The World Today for June 19, 2024

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MAURITANIA

In 2019, the former president of the West African country of Mauritania, Ould Abdel Aziz, respected his country’s term limits and quit his job – even though he came to power in a coup. It was the first successful, peaceful transfer of power ever in the country.

Now, many are wondering if his successor, President Mohamed Ould Cheikh Ghazouani, who won the 2019 general election, will continue this trend when Mauritania holds its presidential poll on June 22.

Polls show that Ghazouani is leading. But civil rights, government corruption, Islamist violence in neighboring Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel region, increasing tension with Mali, and the execution of numerous deals with foreign companies concerning energy and other natural resources, are all pressing issues and foremost on voters’ minds, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Meanwhile, as the Minority Rights Group explained, slavery still exists in Mauritania – and it remains a real issue, often tarnishing the country’s international reputation and lingering beneath the surface of domestic politics, World Politics Review wrote. While the government ostensibly has been cracking down on the practice, deep divisions between white or light-skinned citizens (Arabo-Berber, or “bidhan”), and Black (Afro-Mauritanian, or “haratin”), who are often not granted citizenship even though their families have lived in the country for generations, still run through Mauritanian society. Ghazouani belongs to the white community that has controlled the country since independence from France in 1960, but he has met with anti-slavery advocates.

Anti-slavery activist Biram Dah Ould Abeid, the son of a free slave, is running against the incumbent, ensuring these issues will be debated on the campaign trail, reported Agence France-Presse. Abeid came in second in the 2019 vote.

Former President Aziz, who is now in jail on embezzlement charges related to deals for offshore oil projects, sought to run against Ghazouani, but election officials rejected his candidacy, wrote the Agence de Presse Africaine. His incarceration reflects how the state bureaucracy is riddled with graft. Transparency International ranked Mauritania 130 out of 180 in its 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Ghazouani, incidentally, described Aziz as late as December 2019 as “my brother, my friend,” noted Al Jazeera.

Hamadi Ould Sid’ El Moctar, who leads an Islamist party now serving as a token opposition in parliament, is also running against Ghazouani. Muslim clerics have a history of suppressing Islamist violence in Mauritania, the United Nations explained. But Moctar’s party, the National Rally for Reform and Development, or Tewassoul, is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has stirred instability throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, critics said.

Regardless of who wins, more money might help the next leader to address Mauritania’s problems. Ghazouani has been making deals with BP and Kosmos Energy for the extraction of natural gas, the United Arab Emirates for green hydrogen production, and, as the Associated Press reported, mining critical minerals with South Korea.

Meanwhile, as Spain-based Atalayar noted, Mauritania is poised to become a major world gas producer, one of the largest in Africa, joining Algeria and Nigeria.

Nothing ensures peace better than prosperity, but even so, the next president will have a lot to do.

“Mauritania has enormous potential,” said Ousmane Mamadou Khane, minister of economy, providing a to-do list of what earnings from gas and other investments would target, essentially the basics: “(It would) meet the country’s huge needs in basic education, road infrastructure, water, sanitation and energy.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Becoming Besties

RUSSIA/ NORTH KOREA

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang for a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday, as the two countries attempt to deepen relations amid sanctions and escalating confrontations with the West, the Associated Press reported.

Wednesday’s visit marks Putin’s first trip to North Korea in 24 years.

Before his arrival, the Russian president praised North Korea’s support for his war in Ukraine and vowed to cooperate closely against US-led sanctions, according to a North Korean state media op-ed.

Putin also highlighted plans to develop trade systems free from Western control and to jointly oppose what he termed “illegal” sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union.

The two leaders are expected to discuss a number of issues, including economic assistance and technology transfers to bolster North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, in exchange for munitions to support Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Despite denials from both Pyongyang and Moscow, US and South Korean officials have accused North Korea of supplying Russia with military equipment – this would violate numerous United Nations Security Council sanctions that Russia itself previously approved.

The deepening military and economic exchanges have alarmed American and South Korean officials, who are monitoring potential impacts on the Korean Peninsula’s security.

Washington and Seoul officials expressed particular concerns about North Korean ballistic missiles being used against Ukrainian targets.

They also warned about the potential repercussions the Moscow-Pyongyang partnership could have on the Peninsula: Tensions in the region have flared in recent years, with intensified weapons tests by North Korea and increased military exercises by the US, South Korea and Japan.

Putin’s trip comes days after a Russian nuclear-powered submarine and other naval vessels departed Cuba following a five-day visit to the Caribbean island off the coast of Florida, according to Agence France-Presse.

The Kazan, a nuclear-powered sub reportedly not carrying nuclear weapons, docked in Havana last week. Around the same time, a US fast-attack submarine and a Canadian Navy patrol ship made port visits to the region.

With This Ring …

THAILAND

Thailand’s upper house of parliament on Tuesday passed a bill that will legalize same-sex marriage in the Southeast Asian nation, making it the third country in Asia to do so, CNN reported.

