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Central African conflict, aid worker deaths, and an election in Uganda: 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

Thousands flee renewed CAR conflict

The toppling of François Bozizé in 2013 saw Central African Republic descend into years of shifting civil war. Last month, we reported on how Bozizé’s unexpected return was adding a dangerous twist to pre-election tensions, amid growing dissatisfaction at a fledgling peace deal. The situation has since deteriorated rapidly. The new rebel CPC coalition is refusing to accept President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s 27 December re-election as valid. Its forces have taken a series of towns in recent weeks, including the southeastern city of Bangassou, and are now estimated to control two thirds of the country. They are kept from the capital, Bangui, by Touadéra’s forces – reinforced by Russian military contractors and Rwandan troops – and UN peacekeepers. The UN’s refugee agency says 185,000 people have been displaced internally since 15 December, while more than 30,000 Central Africans have fled to neighbouring countries. Even before the latest escalation, CAR was facing one of the world’s gravest humanitarian emergencies: One in four Central Africans – some 1.2 million people – were already displaced by the years of conflict. Access for aid agencies is hard, and malnutrition is on the rise as many communities receive little assistance.

Aid workers among the dead in Aden attack

A 30 December attack at Aden’s airport killed 25 people, including three aid workers, and threatened a long-stalled plan intended to heal fractures in the coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. The series of blasts took place as members of a new cabinet – formed as part of a November 2019 agreement to end fighting between southern separatists and others who support President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi – landed in the southern city. Yemen’s prime minister has blamed the attack on missiles fired by Houthi rebels, saying it was intended “to eliminate” the government. The rebels, who have been fighting Hadi loyalists – who are backed by a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led coalition – for nearly six years, have denied this accusation. The UN’s envoy for Yemen said the attack on civilians “potentially amounts to a war crime”.

After a violent campaign, Ugandans go to the polls

Ugandan police confronted presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, during an online press conference on 7 January, reportedly dragging him from the vehicle from where he was calling on the International Criminal Court to investigate abuses in the run-up to next week’s elections. The polls pit the parliamentarian and musician Wine – who recently switched out his trademark red beret for a helmet and bulletproof vest – against the 35-year incumbent president, Yoweri Museveni. While Wine appears to have gained popularity with his promises to fight corruption and create jobs, Musevini is expected to win the 14 January contest, in no small part because he controls the security forces, has cracked down on the media, and continues to arrest his opponent and his campaign workers. At least 54 people were killed in November protests after Wine was briefly arrested; Amnesty International says the “campaign period has been characterised by killings, beatings, and violent dispersal of opposition supporters using teargas and rubber bullets.”

Shelterless in the Balkans

Conditions for asylum seekers and migrants in Bosnia have deteriorated significantly after a camp burned down in December near the northwest border with EU member state Croatia. Lipa camp was in the process of closing due to a lack of electricity and water in the unwinterised facility. Authorities had promised to prepare the camp for cold weather, but the upgrades never came. As the camp was closing, a group of asylum seekers set fire to a tent, which quickly spread. Around 1,400 people were left without shelter. After several weeks’ delay, Bosnian authorities are now rebuilding and winterising the facility, but the former residents are protesting, saying they want the freedom to travel to Western Europe. Asylum seekers and migrants in Bosnia were already in for a rough winter. Now, the EU foreign affairs commissioner has called the situation a “serious humanitarian crisis”, and the EU has pledged 3.5 million euros ($4.3 million) in aid to improve conditions. Around 3,000 asylum seekers and migrants in the country are sleeping rough.

Former GOAL official in gaol

A former logistics officer with Irish NGO GOAL faces a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment for corruptly profiting from humanitarian aid contracts for the Syrian crisis in Turkey between 2013 and 2016. Ernest Halilov, who had been detained in Ukraine in 2018 – and then extradited to the United States – will likely face a reduced sentence as he pled guilty to receiving at least $395,000, new US court documents reveal. He paid staff at GOAL, Save the Children (UK), and a third New York-based NGO for details on procurement tenders. Inside information on the bidding allowed Halilov to earn kickbacks by manipulating pricing and which firms won, according to his plea agreement, heard on 23 December. One of two Kenyan NGO staff members who fed him the information was paid at least $128,000, according to the documents. The long-running case, pursued by USAID's Office of the Inspector General, is one of the largest aid fraud investigations of its kind to be made public. It severely damaged GOAL’s reputation, particularly as the former COO and the former head of risk and compliance at GOAL were both co-directors of firms with Halilov.

