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Sassou rules like an emperor while Congolese die from extreme poverty | Congo-Brazzaville

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The result of last month’s presidential election in Congo-Brazzaville brought no surprises. After 36 years in power, Denis Sassou Nguesso, 77, clinched 88% of the vote with a turnout of more than 67%. Accusations of vote irregularities, including ballot box stuffing, were widespread. His closest rival, who had urged for a “vote for change” died of Covid on the day of the vote.

Television showed a triumphant Sassou at home with his smiling henchmen, as the interior minister, Raymond Zéphirin Mboulou – instead of the head of the electoral commission – announced the win. The question now is whether or not the African Union, the US, the EU, the UK and former colonial power France will simply turn a blind eye to another disputed election result while Congolese are dying from extreme poverty?

Sassou made the briefest of victory speeches: “By this vote, the people in their majority responded and said that we had the capacity to bounce back, to recover our economy, and to move towards development.”

I wonder how can this country bounce back and recover when Sassou is ruling it like an emperor?

First elected in 1979, Sassou has been in power for 36 of the 61 years this oil-rich central African country has been independent. This victory extends his rule to 2026. Sassou has known six French presidents, from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to Emmanuel Macron. By the end of 2026, he will have been in power for longer than Joseph Stalin and Central African Republic’s dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa combined.

From its Soviet Union days, Congo-Brazzaville, a country of 5.5 million souls with a median age of 17, has never been a democracy, or a republic in liberal terms. Sassou rules it with an iron fist. His 2016 electoral “win” sparked violence across the country.

During the 2021 campaign, Sassou ordered internet services to be shut down for almost a week, including on election day.

The democracy watchdog Freedom House, which scores countries on their political and civic freedoms, lists Sassou’s Congo as “not free”. The UN’s Human Development Index positions the country at 149 out of 189, two points above war-torn Syria. Yet, Congo is Africa’s sixth-biggest oil producer, earning huge revenues. However, amid Sassou’s kleptocracy, the country remains paradoxically poor, with nearly half the population living below the poverty line.

The economy, too, is stagnant. Civil servants go months without wages and pensions. Hospitals go months without basic medicine. Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks Congo-Brazzaville among the world’s top 20 most corrupt countries.

Sassou’s mismanagement is a family affair. His daughter Julienne Sassou Nguesso and her husband, Guy Johnson, have been charged with corruption and money laundering in France. Global Witness alleged in April 2019 that his other daughter Claudia Sassou Nguesso, who is an MP and the president’s head of communications, received almost $20m (£15m) of apparently stolen state funds and used it to buy a luxury flat in Trump Tower, New York, allegations she denied.

His son, Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, also an elected member of the Congolese parliament, is being groomed to succeed his father. He also allegedly took more than $50m from the Congolese treasury funds for his personal gain, according to a Global Witness investigation.

Unsurprisingly, many of Sassou’s most vocal opponents, including his former challenger Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and his former minister André Okombi Salissa, have either been jailed, exiled or are dead. This has left no credible alternative to his son when Sassou exits politics.

Not long before the March 2021 election, human rights defender Alexandre Ibacka Dzabana was arbitrarily arrested by Sassou’s intelligence officers. He is still detained in Brazzaville where he has been denied access to his lawyer and family. Yet there is barely any indignation from outside the country.

In 2019, Sassou announced the discovery of new oil deposits which would increase the republic’s daily production from 350,000 barrels a day to 980,000, tripling Congo’s revenues from the oil and natural gas sector. Perhaps this is why power has not changed hands by the ballot box, and serious reforms have not been enacted, while the international community sees nothing, hears nothing and does nothing.

Why, then, you may wonder, does Sassou bother with the charade of a multi-candidate election at all? Why hasn’t he yet declared Congo a personal fiefdom, and crowned himself an emperor like Bokassa did in CAR, something his peers, including the president of Guinea, Alpha Condé, and Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara, call him publicly?

