August in review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of August:

Fires at Amazon forest trigger global calls for greater environmental protection

Massive fires erupted in the Amazon forest in Brazil in late August, triggering outcry as well as calls for better protection of the “lungs of the earth” across the globe. The latest wildfires contained at least thousands of hotspots spanning several states in the country namely Amazonas, Rondonia, Para and Mato Grosso. In addition to Brazil, the fires have also spread to forests in the neighbouring Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay. As efforts to contain the blaze were launched, there have also been criticisms against the Brazillian government’s handling of the situation. Human acts were thought to be blamed as fire is often used to clear out lands for farming and ranching. Amid allegations of being complicit, the Brazillian President Jair Bolsonaro had instead accused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for the fire, resulting in a barrage of outcry domestically and abroad.  One of the strongest criticisms came from the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who suggested to use the G7 summit to discuss the matter. His call received backing from the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The Brazillian government however retaliated, saying that the Macron was using the “internal issue of Brazil and other Amazonian countries” for his personal political gain. Elsewhere, protests also erupted in front of the diplomatic missions of Brazil around the world over the fires.

Communications blackout imposed in Kashmir following revocation of special status

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the special status granted for Muslim-majority Kashmir in mid-August following a landslide election victory few months earlier. Though the revocation of Article 370 has been stated clearly in his manifesto, there were still fears that the move would heighten the already tense situation in one of the militarized regions in the world. As a result, the Indian government poured in thousands of troops into major cities and towns of the state including Srinagar as well as imposed a total communication blackout in order to maintain calm and stability among its populace. As part of his nationalistic agenda, Modi also used the Independence Day anniversary to rally support for his move, citing that the article has long been a stumbling block in the development of the state. While some opposition parties expressed dissatisfaction, their responses were largely subdued due to the stronger majority possessed by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the parliament, Lok Sabha. Internationally, Modi’s move received the strongest backlashes from India’s regional neighbours namely Pakistan and China. Both of the countries claimed that Delhi’s unilateral move would threaten regional peace. Being the archrival of India in South Asia, Pakistan also partially closed its airspace while downgrading diplomatic ties with India in response to the revocation.

Sudan protest leaders, military ink transitional government deal

After months of unrest following the fall of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese protest leaders and military finally inked a power-sharing deal, paving way for the transition toward a civilian-led government. The agreement was being hailed as a key turning point after months of stalemate between both sides that saw violent clashes and deaths among the protesters. Under the agreement, a joint military and civilian council will be established to rule the country for at least three years, after which elections will follow. A cabinet appointed by the activists as well as a legislative would also be formed during this period to ensure administrative functionality. Despite this, some quarters have greeted the agreement with cautious optimism amid worries that the military might renege on their promises by delaying certain clauses thus allowing them to rule longer. Additionally, some also added that a number of challenges await the transitional government as the country has been battered by post-coup chaos for several months, resulting in erosion of the economy as well as institutional capacities among others. On the other hand, the international community including the African Union and Ethiopia that brokered the agreement have welcomed the development with relief after months of deadly violence.

Unrest in Papua following arrest of students

The Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua suffered from waves of unrest as tension simmered over the arrest of a group of Papuan students in mid-August. Riots erupted in a number of cities in the provinces including Nabire, Jayapura, Sorong, Fakfak, Timika as well as Manokwari in which demonstrators, mostly Papuans called for independence and equal treatment by the Indonesian government. At some point of the protests, some demonstrators also displayed the banned Morning Star flag, which symbolized independence resulting in scores of arrests. In a bid to quell the unrest, thousands of troops were deployed into the region and a communication blackout was also imposed to prevent spread of rumours at a sensitive time when Indonesia marked its 74th anniversary of independence. President Joko Widodo had also appealed for calm as the biggest riots in decades spread in both provinces. The latest bout of clashes has been regarded as a culmination of frustration among the Papuans who often felt they are being treated as “second-class” citizens in the country. Despite this, it has been hoped that the reconciliatory tone struck by the Indonesian government will be able to mitigate the ongoing violence in the region, which has already been plagued by a low-level insurgency.  

G7 summit in Biarritz skips joint communique

The Group of Seven summit was held in late August in which leaders of some of the most powerful economies in the world descended into the French city of Biarritz to discuss several issues including trade, the wildfires in Amazon as well as global security challenges. On top of the usual members of the G7, the summit was also attended by leaders non-member states including India, Egypt and Chile among others for the group’s outreach session. One of the most notable attendees of the summit was the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif who held talks with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sideline amid an ongoing nuclear stalemate with the US. Although there were no direct talks with any officials of the President Donald Trump’s administration, there have been speculations that Macron was using the summit in an attempt to broker talks between Washington and Tehran. Besides Iran, the summit also became a turf for a war of words between the French and Brazilian governments amid the fires in the Amazon forest. While G7 members pledged to provide US$ 20 million in aid for Brazil to combat the blaze, the chief of staff for President Jair Bolsonaro rejected the offer and labelled Macron’s move as “colonialist” and mocking the latter for failing to stop the “avoidable” Notre Dame blaze. The summit also ended without a joint communique as the host nation sought to avoid a repeat of a 2018 row between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Modi’s Kashmir gambit stokes fears of more violence

Fresh from a major election victory few months earlier, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made one of his boldest moves yet in early August after his government revoked the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.  The unilateral move came at a time where Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have continuously embarked on a nationalistic drive to rally the support of the people toward the government. In the aftermath of the revocation, anxiety and fears have also gripped the Muslim-dominated part of India, resulting in thousands of troops being poured into the region to maintain calm and security. Restrictive measures were also being taken in order to prevent large-scale mobilization of protesters over the revocation. 

