The World Today for February 09, 2024

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Clinging to the Snake

GABON

Hours after President Ali Bongo won reelection to a third term in Gabon in August last year, extending his family’s 56-year rule of the West African country, his military officers seized power in a bloodless coup.

It was just the latest military takeover in the region – nine in the past three years – known as the “coup belt” that includes recent coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Niger.

Still, among that club, Gabon is different, wrote World Politics Review.

Like others in West Africa, many Gabonese voters in the poor but oil-rich former French colony had become deeply unsatisfied with their long-time leader. As Reuters recalled, his government had rebuffed international observers, suspended foreign news broadcasts that might have informed voters before the election, and mandated a nighttime curfew that many suspected would conceal election shenanigans.

The junta now in power installed Gen. Brice Nguema as Gabon’s transitional president, reported National Public Radio. Now, six months later, nobody knows when or if the country will ever return to civilian rule. But even so, unlike Mali, Guinea, Niger or Burkina Faso, the country’s new leader has pledged to hold new elections in August, added Agence France-Presse.

Nguema, a member of the Bongo clan himself, presents himself as a patriot who sought to save Gabon from their former president and his family, who have presided over rampant corruption. He claims that he has been tirelessly improving the country’s infrastructure and enhancing its fiscal position since he assumed power.

Gabon is the third richest country in Africa as measured by GDP per capita, according to the World Bank. Even so, the majority of Gabon’s 2.5 million people live in poverty. It is many of these folks who welcomed the new leadership even though it came about in a coup.

“We have a Gabonese proverb,” Gabonese union leader Jean Remy Yama told NPR. “If you are drowning in a river, you hold on to whatever branch you can find, whether it’s a snake or a crocodile. It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting out of the river.”

Meanwhile, to build support for this transition, he also allowed some members of Bongo’s regime into his government along with opposition figures. He allowed Marie Madeleine Mborantsuo to return as president of the country’s top constitutional court, for example, noted Africa News.

Internationally, Nguema made a point, for example, of posting his meetings with American, British, French, Saudi, and other foreign dignitaries at home and abroad to show that Gabon wants to join the international community. That’s in contrast to Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger which are mainly being courted by Russia and shun regional groupings such as West Africa’s ECOWAS and Western players. Indeed the latter three countries withdrew from ECOWAS last month.

He’s also pursuing a $1.3 billion deal to wrest more power over the country’s oil industry from foreign oil giants, added S&P Global Commodity Insights. As France 24 explained, Gabon is an OPEC member, yet a third of the country lives in poverty.

Meanwhile, the transitional president is also seeking to gain Gabon’s reentry into the Economic Community of Central African States, an organization that the Council on Foreign Relations described as “more a dictators’ club than (a) bastion of democratic principles.” The Community, which is headquartered in the Gabonese capital of Libreville, had suspended Gabon’s membership after the coup.

The strategy might be working, at least domestically. According to Voice of America, supporters of the coup regime have taken to the streets in recent weeks to stage demonstrations denouncing the Community’s move as well as sanctions that other nations have slapped on Gabon to punish Nguema and his junta allies for their power grab. That’s in contrast to protests in Guinea and elsewhere in protest of the ruling junta.

Nguema, say commentators, aims to restore stability in the economy and confidence in the government before holding an election where his name will likely appear.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Loose Threads

BRAZIL

Brazil’s federal police on Thursday attempted to confiscate the passport of former President Jair Bolsonaro as part of an investigation into an alleged coup attempt following his 2022 election loss, Reuters reported.

Sources said police visited Bolsonaro’s beach house near the coastal city of Angra dos Reis, requesting he hand over his passport. Bolsonaro family spokesman Fabio Wajngarten said the former far-right leader will comply with the order.

Authorities also issued search warrants for properties linked to Bolsonaro’s allies and arrested four of his closest aides, including his former international affairs advisor, Felipe Martins.

