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Ugandan protests, the assault on Mekelle, and French police violence: The Cheat Sheet

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

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Uganda’s slow-burn protests

Uganda’s main opposition parties condemned the detention last week of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, but that’s the extent of their common front ahead of January elections that President Yoweri Museveni is expected to win yet again. “[The opposition] may jointly contest the election results, but don’t expect much more than that,” a political analyst in Kampala told The New Humanitarian. Wine’s detention for allegedly breaking COVID-19 election guidelines triggered three days of street protests in which 45 people were shot dead, according to police figures. But despite the adulation Wine enjoys as Uganda’s “ghetto president”, Museveni – who by January will have already racked up 35 years in power – decisively controls the election machinery, the loyalty of the security forces, and has rural support. Though the perceived deep corruption of the state generates anger, it has not led to a Sudan scenario in which the middle classes spearheaded urban protests that toppled the regime. “But that link, that people’s poverty is a result of government corruption, is slowly being made – and we are increasingly seeing symbols of government being targets for the protests,” the analyst added.

Ethopian conflict reaches the Tigrayan capital

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has launched what he called the “final phase” of a military operation in Tigray, after three weeks of conflict between the central government and the northern region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Rights groups fear the offensive – centred on Tigray’s heavily populated capital, Mekelle – could result in widespread civilian casualties. Some 200 aid workers are also stuck in the city, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. More than 40,000 refugees have now arrived in neighbouring Sudan, though numbers may be slowing as Ethiopian soldiers stationed along the border block people from fleeing. In interviews with TNH last week, refugees in Sudan shared harrowing stories of escaping government airstrikes and allied militias. Few analysts expect the conflict will end in Mekelle, as Abiy has stated: Battle-hardened TPLF fighters number up to 250,000 and could put up a lengthy stand that triggers wider conflict in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region.

Afghanistan aid: Strings attached

Afghanistan emerged from this week’s key donor summit with less money, more strings, and a subtle nod to long-elusive transitional justice. Donors committed some $3.3 billion in funding in 2021, and about $12 billion through 2024 – a drop from the $15 billion pledged during the previous cycle. “Today is a good day for Afghanistan,” the UN secretary-general’s envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, said repeatedly in one of the rosier assessments. Humanitarian NGOs were less convinced: the Norwegian Refugee Council said it was a discouraging step back; Save the Children called the pledges an “alarming drop”. Donors stressed tighter conditions tied to Afghan peace negotiations; several said their pledges would be re-evaluated each year. Lost amidst all the focus on dollars and cents was a fleeting mention of transitional justice: The conference-ending communiqué inked by the Afghan government and donors referred to justice as “an essential component of the ongoing peace process”. Addressing decades of war atrocities is important to many Afghans, but absent from peace negotiations, and from the last donor summit’s communiqué.

Syria’s endless war

It has been nine months since the end of a devastating government-led offensive on rebel-held northwest Syria, and 11 months since Turkey’s invasion of the Kurdish-held northeast. While ceasefires across the north have mostly held, that doesn’t mean life has become completely safe for civilians. On 24 November, explosions in Afrin and al-Bab, both in the northeast, reportedly killed eight people and injured dozens more. Al-Bab, which is controlled by Turkey-backed militias, has seen a recent string of bombings: The UN says there have been more than 20 “incidents reported to have resulted in civilian casualties” there in 2020. Meanwhile, Save the Children says at least 43 children have been killed and 84 injured in the northwest since the March truce, and, according to a new report, neatly summed up here, deaths and injuries from cluster bombs nearly doubled between 2018 and 2019, from 149 to 286, mostly due to their use by Russia in its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In total, Syria accounts for 80 percent of the world’s casualties from the dangerous munitions between 2010 and 2019.

The ‘shadow’ pandemic stalking women and girls

The UN has released $25 million in emergency funds to tackle gender-based violence – a scourge that has only worsened with COVID-19. Before the pandemic, one in three women, or some 243 million, experienced such violence. It’s even worse now. UNHCR says refugees, displaced women, and stateless women are amongst those most at risk. A network led by the refugee agency said it was seeing higher incidences of violence against women in most of its operations. UN Women, meanwhile, said some domestic violence shelters have reached capacity, with many resources being diverted to COVID-19 relief. Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s humanitarian emergency response body, said some 30 percent of the UN emergency funds will go to women-run organisations assisting victims.

