President Buhari has launched a new security initiative to end piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. By Francis Ezem in Lagos.

Fifty years after the death of Dick Tiger, Emeka Chigbu talks to the son of the late sporting legend about boxing, Biafra, and how the sportsman’s political views robbed him of a place in the history books.

Nigerians may claim the British heavyweight champ Anthony Joshua as their greatest ever boxing star. In reality, though, that title belongs to another sportsmen, with an equally disputed nationality: Richard Ihetu. 

Popularly known as Dick Tiger, Ihetu rose from very humble beginnings trading empty bottles in Nigeria's old Eastern province, to the pinnacle of the boxing world in the 1950s and 60s, conquering both the middleweight and light heavyweight division.  

Born in 1929 in Nkwerre-Amaigbo in today’s Imo State, Ihetu moved with his family to the ancient city of Aba, where he grew up.  

As a young man his interest in boxing was sparked after Gordy Uzoaro formed a boxing club in the city, which Ihetu joined, quickly excelling in the sport. Richard Ihetu's trajectory in boxing got a boost when he came in contact with renowned British boxing scout and promoter Bobby Diamond, who propelled the young Ihetu from his adopted home of Aba to Calabar, Lagos and finally London. In his path lay several boxing titles, culminating in the British Commonwealth Middleweight Champion belt. 

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Ihetu fought over 80 professional bouts, notching up 60 wins, including 27 by knock-out, as well as three draws and 19 losses.

It led Ring magazine to name him Boxer of the Year in 1962 and 1965 while the Boxing Writers’ Association of America declared him Fighter of the Year in 1962 and 1966. World fame, surely, beckoned.  

In 1962, Dick Tiger moved from the Commonwealth Middleweight title into the World Middleweight division and won the World Middleweight title after beating Gene Fuller. In another feat of extraordinary ability, he moved from the middleweight into the light heavyweight division in 1966, and won the World Boxing Association Light Heavyweight title when he defeated Jose Torres. 

But despite rising to the top of his sport at a time when a newly independent Nigeria was trying to make a name for itself on the world stage, the Easterner found himself shunned by his fellow Africans. 

In the heat of the Nigeria-Biafra conflict, Dick Tiger switched allegiance from Nigeria, under whose flag he had fought in the past, identifying with his Igbo race and the breakaway republic of Biafra instead. He was appointed a Biafran ambassador by the separatist government and began to march to ring side bearing Biafra's rising sun tricolour.  

The boxing legend's oldest son, Richard Ihetu Jr, described the move as a ‘diplomatic coup’ by his father, which he did to highlight the 'injustice done to the Igbo' and other Easterners during the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. 

A proud Biafran, his father returned his CBE to Britain, accusing the former colonial power of being unjust in its support of Nigeria, which had been complicit in ‘genocide against his Igbo compatriots residing in their south eastern Nigeria homeland' according to his son. 

It was during the Biafra war, in 1968, that Dick Tiger lost his light heavyweight title to Bob Foster in a knockout – the first knockout loss of his boxing career. Many attributed the loss to the pressure he was under as a result of the conflict. But, according to Ihetu Jr, his father acknowledged that the ‘better fighter’ won on the night.  

Despite such setbacks, Ihetu, who died aged 42 in December 1971, achieved heights no other African has done in professional boxing.

He was the first African to be inducted into the international boxing hall of fame. And in 2002 was voted one of the greatest fighters by Ring magazine, coming in 31st, ahead of global icons including Joe Frazier, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. 

Nigel Collins, editor-in-chief of Ring said: ‘If there was ever a neglected hero who deserved a biography, it is former middleweight/light heavyweight champion Dick Tiger.’ 

It appears that you really can have your cake and eat it as Dick Tiger found out when he became the Middleweight champion of the world. London, England.jpg

Though he attained global fame as a young fighter, Ihetu was a quintessential family man, with a wife and eight children.

And while he never earned big money like today's fighters – Ihetu worked as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after retiring from boxing – he managed to develop a portfolio of investments before the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war and eventually used that money to move back to the city where his boxing career began. Some members of his family still reside in Aba today, including his son Richard Ihetu Jr, who laments that the city his father loved so much is yet to recognise and honour his boxing legacy. 

He told NewsAfrica that his father would be disappointed by the ‘poor state of boxing and sports facilities’ in Aba.

Fighters of Nigerian origin may be making waves in global boxing today, but potential home-gown boxing stars have been left largely left 'undiscovered', Ihetu Jr said. 'Boxing clubs no longer exists in the region and up-to-date sports facilities are completely lacking’.  

He questioned how many how many more Dick Tigers the nation could have produced had it invested in young sporting proteges, like the UK did when it propelled Joshua to success as part of its Team GB Olympics squad. Adding that with more than 70 per cent of Nigeria’s 200 million population aged between 18 to 35, the country has the potential to more than punch above its weight on the international stage.

Food safety has come under scrutiny in Nigeria after an alleged poisoning killed 10 people and hospitalised 400 in Kano state.

Residents of Kano state, northwest Nigeria, woke up to the news of a strange illness on March 16, that has left since gone on to leave 10 dead, 400 people hospitalised and at least 50 people suffering kidney-related infections, according to latest reports.

Most of the victims, thought to have been poisoned after consuming a flavoured powdered drink, were from six villages in the Rogo local government area of the state. The victims were reportedly rushed to the area’s primary health centre after passing excessive blood urine and vomiting.

The situation got worse as local healers and medicine stores were overwhelmed in some of the rural communities, including Unguwan Rijiyan Dadi, Gwanwan Gabas, Gwangwan Yamma, Unguwar Tsarmai, Gangare and Unguwar Kofar Fada.

But the country’s food regulatory body, the National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), has insisted there is no cause for concern, saying many of the products had been mopped up from the various local markets in the affected areas.

Professor Mojisola Adeyeye, Director General of NAFDAC, also disclosed that the alleged merchants of the dangerous drinks had been apprehended. Adeyeye assured that the agency would stop at nothing to ensuring that only safe food and other regulated products were available in the market for consumption and use.

She said that the preliminary result of the agency’s investigation had been submitted to Kano’s state governor, Abdullahi Ganduje, during her two-day visit to Kano to assess the incident.

She added that the alleged ‘merchants of the deadly chemicals and additives had been apprehended while further investigation continued’.

Despite such assurances, there are fears that the problem of food poisoning might affect food security, not only in Kano State but also across the federation, if adequate care was not taken to nip this problem in the bud.

Proponents of this school of thought have argued that, given the fragile nature of Nigeria’s food supply chain, such incidents might hamper food safety and security in the country if not promptly addressed.

The Commissioner for Health, Dr Aminu Tsanyawa, gave an update on the emergency situation at the end of April, revealing that the death count had risen from three to 10.

She also disclosed that an additional 50 people that consumed the flavoured drink were undergoing kidney-related checks at various hospitals. At the time of press, the total number of people thought to have been hospitalised by the drinks stood at 400.

But food experts insist that the poisoning in Kano was an isolated case that affected only a few local government areas and not even the entire state.

Speaking anonymously, a top official at one of the multi-national food companies located in Lagos said that the issue of food safety or security does not arise in this instance since it happened in a few towns in Kano.

‘The issue of recent food poisoning in Kano is just an isolated case and cannot be generalised to affect food safety and security,’ said the source. ‘Such fears should have been genuine if it extended to other cities or states in the country.

‘But a more germane issue is for NAFDAC to speed up the process of inspecting food premises for licenses and permits, which are currently fraught with delays caused by corruption on the part of some officials, who demand kickbacks before the necessary documents are processed, especially for small- and medium-scale enterprises.’

Some experts have also fingered the high inflation rate in the country, which has placed popular food and drink brands beyond the reach of average citizens, as a causative factor.

