The World Today for June 10, 2024

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Becoming Besties

KENYA

Western influence on the African continent has been waning in recent years, with many countries moving toward China and Russia, often after military coups have overthrown democratically elected leaders – for example, in Niger and Mali.

Kenya, however, has been an outlier, a steady friend.

As a result, the country recently became the first sub-Saharan African country to become a major non-NATO ally of the US, reported the BBC. The announcement was made when Kenyan President William Ruto visited President Joe Biden in Washington in late May, the first African state visit to the American capital in more than 16 years, added the South China Morning Post.

The shift reflects the East African country’s increasingly large role on the world stage.

For more than a decade, Kenyan troops have been fighting al-Shabab, an Islamist terror organization with ties to al-Qaeda, in nearby Somalia, wrote the Council on Foreign Relations. An American military base on Kenya’s coast has played a key role in that counter-insurgency campaign.

Kenyan forces are being deployed to Haiti as part of a United Nations-backed peacekeeping effort to stabilize the country. While Kenya is a former British colony where English is the primary language, and Haiti is a former French colony where citizens speak Creole, as the Miami Herald explained, the optics of African rather than American or European forces landing on the island’s Caribbean beaches bears powerful symbolism.

Kenyan officials were also deeply involved in peace talks between Ethiopia’s central government and rebels in the country’s northern Tigray region, who have been fighting a civil war for two years, the East African newspaper reported. Ruto has also been overseeing talks between countries in the Great Lakes region of Africa, where fighting in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo has caused chronic instability.

Other international partnerships are flowering, too. Last year, for instance, Kenya hosted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for meetings on topics ranging from the fortunes of the global south, the civil war in Sudan, and green energy, wrote World Politics Review.

Ruto is intelligently using his country’s influence to garner more from China, whose leaders also want to curry favor with the ever-more-powerful country. China recently finalized $1 billion worth of loans for Kenyan infrastructure projects, for example, reported CNN. Analysts pointed to these investments as one reason why Biden extended his hand for military cooperation with Kenya. China also recently sent money to Kenya to help mitigate flood damage, China Daily added.

Rather than saying Kenya is picking sides, analysts said, one might posit that Kenya is playing a bit to both.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Light and Shadows

ISRAEL/ GAZA STRIP

Israeli forces freed four hostages taken by Hamas and its allies following an intense rescue operation over the weekend that has elicited cheers in Israel and among some world leaders, but condemnation from Palestinians and diplomats, NPR reported Sunday.

The hostages were kidnapped by Hamas and its allies at a music festival when they launched a surprise attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, among more than 240 others taken hostage and around 1,200 people killed.

Israeli military officials said the hostages were rescued from two separate locations in central Gaza, amid intense combat and airstrikes that leveled buildings. The fighting also resulted in the death of one Israeli police officer.

During the raid, 274 Palestinians were killed and 698 wounded, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry.

The rescue has been hailed in Israel as a “heroic operation,” with emotional reunions between the hostages and their families.

The freed hostages are among only seven people that Israeli forces have managed to rescue alive since fighting began in October.

Following Saturday’s operations, around 120 others remain in captivity, although Israeli army officials believe 41 of them are dead, according to Agence France-Presse.

The international community’s response has been mixed: US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz celebrated the hostages’ release, while also calling for a truce between the warring sides.

But European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the civilian casualties as “appalling,” urging an immediate end to the violence.

Meanwhile, Hamas claimed that other hostages were killed during the rescue and warned of worsening conditions for those still held captive.

Following the Oct. 7 attack, Israel launched a military campaign in the Palestinian enclave that has killed more than 37,000 people, according to Gazan health officials. The United Nations has also reported the development of a severe humanitarian crisis, with widespread devastation and displacement in Gaza.

Amid ongoing international pressure, Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced Saturday the suspension of coal exports to Israel over the latter’s actions in Gaza, the Associated Press wrote.

Petro declared that exports would resume only once the “genocide” in Gaza stops, referencing a draft decree and a recent International Court of Justice order for Israel to withdraw from the territory.

Colombia’s coal exports to Israel, worth over $320 million last year, constitute a major portion of the latter’s coal imports which are crucial for its power plants.

The Colombian government has also halted new military purchases from Israel, potentially impacting Colombia’s security efforts against drug cartels and rebel groups.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu also faces escalating internal pressure, especially from nearly weekly protests demanding the hostages be returned and his resignation.

On Sunday, Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz added to that pressure by resigning from the emergency government, saying the prime minister has prevented victory over Hamas, Axios reported. The move weakens Netanyahu’s hold on power and increases the pressure on the prime minister to accept a Gaza ceasefire proposal meant to bring home the hostages still held by Hamas.