No photos, please

French police officers were filmed throwing people out of tents and attacking them with riot shields, truncheons, and teargas as they violently dismantled a makeshift camp for asylum seekers and migrants in central Paris on 24 November. Many of the people in the camp had been left homeless after police dismantled a separate camp on 17 November. There is growing outrage in France over police violence – including the recent beating of a black music producer in his studio by three police officers. A new law – that will be voted on by the French Senate in December – would make it illegal to publish photos or videos of police officers "with the intent to cause them harm, physically or mentally". Critics say it is a blow to press freedom and will make it more difficult to hold the police accountable.

In case you missed it

BURKINA FASO: President Roch Kaboré has won a second term in office after last week’s elections in extremist-hit Burkina Faso. While no major violence was reported on the day, the country’s electoral commision said 900 polling stations were forced to close, preventing roughly 600,000 people from voting. Read our story for more.

CANARY ISLANDS: Spain is planning to deploy additional police officers, more naval assets, and a maritime observation plane to Senegal to crack down on people smuggling and irregular migration. Senegal is a main departure point for people trying to reach the Spanish archipelago off the west coast of Africa. Around 17,000 asylum seekers and migrants have arrived in the islands this year, compared to fewer than 2,500 last year. 

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The leader of a militia group in eastern Congo was sentenced to life in prison this week, marking a “significant step” in the country’s fight against impunity, according to Human Rights Watch. Ntabo Ntaberi, also known as Sheka and who commanded a group called the Nduma Defense of Congo, was found guilty of seven counts of war crimes by a military court. 

FRANCE: General violence in Kabul, Afghanistan is no longer justifiable grounds for granting international protection, France’s National Asylum Court concluded on 20 November, reversing its past stance of granting asylum to people even if they were not personally persecuted. There has been a surge in violence in Afghanistan this year – including a string of recent deadly attacks in Kabul – as the Afghan government and Taliban carry out peace talks.

NIGERIA: More than 100 people were killed, including 37 policemen, during country-wide protests last month, according to the police. The authorities routinely try to discredit an #EndSARS movement against police brutality by linking it to the mob violence that followed the army’s shooting of peaceful #EndSARS protesters in Lagos – and are cracking down on the movement’s leaders.

PALESTINE: A new report from UNCTAD estimates the economic cost of Israel’s occupation of Gaza from 2007 t- 2018 to be $16.7 billion, or six times the GDP of Gaza. It predicts that had economic trends continued on the same path they were on before 2007, when Hamas took over the Palestinian enclave and Israel intensified restrictions, Gaza’s poverty rate in 2017 would have been 15 percent, rather than 56 percent.

ZAMBIA: The southern African country has defaulted on its debts, becoming the first coronavirus-era nation to do so. The default followed a G-20 rescheduling summit that could not overcome Chinese reluctance to sign up to any deal that would cancel or restructure debts. Zambia could now spend more on servicing its debt than on healthcare.

Weekend read

Even if famine isn’t declared, Yemen has a massive hunger problem

The “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” may soon add famine to its list of woes, but is there enough data to make the highly technical call? As Annie Slemrod and Shuaib Almosawa explain in our weekend read, Yemen faces a crippling hunger crisis regardless: Millions of people are likely struggling to get enough to eat, although we don't yet have country-wide numbers on the exact levels of food insecurity or malnutrition. Worsening economic conditions on the back of more than five and a half years of war are a major factor, compounded by aid cuts from an underfunded UN-led response. Yemenis are coping by selling personal items, through family and communal support, and by cutting back on expenses – including meals – or pulling their children from school. In extreme cases, families are marrying off young daughters. It’s a déjà vu moment for Yemen, where despite similar concerns in 2018 the famine threshold was not met.

And finally…

Pick a poll

A big cut to the British international aid budget has been met with howls of dismay from the international development community, British NGOs, the church, business groups, and politicians of all stripes. By reducing the UK spend to 0.5 percent of Gross National Income from 0.7 percent, the UK will spend about £10 billion in 2021-22, down from a high of £15.2 billion in 2019. Critics point out the savings only amount to less than two percent of the UK’s £400 billion in planned borrowing. Supporters of the cut said the 0.7 percent target was arbitrary and excessive, and pointed to examples of dubious aid projects that could be slashed. Aid budget boosters had to swallow a new poll saying the chop is supported by two thirds of the UK population. But has the pandemic really caused a change of heart or was it the more to do with the way the question was posed? A previous poll had come up with the opposite answer.

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