October 16, 2020

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NEED TO KNOW

GUINEA

The Poisons of Power

Once a persecuted opposition hero, Alpha Conde is the latest aging African leader stoking controversy by extending his term in office and flouting, if not the letter, then at least the spirit of the law.

In 2010, Conde was the first president of the West African country to assume office through free elections since independence – in 1958 – after decades of authoritarian rule and military coups.

But now Conde, 82, wants to run for a third term as president on Oct. 18 even though the Guinean constitution until recently said the president may only serve two 5-year terms. In March, the president pushed through a controversial referendum that approved a constitutional amendment to allow him to run again for office, Reuters wrote.

Some were not happy.

Around 30 people have died in clashes stemming from the March ballot question. The fighting was the worst in southeastern Guinea, where security forces stood by as different political and ethnic groups fought in the street. “Many were shot, hacked or beaten to death, and at least one was burned alive,” a Human Rights Watch report said.

Tensions today are rising amid presidential electioneering.

“We cannot just cross our arms and watch Alpha Conde do what he wants to do on the backs of the Guineans,” said Al Habib Bah, a leader in the protest movement, the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution, which has called for a boycott of the vote, in an interview.

United Nations human rights advocates and other officials are already warning against political campaigns in Guinea appealing to ethnic affiliations and using “intentionally provocative language” that might stir up more violence. In Guinea, political and ethnic groups are mostly tied together. Meanwhile, UN officials said they wanted to avoid a repeat of incidents like the 2009 sexual victimization of more than 100 women due to their political affiliation in the capital city of Conakry.

Conde has spoken out for peace. “You don’t take power with blood. You don’t take power by destroying vehicles. You don’t take power by provoking others,” he told supporters recently.

But the violence of the past is fueling anger now.

Families have taken to the streets to demand justice for the killings of more than 150 people, rapes and other crimes that Guinean security forces committed in 2009 in a stadium in Conakry, for example, wrote Amnesty International. That massacre led to the spree of sexual violence in the capital, the violence the UN referred to when making its plea.

It is hard to say whether Conde is putting more pressure on the country or whether he is trying to contain it. But at some point, it may not matter.

WANT TO KNOW

KYRGYZSTAN

Out With the Old, In With the Old

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned Thursday following mass protests and a political crisis sparked by disputed parliamentary elections earlier this month, the Washington Post reported.

Jeenbekov was forced out due to pressure from Sadyr Japarov, a convicted kidnapper who was chosen as the country’s prime minister earlier this week.

The political battle unfolded following the disputed results of the Oct. 4 elections: Allegations of vote-buying, voter intimidation and fraud sparked riots in the Central Asian nation, prompting the election commission to annul the results.

Amid the unrest, Japarov and former President Almazbek Atambayev were released from prison by their supporters, which resulted in violent street clashes as both sides fought for control. Atambayev was later rearrested.

New elections are expected to be held within three months even as the crisis sparked concern in the West, with the US Embassy criticizing the efforts by organized crime groups to gain political control.

THAILAND

Touching the Untouchable

Thailand issued an emergency decree Thursday banning mass gatherings to clamp down on massive student-led protests that have challenged the government and more notably, the country’s powerful monarchy for the first time in recent history, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The decree comes a day after thousands clashed with police and shouted at the royal motorcade as it drove through Bangkok. Protesters jeered and chanted “the people’s taxes,” a reference to the royal family’s luxurious lifestyle.

The event marked the first time the royal family has been directly exposed to rising public discontent over the erosion of democratic freedoms and an economy severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family have been shielded from criticism by a strict lèse-majesté law that carries prison terms of up to 15 years for insulting the king and his family. Culturally, it has been taboo to criticize the royal family.

Some protesters, however, have taken a bolder step, demanding an end to the monarchy’s power and an audit of its books.

The country has been gripped by protests over the past few months with demonstrators demanding the dissolution of parliament, amending the military-backed constitution and ending the harassment of government critics.

FRANCE

Lockdown: The Sequel

The French public expressed anger and frustration following a government decision to impose a curfew on almost one-third of the country’s population in an attempt to fight rising coronavirus infections, NBC News reported Thursday.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced late Wednesday that Paris and other cities will be under curfew as of Saturday: The new rules will restrict private gatherings to six people and forbid people from being outside from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. without the valid – and detested – permission slip.

The new strategy is expected to last at least four weeks. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 has been rising in recent weeks, reaching almost 30,000 new cases per day.

Many businesses have criticized the move, claiming that the new lockdown endangers their livelihoods. Even so, the French government promised these businesses, especially bars and restaurants, will be entitled to state aid.

Meanwhile, some French, who took an earlier lockdown gracefully, were horrified by the details of the upcoming one, saying on Facebook and Twitter: “This will turn us into Americans – dinner at 6, bed at 9!”

From mid-March until mid-May, France had one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. But European nations started easing lockdown measures over the summer to revive their economies battered by the first wave. Still, a recent surge has prompted many countries to reimpose restrictions.

DISCOVERIES

A Tree’s Revenge

“Beware the stinging tree” goes signage that warns hikers in eastern Australia to be on alert.

It’s no wonder – these 100-foot trees have been tormenting hikers for ages.

That’s because the infamous tree of the genus Dendrocnide is equipped with toxic leaves that can cause immense agony if someone comes into contact with them: The hairs on the leaves inject a toxin, which latches onto pain-detecting cells and makes them go haywire.

“It’s like having a nail shoved into your flesh,” biologist Edward Gilding told the New York Times.

A lot of legend surrounds the tree: of men being driven to madness and horses that hurl themselves off cliffs.

Even so, Gilding and his team wanted to understand the chemical make-up of the toxin – even though they had to get stung a few times to do it.

The team managed to separate out the chemical components of the toxin from two Dendrocnide species and create their own synthetic version, they reported in a new study. They called these molecules gympietides and noted that these toxins are similar to ones found in venomous spiders and cone snails.

The results are an example of how three different organisms on the planet came up with the same solution to their problems. As for the tree, though, scientists are still wondering why: How does the toxin benefits the tree.

Regardless, Gilding cautioned folks to avoid it like the plague.

COVID-19 Global Update

More than 180 nations worldwide have confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The following have the highest numbers worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*:

  1. US: 7,980,462 (+0.81%)
  2. India: 7,370,468 (+0.87%)
  3. Brazil: 5,169,386 (+0.55%)
  4. Russia: 1,346,380 (+1.02%)
  5. Argentina: 949,063 (+1.83%)
  6. Colombia: 936,982 (+0.73%)
  7. Spain: 921,374 (+1.47%)
  8. Peru: 859,740 (+0.68%)
  9. France: 850,997 (+3.73%)
  10. Mexico: 834,910 (+0.66%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours