Monday, 31 January 2011

Mubarak reshuffles cabinet amid demonstrations

The ongoing protests and mounting pressure from the angry protesters have prompted Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to reshuffle his cabinet. The country's Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, and Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali , both reviled by the protestors, have been replaced. It is unlikely, however, that the protests will subside unless Mubarak is ousted.

The protestors, on the streets in Cairo in their tens of thousands, have called a large-scale strike on Tuesday 1st February. In a bid to appease the angry crowds Mubarak has ordered the new Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to put in place democratic reforms and create employment opportunities.

Adly has been replaced by an army general, Mahmud Wagdi, and Samir Mohammad Radwan becomes finance minister. Radwan said he had a "national mission at a very critical time". Several businessmen holding economic posts have also been removed, evidently to appease the Egyptian people who have resented the influence of the tycoons.

It is generally thought, however, that the reshuffle is not enough to placate the Egyptian people, as the new line-up is not radical enough with both with Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Defence Minister Gen Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who is also the new deputy PM, both keeping their jobs.

Egypt has been in turmoil for over a week; with demonstrators clearly united as they remain on Tahrir Square, while military helicopters circle overhead. The army is heavily present on the streets and at military checkpoints. The country's opposition is calling on the Egyptian people to take to the streets in their millions to maintain the pressure on Mubarak's administration. There seems to have been some discord, however, amid the opposition, with the largest group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), appearing to go back on its endorsement of leading figure Mohamed El Baradei as a negotiator with Mubarak.

A spokesman for the MB, Mohamed Morsy, told the BBC: "The Muslim Brotherhood is much stronger than Mohamed El Baradei as a person. And we do not agree on he himself to become representing [sic] this movement, the movement is represented by itself, and it will come up with a committee... to make delegations with any government."

Sources: Ha'aretz, FT, WSJ, BBC News

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

Niger presidential election to end military rule

Voting has began, in Niger's capital city of Niamey, for presidential and parliamentary elections, which are expected to return the country to civilian rule after a military coup ousted President Mamadou Tandja in February 2010.

The country's 6.7 million registered voters will select between 10 presidential candidates, one of whom is the first female presidential hopeful, and will vote in 116 legislative elections across the country.

Opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou and two former prime ministers, Seini Oumarou and Hama Amadou, are seen as the favourites. The latter two served under Tandja, who was removed for seeking a third term and is currently in prison for alleged corruption.

A candidate needs more than 50 per cent of the vote to be elected in the first round; with 10 people in the running, a run-off is seen as likely.

The country's military ruler, Gen Salou Djibo, cast his vote early, saying that the presidential election will be "a new start for Niger" and called on the country to go to the polls, adding: "This new start should allow the authorities, freely elected by the people, to devote themselves to the development of Niger”.

Local and regional elections, held on 11th January, were marred by logistical problems, including difficulties delivering voter materials, but leader of a polling station in the capital Hamidou Galadi, said this time, "all the material is in place…we are missing nothing," and assured a peaceful turnout.

Sources: BBC News, The Canadian Press, Bloomberg, AP

For more news and expert analysis about the Sahara region, please see Sahara Focus.

Juba celebrates first full referendum results

The party has started in south Sudan as the first official announcement of the independence referendum results was made on Sunday 30th January and confirmed what most had suspected: the voters had overwhelmingly endorsed secession.

Preliminary results had already secured the vote for secession, but full results show the scale of the victory; according to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC), 99.57 per cent of voters in the ten states of south Sudan opted to leave the north. In the north, 57.65 per cent of voters chose separation, with 42 per cent voting for unity. There was a relatively low turnout in the north, with only 69,597 of the 116,857 registered voting.

Southern Sudanese voters in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Australia, Canada, the US and the UK mirrored the vote in the south, with 98.55 per cent choosing separation.

These numbers together produce a figure of 98.83 per cent voting for separation, with over 3.8 million votes for separation compared with only 44,888 for unity.

Hundreds of officials and diplomats gathered in Juba at the grave of rebel leader John Garang for the first official announcement of the results.

John Garang was the main Southern leader during the civil war, and he oversaw the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, which brought the civil war to an end and set the country on the path towards the referendum just witnessed. He died in a plane clash not long after signing the CPA.

South Sudan leader Salva Kiir presided over the events held at the John Garang mausoleum. Reacting to the preliminary figures announced, Kiir remarked “ the inhumane treatment southerners were subjected to by the northern regime during the long years of war has clearly manifested itself in this overwhelming vote for separation. ”

He extended his gratitude to the SSRC for their tireless work under ' difficult circumstances ' to deliver the referendum and results on schedule. He also thanked the people of southern Sudan for keeping their promise to vote for the independence of their own country.

" No one has forced anybody to vote but today we are witnessing a historic moment that has never happened since the creation of South Sudan, with the results today, I congratulate all of you sons and daughters of this region, " he said.

He emphasised that an independent south would maintain cordial relations with the north, as well as with its neighbours like Uganda and Kenya.

Kiir said attention should now be focused on the Abyei referendum, popular consultations in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile regions, as well as reolving the conflict in Darfur.

The announcement was met with thousands of southern Sudanese taking to the streets in Juba, the capital of the South, to cheer and dance. The jubilant mood is likely to continue, although Kiir warned people not to remove Sudanese national flags until 9th July, when the flag will be officially lowered in the presence of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir . Al-Bashir would then ceremoniously take the flag back to Khartoum.

The new country has already chosen its flag and its anthem, but its official name has not yet been determined.

Sources: BBC News, Sudan Tribune

For more news and expert analysis about the Sahara region, please see Sahara Focus.

Nigeria: CBN raises benchmark rate

The Central Bank of Nigeria's (CBN's) Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has raised the Monetary Policy Rate (MPR), which is the benchmark interest rate for the country, by 25 basis points, to 6.5 percent from 6.25 percent. The bank explained that the increase in the benchmark rates was a proactive measure, aimed at hedging against inflationary trends and controlling excess liquidity in the system occasioned by spending on election campaigns, government spending and fund injections by the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON). AMCON is in the process of buying up all the non-performing loans and toxic assets of the rescued banks.

The MPC also raised the Cash Ratio Rate (CRR) from 1 per cent to 2 per cent, effective from 1st February, and the Liquidity Ratio (LR) by 500 basis points, from 25 per cent to 30 per cent, effective from 1st March.

CBN Governor Lamido Sanusi explained that the tightening measures to curb inflation were taken because the country's economy had underperformed despite the favourable conditions and notwithstanding recent stabilisation of price inflation.

Sanusi also seized the opportunity to reiterate his view that the payment of federal subsidies on petroleum products is unsustainable and a constraint on the development of the country's refineries.

For more news and expert analysis about Nigeria, please see Nigeria Focus and Nigeria Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Friday, 28 January 2011

A suicide car bomber kills 48 people in Shi'a area of Baghdad

A suicide car bomber targeting a public funeral, in the predominantly Shi'a area of Baghdad, has killed 48 people and left 121 seriously injured. According reports, the mourners attacked the police, as it arrived in the north-western Shula district, for failing to provide sufficient protection.

It is thought that the attack may have been masterminded by a Sunni terrorist group, linked to the Al-Qai'da, known for attacking public gatherings. The latest attack on Shi'a Muslims comes after a number of bombing killed dozens of Shi'a pilgrims during a religious celebration in the holy city of Karbala last week. Over the course of the last month, a spate of bombings against pilgrims and Iraqi security officers has killed more than 170 people.

Eyewitness reports suggested that the police fired into the air to disperse the crowds, but came under attack from armed gunmen. In order to stop the situation escalating further, the military was deployed to the town to restore order.

