The World Today for January 12, 2024

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NEED TO KNOW

Eternal Turmoil

COMOROS

After he secured power in a coup in 1999, Azali Assoumani ran for the presidency of Comoros in 2002. After retiring from politics in 2006, he ran for office again and won in 2016 and 2019. Now, after a court decision allowing him to stand for a fourth term, he is again seeking to lead the tiny archipelago of islands in the channel between Mozambique and Madagascar off East Africa.

Describing Assoumani as the “eternal candidate,” the Journal of Africa expected him to win reelection easily.

As the president of the powerful African Union (AU), Assoumani has won international plaudits. Many leaders in the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia-based AU didn’t have high hopes when Assoumani took over. But, as the Africa Report noted, he engaged in high-profile diplomatic efforts and pushed for free trade deals.

Assoumani has also pledged to respect democracy and the will of the people in his own country, but his rivals have questioned his trustworthiness, accusing him of using the offices of government to further his personal interests, while undermining election rules that might hurt his candidacy. Opposition figures have vowed to boycott the election unless the government releases political prisoners and allows for more transparency in how the votes are counted.

Many opposition figures, for instance, have fled the country for fear of facing imprisonment or worse. Yet, as Africa News wrote, election officials have made no provisions for anyone in the country’s widespread diaspora to cast ballots.

“We will not participate in yet another electoral charade,” said Mohamed Ali Soilihi, the leader of the Enlarged Common Front coalition, in an interview with Agence France-Presse. Soilihi came second after Assoumani in the 2016 election. He went into exile in France in 2022 after a court found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.

Others running against the eternal candidate include former foreign minister Aboudou Soefo, and Salim Issa, a candidate of Juwa, the political party of ex-president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi. In 2022, Sambi was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of “high treason” for selling passports to stateless wealthy folks in the Persian Gulf, added Al Jazeera.

Comoros has long witnessed these kinds of unfortunate political developments. Since achieving independence from France in the 1970s, Africa News noted, more than 20 armed groups have launched coups in the Indian Ocean islands, now with a population of around 800,000.

Assoumani’s stability might be positive. But that doesn’t mean that Comoran voters shouldn’t get a real chance to decide.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Another Front

ISRAEL/ GAZA

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Thursday began a two-day preliminary hearing on South Africa’s case against Israel charging genocide in the Gaza Strip, a landmark proceeding that could shape the course of the conflict and have serious implications for the Jewish nation, Axios reported.

Last month, South Africa initiated legal proceedings against Israel at the ICJ, also known as the World Court, accusing it of committing genocide during its military operations in Gaza following Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

The African nation is alleging that Israel’s operations in the Palestinian enclave violated its obligations under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide, and that its actions “are genocidal in character because they are intended to bring about the destruction of a substantial part” of the Palestinian population in Gaza.

It also accused Israeli leaders and officials of making statements that express “genocidal intent.”

During Thursday’s proceedings, South Africa’s legal representatives urged the court to issue urgent provisional measures, including a halt to the fighting in Gaza, the Washington Post noted.

Israel has fiercely rejected the accusations as “atrocious and preposterous,” adding that it has the right to defend itself following Hamas’ attack in October.

Analysts said that a decision on provisional measures could come in a matter of weeks, adding, however, that the case could take years to conclude and the ICJ does not have real enforcement powers.

Even so, the Israeli government has instructed its embassies to press their host countries to issue statements against South Africa’s case. Officials noted that a ruling by the ICJ “could have significant potential implications that are not only in the legal world but have practical bilateral, multilateral, economic, security ramifications.”

South Africa’s case has received support from many Arab or Muslim-majority countries, as well as some nations in South America, such as Colombia and Brazil.

Meanwhile, the United States has criticized the case as “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis.” The United Kingdom, Guatemala and Hungary have also criticized the case.

The Rhetorical Split

NORTH KOREA

North Korea began removing any mention of its reunification policy and the doctrine of “one people” with South Korea from its media coverage this week, signaling a shift that the authoritarian regime could rationalize the use of its nuclear arsenal against Seoul in the future, Radio Free Asia reported Thursday.

The country’s leading propaganda website, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Today, said Thursday it removed its “reunification” section, which contained details about Pyongyang’s advocacy for uniting with South Korea under a federal structure based on the “one nation, two systems” principle.

Observers said this reunification section has also been removed from other propaganda platforms since last week – North Korea has no independent media outlets in the country.

They explained that the changes came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his intention to discard the idea of “one people” shared with the South during a major policy meeting at the end of December.

Kim said union with South Korea “can never be achieved,” adding that Seoul’s reunification policy “starkly (contrasts) with our nation’s unification policy based on the principles of one people, one state, two systems.”

Following his remarks, North Korean state-run media began calling South Korea by its formal name, the “Republic of Korea.” In the past, they would use the term “Namjoseon,” which means “South of North Korea” in Korean.

Analyst Yang Moo-jin said the switch possibly means that Pyongyang has changed its stance on using nuclear weapons against Seoul. He explained that North Korea had previously labeled its arsenal “as the ‘treasure of the entire Korean people,’ subtly implying that they were not intended for use against the South.”

However, Kim’s announcement and his recent comments that South Korea was now officially Pyongyang’s “principal enemy,” suggest otherwise.

Even so, Yang countered that the changes could also mean that North Korea is trying to reduce its reliance on Seoul “as a means to reinforce regime unity domestically by fostering anti-South sentiment among its population.”

