The World Today for May 14, 2024

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Naming and Shaming

UGANDA

Barred from staging street protests, Ugandans are leveraging social media to shine a light on the misdeeds of their corrupt and incompetent leaders. The latest online protest, or “exhibition,” is trending under #UgandaParliamentExhibition on X (formerly Twitter), and it details how bureaucrats are abusing public funds, committing nepotism, and other graft while the landlocked East African country’s infrastructure crumbles.

Recent posts, for example, revealed how the Speaker of the Parliament, Anita Among, an ally of autocratic President Yoweri Museveni, received almost $900,000 in per diems for foreign trips she did not take – “an astonishing amount in a country struggling to implement its budget amid persistent revenue shortfalls,” the Associated Press reported.

The campaigns have been rattling Ugandan officials, Africa News noted, especially after it led to a probe by the country’s Inspector General of Government, which investigates corruption.

“The digital activism revolution has been huge,” Agather Atuhaire, a Ugandan journalist and community activist, told Al Jazeera, adding that the online protests have been successful in exposing nepotism and corruption in a country where the media is restricted, intimidated and bribed. “It’s a new thing. I think that’s why the authorities must be worried about it – there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Museveni has been in office for 38 years. He and his ruling political party, the National Resistance Movement, nominally restored multiparty politics in Uganda in 2005. But the country nonetheless remained a one-party state dominated by the ruling party. All other opposition political party organizations today are in disarray, added the Africa Report, noting that the president would likely run again in 2026 for a term that would extend his total time in office to 45 years.

Meanwhile, the party’s opponents – or anyone who deviates from Museveni’s conservative ideology – face violence and oppression. Ugandan cartoonist Jim Spire Ssentongo, who has started some of these “exhibitions” – initially via humorous campaigns targeting potholes – has been summoned by police for cyberstalking and had threats on his life. Atuhaire says she’s been threatened, too.

Both remain in the country, unlike prominent activist Steven Kabuye, who ran the advocacy group Coloured Voice Truth to LGBTQ Uganda, and who has asked for asylum in Canada after government thugs allegedly attacked him, according to the Washington Blade. Uganda levies harsh punishments against homosexuality, including life imprisonment for consensual same-sex conduct, Human Rights Watch noted.

As World Politics Review explained, Museveni has maintained this oppressive system by doling out the country’s riches to retain the support of the elites whom he needs to maintain his regime. Now, however, this practice has alienated ordinary Ugandans who must deal with their country’s problems while their leaders make off like bandits.

#UgandaParliamentExhibition and other online protests are airing this frustration in public – and emboldening the public.

For example, Ugandan media have refused to transmit Museveni’s message to the nation on the importance of participating in the country’s census, saying the government is not paying for the service, the BBC reported. State regulators have mandated that the media broadcast the message for free, but media outlets feel able now to ignore the rules.

And, for instance, when senior British officials recently congratulated Uganda’s new defense chief, Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba – Museveni’s son – over the appointment, human rights activists and others immediately criticized the move, embarrassing both sides. Kainerugaba allegedly tortured Ugandans who spoke out against his boss-father, wrote the Guardian.

Meanwhile, Uganda’s international allies are not necessarily pleased with the state of things in the country. Because of human rights concerns, the US this year has excluded Uganda from a trade assistance program, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), that allows thousands of duty-free exports into the US, a rebuff heavily criticized by Ugandan officials, VOA reported.

And the United Kingdom imposed sanctions on three Ugandan lawmakers late last month, accusing them of corruption – including parliamentary speaker Among, who had received the $900,000 in per diems for the fake trips.

“The UK is sending a clear message to those who think benefiting at the expense of others is acceptable,” said the UK’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrew Mitchell after the sanctions were announced. “The actions of these individuals, in taking aid from those who need it most, and keeping the proceeds, is corruption at its worst and has no place in society.”

He added: “Corruption has consequences and you will be held responsible.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Surveilling Democracy

GERMANY

A high court ruled Monday that Germany’s domestic intelligence service can continue to spy on the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party after the agency labeled the far-right movement as a “suspected extremist case,” the Washington Post reported.

The case began in 2021 when the AfD sued the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) over the designation, which allows the agency to monitor groups or parties that threaten Germany’s democratic order through the use of wiretaps and informants.

In its assessment, the BfV issued the designation based on analyzing publicly available information, including the party’s eurosceptic and anti-immigrant platforms, as well as individual members.

The AfD criticized the decision as an attempt to discredit the party, but the Cologne Administrative Court rejected the argument in 2022, saying that there were “sufficient indications of anti-constitutional goals within the AfD.”

On Monday, the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster also rejected the AfD’s complaint, ruling that it “has no right to demand that the BfV refrain from monitoring it.” Lawyers of the AfD plan to appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, government officials welcomed the verdict, adding that it showed that the “state has instruments that protect our democracy from threats from within.”

Established in 2013, the anti-immigrant group has gained popularity in recent months and could garner the most votes in three upcoming state elections.

However, it has seen a decrease in support after reports showed that senior AfD politicians attended a secret meeting among far-right and extremist groups earlier this year, where they discussed the forced deportation of migrants.

That revelation prompted nationwide protests calling for banning the party and its youth organization, the “Junge Alternative” (JA).