Meanwhile, federal police also released a statement accusing a number of unnamed targets of participating in “a criminal organization that acted in an attempted coup d’etat” aimed at “keeping the then-President of the Republic in power.”

The move comes as authorities launch a probe into an alleged coup attempt last year, when thousands of Bolsonaro supporters stormed the country’s main government buildings in the capital and called for a military takeover.

The Jan. 8, 2023 incident took place a few months after Bolsonaro lost the 2022 presidential runoff to leftist candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had previously held the office of president. At the time, Bolsonaro had been in the United States and has continuously denied involvement in the capital’s storming.

Even so, Thursday’s operation signals a tightening net around Bolsonaro, his family, and allies for actions related to the unsuccessful reelection effort, the newswire wrote.

Last week, federal police searched properties linked to his son, Carlos Bolsonaro, who is suspected of using illegally collected data to target his father’s rivals.

Bolsonaro has already been deemed politically ineligible until 2030 for spreading election falsehoods, and faces a series of criminal probes that could lead to imprisonment.

The Unpredictable Giant

ICELAND

A volcano in southwestern Iceland erupted Thursday for the third time since December, prompting an evacuation from a popular touristic hotspot and cutting off hot water to thousands of residents amid freezing temperatures, the New York Times reported.

Officials said the eruption took place in the early hours of Thursday on the Reykjanes Peninsula, unleashing hot lava that flowed onto a main road and severed a crucial pipe supplying hot water from the local power plant, Svartsengi, to nearby towns.

About 31,000 residents in the area will be cut off from hot water and heating amid temperatures of 21 Fahrenheit, according to authorities.

Vidir Reynisson, the director of Iceland’s civil defense agency, warned that the eruption was producing more lava than expected and posed a significant threat to critical infrastructure in the entire peninsula.

However, local volcanologists said the lava flow had likely reached its maximum breadth, with the eruption’s intensity diminishing.

Although volcanic eruptions are common in Iceland, the Reykjanes Peninsula was dormant for about 800 years until 2021. Since then, it has witnessed a number of eruptions, including a recent one that began in mid-December.

Scientists said the threat to the peninsula will not end soon.

While Keflavik International Airport reported no disruptions to flights despite the lack of hot water, the town of Grindavik – closest to the volcano – remained empty following an evacuation after the last eruption in January, which caused significant damage.

Additionally, tourist destinations such as the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and nearby hotels were evacuated as a precautionary measure.

Hitting Mute

AUSTRALIA

Australia will pass a new bill granting employees the “right to disconnect” from work-related calls outside of working hours without facing penalties, the latest country to amend legislation in an effort to promote a better work-life balance, the Independent reported.

The legislation is part of a broader industrial relations bill aimed at “closing loopholes” that undercut workers’ pay and conditions.

Employment Minister Tony Burke explained that the new rules will prevent employees from working unpaid overtime, with the right to disconnect and avoid unreasonable contact outside of work hours.

The bill stipulates that workers feeling unreasonably contacted should first address the issue with their employer, escalating it to the Fair Work Commission if necessary. It also includes provisions for transitioning temporary workers to permanent employment and setting minimum standards for temporary workers and truck drivers

Employers violating these new measures could face fines.

The Labor government has hailed these changes as necessary to protect workers’ rights and promote a healthier work-life balance.

However, opponents of the bill said the right-to-disconnect provision was an overreach, adding that it would undermine the move toward flexible working and impact competitiveness.

Similar laws giving employees the right to switch off official devices after work have also been passed in European countries, such as Spain and France.

UKRAINE, BRIEFLY

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced a shake-up of the military and fired the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the BBC reported Thursday. In an interview with Italian public television Rai on Sunday, the president had said he was considering sacking Zaluzhnyi, a popular military officer hailed by Ukrainian service members as a hero. Zaluzhnyi and Zelenskyy have fallen out since the launch of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in June, which failed to provide the promised territorial gains in Russian-occupied areas, the Associated Press wrote.

