(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Caribbean tsunamis, migration art and humanitarians and climate change: The Cheat Sheet

    Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar


    Australian asylum policies under fire


    Kicked off the Pacific nation of Nauru, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) this week called for the “immediate evacuation” of all asylum seekers and refugees on the island and an end to Australia’s detention policies for asylum seekers arriving by boat. MSF say the mental health situation on Nauru is “beyond desperate” for an estimated 900 asylum seekers or refugees, including 115 children. Staff psychiatrists forced to leave the island this week described suicide attempts, self-harm, and cases of children who were so traumatised that they were “unable to eat, drink, or even walk to the toilet”. They warned that MSF’s withdrawal from Nauru “will claim lives”. Nauru’s government told MSF that its services were not needed, according to the aid group. Nauru’s government frequently disputes the portrayal of conditions for refugees on the island, calling them “outrageous false allegations by advocates”. Under Australia’s controversial offshore detention policies, asylum seekers arriving by boat were sent to Nauru and Manus Island on Papua New Guinea and barred from ever resettling in Australia even if their refugee claims were verified. Following a March visit to Nauru, the UN refugee agency’s director for Asia and the Pacific said refugees were living under “desperate conditions” and called the policies that keep them there “an abomination”.

    Child hunger: a tale of inequality


    Angola, Rwanda, and Ethiopia have made the most progress in reducing hunger since 2000, according to a new report. Figuring out which countries have gotten worse is harder, as seven candidates (including Syria, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan) don't offer reliable data. An annual survey tracking child malnutrition and mortality, the Global Hunger Index, produced by NGOs Concern and Welt Hunger Hilfe, this week reported some “promising” progress in reducing malnutrition since 2000. What it also shows is that child malnutrition can tell a striking story about inequality: in the most extreme example, stunting rates veer between 10 percent in prosperous areas of southern Nigeria to over 50 percent in parts of the north.


    Preparing for tsunamis in the Caribbean


    Tsunami preparedness and early warning is an urgent topic these days after Indonesia’s 28 September disaster. Across the world, scientists are studying the possible impacts if a significant tsunami were to strike the Caribbean. Writing for Eos, an earth sciences news site published by the American Geophysical Union, researchers say the “enclosed nature” of the Caribbean basin could see tsunami waves reach populated coastlines in a matter of minutes. There have been 100 tsunamis in the region over the past 500 years. The research is aimed at helping emergency planning to lower tsunami risk in the region.


    Ebola makes a comeback


    Six new cases of Ebola were confirmed in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this week, as the country’s health ministry, the Red Cross and health NGOs continue to tackle the second major outbreak of the disease this year. To date, 200 cases have been reported, of which 165 have been confirmed by laboratory tests, and 90 people have died, according to the DRC ministry of health on 11 October. MSF emergency coordinator Laurence Sailly said the situation remains worrying: "There are confirmed patients in big cities like Beni and Butembo, but also in places far away from the epicentre, close to the Ugandan border. That makes it difficult to contain the epidemic.” Last month the World Health Organisation cautioned that the risk of Ebola spreading nationally and regionally was "very high", adding that it was important for neighbouring provinces and countries to enhance their surveillance and preparedness activities.


    One to listen to

    Our audio offering this week is from the BBC’s “Seriously…” podcast, and it intersperses reporting from the US border fence with a discussion of art inspired by the journeys migrants make, or attempt to make, into the country. Here’s a sample: an installation of bricks, each one made with sand from the location where a migrant’s body was found in or around Tucson, Arizona; a virtual reality film by an Oscar-winning director that takes viewers through capture and detention in the desert; and photographs of items (rosaries, family photos, even combs) confiscated and thrown away by authorities, taken by an artist who worked as a janitor at a US Customs and Border Patrol station. It’s worth a listen just to hear how the ring of a pipe on one spot on the border fence has become part of a moving composition.


    In case you missed it

    Angola: Tens of thousands of refugees and migrant workers living in Angola were reportedly forced to return to the DRC this week, after the Angolan government issued a notice urging all foreigners without documentation or temporary residence permits to vacate the country. After the outbreak of violence in the DRC’s Kasai region last March, 1.4 million people were displaced while an estimated over 35,000 refugees fled into Angola’s Lunda Norte Province. Since being forcibly returned, reports say that some people are now sleeping out in the open or in churches. Kasai remains volatile, and clashes between militias and government forces regularly occur.


    Cameroon: Last Sunday, Cameroonians voted against the backdrop of conflict and instability in the northwest and southwest Anglophone regions. With at least 246,000 people internally displaced, voter turnout was stifled in parts of the country. Election results are expected to be announced on 22 October, with President Paul Biya predicted to enter his seventh consecutive term despite a vocal opposition, including candidate Maurice Kamto who, a day after the election, claimed victory – a claim the government called “irresponsible, illegal”.


    Indonesia: With news headlines from Indonesia dominated by the Sulawesi earthquakes and tsunami, it’s easy to forget that the government is still dealing with a separate humanitarian response on the island of Lombok, which was hit by an earthquake in August. Data released this month shows there are still 432,000 people displaced. The IOM, the UN’s migration agency, says some people are choosing to live in tents outside their homes.


    Pakistan will allow registered Afghan refugees to stay legally in the country until 30 June 2019, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. It’s a relatively lengthy reprieve for some 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The government this year imposed multiple short-term deadlines for refugees to leave, extending them by mere months at time.


    Syria: A Turkey-Russia negotiated truce is set to come into force in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on 15 October, and this week one group of Turkey-backed rebels withdrew their heavy weaponry from what is intended to become a demilitarised zone. But it’s still not clear if a key group of jihadist fighters intends to cooperate or if calm will hold for 2.5 million civilians in the area. Catch up on the deal here and the rebels on the ground here.


    United States: Nikki Haley’s resignation announcement on Tuesday as US ambassador to the UN has brought attention to the legacy she’ll leave after nearly two years in the role. In humanitarian terms, it has been one of loss. Haley withdrew US funding from various UN projects — most controversially the UNRWA for Palestinians — and threatened to cut peacekeeping budgets and suspend aid to nearly 40 nations that voted against US interests. She also pulled the US out of the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Global Compact on Migration, echoing Donald Trump’s distaste for multilateralism.


    The weekend read

    How climate change is plunging Senegal’s herders into poverty

    This week, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of the devastating impact of a rapidly warming planet, saying the consequences of not halting the rise in global temperatures will rapidly change the way people live, with sea levels rising, coral reefs declining, and livestock and crops dying out. For the Fulani herders of West Africa’s Sahel region, the news is confirmation of what they already live through every day: drought, floods, and land degradation that increasingly threatens their way of life. Over the past six months, IRIN contributor Lucinda Rouse intermittently followed life in the herding communities of the drought-stricken Sahel region. For a timely weekend read, take a look at her first instalment in a three-part series on those herders and their families, exploring how they are coping with the impact of the worst “lean season” in years. Six million people in the Sahel faced severe food shortages between January and August this year, and the worst may be yet to come; 2.5 million livestock herders and crop growers now risk losing their incomes.


    Humanitarians and climate change

    In a week when the IPCC report spurred headlines that trumpeted dire warnings on the impacts of two degrees of global warming, diplomats, humanitarian policymakers, and some of the scientists behind the report came together in Geneva to take a different approach: how must aid workers and crisis responders act differently to anticipate and better address the humanitarian implications of climate change? Humanitarian response has long addressed climate crises, “we just don’t frame it as such”, Caroline Kende-Robb, secretary-general of CARE International, told the group gathered at the Palais des Nations for the “Climate Science and Humanitarian Dialogue” on Friday. IRIN’s own reporting regularly chronicles the human effects of climate change, including displacement, lost livelihoods, and malnutrition from drought, famine, and flooding. So what’s the key to humanitarian action now? Data is one. Forecast-based financing can spur early action, several speakers noted during a morning panel moderated by IRIN director Heba Aly. (For more on forecast-based financing, see our analysis on the initiative announced last month by the World Bank to address famine.) Documenting the current impacts of climate change is important, too, panelists noted, as a way to anticipate need. “The most vulnerable places have the weakest science,” Myles Allen, who contributed to the report, noted. He urged that humanitarians report on what they are seeing now and tell the stories of people whose lives are already changed by a warming world.


    As Marshall Islands citizen and poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner wrote in “2 Degrees”,


    the discussions

    are faces

    all the way out here

    And finally


    This Thursday was International Day of the Girl, so we’re taking this opportunity (with the help of CARE and our back catalogue of coverage) to remind Cheat Sheet readers that while fleeing home is hard for everyone, displaced and refugee girls face extra challenges. Child marriage rates shoot up in hard economic times; girls often bear the brunt of gender-based violence; and the UN says girls are 2.5 times more likely than boys to be out of school during conflict. But the theme of this year’s Day of the Girl is all about persistence, so watch this for some serious strength from Millie Wonder and her students in Kenya.


    Caribbean tsunamis, migration art and humanitarians and climate change
  • A vote without a say: Cameroon’s displaced anglophones wait for peace to return

    On the eve of Cameroon’s presidential elections, the country is divided. But not simply because of the vote on Sunday.


    What began in 2016 with activists from the anglophone minority stepping up their campaign for autonomy led last year to the government violently clamping down on separatist protests in the majority-anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions.


    The crisis has since escalated, with hundreds of villages now largely destroyed, and tens of thousands of people forcibly displaced from their homes, many of them now living in makeshift tents in the jungle with no healthcare and little food.


    The UN estimates that more than 246,000 people in the Southwest region have been internally displaced, while at least 25,000 have fled to Nigeria.


    With no homes or livelihoods to go back to in their conflict-torn rural regions, many displaced people are heading for the cities, only to end up begging on the streets with no place to stay.


    “Why is the government and the world treating anglophones this way? Were we born to suffer, to be killed like animals?” asks Daniel Teke, who has fled for the city like many friends and relatives but is barely getting by in Cameroon’s economic capital of Douala.


    Troubled vote


    The francophone government has promised Sunday’s vote will be calm, but the conflict, now a full-on armed rebellion, casts a long shadow over the poll.


    In the face of the deepening humanitarian crisis and rising international pressure, the government argues that it is quelling a vicious insurgency and denies allegations of systematic human rights violations by its security forces. It says it is open to dialogue, but this has not happened yet.


