The World Today for July 28, 2023

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The Hired Hands


Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group arrived in the Central African Republic (CAR) around two weeks before a July 30 referendum that would allow President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to run for a third term – which the current law forbids him from pursuing.

As Al Jazeera explained, the CAR has been in turmoil since 2013 when a rebellion ousted Touadéra’s predecessor, Francois Bozize. Elected in 2016, Touadéra turned to Wagner for help against the rebels who dominate different regions of the former French colony.

Even though Wagner forces staged an uprising recently, they remain a potent Russian tool in the CAR, which the Financial Times described as a Russian “client state.” They’ve been accused of committing human rights violations and massacring civilians. Now they appear charged with making sure the referendum passes so Touadéra and his pro-Russian rule will continue.

Crepin Mboli-Goumba of the opposition group the Bloc Républicain pour la Défense de la Constitution (BRDC) said Touadéra is essentially a hostage of Wagner fighters and their Russian overlords. Speaking to the Africa Report, he claimed that the referendum was illegal because it wasn’t organized according to the law.

The referendum is a bold power grab, said protesters who recently marched in a rally against the referendum in the capital of Bangui. They argued that the president isn’t above ruling without a remit from his constituents. Voter turnout was extremely low when Touadéra won reelection in 2021 due to violence at polling stations throughout the country and other irregularities, they added.

“We cannot accept that someone who came to power through a democratic process and maintained his position in 2021 through an electoral farce can decide to stay in power and give himself power for life,” BRDC member Mahamat Kamoun told Africanews and Agence France-Presse.

The president’s decision to forge ahead with the referendum will likely worsen the tensions that are already simmering in the CAR, argued Remadji Hoinathy, an analyst at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies. An uptick in violence stemming from disaffected citizens or emboldened rebels could also spill into neighboring Sudan and Chad, too, where civil wars and insurgencies are now raging.

“This referendum doesn’t augur well for the future of politics, peace, and stability in the CAR, and urgent solutions must be implemented to get past this impasse,” wrote Hoinathy.

Yet Touadéra appears determined to press ahead as Wagner troops line up behind him.


When Might Makes Right


A day after soldiers of the Presidential Guard detained the president and took over the country, supporters of a coup in Niger set fire to the headquarters of the ruling party while the deposed president vowed to restore democracy, Reuters reported Thursday.

In the capital of Niamey, black smoke billowed from the headquarters after hundreds of supporters of the coup who had gathered in front of the National Assembly playing pro-army music, waving Russian flags and chanting anti-French slogans, targeted the building.

The army, meanwhile, on Thursday backed the coup, with the army’s chief of staff saying its priority was to avoid “a deadly confrontation … that could create a bloodbath and affect the security of the population.”

On Wednesday, soldiers from the Presidential Guard detained President Mohamed Bazoum and announced on television that they had stripped him of power after growing concerned over the deteriorating security situation and poor governance. They suspended all political parties indefinitely.

Now, it is unclear who will take over from Bazoum.

The coup has left the West deeply concerned. The country had become a crucial ally in the West’s fight against an extremist insurgency especially after coups in the Sahel region have led to the withdrawal of foreign troops – for example, France moved its soldiers to Niger from Mali after a military coup last year.

A jihadist insurgency that took root in Mali in 2012 has widened, killing thousands and displacing more than six million people across the Sahel.

Frustrations over state failures to prevent attacks on towns and villages partly spurred two coups in Mali and two in Burkina Faso since 2020. At the same time, both countries have grown closer to Russia since military juntas have taken over the government.

The coup in Niger is the seventh in West and Central Africa since 2020.

Meanwhile, Bazoum, elected in 2021 in the country’s first peaceful transfer of power since its independence from France in 1960, vowed to protect the country’s “hard-won” democratic gains, the Associated Press reported, writing on Twitter that, “All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom will see to it.”

Forcing Justice


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will face a vote of no-confidence in parliament after a lawmaker from Congress, India’s main opposition party, introduced a motion this week over the ongoing violence in the northeastern state of Manipur, Al Jazeera reported.

On Wednesday, Om Birla, the speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, approved the motion, saying he would decide over the next few days when the debate and vote would take place.

Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Hindu nationalist allies have an overwhelming majority in parliament, guaranteeing his political survival. But opposition leaders hope the move will force the Indian leader to address the ethnic clashes in Manipur, which have led to the deaths of more than 130 people and the displacement of tens of thousands more.

The ethnic tensions in the small state of 3.2 million people are seen as a security and political failure by the Modi administration. Modi is up for reelection in May 2024.

Modi had not commented in public about the violence until last week, when videos showing two women from the Kuki tribe being paraded naked and sexually assaulted by a mob of Meitei men in Manipur surfaced, sparking national outrage.

Modi condemned the mass assault as “shameful” and promised tough action against the perpetrators.

The violence in Manipur began on May 3 after a court ordered the state government to consider extending special economic benefits and quotas in government jobs and education enjoyed by the tribal Kuki people – who are mainly Christian – to the majority Hindu Meitei population as well.

The incident involving the women occurred in May. But police only made arrests after the videos surfaced and went viral, causing demonstrations to break out across India last week.

Some took matters into their own hands, Agence France Press reported, detailing how “furious” women – from the Meitei community, like the accused – set fire to the houses of one man accused of involvement, and broke down the walls and roof of the house with sticks. In another incident, another mob of women destroyed the house of a second suspect, reducing it to ash.

