in two years after the previous elections failed to deliver a stable, working government. This latest vote has done nothing to change that, and a fifth election seems inevitable. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud emerged as the largest party but his bloc (52 seats) is short of the 61-seat majority needed to form a coalition. The anti-Netanyahu bloc is also currently four seats short. Both sides are trying to convince the Islamist United Arab List party (UAL), headed by Mansour Abbas, to join them and add his four seats to their respective tallies. The head of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz, who briefly partnered Netanyahu in a unity government before the pair fell out, has warned Abbas against working with the PM. “Bibi [Netanyahu] is using you,” cautioned Gantz, adding “he will renege on all commitments he gave you, he will dismantle every letter in the coalition agreement.”

Even if Netanyahu could convince Abbas to join his coalition, something which would previously have been inconceivable, the far-right Religious Zionism party said it would not cooperate. Abbas has previously said that he has more in common with Israel’s right-wing parties than those on the left, and called for Palestinian citizens in Israel to rethink their political alliances. He also voted to block a parliamentary probe into one of the ongoing corruption cases against Netanyahu, but he also supports a two-state solution and protested against the government’s normalisation deals with the UAE and Bahrain. The fact that Netanyahu will struggle to form a government without the UAL is a sign of how chaotic Israel’s political system has become; it also shows how desperate the PM is to cling to power. The election took place with three corruption cases hanging over Netanyahu, prompting several large protests calling for him to resign.

Libya | A new interim government was sworn-in during a ceremony in Tobruk in the middle of March following months of UN-brokered talks. Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and the new three-member presidency council will lead the country until national elections are held in December. The Government of National Unity (GNU) replaced the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli and the rival administration based in eastern Libya. The GNU has already called for an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters to leave the country and for all sides to adhere to the ceasefire which has been in place since last October. At the end of March, more than 100 fighters from the Libyan National Army (LNA) were released in a move that Abdallah al-Lafi, vice president of the country’s new presidential council, described as "a concession in the interests of the nation." The troops were members of the 107th Brigade which was involved in the offensive on Tripoli in 2019.

The GNU, which is the first national government in seven years, represents the best chance Libya has had at ending the violence which erupted when Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown a decade ago. “Today’s swearing-in session illustrates the eagerness and the determination of Libyans to overcome their differences, work for a better future for all,” said Jan Kubis, the UN special envoy for Libya, following the ceremony in Tobruk. The foreign powers which became embroiled in the conflict, including Egypt and Turkey which previously backed rival sides, have both welcomed the GNU. The government will face a number of challenges in the coming months to keep all of Libya’s rival factions and groups onside. The distribution of oil revenues and the reunification of the military are two of the key tasks that the GNU will need to manage carefully, but there is a real sense of optimism for Libya’s future.

Sudan | Sudan's government has signed an agreement with Sudan’s People Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) following talks in South Sudan's capital, Juba. The "declaration of principles" outlined the unification of armed forces and the establishment of a democratic, secular state with freedom of religion. The agreement was signed by Sudan's Sovereign Council chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and SPLM-N leader Abdelaziz al-Hilu on 28 March. Talks will continue towards a final peace settlement. The transitional government has been trying to stabilise the country ahead of elections scheduled to take place in late 2022; last October the government reached a similar agreement with a coalition of armed groups - the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF). The government still has to agree on a peace deal with a faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), which remains active in the Darfur region.

Aside from the deal with the SPLM-N, the Sudanese government has also been pushing for expanded talks over the disputed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). “The prime minister sent letters asking the UN and the US to intervene and mediate in the dispute over the Renaissance Dam,” said Faisal Mohammad Saleh, a spokesman for Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The government also requested that the African Union and European Union take part in the talks, although this suggestion was rejected by Addis Ababa. The previous talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have repeatedly failed over the past decade to reach a conclusive agreement and tensions remain high in the region. Last month Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warned that there would be severe consequences if Egypt’s water supply were affected by the GERD. “I’m not threatening anyone here, our dialogue is always reasonable and rational,” el-Sisi said. “I say once again no one can take a drop from Egypt’s water, and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region.” President Felix Tshisekedi will host talks between the three countries in Kinshasa on Saturday.