The presence of Section 370 that guaranteed the autonomy of Kashmir has long been viewed as a stumbling block for the region’s development and investment by Modi. For him, the so-called autonomy had only been used by various clans to advance their political interests, instead of the people and he had made it clear in the BJP election manifesto that the provision will be revoked if he got re-elected for the second term.  Although the motion was eventually passed, it was met with loud jeers from the opposition with some expressing concerns that Modi’s move was just aimed at stripping the power away from a region that has little bond with the central government in Delhi. 

Since the revocation, the Indian government has also taken no chances in preserving stability in a region that is prone to outbreak of violence. Troops were being deployed into main cities and towns in the Kashmir region including Srinagar where a curfew was imposed. Additionally, a lockdown was also put in place while communication infrastructures such as phone and internet lines were completely cut off for at least eight million residents. The curfew was occasionally relaxed to allow for movement of people due to special events such as the Eid al-Adha celebrations but there has not been a clear timeline on when all the restrictions will be completely lifted. With such information blackout, there have also been contradicting reports on the situation on the ground with the government claiming that only small protests have erupted while others insisting that clashes have broken out between the police and protesters. 

Apart from protests, there have also been fears that Modi’s move could drive up militancy in a region, where attacks against government installations as well as security forces are not uncommon. With Delhi’s troubled relationship with the locals, it is likely that the revocation will only further alienate the latter, who believed that they share very little in common with the rest of the country. Already one of the most militarized regions in the world, the government’s decision to pour in more troops to suppress any opposition is likely to only make matters worse. 

While the citizens of Kashmir continued to live in the dark, Modi instead used the country’s national day celebrations to rally support from the rest of India for his move. With the opposition parties remained in shambles, the government had managed to somehow keep the domestic resistance at bay though it was altogether a different scene internationally. The revocation had attracted strong criticisms from India’s archrival, Pakistan as well as China in which a boundary issue near Kashmir has lasted for several decades. As India’s most vocal critic, the Pakistani government said it rejected Modi’s announcements whereas the army said it will go to “any extent” against such move. The Pakistani airspace was also briefly closed following the revocation. Both countries’ relationship has already hit an all-time low after the Pulwama attack in February and India’s latest move is all but certain to escalate the tension further. 

What is Article 370?

Article 370 is a constitutional provision that grants special autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. It was drafted in 1947 by Sheikh Abdullah, who had by then been appointed the prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir. The provision guaranteed that the state government had the final say on all matters with the exception of defence, foreign affairs, communications and finance. The provision has also raised a number of controversies in the past. For instance, the provision stated that non-Kashmir citizens are not allowed to purchase land or property in the state that some argued have hindered developments for the past several decades.

Chan Hoi Cheong
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur

Extradition bill stand-off raises concerns for travellers in Hong Kong

After more than two months, the series of street protests that have erupted over a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong appeared to have shown little signs of losing steam. Instead, the protest movements have expanded in terms of scale as well as level of violence with scenes of protesters clashing with riot police officers in various parts of the city. At times, such protests also paralysed movement of commuters and tourists alike, raising concerns on the city’s status as an international hub for finance, trade as well as tourism. What started as a protest against an extradition bill that critics said could be abused by the central government in Beijing has now become what the protesters claimed as their final battle in protecting the democratic rights they hold dear and developments to date seem to suggest that the ongoing stand-off between the government and various activist movements will not end anytime soon. In this special report, Safeture will look at some of the topics that may come across travellers’ minds when it comes to the protests and what can be done in order to mitigate the effects on his or her travelling plan.  

Where the protests have been occurring?

The anti-extradition bill protests have occurred at various locations in the city. Some of these protests have seen participants organizing sit-ins while others have seen them marching toward government buildings, resulting in congestion and road closures along the way. Several areas have become focal points for the protesters, and they are as follows:

Admiralty, Central
The areas around the Legislative Council Building (LegCo) such as Harcourt Road, Tim Wa Avenue and Tamar Park have seen some of the most violent clashes at the initial stages of the protests. At some point, some protesters also managed to break into the LegCo building, occupying it for several hours before being dispersed by the police. The Liaison Office Of The Central People’s Government In Hong Kong also became a target when the national emblem was smeared by black paint by the anti-extradition protesters. Barriers have been put at the location as precautionary measure.

Cross-Harbour Tunnel
On 3 August, large group of protesters blocked the entrance to the tunnel, paralysing traffic movement between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The tunnel was also blocked on 5 August during a general strike in the city.

Hong Kong International Airport (HKG)
The airport has seen its operation being severely disrupted several times in recent weeks due to protesters who moved to occupy the check-in area in the terminal building. Between 11-13 August, the airport saw its operation completely suspended twice, resulting in hundreds of flights being cancelled as well as thousands of passengers stranded. Police officers also clashed with the protesters as they moved to disperse them, resulting in injuries and arrests.

MTR stations and railway station
There have been several occasions in which protesters clashed with police officers inside the station. The most recent one occurred on the night of 11 August when police confronted the protesters at the Tai Koo MTR station. Heavy-handed tactics were reportedly used as the officers apprehended some of the protesters. Additionally, violence had also broken out at the Yuen Long MTR station when a group of mobs who dressed in white shirts started attacking protesters and passengers alike, resulting in 45 injuries.