The country's security is a prevailing issue, magnified by the withdrawal of US troops, that shall present a challenge to Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his coalition government.

Sources: BBC News, Los Angeles Times , FT, Miami Herald, The Independent

For more news and expert analysis about Iraq, please see Iraq Focus.

Nigeria: Dispute over billiards incites sectarian clashes

Nigeria's security forces have said that a dispute over a game of billiards incited sectarian clashes in the region of Tafawa Balewa, in central Nigeria, which left four people dead. The region has recently become a flashpoint for sectarian violence among rival ethnic groups.

The clashes spread into violent demonstrations which led to torching of 50 buildings, including five mosques. Police in Bauchi state eventually restored order using roadblocks.

Speaking about the clashes, Police Commissioner Abdulkadir Mohammed Indabawa said the dispute, which sparked the violence, occurred between a Muslim billiard player and the Christian owner of the table. The row was allegedly settled by local elders, but the table was later burned which prompted the argument to escalate into clashes between the two sectarian groups.

According to Indabawa: "The Christian youths accused Muslims of the act, which prompted them to go about burning houses and mosque…Clashes followed between Muslim and Christian groups and four people were killed as a result".

The outbreak of violence came the same day as the police announced that radical Muslim sect, Boko Haram, killed a police officer guarding a voter registration site in northeast Nigeria. The latest outbreak comes ahead of April's presidential elections, causing many to worry about the prospect of violence as Nigeria takes to the polls.

Sources: BBC News, NewsTime , France24, CNN, AP

For more news and expert analysis about Nigeria, please see Nigeria Focus and Nigeria Politics & Security.

Egypt moves to define eastern Med borders to boost gas reserves

Egypt's Petroleum Ministry is reported to be considering claiming a stake in the big natural gas fields discovered in the eastern Mediterranean while Greece, a potential customer, has begun exploratory talks on moving the gas to the European market.

The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masri al-Youm Tuesday 25th January quoted Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Sameh Fahmi as saying the Cairo government is "studying the precise coordinates of the maritime borders in order to determine our share of the reserves."

That implied that Egypt, already the main natural gas producer and exporter in the eastern Mediterranean, may find itself at odds with Israel.

It signed a historic peace agreement with the Jewish state in 1979 but it's largely been a cold peace even though Cairo exports gas to Israel.

The gas finds off Israel's northern coast, made in 2009-10, have already drawn accusations by Beirut of Israeli encroachment into Lebanese waters and threats of violence from both sides.

But the potential for conflict is even wider. The US Geological Survey reported in 2010 that the Levant Basin, stretching from the Jordan River into the eastern Mediterranean, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria, could contain up to 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

"These discoveries have added a new, hitherto unseen dimension to the Arab-Israeli conflict," observed analyst Walid Khadduri, former editor of the Middle East Economic Survey, a prominent energy industry newsletter.

"This geopolitical dimension is not limited to the Israeli-Palestinian or Israel-Lebanese disputes … but will also encompass several other Arab countries, particularly those that export natural gas, and especially in the event Israel intends to export to European markets."

Khadduri, writing in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, noted that "preliminary contacts in this regard have already started with another source of gas being made to available to gas-thirsty Europe … a source that overlooks the Mediterranean directly, obviating the need for pipelines crossing several countries, as it can be exported as liquefied gas."

"The current disputes …are somewhat old. What is new, however, is the competition over gas markets."

Israel 's gas bonanza offers geopolitical opportunities as well as perils.

The Jewish state is negotiating with Cyprus, most of which is ruled by Greek Cypriots, and with Greece about transporting gas to them and on to the vast European market.

Greek Minister of Investments Haris Pamboukis said Saturday 22nd January that Athens is conducting exploratory talks with Israel about moving gas from the main Israeli gas field, Leviathan, to Europe. "We're a natural road to the Balkans and Europe," he said.

But Egypt may be a more natural partner. It already has a liquefied natural gas terminal on the Mediterranean coast where tankers carry the LNG to Europe, Asia and North and South America.

It is conceivable - although far from certain given the prevailing relations between Israel and Egypt - that the Israelis might find it convenient to export their gas in liquid form through Egypt rather than engage in costly undersea pipelines and other infrastructure.

Egypt has proven gas reserves of 77 trillion cubic feet, three times Israel's estimated reserves, and is established as the main gas producer in the eastern Mediterranean. It serves Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as Israel.

According to the US Geological Survey, Egypt's Nile Delta Basin could contain as much as 223 trillion cubic feet of gas.

"Israel has several potential export options of its own but all would pose technical and, often, political challenges," observed Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Greece has been mooted as a possible market, perhaps by undersea pipeline; India is another potential market; and the Russian giant Gazprom is currently proposing a joint venture," Henderson wrote in a 4th January analysis.

"Israel's most commercially viable option might be to export surplus gas as LNG, converted via existing facilities in Egypt."

He concluded that the energy developments in the eastern Mediterranean, long a US preserve, mean that Washington "needs to pay careful attention, since these … offer opportunities for US companies as well as the potential for friction between US allies."

"Although the amounts of gas discovered so far seem unlikely to change the world, they could certainly change the eastern Mediterranean."

Source: UPI

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

Egyptian security forces on high alert as protest get backed by MB

Egyptian security forces have been put on high alert as thousands of anti-government activists prepare for another day of protests after Friday noon's prayers. The government has forewarned the protestors that "decisive measures" will be taken against those demonstrating in public, which the government has banned after Thursday's demonstrations in Cairo.

The government has also taken extra measures to prevent the demonstrations from going ahead, namely by blocking the use of internet across the country and effectively wiping Egypt off the global digital map.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt's leading opposition group, has said that it will support Friday's protests, and accused the government of engineering the digital disruption "to prevent the voices of the Egyptian people from reaching the world". Mohamed El Baradei, the country's main opposition figure, also said he would join in the protests. Returning to Cairo from Vienna on Thursday, El Baradei said:"I wish we did not have to go out on the streets to press the regime to act," adding that the government should "listen quickly, not use violence and understand that change has to come”.

The protests are expected to be the biggest so far. The government has upped its security measures, deploying an elite counter-terrorism force to key locations in Cairo, including Tahrir Square.

Shortly after Thursday's protests ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) Secretary General, Safwat El-Sheri, said: "The NDP is ready for a dialogue with the public, youth and legal parties. But democracy has its rules and process. The minority does not force its will on the majority."

Sources: BBC News, Aljazeera, NPR, France24

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Events in Egypt attract international commentary

The White House evoked President Barack Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo. It said, citing freedom of speech, a say in government and the rule of law, "What is happening in the region reminds us that, as the president said in Cairo, we have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things."

In his State of the Union address on 25th January, Obama declared that the US stood with Tunisia "where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator". His officials were quick to explain he was not calling for all Arab leaders to be overthrown.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also chose a middle way between support for Egypt and a call for some reform, saying, “We support the universal right of the Egyptian people, including the right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.”

One of the toughest comments came from German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who said he was "extremely concerned" and called on all involved to show restraint. "We are seeing in the last few weeks that a country's stability is not endangered by granting civil rights. It is through the refusal of civil and human rights that societies become unstable," he said in reference to Tunisia.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a radio interview that it was not for other countries to dictate who should be in power, or what their tactics should be. He added, Clearly, in so many of these countries people do have legitimate grievances, which are economic and political. While every country is different, and we shouldn't try to dictate what they should do, in general I do think it's important in this situation to respond positively to legitimate demands for reform, to move towards openness, transparency and greater political freedom. That would be my advice to Egyptian leaders.

"I would urge the Egyptian government, and I have urged the Egyptian government, to respect rights of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. It would be futile over time to try to suppress such things.”