    Paul Biya – the 85-year-old president who has ruled the country for 36 years – is standing for re-election again. Opposition candidate Joshua Osih, who hails from the anglophone west of the country, recently blamed Biya for the bloody separatist crisis. “He is solely responsible,” Osih said.


    Biya’s government insists the unity of Cameroon is “non-negotiable”.


    Amid reports that displaced Cameroonians, including those who fled into neighbouring Nigeria, will be unable to vote, the International Crisis Group has also warned about the higher risk of violence, with tensions increasing as election day approaches.

    “There is nothing there, and bullets will kill us."

    Enow Abrams Egbe, chairman of Elections Cameroon, the main election body, on Wednesday called on displaced people to return home and participate in the elections, emphasising that arrangements would be made to ensure voting takes place in the anglophone regions.


    However, voters here will struggle to reach ballot boxes as many IDPs live in makeshift shelters in remote areas and armed separatist groups have vowed to stop the election and threatened those who would participate.

    “We cannot go back”


    Lodged in her temporary safe-haven in the jungle, Mary Etom isn't far from the remains of her village, Nake, in Southwest region – it’s a 30-minute trek down twisting roads. But for more than eight months she has been unable to return.


    In January, she says, Cameroon’s security forces raided Nake, opening fire and burning houses indiscriminately. The death toll that day remains unclear, but Etom knows her husband was shot dead. She saw two stray bullets land in his right thigh and belly.


    In the panic, she gathered their two daughters and dashed for the safety of the forest, with more than 100 other families. For two days they slept in the open air without food and water, finally setting up shelters of wood and grass.


    Arison Tamfu/IRIN
    Mary and her two daughters, Ruth and Righteous.

    "We cannot go back to the village now,” Etom says, twisting the ring on her finger. “There is nothing there, and bullets will kill us." Her daughters, Righteous, five, and Ruth, two, sit beside her with solmen gazes. “They don’t even know their father is dead,” Etom adds.


    She shares the shelter with four other families, 24 people in total. Her neighbour Esther Kundu shares hers with 70 others. At night 14 children squeeze onto one messy mattress, while others sleep on the cold floor.


    No hospital for the sick


    In the forest near Kwakwa, a neighbouring village to Nake, Enyong Thomas perches on a bamboo lawn chair. “A lot of people are dying,” he says.


    A middle-aged man standing behind him interrupts. “Children are falling sick in the bush,” the man says. “There is no medicine to give them. Three days ago, we buried 11 people who died in the bush.”


    Overall toll statistics are unreliable, but NGOs say at least 400 civilians have lost their lives since the conflict began. Additionally, clashes between security forces and the separatists have left 170 soldiers dead, but no data exists on the number of separatists killed. The villagers in this part of Southwest region estimate they alone have lost at least 60 people since fleeing their homes.


    “Many people die because they cannot go to the hospital,” says Pascal Esona, who limps and uses crutches. He says he was shot in the leg by a stray bullet on the day the villages were raided.

    “I have not been to the hospital since I came here because I am afraid,” Esona says. “Many people have been shot in the hospital simply because they went to treat themselves.” Several villagers told IRIN they had witnessed these shootings, but they could not be independently confirmed.


    Desperate women and children


    Together with international partners, a small women- and youth-focused NGO called Reach Out Cameroon conducted research and found the IDPs suffering from severe untreated injuries, rashes, diarrhoea, and typhoid; children with malnutrition; women with post-natal complications; and malaria rife.


    “Eighty percent of displaced persons are not getting the healthcare they require,” says Omam Esther, executive director of the organisation, which is based in Buea, the capital of the Southwest region.


    Esther says continuing violence and displacement has prevented the government’s regional health delegation from carrying out even basic operations – including immunisation, antiretroviral drug dispensation and distribution of malaria nets – in 15 of the 18 districts of the Southwest region.


    And humanitarian groups have also had difficulty gaining access to the restive regions. “Many have not been able to secure administrative clearance to operate in the Southwest,” she says, adding that Reach Out Cameroon has only been able to assist about three percent of people in need of aid.


    “The needs are far greater than the resources we have,” she says.


    This lack of access to healthcare is especially worrisome for nursing mothers and pregnant women. Sakwe Margaret breastfeeds her two babies in a shelter near Etom’s. On 6 January, when the security forces swooped into her village, she was heavily pregnant. She recalls struggling in pain to escape the bullets and reach the bush. The following day, she gave birth to triplets.


    “[A] few days after delivery, one of the children died due to starvation and lack of medical care,” she says, putting the babies down on a filthy mattress. “I fear to go to the hospital.”


    “A solution is needed urgently”


    In June this year, the government launched the distribution phase of a 19-million-euro humanitarian assistance plan for displaced people in the anglophone regions. Interior Minister Paul Atanga Nji recently supervised the arrival of a consignment of food and other basic commodities destined for the IDPs.


    However, many of the displaced people IRIN spoke to, especially those living in the jungle, say they are not ready to accept anything from the government.

    “They are killing us and want to give us food?”

    “They are killing us and want to give us food?” asks Magdalene Ageawu, who lives with her three children in a makeshift camp. “We can’t accept their gifts. They want us to go back to where? Our houses were burned by the military.”


    The government has been urging IDPs to return home.


    Speaking recently at a meeting to discuss the anglophone crisis in Buea, Governor Bernard Okalia Bilai of the Southwest region said: “We are inviting the elites, traditional rulers to come back and continue to work and sensitise their children, especially those who have been misguided and are now in the bush, for them to return home.”


    Many of the displaced have shown little interest in returning, however. “More than 80 percent of the IDPs do not want to go back home because of what they have experienced,” says Ebenezer Nkegoah, from the Foundation for Inclusive Education, which recently conducted a census among IDPs in the city. “A [political] solution is needed urgently, not gifts,” he adds, referring to the government’s aid efforts.


    There is often little to go back to and livelihoods are hard to come by in the rural regions. Reach Out Cameroon estimates that hundreds of villages have been destroyed by the warring factions or abandoned due to the conflict.


    “This world is wicked,” says Mukete Samuel, a traditional council leader for Nake village. “Where is the United Nations and the rest? So we will all die here in the bush before they look for a solution?”



    A vote without a say: Cameroon’s displaced anglophones wait for peace to return
  • Tsunami aid, Spanish surge, and sexual violence in war: The Cheat Sheet

    Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    Sulawesi waits for clean water and unwelcome rain


    Aid is trickling into areas hit hard by the 28 September earthquakes and tsunami in Indonesia – far too slowly for many survivors, as we reported on the ground in Central Sulawesi this week. While Indonesian authorities and humanitarian groups are sorting through the logistics of bringing aid to a vast island with damaged infrastructure, new problems are on the horizon. The spread of disease and other health risks are a threat in any disaster, but there’s a shortage of clean water and sanitation facilities even in Palu, the provincial capital where most of the relief efforts have been concentrated so far. Most water supply infrastructure was damaged in the earthquakes. While the Red Cross is sending in drinking water by truck, Oxfam says it won’t be enough for the tens of thousands of people needing access to clean water every day. Save the Children calls clean water shortages a “recipe for disaster”. Indonesia’s government has requested limited amounts of aid from international donors and aid groups, and water purification kits are near the top of the list. But the logistics of even delivering aid supplies is daunting. Authorities are routing all international aid to Balikpapan, on neighbouring Kalimantan island, but Palu’s air and sea ports were damaged in the earthquakes. Conditions could soon get worse: meteorologists are predicting above-average rainfall for the next two weeks, which could trigger landslides in the very places aid responders are trying to reach.


    Second-class citizens


    There were 11 million new internal displacements due to conflict alone in 2017, far more than new refugees. There's an international treaty about refugees, but none for the much larger number of people who flee war or persecution but stay within their own country. Laws that cover their treatment are few and far between: only 12 countries have laws specific to internal displacement. The closest thing to international law for internally displaced people (IDPs) is the "Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement". It's a body of "soft law", drawn up in 2008, that lays out rights and principles that states can use to guide their own actions and law-making. To mark the 20th anniversary, a special issue of Forced Migration magazine explores the fate of the internally displaced in several countries, including Ethiopia and Myanmar, and in fields such as data collection and legal protection.


    Nobel moves sexual violence in war into the spotlight


    No it wasn’t Donald Trump, and it wasn’t the North Korean or South Korean leader either. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize goes to Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad. If you’ve never heard of Mukwege, here’s a no-holds-barred IRIN profile of the doctor’s work from 12 years ago, by which time he had already dedicated himself for six years to fistula repairs for women suffering an epidemic of rape and sexual mutilation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Murad came to prominence more recently, as the public face of Yazidi victims of so-called Islamic State. She was one of approximately 7,000 women abducted from Sinjar province in northern Iraq in 2014 and endured three months as a sex slave of IS militants. We featured the 25-year-old campaigner in this September 2016 story on human trafficking and sex slavery. In today’s announcement, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said both Mukwege and Murad had won the award for their "efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war". Look for a collection of IRIN’s work highlighting this issue next week.


    Spanish surge


    At least 34 people died this week in the Mediterranean when the inflatable boat they were trying to take to Spain capsized off the Moroccan coast. The UN says there are believed to be 26 survivors, all from sub-Saharan Africa. Spain is an increasingly popular entry point to Europe: a total of 37,441 migrants and asylum seekers had arrived in the country this year by the end of September by sea, an increase of 201 percent from the same period last year (the number of deaths at sea has also doubled). Spain has sometimes allowed ships refused entry elsewhere to dock on its shores, but it’s not always a warm welcome for newcomers: migrants have clashed violently with police after storming the fence that separates Morocco from Spain at Cueta, and those who make it into Europe rarely have it easy. Stay tuned for our coverage of the crush at Europe’s only land border with Africa.


    One to listen to:


    Operation Fiction Writer


    This week, we’re nominating an episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast for weekend listening. In only 35 minutes, you get a complicated story of asylum mills – law firms that for years helped some Chinese game the US asylum system by fabricating stories that fit the criteria of targeted persecution that the US looks for in asylum claims. One of the people who wrote those stories, and later helped the government bring the mills down as part of “Operation Fiction Writer” is Lawrence, himself an immigrant from China. These days, the government is reviewing the asylum status of 30,000 people, most of them family members of people who used these law firms and have been in the US for years. But Lawrence has refused to help in possible deportations – he says there’s a difference between what is legal and what is right – so he’s using a fake name, and is in hiding from the government. It’s a complex story with shades of grey. Make time to listen for yourself.


