The World Today for December 19, 2018

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A Big Message from a Small Country

At least four people died as protesters clashed with police last week in Togo. Among them was a 12-year-old boy.

The violence continued regardless.

“Even after a child was killed, Togo’s authorities continue to fuel the violence by deploying military officers carrying firearms to protest sites, which risks exacerbating an already tense situation,” said Amnesty International in a report on the tiny West African country.

As Bloomberg wrote, the protests stemmed from the government’s decision to proceed with parliamentary elections set for Thursday despite opposition parties’ call for a boycott.

Opposition leaders are angry over a dispute with President Faure Gnassingbé over term limits, the African Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon-funded think tank, explained.

Gnassingbé assumed office in 2005 after the death of his father, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who was president for 38 years. His critics want to retroactively limit the president’s tenure to two terms, barring Gnassingbé from running for re-election in 2020.

But Gnassingbé proposed election reforms that would allow him to run for two more terms in the future, and potentially hold office until 2030.

Most Togolese support the opposition’s retroactive term limits. The question was slated to be put to voters in a referendum for Sunday, but that vote apparently was not held as tensions rose in the country.

In the run-up to the referendum and local elections, Gnassingbé banned protests. As this France 24 broadcast showed, the president’s critics were far from cowed.

“We’re not going to give our blessing to this masquerade being prepared,” opposition leader Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson told local radio, according to Agence France-Presse. “We will do everything so that the elections don’t happen – we never want fraudulent elections in Togo.”

In response, the government claimed to be simply maintaining order. “A boycott is a democratic choice,” said Gen. Yark Damehame. “One should not seek to destroy the voting booth or the ballot box.”

It’s not clear who outside Gnassingbé’s regime is supporting the president.

A civil society advocacy group, Living Force for Hope in Togo, appears to represent the public’s mind on the boycott, according to La Croix International, a France-based, English-language Catholic news outlet.

“Has the Togolese government abandoned its mission to protect individuals and simply become a repressive apparatus for arbitrary arrests and killings?” the group said in a statement.

Gnassingbé might control the levers of power, but against the will of his people, he can’t hold all the cards in this conflict.



The $10 Billion Question

Following President Donald Trump’s threats to slash funding to the region, the US has pledged more than $10 billion in aid to Central America in an attempt to prevent caravans of migrants from trekking across Mexico to the border.

Nearly half of the pledged total, or $4.8 billion, will come in the form of private funds routed through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), reducing the burden on US taxpayers, Reuters reported.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard also said Washington is committing $5.8 billion to development in Central America, according to the news agency.

Of the OPIC amount, $2 billion would go to southern Mexico, effectively doubling foreign investment in the south of Mexico from 2019, the minister said.

In comparison, Washington has spent or allocated just $1.8 billion in Central America and Mexico between 2015 and 2018 – a sum that’s included in the new totals. The total also includes around $2.8 billion in OPIC projects already underway or in the pipeline, and the US government’s current Millennium Challenge commitments.


Uneasy Truce

Calm descended in the heavily contested Yemeni port city of Hodeida on Tuesday following brief but intense skirmishes in the early hours of a United Nations-brokered ceasefire that began at midnight.

“There has been complete calm since 03:00 am Yemen time (7 p.m. Monday Eastern) in the city of Hodeida,” a military source loyal to the government told Agence France-Presse.

Both the Saudi Arabia-backed government and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have welcomed the truce and pledged to abide by the ceasefire agreement, CBS News reported. Houthi rebel foreign minister Hisham Sharaf told the channel that the US could help ensure it holds by exerting pressure on Saudi Arabia.

The next planned step is the withdrawal of fighters from the city, which is the entry point for most imports, as well as a prisoner exchange involving around 15,000 detainees. Apart from possibly laying the groundwork for further negotiations and eventual lasting peace, those measures could help ease malnutrition and disease problems that have resulted due to the drawn-out civil war.


Out Through the In Door

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel tendered his resignation Tuesday after losing the support of the nationalist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) due to his support for the recent UN migration deal.

Angry protests broke out in Brussels following the signing of the pact in Marrakech last week, the BBC reported, noting that King Philippe has yet to announce if he will accept Michel’s resignation.

The development may result in early elections, though Belgium is already set to go to the polls in May.

The Marrakech pact is not binding, it “reaffirms the sovereign rights of states to determine their national migration policy” and it asserts the “fundamental” importance of legal migration, the BBC said. But critics nevertheless believe it will lead to increased immigration into Europe.

The UN says it’s specifically intended to ease the burden on countries that already host large numbers of refugees, as well as support conditions that help them to return to their countries of origin.

Michel, 42, took office in October 2014 as the head of a rightwing coalition.


Unseen Vandals

Microorganisms are everywhere, even lying dormant in centuries-old paintings.

It’s a terrifying thought for germophobes but also bad news for classic artworks since many of these microbes are feeding on pigments in the canvases, UPI reported.

In a study published in PLOS One, researchers in Italy analyzed a tiny piece of “Incoronazione della Vergine” (“The Coronation of the Virgin”), by 17th-century painter Carlo Bononi.

They discovered that several bacterial strains – Staphylococcus and Bacillus – and fungi were feeding and thriving on the nutrients in the oils and pigments of the painting.

“Our results confirmed that (Staphylococci) could be found at a high frequency on oil paintings, providing evidence that Staphylococci are painting-colonizing microbes and were not just human skin contaminants transported accidentally to the canvas,” researchers wrote in their study.

The team then applied a bio-compound containing spores from other bacteria strains, which helped curtail the growth of the pigment-eating microbes, preserving the artwork.

The results suggest that preservationists should use these bio-compounds to prevent the degradation of priceless artwork in the future, the researchers said.

Ars Technica cautioned, however, that more research is needed to ensure that these bio-compounds are safe to use.

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