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Yemeni people take to the streets calling on President Saleh to resign

In the wake of the recent Tunisian uprising, and the riots that followed in Egypt and Algeria, thousands of Yemeni people took to the streets in the capital city of Sana'a calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign. Government opposition members and youth activists gathered across the city chanting anti-government slogans, and calling for economic reforms.

Much like in Tunisia, Yemeni people voiced their complaints about poverty, lack of political freedoms and increasing food prices. Yemen has been undergoing economic and security issues for years. The latter compounded by a separatist movement in the south and an uprising of Shi'a Houthi rebels in the north. Experts believe that Yemeni is fast becoming an Al-Qai'da battleground, with high numbers of Yemeni youths being recruited by the Islamist militant group.

The protesters also gathered at the Sana'a University chanting that it was "time for change", and referring to the uprising in Tunisia that ousted President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali earlier in January. Addressing the crowds, opposition MP Abdulmalik Al-Qasuss, from the Al-Islah party, said: "We gather today to demand the departure of President Saleh and his corrupt government."

Saleh, who has ruled Yemen since the north and the south merged in 1990, is expected to hand the power over to his eldest son, Ahmed, who heads the presidential guard. This and parliament's attempts to loosen the rules on presidential term-limits are two of the key issues that have angered Yemeni people, prompting them to take to the streets in protest.

Sources: BBC News, AngloPress, CNN, Ahram Online

For more news and expert analysis about Yemen, please see Yemen Focus.

Vietnam: EVN makes bold promises

With ongoing electricity shortages across Vietnam in the last few years and lower than required investment and generation capacity development, Electricity Vietnam (EVN) has made the bold statement that it will increase generation by 16 per cent in 2011.

With many of its largest projects considerably delayed and an unusually dry rainy season in the north that will mean hydroelectric plants must operate well below capacity again, EVN is having to look north to China to fill the gap. Deputy CEO Duong Quang Thanh put it simply in interviews: “We will negotiate with China to increase our purchase of power as much as possible for the year.”

EVN has thus been forced to continue with its international bond issue and has asked the government to provide a guarantee of US$667 million. International investors have been reluctant to lend to Vietnam's economic groups, even performing and profitable ones such as PetroVietnam and Vinacomin, and they seem less than keen to put money into underperforming EVN.

EVN has continually failed to invest strategically in Vietnam's electricity generation and though some of this reluctance is due to the market pricing structure and a reliance on hydropower over other forms, its investment choices have also been questionable.

Over the last five years EVN has increasingly focused on non-core business elements, including a large telecom company, banking, real estate, and finance. While expanding into these areas the group handed back 13 coal-fired power stations it had been given the responsibility to build under the energy master plan.

EVN may be happy to take even a higher than normal yield in the international market as interest rates at home are now reaching 14 per cent for deposits and over 17–18 per cent for loans. The Vietnamese government may be seriously considering increasing the caps it maintains on electricity pricing to make the generation market more attractive to foreign and domestic investors alike. Until this happens it is unlikely that EVN will be able to attract adequate investment.

For more news and expert analysis about Vietnam, please see Vietnam Focus.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Riots in Tunisia prompt changes in the Libyan army

The riots in Tunisia appear to have had the effect of bringing forward plans in Libya for changes in the army. In a move that was first rumoured in 2010, around 800 senior officers could be retired from the army, including four generals: Khalifah Henaish, Abdel Salam Massoud, Belqassem Hodairi and Khalifah al-Derzi.

The army is poorly equipped and has previously been consistently and deliberately weakened by the regime in order to ensure that it no longer poses a serious threat to the Leader. Nothing has ever happened in so deliberate a way, however, as during the current changes. It is expected that the numbers in the army will stabilise at 150,000.

Libyan reaction to the news of the purge is that it represents a direct response to the army's role in Tunisia as an independent instrument that arbitrated during the riots between ruler and the Tunisian people in an even handed basis. In Libya, this position, though not impossible, is unlikely because there is a separate heavily armed and carefully monitored Security Brigade in which the officer class is drawn mainly from the Qadhadhfah clan or its affiliates.

An alternative interpretation of the outcome of the changes is that the army will be stung into traditional subversive activities against the regime. Overall, the history of failure of attempted coups d'état is not very encouraging to the opposition.

The Foreign Ministry is denying that Libya has any plans to intervene in Tunisia. This is despite claims by the opposition that some arms have already been moved to the border region in preparation for any action that might be needed in order to provide better control of the long land border where friction was in evidence some months ago, albeit for commercial reasons. Relations between the two countries are fairly stable but there has been a history of disruptions over the alignment of the border offshore which ended in a very favourable settlement for Libya at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

For more news and expert analysis about Libya, please see Libya Focus and Libya Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Egypt bans public protests, gatherings and marches

A day after thousands of Egyptian's took to the streets demonstrating against President Hosni Mubarak's administration; Egypt has announced a ban on public protests. Previously, in order to stage a public protest, Egyptian's had to get a permit to do so, but the government has gone a step further and banned protests, public gatherings and marches altogether. The country's Interior Ministry has said that anyone participating in unauthorised public action will be detained and prosecuted for breaking the law.

It is estimated that four people have died after yesterday's nationwide protests, contained by the country's security forces with tear gas and violence. It has been reported that the fourth person died, after sustaining heavy injuries, in the town of Suez, where two other people were killed on Tuesday 25th January.

Egyptian security forces used gas and a water canon to herd the protesters away from Tahrir Square in Cairo. One police officer has been killed amid the violence in the country's capital. The protests spread across the country, to the eastern city of Ismailiya and the northern city of Alexandria, where protesters were reportedly chanting: "Revolution, revolution, like a volcano, against Mubarak the coward."

Despite the threat of arrest issued by the country's Interior Ministry, reports have emerged that some protesters have began gathering on the streets in anticipation of another day of protests.

The uprising, inspired by the recent events in Tunisia, took on a more aggressive tone when the crowd turned its anger toward President Mubarak calling for his resignation.

In view of these events, the White House issued a statement saying the Egyptian government had "an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people" and should therefore "pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper". The statement added that the US is "committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals".

A number of anti-government activists called for a second day of protests, but it is yet to be seen whether or not Egyptians will respond the call.

Sources: BBC News, Xinhua, Reuters, France24, Bikya Masr

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Ghana: Wobble and ambiguities as Mills faces Côte d'Ivoire test

In the most serious regional crisis since President John Atta Mills took office in January 2009, he has sent conflicting signals: both to the presidential rivals in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire and to Ghana's regional allies in ECOWAS. This week, Ghana's delegation to the AU summit in Addis Ababa will have to work hard both to clarify and justify Accra's stance.

Ghana starts from the position that the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire is both a threat to and a distraction from its own oil and gas-fuelled development plans. The Ivorian crisis, with the reality of political and economic refugees crossing the border to Ghana and the threat of a regional war to oust Gbagbo, makes running Ghana's economy and attracting investment much harder.

As one official in Accra told Ghana P&S: “We are dealing with international investors who hardly differentiate between Congo, Tunisia and Zimbabwe – as far as they're concerned Abidjan is a suburb of Accra. We have to show diplomatic maturity and protect our economic self-interest here...”

The official conceded that there were genuine confusions over Ghana's stance on Côte d'Ivoire which would be cleared up at the Addis Ababa meeting. But, he added there were important questions to be raised about how the crisis has been handled so far. These reflect wider concerns about ECOWAS and the AU overreaching themselves, as well as the residual power of French influence in African diplomatic affairs.