    In case you missed it:


    INDIA: This week the Indian government deported seven Rohingya men to Myanmar, drawing criticism from rights groups who say the men have been put at “grave risk of oppression and abuse” in their home country, where a violent military purge last year uprooted more than 700,000 people. The UN says 200 other Rohingya are detained in India. There are fears that this week’s deportation is a sign authorities plan to act on year-old threats to expel the estimated 40,000 Rohingya living in India.


    IRAQ: After months of political jockeying, Shia politician Adel Abdul Mahdi was named prime minister of Iraq this week and has 30 days to form a government. Among the challenges the compromise candidate will face are ongoing protests against unemployment and a lack of public services in the southern city of Basra, where tens of thousands of people have sought medical treatment thanks to contaminated water.


    MOZAMBIQUE: The trial of more than 180 suspected militants began this week in northern Cabo Delgado province, where more than 50 people have been killed in attacks linked to a growing insurgency. The defendants – including Mozambicans, Tanzanians, Congolese, Somalis and Burundians – are accused of deadly gun, grenade and knife assaults. Locals and authorities call the assailants “al-Shabaab”, although the group has no known links to the Somali group of the same name. They are reportedly seeking to impose Sharia law in the Muslim-majority province. The trial is the first since the attacks began a year ago.


    PAKISTAN: The government has ordered several international NGOs to leave the country. ActionAid, one of the affected organisations, called it a “worrying escalation of recent attacks on civil society”. Authorities in Pakistan have slapped increasing restrictions and registration requirements on international NGOs in recent years, accusing them of overstepping their humanitarian and development mandates.


    SOUTH SUDAN: Based on recent findings, three UN agencies have warned that South Sudan’s “relentless conflict” has left more than six million people — almost 60 percent of the entire population — facing crisis levels of hunger, as people are forced to flee their homes and fields, and trade routes and markets are disrupted.


    YEMEN: Cholera is making a comeback, with the World Health Organisation reporting a suspected 10,000 cases per week, double the previous rate. In Hodeidah province, where a battle for the key port rattles on, Save the Children said facilities it supports have seen a 170 percent increase in suspected cases since fighting escalated in June.


    Our weekend read:


    A vote without a say: Cameroon's displaced anglophones wait for peace to return


    It’s presidential election weekend in Cameroon, but for the thousands now displaced from home as a result of the conflict in the anglophone regions, it’s a vote, but no real say. After the francophone government’s violent clampdown on English-speaking separatist activists last year, the humanitarian situation has only worsened. The UN estimates that 246,000 people in the country’s Southwest region are now internally displaced, while another 25,000 have fled across the border to Nigeria. While the government has promised a calm election process, and the country’s main election body urges IDPs to return to their homes to vote, the conflict is casting a long shadow over the polls. Earlier this year, we featured a special report from regular IRIN contributor Emmanuel Freudenthal who became the first journalist to embed with Cameroon’s separatist forces. For our weekend read this week, Arison Tamfu travelled into the forests of the Southwest region to meet displaced anglophones now living on the run, many of whom feel like strangers in their own country.


    And finally:


    Germany's humanitarian spending has risen fast in recent years. The ecosystem of NGOs and aid agencies in Bonn and Berlin has grown to match. Now it has a new think tank, officially launched in July: The Centre for Humanitarian Action is housed at the Maecenata Foundation, and involves church groups Caritas Germany and Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe as well as MSF Germany.



    Tsunami aid, Spanish surge, and sexual violence in war
  • Tripoli clashes, dying with dignity, and AI for good: The Cheat Sheet

    Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar:

    The (ending) age of Aquarius

    MSF’s Mediterranean rescue ship, Aquarius, has been at the centre of a series of diplomatic standoffs this summer as European governments refused to let it dock and disembark migrants and asylum seekers pulled from the waters off the coast of Libya. But its rescuing days could now be over after it had its flag revoked this week by Panama. The pressure appeared to come from Italy, whose populist government argues that such vessels only encourage migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing from North Africa, but which is also keen to stem arrivals after taking in more than 700,000 people since 2013. Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister, denied pressuring Panama (in a Tweet, he claimed he didn’t know the dialling code), but a statement from the Panama Maritime Authority suggested otherwise. “The main complaint comes from the Italian authorities,” it said. The boat, jointly operated with SOS Méditerranée, is the only NGO rescue boat still operating in the Mediterranean. Currently at sea carrying rescued migrants it faces “deflagging” when it next reaches port. Panama’s ship register says the Aquarius refuses to return people to their place of origin. But according to the UN, that would be against refugee law. Given worsening conditions in Libya, UNHCR has updated its legal position on bringing people back to Libya: it’s not “a place of safety for the purpose of disembarkation following rescue at sea.”

    Tripoli unravels

    Sticking with Libya; yet another ceasefire appears to be in place in the capital, Tripoli, where fighting between rival militias this week killed 117 people and injured 581. This round of violence erupted 20 days after a previous UN-brokered truce agreement came into force, so forgive us for fearing it might not last. The impact on civilians extends beyond deaths and injuries: 1,700 families fled their homes to stay with relatives or sheltered in schools in just a few days, and others were trapped and unable to escape the violence. With power and water temporarily cut, migrants and refugees in the city’s detention centres had reportedly resorted to drinking toilet water. Sceptics say the UN-backed Government of National Accord, which sits in Tripoli, has no real control over the city’s armed groups.

    A flood of AI announcements

    “AI for good” announcements came thick and fast last week: Microsoft committed $40 million over five years to an “AI for Humanitarian Action” project. Examples of applications include damage assessment, an educational chatbot, and medical research. Google announced an AI-powered flood warning system, now in pilot mode in Patna state, India. The tech giants joined Amazon in a major new effort to better predict and prevent famine. The World Bank-UN-Red Cross-Silicon Valley coalition has broad ambitions, and getting clearer signals from a wealth of data using AI is part of it. Gimmick or gamechanger? You’ll be hearing more from us on this Famine Action Mechanism, FAM. If you have views, please get in touch.

    Palliative care: a “moral necessity”

    Palliative care is focused on preventing and relieving suffering from life-limiting illnesses. But health advocates say it is frequently overlooked or ignored during humanitarian crises, when resources are stretched and large numbers of people are suddenly in need of basic aid like food and shelter. The World Health Organisation this month released its first guidelines on including palliative care in humanitarian responses. Integrating palliative care and pain relief into humanitarian response is a “medical and moral necessity”, according to the WHO. “The principles of humanitarianism and impartiality require that all patients receive care and should never be abandoned for any reason, even if they are dying,” the guidelines state. What might this actually look like on the ground, in the middle of an evolving emergency? Read our story about a local NGO bringing palliative care to the Rohingya refugee camps of southern Bangladesh.

    Some reprieve for Uighurs

    In a change of policy, Sweden will not deport Muslim minority Uighurs back to China. Germany announced the same in August. Sweden’s migration agency published a report describing repression in the largely Uighur Xinjiang region on 12 September. That followed a UN report alleging mass human rights abuse, including claims of a million Uighur people detained by the Chinese government, which it denies. Three quarters of about 5,500 Chinese asylum applications in Europe in 2017 were denied, according to EU statistics.

    One to watch:

    A masterclass in open source accountability

    Uniformed men in Cameroon executed two women and their two children, apparently accused of involvement with the extremist Boko Haram group. Somehow, a video of the crime surfaced online. This compelling Twitter thread from BBC explains the forensic research by a network of journalists and NGOs, [including Emmanuel Freudenthal]. Using only open source tools, satellite imagery and online research, the team found the place, time and likely names of the culprits, who now face prosecution. Cameroon’s government had initially denied involvement.

    One to look at:

    The 1883 eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatau volcano was one of the deadliest eruptions in modern history – and the volcano is rumbling again. There have been ongoing eruptions at Anak Krakatau since June. But the volcano has had sporadic activity for decades and local authorities say there’s currently no immediate danger. NASA has released images showing unobstructed views of the volcano spewing volcanic ash and steam.

    In case you missed it:


    DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The response to Congo’s latest outbreak has been “severely limited by security and other constraints,” according to the WHO, which has warned of a looming “perfect storm”. Last weekend, 18 people died in an attack on the emerging Ebola hotspot city of Beni. The current outbreak has killed at least 100 people, and there are now about 10 new infections a week, as local resistance to vaccination persists. One case has been confirmed on Congo’s border with Uganda.


    GAZA: The World Bank is warning that the Gaza economy is in “free fall,” with foreign aid no longer enough to counteract the deterioration. A new report from the bank says every second person in the Palestinian territory lives beneath the poverty line, with unemployment at 53 percent, 70 percent for youth (15-24), and 78 percent for young women.


    INDONESIA: Houses have reportedly been swept away and families are missing after a tsunami sent two-metre high waves crashing into the city of Palu on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi following a series of earthquakes, the strongest with a magnitude of 7.5.


    IRAQ: Protests over a lack of public services and jobs are still going strong in Iraq’s southern city of Basra, where the main water source is polluted and there is no effective water treatment system. A new desalination plant is being built but workers had to leave because of the demonstrations, and the shooting death this week of human rights activist Suad al-Ali is only likely to add fan the flames.


    JAPAN: Typhoon Trami is barrelling toward Japan – three weeks after Jebi, the strongest storm to hit the country in decades. Trami has slowed after clocking 260-kilometre per hour wind speeds earlier this week, but authorities in Japan are still warning the storm will be “very strong”. It’s expected to make landfall over the weekend.


    SOUTH SUDAN: Fatalities since civil war broke out in 2013 have long been guesstimated at a vague “tens of thousands”. This week a statistical analysis by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine concluded that the conflict had in fact led to almost 400,000 deaths, half of them directly due to violence. But South Sudan watchers, including IRIN contributor Jason Patinkin, were quick to add a few caveats.


    Our weekend read:

    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in the world’s troublespots at risk

    Humanitarian responses in the most complex and hostile operating environments on the planet – think Somalia, Syria, Yemen – involve working with some fairly sketchy groups. Take Syria’s Idlib, for example. As much as 60 percent of the province is controlled by the al-Qaeda-linked extremist group Tahrir al-Sham. Inevitably, especially when working through a chain of local sub-contractors, some aid is going to go astray, or bribes will have to be paid and checkpoints bunged. But how much diversion is too much when civilian lives are at stake? This question is central to our weekend read, which reviews worries in the aid sector about an increasingly tought US stance on counter-terror compliance. This analysis follows a string of reports from IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker exclusively highlighting NGO project suspensions and closures in Syria, recent prosecutions in US courts, and new strings attached to USAID funding. Adding fuel to the fire, a new report this week by USAID’s inspector general sets the scene for a much harder line on UN funding, which is largely exempt from the most stringent oversight.

