The World Today for August 02, 2023

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Palace Intrigue

NIGER

Two years ago, the president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, was elected in the West African country’s first peaceful, democratic change of government since independence from France in 1960.

He almost didn’t make it – a coup was attempted to thwart him from taking office, but was reportedly stopped by Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani, the commander of the Presidential Guard, according to Al Jazeera.

Last week, a few days after that same guard ousted Bazoum in a coup, army commanders suspended Niger’s constitution, all political parties, closed all borders, and declared Tchiani – who led Wednesday’s coup – the new head of the transitional council, and de facto head of the country, reported the Associated Press.

“(We decided to) put an end to the regime that you know due to the deteriorating security situation and bad governance,” he said on television, adding it was “necessary” to avoid “the gradual and inevitable demise” of the country.

There has been no talk of returning to civilian rule.

The turn of events has caused concern and dismay across Africa, and elsewhere.

The stakes are high because landlocked Niger sits amid some of the most unstable parts of the planet: war-torn Libya for one, while regions of Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, and the vast and dangerous Sahara Desert of southern Algeria host jihadists who have gained in strength over the past few years.

Thousands have been killed and six million displaced in the region due to jihadist insurgencies.

Niger, one of the least-developed and poorest countries in the world, hosts some of those refugees displaced by the insurgents. At the same time, the country is Africa’s second-biggest uranium producer.

Still, Niger is especially important to the US and the West, wrote National Public Radio, because the country hosts US drone bases, around 1,100 American troops, 1,500 French soldiers, and other foreign personnel. It is vital to America and Europe’s counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State and other militant forces in the Sahel.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the coup on Twitter, saying he opposed “any effort to seize power by force and to undermine democratic governance, peace & stability in Niger,” noted NBC News. American and French officials have also signaled their support for Bazoum and the democratic process that elected him to office in 2021, Politico reported.

But American and French generals have also been working closely with the Nigerien military for years and probably would very much like to continue that cooperation, especially in light of rising anti-French sentiment and coups in the region, often assisted by the Russian military contractor and mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group. For example, France moved its soldiers to Niger from Mali after a military coup last year that was assisted by Wagner.

Meanwhile, as the Intercept explained, the US military trained one of the officers who organized the coup. An unnamed American official told the Intercept that their training adhered to US and international law, but they had no control over foreign military personnel.

In the meantime, the leader of the Wagner Group, an arm of Kremlin influence in Africa, took credit for the coup. In a statement posted on the social media site Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin suggested that Wagner had supported the military junta and would now help Niger deal with terrorists rather than the US and France.

“What happened is the struggle of the people of Niger against the colonialists,” Prigozhin said. “This is actually gaining independence and getting rid of the colonialists.”

On Sunday, thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital Niamey denouncing France, waving Russian flags, and some even set a door at the French Embassy ablaze, Africanews wrote.

Some have suggested that there is a connection between the coup and Niger’s ousted president declining to attend Putin’s Africa summit earlier this month. But others say coups are nothing new in a region that regularly sees them.

Niger has had five successful coups since 1960. This latest one is the sixth – after one in Guinea and two each in Burkina Faso and Mali – in West Africa in the past three years, underscoring the region’s moniker, the “coup belt.”

Still, the powerful regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has threatened military action against the junta if it doesn’t reinstate Bazoum as president in a week, and imposed sanctions on those involved in the coup or working for its institution. The European Union has cut off aid and the US is considering doing so.

And there isn’t peace in the coup household either. Government officials loyal to Bazoum, as well as French diplomats, have said the coup was “not final,” with infighting beginning to break out between the plotters, CNN added.

The palace intrigue is not yet over.

THE WORLD BRIEFLY

Until Further Notice

MYANMAR

Myanmar’s military junta extended the state of emergency Tuesday, a move that will further delay elections that the army previously promised when it seized power from an elected government more than two years ago, the Associated Press reported.

The National Defense and Security Council (NDSC) announced that the state of emergency will be extended for another six months because the army needs more time to prepare for the vote.

The junta had initially vowed to hold elections this month, but the announcement underscores an admission that the military does not have enough control of the country to stage a vote, amid widespread opposition and armed resistance.

Myanmar has been gripped by crises since February 2021, when the army arrested the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and officials from her government – a coup that reversed years of progress toward democracy after five decades of military rule in the Southeast Asian nation.

The military said it seized power because of electoral fraud during the November 2020 polls that saw Suu Kyi’s party secure a landslide victory. Independent election observers, however, said they did not find any major irregularities.

Following the takeover, mass peaceful demonstrations took place against the military’s rule, to which the junta responded by launching a bloody crackdown that killed more than 3,800 people.

The situation triggered armed resistance across the country that the United Nations has described as a civil war.

The election delay is not new: Myanmar’s military-enacted constitution allows the army to rule under a state of emergency for one year, with two possible six-month extensions if new polls are not prepared – all of which expired on Jan. 31 this year.