Police stations
Protesters have also gathered outside police stations to protest against alleged police brutality. Projectiles have been thrown toward the compound previously, though there were no injuries. The police stations that have seen such gathering included the ones in Sham Shui Po, Kwai Chung, Tin Shui Wai, Wong Tai Sin and Tsim Sha Tsui.

Protests have taken place in various districts in Hong Kong such as Central, Admiralty, Tseung Kwan O, Causeway Bay, Sham Shui Po, Tuen Mun, Yuen Long, Tung Chung and Tai Po among others.
Protests have taken place in various districts in Hong Kong such as Central, Admiralty, Tseung Kwan O, Causeway Bay, Sham Shui Po, Tuen Mun, Yuen Long, Tung Chung and Tai Po among others.

Territory’s transport crippled amid strike action

In addition to protests, a general strike was also held on 5 August, resulting in widespread disruption in the city. Flights were cancelled at the city’s airport as a group of air traffic controllers decided to participate in the strike. A number of MTR services also suffered from severe delays as some protesters blocked trains from running on their tracks as well as refusing to let the platform doors closed. Shuttle buses were provided to lessen the impact but many of the city’s office workers still did not manage to turn up on time for work due to congestion and diversions.

Police tactics
The Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) had thus far deployed a mixture of tactics in suppressing the protests. Riot shields, batons, pepper sprays, rubber bullets and tear gas have all been used in various situations todisperse the protesters. Human rights groups have accused the police of using excessive force while dispersing the protesters though the government had defended the force, insisting that they have exercised maximum restraint. The HKPF also confirmed the delivery of three water cannons in August though they have yet to be deployed despite undergoing successful testing. 

What should I do if I am currently in Hong Kong or heading there soon?

While travel advisories have been issued by multiple countries, there are still yet to be any “not to travel” warning with regards to the ongoing situation in Hong Kong. Despite this, some might choose to revise their travel plans to the territory while others continue to carry on with existing plans until situation turns otherwise. Here are some tips that you should know if you are currently in Hong Kong or planning to go there in the foreseeable future.

  • Avoid protest flashpoints/sites at all times (see above for list of common sites). Instances of clashes that involved bystanders have happened before and any protest sites should be avoided. Safeture provides regular updates on the upcoming protests and details such as location and time. You should plan your journey bypassing these locations.
  • Always be ready to consider alternative travel options. While the MTR remains one of the most popular ways to get around Hong Kong, disruptions due to protest action have happened numerous times, resulting in severe delays and overcrowded platforms. You should consider alternative travel options such as trams, buses and taxis under such circumstances. It is also important to note that these options are still subject to road conditions and diversions during the protests, but they could still be faster as long as they do not pass by the protest sites. Downloading transportation apps such as MTR Mobile for rail, CitybusNWFB and APP 1933 – KMB/LWB for buses as well as HKTaxi for taxis might also come in handy if you are in the territory.
  • Keep your embassy/consulate contact details with you while travelling. Should you need any assistance, contact them immediately. The Australian consulate-general for instance had deployed officials to the airport during the 11-13 August protests that cancelled hundreds of flights.
  • Check flight status regularly. If you have a flight to catch from the city’s airport, contact the airline service provider for updates before heading there. At the height of the protests at the airport, numerous airline companies such as British Airways, American Airlines, United Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Air Asia, Egypt Air, Malaysia Airlines, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways among others were forced to cancel their flights due to suspension of check-in services. Additionally, the highway toward Chek Lap Kok, where the airport is located, and the Airport Express rail services might also be affected due to protest action. Be prepared to leave earlier than usual due to such situation.

July in Review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of July:

Leaked private chats of Puerto Rican governor trigger massive street protests

The streets of Puerto Rico were hit by massive protests amid leaked chats from the messaging app, Telegram that showed the territory’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló and his inner circle making inappropriate remarks against the victims of Hurricane Maria. The 889-page document that was released by the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) also contained vulgar, homophobic, and sexist languages that were used by Rosselló to disparage his opponents and it came just days after two top officials of his government were arrested as part of a corruption probe. As anger boiled over the scandals, many people took to the streets, resulting in largest protests seen in the territory in decades. While these events were the triggering factors, the protests were also the culmination of public disdain over the continuous exploitation of the political and economic elites and a lackluster disaster response amidst the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria. Despite this, Rosselló has remained defiant by refusing to step down and instead offered not to seek another term in office. As the protests refused to let up, Rosselló eventually announced his resignation that will take effect on 2 August.

Boris Johnson takes over as British PM after winning Conservative leadership race

Leading Brexiteer and the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson became the British Prime Minister after winning the Conservatives Party leadership race, against his rival Jeremy Hunt. Johnson succeeded Theresa May who resigned after failing to secure a parliamentary for her deal on Britain’s exit from the European Union. While the Conservatives have been bitterly divided over the issue, one of Johnson’s first move upon the assumption of the post has also proven to be controversial. Besides axing many ministers from May’s cabinet in his reshuffles, some of the key posts were also given to candidates with doubtful credentials namely Education to Gavin Williamson, who was fired for leaking confidential information to Chinese phonemaker, Huawei and Home Affairs to Priti Patel who held meetings in Israel without the knowledge of the Foreign Office. The reshuffle was dubbed the “biggest overhaul” in decades while some calling it “a summer’s day massacre”. Regardless, Johnson’s move to stuff his cabinet with several controversial candidates is highly unlikely to end the division among the Tory ranks as his own goals of delivering Brexit by 31 October among others superseded the party interest.