    And finally:

    A tweet vs. the French nation

    This week, a French court convicted a humanitarian worker of criminal defamation for a tweet. Yes, you read that right. Loan Torondel, who volunteered and then worked for two years with L’Auberge des Migrants, a group that assists migrants and asylum seekers in Calais, tweeted a picture of two police officers standing over a man who looks to be a migrant, sitting on his sleeping bag. The man protests that the policeman wants to confiscate his sleeping bag in the cold, and in the text of Torondel’s tweet he ironically has one officer reply: “Maybe, but we are the French nation, sir.” The French nation bit refers to a comment President Emmanuel Macron made last year that was memed ad infinitum. For his own memeing Torondel (who is still on Twitter) received a suspended fine and was ordered to pay court costs. He is appealing, and rights defenders say his conviction sets a dangerous precedent and is a worrying escalation in harassment of aid workers by state officials.


    Tripoli clashes, dying with dignity, and AI for good
  • Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 2: Inside the separatist conflict

    Emmanuel Freudenthal is the first journalist to spend time with an anglophone armed group, trekking for a week with them in the sun and rain, across rivers and up steep hills, through dark rainforests and fields of giant grass. In this two-part series, he explores the make-up and motivation of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, and how the civil war brewing in Cameroon is changing the lives of fighters and civilians.

    Read Part 1: "A rifle as the only way out"


    A fighter is rolling around on the ground, screaming, and muddying his bright-red basketball jersey. His colleagues take turns hitting him with a stick.


    This punishment, 50 lashes, was ordered by *Omega, the field commander of this Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF) camp. The man had been “brutalising some people”, so “when the complaint got to me, I had to punish him severely,” Omega explains. “We don’t want the Ambaz’ name to be stained.”  


    Cameroon’s anglophone minority has felt marginalised for decades. During protests last October security forces killed and jailed demonstrators, spurring the birth of several separatist armed groups, including the ADF. The intensifying conflict has displaced more than 180,000 people, including tens of thousands who have fled into neighbouring Nigeria.


    With their leaders in exile and a huge territory to control, the separatist leaders are under pressure to deliver military results while keeping their troops motivated and a spotless image. To achieve this, they resort to WhatsApp, social media, and magic.


    Odeshi rituals


    With a battle planned for the next day, Omega’s boss, *Atem, sorts out his equipment on a bed: a handgun, a couple dozen bullets, but also several necklaces and other amulets. His arsenal is as much spiritual as military. They call this magic “Odeshi”, and fighters believe it’s their only protection in their unequal fight against Cameroon’s US-trained army.


    ☰   READ MORE   Cameroon's anglophone conflict: An overview


    Cameroon’s anglophone minority has been requesting greater autonomy since 1961, when former territories held by the British and French were federated into one bilingual central African nation. These demands have become steadily more vocal since the 1980s.


    In October 2016, peaceful protests calling for the use of English in courts and classrooms resulted in more than 100 arrests. A year later, in October 2017, when demonstrators called for independence, security forces killed dozens of them and jailed hundreds more.


    That violence led to the birth of several separatist armed groups – including the ADF – which have since been responsible for a string of attacks against army and police personnel that have left close to 150 dead, according to the ADF.


    Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the BBC have documented the targeted burnings by government forces of at least 20 villages and the torture of dozens of civilians. The government has denied all the allegations of human rights violations by its security forces.


    More than 180,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, fleeing to Nigeria or within Cameroon.


    Amnesty and HRW have also documented abuses against civilians by the separatist groups. After separatists began calling for an education boycott in 2017, some teachers and principals who refused to shut down schools were assaulted, shot, or kidnapped. A total of 42 schools have been attacked, according to Amnesty.


    The hazy command structure of the half-dozen armed groups operating in the anglophone regions makes it difficult to establish if attacks are carried out by individuals or on the behalf of a particular group. The ADF’s leadership has denied involvement in attacks against schools.


    Over the past several months, the conflict has intensified. Three weeks ago, seven traditional rulers, who are usually appointed by the government, were reportedly kidnapped by separatist groups (not the ADF). Further violence may be on the way during the next presidential elections to be held on 7 October.


    Atem is one of the most senior ADF commanders. He is well respected and known throughout the region as “Commando”, yet his crew still pokes at his portly belly when he takes his shirt off. The group’s hierarchy isn’t well established and Atem derives his authority less from his official rank than from his way with words: he knows when to listen, and when to tell someone off. Like many of the 1,500 other fighters the ADF claims to have, Atem was a farmer before the war.


    Having gathered all his gear on the bed, he picks up his “battle shirt” – a sleeveless black top with amulets sewn onto the front – and puts it on. Around his neck, he hangs pendants of tightly stitched red leather, from which white feather quills stick out. Next, he puts bracelets around his biceps and on his wrists.



    Each of these amulets, known collectively as Odeshi, has a specific task: a bracelet makes one invisible, a necklace jams the enemy’s gun, a goat’s tail waves off bullets etc. They each come with rules, such as fighting for a rightful cause, or avoiding specific foods.


    Atem’s skin carries thin scars born of previous rituals. The previous day, he paid a traditional healer, a “baba”, to perform such a ceremony to protect him from bullets. The baba sacrificed a chicken and cut Atem’s skin with a razor before rubbing a grey paste into the wounds.


    Once he is satisfied he has everything he needs, Atem carefully packs his equipment into the small bag he will take with him to battle.


    The night before battle


    After a long trek to the site of the battle, night comes. Atem lies on a filthy mattress next to another commander – they picked the best spot in the house. The other separatist fighters are stretched out on the bare ground, resting before the attack.


    At dawn, about 40 fighters plan to take on heavily armed government soldiers, but if the army is tipped off then the ADF might be attacked first – the government forces would probably kill all of them, as they did a few days earlier with about 30 separatists from another group, spilling so much blood it gathered in shiny pools on the floor.


    In the yard, a battalion of goats trots past wildly, perhaps aroused by the bright grey light of the full moon. Doors bang in the wind.


    Near the entrance, two young boys are on sentinel duty, sharing an old rifle between them. They ward off sleep by smoking cigarettes and quietly exchanging stories. Once in a while, one of them gently pokes the other awake. The commander has warned that if he catches anyone sleeping on their watch, he’ll shoot them in the leg.


    The group’s only other defence to ward off a surprise attack is in a dark corner of the house: a small shrine with mysterious vials, bits of cloth, and amulets dusted with white talcum powder. The air smells of the perfume used to activate their magical powers.


    When the sun finally rises, the fighters are loitering around the yard, waiting. A large bag of bullets has gone missing. The person entrusted to bring it apparently decided it would be more profitable to pocket the ammunition than fire it, and disappeared. This mission is cancelled. On this occasion, the Odeshi will not be called upon.


    Remote control


    All of the fighters use Odeshi, but it does not vanquish all fears.


    “Some fighters use drugs that motivate them to go to the field,” says Omega, who allows his men to take tramadol, a powerful opioid painkiller, although he doesn’t use it himself. “You don’t have fears in you again,” he says.


    The trouble, Omega explains, is when combatants keep on taking the drugs when they’re back at the camp. It’s not very common, but then it’s harder to keep them disciplined.


    Some armed men harass civilians for food, while claiming to be part of the ADF, Omega says. Then, he explains, he sends his men to keep them in check: “Any group that is out for terrorism, we are going to finish the group so that the country should be in peace, rather than in pieces.”


    The separatists have been appealing to the international community to force the government to give them independence, so keeping a clean image is crucial.

    The ADF has a Code of Conduct stating that “no fighter of the ADF shall engage in rape, extortion, theft of property, torture, or killing of innocent civilians.” And Cho Ayaba, the leader of the political wing of the ADF, says he issued orders banning the use of drugs.


    But he is very far away, in Europe.


    In 1998, Ayaba fled Cameroon aboard a timber ship, after narrowly escaping arrest for his political activism.


    Like him, most of the political leaders of the half dozen or so anglophone separatist armed groups live abroad – a necessary measure in a country like Cameroon. In early 2018, 47 anglophone leaders were arrested in Nigeria and deported to a jail in Cameroon. They were held incommunicado for six months and only recently allowed see their lawyers.


    So WhatsApp is the only way Omega, Atem and other commanders can get orders from their leaders. They know every patch of dirt where the phone network can be reached by clambering on big rocks, hiking to the top of hills, or sheltering beneath a tree’s branches. Much of the time, though, they are off-grid.


    Recently, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the separatists of violently enforcing the boycott of government schools by destroying over 40 schools and assaulting teachers who refused to comply. They’ve also been accused of kidnapping civilians suspected of working with the government.


    The ADF has denied abuses against schools and civilians, apart from “arrests” of government allies. Ayaba says he takes “responsibility for whatever the ADF does”, but insists he is not “micromanaging” the actions of the group. “I provide political leadership, an inspiration, the roadmap.”


    Yet, he warns that the ADF and other separatist groups may not be able to stick to their rules of engagement forever.


    “If you let the conflict fester for too long and the regime continues with this level of brutality, it will be completely impossible to control everybody. And some of these abuses might just increase,” he said, referring to some attacks against francophones.


    Cameroon’s presidential elections will be held on 7 October, and with them comes the threat of a new spike in violence. The ADF spokesman warned there “shall be no elections of the President of Cameroon in Ambazonia territory”, and one of their prominent “generals” has already announced that he’ll kill anyone who gets near a voting station.


    (*The names of the separatist fighters have been changed for their protection)



    From WhatsApp to amulets – how war is waged
    Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 2: Inside the separatist conflict
  • Afghan peace marches, TED talks for refugees, and whatever happened to those aid reforms? The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    Europe’s migration NIMBYism


    This week saw a particularly egregious case of Not In My Back Yard syndrome. Both Italy and Malta refused to allow a boat carrying 629 people rescued in the Mediterranean off Libya to dock. Médecins Sans Frontières said some patients on the over-capacity Aquarius were in critical condition after nearly drowning or suffering from hypothermia, while others had severe chemical burns from the mixture of fuel and sea water. While they remained stranded, politicians used the opportunity to score political points – Italy summoned France’s ambassador after Emmanuel Macron criticised the country’s “cynicism and irresponsibility”, then Italy’s prime minister called Macron a hypocrite. Spain finally offered to take the Aquarius and it headed to Valencia, although some people made the final leg of the trip on, ironically, Italian Navy ships.


