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Militancy in Lake Chad and Mozambique, COVID-19 in Gaza and Syria: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

Young girls at Dar-es-Salam refugee camp
Girls at Dar-es-Salam refugee camp, Lake Region, Chad, Thursday 20 April 2017. The girls and their families fled Nigeria after Boko Haram insurgents attacked their homes. (Vlad Sokhin/UNICEF)

Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Lake Chad: Boko Haram still a threat

Two deadly attacks this week by jihadist groups, in Chad and Nigeria, killed more than 140 soldiers, underlining the militants’ continued threat in the Lake Chad region, despite reports of factional fighting and leadership changes. On Sunday night, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram attacked a Chadian island base on Boma Peninsula, in Lac Province, and killed 92 soldiers. It is the worst loss the Chadian army, seen as among the best in the region, has suffered in a single battle. On Monday, in northeast Nigeria, so-called Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) – a Boko Haram splinter – reportedly killed 50 soldiers in an ambush on a convoy transporting explosives and ammunition. Despite recent leadership tussles in ISWAP, and the reported death of the Boko Haram commander operating in the Lake Chad area, the tempo of attacks has remained high. “The internal dynamics of these groups keep changing, but that doesn’t affect their military capability,” a researcher told The New Humanitarian. For more, see TNH’s Boko Haram coverage here.

An escalation in Mozambique

It’s not just in the Lake Chad region that extremist groups are becoming increasingly emboldened. On Monday, jihadist militants who usually only attack smaller villages in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado temporarily seized Mocimboa da Praia, a key port town. On Wednesday, they moved to Quissanga, a district capital, where they were filmed in front of the governor’s office holding the black and white flag of the so-called Islamic State. Jasmine Opperman, Africa analyst at the conflict monitoring group ACLED, told TNH that “an important threshold has been crossed” with the attacks. “What is clear is that insurgents have seriously improved their capability, coordination, and tactics,” she said. Some reports mention the insurgents robbing banks and shops and handing out the spoils to residents as part of a “hearts and minds'' campaign. But other reports say civilians were killed by the attackers. At least 100,000 people have fled their homes since the insurgency began in October 2017, and hundreds of civilians have been killed. TNH spent a week in the gas-rich region in November, reporting on the humanitarian fallout. Read our coverage here.

Coronavirus reaches Syria, Gaza

Two places that have humanitarians and health officials on edge have announced their first cases of COVID-19 since the last edition of Cheat Sheet: Gaza and Syria. In Gaza, where some 1.9 million people live, often in extremely close quarters, there’s serious concern about how to contain the virus, especially given, as a recent UN update put it, the fact the “the health system has been undermined by the longstanding Israeli blockade, the internal Palestinian divide, a chronic power deficit and shortages in specialised staff, drugs and equipment”. In Syria, there have so far been confirmed cases only in parts of the country controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, but testing has not begun in earnest in the northeast or northwest, both of which have seen recent mass displacement. There’s particular concern about Idlib province and the areas surrounding it, which have been battered by a government offensive that hit hospitals and clinics especially hard. Read what Idlib’s residents are thinking about the pandemic, as they ponder how to “social distance” in a crowded tent. 

Kidnaps, coronavirus, and elections in Mali

Mali’s main opposition leader, Soumaïla Cissé, has been taken hostage while campaigning ahead of legislative elections scheduled for Sunday. The former finance minister was travelling in the northern region of Timbuktu, where extremist groups are known to operate. Six other members of his entourage were also captured and a bodyguard was killed, his party said on Thursday. Mali’s first coronavirus cases were reported on Wednesday, leading some to call for the cancellation of the elections. But President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta said the vote – delayed on several previous occasions due to insecurity – would go ahead regardless. Last month, Keïta said efforts are being made to initiate dialogue with jihadist groups, as violence continues to rise in the West African country. Al-Qaeda’s official regional franchise, JNIM, has said it would be open to talks but wants foriegn troops – including French counter-terrorism forces and UN peacekeepers – to leave the country first.