Tropical Storm Danas wreaks havoc in East Asia

The Pacific Typhoon Season continued to cause disruptions in parts of East Asia as well as the Philippines in July amid the passage of Tropical Storm Danas (Falcon). The tropical storm made landfall in Cagayan, causing at least four deaths as well as some damage in Apayao and Negros Occidental. The storm that later moved on to South Korea also caused multiple transport disruptions in the country, especially around the island of Jeju, one of the top tourist spots in the southern region. Heavy rains and flooding were reported in some towns. In Japan, similar situation was also reported in Kyushu and Chugoku region with record-breaking rain forcing the evacuations of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Landslides warnings were also issued while the high-speed bullet train services were disrupted. Despite this, there were no casualties in Japan and South Korea due to the adverse weather. The typhoon season is expected to continue into August and further travel disruptions should be anticipated. 

No end in sight for Hong Kong protests amid periodical outbreak of violence

Street protests continued to grip Hong Kong throughout much of July with some of the most serious violence breaking out between police and pro-democracy supporters. The stand-off that initially started as a protest movement against a controversial extradition bill looked set to become protracted battle by many of the younger population against what was being regarded as a growing encroachment of the territory’s affairs by the Chinese government in Beijing. Pressure has also been piling on the territory’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam who was demanded by the pro-democracy movements to resign though she has remained defiant, and instead slammed the protesters for the violence that saw the Beijing’s liaison office being vandalized while the Legislative Complex being stormed upon. As the government blamed the so-called “rioters” for the unrest, a group of thugs that terrorized passengers at a transit station in Yuen Long also sent shockwaves with some suspecting that they were triads who were colluding with the police to break up the protesters. The events for the past month have clearly demonstrated that the latest waves of protests were unlikely to end soon as pro-democracy activists remained adamant to achieve their goals of ousting Lam and a complete revocation of the bill. However, there have also been fears that patience is wearing thin in Beijing and eventually stronger measures might be used to quell the protests. 

Landslide victory for centre-right party following election in Greece

An election in Greece saw the leftist party under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras being voted out after holding on to power for four years. The Syriza party was defeated by the centre-right New Democracy that managed to secure an outright majority in the parliament with 158 seats. The defeat of Syriza was already in the horizon when it went against the main election promise of stopping austerity measure after forming the government in 2015. As years passed, Tsipras’ government was not only unable to put the Greek economy back on track, but it also somewhat diverted from what it originally intended to do, that is to challenge Brussels’ tough bailout package and the establishment as a whole. Instead, the vicious cycle of austerity continued for many ordinary Greeks. Evictions of struggling families and the sale of vast areas of land and sea to corporations were not uncommon while the economy stagnated with high unemployment rate. The first sign of Syriza’s impending defeat was in June when it suffered a harsh defeat in local elections while the New Democracy won in nearly all regions and cities. Upon his victory, the leader of the New Democracy, Kyriakos Mitsotakis had vowed to re-establish stability and pledging to re-energise the economy by attracting foreign investment and creating jobs.

Ethnic conflicts threaten to overshadow 2020 elections in Ethiopia

Following a failed coup attempt in June by the Amhara hardliners, there have been growing concerns that Ethiopia could plunge further into another bout of violent conflicts between various ethnic groups ahead of a critical election in 2020. The fault line in Ethiopia’s fragile ethnic relationship can be traced back to a system that defines citizenship, politics and identity based upon ethnic grounds led by then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Alongside the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), and the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Front (SEPDF), they formed the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) to rule the country after successfully overthrowing the communist regime in 1991. Since then, ethnic violence continued to remain unabated as a TPLF dominated political system sidelined some of the coalition partners for years, leading to regular anti-regime protests and armed conflicts nationwide. A massive uprising ultimately thrusted Abiy Ahmed and his allies into power in 2018, heralding a new era in Ethiopia’s political scene.

Abiy has positioned himself as a reformist of the country and a source of hope for the nation prior to April 2018. There is little doubt that Abiy has triggered unprecedented transformation ever since coming into power. As a start, he had freed political prisoners and activists, lifted the ban on political parties countrywide and armed wings such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and on the international front, he had also successfully ended a 20-year border dispute with Eritrea. However, his ability to address Ethiopia’s ethnic conflicts is still underwhelming if not ineffective. Some have even suggested he had somehow allowed the rise of historical hostilities that have been suppressed by the previous authoritarian leadership. Although Abiy has consistently promoted the idea of a federal form of government with a view of “citizenship-based politics”, as a solution to stabilize the country’s long conflict, his tactics and actions towards “revolutionary democracy” that was aimed to change the political identity through ethnicity has so far remained ambiguous.

Diagram 1: Map illustrating the incidents of civil unrest and insurgency activities in Ethiopia for the past three months

During his first months in office, he has been greeted by many as “national savior” both domestically and abroad. As time passes however, he had been attacked by various quarters for being too weak in taming the violence between various ethnic groups. Ethiopia’s ethnic violence has grown in the past year in tandem with deadly protests due to lingering insecurities such as economic inequality, deep-rooted corruptions and human rights violations that he has yet to address. The events in Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa that the government described as a “coup attempt” has also stoked fears that Abiy is losing the momentum in resolving the conflict between the Oromo and the Amhara peoples. While the power grab has been described as a failed attempt, this clearly underscored the deep ethno-nationalist tensions that have heightened under Abiy, thus further complicating his reform agenda as well as setting a rocky path toward the highly anticipated general election in 2020. Suffice to say, an election that goes sideway will certainly push Ethiopia to the edge, and the consequences would have been catastrophic for the nation of over 100 million that has already been beset by mass displacement and other social insecurities.