They argue that since many cannot afford the popular brands, they tend to resort to the cheaper brands, which have a higher propensity to be associated with poisoning.

As a new Netflix documentary puts illegal fishing under the spotlight, Britt Collins reveals the devastating impact China – and the EU’s – supertrawlers are having on Africa’s coast.

While West Africa has been pre-occupied with the pandemic, its waters have been secretly plundered by Chinese trawlers.

Though Chinese and European supertrawlers have been moving untracked in the continent’s seas for decades, taking advantage of the weak government enforcement, encroachment has intensified over the past few years, exhausting wild fish stocks, polluting the continent’s waters and seriously threatening food insecurity for poor coastal communities.

‘Africa’s waters have become a free-for-all,’ said Ali Tabrizi, the British filmmaker whose hit Netflix documentary Seaspiracy uncovered shocking revelations about the multi-billion-dollar seafood industry.

‘West Africa is home to one of the last strongholds to life in our oceans, teeming with rare marine wildlife, a refuge for mating and feeding. These massive trawlers are like floating slaughterhouses.

China, in particular, is invading the waters of other countries without detection and stealing the fish.’ 

‘Since the WHO declared Covid-19 as a pandemic, we've assisted our government partners around the continent of Africa to arrest 17 vessels for illegal fishing, three in Benin, two in Gabon, six in the Gambia and six in Sierra Leone,’ said Captain Peter Hammarstedt, the director of campaigns at Sea Shepherd, a global marine conservation charity.

‘Of those vessels, all but one were either flagged to the People’s Republic of China or had beneficial ownership [there].’

The plundering of the African coastline is just the continuation of centuries of exploitation of the continent’s natural resources.

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Subsidised Chinese and European Union (EU) fishing fleets are cornering one of the most pristine, wildlife-rich seas, wiping out countless fish species and killing thousands of dolphins and whales as bycatch.

About 200 of Europe’s taxpayer-funded fleets are currently prowling its shores, via the EU’s opaque ‘Sustainable Fishing Partnership’ agreements – denounced by politicians as little more than license to steal from some of the most impoverished communities on earth.

The EU, alongside Japan and China, is one of the world’s top three fishing subsidisers.

These massive government incentives given to an industry keep prices artificially low that means local business can’t compete. 

Without subsidies, these distant-water fleets wouldn’t be economically viable. 

Long accused of ‘looting’ Africa for oil, precious metals and the endangered wildlife its safari industry relies on – rhinos, elephants, lions — China is by far the worst offender of illegal fishing, plundering the continent’s seas with its vast armada of super trawlers (pictured below in Zhoushan, China, in 2011).

In the belly of the beast - Trawlers in Zhoushan, China, August 4, 2011.jpg

Just one of these industrial trawlers can have a colossal impact, capturing over 12,000 tons of fish a week – more than twice the sustainable catch for a country like Liberia, Mauritania or the Gambia. 

As the world’s biggest seafood exporter, China accounts for more than a third of all global fish consumption.

Having long exhausted the dwindling reserves in the South China Seas, the Chinese fleets have been moving further out to sea in recent years to exploit the distant waters of other nations, particularly along the West African coast. It has forced out local fishermen and ravaged the region’s once-abundant stocks.

Captain Paul Watson, environmental activist and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, warned that the crisis in West African waters will have dire implications for the entire planet.

‘We’re strip-mining life from the sea. Marine eco-systems are collapsing and that will lead to the inability of oceanic eco-systems to support life on this planet.’ 

What this massive die-off means for the future, he said, ‘is a rise in piracy by impoverished African fishermen just like the situation in Somalian waters. It will mean a rise in poverty and starvation in these affected countries and it will lead to social chaos and possibly violent revolution.’ 

Fisherman off West African coast.jpg

West Africa, with its rich marine biodiversity, is a hotspot for what is known in the industry as Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing.

Europe and Asia have been benefitting at the expense of some of the poorest nations, where enforcement tends to be weaker as governments lack the resources to police their waters.

Such illegal fishing is estimated to cost West African countries about $2.3bn each year. IUU fishing in West Africa accounts for 40 percent of all illegal fishing globally.

Senegal, which has an exclusive economic zone of around 200 nautical miles (370km) teeming with a diversity of species from sharks, tuna and swordfish, is one of the African states most targeted by foreign pirate fishing fleets from Europe and Asia. 

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has taken on a daring mission to end this.

The international non-profit, set up in 1977 by Paul Watson, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, focuses on the protection of marine wildlife using aggressive yet non-violent tactics, that have shut down hundreds of illegal operations. 

In a sweeping effort to crack down on trespassing foreign vessels and illicit activities, Sea Shepherd has partnered with eight African coastal and island states to conduct joint at-sea patrols.

Recently, in less than two days, armed Sierra Leone Navy sailors stationed on board the Sea Shepherd ship Bob Barker carried out a series of at-sea raids on illegal fishing vessels in the waters of Sierra Leone, detaining five trawlers, almost all of them Chinese-flagged, for fishing without a license or in the inshore exclusion zone reserved for artisanal fisherman.

As Captain Hammarstedt explained: ‘Sea Shepherd provides a vessel that operates as a civilian offshore patrol vessel along with fuel and a ship's crew. The government partner provides the law enforcement agents with the authority to board, inspect and arrest illegal operators.

'Offenses range from fishing without a license or in a prohibited area (either a marine park or an inshore exclusion zone reserved for artisanal fishers) to fishing using prohibited gear; to the taking of endangered species such as sharks and rays; and to other convergence crimes, such as fraud, forgery and tax evasion.

'To date, 68 vessels have been arrested through these partnerships.’

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Seaspiracy star and director Ali Tabrizi joined the Sea Shepherd during one of their sea patrols off the west coast of Africa and documented the illegal fishing on an industrial scale in his vivid exposé.

‘West Africa is like a gold rush for countries, especially China, where they’ve already depleted their own local stocks, and are using more and more sophisticated technologies. It’s here that the intersection of wildlife loss, international corruption and human impact are most clearly seen.’

Lamya Essemlali, the French-Moroccan campaign coordinator and president of Sea Shepherd France, believes West Africa’s fisheries are at serious risk of collapse from the Chinese fleets. 

‘It’s the area of the world most targeted by illegal fishing. Most of the fish stolen from Africa ends up on the plates of much richer countries that otherwise applaud themselves for the crumbs of charity that they throw to African nations.

‘Countries like Senegal do not need charity, but rather the kind of justice possible only through effective law enforcement patrolling.’ 

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Some African countries are starting to assert themselves.

Senegal and Liberia’s decision to deny fishing permits to Chinese industrial trawlers last year marked a turning point in the region. But incursions by Chinese supertrawlers are getting more frequent and aggressive.

Trawlers are destroying the coral reefs that aquatic animals rely on to live and breed, and, in the process, contributing to ocean acidification, warmer seas and reduced oxygen levels in the water. 

Severe overfishing and destruction of the reefs is also ravaging coastal communities that depend on these waters for their livelihoods and survival.

‘The fishermen, who’ve lived here since time immemorial, are starving,’ said Tabrizi.

‘They’re risking their lives going further out in the ocean in small canoes, without life vests, because the illegal commercial fishing vessels are scooping up all the fish. West African canoe fisherman now have the highest mortality rate of any job on the planet.’ 

Unloading the catch at Kayar, Senegal's largest fishing harbour. Alamy.jpg

Such intensive fishing operations are not only wiping out the fish, but also destroying economies, according to the film director.

‘One of the causes of the Somalian pirates was actually illegal fishing. They were once humble fishermen working to feed their families. But when Somalia fell into civil war, foreign fishing vessels, the real pirates of the ocean, invaded their waters and began taking fish, giving Somali fisherman no choice but to move into another line of work.’ 