But the NDSC – a military-controlled government body – extended the emergency rule in February. Tuesday’s extension marks the fourth one.

It’s unclear when the next elections will take place, but junta critics and opposition politicians warned that the upcoming vote will be neither free nor fair under the military-controlled government.

Taking Steps

PORTUGAL

Pope Francis will arrive in Portugal’s capital Wednesday to take part in the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day, a visit that comes as the European country is grappling with a recent report about decades of sexual abuse of children by the clergy, Agence France-Presse reported.

The pontiff is expected to meet in private with victims of clergy abuse during the five-day global event, which is predicted to draw up to one million people.

The pope’s visit comes months after an independent commission released a report that found that “at least” 4,815 children were sexually abused by members of Portugal’s Catholic Church since 1950.

The inquiry, based on testimony from more than 500 victims, concluded that Portugal’s Church hierarchy “systematically” tried to hide the abuse. The findings prompted the Church’s leadership to apologize to the victims and acknowledge that the institution’s culture must change.

Although Portugal’s Church has set up another independent commission to support victims and collect new complaints, the clergy remains divided about suspending priests targeted by abuse allegations.

Meanwhile, victims’ groups have said the reforms are coming too slowly, while others lamented that they were not invited to participate in the pope’s meeting.

In recent years, thousands of reports of pedophilia within the Catholic Church have emerged worldwide, posing a challenge for Pope Francis.

In 2018, he acknowledged “grave errors” in handling an abuse scandal in Chile and invited abuse victims who had been previously deliberately discredited to Rome for their forgiveness. In response, he held a summit on clerical abuse and enacted reforms, including reporting obligations for abuse and cover-ups.

Meanwhile, Francis plans to accelerate his reform agenda, emphasizing the need for change and inclusivity in the Church in the 21st century, according to the Associated Press.

The reform includes involving younger clerics in decision-making processes, as well as addressing issues such as LGBTQ Catholics and women’s roles.

The pope envisions a Church centered on love and unity, seeking to make a positive impact on the world’s future.

Extreme Measures

SENEGAL

Senegal’s government ordered the dissolution of the political party of Ousmane Sonko this week shortly after charging the main opposition leader of fomenting insurrection, a move that risks exacerbating the tense political crisis in the relatively peaceful West African nation, Radio France Internationale reported.

Sonko was arrested on Friday after claiming that security forces filmed him outside his house and he snatched one of the phones to ask them to delete it.

On Monday, authorities accused him and his Patriots for Senegal (PASTEF) party of a series of allegations, including inciting unrest and undermining state security, according to Al Jazeera.

His detention sparked violent demonstrations across Senegal. with Sonko’s supporters clashing with police. The country’s interior ministry said Monday two people died but did not provide details of the circumstances of the deaths.

Meanwhile, PASTEF criticized the decision as “anti-democratic” and warned that Senegal’s stability was “now compromised.”

Sonko, a leading opposition figure, has faced a slew of charges against him: In June, a court convicted him of morally “corrupting” a young woman but acquitted him of the more severe charge of rape.

Although he has not been jailed, the conviction prevents him from standing in next year’s election.

The opposition leader has accused President Macky Sall and his cabinet of launching legal proceedings against him in order to prohibit his participation in the 2024 polls.

Over the past few months, Sonko has called for Sall to step down from the February 2024 election because his candidacy would violate constitutional term limits. Earlier this month, in a surprise move Sall said he would not seek a third term.

DISCOVERIES

Subtle Tricks

United States’ Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was a true Renaissance man.

Known for inventing the lightning rod and bifocal eyeglasses, he also developed some of the earliest tricks to fight counterfeit paper money flooding the US colonies in the 18th century.

In 1731, Franklin won a contract to print £40,000 for the colony of Pennsylvania and came up with complex designs that made it harder for currency forgers to falsify.

Now, a new study showed that Franklin’s anti-counterfeit methods were more advanced and intricate than previously considered, the New York Times reported.

Scientists analyzed more than 600 pre-Federal American currencies using microscopy and spectroscopy techniques to analyze the paper on which the money was printed.

They discovered traces of mica – also known as muscovite – a group of silicate minerals that appear as small shiny flakes on the paper bills. Researchers observed that the mica found in bills from various colonies originated from the same geological source, indicating that a single paper mill might have produced the paper.

The presence of schist – a mineral containing mica – in the Philadelphia area suggests that Franklin or the printers associated with him obtained the material locally for their paper production.

The team also found evidence of graphite ink on the early currency. This puzzled them because the graphite was not easy to find and Franklin mainly used black ink from burned vegetable oils – known as lampblack – for printing jobs.

The differences in color between graphite and lampblack are also very subtle, which means that Franklin was possibly experimenting with different inks to fool counterfeiters.

The findings don’t specify whether the Founding Father’s methods were specifically aimed at fighting forgeries, but they do underscore his creativity.

The authors hope that future studies can reveal more about Franklin’s methods and other early American paper money.

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