The World Today for September 08, 2016


Once More, With Fairness

Europe is calling for a recount in Gabon’s recent presidential election.

It’s the latest escalation in a largely overlooked conflict, on a largely overshadowed continent, that unfortunately grapples with such issues far too often.

European Union election observers noted “anomalies” in the Aug. 27 balloting, like an unheard-of 99 percent turnout in Haut-Ogooue province, with the overwhelming majority allegedly supporting incumbent President Ali Bongo.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls of Gabon’s former colonial ruler, France, concurred with the EU. “There are arguments and some doubts,” Valls told French radio station RTL. “It would be wise to do a recount.”

Bongo, 57, thumbed his nose at these skeptics. He defeated his rival, opposition leader Jean Ping, by less than 1.57 percentage points, the country’s election officials declared. But Bongo said he would let local courts determine if a recount was necessary.

Ping has filed a complaint that the country’s Constitutional Court is expected to consider today.

The Gabonese president’s family background provides context as to why the EU is monitoring Gabon’s elections. Bongo’s father, Omar Bongo, was the country’s president for 42 years. His son replaced him when he died in 2009.

Bongo said the European observers hadn’t worked hard enough to investigate Ping. But in the same interview Bongo also suggested the monitors had gone too far.

“Some of the EU observers overstepped their mission,” he told RTL.

After Bongo was declared the winner, riots broke out. Demonstrators set fire to parliament, looted shops and clashed with security forces. Police arrested around 1,100 people.

The violence reflected pent-up tensions amid the country’s withering economy.

Oil has fueled the Gabonese economy since the 1970s, delivering one of the highest per capita incomes in sub-Saharan Africa – $18,600 in 2015, according to the CIA World Factbook. But a third of Gabon’s citizens still live in poverty, according to the United Nations.

Today, the price of oil has plummeted, depriving the Gabonese government of revenue to spread throughout the country.

The Guardian recently reported that the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné might close due to a lack of public funding, for example. The hospital is a pillar of Gabon’s modern identity. A Nobel peace prize-winning doctor founded the institution in 1913 to atone for colonial crimes.

A recount won’t help the hospital immediately. But making sure it stays open could help bring legitimacy to whoever is in charge. And it might bring hope to those such as local shop owner Edwige Mbadinga, 37, who long for change.

“We cannot have a single family ruling us forever,” he said. “We need new faces.”


Asian Waffle

President Barack Obama put the long-simmering dispute in the South China Sea front and center on the agenda at a regional summit Thursday, the AP reported, as most of the other leaders gathered in the Laotian capital were going to let China off with a mild rebuke over its territorial expansion in the resource-rich waters.

“We will continue to work to ensure that disputes are resolved peacefully including in the South China Sea,” Obama said in his opening remarks at a meeting with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

He called a July 12 international arbitration ruling against China “binding” and said it “helped to clarify maritime rights in the region.”

At the meeting, ASEAN leaders issued a bland statement that said they “remain seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments” in the disputed waters, writes the Nikkei Asian Review. The statement made no specific mention of China’s construction of artificial islands or placement of military assets in the area. Nor did it address the July ruling by the UN-backed arbitration tribunal denying Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

ASEAN will hold a separate summit later Thursday with other world powers, including China and the US, according to the AP. The summit is expected to let China off with a muted reprimand over its expansionist activities in South China Sea, according to a draft of their joint statement to be released Thursday.

Who’s More Muslim?

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia took a customary petty turn this week as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blasted the Saudis for prohibiting Iranian pilgrims from joining the annual pilgrimage to Mecca kicking off this weekend after talks about security and logistics collapsed.

The animosity between the two nations is rooted in the Shia-Sunni sectarianism that shapes many, if not all, of the conflicts across the Middle East.

Now Khamenei has accused Saudi Arabia of negligence or perhaps complicity in the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims who were killed in a stampede during last year’s hajj, while calling for a reconsideration of who manages the holy sites, the Washington Post reported.

A day later, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, replied in kind, saying, “We must understand they are not Muslims…”

Such sniping would be great fodder for some Farsi and Arabic cartoonists, but for one thing: Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are backing opposite sides in the fighting in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. And where apostasy and treachery are invoked, it’s well nigh impossible to talk peace.

Nunca Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent trip to Mexico has added another member to the “Nunca Trump” (Never Trump) brigade.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s decision to meet with the man who has vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border to stop illegal immigration and get Mexico to pay for it was so unpopular that the official who advised him to do so – Finance Minister Luis Videgaray – was forced to resign Wednesday, the New York Times reported.

Pena Nieto had insisted that meeting Trump was his own idea, and he declined to give any reason for Videgaray’s resignation. But Mexican media had previously reported that the erstwhile finance minister had pushed for the meeting against the objections of other cabinet members.

With the Mexican president’s popularity already fading due to rising crime, a flagging economy and various conflict of interest scandals, Trump could be the last straw for the leader, whose efforts at damage control have failed so far. He’s still getting hammered on social media, and there’s a demonstration against him slated for next week.

“Of all the scandals Pena Nieto has faced, this is the most devastating,” the Times quoted political analyst Alfonso Zarate as saying.


Space Rocks and Time Capsules

NASA’s Osiris-Rex spacecraft is slated for launch Thursday with an unusual mission: To boldly collect rocks no one has collected before.

Osiris-Rex is short for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer, and the spacecraft’s target is an asteroid called Bennu that’s about the size of New York’s Empire State building, according to the New York Times.

The idea is that Osiris-Rex will scoop up some of the primordial rubble that makes up the asteroid and bring it back to Earth, where scientists will study it to learn about the origins of the solar system.

It will take more than a year for the spacecraft to select the site where it will extract the sample and then another couple years for it to return to Earth. So even if all goes as planned, scientists won’t get a look at the coveted rocks until 2023 – when Osiris-Rex will drop them by parachute to the Utah desert as it zooms past the planet.

Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona who is the mission’s principal investigator, is convinced it will be more than worth the wait.

“[Bennu] is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation,” Lauretta told the New York Times.

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