Interestingly, the EU likes to boast about its role in monitoring and thwarting unregulated fishing in the region, but it continues to be part of the problem.

With its multibillion-euro fish subsidies paid for by the bloc’s taxpayers, it helped create the Somali pirates.

As the Somalian civil war broke out and warlords scrambled to rule, the longest coastline in continental Africa, at over 2,000 miles (3,300 km), was unprotected, and illegal foreign trawlers moved in, stealing millions of tonnes of fish.

Even before the country collapsed in 1991, foreign vessels were routinely encroaching on their coast to fish.

The piracy started off as a protest against foreign fleets coming in and trying to take back control of their waters.

Beyond Somalia, the effect of foreign trawlers on the indigenous African fishing industry has been catastrophic, with over half the fish stocks along the coast between Nigeria and Senegal categorised as ‘overfished’.

There are also widespread reports of local fishing nets being cut by foreign trawlers, who unload their enormous catch directly onto container ships where they are transported back to Europe or Asia, bypassing inspections. 

West African governments have been urged to band together to protect millions of Africans and their fragile economies from the ceaseless onslaught.

According to Tabrizi, the key lies in ending harmful subsidies, which he said is ‘propping up one of, if not the most, destructive industries on earth – to the tune of $35bn a year. It’s unacceptable, especially as, according to the United Nations, $30bn would solve world hunger.’ 

A committed vegan, Tabrizi believes the single most effective thing individuals can do to protect the reefs from trawlers is to stop eating fish and seafood.

It’s a view echoed by the Sea Shepherd’s Paul Watson, who added: ‘There’s no such thing as sustainable fishing. The amount of fish being taken out of the ocean is absolutely stunning, five million fish a minute.’

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Foreign liners may continue to enjoy exclusive rights over Nigeria’s crude oil exports. But, as Francis Ezem reports, Nigerians may soon be able to get in on the act.

Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest producer of crude oil, extracting an estimated 2.7 million barrels a day before the pandemic cut demand and prices alike. But more than 60 years after the launch of commercial oil production, the country is yet to benefit from the equally lucrative business of actually shipping the crude oil it generates.

Oil accounts for the majority of Nigeria’s exports and foreign exchange earnings, but the shipping of oil has, inexplicably, remained an exclusive honey pot only available to foreign tanker owners.

The reason is Nigeria’s adoption of a so-called Free on Board (FOB) trade policy, under which a seller – such as the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation – has an obligation to deliver goods on board a vessel designated by the buyer.

Under FOB rules, the seller is only responsible for any loss or damage up to the time of shipment, with the shipping company assuming liability in case of a spill or sinking during export.

Such deferred risk may have served the fledging country well when it was still finding its feet in the 1960s and 1970s.

But experts say Nigeria’s shipping industry would grow much faster, creating a lot more jobs and boosting much-desired foreign exchange inflows, if it switched to the riskier yet more lucrative Cost, Insurance and Freight (CIF) model, which is currently used on non-oil imports, such as agricultural products.

Under FOB trade terms, Nigeria has no reasonable control over the delivery of its crude oil in terms of carriage, insurance and other ancillary services.

Under the CIF arrangement, however, the country will maintain ample control over the distribution of crude oil, which can be leveraged to enhance the competitive advantage of indigenous shipping operators.

Yet successive governments have not shown sufficient political will to reverse these trade policies, through which the country has lost huge sums of revenue needed to develop its fledging economy.

Statistics show that in 2019, Nigeria retained only five per cent of the $5 billion annual freight earnings that accrued to the country through shipment of oil and gas and other marine-related activities, while 95 per cent went to foreign shipping companies.

Records also show that more than 5,307 vessels call at Nigeria’s eight seaports annually and none are indigenously owned, due to the FOB and CIF policies.

It was in a bid to curtail these staggering economic losses that the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) initiated talks with the NPPC to reverse the policy. Bashir Jamoh, Director General of NIMASA, said that the CIF model would help develop indigenous shipping capacity as well as boost foreign exchange inflows, which the country needs to stem the worsening rate of capital flight and depleting foreign reserves.

‘Since 2018, NIMASA has championed moves for a review in the terms of trade with regards to shipment of Nigeria’s crude oil, from FOB to CIF, to ensure greater benefits for the country from its oil resources,’ revealed Jamoh.

‘A technical committee involving NIMASA, NNPC and other stakeholders would be set up to develop a template for the desired change, with workable timelines.’

Captain Emmanuel Iheanacho, who is chairman of the petroleum marketing firm Integrated Oil and Gas, as well as the managing director of Genesis Worldwide Shipping, said that by using FOB policy for Nigeria’s oil export and CIF for all imports, the country loses in all the three components of the trade, thereby creating wealth and job opportunities for foreign countries.

According to him, Nigeria loses in terms of the freight components of the trade, through which lots of wealth and job opportunities would have been created for the country by engaging indigenous ship owners.

‘Nigeria also loses because it does not have the refining capacity, which would have also been a huge source of wealth creation for the economy.

‘Another area of loss to the country in the crude oil trade business is in the importation of the refined petroleum products, which foreigners also determine and control the shipment to the detriment of indigenous shipping companies.’

Umar Aminu, President of Nigeria Shipowners’ Association (NISA), believes that successive governments in the country have not shown sufficient political will to review the policy imposed by foreign ship owners.

He said that Nigeria remains the only member of OPEC that does not participate in the lifting of the crude and until this is reversed, the vast economic benefits in terms of job creation and foreign exchange inflows would continue to be elusive.

It was in a bid to curtail these confounding economic losses that the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), which had made unsuccessful efforts in the past, commenced fresh moves to reverse the policy.

Dr. Bashir Jamoh, Director General of the agency, who made the disclosure, insists that shipment of Nigeria’s crude oil exports based on CIF as against the current FOB, is more beneficial to the country, as it would help develop indigenous shipping capacity as well as boost foreign exchange inflows, which the country needs to stem the worsening rate of capital flight and depleting foreign reserves.

Under the current moves, the Director-General has initiated talks with Mele Kyari, the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation NNPC, and Billy Okoye, the Group General Manager, Crude Oil Marketing Division of the corporation.

Jamoh notes that Nigeria has for too long implemented the FOB policy for shipment of crude oil exports, which weighs against its economy.

‘Since 2018, NIMASA has championed moves for a review in the terms of trade with regards to shipment of Nigeria’s crude oil, from FOB to CIF to ensure greater benefits for the country from its oil resources. A technical committee involving NIMASA, NNPC, and other stakeholders would be set up to develop a template for the desired change, with workable timelines,’ Jamoh stated.

He also said that Nigeria would not derive maximum benefit in terms of creating wealth and job opportunities until it adopts the CIF trade term for the carriage of its crude exports.

Chad’s decision to withdraw its request for Unesco protection for the lake has raised questions among its neighbours, reports Zachary Ochieng.

In May 2017, the Chadian government applied to Unesco asking for Lake Chad to be named a World Heritage Site.

This application stemmed from the unique features of the lake’s ecosystem, and the nomination of the lake was expected to contribute to the conservation of its wetlands and oases, and help mitigate the desertification process in north-eastern Nigeria and the Chad Basin as a whole.

It is against this background that the recent request by Chad to withdraw its application continues to draw mixed reactions.

The move has been driven by oil exploration agreements signed by the Chadian government and various companies.

Unesco has said that its rules do not provide for the suspension or withdrawal of an application but, in a blow to conservationists, the process will be cancelled nonetheless by Unesco once Chad begins oil exploration, as the lake will no longer qualify for World Heritage Site status once drilling begins.

