The World Today for November 27, 2018

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The Wild, Wild West

Nigeria and Benin recently opened a nearly $21 million border crossing to deal with the crime that proliferates around the lawless frontier between the two West African countries.

“Travelers and traders battle corrupt officials, hawkers and buzzing moto-taxis just to get to the other side,” wrote Agence France-Presse.

Citizens of the 15 mostly poor countries in the Economic Community of West African States can move freely and reside in other member states. But those 15 nations don’t share tax rates and regulations, like customs on imported goods, so everyone is understandably trying to exploit or avoid different rules in different countries to make a buck.

The result is a free-for-all where, for example, criminals steal cars in Nigeria, refurbish them in Benin and then sell them back to Nigerians as cheap used cars. “I wanted to make it big, that is why I formed my own car snatching gang,” a thief confessed to police, according to the Daily Trust, a Nigerian newspaper.

The most dangerous but lucrative and easily transportable items – drugs – are also a major problem on the border. The News Agency of Nigeria reported last month on how customs agents had seized rice, tires and marijuana, as well as 67 cartons of Tramadol tablets and Codeine syrup over a 30-day period this fall. Tramadol and Codeine are opioids.

Drugs breed corruption.

A court in Benin recently sentenced opposition parliamentarian Atao Hinnouho to six years in jail for trafficking in drugs, reported AFP. He was specifically accused of dealing in counterfeit drugs – a scourge that claims more than 100,000 lives a year in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Health Organization has estimated.

A lawyer for Hinnouho denounced the trial as political and vowed to appeal.

Another opposition leader in Benin, poultry magnate Sebastien Ajavon, was also sentenced to 20 years in prison for trafficking 40 pounds of cocaine. He’s now in France, where he has applied for political asylum, said Africanews. Forbes wrote that he was challenging the conviction, saying the prosecution is politically motivated and the sentence was too harsh.

He might be right.

Ajavon was convicted by the Court of Punishment of Economic Crimes and Terrorism, a special chamber created to crack down on the country’s crime epidemic. But, astonishingly, its decisions are not subject to appeal.

The court has gone after other politicians and rivals of President Patrice Talon, including former Prime Minister Lionel Zinsou for allegedly not repaying campaign funds. He and others have fled the country, saying they’re being targeted unfairly – allegations they don’t appear prepared to back up in the court.

Benin’s political culture, rather than its boundaries, is probably what needs fixing here.



Friends and Foes

In the wake of optimism that the international outcry over Saudi Arabia’s alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi might help end the war in Yemen, the US has reportedly “slammed the brakes on” a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a limited ceasefire to avoid angering the kingdom.

US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had been signaling her support for the resolution. But two sources told CNN that Washington won’t back it now out of concern that if it passes, Saudi Arabia or the Iran-backed Houthi rebels won’t attend peace talks due to take place in Sweden next month.

The dithering comes after President Donald Trump said the US would not take strong action against the Saudis over Khashoggi’s killing.

Already, CNN said that the draft resolution has been watered down to the point that it lauds Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen – earlier UN investigators said the Kingdom might have committed war crimes.


Persona Non-Grata

After exiting Hungary over similar concerns, billionaire financier George Soros’ Open Society Foundation announced it would end its operations in Turkey following “baseless claims” in the Turkish media and scathing criticism from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Open Society Foundation said it would wind up of its operations in Turkey as soon as possible, citing “new investigations” designed to link the organization to anti-government protests at Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, the BBC reported.

The foundation said it had always complied with Turkey’s laws.

Echoing the anti-Semitic rhetoric that has characterized far-right attacks on Soros around the world, Erdogan last week accused the financier of supporting jailed activist Osman Kavala in a bid to bring down the government.

“The person who financed terrorists during the Gezi incidents (Kavala) is already in prison,” Erdogan told a meeting of local government officials. “And who is behind him? The famous Hungarian Jew Soros. This is a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them.”


Ten Questions

Along with a rebuke to President Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwanese voters on Saturday voiced their overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage.

In a first for the island that Beijing insists is a breakaway province, voters were asked to decide on a 10 issues following a change that made it easier to propose and pass referendum questions last year, the New York Times reported.

The pushback against same-sex marriage – which a court ruling last year had supported – wasn’t the only result to deal a blow to Taiwan’s liberal reputation.

Voters also backed a proposed move to remove content about homosexuality from primary school textbooks and rejected a proposal to demand to be called Taiwan instead of “Chinese Taipei” in international sporting competitions. (Opponents argued the move might result in pressure from Beijing to ban Taiwan from the Olympics).

The government has three months to present bills reflecting the referendum results. To accommodate both the referendum result and the court ruling on gay marriage, it’s likely to offer same-sex couples a civil union status.


Getting Braces

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is looking a bit straighter, thanks to years of remedial engineering.

An international team of experts managed to fix the tower’s tilt by 1.5 inches over a course of 20 years, the Telegraph reported.

Scientists monitoring Italy’s iconic monument said that the correction had made the 183-foot-tall tower more stable than they had predicted.

“Since remedial work began, the bell tower is leaning by about half a degree less,” said Nunziante Squeglia, a member of the monitoring team.

The eight-story tower’s construction began in 1173, but work paused after the third story was completed because the soft foundation of clay and sand caused the tower to tilt.

The tower wasn’t completed until the 14th century. But the tilting continued. By the early 1990s, the tower had shifted to critical levels and needed remedial work.

Engineers managed to stabilize the tower by nearly 18 inches in 2001. Recently, it was straightened by a few more inches.

“It’s as if it’s had two centuries taken off its age,” said Salvatore Settis, another member of the monitoring team.

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