Will ethnic violence prevail amid forthcoming 2020 elections?
There is a risk that large-scale ethnic violence erupting further ahead of the 2020 elections if Abiy failed to address the various conflicts that have been plaguing the country. Looking back at the June’s coup attempt, Amhara leaders felt their group has been marginalized within EPRDF’s rule, leaving them to take matters into their own hands. It is possible that political leaders of other ethnics or even the armed groups such as Oromo nationalists or Tigrayan separatists seek to exploit the moment for their political gains. While the attack might not have been widespread enough to overthrow the entire administration, it perhaps can be interpreted as a move to further divide the nation ahead of the key election year. This has also shown that there is an “anti-reform” movement that is trying to subvert Abiy’s wide-ranging reform measures. Abiy’s hardline response on the coup attempt could also make it harder for him to gain support within the EPRDF for continued reforms. As reforms stagnated and if the election was to be put on hold, Ethiopia’s transition toward a full-fledged democracy could further be undermined. Furthermore, if Abiy stays indecisive over actions to create his proposed non-ethnic based federal system, this may also create uncertainty and eventually destabilize the country further.

Postponing the 2020 elections will create the largest political vacuum and the biggest uncertainty into which all kinds of unpredictable political actors will try to fill the vacuum. As such, many analysts concurred that the scheduled elections are essential for the citizens, even though fragmented, to contain the growing ethnic tensions and other insecurities. A truly democratic-elected government on the other hand enjoys greater legitimacy thus allowing it to mitigate these conflicts more effectively. Anything positive or negative may happen in the time before, during and after the highly anticipated and probably most competitive elections in years. While the EPRDF is expected to retain its parliamentary majority, the opposition is likely to remain at odds with each other on some fundamental issues, therefore making a broad counter-alliance impossible. A successful election may turn out to be a game-changer in Ethiopia’s political history, not to mention a triumph of freedom in a country that had its fair share of repressive rulers in the past.

Ezza Omar
GWS Analyst
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur

Escalating communal violence adds to Nigeria’s security woes

The militancy of Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria has often emerged as the key security threats facing the sub-Saharan Africa nation. Amidst international media outlets’ focus on the group, the communal violence that has been surging in Nigeria since 2011 has also proven to be yet another security headache to the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, who just won an election in February 2019. Often underreported, the human cost of this conflict is thought to be even deadlier compared to those inflicted by the Boko Haram group as more than 300 lives have been lost in the first five months of 2019 alone. In comparison, the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast has left more than 411 casualties for the whole of 2018. While the epicentre of the crisis has always been the states of Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina, some of the violent activities have also threatened to spill over into the neighbouring states of Niger, Kano and Sokoto in recent years.

The ongoing communal violence in Nigeria can be traced back to 2011 when rural farmers and herders clashed regularly over cattle destroying crops. As fertile lands became scarce, the rival groups also began to launch more violent attacks backed by light weapons on each other, resulting in a tit-for-tat response. On top of that, there is also an ethnic dimension into the conflict as the farmers mostly belong to the Hausa community while the herders are from the Fulani community. To make matters worse, the Nigerian security forces that have been stretched thin due to a shortage of manpower has also been regarded as leaning toward the Hausa militias due to the partnership formed between both sides in order to ensure stability in the affected regions. As the Fulani herdsmen felt sidelined and antagonized by reports of extra-judicial killings by the rival group, it is hardly surprising that such a cycle of violence becomes almost impossible to break. 

Although the Nigerian federal government has increased its efforts in combating the crisis, they appeared to be futile since they are reactive in nature and did not address the underlying issues namely rural economy, border security and employment directly. Deployment of additional security personnel has also been ineffective as many villages are located in vast regions and remain vulnerable. As such, these loopholes are often exploited by various bandit groups seeking to extort money from the locals. Despite this, some villages have taken matters to their own hands by forming vigilante groups to fend off the bandits, resulting in deadly clashes at times. While the vigilante groups might be able to protect some of the communities, the situation remains dire particularly in Zamfara and Katsina states where thousands of people have been internally displaced by the constant clashes. 

A different approach would be required in order to stifle the conflict and this may include getting all rival parties to sit together for a dialogue as demonstrated in an initiative by the governor of Katsina state, Aminu Bello Masari. His measures have been regarded as pragmatic as they attempted to address some of the root causes of the conflict. Besides dialogue, he also offered amnesty to repentant herdsmen while creating rapid response units that are equipped with tracking systems so that security personnel can track the bandits wherever they are.  More importantly perhaps, he also promised to empower youths and women by helping them to learn new skills as well as providing employment opportunities through various programmes. Although more efforts from various quarters might still be needed, it has been hoped that such initiatives are able to be replicated by other state governments in order to prevent the ongoing crisis to spiral out of control.