Legal analysts said the BfV could collect enough evidence to label the party as “confirmed extremist,” a designation that could start the process to ban it – even though that would take years.

Even so, observers noted that the BfV’s investigation clashes with Germany’s strong adherence to data privacy rights and its dark history regarding government surveillance.

Under the Nazi regime, the Gestapo secret police had a fearsome reputation for surveillance and a large network of informants. And during the Cold War, East Germany’s Stasi secret police employed sophisticated and intrusive tactics to spy on citizens.

Ape Washing

MALAYSIA

Malaysia unveiled plans this month for “orangutan diplomacy,” intending to gift the critically endangered apes to countries purchasing its palm oil, a proposal that drew criticism from conservation groups, CNN reported.

Last week, Johari Abdul Ghani, Malaysia’s minister for plantations and commodities, announced the plan during a biodiversity summit outside the capital Kuala Lumpur.

He said the move emulates China’s panda diplomacy, which has seen Beijing wielding its soft power by loaning the beloved animal, a national symbol, to foreign zoos over the past few decades.

Ghani noted that the diplomatic tactic aims to bolster ties with countries purchasing its palm oil, amid concerns over the climate impact of the agricultural product.

He did not elaborate on the timeline, or how the animals would be acquired, but called on palm oil giants to “collaborate” with local environmental groups in caring for the endangered giant apes.

Malaysia is the world’s second-biggest exporter of palm oil, a component found nearly in everything from shampoo to ice cream. Despite initiatives promoting sustainability, including green certificates for compliant companies, Malaysia faces scrutiny over its environmental practices.

Following the announcement, conservationists and environmental groups swiftly criticized the plan as “obscene, repugnant and extraordinarily hypocritical.” They noted that palm oil cultivation significantly contributes to deforestation and the destruction of orangutan habitats.

They urged Malaysia to address deforestation, with a report showing that the country lost more than 19 million acres of tree cover between 2001 and 2019, predominantly due to palm oil cultivation and logging.

Orangutans, iconic symbols of biodiversity, face severe population declines, particularly on Borneo island, shared by Malaysia and Indonesia.

Once found in greater numbers across Southeast Asia, there are around 100,000 orangutans in Borneo and some 14,000 on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island.

Singing a New Song

SPAIN/ CATALONIA

Spain’s Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez won the most votes in Sunday’s regional elections in Catalonia, a victory that dealt a blow to the separatist and pro-independence parties that previously dominated the territory, the BBC reported.

Results showed that the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) won 42 out of 135 seats in the legislature, while the separatist Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party of former regional President Carles Puigdemont came in second with 35 seats.

The outcome showed that other pro-independence parties lost ground in Sunday’s vote, including the 68-seat majority they would collectively need in the regional parliament, according to the Associated Press.

The vote came after the minority government of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) called for an early poll after failing to gain support to pass the region’s annual budget.

Observers said that the issue of Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain was overshadowed by other challenges facing the region, including a drought and a housing crisis.

They added that a victory for the PSC underscores a loss of support for the independence movement in Catalonia: The regional government’s statistics showed public support has dropped seven points to 42 percent over the past seven years.

It also highlights the success of Sánchez’s policies in the region, including a contentious amnesty law that would benefit nationalists who face legal action for separatist activity. Among them is Puigdemont, who has been living in exile following a failed breakaway bid in 2017.

PSC leader Salvador Illa hailed the party’s victory as “a new era for Catalonia,” but observers noted that it will not be easy for the winner to form a government.

The PSC will need the support of the ERC and a far-left party, even though Puigdemont called on the ERC not to form a coalition with Illa.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear when coalition talks will conclude because of the fragmented nature of the legislature, which is split by unionist-separatist allegiances as well as by left-right divisions.

DISCOVERIES

The Twelve-Sided Problem

Amateur archaeologists recently discovered a mysterious 12-sided object in England dating back to Roman-era Britain, the latest such dodecahedron to be found that scholars call “one of archaeology’s great enigmas,” CNN reported.

The individuals uncovered the Roman dodecahedron in the county of Lincolnshire last June, describing it as one of the largest ever found. The hollow object is about three inches across and covered with 12 holes of varying sizes.

Preliminary analysis showed that it dated between 43 and 410 CE and the amateur group said it was “in a fabulous condition.”

“It’s complete, undamaged, and it clearly was considered of great value by whoever made it and by those that used it,” according to Richard Parker, secretary of the Norton Disney History and Archaeology Group that found the artifact.

Since the 18th century, professional and amateur archaeologists have found 130 Roman dodecahedrons of different sizes, including 33 in Britain.

But these oddly-shaped objects remain to this day “one of archaeology’s great enigmas.”

They are not mentioned in Roman texts, do not appear in any mosaics, and have mainly been found across the northern and western provinces of the Roman Empire – present-day Germany, France and Britain, according to the Washington Post.

Its purpose remains a contentious topic, with some theories suggesting it was used to knit gold chains, or (jokingly) as a dog treat dispenser.

However, Parker and many academics have proposed that the artifacts held religious or ritual meanings, possibly linked to local practices on the fringes of the ancient empire.

They suggested that the relic was deliberately buried where it was found, alongside a figurine of a godlike figure riding a horse, often linked to places of worship.

Parker and his organization plan to visit the excavation site again this year to better understand how the area was used.

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