The cancellation would mean loss of the prestigious status symbol that comes with the listing, not to mention various socio-economic benefits, including donor funding for conservation projects.

Research has shown that World Heritage status can have a major socio-economic impact.

A 2015 report by the UK National Commission for Unesco found, for instance, that projects in Scotland generated an estimated £10.8 million ($15 million) a year, thanks to their association with Unesco.

Perhaps more significantly, though, is the financial impact the failure to protect the shrinking lake will have on local communities.

The region around Lake Chad has been wracked by conflict, rapid population growth and severe vulnerability caused by the effects of climate change, environmental degradation and poverty.

While the lake itself may border four countries — Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon – the wider Lake Chad ‘Basin’ covers almost eight per cent of the continent, including parts of distant Algeria, Libya and the Central African Republic.

One of the most unstable regions in the world, the countries around the lake are among the 10 ‘least peaceful’ in Africa, according to the 2020 Global Terrorism Index Report.

Abdallah Ibrahim, Director, East Africa Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, told NewsAfrica that the dire economic situation in the countries bordering Lake Chad was a major driving force behind the instability in the region.

‘Widespread unemployment and rampant corruption within the political elite has prompted some young people in the region to join [Islamist terror group] Boko Haram,’ said Abdallah.

‘The acts of violence committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria have spread to areas of the neighbouring Sahel countries in the Lake Chad Basin, specifically Cameroon, Chad and Niger, causing devastating effects on food security and livelihoods.’

He added that Boko Haram attacks weakened the economy of the region, as its members destroy agricultural crops and infrastructure, and block roads, making it difficult for merchants to transport their goods. These measures have catastrophic effects on food security in a region that largely depends on agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry.

A study by Centre for Peace and Security Studies at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology, found that loss of livelihoods has promoted criminality, easy recruitment by terrorist groups and migration to urban centres.

Children displaced by Boko Haram violence

Meanwhile, management of the shrinking lake has caused conflicts among the states that depend on it and this has made it more difficult for them to collectively fight insecurity in the region.

The lake is central to regional stability, according to the Centre for Peace Studies, which said that countries should focus on reviving the lake rather than military activities.

Once the world’s sixth largest inland water body, with an open water area of 10,000 sq miles (25,000 km2) in the 1960s, Lake Chad began shrinking dramatically in the 1970s, and is now less than 10 per cent of its original size.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned in 2009 that the lake could dry up permanently in the near future.

This followed a similar warning by the US National Space Administration (NASA) that the continued decline of the lake water may lead to the disappearance of its area completely in the next 20 years.

A Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) report, published in 2006 by UNEP, states that though the lake has dried out several times in the past, the trend has been severely exacerbated now by the construction of dams upstream of the catchment, without considering its impact on the people and ecosystems downstream.

Also contributing to the lake’s receding water levels is declining rainfall, rising temperatures and increased uncertainty in the timing of the rains.

While the unique geographical feature that allows the lake to split into the two smaller pools also makes it more vulnerable to water loss.

Saheed Babajide Owonikoko, a researcher at the Centre for Peace and Security Studies, said the shrinking of the lake contributes to regional instability in several ways.

One of the main consequences has been a rise in criminal activities, including cattle rustling by people struggling to survive.

‘It’s easy to move cattle over the country borders in the area to evade arrest,’ said Owonikoko, who noted how the activity can then bring the same people into the orbit of Boko Haram.

‘Contemporary rustling has been associated with Boko Haram, who resort to cattle rustling as additional means of raising funds in support of their operations.’

He said that Boko Haram has capitalised on the loss of livelihoods and economic woes in the Lake Chad region to recruit people into its ranks.

He also noted how the drying up of the lake has led to the long-distance migration of people and livestock to cities and rural communities further south.

This has led to competition for resources between the newcomers and the original inhabitants in those regions, exacerbating Nigeria’s ongoing farmer-pastoralist conflict. Between 2016 and 2019, almost 4,000 people died in Nigeria as a result of communal strife between villagers and Fulani herdsmen originally from the Lake Chad region.

‘As the lake has shrunk, the water has shifted towards Chad and Cameroon while the Nigerian and Nigerien sides have dried up,’ said Owonikoko.

‘This forces people to cross national borders to reach the shoreline. Respect for boundaries disappears. A complex web of social, economic, environmental and political issues spills into interstate conflicts.

This conflict relationship, caused by access to and management of the lake, has seriously affected the collective effort of the region’s states to fight Boko Haram.’

But all is not lost.

The Lake Chad Basin countries have stepped up efforts aimed at mitigating the crisis, including a military offensive against Boko Haram.

Efforts are also being made to end the violent conflict between herders and farmers over water and pasture.

Of importance, though, are attempts to find a lasting solution to the drying of the lake, a major cause of poverty in the region.

An ambitious plan to restore the lake to its former glory involves a multibillion-dollar project that will channel water from the Ubangi River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1,500 miles (2,400km) from the lake.

A feasibility study was launched in 2018 to look at the proposal.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari is leading efforts to restore the lake, supported by the eight countries that are members of the Lake Chad Basin Commission, an international regulatory body.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019, Buhari raised concerns over the receding lake, telling delegates: ‘Lake Chad is shrinking while the population is exploding.

'It’s a challenging situation. With less land, less rainfall, these are very unique problems for the country.’

Following this, the UN has in the last two years co-hosted two back-to-back international donor conferences, the first in Oslo, where donors pledged $672 million in emergency assistance, followed by another one in Berlin, where donors announced $2.17 billion, including $467 million in concessional loans, to support activities in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

Crucially, the discovery of oil in the region poses a major dilemma for all countries bordering the lake.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) reportedly struck oil in November 2015, but it has been unable to capitalise on the potential windfall because of the presence of Boko Haram insurgents.

However, the Nigerian Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Chief Timipre Sylva, said in November 2020 that exploration would soon recommence.

The announcement has alarmed conservationists and human rights’ groups alike, with the Business and Rights Resource Centre warning Nigeria has proven ‘incapable of protecting oil pipelines from theft and ensuring that oil extraction does not harm local ecologies and communities’ at its existing oil and gas fields in the south of the country.

Meanwhile, with a border dispute that led to skirmishes in the 1970s still unresolved between Chad and Nigeria, finding a solution to the Lake Chad crisis is likely to be anything but plain sailing.

It’s the airborne delivery service that’s transformed healthcare provision in Ghana and Rwanda.

While many people might think companies like Amazon will be the first to start with drone delivery services, few realize the technology has already been in use in Africa for several years - and for a far greater purpose.

Medical start-up Zipline has been using drones to deliver life-saving medicineand blood transfusions in Rwanda for four years and in Ghana for nearly two years.

And the US company is set to expand its drone-delivery service to Kaduna in Nigeria. 

The service will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from three distribution centres – each equipped with 30 drones – and will deliver to more than 1,000 health facilities serving millions of people across the populous Nigerian state. 

The Silicon Valley-based logistics company has also started to play a growing role in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Ghana, Zipline began delivering Covid-19 test samples collected from patients in more than 1,000 rural health facilities to labs in the country’s two largest cities, Accra and Kumasi.

The service allowed the government to monitor and respond to the spread of the disease in some of the country’s most remote and difficult-to-reach areas, and reduced testing time from days to hours in some cases. 

In Rwanda, Zipline worked with global health non-profit organisation Partners In Health to ensure that quarantined cancer patients, who were unable to travel to the hospital for care and consultation, could continue to receive their chemotherapy treatments during the height of lockdown. 

Meanwhile, in the US, Zipline launched the first long-distance emergency drone logistics operation for hospital pandemic response, transporting deliveries of personal protective equipment to frontline medical teams in Charlotte, North Carolina. 

Recently, the start-up announced a partnership with a major manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines to build an end-to-end distribution system that will see the company distribute the vaccines in the countries where it operates.