Because, as other kleptocrats have discovered, an election brings legitimacy, even if it is as blatantly see-through an exercise as the emperor wearing his new clothes. Sassou – the warlord who overthrew democratically elected Pascal Lissouba to reinstate himself as leader, igniting a civil war that left thousands dead and remains an open wound in the country – wants unlimited power, perhaps for the duration of his life. But Sassou also wants international approbation. Surely an opportunity for the international community to capitalise on?

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‘Cramped and unsafe’ Glasgow housing unit forced to suspend mother and baby services | Immigration and asylum

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A housing unit has been forced to close its services to mothers and babies after a damning report found that the “cramped and unsafe” accommodation breached their human rights.

In its report, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said the unit, which housed asylum-seeking mothers and their children, had radiators and gas cookers dangerously close to babies’ cots, a lack of natural light and little ventilation, and no space for babies to crawl, play or walk.

Each of the 38 rooms measures approximately 5 metres by 3 metres (16ft x 10ft) and contains a single bed, cot, kitchenette and shower.

The unit, run by a Home Office subcontractor, Mears Group, was opened in January 2021 to house mothers and babies while Covid-19 restrictions were in place. Women were moved out of flats in the city centre and accommodated in the unit on the periphery of Glasgow’s Southside.

A cooker, sink, bed and cot often crammed into one tiny room.
A cooker, sink, bed and cot are often crammed into one tiny room. Photograph: Twitter

The accommodation was described as “prison-like” by the charity Amma Birth Companions, which repeatedly called for its closure. Mears said the last mother and baby had now left the unit and the Scottish Children’s Commissioner confirmed that the women had been relocated to more appropriate accommodation.

The removal of mothers and babies from the site comes after criticism of accommodation provided for asylum seekers in Glasgow when a knife attack at a hotel in the centre of the city in 2020 left six people wounded and the attacker shot dead by police. Campaigners from a Glasgow group, Refugees For Justice, said the attack was a “direct result of the dysfunctional UK asylum support and accommodation system” and that there was an accommodation crisis in the city.

Ai* arrived at the unit in the autumn of 2021, when she was three months pregnant. She lived there for seven months, and, following the birth of her daughter in March this year, she was moved out.

“When I first arrived, I thought I was only going to stay for a few hours, but then they gave me a key for the room,” she said through an interpreter. “When I opened the door, I was really scared. The room was so small, with no privacy and you [could] hear all the babies crying all around.

“Then there were mice in the room. I told my midwife, who complained to the staff at the unit, but they did nothing. They just told me to cover up the food.”

Ai, who was in a safe house for trafficked women until she arrived at the unit, says that she was asked to sign a tenancy contract, which stipulated that nobody could stay over to support her with her baby, and imposed a 10pm curfew.

“Every mum has to manage by themselves,” she said. “There were so many loud noises, and fire alarms going off in the day and at night, which scared my baby. Sometimes we had to take our babies outside at night, when the alarm went off.”

The unit housed 38 women, and Ai says there were only six washing machines, all far away from the rooms.

“I had to wash my clothes and my baby’s clothes in the sink sometimes, pouring dirty water in where I washed plates and prepared food,” she said.

She added that the window in her room would get stuck, with a barrier in front of it, leaving the room poorly ventilated and cold.

Mears said it was aware of a pest-control issue and had put measures in place at the unit, adding that furniture had been arranged so that cots were not set up close to kitchen equipment.

In a statement, Mears added: “The mother and baby unit was purpose-designed with the advice of the local authority and NHS at a time when we had a significant number of mothers and babies to support and did not have suitable accommodation.

“Our aim was to provide a good standard of accommodation and enhanced wraparound support for mothers and their children. As accommodation needs have changed, we now operate the unit as initial accommodation for single females who are newly arrived into Glasgow.”