    New UN scrutiny on Kashmir


    Decades of upheaval in Kashmir will come under the microscope on 18 June as the Human Rights Council opens a new session. The UN’s top rights official, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, is calling for a commission of inquiry into abuses in the divided region. Protests and crackdowns have escalated in Indian-administered Kashmir over the past two years. Civil society groups say Indian security forces killed at least 130 civilians between July 2016 and March 2018, and injured thousands more – particularly through the highly criticised use of pellet guns. On 14 June, Zeid’s office released its first rights report on Kashmir, calling for an investigation into abuses by all sides. Zeid reserved his strongest rebukes for India’s security forces, which he said were responsible for an “excessive use of force” against civilians (India called the report “fallacious” and “tendentious”). It’s unlikely either India or Pakistan will allow a UN-backed investigation on their respective sides; both countries previously barred Zeid’s office from setting foot in Kashmir, forcing the rights watchdog to conduct “remote monitoring” for the report.


    Surprising marches for peace in Afghanistan


    It’s a rare opportunity for optimism amid the horrors of war: a growing group of protesters is marching from Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province to the capital, Kabul, demanding an end to conflict. What started as a handful of people has swelled to a few dozen. After a trek of more than 600 kilometres, the group is set to reach Kabul in time for Eid – the celebrations that mark the end of Ramadan. The peace march is just one example of the public demonstrations that have cropped up in half the country’s provinces in recent weeks, drawing in women and men from across ethnic lines who are fed up with the bloodshed. These are no minor feats in Afghanistan, where moderate imams have come under attack and civilians themselves are often the direct target of suicide blasts. If peace is possible in Afghanistan, the next week may prove a crucial stepping stone: the government and the Taliban are both observing temporary Eid ceasefires. “If the respective leaderships can enforce the ceasefire, this week could prove an important trust-building exercise that contributes to future peace-making,” notes the International Crisis Group.



    Ethiopia/Eritrea: The hidden danger of reconciliation

    A few Cheat Sheets ago we wondered whether Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, would make good on his promise to reconcile with neighbouring dictatorship Eritrea 18 years after the two states fought a devastating border war. The answer, so far, seems to be ‘yes’. Abiy has earned considerable kudos since coming to power for lifting a state of emergency and releasing political prisoners and, earlier this month, he publicly accepted a border demarcation ruling his predecessors had long ignored. Careful what you wish for, cautions journalist and author Michela Wrong. “The much-awaited, much-desired normalisation of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia could prove more destabilising to the Horn of Africa in the long term than its ‘Cold War’ ever was,” she wrote in The New York Times. This is because it would remove Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki’s key justification for maintaining his “iron rule”. Eritrea has yet to respond to Abiy’s announcement, but Afwerki is now in a tough spot. If Ethiopia follows through, “it's doubtful that Eritreans would accept any further fearmongering from the Afwerki administration,” writes Abraham Zere, exiled executive director of PEN Eritrea. But if “Afwerki attempts to dismiss or undermine this long-awaited gesture from its neighbour, the population may openly turn against the regime,” he adds.


    Two years on, what’s happened to aid reform?


    The 59 donors and aid agencies who signed up to the May 2016 "Grand Bargain" reforms are doing well on some things – like increasing the proportion of aid delivered as cash (which some say was well underway anyway) – but they're doing less well on others, such as how to reduce conditions on aid grants. A complicated apparatus has also built up around the reform process and demonstrating impact and needs a rethink. This is according to the Overseas Development Institute, whose researchers have combed through reports and data to produce a thorough progress report.


    An inner circle of big donors and relief agencies made the pact, which contains 51 reform commitments across 10 thematic areas. On the one hand, donors would wean themselves off some bad habits (short-term funding, attaching too many conditions to grants, excessive paperwork). On the other, aid agencies (those who spend the donors' money) would reduce overlaps, share more resources, and be more transparent. According to IRIN's analysis, the Grand Bargain donors command nearly 90 percent of the world's formal emergency aid spending.


    A flurry of reports mark the pact’s two-year anniversary. While ODI provides a detailed progress overview, a related report on transparency (one of the Grand Bargain thematic "work-streams") says that three quarters of the signatories are now publishing at least some data in the format agreed as the basis for more openness – the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). However, this report, by Development Initiatives, does reveal some major gaps: the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Committee of the Red Cross have so far published no IATI data whatsoever. The ICRC says it will start in 2018, but UNCHR has not yet committed to use the rich but complex IATI format. Together the agencies handle over $3.5 billion in humanitarian funding. Both had raised objections to the suitability of the format and its compliance dashboard – on which they currently score zero out of 100.


    Our weekend read:


    Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 1: A rifle as the only way out


    When we began reporting on emerging discord in Cameroon’s anglophone regions in December 2016, it was hard to imagine the situation could disintegrate this fast. At the end of that first article (one of six we’ve done on the brewing crisis over the past 18 months), we quoted from anglophone MP Wirba Joseph’s impassioned speech to the Cameroonian National Assembly (paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson): “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” It’s this sense of injustice that pervades our weekend read this week: “A rifle as the only way out”. Emmanuel Freudenthal became the first journalist to embed with the separatist forces, and his tale of farmers-turned-soldiers arming themselves with hunting rifles to take on the might of the US-trained Cameroonian army offers vital insights into a nascent rebellion. “Until they kill me, I’ll do my best to fight, until I get my independence,” says one fighter. “I’m not alone, we are many.” Look out for Part 2 soon.


    And finally:

    Taking aim at TED

    TED-branded talkfests tend to be held in big cities and feature clever, inspirational speakers discussing issues of science, philosophy, and technology. It’s a powerful brand, so it was an eyeopener when UNHCR ran a series of presentations last week by some of the 150,000 residents of one of the oldest refugee camps in the world under the banner of its “local-level” spin-off TEDx. The “stories of resilience, of contribution, of creativity” from Kenya’s Kakuma camp earned widespread positive news coverage. But not everyone was impressed. Ethnographer Hanno Brankamp, who has spent years studying life at Kakuma, lamented that the “neoliberal,” TED-ish “rhetoric of resilience and entrepreneurship” currently espoused by the humanitarian system “makes false promises and diverts attention away from structural inequalities, discrimination and policies of containment.” Behind the event’s messages of hope, he said, lies a daily life of curfews, police brutality, and ever-dwindling food rations. As much as the refugees in Kakuma deserve to be given a global platform, Brankamp argues, “no amount of individual positive thinking is enough to escape these realities.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Afghan peace activists demand an end to the war as they start their march from Helmand to Kabul in Ghazni Province on 8 June 2018. CREDIT: Zakeria Hashimi/AFP)



    Afghan peace marches, TED talks for refugees, and whatever happened to those aid reforms?
  • Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 1: A rifle as the only way out

    Emmanuel Freudenthal is the first journalist to spend time with an anglophone armed group, trekking for a week with them in the sun and rain, across rivers and up steep hills, through dark rainforests and fields of giant grass. In this two-part series, he explores the make-up and motivation of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, and how the civil war brewing in Cameroon is changing the lives of fighters, civilians, and refugees.

    Read part 2: "Inside the separatist conflict"


    “I killed three of them,” says Abang. “I use this [gun] to kill them like animals, as they are killing me, killed all my brothers.”


    Before the army destroyed his village and killed his three brothers, Abang was a farmer and an electrician. Today, he’s one of hundreds of anglophone men fighting with hunting rifles and magical amulets against the US- and French-trained Cameroonian army in an attempt to win independence for a new country they call Ambazonia.

    Cameroon’s anglophone minority has been requesting greater autonomy since former territories held by the British and French were federated into one central African nation in 1961. These demands have become steadily more vocal since the 1980s.


    In October 2017, peaceful protests – calling for the use of English in courts and classes – took a turn for the worse when security forces killed dozens of demonstrators and jailed hundreds more. This violence led to the birth of several separatist armed groups that have since killed and kidnapped numerous officials in the Northwest Region and the Southwest Region, the two majority anglophone areas. Abang’s group, the Ambazonia Defense Forces, or ADF, is the largest.


    More than 180,000 people have been displaced by counter-insurgency operations by Cameroon’s security forces, who have killed civilians and burnt down villages. Most of the fighters interviewed by IRIN joined the militia after they were forced to flee their homes.


    In a report published today, Amnesty International says separatists have killed at least 44 security forces and attacked 42 schools since February 2017. Some of the attacks on schools were attributed to the Ambazonia Defense Forces by the local population, but Amnesty could not establish that link and a spokesman for the ADF denied the group’s involvement. Amnesty also reported allegations that more than 30 people have been arbitrarily killed by security forces, including a high-profile attack on the village of Dadi in December 2017 in which at least 23 people, including minors, were arrested and then severely tortured.

    The government has denied allegations of systematic human rights violations by its security forces. It says it is open to dialogue, but insists that the unity of Cameroon is “non-negotiable.”


    The line separating fighters from refugees is very thin; their journeys are nearly the same
    Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 1: A rifle as the only way out
    From farmers to fighters

    Abang, who is in his 30s, is tall and slightly hunches forward when he sits. His friendliness and quick smile disappear only when he talks about the unfairness that drove him to take up arms. Then, his eyes darken and he gesticulates angrily as he talks. He is wearing a black T-shirt – the only top he possesses, he says.


    Abang lives in a camp that consists of a few buildings made from mud, a courtyard (that the fighters call the parade ground), and a couple of bamboo poles on which flags are occasionally hung. There are 50 other fighters in the camp.


    “Even if they kill me, there is no problem,” explains Abang. “I’m sacrificing my life.”


    According to the leader of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, Cho Ayaba, his group has 1,500 active soldiers spread over more than 20 camps throughout anglophone Cameroon.


    Over the course of a week, IRIN met combatants from several camps and saw about 100 fighters in total. The ADF appears to be the main armed group operating in anglophone Cameroon. Their equipment is poor – they wear flip-flops rather than combat boots.

    "We don't want to be slaves anymore."