A majority of lawmakers voted in favor of a marriage equality bill that will grant LGBTQ couples the same rights and recognition as heterosexual ones. The draft law will extend welfare entitlements, tax benefits and rights related to inheritance and adoption.

The bill still needs approval from the Thai king, but this process is considered a formality. It is expected to take effect in 120 days.

LGBTQ advocates hailed the bill as “a monumental step forward for LGBTQ rights in Thailand,” with some couples hoping that the legislation will cause a “domino effect” in other countries.

Efforts to pass a marriage equality bill in Thailand had stalled in the past, with the country’s constitutional court ruling in 2020 that Thai law – which specifies that marriage is between a man and a woman – was constitutional.

Still, many major political parties, including Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s Pheu Thai Party, had vowed to push for a marriage equality bill during last year’s parliamentary elections.

Observers explained that the bill makes Thailand an outlier in a region that has been slow to give more rights to members of the LBGTQ community, who face discrimination and, in some cases, violence.

Currently, Taiwan and Nepal have legalized same-sex marriage in the past five years.

Meanwhile, the marriage equality bill comes as Thailand makes its third attempt to join the United Nations Human Rights Council, according to Nikkei Asia.

Bangkok lost its second attempt for a seat on the UN body following a 2014 military coup.

Now under civilian rule, Thailand is facing scrutiny over the imprisonment of political dissidents and youth activists under the country’s strict lèse-majesté laws that punish individuals insulting the royal family.

A Rocky Road

COLOMBIA

Colombia’s lower house of congress approved a pension reform plan proposed by President Gustavo Petro, handing a victory to the leftist leader who has faced fierce opposition from lawmakers over his flagship policies, Reuters reported.

Legislators voted in favor of the bill on June 14 after it was previously approved in the upper house. It is expected to take effect in July 2025.

The government said the changes will strengthen the state pension fund Colpensiones, expand subsidies for elderly Colombians living in poverty, and prevent competition between the public and private pension systems.

The reform also establishes a savings fund managed by the central bank to finance future pension compensation, potentially increasing demand for local peso bonds, according to Bloomberg.

It is one of the many ambitious policies that Petro – Colombia’s first left-wing president – has attempted to pass, but which have faced strong resistance from opposition lawmakers. The president is also pushing for health sector reform and to amend labor laws.

However, business analysts cautioned about the potential impacts Petro’s pension plan could have on capital markets and public finances.

Meanwhile, constitutional scholars told Bloomberg that the reform will be likely killed by the nation’s top court.

Under Colombia’s constitution, bills must be approved within two congressional periods, from July 20 to June 20 of the following year.

Due to delays, the ruling coalition rushed the reform bill through the lower house without debate to meet the deadline.

Some lawmakers claimed the move violated the constitution, with legal observers noting that the bill’s hasty approval without any discussion breached procedural rules.

This could potentially lead to a clash with the constitutional court, which typically takes seven to eight months to rule. Despite the law being set to take effect next year, the court could issue a stay to prevent it from taking effect.

DISCOVERIES

One Caw, Two Caws …

Carrion crows are not known for their beauty or love of song.

But they have more than their share of smarts.

Now, researchers have figured out that these birds can vocally count to four, according to a new study published in Science.

“Our results show that humans are not the only ones who can do this,” said lead author Andreas Nieder of the University of Tübingen in Germany in a statement. “In principle it also opens up sophisticated communication to the crows.”

These birds are known for their formidable learning ability, the authors of the study wrote. Earlier studies have already shown that the birds understand counting and have very good vocal control.

To see if the crows could go further, researchers conducted experiments with three carrion crows to see whether they could apply these abilities in combination by training them to respond to specific sounds and visual cues: For instance, a frequency sound required four caws, a drum roll three, a cash register klang two, and a guitar chord one.

In visual tests, the birds saw Arabic numerals on a screen and had to vocalize the corresponding number in caws. The birds would then tap the screen to indicate they were done and received mealworms as rewards for correctly counting.

The team came across some interesting findings: The crows were most accurate when vocalizing lower numbers, such as a 100 percent accuracy rate at counting one. That accuracy dropped to 50 percent when counting three and fell to 40 percent with four caws – the latter sometimes even annoying them to the point of refusing to count.

This reluctance and the longer reaction times for higher numbers suggest the crows engaged in mental planning before vocalization, explained Nieder.

“This indicates that, from the information presented to them, the crows form an abstract numerical concept which they use to plan their vocalizations before emitting the calls,” he said in a statement.

The study contributes to the body of work on how certain bird species can communicate numerical information.

A 2005 study on black-capped chickadees found that these birds adjust the number of “dee” sounds in their alarm calls based on predator size.

The authors are now planning to explore how crows might use their counting ability in natural settings, and identify which brain regions are involved.

“The avian lineage diverged from the primate lineage over 300 million years ago,” co-author Diana Liao told Popular Science. “It would be fascinating to see how different brains come up with similar behaviors.”

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