‘Where you live shouldn’t determine whether or not you get a Covid-19 vaccine,’ said Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo.

The drone company wants to help rural areas that have been hard hit by the coronavirus.

‘We can help health systems bypass infrastructure and supply chain challenges through instant delivery.’ 

The Covid-19 vaccine delivery service should help health facilities avoid the need for ultra-low-temperature freezers by receiving on-demand deliveries of the precise number of vaccines they require at any time, safely and compliantly within the required temperature profile.

‘We will build ultra-low freezers at all of our distribution centres. And we are developing special packaging that will help maintain safe temperatures in flight to allow the vaccine to be used within five hours,’ Justin Hamilton, Head of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Zipline, told NewsAfrica.

Zipline declined to specify its vaccine partner but said it has built a system that can deliver ‘all leading Covid-19 vaccines.’ 

It was initially thought that the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored in extreme cold temperatures of -70C, requiring special freezers. 

But recently, both companies announced that tests have shown that their coronavirus vaccine can withstand warmer temperatures, between -25C to -15C, which are at levels commonly found in pharmaceutical freezers and refrigerators. 

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‘This is good news for the world,’ Zipline’s Head of Communications said.

‘But we want to be in a position to deliver all vaccines at any temperature. They will still be a scarce commodity that needs to be distributed efficiently and effectively.’ 

A Pfizer spokeswoman said it supports Zipline’s efforts to expand access to vaccines and medicines to those in hard-to-reach geographies.

‘We share Zipline’s commitment to innovative solutions to ensure equity in the distribution of vaccines and medicines, she said, though she declined to specifically confirm a deal had been signed with Zipline.

Zipline expects to be ready to deliver Covid-19 vaccines in all the markets where it operates from next month.

The company’s fixed-wing, battery-powered drones navigate by GPS.

The unmanned aircrafts are able to carry 1.6 kg of medical supplies – about the weight of three pints of blood.

Through a very cleverly designed catapult-type system, the drone plane is accelerated to a 100km per hour (60mph) cruising speed in only 0.3 seconds. 

As take-off and landing are the most difficult stages of a flight, the drones don’t land on the designation but simply drop the supplies in an insulated cardboard box with a simple parachute, which afterwards can be thrown away.

Thanks to this system, clinics don’t need any infrastructure to sign up as a client or a distribution centre. 

Each aircraft can fly 160km (100 mile) roundtrip, in strong winds and rain, day or night, to make on-demand deliveries in 30 to 45 minutes on average.

A single distribution site can operate dozens of drones and supply an area of up to 20,000 square kilometres – or just under 8,000 square miles

Zipline says its drones have flown more than six million kilometres(3.5 million miles) and made nearly 400,000 deliveries in the last five years.

In Rwanda, the company’s drones transported a staggering 20 per cent of all the blood used in transfusions outside of Kigali, leading Zipline’s CEO, Keller Rinaudo, to describe the East African nation as a ‘role model’ for how the rest of the world’s health care systems may one day work.

As communities turn to militias for protection from rampaging herdsmen, Rosemary Udoh reports on the conflict tearing Nigeria apart – and asks what really lit the country ablaze.

Sunday April 16, 2019, will forever be remembered by the people of Numa in Nigeria’s Nasarawa state.

It was supposed to be a day of merriment for the family and friends of John Kabiru Ali and his wife Safaratu, who were going to the town’s Baptist church for a special thanksgiving and dedication for their new-born baby.

But for many in the congregation it would be their last day on earth.   

According to Samson Gamu Yare, a community leader of the Mada ethnic group in the north-central region, the celebration had moved from the church to the reception, where guests were enjoying food and music, when gunmen arrived and started shooting at the guests.

Seventeen people were killed in the ensuing bloodbath, including Safaratu and her three-month-old baby.  

Such attacks by so-called ethnic Fulani ‘herdsmen’ have been growing increasingly common over the past few years.

In recent weeks alone, the deteriorating security situation saw 11 people killed and a church burned to the ground during an attack on Christmas Eve, as well as at least two separate incidences of Christian priests being kidnapped and murdered by herdsmen in January.

In the southern state of Oyo, meanwhile, terrified villagers have turned to an ethnic Yoruba militant, Sunday Igboho, who has launched reprisal raids against the heavily armed herders throughout February.

It’s a potential tinderbox that has led to fears for Yorubas living in the Fulani-dominated north and other rural areas, as well as concerns for the future of Nigeria’s fragile federation.

The governor of the southern Ondo state, Arakunrin Rotimi Akeredolu, recently ordered Fulani herders from his region, as long-simmering tensions between farmers and pastoralists erupted across the country.

Though inter-communal conflict is nothing new in Nigeria and cuts across traditional sectarian divides – Igboho’s war on the Fulanis, for instance, was sparked by the December killing of a high-profile Muslim politician, while the Christian militant has been sought out by Muslim Igangans who are also been butchered by the herdsmen – attacks against Christian villagers, in particular, have become increasing common since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015, with up to 12,000 murdered and 2,000 churches destroyed during the period, according to Genocide Watch.

This has led some outside observers to accuse the president, a Fulani Muslim, of allowing a ‘genocide’ to be committed against Christians by the herdsmen.

Christian faithful hold signs as they march on the streets of Abuja during a prayer and penance for peace and security in Nigeria.jpg

Usman Stingo, a retired teacher and local politician in Kaduna, northwest Nigeria, said attacks on Christian in the area started exactly one year after the new government took over.

He said they have become increasingly routine over the past two years in particular, leaving many villages in the region completely deserted.

‘In one attack about 71 lifeless bodies were found, properties belonging to the villagers were looted, and some of the looted houses were set ablaze.’  

Recounting a recent attack on the Dogondoma community in Kaduna, the community leader said attackers break into three groups, with one group going house to house shooting civilians, while the second hides in the bush to gun down those who escape.

A third group will then go around the village setting fire to the houses.

The violence, which typically takes place between 3am and 5am when people are sleeping, is the work of Fulani-speaking Muslim herders, according to Stingo.   

‘One of the ways we know who they are is by their chanting ‘Allah is great’ repeatedly,’ he explained. ‘The moment you can identify yourself as a Muslim you are safe.’  

As well as the early morning raids on villages, insurgents have been known to throw up roadblocks, dragging people off buses and butchering anyone they suspect of being a Christian.   

Such brutal attacks have left behind thousands of traumatised victims, such as Peter, a 13-year-old, who described seeing his missionary parents slaughtered in their home.   

But while Muslim civilians are also routinely killed by the so-called ‘herders’ – as well as by outraged Christians in revenge killings – the situation is so severe that the UK-based organisation Open Doors, which investigates religious murders around the world, placed Nigeria 12th in a list of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution.   

The rebuke echoes a number of high-profile reports on the threat Nigerian Christians face outside their southern heartlands.

The Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, for instance, warned that more than 1,000 Christians were killed between January and November 2019, and estimated more than 6,000 had been between 2015 and 2019.  

A group of British parliamentarians warned that 7,000 Christian civilians had likely been murdered in the same period, and cited Fulani herdsmen for the violence, as well as jihadists from Boko Haram and the Islamic States in West African Province (ISWAP), another Islamist group that split off from Boko Haram in 2015.  

Coffins are prepared for burial during a funeral service for 17 worshippers and two priests, who were allegedly killed by Fulani herdsmen.jpg

‘One of the main drivers of this persecution in Nigeria is the militant group Boko Haram, who frequently abduct and kill those who refuse to conform to their extremist brand of Islam,’ explained the MP Jim Shannon, who chairs the unofficial group of British lawmakers.

‘Unfortunately, Boko Haram are not the only threat that Nigerian Christians face. Attacks by armed groups of Islamist Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians.’  