Major herders-farmers related violence in Nigeria in the first six months of 2019

Following is some of the major attacks that have been linked to the Fulani-Hausa conflict for the period January-June 2019:

  • 28 January 2019: Seven herders were burnt to death by vigilantes in Zamfara state
  • 10-11 February 2019: At least 130 Fulanis were killed in one of the worst massacres seen in Kaduna state in recent years
  • 26 February 2019: Attack by Fulani herdsmen in Kajuru, Kaduna state in which 40 Adara people were killed 
  • 10 March 2019: Unidentified gunmen attacked a group of vigilantes in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna state, killing 17 of them
  • 11 March 2019: Suspected Fulani herdsmen launched attacks against the Adara community in the village of Maro, Kaduna state, killing at least 16-52 people
  • 8 June 2019: A night raid by bandits in the villages of Kalhu, Tsage and Geeri in Rabah, Sokoto state left at least 25 people dead
  • 9 June 2019: Bandits attacked farming and herding villages in Shiroro, Niger state. At least 47 people were confirmed dead
  • 14 June 2019: Bandit attack in Shinkafi, Zamfara state left at least 34 casualties
Chan Hoi Cheong
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur

June in Review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of June:

Increased tension in Middle East following US-Iran dispute 

Tension in the Middle East ratcheted up by a notch throughout June following the downing of a US drone by Iranian forces. While US President Donald J. Trump has always been critical of Iran including its nuclear ambitions, the escalation marked a sharp decline as Tehran was being accused of flexing its arms in the Persian Gulf. Prior to the downing of the drone, the US also blamed Iran for attacking two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Although evidence was inconclusive, there have been suggestions that the latest situation might be a signal for Iran to the world, particularly the West that it is capable of disrupting one of the world’s most important shipping lines should situation worsens, and an armed conflict becomes unavoidable. This is as the country began to feel the pinch of heavy US sanctions following the collapse of a nuclear deal in 2018. Trump has also imposed more sanctions that targeted the Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the so-called “hostile conduct” of the regime. As Iran rejected the sanctions, the window to revive the collapsed nuclear also became smaller amid fears that hardliners might strengthen their position in the regime, ultimately pushing the country on a brink of war with the US. 

Large protests grip Hong Kong amid controversial extradition bill

Street protests made a return to Hong Kong after a controversial extradition bill that sparked fears of growing encroachment of the former British colony by China. Pro-democracy and human rights activists said the bill could be used by Beijing to target those dissenting with views for trial in the mainland, where torture and forced confessions among others are not unheard of. In recent years, there have been accusations that the territory’s autonomy is being gradually taken away while the voices of its people on several major issues including universal suffrage being ignored by Beijing. As the government initially refused to back down from the bill, millions of protesters poured to the streets of the world’s financial hubs, paralyzing movements in the Central district while forcing a number of departments to close. Clashes broke out occasionally between the police and protesters and after days of pressure, the Chief Executive of the territory, Carrie Lam announced that the bill was to be suspended, blaming the lack of explanation and communication by her government for the anger. While the move appeared to have appeased some protesters, it was unlikely to completely end the stalemate as activists have called for the bill to be scrapped altogether as well as Lam’s resignation. As such, a prolonged stand-off between the protesters and government is still highly likely with the former launching sit-ins at various locations in the city, similar to those seen during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Ex-Egyptian president Morsi dies during court trial

Thefirst democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi collapsed and died later during a court a trial in mid-June. As one of the key leaders in the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, Morsi has been charged with unlawful detention of protesters as well as torture after being overthrown in a military in a 2013 coup. Since then, he had appeared periodically in court though activists have constantly criticised the military government under Abdul Fattah al-Sisi for depriving the former of family visits and basic needs including medicines, which eventually led to his death. There have been calls for an independent inquiry into Morsi’s demise by the United Nations as well as countries such as Qatar and Malaysia though they are unlikely to be heeded. Cairo had instead accused the UN of politicizing Morsi’s death. While Morsi may have been quietly buried, the uptick in violence by Islamist militants ever since his removal is likely to continue with this latest development. 

Erdogan suffers setback following Istanbul election loss

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suffered a setback at the Istanbul mayoral election re-run in June following the victory of opposition candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu. The loss of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party was a huge blow to Erdogan who has been leading the country as a strongman since 2003. While the jubilant crowds cheered on the streets of Istanbul, the mood was more subdued in Ankara as Erdogan moved to contain the fallout from the loss with his top circles. Once being credited for lifting Turkish economy, Erdogan’s support has been eroding in recent years as he moved toward the conservative path to stay in power. An economic recession and financial crisis also made matters worse while his dictatorial tendencies have also alarmed some voters. For many voters in Istanbul, the victory of the opposition has been regarded as the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s politics where the AK party has maintained a strong grip in the past. Attention will also be focused on Erdogan’s next move amid the election losses. A cabinet reshuffle has been tipped as a possibility though it is unlikely to trigger broad-based reforms in the short-term.

Regional leader killed in attempted coup in Ethiopia

A coup attempt was reported in one of Ethiopia’s nine regions. The President of the Amhara Region, Ambachew Mekonnen was killed in Bahir Dar after a nationalist element of the local security forces went rogue. As the situation unfolded, the country’s army chief, Se‘are Mekonnenin was also killed by one of his bodyguards in Addis Ababa. The two events were later found to be related and linked to the Amhara nationalist factions. The latest killings continued to underscore the fragility of the country’s ethnic federalism system despite the new leadership of reformist president, Abiy Ahmed. While Abiy has been credited for embracing democratic and economic reforms, his move has also proven to be divisive as various ethnic groups jockeyed for power and resources. As the Tigrayans that had long been a dominating voice in the country continue to be in decline, many Amhara nationalists are in the view that this could be the time for them to reclaim the so-called “lost territories” due to the adoption of the new constitution of 1995. With ethno-nationalistic sentiment on the rise, Abiy will now have the unenviable task of maintaining unity ahead of a critical election in 2020. 