    Around his neck, Abang carries what he calls, with a smirk, a monkey gun. It’s a hunting rifle made in Nigeria. To load it is cumbersome: you twist a screw under the barrel so the gun snaps open in the middle, push a cartridge inside the chamber, click the rifle back into place, and finally twist the screw to lock it.


    Abang carries half a dozen red hunting cartridges tucked into a belt around his waist. He can’t afford more than that. None of the ADF men in Abang’s camp have assault rifles; the entire rebel army appears to have barely a dozen of them.


    That’s no match for the assault weapons carried by the soldiers of the Cameroonian army. They have been trained and equipped by France and the United States for their fight against the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. Their guns spray hundreds of bullet every minute; Abang can perhaps reload once in that time.


    Daily life is difficult, Abang says. There’s barely enough space to sleep side by side on the floor of the huts lent to them by the nearby village. There’s not enough food, and the river water that they drink is milky with silt.

    "We cannot just stand by and watch them killing our people."



    For Abang, there’s nowhere else to go. The army destroyed his village, sending his whole family fleeing into the bush, where, he believes, they are still hiding. The military then set up a camp in his village, and now he says he can’t even go back to tend to his cocoa trees. After fleeing the attack, he wandered around the region, spending some time in a refugee camp in Nigeria. He hasn’t seen his wife and children for a long time.


    Nearly every ADF soldier has a story like Abang’s. And the line separating these soldiers from refugees is very thin; their journeys are nearly the same.

    Empty villages, angry refugees

    More than 180,000 Cameroonians, mostly anglophones, are estimated to have been displaced during just eight months of conflict. This includes 160,000 inside the country and more than 21,000 refugees registered in camps in Nigeria, according to the UN. Real numbers may be a lot higher because many of them are hiding in the bush or have not yet been reached by humanitarian agencies. IRIN met a dozen would-be refugees in Cameroon and members of another group in Nigeria who claimed they were about 350-strong – none had met UN workers.


    Among them is an old woman who sits in the shade of a palm tree – she’s one of those displaced by the conflict but still inside Cameroon. Her cane leans against the tree’s rough trunk and her legs are stretched out in front of her. She has given birth to 11 children, and raised them. But now they’re nearly all gone.


    “They’ve killed my children, 10 children they’ve killed,” she says, in an ethereal voice. Her hands shake slowly, as if rustled by a gentle breeze. Pointing to a woman nearby cradling a baby, she adds: “She’s the only one who remains.”


    The old woman goes on to explain how, a few months earlier, her children had been returning home to their village of Mavas from Akwaya. Army troops stopped them on the road and killed all of them, she says.


    The rest of the family fled, moving to a small hut by their farm, a few hours’ walk from Mavas. The old woman’s surviving daughter explains that she had been pregnant at the time so they couldn’t make it the several days' walk all the way to Nigeria. Now she seems more worried for her mother. “She’s been sick,” she says, “since her children died.”

    "I started hearing gunshots."



    Like many other villages in the anglophone regions, Mavas is now deserted. It used to boast a bustling market where farmers would bring their yams and you could eat some grilled fish and maybe drink a beer. Now, it’s completely empty. A couple of schoolgirls who’ve fled to Nigeria hurry to pack a few clothes they had left behind, before rushing away again.


    ADF fighters act as guides through the empty village. Several of them used to live there and, like the old woman, had to flee.


    One of the fighters walks into a large house with mud walls and a zinc roof. He opens a door with a broken lock and invites us inside. “This is my room,” he says, pointing with his rifle. A mosquito net hangs over a bed without a mattress. “They have carried it away,” he explains. “They’ve spoiled everything.”


    He recalls the moment the army came in February. He had been playing with his sister’s children. Then the troops “just started shooting,” he says. He fled, and soon after joined the growing ranks of the ADF.

    Ambazonia and independence

    Even before the army drove them out of their homes, many of the ADF soldiers were angry. For decades, anglophones have felt marginalised by the centralised francophone government in a country that began as a federation. On 1 October 1961, the southern part of British Cameroons joined the francophone Federal Republic of Cameroon.


    Today, Cameroon is officially bilingual, but French is often favoured. The two anglophone regions make up a sixth of the total population, according to the national statistics office. But competitive exams for the most prestigious public universities and colleges are given only in French, and those are the gateways to the sought-after public administration posts.



    In the 1980s, anglophone protests against what many saw as a forced assimilation into the francophone educational system were violently quashed. In 1985, an anglophone lawyer, Fon Gorji Dinka, distributed a pamphlet calling for an independent anglophone republic, which he named “Ambazonia”. He was promptly arrested. Three years later, he escaped to Nigeria.


    Fast-forward to September 2016, when street demonstrations began against the creeping use of French in the region’s schools and courtrooms.


    The protests culminated in activists declaring the independence of Ambazonia in 2017 on the symbolic date of 1st October. Cameroonian security forces killed over 20 protesters and jailed more than 500 people, according to Amnesty International. Videos shared on social media showed police officers humiliating protesters by forcing them to roll in the mud.


    The violence sparked the birth of several armed groups, including the Ambazonia Defense Forces. Their members kidnapped state officials, killed security forces, and sought to make the anglophone areas “ungovernable”. They have also closed schools, seen as symbols of the francophone Cameroon state.


    Security forces have retaliated by killing dozens of civilians (an IRIN tally of local news reports and a separate estimate by the International Crisis Group think tank both indicate at least 100 is more likely since 2016), and by burning down several villages in the anglophone regions. Despite allegations of widespread human rights violations and recent reports of the army killing 32 self-identified separatists surrounded in one village, the Cameroonian government insists that all military operations have been in “strict compliance” with their rules of engagement.

    "We spent one week on water before reaching Nigeria."



    Back at camp, listening to the ADF fighters, it is difficult sometimes to distinguish between systemic discrimination by the Cameroonian state and personal setbacks.


    All have stories of unfair treatment, as do many civilian anglophones. One says he should have been hired for a government job but was passed over because he is an English speaker. Another says he and his classmates studied in English, and that because state exams are given only in French this prevented him and others from attending university.


    Discrimination against the use of the English language ignited the armed rebellion, but IRIN’s interviews with the ADF fighters also point to long-held grievances over the lack of basic state services and economic stagnation in the anglophone regions.


    Abang says he joined the ADF because the state took resources from his region, but he also accuses francophones of “deceiving” anglophones more generally. “I was working in Douala as an electrician,” he explains. “They only paid me 3,000 CFA ($5.40) when I had worked for more than 200,000 CFA ($360).”


    The odds may be stacked against the fighters, but they seem undaunted, driven by their anger against the state.


    “Until they kill me, I’ll do my best to fight, until I get my independence,” says Abang. “I’m not alone, we are many.”

    In Part 2: The mystical weapons of the fighters, the potential impact of the conflict on civilians, and the future of the anglophone independence struggle.

  • More migrant disasters, less help for Yemenis, and Cameroon’s brewing war: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    Migration: Boat disasters, offshoring, UN sanctions and more

    No shortage of news on the migration beat. In Tunisia – which, if you haven’t noticed, is fast-becoming the latest North African hotspot for migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Europe – the interior minister was sacked after a boat carrying an estimated 180 people capsized off the coast. At least 112 people are dead or missing in what is now the deadliest shipwreck this year in the Mediterranean. Off the Horn of Africa, another migrant boat disaster, this time on the perilous route to Yemen and the Gulf states from Somalia (covered in our recent photo feature on Djibouti), cost at least 60 lives. These tragedies hit the headlines (well, some headlines) as news emerged that EU countries, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, are in advanced talks about setting up “holding camps” in a country that is “not particularly attractive” to migrants – think Albania and Macedonia – to process asylum seekers. Such outsourcing or offshoring of EU migration policy has been floated before. French President Emmanuel Macron backtracked last year after suggesting Libya was a safe country for returns and that processing camps should be set up there, as well as in Niger and Chad. Speaking of Libya, the UN Security Council slapped unprecedented sanctions this week on six human traffickers, including the head of a regional coast guard unit. We could continue. And we will, next week in fact, when we begin to roll out a two-month series that offers a 360-degree view of the effects that European policies (and deals with African countries) have on the lives of migrants.


    It just got harder to help desperate Yemenis


    It’s also been a rough week for people requiring assistance in Yemen. On Thursday, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced it had pulled 71 of its staffers out of the country, saying in a strongly worded statement that its employees “are being intimidated by parties to the conflict”, and its work has been “blocked, threatened, and directly targeted in recent weeks.” The Norwegian Refugee Council, meanwhile, says one of its buildings in Sana’a was bombed on Tuesday, despite the aid group having provided the Saudi Arabian-led coalition with its coordinates to avoid just this sort of thing. Oh, and a World Food Programme ship was attacked last weekend after dropping off its cargo at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, where aid agencies continue to warn that a looming battle will have "catastrophic humanitarian impact". Whodunnit? So far we’ve seen a fair bit of finger pointing, but not much clarity.


    Blasts and ballots in Iraq


    At least 18 people were killed and 90 wounded in a Baghdad explosion on Wednesday night, although government sources differ on what caused the blast, which has been chalked up to both the detonation of an arms cache and terrorism. Either way, the deaths happened in the mostly Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City, a stronghold of nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc won elections last month. About that vote... On Wednesday, parliament, citing allegations of widespread fraud, ordered a manual recount of all 11 million ballots and banned members of the country’s electoral commission from travelling abroad without permission. Stay tuned for Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod’s upcoming coverage from Iraq, where all is not what it seems.


    First look: life inside the fight for independence in Cameroon


    Two Cheat Sheets ago we highlighted an urgent plea for France to get involved and help avert a full-scale civil war in Cameroon. Since then, the conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists has intensified. Dozens of armed men who claimed to be separatists were reportedly killed by the Cameroonian armed forces at the end of May after they were surrounded in their makeshift headquarters in a hotel in Menka, a small town in the troubled Northwest Region. IRIN contributor Emmanuel Freudenthal recently became the first journalist to gain access to the separatists, spending a week with them at their secret camps deep in the bush. Next week, we’ll bring you his exclusive first-hand account, offering the first proper look from inside their struggle for independence – at the fighters, their motivations, and the impact on the lives of civilians.


