Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Cabo Delgado: Where oil, militancy, and Tesla supplies meet
The head of French energy giant TotalEnergies is reported to be visiting Mozambique to discuss the re-opening of a $20 billion gas project in northern Cabo Delgado – on hold since a 2021 jihadist attack. The Mozambican government said it was “very optimistic” that operations would resume by March. Maputo sees the revenue from offshore gas as key to the country’s development plans. The level of protection provided by troops from Rwanda and southern Africa – in Mozambique to support the government – will be central to TotalEnergies’ decision. Those forces have been able to suppress the jihadist insurgency, but not eliminate it. Up to a million people are still displaced by the continuing violence. Citing a lack of funds, the World Food Programme suspended aid rations this month – one of a series of food pipeline breaks since last year. Meanwhile, Rwandan forces have been deployed further south in Cabo Delgado. The shift in focus, supported by a $20 million grant from the EU, has allowed the re-opening of two major mines: One produces rubies, the other graphite that goes into Teslas.
Two years under Myanmar’s junta
1 February marked two years since Myanmar’s military junta overthrew its civilian government. Under the rule of a brutal regime, the country has spiralled downward, as humanitarian, economic, and social crises collide amid worsening conflict. More than 1.1 million people have been displaced from their homes, 50,000 houses have been torched by military forces, and at least 2,900 people have been killed. More than 17,500 people have been arrested, including hundreds of children. States with particularly strong anti-regime forces have seen extraordinary amounts of violence – last year alone, the military launched 668 airstrikes. In these regions, women have taken up arms and lent other support in the fight against the junta, while civilians have gone to great lengths to keep schools running amid the bombings. Meanwhile, those who have fled the violence – particularly the Rohingya, whose mass exodus in the wake of military-led ethnic cleansing began long before the coup – have yet to find security. An estimated 17.6 million people need humanitarian assistance, but the crisis has become all but forgotten in the international arena and the response remains severely underfunded.
Mosque attack flags renewed militancy in Pakistan
At least 101 people were killed on 30 January after a suicide bomber attacked a busy Peshawar mosque during afternoon prayers. The mosque, located inside a fortified police compound, was targeted by a bomber disguised as a police officer. A low-level commander from Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack – saying it was revenge for his brother, who was killed in Afghanistan last year – though an official spokesperson denied any role. The militant group, known as the Pakistani Taliban, has carried out more than 100 attacks since November, when the TTP ended a five-month ceasefire. The Afghan Taliban hosted negotiations between the Pakistani government and the TTP in Kabul last year, but analysts say it has done little to apply pressure to the militants’ leadership – believed to be mostly hiding out in Afghanistan. The recent proliferation of attacks suggests the group has only grown in power, and that Pakistan is struggling to keep the militants in check. Security experts note that many warned of such a likelihood ahead of the US and NATO pullout from Afghanistan in August 2021.
Somalia looks to turn the screw on al-Shabab
Leaders of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia have been meeting in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, to discuss military action against the jihadist group al-Shabab and the targeting of its region-wide financial networks. The summit aimed to reinforce the success of a government offensive, which since mid-2022 has pushed the jihadists out of a string of towns and villages in central and southern Somalia. Soon after taking office in May, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared “total war” on the insurgents. The campaign has been bolstered by the rebellion of local clan militias – known as “ma’wisley” – against al-Shabab’s harsh rule and severe taxation, which comes amid a punishing drought. The government has also sought to isolate the group politically. This week, in an unprecedented move, 300 Muslim clerics denounced al-Shabab’s misinterpretation of Islam. Despite the government’s military advances, the challenge for its small army will be to hold recaptured territory against an insurgency that has repeatedly proven its adaptability.