Well-armed and rarely obstructed by Nigeria’s security forces, the Fulani herdsmen have a long animosity with the settled Christian farmers in Nigeria’s north and Middle Belt. The conflict between the two groups led former US president Donald Trump to accuse his Nigerian counterpart of instigating a genocide against Nigerian Christians.   

President Buhari met Trump in Washington in 2018, and Buhari recently revealed that Trump had accused the Nigerian president of deliberately killing Christians.

Denying the allegation, Buhari apparently told Trump that the conflict had no religious element, and the friction between farmers and herders was caused by cultural matters alone.  

Attempts to downplay the violence as a herder-farmer conflict were met with outrage by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which described Buhari’s comments as insincere, adding: ‘It further confirms that the present administration does not care about the carnage in the country.’  

Meanwhile, high-profile Nigerian Muslims have warned church leaders to be mindful of the effects their comments could have on Muslim-Christian relations, and pointed out that Muslims are also being targeted by jihadists. More than 300 Muslim boys were kidnapped from their school in December by insurgents linked to Boko Haram. 

Released students gather at the Government House with other students from the Government Science Secondary school, in Kankara.jpg

‘The truth of the matter is that the gunmen killed both Christians and Muslims,’ said Lagos local business leader Alhaji Abdul Ghani Abdul Majeed.

‘It is therefore utterly misleading to say that only Christians were the target or to fault the response that the crisis was cultural and not religious. It is a disservice to always attempt to paint Muslims as enemies of Christians and vice versa.’  

For many Christians, though, Trump’s comments shone a welcome light on a conflict that has forced an estimated four to five million people from their homes and left thousands of mostly Christian villagers dead.  

The Nigerian human rights group Interscociety estimated that between 1,650 and 1,700 Christians were killed in religious violence in the first nine months of 2020 alone, with the majority of these – around 1,200 – killed by so-called ‘herdsmen’.   

Emeka Umeagbalasi, a lawyer and human right activist at Intersociety, believes the realities on the ground vindicate Trump’s genocide comments, and warned that there was a direct link between Fulani herdsmen and members of the ruling party.

‘After 1999, promoters of radical Islamism, including wealthy Northern Muslims, began to fund and radicalise Fulanis for the purpose of making the central government – which was then headed by a Southern Christian – ungovernable,’ said Umeagbalasi.  

Military commanders inspect arms and ammunitions recovered from Boko Haram jihadists on display at the headquarters of the 120th Battalion in Gonirijpg

He added that attacks by Fulani herdsmen had already begun in Plateau, Southern Kaduna and Benue states before the current government took charge, but said these had since spread across the country, including to some almost exclusively Christian regions in the southeast.   

A recent report by Intersociety found several examples where Fulanis ‘protected by the country’s heavily Muslim controlled military, have moved in and violently occupied’ parts of the Niger Delta – a region far from ancestral Fulani territory.   

Umeagbalasi’s view echo comments made by the Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, who openly accused Nigerian soldiers of ‘accompanying the herdsmen to massacre 14 rural Christians’ in his region last year.   

Meanwhile, a prominent human rights activist, Steven Kefas, said the Fulani conflict is directly linked to the war on Boko Haram, adding that the so-called ‘herdsmen’ were in fact ‘cells of Boko Haram’.  

Whether the raids are inspired by religious difference or merely part of a land grab by one group who just happen to be of a different faith, the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, said there had been a ‘regrettable failure’ on the part of the international community to hold the Nigerian authorities to account over the violence.

He also accused Buhari’s government of ‘negligence’ in addressing the violence that is ‘decimating communities, claiming thousands of lives, and driving people groups from their ancestral homes’.  

Governors from the north and south of the country got together recently to try to end the cycle of violence, agreeing on a ban on night-time grazing and a registration system to identify legitimate herdsmen from jihadists.

It may be promising news, but given Buhari and the security forces’ refusal to arrest known killers and stop the attacks, it may not be worth the paper it's written on.

While the West seems to have abandoned many of its basic democratic principles during the Covid-19 pandemic, in Africa governments have been voted out of office, lockdowns overthrown – and people have been taking to the streets in defence of civil rights. NewsAfrica examines whether 2020 marks a turning point for the continent – or yet another false dawn.

‘Nigeria will never be the same again, no matter how the #EndSARS protests end,’ the Nigerian journalist Cletus Ukpong told NewsAfrica.

He was referring to the ongoing mass protests that have rocked major Nigerian cities, including Lagos, Abuja, Abakiliki, Jos, Umuahia and many more.

The demonstrations were sparked in October by a viral video of a man allegedly being killed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

The controversial SARS unit of the Nigerian Police Force has a long history of abuse. But what started as demonstrations against police brutality grew into an enormous mass protest – the result of pent-up anger in the West African state over the dehumanising policies of government, maladministration, and the growing problem of hunger, joblessness and high energy prices caused by the Covid-19 lockdown.

And while Africa’s most-populated country may have witnessed such mass demonstrations before, including the ‘Occupy Nigeria’ protest in January 2012, many observers claim that the #EndSARS protests have been different.

Some even called them the ‘protests of the decade’.

EndSars protesters.jpg

‘No previous protests have been so massive and so widely supported by all segments of society,’ said Dapo Olorunyomi, co-founder, CEO, and publisher of the Premium Times, who was one of the four global winners of this year’s International Press Freedom awards.

‘In the past, you would see that parents would tell their children: please, don’t go out. But now, parents encouraged their kids to participate, despite of the danger,’ said the Nigerian.

Even religious leaders have endorsed the protests. In a recent statement, several bishops, including the head of the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, urged officials to listen to the protesters and added: ‘The audacity and impunity with which the SARS officials have been operating all the while is a manifestation of the failing state of Nigeria.’

The protests have also been remarkably well organised ‘in a way that Nigeria has never seen before’, according to Olorunyomi.

Arrangements have been made, for example, for food and water.

They have medical personnel on standby, ambulances and mobile toilets for convenience.

And the costs of the protests are being funded primarily through decentralised donations from Nigerians at home and abroad.

Local tech start-ups – most of which are led by young entrepreneurs – have also become prominent actors in the campaign, with donations for the firms being used to pay off hospital bills for those injured in protests.

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Like the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the #EndSARS movement is unique in that it has no clear leader or hierarchy driving it.

Yet, thanks to the use of online platforms, the activists have managed to quickly raise global support, including from celebrities like Kanye West and Beyoncé, ‘Star Wars’ actor John Boyega and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.

In Canada, England, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, the Nigerian diaspora has also organised protests in solidarity with their counterparts at home.

‘Nigerian youth were often seen as lazy and unthoughtful, a perception largely fuelled by the government,’ mused Olorunyomi.

‘Therefore, people were positively surprised by the way that these articulated, educated youth have been organising these protests.’

Several regional politicians soon endorsed the protests.

The Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum and Ekiti State Governor Kayode Fayemi, for example, stated that ‘there is nothing wrong in what the young people are doing. I think we should encourage them to ask more questions.’

And the Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, said that seeking an end to SARS’s brutality is a worthy cause that must be supported by all.

Within three days of the protests starting in October, Nigeria's Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the ‘dissolution’ of SARS under pressure from protesters and politicians.

However, with the SARS officers set to be redeployed to other police departments rather than sacked, the demos have not only continued, but grown louder, with protesters calling for a total overhaul of Nigerian society.

But such muscle-flexing hasn’t be confined to Nigeria. Protest movements have popped up across Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic, and, unlike the partisan movements that flare up from time to time, these demonstrations are somewhat unique in that they’re all led by youngsters.

In Namibia, for example, the capital Windhoek has been brought to a standstill by protestors demanding immediate political action on gender-based violence.