Thinking big, against a ‘Black Sky’

The UN appealed for just $2 billion for the most vulnerable places. The G-20 plans $5 trillion in COVID-19 economic measures. Is either thinking big enough? The global impact – including knock-on instability and insecurity effects – looks grim. Think tank ODI says Africa would need $100 billion just to match the average G-20 measures. The World Bank has so far found only $160 billion for the whole world. “The aid architecture needs a radical revamp”, and a “Committee to Save the World” to do it, says Indian economist Arvind Subramanian. The International Monetary Fund needs more reserves, but lending to individual countries can fall, in favour of planetary-scale priorities, Subramanian argues. The World Bank, for example, should commit to spending “hundreds of billions” to buy and distribute test kits, ventilators, masks, and vaccines. Nouriel Roubini, famous for the “Black Swan” concept, points out that the economy could be on a one-way trajectory: it “looks to be neither V- nor U- nor L-shaped (a sharp downturn followed by stagnation). Rather, it looks like an I”, a vertical line downwards, he wrote. Humanitarian future-watcher Randoph Kent, writing with security analyst Karin von Hippel, says it’s time to start thinking ahead to prepare for the next “Black Sky” systemic meltdown.

In case you missed it

FUNDING: On the same day as a $2 billion COVID-19 appeal from the UN, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement issued a new appeal for $823 million. Its first COVID-19 appeal, on 11 February, was for just $32 million.

GREECE: Aid and human rights groups warned of an impending coronavirus disaster on the Aegean islands, where tens of thousands of asylum seekers are crammed into unsanitary and overcrowded detention centres. The Greek government refused calls for evacuations and relocations, saying risks from COVID-19 were greater on the mainland.

IRAN: It has been a head-spinning week for Médecins Sans Frontières in Iran. The aid group was blindsided after the Iranian health ministry announced it had barred MSF from operating – days after the medical charity shipped in supplies to set up a coronavirus treatment hospital. A government spokesman later said it would accept the equipment, Bloomberg reported, though it was unclear if this included MSF’s nine-person intensive care specialists.

PRISONS: The coronavirus risks for people living in enclosed spaces have thrown the spotlight on the estimated 11 million prisoners around the globe. Iran let out some 70,000 inmates, while pre-trial detainees have been released in a number of US states. Protests last weekend over COVID-19 in more than a dozen Colombian penitentiaries led to the deaths of at least 23 inmates at one prison near the capital, Bogota. 

UGANDA: Borders were closed to new refugee arrivals on Wednesday as part of government efforts to contain the coronavirus. Refugees inside the country will continue to receive support, but all transit and reception centres are suspended. As of Friday morning, Uganda had 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

YEMEN: The United States will scale back aid for northern Yemen due to alleged obstruction and corruption by rebel Houthi authorities. The move follows a funding ultimatum made in early February. A USAID spokesperson said some critical programmes would be spared the cuts.

Weekend read

When coronavirus came to Tanzania

Day 1: A new greeting echoes through the streets, “Umesikia? Corona imefika (Have you heard? Corona has arrived).” Jokes are made through open car windows. Day 2: Hand sanitiser is sold out in pharmacies; hustlers spring up reselling facemasks. Schools are closed and public gatherings are banned, but some aren’t taking the warnings seriously. “This is a white people flu,” says one man. “We Africans will be fine. Malaria kills more people than corona.” Day 3: Irene Abdulrahman cradles her baby Zamzam in her arms. “I’m very frightened, but I have to believe the government will be able to handle this.” With personal accounts from an array of characters, our weekend read chronicles the arrival of coronavirus in Tanzania over seven days in the northern city of Arusha. As in other countries worldwide, the first news of the virus is met with misinformation, panic, and fear – sometimes masked by humour. But unlike wealthier nations, Tanzania may not have the resources to slow the spread of the disease. Testing capabilities are low, and self-isolation is a luxury few can afford. “We can’t put whole cities under quarantine like they are doing in Europe,” says one man. “We would end up having to choose which death we prefer: coronavirus or hunger.” 

And finally…

Peace and the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is already upending humanitarian responses, and it threatens to destabilise economies and worsen crises across the globe. But there has been at least one positive, if tentative, outcome: a communist rebel group in the Philippines announced a ceasefire on 24 March. Days earlier, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had declared his own unilateral ceasefire. Conflict involving the New People’s Army – the Communist Party of the Philippines’ armed wing – has killed an estimated 43,000 people over decades in parts of the Philippines. Elsewhere, a separatist militia in Cameroon also declared a coronavirus ceasefire, the BBC reported, while combatants in Libya agreed on a “humanitarian pause”. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, allied against al-Assad, reportedly announced it would also “avoid engaging in military action”. Is it overly optimistic to think that a pandemic can also be an ingredient for peace? Big disasters have occasionally played a role in deflating conflicts (the end of a three-decade war in Indonesia’s Aceh following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami being one often-cited example). “As the devastation spreads and economies shrink, pressures may grow on governments and opposition in polarised situations to find common ground,” the International Crisis Group said in a report this week. Still, flickers of peace are also easily extinguished. In Libya, clashes resumed days after the humanitarian pause was announced.

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