The Stamp of Shame

UNITED KINGDOM

After a huge public uproar, British police last week launched an investigation into the Post Office’s handling of an IT glitch that led to the prosecution of hundreds of employees for allegedly stealing money, some of whom later committed suicide, the Associated Press reported.

Between 1999 and 2015, over 700 branch managers were wrongly accused of theft or fraud. A computer accounting system called Horizon, developed by the Japanese company, Fujitsu, displayed faulty information that money was missing. The postal workers were sued by the Post Office and sentenced to reimburse large amounts of money.

Many of those accused ended up bankrupt and faced social ostracization, while others were imprisoned. Four committed suicide.

The Post Office long claimed the software was reliable. Nonetheless, since 2021, 93 convictions have been overturned, and a judge alleged the company was aware of Horizon’s faults.

The scandal has been the subject of a public inquiry ongoing since 2022, but widespread interest in the story was vigorously bolstered by a drama series based on the true story of postmaster and Horizon victim Alan Bates that aired on the commercial network ITV on New Year’s Day.

Amid the public outrage, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told Parliament his government would quash all the victims’ rulings and provide compensation amounting to $1.27 billion, the BBC reported.

The move will be backed by an Act of Parliament, which Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake admitted would raise “important constitutional issues” since courts are usually the only entities empowered to take such measures.

Lawmakers have demanded that public contracts with Fujitsu, representing billions of dollars, be re-examined. They are scheduled to question the Japanese firm’s leaders in a committee hearing next week, the Japan Times reported.

Asked by the BBC if the burden of compensation would rest on Fujitsu or taxpayers, Hollinrake said he hoped for “a combination of both.”

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

Russians joined other Eastern European nations in celebrating their Orthodox Christmas last weekend, though the war on the border dampened the festivities. Russian President Vladimir Putin invited the families of soldiers killed in the conflict to Christmas Eve services at his Moscow residence. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church – itself the world’s largest – called on his fellow compatriots to pray for Russia to be saved from an “alien evil,” the Associated Press reported.

Last year, Kirill had called for a truce on Orthodox Christmas, traditionally observed on Jan. 7. Ukraine had rejected the proposal, calling it a “cynical trap.” This time around, Ukrainians celebrated Christmas for the first time on Dec. 25 to assert a national identity apart from its behemoth neighbor. No new truce was offered: On Sunday, Russia shelled the Ukrainian cities of Kherson and Kharkiv, killing three people, the Associated Press reported. Meanwhile, about 300 civilians were evacuated from the Russian border city of Belgorod after Ukraine strikes killed 25 last week, Al Jazeera reported.

Despite this, peace seems to remain on the table. Bloomberg reported that a secret meeting took place in Saudi Arabia last month between Ukraine, its Western allies, and countries in the Global South, to discuss support for Kyiv in peace talks with Moscow. The secrecy of the session was aimed at encouraging more hesitant partners to join.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has criticized the West’s supply of arms to Ukraine. On the other hand, a Kharkiv prosecutor’s office on Saturday confirmed US claims that Russia used ammunition provided by North Korea, the Korea Times reported. The Hermit Kingdom has faced a Russia-backed United Nations arms embargo since 2006. Moscow declined to comment.

At the same time, Russia is preparing for its March 15-17 presidential election. The National Elections Commission on Tuesday greenlit the Communist Party’s candidate’s bid to enter the race, the Associated Press reported. Lawmaker Nikolai Kharitonov, opposed to some of Putin’s home policies but not the war, joins two other candidates from factions supporting the president’s party in parliament.

In the well-oiled process that is a Russian election, Kharitonov is likely to claim second place as Putin secures another term, analysts say, having increased repression against critics over the past few years. Pro-peace candidate Yekaterina Duntsova’s bid to run was quashed due to alleged paperwork mistakes. Meanwhile, Putin’s real rival, Alexei Navalny, is serving a 19-year prison sentence in an Arctic penal colony for “extremism.”

DISCOVERIES

Teeth Tales

When most people think of snakes, they imagine long, deadly fangs delivering venom. While not all snakes have venomous fangs, all of them have teeth.

And now one herpetologist, William Ryerson, has discovered those teeth have stories to tell, especially regarding how snakes kill, Science Magazine reported.

In his research, Ryerson analyzed the jaws and teeth of nearly 70 snakes across 13 species, thoroughly peering into their shape and position.

His findings showed that the field of herpetology – the study of snakes – has focused too much on the actual fangs and downplayed snakes’ dental diversity.

“We had just assumed the teeth were all the same,” said Brian Richard, a comparative biomechanist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who was not involved with the study.

But Ryerson observed that this variety in dentures also influenced the way the reptile struck its prey.

Using high-speed video, he scrutinized the way each species attacked a dead rodent and categorized them into two categories: “Strikers” and “lungers.”

He explained that strikers – which include pythons – have tall and straight teeth at the front that become curved and broader towards the back. In contrast, lungers – such as king snakes – have broad and curved teeth along both jaws, aiding prey intake while preventing escape.

This shape also influences their attack speed and direction: Strikers are very fast and use their teeth in their lower jaw to impale their food and help anchor the snake as it wraps itself around the rodent.

However, lungers attacked their prey straight on – although a bit slower – piercing it with both the top and bottom teeth at the same time.

Ryerson now hopes that the findings could inspire practical engineering applications.

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