March 16, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The Emperor’s Old Clothes

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, sometimes called Congo-Brazzaville to distinguish it from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, recently purchased an arsenal of weapons from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic.

The president’s critics fear that the more than 500 tons of weapons that he purchased, including 775 mortar shells and more than 400 cases of truck-mounted rockets, will be used to tighten his grip on power, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported. Similar Azerbaijani arms shipments helped him crack down on protesters who argued that he rigged the vote to win reelection in 2016.

They are watching to see if there is a repeat performance.

Citizens of the Republic of Congo head to the polls on March 21 to elect a new president. Sassou-Nguesso, 77, is almost certainly to win office because the vote will be a sham, argued Financial Times columnist Neil Munshi, who noted that the president changed the electoral law in 2015 to remove a 70-year-old age limit on candidates.

Sassou-Nguesso is called the “emperor” because he has held office for a total of 36 years that does not include a period between 1992 and 1997, noted the Africa Report. In those five years, former President Pascal Lissouba, the first democratically elected president of the republic, ruled until Sassou-Nguesso ousted him in a civil war.

Now, many including the Catholic Church have sounded alarm bells with its leaders saying they had “serious reservations” about the elections because of coronavirus prohibitions to stop the spread of the virus as well as questions about the integrity of the election system.

And the weapon purchases likely angered many Congo-Brazzaville voters. As France 24 explained, the country possesses vast resources even as many areas lack power – the country has a vibrant oil industry that includes massive multinational companies reaping billions in profits. Sassou-Nguesso has promised to build a new refinery to satisfy demand, Africa News added. He doesn’t say much about electricity, though.

Unemployment and low pay are other issues plaguing the country.

Meanwhile, overfishing has forced local fishermen to capture sharks to sell to Asian companies that prize shark fins for soup, the BBC wrote. But now fishermen are catching fewer sharks, too, having misused this resource.

These challenges are one reason why opposition leader Mathias Dzon, who was finance minister under Sassou-Nguesso from 1997-2002, believes the country needs change. “Sassou will be sanctioned at the ballot box,” said Dzon in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

That’s not likely, observers say.

Even so, many hope Sassou-Nguesso didn’t order those weapons because he was similarly pessimistic about the vote.

WANT TO KNOW

GERMANY

Mercutio’s Curse

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party suffered a blow in two key regional elections seen as a test ahead of the general elections scheduled in September, the BBC reported Monday.

The Christian Democratic Union performed poorly in Sunday’s elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, both regions where it had historically enjoyed strong support.

In Baden-Württemberg, the Green Party received 32 percent of the vote while the CDU gained about 24 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, in neighboring Rhineland-Palatinate, the center-left Social Democrats were projected to win 35 percent, with the CDU only receiving 27 percent of the vote.

The results mark a blow for new party leader Armin Laschet, who is competing with Markus Söder, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, to be the party’s candidate for chancellor in the elections on Sept. 26.

Merkel, who has been in office for 16 years, is due to step down in September.

Analysts said that the disappointing results stem from the widespread anger over the CDU’s poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic and corruption scandals that have gripped the party, Politico reported.

Last week, three CDU lawmakers resigned amid accusations of graft, while a fourth had his parliamentary immunity suspended amid a criminal investigation into whether he accepted bribes from Azerbaijan.

AUSTRALIA

Pride and Prejudice

Thousands of women marched in Australia Monday to protest against sexual violence and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handling of recent rape scandals that have shaken his administration and also parliament, Bloomberg reported.

The demonstrations come after former government media adviser Brittany Higgins alleged that she was raped by a former colleague in a minister’s office in 2019.

Outrage also followed the refusal of the government to hold an inquiry into claims that Attorney-General Christian Porter raped a fellow member of a school debating team in 1988, citing a lack of admissible evidence. Porter denies the allegations.

Analysts said the scandals could prove very problematic for the Morrison administration, despite its popularity in handling the coronavirus pandemic. They added that Morrison needed to be aware that his handling of the pandemic would not automatically secure him enough voter support to win elections in 2022.

Australia prides itself as being one of the first countries to give women the right to vote and run as candidates but female lawmakers have complained for years about the male-dominated culture in the capital, Canberra.

Globally, Australia ranks as the 50th country for the representation of women in parliament – a major drop from the 15th in 1999.

SPAIN

Work Revolution

Spain is poised to become one of the first countries in the world to experiment with a four-day workweek after the government agreed to launch a pilot program that will allow workers to spend less time at the office without any change in pay, the Washington Post reported Monday.

The trial was proposed by the left-wing party, Más País, which is now negotiating with the government to launch the project this fall.

The exact details of the experiment remain unclear but it is expected to cost nearly $60 million and last three years. Más País estimates that the budget could allow around 200 companies to take part, which means 3,000 to 6,000 workers will be working only four days a week.

The pilot is also intended to reduce employers’ risk by having the government make up the difference in salary when workers switch to a four-day schedule, according to Spanish media.

The project comes as the coronavirus pandemic has upended work schedules.

This has prompted politicians around the world to push for a four-day workweek to address issues such as burnout and give workers more flexibility at a time when work duties frequently clash with responsibilities at home.

DISCOVERIES

A Sandy Crisis

The Earth is running out of sand.

And that’s more of a problem than one might think.

Sand, seemingly ubiquitous, is essential to everything around us – it is the primary substance used to make everything from roads and bridges to silicon chips.

In fact, United Nations climate scientists said that a sand shortage will be one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century, according to CNBC.

“We never thought we would run out of sand but it is starting in some places,” Pascal Peduzzi of the UN Environment Programme said during a webinar hosted by the British-based think tank Chatham House.

Peduzzi explained that the UN has estimated that the world consumes about 40 to 50 billion tons of sand annually, adding that the global rate of sand use goes beyond the rate at which sand is being naturally replenished.

Scientists have also noted that not all sand is useful: Construction companies primarily use sand extracted from bodies of water – such as seabeds, coastlines and rivers – due to its binding properties.

Nevertheless, researchers said that countries have started to take steps to reduce sand usage following a 2019 UN resolution that recognized the sand crisis.

But Peduzzi warned that the world has yet to properly address this challenge and that many countries must implement a proper action plan.

“It’s time to wake up,” he said.

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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: 29,495,422 (+0.19%)
  2. Brazil: 11,519,609 (+0.32%)
  3. India: 11,409,831 (+0.22%)
  4. Russia: 4,360,033 (+0.43%)
  5. UK: 4,276,840 (+0.12%)
  6. France: 4,132,104 (+0.01%)
  7. Italy: 3,238,394 (+0.47%)
  8. Spain: 3,195,062 (+0.36%)
  9. Turkey: 2,894,893 (+0.54%)
  10. Germany: 2,586,320 (+0.29%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours