In brief: African news round-up

By Zachary Ochieng July 01, 2021

Your quick news round-up from across Africa, including the latest kidnap-ransoms in Nigeria, Burundi's thawing relations with the EU and the discovery of dead miners in South Africa.

 

Nigeria

Armed bandits kidnapped 80 students and five teachers from a school in the Nigerian state of Kebbi last month. The ambush was the third mass kidnappings in northwest Nigeria within three weeks. According to security agencies, the attacks are being carried out by armed bandits looking for ransom payments.

Usman Aliyu, a teacher at the school, told Reuters that the gunmen took more than 80 students, most of them girls. ‘They killed one of the police officers, broke through the gate and went straight to the students’ classes,’ he said.

According to Kebbi State police spokesman Nafiu Abubakar, the bandits killed one officer during an exchange of gunfire. A student was also shot but survived and was undergoing medical attention. Police had not released the exact number of missing students, by the time of going to press.

The attack took place at a federal government college in the remote town of Birnin Yauri. Abubakar told Reuters that security forces have been searching a nearby forest for the abducted students and teachers.

Atiku Aboki, a resident who went to the school shortly after the gunfire stopped, said the town had been gripped by panic and confusion as people searched for their children. ‘When we got there, we saw students crying, teachers crying,’ he told Reuters.

Since December last year, gunmen seeking ransom have kidnapped more than 800 Nigerian students from their schools in a series of raids. Some have been freed while others remain missing.

The raids in the northwestern region are not believed to be connected to the Islamist insurgencies centred on the northeast, where the Boko Haram militant group made global headlines in 2014 with the abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok.

South Africa

Police have discovered the bodies of 20 suspected illegal miners near an abandoned goldmine shaft southwest of Johannesburg.

In a statement, police said they had commenced investigations into the cause of the deaths, adding that the men’s bodies ‘were found wrapped in white plastic bags’ and bore ‘severe body burns’.

‘All the deceased are suspected to be illegal miners, commonly known as ‘zama zamas’, operating in obsolete shafts in Orkney and Stilfontein,’ said a police statement. The abandoned mines are just under 125 miles (200km) southwest of Johannesburg.

According to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), thousands of ‘zama zamas’ – Zulu for ‘those who try their luck’ – operate in the country. Most are in Johannesburg, South Africa’s commercial capital, which is built on some of the world’s richest gold deposits.

Police spokesperson Brigadier Sabata Mokgwabone told AFP in June that the bodies were discovered on different days. The first group was found outside a disused shaft. Then 14 more ‘decomposed bodies were found along Ariston Road near the railway line’.

Crime syndicates run most illegal mining. A 2018 report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime estimated that it costs South Africa more than $1 billion a year. The practice is extremely dangerous, with the risk of injuries and deaths from explosives, toxic fume inhalation, collapsing mine shafts and gang violence.

Between 2012 and 2015 more than 300 miners working in illegal mines are estimated to have died. There are 6,000 ‘derelict and ownerless’ mines managed by South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources.

Informal mining is not restricted to abandoned mines. In 2009, at least 82 men – thought to have been illegal miners – died in an underground fire at an active mine owned by Harmony Gold.

The SAHRC estimates that informal mining involved as many as 30,000 people in the decade to 2015. Some miners may spend as long as six months underground, living in makeshift underground villages where they can buy everything from basic foodstuffs and alcohol to sex.

South African police have opened up investigations into the 20 recent deaths.

Ghana

Human Rights Watch last month urged Ghana’s attorney general to drop charges against 21 human rights lawyers who face ongoing judicial harassment after attending a paralegal training session. The activists were charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ for attending a meeting on how to document and report human rights violations against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

‘The unlawful arrest and detention of human rights defenders simply for attending a training session on human rights is a stain on Ghana’s reputation,’ said Wendy Isaack, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. ‘The prosecutor should immediately abandon this appalling effort to punish activists for learning about human rights.’

On May 20, police arrested the 16 women and five men at a hotel where they were attending a paralegal training session by Rightify Ghana, a human rights organisation. Police justified the arrest on the grounds that the training session was promoting homosexuality and that the gathering was an unlawful assembly.

The Circuit Court and High Court denied three bail applications before the High Court finally granted bail. Danny Bediako, Executive Director of Rightify Ghana, told Human Rights Watch that the repeated bail refusals and prolonged detention may be a tactic ‘to punish and instil fear among LGBT+ individuals and human rights defenders’ and as a ‘political tactic to legitimise homophobic violence and support conservative members of parliament who are calling for further criminalization of same-sex conduct.’

In March, police raided a community centre for LGBT people following mounting pressure by religious and traditional groups against the centre, forcing it to close its doors.

In September 2020, the United Nations Human Rights Committee adopted a resolution urging countries to ensure that ‘laws and their interpretation and application do not result in discrimination in the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly for instance on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.’

Algerian elections.jpg

Above: Algerians went to the polls in June. Alamy.

Algeria

The National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria’s largest political party, won the most seats in last month’s parliamentary election. However, the party was unable to secure a majority in the 407-seat parliament, after netting only 105 seats instead of the required 204. The Islamist Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) party won 64 seats, and independent candidates took 78 seats in the June 12 poll.

Last month’s voting was meant to open the way to a ‘new Algeria’ according to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who has vowed to end corruption and give the North African nation a new face.