Maree Aldam, of Amma Birth Companions, welcomed the news that the last family had now left the unit. She said: “Although we welcome the progress made to relocate mothers with babies into more suitable accommodation, we remain concerned about the long-term effects of this experience on the affected mothers and their babies.

“We continue to call on the Scottish government to put in place minimum housing standards that will protect every child in the asylum process from ever enduring such living conditions again.”

* Name has been changed to protect her identity

The headline and text of this article were amended on 19 May 2022. The housing unit is not closing down, as an earlier version said; it remains open for mothers and children, but no longer offers services to mothers and babies.

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African heritage: Argentina conducts census of its Afro community for the first time | International

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A man walks past a mural of a young Afro-Argentine woman in Buenos Aires in November 2021.
A man walks past a mural of a young Afro-Argentine woman in Buenos Aires in November 2021.Natacha Pisarenko (AP)

Nélida Wisneke is Afro-Argentine. This teacher and writer recounts that her ancestors were slaves who fled from Brazil in the 19th century. At 55 years old, for the first time she will see her ethnic identity recognized in the new national census: Argentina is asking all the country’s inhabitants if they are descendants of Africans or indigenous people, one of the main novelties of the census and much celebrated by the entire Afro-Argentine community.

“The state is beginning to repay the historical debt it owes us. For the community it is extremely important, because based on these data it will be possible to develop public policies to get out of invisibility and be able to access basic rights,” adds Wisneke, author of the novel No te olvides de los que nos quedamos (or Do Not Forget About Those of Us Who Remain).

“I think this is a historic moment for the Afro-Argentine community because this census represents the fruit of many years of struggle. Beyond the statistical data on economic and sociodemographic conditions, which are important to advance towards a more inclusive society, it is also very important that it makes the community visible. It changes the Eurocentric and colonial paradigm with which our society was conceived,” says musician Emanuel Ntaka, today in charge of the Afro Program of the Argentine Ministry of Culture.

In the previous census, carried out in 2010, there was a question about Afro-Argentine identity as a sample in some of the forms, but not in all. Now, it is one of the 61 questions included in the survey that will be carried out throughout the country. The 2010 census recorded that nearly 150,000 people perceived themselves as Afro-descendants, 10 times less than the estimate made by community leaders.

In the 12 years that have passed since then, Ntaka explains, Afro-descendant organizations have worked to try to reverse decades of policies of invisibility and social homogenization. Still, there is a possibility that the number is lower than the real number because there are people of African descent who choose not to perceive themselves as such.

Prejudices are installed from childhood, even at school. “In school events, the representation of the Afro-Argentine is picturesque. They are the empanada sellers, the porridge sellers, the laundresses… that is the place that we Afro-descendants occupy in the construction of this country. But in reality, the African influence is everywhere, from the war of independence to culture, with the influence in music, in cuisine, in language,” Ntaka points out.

In an official video released this past week for the census, prominent Afro-Argentine figures appear proudly talking about their ancestors. “I am Miriam Victoria Gómes, I was born in the province of Buenos Aires, and I belong to the Cape Verdean community of Dock Sud,” says one of the people featured in the video. Ntaka details that he is the son of a teacher from the Argentine province of Santiago del Estero and a South African singer and activist father. “Collecting data on our living conditions is going to be a necessary instrument for public policy,” says actress Silvia Balbuena, a descendant of slaves who arrived in Argentina in the 15th century.

One of the community’s goals is to combat structural racism in Argentine society. Wisneke experienced it first hand: she is the only one of 10 siblings who has completed her studies. Born into a peasant family in Misiones, in the extreme northeast of Argentina, this teacher says that her ancestors were slaves. “They came from Brazil and settled in Misiones. They were part of the quilombos [settlements], of which nobody talks here,” she points out as an example of the visibility of this community in a country that is proud of its European roots but not of others. “Very recently, in the city of Córdoba, a plaque was inaugurated in commemoration of the first sale of slaves, in 1588. The African presence in Argentina is very old,” Wisneke underlines.