    Our weekend read:


    Peace deal on the line in pivotal Colombia vote


    On 17 June, Colombians head back to the polls for a presidential run-off that is shaping up as a referendum on the country’s divisive peace deal. Voters will choose between a former leftist guerrilla and a right-wing populist promising to overhaul a 2016 peace accord that ended to a half-century conflict between the state and FARC guerrillas. Frequent IRIN contributors Magnus Boding Hansen and Tomás Ayuso have been reporting from Colombia as election day nears. Their dispatch from Bogota, our weekend read, explores how the current favourite, Iván Duque of the right-wing Democratic Centre party, has tapped into frustrations with the 2016 peace deal. Former President Juan Manuel Santos rammed through the accord (with a few tweaks) even after it was shot down in an earlier referendum. “We want peace, but not without justice,” said one Duque supporter. The winner of the upcoming vote will take leadership of a country with pressing humanitarian concerns: more than 6.5 million people are displaced within Colombia’s borders, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have also surged in, fleeing an economy in meltdown.


    That outflow of Venezuelans extends far beyond Colombia, by the way. The number of Venezuelans applying for asylum in the European Union has spiked: more than 2,300 people lodged asylum claims in EU countries in April, according to recent statistics – there were only 150 applicants in February 2016. It’s the first time Venezuela has appeared among the top five countries of origin for asylum applications in the EU, joining applicants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.


    And finally...


    Emergency basics: Food, shelter, and education


    Putting a child in front of a teacher might just save her life, just as much as food, water, or healthcare. But less than five percent of tracked emergency funding goes to education, and about two thirds of UN-led appeals for educational aid in emergencies go unfunded. That was the message this week from advocates arguing for more attention to education in emergency settings. Being in school can make a child better able to cope with stresses and risks today and make better choices in the future, according to a briefing paper issued for the donor-focused event in Geneva. While school might not be as literally "life-saving" as food or medicine, the argument for education as a category of "humanitarian" spending appears to have been won, but resources are slow to appear.


    The EC's humanitarian arm, ECHO is ramping up its spending (from 1 percent in 2015 to 8 percent in 2018), while Norway and Switzerland are leading advocates for the issue, too. The two donors called the event, along with UNICEF and Save the Children, on behalf of groups working together as the education "cluster". There's work to be done: in northeastern Nigeria, over 2,300 classrooms need to be built or fixed due to damage by Boko Haram extremists who are anti-"Western" education, according to local education administrator Shettima Bukar Kullima. The northeastern Nigerian state of Borno spends 26 percent of its budget on education, but Kullima said more help was needed -- for things like training 21,000 teachers how to deal with psychosocial strains among pupils. Appeals for emergency education in West Africa are particularly poorly funded, at just 22 percent, even though education in the region is a "battle zone for ideology."

    (TOP PHOTO: IOM Yemen staff assist a migrant who survived drowning. CREDIT: IOM)


    More migrant disasters, less help for Yemenis, and Cameroon’s brewing war
  • Deadly dust storms, a plea on Cameroon, and a data protection guide for humanitarians: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a round-up of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.


    Yemen: The flight from Hodeidah


    Yes, we know Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah has become a regular on the Cheat Sheet. We’re back with more and, no, it’s not good news. As we reported earlier this month, the UN tried and failed to get some civilians out of harm’s way as violence intensified in areas outside the city. Now, Amnesty International has spoken to some of the 100,000 civilians who have been displaced in Yemen since last December, most of them from around Hodeidah. They say their flight – often to abandoned buildings, overcrowded rooms, or informal camps – is treacherous and expensive, and accuse Houthi rebels of mining roads and preventing civilians from leaving. Nonetheless, the UN reported this week hundreds more families leaving their homes in the region in a matter of days. And it’s only likely to be downhill from here.


    France – Cameroon needs you now


    Listen up, France: If you want to help avert a full-scale civil war in Cameroon (you still have major economic interests in your former colony), it’s time to take a tougher line against its long-serving president, Paul Biya. That’s the urgent appeal this week from a group of (unnamed) French and Cameroonian observers and published by Libération, a French daily. Over the past two years, hundreds of people have been killed and some 160,000 have fled their homes during armed conflict between government forces and anglophone separatists. Insurgents have targeted security forces, elected officials, and teachers, and the army has torched entire villages. “The international community, and especially France, must encourage the government towards dialogue, which it has so far refused,” the observers urged, blaming the government’s intransigence in the face of anglophone calls for greater autonomy. With human rights groups banned from visiting conflict areas, a bishop from the would-be mediating Catholic Church targeted in an assassination attempt, and the press muzzled, such a move by France would raise hopes for a ceasefire and help dispel anglophone perceptions of its bias towards Biya. More on this under-reported conflict soon.


    Indonesia: De-radicalisation for the whole family


    Two teenage boys ride a motorcycle into a church compound in eastern Indonesia and detonate a bomb. Minutes later, their father drives an explosive-laden car into a different church. Then the boys’ mother, strapped with explosives, blows herself up at another church, along with her two daughters. Indonesia is still reeling from the shock of these attacks last week, which killed at least 13 people and wounded dozens more. The next day, another family carried out a separate suicide bombing on a police station. Both attacks were blamed on an extremist network linked to the so-called Islamic State. In an op-ed published on NPR, Jakarta-based conflict analyst Sidney Jones says the attacks underscore the importance of “rethinking” de-radicalisation programmes in Indonesia, which are overwhelmingly focused on convicted male terrorists while ignoring their families. “It may be heartwarming to see women as peacebuilders, but the fact is that in conflict situations, women can be the drivers of violence as much as – if not more than – their husbands, sons or brothers,” Jones writes.


    Syria: Most dangerous for healthcare workers


    At least 101 health workers were killed in 23 countries during conflict in 2017, according to a survey by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition released last week. The group, which includes over 35 NGOs and public health institutions, compiled details of 701 incidents, from damage to ambulances and clinics to full-scale attacks and airstrikes. Various government forces were responsible for 40 percent of the incidents, the report states. Worst by far was Syria. As a footnote reveals, this is before you even take into account telling gaps in the report because of the overwhelming number of incidents there.



    Staying with Syria…


    “Go big and accept the risks”


    The UK aid watchdog has looked into Britain's £2.7 billion of humanitarian assistance to Syria over recent years and given the huge operation an overall good ("amber-green") ranking. The report makes interesting reading for Syria aid-watchers, including our own Ben Parker, who pulled out some previously unreported nuggets in a Twitter thread. Issues of monitoring, targeting, access, and the role of local aid groups all pose dilemmas and balancing acts, especially in helping opposition areas. Former head of USAID's emergency wing, Jeremy Konyndyk, commented that donors need to "to go big and accept the risks" in situations like Syria.



    East Africa: The high cost of pirates

    Piracy in East African waters escalated in earnest last year. In 2017, 54 incidents were reported, against 27 the previous year and just 16 in 2015, according to the annual State of Piracy report published by One Earth Future’s Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP) programme. These “incidents” include suspicious activity, failed attacks, and, for the first time in two years, hijackings and kidnappings. Blame the spike on complacency in the shipping industry, the report says (vessels have cut down on self-protection measures). Fewer counter-piracy ships don’t help, either. OBP put the total economic cost of piracy in East Africa at $1.4 billion, with the extra fuel used by ships that speed through high-risk areas accounting for about half of that. But, as our July 2017 feature explained, there is also an untold humanitarian impact on the region, where organised crime, unrelenting clan wars, and drought have combined to leave millions of Somalis in need of emergency aid.


    Technical, but important


    GDPRMAGEDDON, humanitarian edition


    Once you've cleaned your inbox of messages from hotels you can barely remember staying at touting their new data privacy policies, you might want to spend some time with a new guide that provides an ethical framework for data use in the world of humanitarian relief. From cash cards to fingerprint scanning, the aid enterprise is handling more and more data of some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and hasn’t always done a good job. The new manual from the Signal Code group at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, is over 60 pages long, but summarised in nine "obligations" to ensure it isn’t used in ways that are intrusive, exploitative, or dangerous. These include establishing high standards in IT security, privacy, and data protection – from meaningful consent to the "agency" of affected populations.


    Our weekend read:


    Central Africa Republic: Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live


    Eagle-eyed IRIN readers will have spotted a brief statement on our site earlier in the month on the expulsion of contributor Philip Kleinfeld from the Democratic Republic of Congo. We won’t go into that here (suffice to say we’ll do our utmost to support his vital work, wherever that takes him).


    That’s the bad news. The good news is that before Kleinfeld was in Congo, he was in the Central African Republic. He spent five weeks interviewing UN peacekeepers and commanders, warlords, civilians, and rape victims. We’ve just published, “Inside mission impossible”, the first instalment of his three-part special report. UN peacekeeping missions in CAR and other hotspots are often portrayed as failing, abuse-ridden, and incompetent. There is a little of that here, but Kleinfeld does an excellent job of giving the bigger picture, explaining the reality – the challenge of trying to keep the peace in a country with spiralling violence that is one and half times the size of France, much of it dense jungle threaded by narrow bush tracks. A shout-out too to IRIN’s multimedia producer Whitney Patterson. Sharing the peacekeeper’s view atop an armoured-personnel carrier bumping through the jungle, presented with vivid portraits and infographics that help bring the country and its people alive, readers are transported into this overlooked and poorly understood conflict. Check it out, and don’t miss the next two parts in the coming weeks.


    And finally…


    Deadly dust storms in India: fluke or trend? 


    What’s the deal with weeks of extreme weather that has killed more than 100 people in India this month? A series of unusually severe thunder, lightning, and dust storms swept across a wide swathe of the country in April and May, toppling trees and crushing people under debris. Dust storms are common in India at this time of year, but the breadth and intensity of these recent events have come as a surprise. Scientists say multiple factors are at play, including soaring temperatures and a collision of dusty winds with particularly moist air. Climate change is expected to magnify extreme weather across the world, and some in India are predicting this year’s deadly dust storms are a sign of things to come. However, NASA cautions that it’s too early to tell if the extreme weather is the start of a deadly trend, or “simply a rare, chance event”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Indian commuters commuters ride they bicycles during a heavy dust storm in New Delhi on 6 April 2018. CREDIT: Chandan Khanna/AFP)




    Deadly dust storms, a plea on Cameroon, and a data protection guide for humanitarians
  • A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel

    In 2011, several African states warned about the likely consequences of an international military intervention in Libya aimed at toppling Muammar Gaddafi. Now, six years after his death, security in the Sahel region has never been worse.