The first sketches of a global pandemic treaty
The World Health Organization’s pitch to avoid “catastrophic” pandemic inequity: Allocate up to 20% of vaccines, tests, protective equipment, and other pandemic-related products to the global body. The proposal is part of a “zero-draft” document that sets the table for what could be contentious negotiations over a new global pandemic treaty. According to the draft, which was shared with WHO member states (and also posted online), the health agency is calling for 10% of pandemic-related products to be donated, and the other 10% to be made available “at affordable prices”. Parts of the draft’s 49-clause preamble deal with intellectual property rights, signalling a key battleground for the upcoming negotiations, Health Policy Watch reported. The push for a binding pandemic treaty is driven in part by “the catastrophic failure of the international community in showing solidarity and equity” in response to COVID-19, the draft notes. The first opportunity countries will have to debate the draft is in late February.
UN Ebola sex abuse probe at odds with initial findings
Three senior WHO staff members will return to work after an investigation by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) into their alleged mishandling of sexual exploitation and abuse allegations in the Democratic Republic of Congo found the accusations to be “unsubstantiated”. Investigative reporting by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation uncovered the alleged abuse of more than 70 women by aid workers during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in DR Congo, first in Beni, then in nearby Butembo. The women described how they were lured into sex-for-work schemes by staff from the WHO as well as other aid organisations. An independent commission’s report substantiated many of the allegations, while accusing senior WHO staff of knowing about what was going on and failing to act. The WHO has refused to name the three staff members. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said an oversight committee will review inconsistencies between the independent commission’s report and the results of the OIOS investigation. Although OIOS said it could not substantiate the allegations against the three WHO staff, its report did find “institutional shortcomings” in the WHO’s handing of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Taxes and the Taliban
Aid to Afghanistan may be lending legitimacy and money to the Taliban, a US government watchdog warned in a new report. SIGAR, which reports to the US Congress on how funds are spent, said the Taliban’s “institutionalised abuse of women” raises questions about whether the US can continue providing aid to Afghanistan “without benefitting or propping up the Taliban”. Taxes or other fees aid agencies have paid to government ministries include withholding taxes on Afghan staff income, property taxes, visa and work permit fees, utility bills, and customs payments. There’s fierce debate in the aid community over how to respond to Taliban restrictions on women in aid and in public life (for more on that, read the and finally… below). SIGAR’s warnings echo broader issues about how to engage with the Taliban – and concerns about how political decisions impact aid. Humanitarians have long pushed for exemptions to sanctions, warning that any roadblocks hurt only Afghans who need support.
In case you missed it
COLOMBIA: A month-old ceasefire between four armed groups has led to a significant reduction in violence, Colombia’s interior minister said. Two of the groups involved in the ceasefire – the Clan del Golfo gang and the Sierra Nevada paramilitaries – are splinter groups of the FARC rebels who rejected a 2016 ceasefire.
HAITI: US authorities have charged four men – one Colombian and three Haitian-Americans – in connection with the 2021 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse. The four are accused of conspiring to seize power in Haiti using military equipment smuggled from Florida, and with the backing of an unnamed Haitian former Supreme Court judge who was expected to replace Moïse. Three other men have been in US custody since last year. Gang violence has spiralled since the assassination.
ISRAEL/PALESTINE: The Israeli military carried out a fresh round of airstrikes on the Gaza Strip on 2 February after intercepting a rocket fired from the Palestinian-controlled territory. The strikes come amid an escalation in violence since a far-right Israeli government took office at the end of last year. Israeli forces killed 35 Palestinians in January, and there have been multiple attacks by Palestinian gunmen, including one that left seven dead outside an east Jerusalem synagogue on 27 January.
ITALY/LIBYA: A controversial memorandum of understanding paving the way for Italy to provide financial and material support to Libyan Coast Guard efforts to intercept asylum seekers and migrants in the central Mediterranean was renewed for a further three years on 2 February. The agreement is a cornerstone of EU efforts to curb migration from North Africa. Since it was first signed in 2017, the Libyan Coast Guard has intercepted more than 108,000 people, who have been automatically sent to detention centres rife with abuse. Thousands have also disappeared.