But the Hirak pro-democracy movement boycotted the elections, as did the traditional opposition parties. The turnout was estimated to be just 30 per cent, the lowest in at least 20 years for legislative elections.

The Hirak movement had called for a boycott after seven of its leaders were arrested ahead of the polls. In 2019, it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people to force long-time President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign after he launched a bid for a fifth term.

After a year-long break on protests due to Covid-19 restrictions, the movement returned to the streets in February, having also survived a campaign of arrests, a presidential election and a constitutional referendum partly aimed at burying it.

In May, however, the government stepped up its crackdown against Hirak, blocking protests and arresting hundreds of activists who have defied new restrictions on public gatherings.

Namibia/Botswana

Wildlife experts have warned that one of Africa’s largest elephant populations could be under threat if plans for a new oilfield in one of the continent’s last great wildernesses are approved.

The planned ReconAfrica oilfield, which will straddle the Namibia-Botswana border, would devastate regional ecosystems and wildlife as well as local communities, according to conservationists.

Rosemary Alles from Global March for Rhinos and Elephants told the Guardian that it is ‘incomprehensible that ReconAfrica’s hunt for fossil fuels is going ahead.’

She added: ‘Fewer than 450,000 elephants survive in Africa, down from millions not so long ago; 130,000 of these have established this region as a home range, and ReconAfrica’s plans place them at direct risk.’

The Canadian oil and gas company has leased more than 34,000sq km of land in the Kavango Basin. Seismic exploratory work has begun, and experts say the new oil field could be one of the biggest of recent years. ReconAfrica estimates that the ‘potential oil generated’ could be between 60 billion and 120 billion barrels, and worth billions of dollars to the regional economy.

The government of Namibia defended the plan, arguing that only ‘exploratory licences’ had so far been granted. It said the exploratory wells were not located in any ‘conservancy or environmentally sensitive area and will have no significant impact on our wildlife’.

However, scientists, environmentalists and local activists believe that the project could jeopardise critical water supplies and pose a threat to the Okavango Delta, a pristine wilderness and World Heritage Site in neighbouring Botswana.

‘Every element of this process – from new roads to drilling sites, refineries to terminals – will devastate the ecosystem and the local communities that depend on it for farming and fishing,’ Nnimmo Bassey, Chair of Oilwatch Africa and Director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation told the Guardian. Alles said vibrations from exploratory work are known to disturb elephants, and the increase in construction, roads and traffic would not only drive the animals away but also open the area up to poachers.

‘They avoid areas where there is any human activity, where there is noise and what they see as danger. This can drive them away from their ancient migratory routes and closer to villages and agricultural areas, leading to more human-elephant conflict.’

ReconAfrica defended the project, saying it will create jobs and huge economic benefits to the region without harming the environment.

A company spokesperson said: ‘We sincerely believe that the region’s stable energy industry can be developed in an environmentally and socially responsible manner that is accountable and supports the development and delivery of much-needed economic and social benefits, as well as funding investments in local wildlife and ecological conservation.’

Tunisia

Violent protests have rocked Tunis following the death of a man in police custody.

Last month saw several nights of demonstrations, which began in the working-class districts of Sidi Hassine and Séjoumi, and spread to other neighbourhoods of the Tunisian capital.

Police say a 32-year-old, Ahmed Ben Ammar, died in custody on June 8 after apparently ingesting marijuana. His family have accused the police of beating him to death – an allegation denied by Tunisia’s interior ministry.

In the protests that followed Ammar’s death on June 9, police were filmed beating a young man, who cannot be named. Footage of the assault rapidly went viral and has caused a furore, prompting condemnation from politicians of all stripes.

Tunisia’s president, Kais Saied, visited Sidi Hassine to express his anger over the brutality. The interior ministry, which has responsibility for the police, has said that any violations are perpetrated by individual officers and do not represent a systemic policy. The ministry said it had launched a programme to reform the security apparatus years ago.

But human rights groups, activists and people living in areas where protests are taking place say Tunisia’s police force is characterised by an endemic culture of violence that has not changed since the 2011 revolution that overthrew Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive regime.

‘The police here are dogs,’ said 33-year-old Mongi, who said he knew both the man who had died and the one who was beaten. He told the Guardian: ‘They’re different than they are in the richer areas. They’ve gotten worse since the revolution. Now they have less money, so they take it from the people.’

Tunisia has suffered ongoing unrest this year. During January protests, police arrested more than 2,000 people, most of them younger people from the poorer neighbourhoods of Tunis. Human rights organisations said that hundreds were subjected to ill treatment and torture.

Rights groups such as the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), have exerted pressure upon magistrates and lawyers involved in cases of alleged police abuse, and victims and witnesses have been threatened. Legal grievances launched in response to alleged transgressions are either ignored or disappear within the bureaucracy of the state, rights groups say.

Burundi

The European Union (EU) has announced it is in the process of removing financial restrictions on Burundi.

The EU suspended direct financial support to the Burundian government over human rights violations, following the unrest that followed the failed coup of 2015. Since 2020, under current President Evariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi has made efforts to restore rights and foreign relations, and had approached the EU to lift the ban.

Burundi’s president received the good news when he met the EU delegates last month in the political capital, Gitega. The EU's representative in Burundi, Claude Bochu, told BBC News that this was ‘a starting process to lift the ban on Burundi’.

However, rights groups last month wrote to the EU deploring ‘widespread impunity for past and ongoing serious human rights violations’ in the country.