The World Today for January 24, 2017

NEED TO KNOW

The Mother of Necessity

Ethiopians are anxiously watching the price of qat.

The mild, green-leaf stimulant is now the second-largest cash crop in Ethiopia after coffee, the Economist recently reported. Folks throughout the Horn of Africa chew it regularly.

But Ethiopians fear what might happen to their livelihoods if other countries follow Britain’s lead in outlawing the substance, a move that punctured the qat bubble in Kenya in 2014 and ruined farmers in that country.

The drug is a metaphor for the challenges now facing Ethiopia.

This month, the ancient nation announced plans to launch a civilian satellite into orbit to better predict extreme weather.

A space program was the latest proud moment for the country, where the economy has boomed in recent years due to now-flagging Chinese investment and rising exports. Lonely Planet has taken note of Addis Ababa’s sparkling new infrastructure.

But for every two steps forward, Ethiopia appears to take a step back.

Much of Ethiopia’s building boom stems from Chinese loans, said analysts, hardly a recipe for sustainable growth.

A brutal El Niño last year brought about one of the “worst agricultural seasons in decades,” the United Nations reported. With 5.6 million starving, Addis Ababa recently appealed to the global community for almost $1 billion in humanitarian relief.

Debt and extreme weather aren’t Ethiopia’s only problems.

Long viewed as a bastion of relative stability in Africa, political tumult has thrown Ethiopia into uncertainty despite Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s near-authoritarian hold on the reins of power.

Desalegn has edged out opposition groups, leaving ethnic Tigrean elites who control the government to unilaterally push their agenda – Tigreans represent only 6 percent of the country’s population. The ethnic Amhara and Oromo communities who make up 60 percent of the population now feel repressed.

Their protests late last year ended in a violent government crackdown that left dozens dead. The government subsequently implemented a state of emergency and detained as many as 22,000 people, including political opposition leaders, Voice of America reported.

Thousands have since been released, but many are still calling for change.

“We need the government to respond to the demands of the people,” one rural Ethiopian woman told the Washington Post recently. “What we need is for the killings and imprisonments to stop.”

She’s right, of course.

But whether she and her comrades convince the government to reform peacefully or an economic downturn births an even more serious crisis in the near future is the question that no amount of qat will allow Ethiopians to ignore.

WANT TO KNOW

A Rescue Effort

Australia is seeking to dampen the impact of Donald Trump’s first big move as president.

The Aussies are seeking to salvage the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal promoted by former US President Barack Obama, after Trump formally withdrew the US as a signatory to the 12-nation accord Monday, Bloomberg reported.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he discussed the deal Monday night with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, and also spoke with the leaders of New Zealand and Singapore. Australia’s trade minister told ABC Radio Tuesday that it was “very much a live option” to continue the TPP without the US.

During his campaign, Trump blamed trade deals like TPP and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for the loss of American jobs. But Japan and others have characterized TPP as a way to combat China’s massive dominance in international trade.

Many say the deal will be tough to push through without US participation because the main attraction for the other signatories was improved access to the huge American market.

Shaky Start

Former United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon’s run at the South Korean presidency has gotten off to a shaky start.

Once the odds-on favorite, Ban has come off as irritable and been pilloried in the press for a series of perceived PR gaffes since his return to South Korea earlier this month – all without announcing any intention to run for president, Reuters reported.

In the latest blow to his chances, Washington has asked South Korea to arrest his brother, Ban Ki-sang, on charges that he engaged in a bribery scheme involving the sale of a Vietnamese building complex, the agency said.

So what were his gaffes? On arrival, Ban took the express train instead of a limo from the airport, but didn’t know how to buy a ticket. After a visit to an elderly care home, he was criticized for wearing a bib when the old woman was not – and for feeding someone lying flat on their back. Later, he dressed head-to-toe in protective gear to try out a disinfectant spray when all those around him wore ordinary clothes.

No Evidence

The FBI did probe a top Donald Trump advisor with regard to his communications with Russia. However, it found no evidence he did anything wrong.

The FBI reviewed calls between the Russian ambassador to the United States and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn — national security adviser to then President-elect Trump – in late December, the Washington Post reported. But the bureau has not found any evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government, the paper quoted US officials as saying.

Of particular interest was a Dec. 29 phone call that took place just after President Barack Obama had expelled 35 officials from the Russian embassy in response to evidence that Russian hackers had meddled in the US election. Earlier, Trump’s team had said the call took place a day earlier, before the expulsion of the diplomats. But the FBI statement shed no light on whether or not that incident was discussed during the actual call.

Former intelligence officials downplayed the significance of the probe, saying the FBI and other agencies routinely listen in on calls involving top US officials, simply because they’re monitoring the foreign official on the other end of the phone.

DISCOVERIES

Tree-top Agents

As Russia’s cyber meddling in American affairs garners increasingly more headlines, concerned citizens are bracing for the next big hack.

But when it comes to the US power grid, the biggest perpetrators are in your own back yard.

Cris Thomas began documenting attacks on the grid – long feared to be a weak spot of cyber defense – roughly four years ago.

Since then, he’s tallied more than 1,700 instances of interference impacting around five million people – all of which were fauna-related, Wired reported.

Squirrels were the biggest serial offenders, clocking in 879 attacks and inspiring Thomas to name his project CyberSquirrl1.

Thomas hopes that providing the public with the results of his observations will quell unfounded fears of cyber insecurity.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about how fragile things are, how susceptible to cascading failures. And yet since 2000, there have only been two large-scale blackouts in the country,” he said.

Still, minimizing the situation isn’t painting a realistic picture either, Luis Corrons, technical director of the security firm PandaLabs, told the BBC.

Said Corrons: “The number of potential attackers is growing, the number of potential targets is also going up. So we all need to reinforce our defenses to the maximum – and also worry about squirrels.”

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