For more news and expert analysis about Ghana, please see Ghana Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Iran hangs two opposition activists

The Iranian authorities have hanged two men convicted of participating in protests against the result of the 2009 presidential poll. Tehran prosecutors have said that Jafar Kazemi and Mohammad Ali Hajaghaei had disseminated photographs and video footage of the protests, pertaining to the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the internet.

The two men were also found guilty of chanting slogans promoting the exiled People's Mujahideen of Iran (PMOI). The leader of the exiled opposition group, Maryam Rajavi, said the executions were inhumane and barbaric.

On August 10th 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Iran to release the two men, despite the PMOI being on Washington's list of foreign terrorist organisations.

"We are also concerned about the fate of Iranians who are in danger of imminent execution for exercising their right to free expression after the June 2009 elections," said Clinton in a statement, naming Kazemi and Hajaghaei.

Of those arrested after the protests most have been rleased, but more than 80 people have been jailed for up to 15 years, and at least four other people convicted of involvement in the demonstrations are reported to be on death row.

Sources: BBC News, AFP, RTT News, EuroNews

For more news and expert analysis about Iran, please see Iran Strategic Focus.

Egypt to hold an anti-government protest

Anti-government activists prepare to hold a day of protests across Egypt, inspired by the recent events in Tunisia. Organisers of the anti-government movement called on the Egyptian people to come together for a "day of revolt against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment". Over 90,000 people have signed-up to participate in the protest, among them some members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In a separate statement, however, the group has made clear that it would not officially participate in the protests.

The country's Interior Ministry issued a warning, ahead of the protests, saying that those demonstrating against the government would face outright arrest. The statement further explained that the country's “security apparatus will deal firmly and decisively with any attempt to break the law".

The organisers of the forthcoming protests are rallying people together on the Internet via Facebook, saying: “Our protest on the 25th is the beginning of the end… It is the end of silence, acquiescence and submission to what is happening in our country. It will be the start of a new page in Egypt's history - one of activism and demanding our rights."

The country's political opposition seems uncertain about the uprising with Mohamed El-Baradei encouraging Egyptians to take part, and the MB, who still remains the most powerful opposition movement, resorting to silence.

The social concerns and complains voiced by Tunisians, which led to the uprising, are echoed by the Egyptians, among them political corruption, high unemployment and an oppressive State. And much like in Tunisia, self immolation has hit record numbers in Egypt currently totalling at six. Over the last couple of weeks, Egypt has also seen a rise in young activists voicing their concerns about the shortcomings of the Egyptian government.

Sources: New York Times, BBC News, Reuters, Wall Street Journal

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

Iraq: Two bomb explosions hit the holy city of Karbala

Iraq's Interior Ministry has said that two car bombs have exploded in the holly city of Karbala killing more than 18 Shi'a pilgrims in the city for Arbaeen, a religious observance and one of the holiest days in the Shi's calendar. It is estimated that at least 55 people were injured in the explosions.

The first bomb exploded in the morning while the pilgrims were disembarking from buses in the holy city, south of Baghdad. It was reported that six people had been killed in the first blast and 34 injured. The second bomb, which exploded several hours later, killed 10 pilgrims and two soldiers, and injured 21. The third explosive device was detected and defused.

All vehicles are banned from going into the city centre as pilgrims continue gathering for their ritual marking of the end of a 40-day mourning period for Shi'a Muslims' most beloved saint Imam Hussein, whose death in battle near Karbala cemented the historic Sunni-Shi'a split.

Around 30,000 Iraqi security forces have been deployed to the city to bolster security for the ritual, which culminates on Tuesday 25th January. No singular group has claimed responsibility for the latest attack, but it is believed to be the work of extremists linked with the Al-Qa'ida or Sunni militants. The Karbala explosions come four days after multiple bombings that left 50 people dead and 150 wounded, most of them Shi'a Muslims.

Sources: CNN, Xinhua, The Guardian, Al-Bawaba

For more news and expert analysis about Iraq, please see Iraq Focus.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Algeria: Cevital in the firing line

Going on the offensive, the Algerian regime appears to have started a campaign against Cevital, the most dominant player in the Algerian private sector. The group controls 60–65 per cent of the cooking oil market and over 70 per cent of the sugar market, and is thus an easy target. In the wake of the riots, trade minister Mustapha Benbada began “demanding” that Cevital comply with the new pricing regulations introduced by the government on 8 January.

There was some confusion about the government's position, with El Watan reporting that “Benbada's strange order to Cevital” was inconsistent. “The same people who yesterday accused the group of raising prices, today accuse it of lowering them too much.” Cevital boss Issad Rebrab defended himself in Liberté, a newspaper which he owns, saying that he “strictly applied the agreement of 9 January”. The deal specified consumer prices of AD90 for a kilo of sugar and AD600 for a five litre container of olive oil, he argued, adding that Cevital has introduced lower prices to leave a margin for retailers.

The row may be in part a diversionary tactic on the part of the government, an attempt to deflect blame away from the state and towards the private sector, as well as an attempt by the regime to claw back market control for these two basic foods. There are those in the regime, particularly in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's entourage who are keen to chip away at Rebrab's empire. As the newspaper Maghreb Emergent points out, Rebrab's relations with the president have been shaky for the past three to four years. The industry chief refused to support Bouteflika's bid for a second term in power in 2004.

For more news and expert analysis about Algeria, please see Algeria Focus and Algeria Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Egypt blames Gaza group for New Year's Day bombing

Egypt has said that a Palestinian branch of Al-Qa'ida was responsible for the New Year's Day bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria, which killed 23 people. Egypt's Interior Minister Habib Al-Adli said there was "decisive proof" that militants connected to the Islamist group were responsible for the attack on Al-Kidiseen Church. The Gaza based group, however, has denied connection to the bombing. A spokesman for the Army of Islam, Abu Mousab, said the group had no “connection to the church attack" but “praise those who did it".

Speaking in Egypt, during Police Day, al-Adli said: “We have decisive proof of their (Army of Islam's) heinous involvement in planning and carrying out such a villainous terrorist act.” During the ceremony, attended by Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Al-Adli also pointed out that the group had recruited Egyptians to help plan and carry out the bombing.

The attack, the worst of its kind since a Muslim-Christian dispute in 2000 led to anti-Christian riots in the town of El-Kosheh, leaving 21 Copts dead, led to several days of rioting by the country's Cops, who accused the government of failing to protect them.

During the ceremony, Mubarak commended the country's security forces and added that in light of the “proof” the police would now be able to, "set at rest the hearts of all Egyptians". He also stressed that the government believed that there was foreign involvement in the attack, rather than it being a sectarian religious assault carried out by Egyptians.

Sources: BBC News, Aljazeera, Reuters, Wall Street Journal

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

Libya: Islamist opposition accuses regime

The Islamist opposition has attacked the Libyan regime for its behaviour in the whole mass occupation affair. Much of this attack appears driven by a strong sense of disappointment, especially among those abroad, that Libya did not follow the Tunisian example and rise up en masse to overthrow the regime.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has generally refrained from openly criticising the regime since its members were released from prison in 2006, issued a condemnatory statement accus¬ing the regime of allowing people to break into the flats in order to divert attention away from the events in Tunisia.

The movement viewed the protest as a pre¬meditated attempt by the regime to ensure Libyans would focus all their attentions on the housing issue.

The statement declared, "We are surprised to see that the security services are not interven¬ing to protect these flats, especially those that are allocated already … This indicates clearly that instructions have been issued to these security agencies not to intervene and this raises in us the belief that there is a conspiracy aimed at triggering fitna." (chaos – a word that has specific religious connotations).

The Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which has also made its peace with the regime in recent years, issued a similar statement accusing the regime of creating "temporary chaos" in order to absorb public anger and divert attention. The statement, signed by the LIFG abroad, declared the regime was 'playing with fire' that might return to burn its fingers.

For more news and expert analysis about Libya, please see Libya Focus and Libya Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Three Northern candidates to run against President Jonathan

With the emergence of President Goodluck Jonathan as the Peoples Democratic Party's (PDP) presidential candidate, this means that there will be three Northern candidates against Jonathan, who is the sole candidate from the South, which just might make the presidential election a widely polarised North vs South contest.

Nigerian commentators have generally concluded that the way things stand, the Jonathan/ Namadi Sambo ticket is perhaps more likely to win. This is not just because of the incumbency factor which admittedly plays a huge role in President Jonathan's favour. He is also the only major presidential candidate from the South.

The fact that Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) which is most dominant in the South-West, has chosen Nuhu Ribadu means that it may not secure as large a vote it the South West as it would with a regional candidate.

Ribadu however appears to be the champion of the young upwardly mobile middle class and particularly in the South- West. But whether this will translate to actual votes remains to be seen.

For more news and expert analysis about Nigeria, please see Nigeria Focus and Nigeria Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Friday, 21 January 2011

It is unclear what the Algerian regime will do

In view of the riots in Algeria, it is widely believed that the EU, some of its member states, and the US will ask the MENA states to 'make changes'. Indeed, it is widely believed that the visit of President Barack Obama's counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, to Algiers on 17th January was not really to discuss the US position on ransom payments to al-Qa'ida, as stated in the media, but to give a message to the Algerian regime “that it must do something”.

The US and EU are both frightened by the prospect of Islamists coming to power in any of the North African States. They, therefore, want sufficient change to prevent an outcome reminiscent of the FIS' victory of in 1991-1992.

It remains unclear what the Algerian regime might do. Having discussed the situation with both the opposition Rachad and our other sources in Algeria, we can proffer the following:

The regime has received a huge warning. It is weakened, frightened and unable to deliver the changes that are required. There are also signs that the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS) itself is uncertain, and probably divided on what actions to take.

The most likely immediate action is that both President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia will be replaced; in Bouteflika's case on health grounds, and in Ouyahia's on purely 'political reshuffling'. The names of both Mouloud Hamrouche, whom we reported as being approached by the DRS two weeks ago and Ahmed Benbitour are in the frame, probably for President and Prime Minister, respectively. We do not know whether they will accept or whether others are also being considered.

For more news and expert analysis about Algeria, please see Algeria Focus and Algeria Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Southern Sudan referendum results indicate secession

Polling officials have said that partial results of the Southern Sudan's referendum indicate that 99 per cent of the people voted for independence from the north. The results, published on Friday 21st January, are only partially complete with several hundred thousand votes yet to be counted to account for the 96 per cent turnout estimate. The final results will be announced next month.

A spokesman for the Southern Sudan Referendum Bureau, Aleu Garang Aleu, said: "Some few counties still remain to submit their results, so the figures are not complete yet, and we are continuing to work hard to finalise the results…We are still expecting that the results for the south will be released on January 31, and, allowing time for any appeals, the final result will be announced in Khartoum on 14th February."

According to the rules, stipulated in the 2005 peace treaty between the north and the south, for the referendum to be valid more than 50 per cent of voters must back secession, and at least 60 per cent of registered voters must take part in the referendum.

So far, the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission has counted 3,197,038 ballots which revealed that 98.6 per cent of the people voted in favour of secession. In the state of Jonglei, an overwhelming 99.93 per cent of votes were in favour of secession, with a mere 77 voters supporting Sudan's unity. The preliminary results from the state of Western Equatoria also showed that 99.5 per cent of voters backed independence.

Sources: BBC News, AfricaAsia, Reuters, Voice of America

For more news and expert analysis about the Sahara region, please see Sahara Focus.

Iran: Mirkazemi before Majles

On 21st December, Iran's Petroleum Minister Masoud Mirkazemi was called to Majles to discuss his performance. Majles deputies were concerned with lack of progress on compressed natural gas projects, South Pars developments, petrochemical feed, the negative gas trade balance, gas production, gas exploration, and gas distribution to villages. While he managed to escape impeachment, some parliamentarians remained dissatisfied.

Here is a breakdown of Mirkazemi's comments during this session:

> Roughly 38 per cent of villagers in Iran have access to gas.

> Gas transmission has reached 836 cities and 2,445 villages in the country.

> The government is ahead of the national gas distribution schedule.

> The Petroleum Ministry signed all South Pars contracts in 2010.

Mirkazemi has to walk a fine line between increasing gas transmissions to Iran's rural population and increasing gas exports. This often leads to conflict with those Majles members who are trying to extend gas transmissions to their constituencies and want investments in their respective regions. Mirkazemi is often forced to defend his decisions for implementing various projects and why he chooses gas exports when many Iranians still do not have access to gas.

For more news and expert analysis about Iran, please see Iran Strategic Focus.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Could Egypt follow in Tunisia's footsteps?

Could Egypt follow in Tunisia's footsteps? Could Jordan? Algeria? Libya? This is the question that has been asked repeatedly over the past few days since President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali took flight. There are parallels and likenesses between most Arab states: an ageing leadership increasingly out of touch with a young and frustrated population; lack of jobs; rising prices; absence of power sharing or real political debate; absence of the rule of law; corruption in high places.

There are, however, many differences, as much in degree as in substance. There is high level corruption in Egypt, but not to the extent of the mafia state that was Tunisia. A number of wealthy tycoons in Egypt, some in government, have made vast fortunes. But nothing compares to the stranglehold that Ben Ali and his wife's extended family had on most commercial activity. Nor does Egypt have the obsessive paranoia of Ben Ali in terms of information. The liberalisation of the media in Egypt does provide an important safety valve. Furthermore, while there are many poor, the provision of rationed goods means that no one starves.

For many in the Arab world, fear of fitna, of strife or chaos is too great for them to rebel against the state authority. This quietist attitude, helped by often repressive State security, has ensured the endurance of some very unpopular regimes.

What will Egypt do? One reaction would be to become more repressive of dissent. The alternative is to seek to defuse discontent by offering more political concessions. Or it could carry on as before, mindful of what has happened, making minor adjustments to deal with flare-ups.

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Ghana sets up PSCC to oversee the security of its oil and gas industry

Ghana has put in place a Petroleum Security Co-ordinating Committee (PSCC) to keep track of the accomplishments of the country's burgeoning oil industry. The committee will oversee the safety and security of the oil and gas sector, as set out in the Master Security Plan developed by the Ministerial Oil and Gas Committee.

The seven members of the committee come from varied backgrounds including Ghana Armed Forces, Ghana Police Services, National Security, Ghana Maritime Authority, Ghana National Petroleum Corporation (GNPC) and the country's Energy Ministry. Former Commandant of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre , Brig Gen Charles Mankatah , has been named as the National Co-ordinator of the Committee.

Speaking to the press after the Committee's inauguration ceremony, Defence Minister Lt Gen Joseph Henry Smith said: "The effort to provide a secure and congenial environment for the oil and gas industry has been a high priority on the agenda of the government for the past two years."

He pointed out that the security of the sector was of key importance in the success of the industry, adding: "We have to provide a secure and congenial environment for Ghana's oil and gas industry to thrive to ensure progressive socio-economic development in the country."

Smith commended the Ministerial Committee for setting up the Security Master Plan, which would provide a framework to ensure a safe and secure environment within which oil companies could operate freely while adhering to international laws and following appropriate protocol. He urged the committee to work closely with key industry stakeholders in order to ensure a smooth running of the oil and gas sector.