    In a domino effect, from 2012, the spillover from the Libyan crisis bolstered the Tuareg rebellion in Mali, which in turn facilitated a jihadist incursion, which, after briefly being halted by France’s Operation Serval, arose from the ashes stronger than ever and spread across neighbouring states.

    “Mali’s roots were rotten, it just needed a breeze to make it collapse,” summarised a former Malian minister recently.

    In Mali, the state is now hardly present across much of the country. In mid-December, barely a quarter of state agents were in their posts in the six northern and central regions.

    According to an opposition party tally, 2017 was Mali’s most deadly year since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power in 2013.

    Yet the Sahel region has never been so militarised; it is rife with insurgencies and counter-insurgency forces of various stripes. Relative veterans from France and the United States have recently been joined by troops from Italy and Germany, and by a new regional coalition, as well as by forms of warfare new to the region.

    Presented as solutions by their political masters, the military missions detailed below are seen by others as pouring fuel on the fire, and as simplistic responses to complex problems.

    United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA)

    Created in April 2013, this UN mission, now consisting of 13,000 troops, was supposed to stabilise northern regions of Mali after the lightning assault launched against jihadist groups there three months earlier by France’s Operation Serval (see below).

    Instead, MINUSMA faced a resurgence of these groups outside major urban centres and found itself exposed to mobile and seasoned guerrillas. They proved to be beyond the mission’s capabilities to control, and, arguably, peripheral to its mandate.

    “The UN deployed [here] without a peace accord, which is normally a precursor for a peacekeeping mission,” MINUSMA chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif told IRIN. “On the other hand, the idea that MINUSMA came here to fight terrorists has always been a major misunderstanding between Malians and MINUSMA, and unfortunately one that still exists.”

    Annual revisions of the mission’s mandate aimed at making the force more reactive have failed to silence critics. Both within and outside Mali, questions have been raised about the utility of spending more than a billion dollars in a single year when the mission has proved unable to fulfil its core tasks of protecting civilians and defending human rights.

    The killing of civilians during demonstrations by peacekeepers and accusations of rape have helped to sour pubic opinion of MINUMSA.

    The mission’s relations with the Malian government have frequently been strained, not least over the neutrality MINUSMA has shown towards certain rebel groups, a stance Bamako viewed as impeding the state’s recovery of its sovereignty over the entire country.

    The force’s limitations have frequently been highlighted. The latest report on Mali by the UN secretary-general, for example, noted that, “the lack of armoured troop carriers, especially of vehicles protected against landmines, remains a major obstacle to the mission's operations”.

    The previous report, issued in September, said MINUSMA’s civilian protection mandate had been compromised by the “absence of adequate air assets”.

    Both publically and in private, MINUSMA officials have made no secret of their frustration at being used as a punching ball and cash cow by Malian politicians.


    Harandane Dicko/MINUSMA

    Another prominent component of the force’s mandate is to oversee the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali. MINUSMA itself is paying the price for the breakdown of that accord: 133 blue helmets have died in Mali, making the mission the fourth most deadly for UN peacekeepers in term of deaths caused by hostile acts. In Mali, jihadist groups have made specific targets of the blue helmets.

    A recent UN Security Council resolution added another element to MINUSMA’s mandate: providing operational and logistical support within Mali to the joint force recently formed by the G5 states of the Sahel (see below). The council said the creation of the force should allow MINUSMA to “better carry out its stabilisation mandate”.

    The Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF)


    This formation was originally set up in Nigeria under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 1994 but remained largely dormant until 2012 when its mandate was widened to include combatting the Boko Haram insurgency.


    The MNJTF comprises some 7,500 military and non-military personnel from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.


    The force suffered a major setback in January 2015 when its headquarters, in the Nigerian town of Baga, was overrun by Boko Haram fighters. Its base has now been moved to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.


    Shortly after that incident, the force won official approval from the African Union, with a mandate (renewed this month for a further year) to conduct military operations, achieve coordination at inter-state level, conduct border patrols, find abducted persons, stop the flow of arms, reintegrate insurgents into society, and bring those responsible for crimes to justice.


    The force receives intelligence and training support from the United States, Britain, and France and, although theoretically financially self-reliant, money from the EU, which in August 2016 agreed to allocate some 50 million euros to it, paid through the AU.  Serious budgetary shortfalls and delays in procuring equipment, which left MNJTF troops without essential equipment for over a year and strained AU-EU relations, have hindered the force’s effectiveness.


    Since it become operational in 2016, the MNJTF has, despite tense relations between some contributor states, recorded significant gains against Boko Haram, killing or arresting many hundreds of the group’s members and releasing many of its hostages.


    In December 2017, the AU’s Peace and Security Council said the MNJTF had “significantly weakened the capability of the terrorist group and continued to successfully dislodge it from its strongholds”.


    But, it added, “Boko Haram still remains a serious threat for the countries of the region.”


    A March 2017 paper published by the African Identities journal argued that the MNJTF’s “sole reliance on a concerted military approach in countering terrorism will not address the root causes and may further incubate violent extremism” in the region.


    Force conjointe du G5 Sahel (FC-G5 S)

    The most recent arrival among international armed contingents deployed to counter the spread and intensification of jihadist groups’ activity in the Sahel consists of 5,000 troops from the region’s G5 states: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

    Malian President Boubacar Keita has described the forces as “an innovative approach to collective security, one that puts cooperation and mutual action at the heart of our response”.

    The force is set to deploy under a joint command in three geographic sectors. Its primary objective is to “fight terrorism and transnational crime” committed by various groups, some of which have already joined forces in Mali under the banner of Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' (JNIM), which is allied to al-Qaeda.

    According to analyst Nicolas Degrais, contrary to media reports, the joint force came into being more as a result of G5 member states’ own initiative and political will than at the instigation of France, which somewhat resents having done so much of the heavy lifting on counter-terrorism over recent years.


    Yet, for the time being at least, it owes its very existence to foreign assistance, notably that of the region’s former colonial power, which has been militarily active in the region since 2013. France has been the new force’s most ardent champion, and has backed it to the tune of eight million euros.


    Other sources of finance are the EU (50 million euros), G5 member states (50 million euros), Saudi Arabia (100 million euros), and the United Arab Emirates (30 million euros). These last two donors are regular customers of the French arms industry.


    It is hoped that further donor conferences will ensure the budget for the FC-G5 S’s first year of operations, some 423 million euros, will be fully funded.


    In November 2017, the force conducted a pilot mission, codenamed “Haw Bi” (“Black Cow”), in the Liptako-Gourma region, where the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso intersect, and which is a centre of insurgent activity. According to at least one analysis, the operation did little to demonstrate the new force was able to operate effectively without French support.


    The FC-G5 S, which is expected to reach its full capacity by March 2018, faces numerous challenges. These include coordinating armies of varying quality deployed by countries whose leaders have different security priorities. And some of these armies stand accused of committing abuses against civilians they suspect of collaborating with jihadist groups.


    Given how hard it is proving to raise enough money for the first year of operations, securing sufficient long-term financing will be, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, a “significant challenge.”


    France never fully left Africa when it ceased to be a colonial power, and it keeps making new appearances. 2018 sees it embark on a sixth year of military operations in the Sahel. These began in January 2013 with Operation Serval (in Mali), superseded in August 2014 by the more regional Operation Barkhane, which includes 4,000 troops and is run from N’Djamena.

    Barkhane’s successes include the killing of dozens of jihadists, some of them very senior, and the capture or destruction of more than 22 tonnes of weapons. But it has been unable to prevent extremist groups reappearing and carrying out attacks in central Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger.

    The days when former French president François “Papa” Hollande was feted from Bamako to Timbuktu are long gone. In Mali’s northern Kidal region, some armed Tuareg groups regard French forces as an army of occupation, while others don’t understand why Barkhane doesn’t come to their aid when they engage with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the Timbuktu region. Meanwhile, in the south of the country, some people suspect Paris of having a hidden agenda to support secessionist movements. Eighty percent of respondents to a recent opinion poll in Bamako said they believed France was in Mali "solely for its own interests."

    In neighbouring Burkina Faso, where a popular revolt toppled France’s long-time protégé Blaise Compaore in 2015, many people, fed up of repeated promises that Paris is putting an end to la Françafrique (its enduring sphere of influence in Africa), resent the French military presence, which they suspect is more of a magnet for jihadist groups than a deterrent.

    Despite these criticisms, Barkhane has had more success against extremist groups than any other military forces.

    United States

    It took the 4 October death in Niger of four special forces on a “reconnaissance mission” to shine a light on the US “shadow war” in the Sahel, even though there was nothing new about its presence there.

    Since 2002, the United States has conducted a succession of counter-terrorism training missions in the region to “support local forces in dealing with the threat”, as General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in October.

    Niger, a key partner in this endeavour, currently plays host to 800 US troops, the largest American contingent in Africa. It will soon have two US military bases on its soil, after one dedicated to drones is built near the city of Agadez.

    The October attack, near the village of Tongo Tongo, seemed to signal an escalation of US military engagement. In November, Niger gave its approval for US drones to be armed and thus for the introduction to the Sahel of a mode of warfare already in use – with deadly effect and numerous mishaps – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

    “This is exactly what we never wanted to see in West Africa: very powerful bombs which, despite their reputed precision, cause dozens of civilian casualties, and provide armed, anti-Western jihadist groups with hundreds of new candidates for recruitment,” warned Gilles Yabi of the Wathi think-tank.


    Sébastien Rieussec/EU
    EUTM Mali arrives in Bamako

    European Union

    The EU is taking a greater interest in the Sahel amid concerns over migration and security resulting from the region’s growing destabilisation.

    The bloc currently has three outfits deployed there: the EU Training Mission-Mali, launched in 2013 to instruct the country’s armed forces; and a capacity-building mission each in Mali and Niger to support domestic agencies countering extremism and organised crime.

    Separately, Germany is shortly to open a military base in Niger to support MINUSMA, while Italy has announced it will sent 470 troops to the country to counter people-smuggling and combat extremism. Meanwhile, Britain is reportedly in talks with France with a view to supplying military helicopters or surveillance aircraft in support of Operation Barkhane.

    (TOP PHOTO: French soldiers from Operation Barkhane in Mali. CREDIT: Fred Marie/Flickr)


    The region has never been so militarised. Here’s an overview of the international players in uniform
    A dozen shades of khaki: counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel

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