A Little Sunlight


A multinational panel investigating the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from a teachers’ college in Mexico said that while it wasn’t able to determine the students’ fate, the investigation had gathered enough evidence to show that Mexican security forces at the local, state and federal levels “all collaborated to make them disappear,” NBC News reported.

The investigators with the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), a panel appointed by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights nine years ago, unveiled their sixth and last report at a press conference this week, outlining their conclusions and also the obstacles they encountered as they attempted to investigate one of Mexico’s most notorious cases involving those who have been “disappeared.”

In Mexico, more than 100,000 people are officially recognized as “disappeared.”

In this case, the 43 missing students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College went missing after they were attacked in the city of Igualaon on Sept. 26, 2014. In the decade that followed, investigators have only formally identified the remains of three students.

The GIEI said that account is incorrect.

According to panel member Carlos Beristain, the GIEI’s findings said authorities at numerous levels knew about the abduction of the students and were complicit in their disappearances.

The GIEI also found that members of the navy and the army carried out secret, unreported joint operations and manipulated information relevant to the case: It accused authorities of the “obstruction of justice.”

“They’ve lied to us, they’ve responded with falsehoods … we can’t investigate like this,” Beristain said.

Mexico’s armed forces have long denied having information about the disappearances.

The GIEI’s investigation officially ends next week but Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the government will continue investigating the case. To date, almost 130 people have been arrested in connection with the disappearances.


This week, Ukraine launched a major push in its offensive against Russia with fierce fighting breaking out in southeastern Ukraine, the Associated Press reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that “hostilities have intensified significantly” while insisting that Kyiv’s push wasn’t successful, a claim that could not be verified. For the past few weeks, battles have raged at multiple points along the 600-mile frontline, with Ukrainian troops making only incremental gains since the offensive was launched in June, the Washington Post reported. The Russian military has deterred Ukrainian progress with airstrikes and also by mining vast areas along the front, the New York Times said. Meanwhile, Ukrainian defense officials said troops are advancing toward the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhizhia region, which would be a major success for Ukraine if recaptured. The city is part of the land corridor between Russia and Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and would cut off supply access to Russian troops.

Also this week:

  • A missile strike on Ukraine’s southern Odesa region further damaged its port infrastructure in the latest attack since Moscow broke off a grain export agreement, threatening world supplies, Reuters reported. At the same time, Putin hosted a summit with African leaders where he promised to give free grain to African countries hard hit by falling exports and rising prices, the newswire said in a separate story. The summit is part of a push by Russia to woo Africa after it lost much support across the world in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine last year.
  • China is exploiting a loophole by supplying non-lethal but militarily useful equipment to Russia, supporting Moscow’s war on Ukraine, Politico reported. The equipment includes bulletproof vests, helmets, drones, and thermal optical sights. While the US has expressed concerns about China’s actions, the transactions underscore that the West lacks the power to impose an outright ban on trade.
  • Belarus’ democratic opposition said this week that almost 4,000 Wagner Group fighters are now in the country, with more expected to arrive, Newsweek noted. The fighters are based at a military base in Tsel, close to Minsk. Wagner’s presence in Belarus following an attempted uprising in Russia in June is raising concerns for neighboring NATO nations. Meanwhile, the opposition has urged the West to impose more sanctions on Lukashenko and Putin.
  • US Marine veteran Trevor Reed, who was previously detained in Russia for three years before his release, was injured while fighting in Ukraine, according to NBC News. The US State Department confirmed his status without releasing further details. Reed is one of thousands of foreigners – including dissident Russians and Belarussians – fighting on behalf of Ukraine.
  • The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), found anti-personnel mines in the buffer zone of the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, a move that violates safety procedures, Reuters added. Russia seized the plant following last year’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, both Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling near the station. The IAEA’s director-general, Rafael Grossi, stated that the mines do not pose an immediate risk to the plant’s security but they are worrisome, especially to the remaining staff at the plants.


Growing Pains

Prehistoric saber-toothed cats and dire wolves suffered from a developmental joint disease that also affects their modern relatives and humans, according to Science Magazine.

In a new study, veterinarian Hugo Schmökel and a team of palaeontologists analyzed the well-preserved bones of more than 1,000 saber-toothed cats and 500 dire wolves. The remains date back to between 55,000 and 12,000 years ago.

The researchers noticed a series of indentations on the surfaces of the bone, which Schmökel – who specializes in orthopedic problems in cats and dogs – explained as clear signs of osteochondritis dissecans (OCD).

OCD is a condition that causes parts of the bone and cartilage to deteriorate and break off because of the lack of blood flow. It usually affects joint areas that bear the brunt of movement, such as knees and shoulders.

The findings showed that the disease was very prevalent in the femur bones of saber-toothed cats, while dire wolves showed OCD more in the shoulder joints and knees.

Researchers explained that these differences have to do with the hunting strategies of each animal: The extinct felines were ambush predators and would pounce on their prey, while the canines pursued their food over long distances.

However, this condition did not seem to affect their hunting abilities – Schmökel suggested that their pain levels were a “two or three, with better days and worse days.”

The authors theorized that OCD became more common nearer the predators’ extinction about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. As their numbers shrank, they interbred with each other and incidentally increased the prevalence of OCD.

While some scientists are skeptical of the hypothesis, others praised the findings for “studying ‘less charismatic’ cases” that provide more insight into the lives of these animals.

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