Ntaka was 23 years old when a group of skinheads attacked him at a bus stop in 2001. “You fucking Black, go back to your country,” he heard them scream before they began to beat him until he was unconscious. To which country did they want him to return if Argentina was the country in which he was born? With that question in mind, the attack became the starting point of his activism promoting the rights of the Afro-Argentine community. The census will offer a first x-ray of who they are and how they are faring.



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‘Huge spike’ in global conflict caused record number of displacements in 2021 | Global development

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Conflict and violence forced people from their homes a record number of times last year, a report has found, with sub-Saharan Africa bearing the brunt of mass internal displacement caused by “huge spikes” in fighting.

People fleeing violence were internally displaced 14.4m times in 2021, an increase of 4.6m on 2020, according to figures published by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Graphic of internal displacements caused by conflict between 2012 and 2021

Most of those displacements – 11.6m, or 80% of the total – took place in sub-Saharan African countries, with the war in northern Ethiopia dwarfing other conflicts in terms of the number of times people were forced from their homes.

Alexandra Bilak, IDMC director, said the geographic concentration of the conflict-related displacement across sub-Saharan Africa, from the Sahel to east Africa, was a huge concern. “These are, of course, countries that have experienced long histories of conflict, but what these numbers show is that the conflicts are far from having been resolved,” she said.

“So on top of protracted crises, you get new waves of violence every year. In Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, we’re talking huge spikes of new violence that have led to incredibly large numbers being displaced and, at least for now, very little prospect for returns.”

New flare-ups of violence often collided with climate pressures such as drought or flooding, and resulting food insecurity, making it even harder for countries to give internally displaced people (IDPs) the help they needed, she said.

“There’s absolutely no window during which some kind of stabilisation could happen, and some degree of return or sustainable local integration. These constant shocks to the system mean that the numbers keep increasing.”

According to the report, there were 59.1 million IDPs globally in 2021, a cumulative figure, which has grown steadily since the IDMC began documenting in 2003. Every year more displacement is caused by natural disasters than conflict, but last year the number of forced movements due to disasters such as such as storms, floods and volcanic eruptions – 23.7 million – was down considerably on 2020.

Chart of displacements caused by conflict and violence, by country, 2021

The number of times people were forced from their homes by violence was of particular concern to the IDMC. As the report deals with 2021, the figures do not include the huge humanitarian fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where more than 7 million people are thought to be internally displaced.

The only place to rival that scale of displacement was Ethiopia, where conflict – chiefly war between government forces and Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country – triggered 5.1m internal displacements. Until the invasion of Ukraine, that was the highest annual figure ever recorded for a single country.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which saw 2.7m displacements due to conflict, and Afghanistan, where the Taliban toppled Ashraf Ghani’s government, also registered all-time highs. The volatile situation in Myanmar, where the military staged a bloody coup, helped triple the overall figure for east Asia compared with the previous year.

With more than half the global IDP population under 25, and about 25 million under 18, the IDMC called for more targeted interventions to protect children and young people from the particular dangers they face. “The financial difficulties IDPs tend to face may force children to engage in dangerous income-generating activities, including crime, transactional sex or joining armed groups,” the report notes. “Strengthening child protection systems that consider these risks is essential.”

Afghan women at the Shaidayee camp for internally displaced people in Herat, February 2022.
Afghan families at the Shaidayee camp for internally displaced people in Herat, February 2022. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Displaced girls and boys, it adds, confront different risks, with girls at greater risk of sexual violence and child marriage, and boys of recruitment by fighters.

Bilak hoped the report would raise awareness of the worsening plight of IDPs, which historically had received “much less attention” from governments and policymakers than that of refugees or migrants. “This is, first and foremost, a call for acknowledgment of the scale … and the urgency of the issue,” she said.

Faced with the stark increase in conflict-related displacement, she added, the IDMC urged greater investment in peace-building, “and in preventing those conflicts from happening in the first place”.

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