Loud and Clear

EUROPEAN UNION

Far-right parties made major gains in the European Union’s parliamentary elections Sunday, dealing an especially humiliating defeat to French President Emmanuel Macron, who reacted by calling new elections in France for later this month, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The early returns showed the National Rally garnering around 31 percent of the vote, the highest score ever for the far-right party in European Parliament (EP) elections, and double what Macron’s Renaissance Party is projected to win.

In response, Macron said the country will hold new elections for the lower house of the French parliament on June 30 and July 7, a move that stunned the country.

That’s because Macron’s move to dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections is a massive political risk since his party could suffer more losses, hobbling the rest of his presidential term until it ends in 2027.

But he said it was necessary: “I’ve heard your message, your concerns, and I won’t leave them unanswered,” he said, adding that calling a snap election only underscored his democratic credentials.

In Germany, the most populous nation in the 27-member bloc, projections indicated that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) had overcome a string of scandals to increase its share of the vote to 16.5 percent, coming in second place – and ahead of the Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Meanwhile, the combined result for the three parties in the German governing coalition barely topped 30 percent.

In Italy, meanwhile, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni more than doubled her seats in the EP, the Associated Press reported.

Despite the big gains for the far right in the bloc’s largest countries, projections showed that the center parties mostly won elsewhere. Final results are expected over the next few days.

The four-day polls for 720 seats in the EP are the world’s second-biggest exercise in democracy. Turnout projections, however, were low – 52 percent.

Managing the Stage

IRAN

Iran’s Guardian Council on Sunday approved six candidates to run in the country’s presidential election later this month, weeks after President Ebrahim Raisi and seven others died in a helicopter crash, Radio Free Europe reported.

The candidates will include the conservative parliament speaker, Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, reformist lawmaker Masoud Pezeshkian and Saeed Jalili, a former negotiator for Iran’s nuclear program.

The council – a panel made up of jurists and clerics under the supervision of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – barred former firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who carried out brutal crackdowns following his disputed re-election in 2009, from standing.

It also blocked female candidates or anyone calling for radical change in the Islamic Republic, the Associated Press noted.

Candidates will have two weeks of campaigning to sway voters, although none of them have offered any unique proposals, the newswire wrote. All of them have promised better economic prospects as the country buckles under Western sanctions over its nuclear program.

At the same time, the government ordered strict guidelines for media coverage during the election campaign, including banning content that would discourage voters or inspire them to boycott the polls.

Analysts suggested that Qalibaf, a former military commander, appears to be the front-runner and has reportedly received support from Khamenei. Many Iranians remember Qalibaf for his involvement in a 1999 crackdown on Iranian university students and for ordering security forces to fire live ammunition at students in 2003.

The elections come amid rising tensions between Iran and the West due to Iran’s support for Russia in the Ukraine war and its backing of militia proxy forces across the Middle East. This spotlight has intensified as Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attack ships in the Red Sea amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.

President Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and others died in a helicopter crash on May 19 in northwestern Iran. Ongoing investigations have not yet found any evidence of foul play.

DISCOVERIES

A Big Cousin

There once walked (and swam) a giant thunderbird in Australia, standing more than eight feet tall and weighing about 36 stone (504 lbs or 228 kg).

Scientists had long thought the extinct animal, Genyornis newtoni, was an ancestor of emus and ostriches. But in the 1990s, paleontologists suggested it was a waterfowl.

Now, a nearly intact fossil skull, between 45,000 and 50,000 years old, has helped confirm that the flightless bird was in fact much closer to geese and ducks.

“Realizing it was an intact skull was just so satisfying,” Phoebe McInerney of Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, who led the study based on fossils unearthed between 2013 and 2019 at Lake Callabonna, told the BBC.

The skull find is the first time such a well-preserved fossil was unearthed since the species was first reported in 1872.

And upon examination, McInerney and her team found that the structure of the skull was almost identical to that of the South American screamers, another species of waterfowl.

“They also interestingly have features that allow them to open and close their jaw underwater … without impacting their hearing or (water) going up into their palate or nose,” the paleontologist told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. This was an unexpected discovery, she added.

McInerney and her colleagues wrote that their findings supported a genetic distinction of G. newtoni, arguing that the species should not be considered a close relative of Gastornithidae, another group of prehistoric birds.

Although they had a vegetarian diet, the big birds were probably “tough animals,” McInerney told New Scientist. “They would have been able to defend themselves and would have been quite overwhelming beasts,” she added.

Hunting and egg consumption by the First Nations people, who arrived in Australia about 65,000 years ago, contributed to the species’ extinction, though McInerney argued it would have died out anyway due to climate change.

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