Vaccine diplomacy

The US Congress has pledged $4 billion to help provide coronavirus vaccination to countries that need it. The December contribution was part of a contentious $900 billion package of COVID-19 measures and more than doubled grants for the COVAX facility, an international fund. COVID-19 vaccine rollout is proving unequal and fractious – as expected. Rich countries that bagged early shipments are struggling to get it into arms fast enough, while less well-off countries are faced with few or no choices at all. There are nine vaccines in use, according to UNICEF, and the prices range from $2.19 to $44 per dose. Reuters reported that Israel, which outpaces any other country in per capita vaccination, agreed to pay $30 per dose, double the going rate, for its order of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The chief executive of India’s biggest vaccine manufacturer caused alarm when he said it was banned from exporting the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, but the government later denied the report and the vaccine producer retracted the statement.

In case you missed it

CAPE VERDE/VENEZUELA: A court ruling in the remote Atlantic island nation of Cape Verde has cleared the way for the extradition of Alex Saab – one of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s key deal-makers – to the United States to face money laundering charges. The Colombian national – apprehended when his private jet stopped to refuel – played a central role in setting up oil-for-food and housing deals central to a tug of war between Caracas and Washington. His contracts to supply food aid boxes, known as CLAPs, are alleged to have involved overcharging and the siphoning off of large amounts of money to shell companies. 

ETHIOPIA: The government continues to say it is re-establishing normality in Tigray after pushing renegade forces out of the major towns. However, reports from its own officials and aid groups say refugees continue to arrive in Sudan, very large numbers are displaced and facing hardship, aid and media access is limited, and public services remain curtailed. A 23 December massacre in another region, Benishangul-Gumuz, has led to displacement and required central government intervention.

NIGER: At least 100 people were killed by suspected Islamist extremists in the villages of Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumadareye, near Niger’s western borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Three days of national mourning were declared after what US-based conflict monitor ACLED said was the biggest civilian massacre in eight years of Islamist unrest in the region. For more, read our in-depth backgrounder on the emergence of the insurgency in 2019.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: At least 15 people, including three children, died when a landslide engulfed them in the early hours of 28 December in a remote part of central Goilala district. Heavy rains reportedly hampered efforts to rescue the dead, who were gold miners and their families sleeping in a makeshift long hut.

ROHINGYA: The Bangladeshi government has relocated a second group of around 1,800 Rohingya refugees from crowded camps in Cox’s Bazar to a facility on a remote, flood-prone island in the Bay of Bengal. Human rights groups are concerned people are being coerced into relocating. The first transfer took place in December, and there are now more than 3,000 people at the facility, which authorities hope will eventually hold 100,000.

SUDAN: The joint African Union-UN peacekeeping operation in Sudan’s western Darfur region, UNAMID, ended on 31 December, leaving a mixed 13-year record. Some staff remain to attempt an orderly wrap-up. Days after it stopped work, new clashes erupted in West Darfur state, killing 54. While conflict across Darfur may have been reduced in recent years, underlying social tensions are largely unresolved, and 1.8 million people are still displaced. With UNAMID over, the UN has a new approach to the country: The United Nations Interim Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan.

SYRIA: Save the Children says Syria’s COVID-19 outbreak continues to “spiral out of control” and is warning about shortages of hospital beds, testing, clean water, and oxygen. More than half of the country’s total 40,000 cases are in the rebel-held northwest, where the number of confirmed infections has been steadily rising.

Weekend read

How COVID-19 made it harder to find safety in the EU

It’s not just on the US-Mexico border that international travel constraints and hardline migration policies have made it more difficult for people seeking protection during the pandemic. As Sophie Stuber flags in our weekend read, first-time asylum applications in the EU fell 30 percent in the first nine months of 2020. So, with far fewer people applying, processing times and reception conditions improved? Think again. COVID-19 exposed glaring weaknesses in asylum systems across Europe, as backlogs formed despite the lower numbers of new applications. And the pandemic also brought to light how social workers, housing, and healthcare are in short supply – a fact graphically illustrated by the burning down of Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos in September. It hasn’t all been bad. Some states expanded rights to work, while others decongested reception centres. But unless more is done to improve conditions and reduce logjams urgently, the anticipated post-COVID surge in applications remains a major cause for concern.

And finally…

Only in America

Some kind of Capitol Hill riot was not a huge surprise, but events on 6 January were an opportunity for sympathetic concern, reassessment, and schadenfreude for onlookers around the world. As our guest Candace Rondeaux pointed out last year: The United States is a fragile state. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said America had forfeited the right to slap sanctions on it for being undemocratic. One joke did the rounds: “Due to travel restrictions, the US had to organise a domestic coup this year.” Glib comparisons between America and “banana republics'' were slammed from all sides: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "the slander reveals a faulty understanding of banana republics and of democracy in America.” At the same time, commentators around the globe noted that the arrogance, prejudice, and exceptionalism behind such comparisons – not to mention the striking behaviour of the police – are, in fact, strong evidence of a uniquely American crisis.

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