Street protests return to Hong Kong amid Beijing’s encroachment fears

Street protests once again gripped one of the world’s busiest financial hubs, Hong Kong in early June following the government’s attempt to pass a controversial extradition bill that has been regarded as part of Beijing’s ambition to grow its influence in the territory. In scenes reminiscent of the Occupy Movement protests back in 2014, protesters besieged government buildings including the Legislative Council Complex (LegCo) in Admiralty and their action eventually paralyzed the Central district, the heartbeat of the city. Businesses, banking services as well as public transportation were brought to a halt as defiant protesters, mostly youths launched sit-ins and clashed with police officers several times. At some point, the protests attracted at least two million people in a single day, making it the largest since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. While the territory’s chief executive Carrie Lam insisted that the bill is “necessary and sensible”, the latest round of protests have also threatened to further polarize the city’s society, especially among its middle class with some being less inclined in demanding for universal suffrage and independence. 

The protests over the extradition bill came at a time of increased anger over continuous encroachment of the semi-autonomous territory by the central government in China. Critics have argued that the “one country, two systems” principle since the handover in 1997 has been undermined as Beijing had in the past ignored the views of the territory’s citizens on multiple issues including the selection process of a chief executive among others. With the extradition bill, some citizens of the territory have certainly felt that they have been pushed to the edge and the street protests could be their last stand against their diminishing freedom. As described by a Democratic Party’s activists, Martin Lee, the bill has emerged as one of the most serious threats to their freedoms and way of life. 

The protests over the extradition bill came at a time of increased anger over continuous encroachment of the semi-autonomous territory by the central government in China. Critics have argued that the “one country, two systems” principle since the handover in 1997 has been undermined as Beijing had in the past ignored the views of the territory’s citizens on multiple issues including the selection process of a chief executive among others. With the extradition bill, some citizens of the territory have certainly felt that they have been pushed to the edge and the street protests could be their last stand against their diminishing freedom. As described by a Democratic Party’s activists, Martin Lee, the bill has emerged as one of the most serious threats to their freedoms and way of life. 

Lam’s claim that the bill will effectively curb criminals from China seeking safe haven in the territory was also rebuked by activists who argued that it will be used by the central government in Beijing to target political dissidents in which they will face trial under a justice system where torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions are not unheard of. In a wider perspective, the continuous erosion of the territory’s autonomy also put the reputation of the world’s financial centre at stake, making it “just like another Chinese city”. Apart from local activists, the protests also gained attention from foreign governments including the territory’s former colonial ruler, the United Kingdom as well as the United States. Both countries have spoken out against the violence that gripped the city with some lawmakers in the US urging Donald Trump’s administration to strip trade privileges for Hong Kong. In return, Chinese state-run media blamed the “west” for the chaos, alluding to US role in organizing the protests due to an ongoing trade war between the two giants. 

Although Lam’s government had backed down and suspended the bill for now, protest movement leaders remained wary and called for it to be scrapped altogether. They have also vowed to continue the protests until she steps down. The tenacity of the protesters will be tested in the days to come as the government’s attempt to tone down the bill instead of a full withdrawal could result in the current stand-off being dragged on. While massive one-off protests are still highly likely, the probability of sit-ins as seen during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution should also be taken into consideration as protest movements might change their tactics in pressuring the government to throw out the bill. Disruptions that may paralyze the Central district also cannot be ruled out and eventually, the government might once again employ similar tactics to disperse the protesters by force, making the scenes during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution all too similar. 

One country, two systems

As a constitutional principle laid down by Deng Xiaoping, the “one country, two systems” formula states that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and way of life will be guaranteed for at least 50 years after the 1997 handover. Under the principle, both Hong Kong and mainland China will have separate government systems as well as own say in legal, economic and financial affairs including trade relations. In recent years however, the principle has come under increased encroachment from the Chinese government with the demand for universal suffrage by pro-democracy movements being largely ignored. A series of sit-in protests over the issue gripped the territory’s Central district in 2014 in what was later being referred to as the “Umbrella Revolution”.

Chan Hoi Cheong
Security risk analyst based in Kuala Lumpur

May in Review

Following are some of major events that have been dominating the global headlines in the month of May:

Cyclone Fani wreaks havoc in Bangladesh and India

 The first cyclonic storm of the season lashed through Bangladesh and India in early May, causing severe damage along its path. Dubbed as “Fani”, the cyclone made landfall in the India state of Odisha, cutting power to thousands of residents while flooding a number of towns and villages. At least 1.2 million people were evacuated in anticipation of its arrival and the efforts were thought to have minimized the number of casualties to just 64 in the state. Relief efforts were launched in light of the material damage caused by the cyclone while Prime Minister Narendra Modi also pledged financial aid to rebuild destroyed infrastructures including homes. In Bangladesh, the cyclone also made its way through Khulna, Chittagong and Barisal divisions. The most affected districts were Lakshmipur, Bhola and Noakhali where a total of 14 deaths was recorded. Power supply was also disrupted while trees were uprooted in many areas. At least 500 houses were damaged due to the powerful cyclone. As the cyclone moved further inland into Bhutan, it also weakened significantly. 