News of the inauguration comes days after, former managing director of the GNPC, Moses Oduro Boateng, called for stricter regulation to monitor the activities of all oil industry players. He noted that presently the law is not comprehensive enough and needs to be updated in view of the changing trends within the industry.

Sources: Ghana News Agency, Ghana Oil Club, Accra Daily Mail

For more news and expert analysis about Ghana, please see Ghana Politics & Security.

Iraq to pay expenses to foreign oil companies in the Kurdish region

Iraq's Oil Ministry and its Kurdish counterpart have agreed to pay exploration expenses to foreign oil companies operating in the Kurdish region. Under the new agreement, the central government in Baghdad will not, however, pay foreign companies their profits.

In the past, the central government has maintained that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) should pay the companies' profits from its annual national budget. But, it has now been agreed that the State Oil Marketing Organisation (SOMO) will be responsible for payments, due to be made through the Kurdish Natural Resources Ministry.

The central government also confirmed that it has reached an agreement with the Kurdish government to resume oil exports from the north starting 1st February, with a rate of around 100,000 b/d. Speaking about the agreement, oil ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said, "The resumption of oil exports from the region at the start of next month will strengthen Iraqi crude exports and boost its oil revenue.”

Kurdish oil exports from two of the region's fields, Taq Taq and Tawke, halted in 2009 when the central government refused to compensate oil companies working the fields. According to Kurdish natural resources minister, Ashti Hawrami, under the new agreement export rates from the region could reach around 250,000 b/d by the end of the year.

Oil exports were expected to resume from the region in May last year, but remained blocked due to the delay in forming a new government following inconclusive election results in the March. It seems now, however, that the differences between Iraq's central government and its Kurdish counterpart are some way toward being ironed out.

Sources: Reuters, Ahram, Kurdish Globe, Proactive Investors, Bloomberg

For more news and expert analysis about Iraq, please see Iraq Focus.

Brazil's Central Bank ups key interest rate to 11.25 per cent

Brazil's Central Bank has upped its key interest rate from 10.75 per cent to 11.25 per cent in a bid to stabilise inflation. The committee meeting was headed by the newly appointed Central Bank president, Alexandre Tombini, who assumed office on 1st January. Tombini replaced his one-time mentor Henrique Meirelles who had been in the post a record breaking eight years, the longest term since the Bank opened in 1964.

Shortly after the meeting, the committee warned that the increase in the interest rate was likely to mark a new phase of monetary tightening to combat inflation amid steady economic growth. Inflation stood at 5.91 per cent in 2010, and is expected to drop below 5 per cent in 2011.

The committee said it sought a rate hike, "as the start of a process of adjustment to the base interest rate", and added that the Bank was going to monitor inflation very closely under the monetary tightening initiative and the expected governmental budgetary cuts.

Brazil's economy grew by more than 7 per cent in 2010 and is estimated to grow between 4.5-5 per cent in 2010. Inflation has been one of the key worries for Brazil in recent months. Its inflation target for 2011 is 4.5 per cent, meaning the Bank has its work cut out if it intends to reach the target figure.

The surge in inflation has been attributed to soaring food prices, but also to increasingly high consumer demand. Retail sales in November 2010 rose by 1.1 per cent from the previous month of the same year, and 9.9 per cent from November 2009.

Higher interest rates have a tendency to attract short-term foreign investment, but they can also hurt economic growth and exports. A rise in the appreciation of the Brazilian Real of more than 30 per cent against the dollar, since 2009, has been detrimental to domestic manufacturers due to fierce competition from cheaper imported goods.

Sources: BBC News, Wall Street Journal, FT, Reuters, Bloomberg

For more news and expert analysis about Brazil, please see Brazil Focus.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Libyan government shaken by events in Tunisia

The Libyan government was shaken by the overthrow of Tunisia's President Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali, on 15th January. Despite the fact that the violence came from the security forces against largely peaceful demonstrations, Colonel Qadhafi took an implacable stance against the rioters and claimed that the bloodshed brought on by the unrest was unjustified.

If he continues to develop this theme, he could find himself in confrontation with a democratic and more nationalistic neighbour. It is unlikely that he would intervene by supporting the disgraced Tunisian secret service factions. Thereby setting in motion a long-term problem in Tripoli's relations with its closest neighbour.

So far, there is no firm news that refugees are spilling over the border into Libya but a protracted period of instability could bring about a flood of Tunisians. The Libyan regime has considerable ability to back either of the Tunisian factions because both armaments and finance are directly available across the long and permeable land border.

In recent days, the Leader appears to have realigned his support towards the more radical of the protesting groups in Tunisia, perhaps attempting once again to encourage a form of People's Committee system as operated in Libya. This will earn him few sympathisers outside his inner circle, and add to the ambivalence in which he is held by the Arab world.

For more news and expert analysis about Libya, please see Libya Focus and Libya Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Iraq: Suicide bomber kills 12 in Baquba

A suicide bomber driving an ambulance vehicle has killed 12 people and injured at least 50 in an attack on an Iraqi police training centre in Baquba located in the Diyala province. The latest attack follows a similar bombing at a police recruitment centre in Tikrit, which killed more than 50 people.

A police spokesman, Maj Ghalib al-Karkhi, said the ambulance was driven by a suicide attacker and crashed into the headquarters' main gate in the city of Baquba. It is believed that the bomb blast collapsed a building on the headquarters' grounds, and more bodies are expected to be uncovered from the ruin in due course. Most of those killed in the attack were police officers.

Reports have emerged that the suicide bomber gained access to the city's special security police centre by opening fire on the guards, before driving the vehicle into the compound and setting off the bomb.

In a separate attack, another suicide bomber targeted Shia pilgrims travelling from Baghdad to the holy city of Karbala, killing at least two people and injuring 15. Overall violence in Iraq has subsided, but the latest surge in attacks indicates that it may take time to stamp it out altogether.

Sources: BBC News, Reuters, AFP, AP

For more news and expert analysis about Iraq, please see Iraq Focus.

Nigeria: Army given shoot-to-kill orders in the city of Jos

Nigerian Army has been given orders to shoot-to-kill in order to maintain peace and order in the city of Jos. Army officers patrolling the city received the orders following a killing of a Muslim electoral worker by a Christian mob.

A military spokesman Capt Charles Ekeocha told the BBC, "We are ordered to protect civilians and quell violence by any means necessary."

The killing on Monday 17th January highlighted the tensions between Nigeria's two dominant religious factions, as the country continues to struggle to register 70 million eligible voters before April's presidential election.

According to Ekeocha, the new orders permit soldiers to kill anyone trying to incite unrest, harm civilians or attempt to destroy a home, a church or a mosque in Jos and surrounding areas. The Army has been present in the city since the violence commenced last year, leaving more than 500 dead.

"The best option is to make sure you stop the person…Even if it means taking the person's life, it is OK," said Ekeocha. He also warned community leaders that the military would fire at anyone attempting to cause an uprising.

Sources: BBC News, AP, All Africa, Reuters

For more news and expert analysis about Nigeria, please see Nigeria Focus and Nigeria Politics & Security.

UN commends Southern Sudan's referendum

The UN Security Council has commended Southern Sudan on the relatively peaceful independence referendum expected to result in secession. But it also called on the north and the south to resolve their differences regarding the Abyei region.

The head of the UN mission to Sudan said the recent tensions in Abyei could lead to long-term instability, and urged the leaders to agree on the region's status. The Council also voiced concern about the ongoing violence in Darfur. Clashes between insurgents and security forces in the western region have displaced an estimate 40,000 people over the past month.

