The World Today for January 06, 2023

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BENIN

Al Qaeda and Islamic State extremists are gaining a foothold in Africa as the Russian-Ukrainian war, the pandemic and economic woes preoccupy the rest of the world. Benin in West Africa is among the hardest hit.

Jihadist attacks in Benin increased to 25 between July and December 2022 compared with just two over the same period in 2021, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The numbers suggest that violent militants are pushing to open a new front in the war that they have been waging in the Sahel, the region that separates the Sahara Desert in North Africa from the jungles of the Congo River Basin.

“When you talk about the Sahel, geopolitical interests are limited,” Kars de Bruijne, a researcher at Dutch think tank the Clingendael Institute, told the Associated Press. “But it’s different for coastal states, which are economically much stronger and more important to the African Union and Western countries such as England and the United States.”

Leading the fight against the terrorists in Benin is President Patrice Talon, who has cracked down on freedom of expression, political dissent and other human rights in order to maintain an iron grip on power since being reelected in 2021, Amnesty International wrote. Talon, for example, recently declared during a state visit with French President Emmanuel Macron that “democracy can lead to anarchy and paralyze government decisions … and I don’t intend to fully implement it,” wrote Benin’s former ambassador to the US, Omar Arouna, in an opinion piece for the US-Africa Cybersecurity Group in Washington, DC.

Opposition leaders were excluded from running in legislative elections four years ago by the constitutional court, for instance. Election officials have however allowed them to run in elections on Jan. 8 Agence France-Presse wrote. Analysts predict they would do well if the election was free and fair. Catholic Bishops also have called on Talon officials to refrain from tampering with the results, expressing doubts about the election.

In the meantime, while fending off jihadists, Talon has sought to bolster his popularity by appealing to Benin’s rich history and funding large economic development projects with the help of the International Monetary Fund.

Considered the source of Voodooism, as the BBC explained, the small former French colony was a major slave port from the 1790s until the 1860s. Talon officials are planning on developing a massive theme park to recall and apparently profit from that history, University of Cape Town researcher Dominique Somda lamented in an op-ed in the Conversation. Park developers hope they can build on the success of the recent film “The Woman King,” which depicts a group of female warriors in an African kingdom in the 1820s that, as Voice of America noted, are based on Beninese history.

It will take more than rides and slave shop replicas to stop the jihadists, though.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Balancing Act

PHILIPPINES

China and the Philippines agreed to strengthen their economic ties and restart talks on oil exploration, following a meeting between both countries’ leaders as they try to mend relations over contested areas in the South China Sea, CNN reported Thursday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with his Philippine counterpart, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., during the latter’s first state visit to Beijing.

In a joint statement, both leaders said they held an “in-depth and candid” discussion about the situation in the South China Sea and agreed to “appropriately manage differences” related to the contentious zone.

China and the Philippines have continuously clashed over the 1.3-million square-mile maritime zone – of which Beijing asserts most as its own – despite claims from other countries washed by the sea.

Philippine officials have lamented the presence of Chinese vessels in the waterway and accused them of harassing Filipino fishers in the region.

To avoid potential conflict, Marcos Jr. and Xi announced plans to set up a direct line of communication between their maritime departments.

At the same time, Manila and Beijing also agreed to restart talks on oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, which were stalled in June due to constitutional disputes and sovereignty issues.

Meanwhile, both nations also signed a total of 14 bilateral agreements, including deals related to agriculture, infrastructure, and maritime security.

The meeting comes about two months after US Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Philippines to reaffirm Washington’s “unwavering” commitment to its ally. Harris and Marcos Jr. also discussed 21 new US-funded projects, including more defense sites around the Philippines.

The Philippines has long been balancing America’s Pacific strategic interests with China’s geopolitical and economic expansion.

While the Philippines has historically been a US defense ally, previous President Rodrigo Duterte sought deeper ties with China during his six years in office, putting aside its territorial dispute in exchange for Chinese investments.

A Good Start

CUBA

Cuba welcomed the United States’ decision this week to resume full immigrant visa services at the US embassy in Havana, five years after Washington closed consular services in the capital due to a spate of unexplained health incidents, Al Jazeera reported.

The embassy began processing immigrant visas Wednesday, including permits for Cubans reuniting with family in the US and others chosen through the diversity visa lottery. Before that, many Cubans were forced to travel to third countries to submit US visa applications.

The closure of consular and visa services came in 2017 after embassy staff reported a series of health incidents that US intelligence suggested may be connected to sonic attacks – later dubbed the “Havana Syndrome.”

The closure, combined with then-President Donald Trump’s strengthening of US sanctions against Cuba, heightened tensions between the two countries, which had been easing throughout the Obama administration.