Riots engulf Jakarta amid declaration of final election results

Violence erupted on the streets of Jakarta as Indonesia’s election commission announced the final results of the presidential election that gave the incumbent leader, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) a victory. Although unofficial results since the conclusion of the elections in April have pointed to a win for Jokowi, his closest rival, Prabowo Subianto’s continuous refusal to admit defeat by claiming irregularities was thought to have sparked the riots. Tension that has been building up in the country for weeks finally came to a blow despite the commission’s unusual move to announce the results in the early hours, at about 02:00 (local time). Supporters of Subianto massed near the commission’s headquarters in Jakarta and unrest continued throughout the night and the days that followed. At least eight deaths were recorded with more than 700 others injured as security forces deployed rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to disperse the rioters. Parts of Jakarta were also brought to a standstill while social media access were limited to prevent spread of misinformation. Jokowi has appealed for calm but also warned those who used violence will be dealt with severely by the security forces. Prabowo also made similar appeal but stopped short of accepting the legitimacy of Jokowi, in a move that was likely to do very little in abating the anger among his supporters. 

Landslide victory for Narendra Modi following marathon India election

Narendra Modi secured a second term as the Prime Minister of India following a landslide victory in the country’s marathon election that lasted for a more than a month since April. Modi’s resounding victory was greeted with cheers among members of his party, Bharatiya Janata (BJP) as it was expected to gain a larger share of seats compared to the 2014 election. His victory also appeared to indicate that his strongman image was still vital in cultivating voters’ support for the BJP despite the setbacks his government faced in managing the world’s sixth largest economy. Joblessness, plummeting farm incomes and a slump in industrial production that were thought to have generated a certain level of anti-incumbent feeling did very little to dent Modi’s chance as he successfully made the election all about himself. The rhetorical statements combined with nationalistic sentiments as well as welfare programme announcements in the run-up to the voting also augured well with the voters who clearly had yet to blame him for the various shortfalls. His second term is likely to see more focus on reducing unemployment, especially among youths as well as efforts to narrow down income inequality. While it was all about celebrations for the BJP, its closest rival, the National Congress (INC) will likely to continue do some soul-searching after failing to improve on its continuous dismal performance this time around. 

End of the road for UK PM Theresa May amid Brexit impasse 

The premiership of embattled UK Prime Minister Theresa May finally came to an end following the announcement that she will step down as Conservative Party leader on 7 June. In an emotional speech, May said she had done her “best” to deliver Brexit though she acknowledged that her efforts have failed, and it will always be a matter of “deep regret” to her. A Conservative leadership contest will start shortly after her tenure as party leader ends though she will most likely be the caretaker prime minister until the process is completed. May would also be welcoming US President Donald Trump during his state visit in early June. Few names have been tipped to take over the helm with ex-foreign secretary, Boris Johnson among the favourites. Regardless of the person who succeeds May, the road ahead is nothing but easy as he or she will have the unenviable task of reaching out to a deeply divided British parliament to avoid the country crashing out of the European Union (EU) on 31 October without a deal. For May, taking the UK out of the EU is perhaps one of the most overwhelming tasks she did not see it coming when taking over from David Cameron in 2016. Despite this, her determination in hammering out a deal despite continuous setbacks has also earned praises from some Conservative colleagues upon her resignation.

European Parliament elections see mainstream parties losing out to smaller counterparts

People in the European Union went for the polls in May for the bloc’s parliamentary elections. While traditional mainstream parties dominated by centre-left or centre-right groups saw their influence diminished, the surge of smaller but passionate parties including populist ones has emerged as one of the key takeaways of the elections. Share of votes of Eurosceptics and populist parties saw an increase of about 5% compared to the previous time though it stopped short of creating the so-called “wave” touted by Matteo Salvini of Italy and Marine Le Pen of France. The populist parties appeared to do well in Poland, Hungary and Italy where they are in power. The elections also saw the rise of liberals in which there is a likelihood that they will co-operate with centrist parties such as the European People’s Party group, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, to create a working majority. Another grouping that saw a gain in seats was the Green Party, which is likely to make climate change the top priority of the EU.

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro signs decree easing gun rules

On 7 May, Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro signed a decree relaxing the rules for carrying firearms and raising a limit on ammunition purchases. This means that at least 20 million new people will be allowed to potentially carry firearms in the country, formerly restricted to the security forces.  

The carry permit implies the authorization to hold a weapon at all times, including outside residential premises, and the renewed decree expands it to a range of twenty professions such as lawyers, elected politicians, prison officers, police reporters, truck drivers and residents of rural areas. Among the changes the decree also opens the country to guns and ammunition made outside of its territory and allows children to take artillery lessons.

According to the Public Federal Ministry, which has demanded the immediate and full suspension of the measure, it infringes the Statute of Disarmament sanctioned in 2003 and threatens the public security of all people. Prosecutors point out that since weapons are durable goods, the increase in its purchase will have a significant impact for decades as many firearms acquired before the Statue have been used in criminal activity up to this point.  

President Bolsonaro, a retired military officer and a congressman representing the state of Rio de Janeiro for 27 years, has long taken part of the pro-gun lobby known as the “Bible, beef and bullets” caucus. In 2018 he made use of a militarized speech to get elected. But subject matter authorities have warned that easing regulatory constraints on carrying weapons would incite violence in a country that has long been the world leader in overall homicides, and which already has one of the highest murder rates in the world.  Consequently, the more weapons and ammunition available, the more it will end up in the hands of criminal gangs and the more the death toll is expected to escalate throughout the country.

In addition, airlines and government representatives are concerned about the decree as it also appears to give scope to the boarding of armed people in commercial passenger flights, which could lead foreign airlines to cancel flights in the country, increasing ticket prices.

Safeture will continue to monitor crime-related incidents in Brazil as well as the security policies of the newly elected far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.

Patrícia Baruffi
Safeture analyst
based in São Paulo