The Council held a meeting, on Tuesday 18th January, to discuss the conduct of the referendum which they thought to have been free, fair and credible. Speaking about the meeting, a US representative, Susan Rice said "The people of Southern Sudan, after decades of war, and more than two million killed, have cast their votes peacefully, and expressed their will."

UN envoy to Sudan, Haile Menkarios, said the clashes between the Misseriya Arab nomads from the north and pro-Southern Dinka Ngok have subsided due to a recent agreement between the Northern and Southern governments. But he also noted that an absence of an official settlement would, inevitably lead to more violence.

"These efforts for reducing tensions and preventing violence can contain the situation. However, the continued absence of a final settlement on the future of Abyei leaves open the possibility of further clashes between the communities," he said.

EU mission's Chief Veronique de Keyser said the referendum was conducted peacefully with few isolated “cases of intimidation" by government security officials at voting centres. Speaking to the press in Khartoum, de Keyser said "If I had to summaries the conduct of the referendum, I would say free and peaceful voting took place, with an overwhelming turnout."

Preliminary results are expected by the end of the month and are most likely to be in favour of secession which would make Southern Sudan an independent nation by 9th July - as stipulated in the 2005 peace treaty between the north and the south.

De Keyser also commended the "courageous political leadership" demonstrated by the ruling parties of the north and south Sudan and added that she was "confident that the free will of the Sudanese people would be respected."

Sources: BBC News, Sudan Tribute, Aljazeera, People's Daily Online

For more news and expert analysis about the Sahara region, please see Sahara Focus.

President Mills continues to reshuffle cabinet

President John Atta Mills has dismissed the Ashanti Regional Minister and the Director of the Ghana Immigration Service (GIS).

A statement signed by presidential secretary J.K. Bebaako-Mensah, released last week, announced that Ashanti Regional Minister Kofi Opoku-Manu will be replaced by the head of the Ashanti Regional Lands Commission Dr Kwaku Agyeman-Mensah, and GIS director Elizabeth Adjei will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner of Police Dr Peter A. Wiredu.

Also removed from office is the Ashanti Regional Manager of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Afrifa Yamoah Ponko.

For more news and expert analysis about Ghana, please see Ghana Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

UN in Nigeria to investigate Iranian arms seizure

Nigeria's Foreign Minister Odein Ajumogobia has said that a group of UN experts arrived in Nigeria to inspect an illegal shipment of arms seized in Apapa seaport in Lagos on 27th October 2010. The shipment, sent from an Iranian port, of 13 containers labeled as building materials included rockets, grenades and ammunition.

Ajumogobia told AFP the group was in Nigeria to, "meet with relevant government officials as part of a neutral fact-finding mission following up on the report that we filed with the sanctions committee in November last year".

Nigeria alerted the UN Security Council, in November 2010, after seizing the shipment sent from Iran in an apparent breach of sanctions. It is thought that the shipment would have been reloaded and sent to Gambia. Tehran has since said the cargo was being shipped by a private company to a "West African country" and was the subject of a "misunderstanding" that has now been cleared up.

Ajumogobia met with the six UN members along with intelligence service chiefs, national security personnel and immigration representative, "to clarify several issues that arose from the report we filed".

Last month a Nigerian high court charged an Iranian, identified as a member of the Iran Revolutionary Guard, over the illegal arms cargo. Azim Aghajani was granted a $130,000 bail and ordered to return to court on 31st January. He was charged along with three Nigerians.

Sources: BBC News, AFP, Vanguard, Reuters

For more news and expert analysis about Nigeria, please see Nigeria Focus and Nigeria Politics & Security.

A Yemeni journalist sentenced to five years for supporting al-Qa'ida

A Yemeni journalist and Al-Qa'ida expert, with ties to the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, has been sentenced to five years in prison for promoting the cause of the militant Islamist group and aiding its branch of leaders in Yemen.

A court in Sana'a accused Abdul Elah Haidar Shaea of "working in the media for the benefit of al-Qaeda, taking pictures of security buildings, embassies, and foreign interests in Sana'a, and inciting al-Qaeda to attack them".

Speaking from a cell inside the court building Shaea denied having personal ties to al-Qa'ida, saying the case was “fabrication by the authorities that is unfounded and untrue". Shaea, known internationally as an al-Qa'ida expert, is believed to have close ties to the group. Presiding Judge Redhwan al-Namir said that the evidence presented during the trial undoubtedly proved Shaea's involvement with the group.

"He supported al Qaeda and its leaders in Yemen as a journalist, publishing false news and statements in the media on the security situation in Yemen," the judge said. "He attracted foreigners (to al Qaeda) and gathered information on embassies and security installations to help al Qaeda," said al-Namir.

In addition to the five year custodial sentence, the court also ordered Shaea to be put under strict police surveillance after his release from prison. Shaea said he would not appeal against the court's decision as he felt the appeal would not be handled fairly.

The court also sentenced a co-defendant, Abdul-Kareem Daoud al-Shami, to two years in jail in the same case, and imposed a two-year travel ban outside the capital city on both men.

Sources: Reuters, M & C, Alarabiya, Sify, Ha'aretz, News Yemen, AFP

For more news and expert analysis about Yemen, please see Yemen Focus.

Suicide bomber kills 50 people outside Iraqi police centre

A suicide bomber has killed at least 50 prospective police recruits outside an enrollment centre in the Iraqi town of Tikrit. Reports have emerged that another 100 or so people were wounded in the bomb blast; the highest toll from a single attack since the church siege in Baghdad, in October 2010, which killed 44 worshippers.

Deputy Governor of Salahuddin province, where Tikrit is situated, Ahmed Abdul-Jabbar, said the attack was the work of “terrorists” further adding that it would only be Al-Qa'ida who would “keep on slaughtering” innocent people.

Tikrit's hospital is inundated with victims of the blast. Experts say that the bomber may have had as much as 50kg of explosive on his person. An unnamed police source said that at the time of the attack more than 300 people were standing in line with their documents, hoping to get a $500-a-month job as a police trainee. He added that the hospital was “full of dead and wounded young people” and that an ambulance service still continued “evacuating casualties".

The predominantly Sunni Tikrit, hometown of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, has always been a stronghold of Sunni Islamist insurgents. And while overall violence in Iraq is subsiding, incidents such as these prove that it may take time to stamp it out altogether.

Sources: Reuters, BBC News, AFP, Aljazeera, Guardian

For more news and expert analysis about Iraq, please see Iraq Focus.

Egypt: Man sentenced to death over Copt killings

Egypt has sentence a man to death for killing six Coptic Christians and a Muslim police officer outside midnight mass for Coptic Christmas in Naga Hammady. It is not entirely clear what prompted the shootings, but there has been speculation that the attack was revenge for the alleged rape of a 12 year old Muslim girl by a Christian man.

The court found Mohamed Ahmed Hussein guilty of "pre-meditated murder" of the seven dead. The sentencing comes a few weeks after a suicide bomber killed 23 people at a Coptic church in Alexandria. Two other men, Qurshi Abu Al-Haggag Mohamed and Hindawi El-Sayyef Mohamed, are also on trial for the 6th January shooting, all three pleaded not guilty to the charges, denying any connection to the attack. The court said the verdict against al-Haggag Mohamed and El-Sayyef Mohamed would be announced 20th February.

Naga Hammady's Coptic Bishop Anba Kirolos said his congregation was "satisfied" with the ruling; however, there has been some unrest in the community due to the delay in bringing the men to justice and because of the alleged ties between Hussein and an MP in the ruling party.