LEBANON: Three years into a dire economic crisis, the Central Bank has announced a new official exchange rate for the Lebanese lira of 15,000 to the dollar. The rate effectively devalues the currency – which was pegged at 1,500 previously – by 90%, but it is nowhere near the black market rate of around 60,000 to the dollar. The move has sparked fears of a fresh round of inflation and price hikes in a country where over 75% of the population is living in poverty, and where some can’t even afford to pick up the phone to call for help.
MADAGASCAR: The passage of tropical cyclone Cheneso has led to at least 30 deaths and displaced more than 30,000 people in Madagascar. Responders are struggling to access affected people following flooding and landslides, though the storm has now passed through the island nation.
MALI: UN experts have called for an independent investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Malian armed forces and mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group. The two have been partnered up since 2021 and are accused of executions, acts of torture, and sexual violence during operations against jihadist insurgents.
NIGERIA: A special panel appointed by Nigeria’s human rights commission will investigate a report by Reuters that accused the army of running a secret mass abortion programme in its war against Boko Haram militants. The Nigerian military previously rejected the reporting and said it would not carry out an inquiry.
PERU: Despite weeks of widespread demonstrations, the Congress is resisting protesters’ calls to move forward general elections to December 2023 from April 2024. Peru – which has seen increasing inflation, unemployment, poverty, and hunger since becoming one of the worst-affected countries by the COVID-19 pandemic – was plunged into tumult at the end of last year when then-president Pedro Castillo was ousted after allegedly attempting a coup.
UKRAINE: A new Russian offensive – potentially involving as many as 500,000 troops – is imminent and could likely be timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion at the end of February, Ukrainian officials warned this week. Russia has already stepped up operations in eastern Ukraine ahead of the anniversary, according to president Volodymyr Zelensky. Meanwhile, the number of Russian war-dead is fast approaching 200,000, according to new US estimates.
VENEZUELA: Humanitarian groups criticised a new draft law that would force NGOs to turn over their financial records, leaving them open to being banned by President Nicolás Maduro’s government if deemed to be engaging in political activities or endangering national security.
A wave of banditry has been sweeping across northwest Nigeria in recent years, driving nearly half a million people from their homes. Zamfara State has become the epicentre of a kidnap-for-ransom industry worth millions of dollars each year. At least 1,090 abductions were recorded in the last three months of 2022 alone, but undercounting conceals the true extent of the problem. During a December reporting trip in Zamfara, Africa Editor Obi Anyadike spoke to victims, community activists, local politicians, and repentant bandits as he tried to understand more about what was driving this surge in killing and lawlessness. “Everyone knows someone who has been kidnapped,” community development worker Buhari Moriki told him. With security forces struggling to find ways to respond to the intensifying violence, some of the hardest-hit communities are striking localised peace deals with bandit warlords to stem the bloody raids.
In confronting the Taliban, aid officials grasp for a lever
Three separate visits to Afghanistan by senior aid officials offer a peek into negotiations over the Taliban’s sweeping restrictions on women – and a contrast in style. Multimedia team in tow, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland brought a combative public message during his early January visit: “We’re not giving up. We will prevail here,” Egeland declared in a video posted to Twitter. The UN’s deputy secretary-general, Amina Mohammed, took a more low-key approach; some of her message to Taliban officials underscored the rights of women in Islam. And speaking with reporters after a late January trip, UN relief chief Martin Griffiths bristled at a question about taking a more forceful stance: “I’d be very interested to learn examples,” he said, “… of where tough, quote-unquote, rhetoric, punitive measures have worked with the Taliban.” Mohammed said the Taliban won’t be threatened with conditions; instead, she cited the desire for international recognition as a lever: “I went into Afghanistan thinking perhaps the most conservative of them didn't care about recognition; they do,” she said. “Recognition is one leverage that we have, and we should hold on to it.” Griffiths said his humanitarian delegation focused on carving out and expanding exceptions to the December decree that barred women from working for NGOs. Aid officials have little choice but to profess hope for a solution, even if previous Taliban pledges have been broken. Griffiths has been down this path before: He negotiated similar issues with the Taliban in 1998. “We stumble along,” he said, “but stumbling is better than leaving.”