Amid outrage in Ukraine, smiles in the Kremlin, and concerns among Western allies caused by the rumors of the general’s dismissal earlier this week, Zelenskyy on Tuesday announced the creation of a new army branch dedicated to drones. The so-called Unmanned Systems Forces are the first of their kind: One analyst told NBC News no other military had ever created such a branch. Zelenskyy noted that drones have been crucial in “(changing) the security situation in the Black Sea,” while Russia has also used dozens of drones in its attacks on Ukraine.

The latest one, on Wednesday morning, saw Moscow fire drones in addition to missiles at three major cities, including the capital. At least five civilians were killed. The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borell, was in Kyiv when the attack happened and said he started his day in an air raid shelter.

Borell was visiting Ukraine to discuss military and financial aid from the EU after the Financial Times reported on Saturday that the Group of Seven, of which the bloc is part, was considering using around $300 billion of frozen Russian assets in the West as collateral for debt sold to support Ukraine. Calling the move illegal, Russia threatened to retaliate by freezing Western assets in Russia.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s State Security Service said they had seized a shipment of explosives sent from the Ukrainian port of Odesa bound for the Russian city of Voronezh, 110 miles from the border with Ukraine, Reuters reported. The explosives were clandestinely placed in a cargo of car batteries that followed a route similar to a truckload that exploded on the Crimean Bridge in 2022. Ukrainian security services refused to comment on the incident.

Also this week, Sweden was at the center of the West’s attention. On Monday, Stockholm’s hopes of joining NATO were left hanging after the ruling party of Hungary – the sole country that has still not approved the bid after Turkey’s greenlight last month – boycotted a parliamentary session to ratify Sweden’s membership of the transatlantic alliance. Then on Wednesday, Sweden’s top prosecutor closed a national inquiry into explosions that damaged Russian gas pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 in September 2022, the BBC reported, saying the case was outside Swedish jurisdiction. Responsibility for the blasts has still not been established.

On Thursday, Russia’s electoral commission banned Boris Nadezhdin, who ran on an antiwar platform, from running in next month’s presidential election. Though Nadezhdin was not expected to defeat President Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post wrote that his banning betrayed worries in the Kremlin of growing antiwar sentiments among the population, and signaled backsliding toward totalitarianism.

Prior to the ban, police arrested 20 journalists at a protest in Moscow of Russian wives demanding the return of soldiers.

DISCOVERIES

Cracking the Code

The ancient tradition of carpet weaving in the northern Indian region of Kashmir features patterns that rely on a symbolic code, called talim. Designers have used the method for centuries to communicate information to weavers, who make the carpets by hand.

In the traditional process, a talim expert would encode a carpet design drawn by a designer and break it into small sections to be woven. Once translated, the talim would tell weavers where to knot and which colors to use.

Talim and intricate patterns made Kashmiri weaving a priceless heritage, say experts. Weaver Mohammad Rafiq Sofi told the BBC it took him five years to master his craft.

However, this system was not only immune to human mistakes – it made them difficult to spot and correct, wasting a lot of time in the process. Computer software contributed to eliminating these issues, bringing the production time of a single carpet from six months down to six weeks.

Now, the industry is being further revolutionized through the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI).

Computer software firm International Virtual Assistance is training AI to understand talim, by feeding it pictures of rugs and corresponding lines of talim code. Engineers insist this innovation is only meant to boost manufacturing productivity and not impact the artistry of the craft.

With India’s economy booming, higher demand for handwoven carpets could strengthen a significant source of revenue for Kashmir, but traditional weavers might not be able to keep up.

AI could also help transform the craft by allowing designers and weavers to experiment with new materials, say proponents.

“Weavers will be able to try out new patterns, update classic themes to suit contemporary tastes, and produce one-of-a-kind, custom carpets,” said Aby Mathew from the firm.

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