The #ShutItAllDown protests were sparked after the body of a young woman was found in a shallow grave outside the Namibian port town of Walvis Bay.

The protests later spread to other towns when, a week later, a 27-year-old woman was allegedly brutally murdered by her boyfriend because she wanted to end their relationship. 

In a petition addressed to the speaker of the National Assembly, the campaigners called on Namibian authorities to declare a state emergency over gender-based violence, and review sentencing laws for sex offenders and murderers, among others.

They also demanded the resignation of Doreen Sioka, minister of gender equality, poverty eradication and social welfare.

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Like neighbouring South Africa, violence against women is a persistent problem in Namibia, in particular, sexual violence and ‘femicide’ – the intentional killing of women or girls because they are females.

Reports earlier this year said police were receiving at least 200 cases of domestic violence a month in the country of slightly under 2.5 million people, while more than 1,600 cases of rape were reported during the 18 months ending in June 2020.

Campaigners said that, like in other parts of the world, the lockdown introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19 had made life even harder for domestic violence survivors forced to self-isolate with their abusers.

But protests haven’t been confined to Namibia and Nigeria.

Young people also took to the streets in cities across the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in October to campaign about historic murders and rapes committed in the east of the country.

Meanwhile, Zimbabweans have stared down Emmerson Mnangagwa’s infamous security forces as part of the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter protests kicked off by local rappers and influencers.

And it’s not just protests. Despite the pandemic, Africa has witnessed a number of national elections in the past few weeks, including in the Seychelles, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Tanzania, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

This flurry of polling stands in sharp contrast to Europe, where scheduled elections have been cancelled, with civil rights groups lamenting a deterioration of democratic values.

Experts from the American think-tank Freedom House identified what they called a troubling ‘crisis of confidence’ in the US and Europe, where governments have curtailed long-held democratic rights during the pandemic, including freedom of speech, freedom of protest and freedom of the press.

Draconian lockdown laws have also been largely introduced on the whim of ministers in many Western countries, with subsequent attempts to challenge them in parliament or the courts often blocked.

A report by the UK’s Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, for instance, warned that Britain under Boris Johnson’s lockdown regime is currently suffering a ‘pandemic of misinformation' that if allowed to flourish will result in the collapse of public trust and see democracy ‘decline into irrelevance’.

The former British Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption went even further, saying in late October that the laws introduced during the pandemic will undo the unity of British society and lead to long-term authoritarian government.

He accused Boris Johnson’s administration of creating 'truly breath-taking' new criminal offences without the legal right to do so, and of giving police 'unprecedented discretionary' enforcement powers, some of which were used to suppress peaceful opposition to its policies.

The grim situation in the UK, where a doctor was arrested and held for 22 hours for reading out a letter objecting to government policy, is in stark contrast to Great Britain’s former African colony Malawi, where, in a move largely ignored by the world’s press, its judges not only ruled the country’s lockdown unconstitutional but ordered the president to go to the polls for re-election, which he subsequently lost.

The Malawi High Court, sitting as a Constitutional Court, barred a lockdown in April and, in September, even ruled that the Covid-19 rules, including the attempted lockdown, were unconstitutional.

Malawi High Court judges.jpg

In its decision, the three judges found that the rules were unconstitutional as they were made in terms of a law that did not permit such rules to be made.

They also criticised the government for imposing a lockdown without concern for the poor of Malawi who would not be able to access food and other essentials if they could not leave their homes.

Malawi has currently registered only around 6,000 Covid-19 infections and just 185 people have officially died of the virus.

‘The levels of poverty in Malawi are such that a lockdown without relief would have been equivalent to death,’ said the Malawi political analyst Boni Dulani, who is also the Director of Research and Operations at the Institute of Public Opinion and Research (IPOR).

‘In a survey done by our institute, most Malawians said they were more scared of dying of hunger than of Covid-19.’

Dulani admits that the court order was significant – protestors in Britain have yet to have their case heard in the Supreme Court – but he reserved his most gushing praise for the ‘boldness’ of civil society organisations that went to court and challenged the lockdown order.

‘This is a new approach by civil society organisations,’ said the political analyst, who is also a senior lecturer in Political Science at the University of Malawi.

‘Previously, they have limited their approach to protests and demonstrations but increasingly, they are also very active in seeking the legal option.’

The shock decisions by the Malawian courts in April and September followed a series of landmark democratic moments in the southern African republic, which was ruled by a brutal dictatorship for the first three decades after independence.

In February, the courts nullified the 2019 presidential elections and ordered a rerun, saying: ‘Irregularities had been so widespread, systematic and grave that the results of the elections had been compromised and couldn’t be trusted as a reflection of the votes.’

Against everyone's expectations, opposition candidate Lazarus Chakwera won the re-run election in June, which made it the first time a court-overturned vote in Africa led to the defeat of an incumbent leader.

‘This constitutional court ruling was historic on several fronts,’ explained Dulani.

‘It demonstrates that we now have a new progressive generation of judges that are very willing and ready to make independent judgements that can significantly alter the political landscape.

He added: ‘While challenging election results previously was largely an academic exercise, with little likelihood of the results being reversed, the historic ruling that annulled the 2019 presidential election will certainly embolden other election petitioners in the future.’

The recent opposition victory in Malawi, according to Dulani, is also one of the marks of a ‘maturing democracy’, while he said the court’s decision to force a second vote ‘will go a long way in emboldening the judiciary on the African continent to make decisions on political matters that previously would not have been envisaged.’

The Malawian judiciary is not alone in its new-found confidence.

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (AfCHPR), which was established in 2004 by African countries, has taken a number of unusually bold decisions this year.

The continental court, which is based in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, ruled, for instance, that Ivory Coast should allow ex-rebel leader Guillaume Soro and the former president Laurent Gbagbo – who was acquitted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court last year – to participate in the countries’ presidential election.

The country’s electoral commission had disqualified both men from the October 31 poll due to their criminal convictions.

Arnaud Oulepo, a research associate at the Centre of Research for International Cooperation and Development, University Cadi Ayyadin Morocco, said the presence of the court made ‘coup d’état or violence’ less likely.

‘The positive thing is that it means that democracy and electoral matters are more and more litigated in courts.’

However, the bold decisions regarding Soro and Gbagbo also seem to have little effect as Ivory Coast simply withdrew its recognition of the court’s jurisdiction in April this year and barred the two candidates from standing anyway.

Ivory Coast’s decision to quit the court, follows in the footsteps of Benin and more authoritarian states, like Tanzania and Rwanda, which left the court after similarly robust rulings.

Tanzania withdrew its support in November 2019, despite being the host of the AfCHPR.

While Rwanda left after growing concerned that the African Court might be used as a platform to ‘change the narrative’ of the country’s 1994 genocide (a criminal offense under the Rwandan criminal code).

‘The withdrawal of these states is unfortunately a bad signal,’ said Oulepo. ‘As former US president Barack Obama said: “Africa doesn’t need strong men. It needs strong institutions.”'

‘Those institutions, including the AfCHPR [court], will never come close to reaching their due potential if they are constantly under attack by leaders who seem to care more about entrenching their own power rather than protecting the rights of their citizens,’ added the Morocco-based law expert, who believes that the judiciary in Africa is starting to play a more significant role in law-making.

Of course, Africa is by no means a utopia. In many parts of the continent, human rights are sharply deteriorating, including in Mali, which is facing ethnic and tribal conflict, as well as the Northern Provinces of Cameroon where the army and rebels alike have both committed atrocities.

October’s elections in Guinea and Ivory Coast were overshadowed by the threat of violence.

While protests in Nigeria are starting to take a troubling – and all too familiar – turn for the worse.