But the Biden administration relaxed some of Trump’s policies and began high-level diplomatic talks with the Cuban government.

The resumption of services coincides with a surge in Cuban migration to the US, fueling calls for President Joe Biden to open more legal channels to Cubans and begin discussions with the Havana government, despite a traditionally tense relationship.

Cuban officials welcomed the reopening as a “necessary and correct step,” but added that the US should go further. They noted that the visa services do not include non-immigrant visas for family visits and academic exchanges.

No ‘Human Angle’

INDIA

India’s Supreme Court put a temporary hold on an order calling for the mass demolition of more than 4,000 homes in the state of Uttarakhand, which would have forced thousands of people to become homeless, the Independent reported Thursday.

The case concerns the thousands of buildings, including homes, government schools, mosques and temples along the railway line in the Banbhulpura district of the town of Haldwani.

Last month, Uttarakhand’s high court ruled in favor of local railway authorities, which had demanded the demolition of “illegal encroachments” along the railway line. But the state court’s verdict prompted protests from many of the residents, saying it would leave more than 50,000 people homeless.

Although railway authorities used old maps and legal documents to claim ownership of the area, the demonstrators countered they had been living there for generations.

Activists opposing the demolition order called it a “targeted attack” on a Muslim-majority neighborhood that also includes roughly 100 homes owned by members of the formerly lower-caste Dalit community.

The stay issued by the Supreme Court on Thursday was in response to a number of petitions filed in response to the lower court’s order.

The justices said in their ruling that the state court appeared to have passed its order without hearing the affected parties. The top court added that there was a “human angle” to the case, referring to the uprooting of tens of thousands of people and the need to verify individuals that have been living in the area for long periods.

The matter will be heard again in the Supreme Court next month.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a ceasefire in Ukraine over Orthodox Christmas, following a call by Russian Patriarch Kirill for guns to go silent over the holiday, NPR reported. The truce will be in effect for 36 hours beginning at noon on Jan. 6 – many people celebrate Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 6 and 7. Putin’s order came days after Russia launched a barrage of missiles and exploding drones on New Year’s Eve toward a number of Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv, the New York Times wrote. Shortly after the dawn of the New Year, Ukraine launched its missiles towards a vocational school housing Russian soldiers in Makiivka, a town in a Russian-occupied area of the eastern Donetsk region, NBC noted. The Ukrainian strike killed at least 89 troops with the Russians blaming the attack on its soldiers’ use of cell phones.

In other Ukraine-related news:

  • Putin has sent one of his country’s most modern warships, armed with advanced hypersonic missiles, on a long cruise via the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and into the Indian Ocean, CNN wrote. The frigate “Admiral Gorshkov” departed from an unspecified northern Russian port Wednesday.
  • Ukraine and the European Union will hold a summit in Kyiv on Feb. 3 to discuss financial and military support, Agence France-Presse said. Meanwhile, Germany said it was open to using billions of euros in frozen Russian assets to assist Ukraine in rebuilding – as long as legal issues can be resolved and allies follow suit, Bloomberg added.
  • Germany’s newly built liquefied natural gas facility received its first complete cargo from the US, as Berlin rushes to shore up its supply following the collapse of its decades-long energy partnership with Russia, according to the Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, the EU’s natural gas storage levels are at about 84 percent and were higher in December than the average amount in reserve half a decade ago, according to the EU’s executive office, despite Russian attempts to block off supply as part of its conflict on Ukraine, the Associated Press added.

DISCOVERIES

Bird’s Eye

Peru’s majestic Nazca Lines recently received a significant boost in the number of geoglyphs that paint the vast region, Live Science reported.

Archaeologists spotted 168 previously unknown geoglyphs – large designs or motifs produced on the ground – created by the Indigenous inhabitants more than a millennium ago in the Aja area.

The new outlines were found through aerial photographs and drone footage during field surveys between 2019 and 2020. The finding brings the total number of earthen artworks in the area to 358 geoglyphs, the researchers explained.

They added that the newly discovered geoglyphs were created between 100 BCE and 300 CE.

The artworks consisted of outlines of humans and various animals: Among these is the motif of a headless person holding a stick or club while their head tumbles away. The team suggested that the scene was a ritual depiction involving beheading, rather than a representation of warfare.

It’s not exactly clear why the ancient inhabitants created the geoglyphs, but one theory proposes that it helped the people find water in the desert region.

Other researchers noted that some of the newly found geoglyphs were created by piling stones on top of each other, instead of removing soil and exposing the white surface underneath – which is typical in other Nazca Lines.

But aside from adding a new collection to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, archaeologists are hoping to use the new findings to “teach” artificial intelligence to better detect images of other potential geoglyphs.

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