Coptic Christians make up 10 per cent of Egypt's 80 million residents, and have often complained of harassment and discrimination which the government has frequently failed to address. The government, however, denies discriminating against the country's Christians and says it has been on high security alert ever since the first attack.

In light of the sentencing, Amnesty International has expressed disapproval of Egypt's authorities trying to circumvent the criminal justice system by using emergency courts. It also called Egypt to commute the death sentence against the accused.

“It is all the more disturbing that his case has been heard in a court that allows no appeal, denying the defendant fundamental fair trial guarantees. This practice is a short-cut to the criminal justice system and must be stopped…We deplore the tragic death of the six worshipers and the police guard but we fear that such a harsh penalty might not be based on the evidence available but rather to show the determination of the authorities to combat sectarian violence, especially after the Alexandria church bombing,” said Amnesty International.

Sources: BBC News, CNN, Bikyamasr, Al Jazeera , AFP

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.

Monday, 17 January 2011

South Sudan referendum results suggest secession

Southern Sudan's independence referendum came to a close on the evening of 15th January, and early results already coming in suggest the vast majority have voted for independence from the north.

The chairman of the Southern Sudanese Referendum Commission (SSRC), Mohamed Ibrahim Khalil said that more than 80 per cent of eligible voters in the south had participated, along with 53 per cent in the north and 91 per cent of voters living in the eight other countries hosting polling stations. Sixty per cent of registered voters had to cast their votes in order for the poll to be considered valid.

He said the referendum would be considered "a good result by any international standard."

Full results of the poll are not due until next month, but preliminary results are already trickling in from around the 3000 polling stations in Sudan. The Sudan Tribune has reported that at the Ngor voting centre in Torit, in south Sudan's Eastern Equatoria state only seven votes were cast in favour of unity, while 1718 voted for secession.

Results in Juba appear to be similarly one-sided: early results show that of stations already reporting 20,012 people voted for secession, while 270 voted for unity.

Not all results have been so clear, however. In north Sudan's Greater Omdorman area, for example, where 35 polling stations were located, 4838 people voted for secession while 4420 voted for unity.

Polling also took place in eight countries outside of Sudan: Australia, Canada, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the UK and the US. Voters in Australia have been given extra time to cast their votes in areas where flooding has hampered the process.

Voters in the UK, the only site in Europe, have reportedly voted 97per cent in favour of secession. Federico Vuni, the SSRC official in charge in London, announced on 16th January that 626 votes were cast in favour of secession, with only 13 for unity.

Similar results were obtained in Canada, where voting took place in Toronto and Calgary, and in Egypt.

US President Barack Obama has welcomed the vote, saying "The sight of so many Sudanese casting their votes in a peaceful and orderly fashion was an inspiration to the world and a tribute to the determination of the people and leaders of south Sudan to forge a better future."

"We urge all parties to continue to urge calm and show restraint as the parties work to complete implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement,” he added.

Washington has promised to remove Sudan from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism by July if it recognises the result of the vote. The US special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration met with foreign minister Ali Karti in Khartoum to discuss with him the future of bilateral relations following the referendum's conclusion.

Karti told reporters after that he hoped for more dialogue on normalising ties and said that more meetings would be held in mid-February to continue discussions. He cautioned, however, that putting new conditions on normalising ties, including Darfur conflict resolution, would not be accepted.

Meanwhile Southern Sudan leader Salva Kiir made his first public address since the vote on Sunday, 16th January, speaking in a Catholic Cathedral in Juba. He urged people to forgive the north for the killings that happened during the civil war that lasted for more than 20 years.

"For our deceased brothers and sisters, particularly those who have fallen during the time of struggle, may God bless them with eternal peace," Kiir said.

"And may we, like Jesus Christ on the cross, forgive those who have forcefully caused their deaths."

An estimated two million people died in the war between Khartoum and rebel groups, most prominently in the south, and millions more were displaced. The independence referendum is the culmination of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, which ended the civil war.

Sources: BBC News, Sudan Tribune, Sudan Tribune 2

For more news and expert analysis about the Sahara region, please see Sahara Focus.

Iran discovers a new onshore natural gas field

Iran's Oil Minister Masoud Mir Kazemi has announced a new onshore natural gas discovery in the country's southern region. The newly discovered oil field is estimated to hold around 9.1 trillion cubic feet of gas and 7.7 million barrels of gas condensate.

The gas field, east of Assalouyeh, is near the South Pars gas complex, and is thought to contain 80 per cent of recoverable reserves which could equate to as much as 7.4 trillion cubic feet of gas.

"The in-situ capacity of the gas field is 260 billion cubic meters and 80 percent of its reserves can be exploited," said Mir Kazemi.

Iran has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves after Russia. Its South Pars field in the Gulf, which it shares with Qatar, holds around 14 trillion cubic metres of gas equal to eight percent of the world's reserves.

In related news, Mir Kazemi held a press conference on Friday 14th January to say that the price of $100 per oil barrel was appropriate and that OPEC did not “need to hold an emergency meeting over the price issue”.

Sources: UPI, Xinhua, AFP, Zawya, Hamsayeh

For more news and expert analysis about Iran, please see Iran Strategic Focus.

Twelve suspected Al-Qa'ida militants escape from Basra detention centre

The head of the security committee at Basra's provincial council, Ali Ghanim al-Maliki, has said that 12 militants linked to the Al-Qa'ida, have escaped from a detention centre in Basra. He also said that all the security personnel at the compound were arrested as part of the ongoing investigation.

"All of the men are linked to the Islamic State of Iraq that is linked to al-Qa'ida. Some of them were arrested eight months ago, and three of them were arrested a month, or less than a month ago…All the guards securing the compound have been detained for investigation. Of course, there was collusion from within the compound, but we do not know who is involved at this moment," said al-Maliki.

The men, who reportedly have ties with the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group with connections to the al-Qa'ida, obtained police uniforms and walked out of the detention centre in the early hours of the morning. The 12 escapees were the only ones held at the fortified compound, once a Saddam Hussein's palace, while awaiting trial. Six of the men had confessed to involvement in a number of bombings in Basra, Amarah and Nasiriyah going back as early as 2004.

Al-Maliki also noted that the men stood accused of “attacks carried out recently in Basra”, referring to 8th November bombing which left 10 dead and 30 injured. The group was among those arrested two weeks after the attacks. It is believed that the fugitives are heading to Baghdad to obtain fake IDs and passports to help them flee the country. Security measures have been fortified around Iraq, and checkpoints set up on two major northbound roads.

Sources: BBC News, Reuters, AFP, Radio Free Europe

For more news and expert analysis about Iraq, please see Iraq Focus.

Man sets himself on fire outside Egyptian parliament

A man set himself alight outside the Egyptian parliament, in Cairo, in a copycat move mirroring the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian graduate Mohammed Bouazizi. Witnesses said that the man in question poured fuel over himself before setting himself on fire.

An unnamed government official told AFP that the man "stood outside the People's Assembly, poured fuel on himself and set himself on fire". He added that: "A policeman who was close by managed to extinguish the fire and the man was quickly taken away by ambulance."

The Egyptian man has sustained burns to his face and hands, but further details about his condition are unknown. It is believed that he did so as a stand against poor living conditions affecting most of the country's population. Bouazizi, who died in early January, set himself alight after Tunisian police took away his livelihood by prevented him from selling vegetables without a permit.

There have been no large scale protests in Egypt, but the people have voiced the same grievances in Cairo as they have done in Tunisia. The ongoing and increasingly violent protests across Tunisia, over unemployment, corruption and high food prices, have resulted in the resignation of Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Sources: AFP, BBC News, Guardian, Reuters

For more news and expert analysis about Egypt, please see Egypt Politics & Security.