EndSars violence.jpg

What started out as small peaceful protests that drew concessions from the government, quickly turned violently as gangs attacked protesters in various cities, including Lagos and the capital, Abuja.

Rioters also vandalised public buildings, burned private businesses and stormed prison facilities to help inmates escape, prompting state governors to impose curfews to curb the escalating unrest.

On October 20, meanwhile, the Lagos governor ordered a 24-hour curfew in a move straight from the old play book, and on the same day security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators who were waving Nigerian flags and singing the national anthem in Lekki.

The attack was live streamed on Instagram by a witness and caused widespread outrage.

Speaking after the massacre, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said 51 civilians had been killed and 37 injured since demonstrations began, which he blamed on ‘hooliganism’.

He also accused ‘rioters’ of killing 11 policemen and seven soldiers.

Buhari’s statement came two days after Amnesty International put the death toll at 56, with about 38 killed on October 20. Amnesty said investigations on the ground confirmed that the army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters in Lekki and Alausa, another area of Lagos where #EndSARS protests were being held.

With the government taking an increasingly firm hand against the protests, not everyone is convinced the #EndSars movement may end up being the watershed moment it appeared to be for Africa’s largest democracy in mid-October.

‘It's unclear what comes next for the #EndSars movement,’ said the BBC Nigeria correspondent Mayeni Jones.

‘On the surface, most of their five points demands have been met. Some of the detained protesters have been released. Panels of enquiry have been set up around the country to investigate allegations of police brutality - although how independent they really are is up for debate.’

Crucially, though, one of the protesters’ key demands – compensation and justice for victims of police brutality – has yet to be answered, and talk has already moved to how the protests could impact Nigeria’s 2023 presidential elections.

Protesters are said to be hoping to capitalise on their new-found popularity to campaign on issues relevant to this youthful nation.

‘The events of the past two weeks have transformed Nigerian youth into a force to be reckoned with in the general elections, less than three years from now,’ said Chioma Agwuegbo, of Not Too Young To Run, an advocacy group dedicated to getting young Nigerians into public office.

She told Al Jazeera that 2023 will be ‘interesting for the future of the country because there’s rage’.

Yet while the streets may be ablaze with fury and the courts may be flexing their muscles in the face of government over-reach, the jury’s still out on whether this defiant new spirit will lead to long-term societal change in Africa.

There are just days to go before Britain finally severs ties with the EU. But with the UK in chaos, Martins Azuwike asks whether Africa’s UK trade deals will ever happen?

Since Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, the former world superpower has been taking scintillating steps to hammer out trade deals with various global trading blocs.

More than four years on, though, and just one new trade deal has been signed so far – between Britain and Japan – with little mention of the much-anticipated agreements with African giants, such as the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

The 15-member Ecowas bloc – which includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo – had been pinning its hopes on a possible Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with a newly independent UK next year.

With a population of 66.5 million and a GDP of $2.8 trillion, the UK offers significant market opportunities for African products and services.

Bilateral trade between Britain and Africa stood at almost $42bn in 2018, concentrated mostly in South Africa, Morocco and the Ecowas powerhouse Nigeria.

The UK also ranks among the top five foreign investors in Africa, with a foreign direct investment of $46 billion in 2017.

While the London Stock Exchange has the largest concentration of African publicly quoted companies, with a combined market capitalisation of $70 billion.

Yet despite the considerable trade done between Britain and many of its former southern African colonies in particular – UK-South African trade is worth around $13.5bn a year – progress on post-Brexit FTAs have stalled thanks to difficult EU-UK trade negotiations and the global Covid-19 pandemic

In October last year, for instance, trade ministers from the 54-member bloc met in London to discuss ways to triple intra-Commonwealth trade to $2 trillion by 2030, with the UK Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, talking of a fight ‘against protectionism’ to ‘promote a transparent, inclusive, fair and open rules-based multilateral trading system.’

Yet while the post-Brexit FTAs still seem like blue-sky dreaming, the CEO of Nigeria-based Economic Associates, Ayo Teriba, said the UK has been working hard to ink trade deals with various trading blocs, such as Ecowas, using Commonwealth countries as a launchpad.

Analysts believe that the proposed UK-Ecowas deal, if it happens, would grow the volume and value of trade between the two blocs.

Most Ecowas members export mainly agricultural products and minerals, the bulk of which serve as raw materials to the manufacturing and processing chains of the UK industrial sector. Experts say that the proposed trade deal will give greater stimulus to the West African bloc if it is tilted towards allowing more than just the imports of raw commodities like cocoa (EU trade deals typically place low tariffs on raw commodities, yet add swinging tariffs to roasted beans in order to protect its own factories). Such a move, they maintain, would promote trade and create more employment opportunities among the 15 Ecowas members.

‘Naturally, this deal will grow the volume of trade between Ecowas and the UK,’ said Muda Yusuf, of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI).

‘The prospects of such growth in trade would be higher for Ecowas countries that are Commonwealth countries.

The LCCI director general added: ‘Most countries in Ecowas export primary products, mainly agricultural products and minerals. 

‘The UK exports mainly vehicles, electrical and electronics products, iron and steel, pharmaceutical products and processed foods.’ 

Not all experts agree that a UK-Ecowas FTA will prove such a boon for West Africa, with tariff reductions likely to benefit UK consumers more than African producers. Ecowas trade with the UK is centred mostly on cocoa and cocoa preparations, which constitute five per cent of exports; precious stones, which contribute three per cent; as well as other raw materials such as cotton, fruit, rubber, plastics, wood, seafood and petroleum products from Nigeria.

The UK is also one Ecowas’s smaller trading partners. At present the whole of Europe, including Britain, accounts for just 28 per cent of Ecowas exports, while the Americas account for 40 per cent.

The UK’s reliance on an EU trade deal may also frustrate its attempts to negotiate new Free Trade Agreements with African trading blocs, such as Ecowas, with the EU strong-arming the UK not to sign FTAs with third nations that have what it considers to be inferior food safety standards, including the US.

The use of food safety and ‘unfair competition’ clauses to protect European producers from cheap imports is particularly relevant for any future UK-Ecowas trade deal, as the EU has form in this area, according to Yusuf, of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

During the 3rd EU-Nigeria Business Forum held in Lagos in September 2014, Ecowas members’ agricultural practices were highlighted as a potential barrier to any EU-Ecowas trade deal.

Speakers at the event identified safe food and sustainability as the key demands that farmers and producers must meet. Reliability, prices, consistency, quality and adherence to regulations were also pinpointed as determining factors. 

‘The issues likely to arise would be similar to the concerns raised by a section of the business community against the European Partnership Agreement in the recent past,’ added the businessman. 

‘While some countries signed, many others did not sign. There were concerns about unfair competition between European products and products produced in the West African sub-region.’

But it’s not just EU threats that might bog down any post-Brexit trade deals with Britain. According to Teriba of Economic Associates, Ecowas states would likely demand easier access to British visas as a price of a trade deal – something the UK government might try to resist, given the central role that controlling immigration played in the Brexit vote.

‘To boost trade, consular issues would have to be addressed,’ added Yusuf. ‘With the deal being contemplated, concessions would have to be given.

‘Britain is a country that is good at going to other regions to extract resources and strengthen its well-being while restricting others from coming in.’

The head of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, however, believes that the outlines for an agreement are there – and not just with Ecowas or other regional trading blocs, like the Southern Africa Customs Union and Mozambique (SACUM), which the UK already has a limited trade agreement with, thanks to its former membership of the EU.

He believes the real potential lies in a UK pact with the continent-wide African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is set to become the world’s largest free trade area.

‘More important are the bigger market prospects, which the AfCFTA offers to the UK if the Ecowas deal falls through,’ said Yusuf. 

‘This would mean access to over $3 trillion African market.’

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