Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bloody siege in Tikrit masterminded by suspected Al-Qa'ida militants

Iraqi officials have said that the bloody siege in the town of Tikrit, the capital of the Salahuddin province, was masterminded by suspected Al-Qa'ida militants. It is estimated that more than 50 people were killed in a fierce gun-battle, which ended when the attackers blew themselves up.

The siege, which to took place near a local government building, left about 100 people injured. Local government officials and an Iraqi journalist were among those killed in the attack, which began at 1300 local time (1000 GMT) and lasted several hours.

Masked gunmen wearing military uniforms blew up a car outside the council headquarters to create a diversion, then raided the building and shot more than a dozen people, including three lawmakers.

The northern provinces of Salahuddin, Diyala and Ninewa continue to be attacked by insurgents. Speaking about the latest one, Salahuddin Governor Ahmed Abdullah said it was "a tragic incident carried out by ruthless terrorists".

Sources: BBC News, Washington Post, AP

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

Libya: Uncertainty likely to remain and hinder early restoration of normal economic life

The war could arrive at the gates of Tripoli, but not until the Interim Transitional National Council (ITNC) can succeed in surging through Sirte and on to Misrata and Tripolitania. Therefore, for the time being and other considerations apart, the threat of fighting on the streets of Tripoli should be enough to deter all but the bravest of companies from an early return to their assets in Libya.

The capture of Tripoli and of Colonel Qadhafi are key elements in the opposition's policy toward the state. Inevitably, unless decisively defeated, Tripolitania will be a central target for armed and covert operations by eastern Libyans. Any immediate improvement in the situation is, therefore, difficult.

At best companies, in present circumstances, can encourage local employees to keep a watching brief over physical assets. They could secure, where possible, the integrity of its workforce through the payment of wages (for example) and could continue to support their activities in Libya through visits and establishment of a presence on the ground to indicate a continuing corporate interest in commercial Libya.

At the moment, however, the prognosis must be that there will be a continuing struggle without there necessarily being an early settlement because neither side currently has the ability to win outright. The exception here is if the UN military intervention remains firmly in support of the revolutionaries.

Uncertainty is likely to remain to hinder an early restoration of normal economic life although the wide-scale official recognition abroad of the revolutionary government would be a major step forward.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Libya's Foreign Minister Musa Kusa defects

Libya's Foreign Minister and one of Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi's closest allies Musa Kusa has defected, saying he was “no longer willing" to serve the regime. Experts say this might prove to be a momentous turning point for Libya, with further defections to come.

Kusa flew into Britain last night, a move that was supported by Whitehall. A foreign office spokesman said: “We encourage those around Qadhafi to abandon him and embrace a better future for Libya that allows political transition and real reform that meets the aspirations of the Libyan people.”

The spokesman added that in view of the events in Libya, Kusa felt he could no longer “represent the regime internationally” or stand-by Qadhafi's actions.

Kusa arrived from Tunisia where he was said to be on a diplomatic mission. His defection has given hope that the regime may splinter internally thereby weakening Qadhafi's hold on the country. A close confidant of the Leader for over 30 years, and head of Libya's spy agency, Kusa was said to be responsible for masterminding the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, and later for the negotiations in releasing the bomber, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al–Megrahi.

Speaking about the situation in Libya yesterday [30th March], Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said he was not “ruling out” arming the rebels despite having previously indicated that this may not be possible under the terms of sanctions imposed on Libya. The Prime Minister noted: "It is an extremely fluid situation but there is no doubt in anyone's mind the ceasefire is still being breached and it is absolutely right for us to keep up our pressure under UN Security Council 1973. As I've told the House, the legal position is clear that the arms embargo applies to the whole territory of Libya.”

Sources: BBC News, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Reuters

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

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Algeria: ANC holds fractious first meeting

The newly-formed Alliance Nationale pour le Changement (ANC), grouping former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour with the Islamist party El Islah, has held its first political meeting on 18th March in Algiers. According to a report in Liberté, the meeting was “outrageously dominated” by Islamists, including ex-Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) leader Ali Belhadj, who was invited and “received a hero's welcome”.

Other leading figures in the Alliance include former Rassemblement national démocratique (RND) secretary general Tahar Benbaibeche and Abdelkader Merbah of the Rassemblement pour la Republique (RPR). Benbitour told those present that the objective of the alliance was “to change the system in its entirety and not only specific individuals”, and that this had to take place “peacefully or in chaos”. He added that it was time to “put an end to this façade of democracy and other formal reforms aimed only at satisfying the great powers to the detriment of the Algerian people”.

A defector from the Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (MSP), a presidential alliance party, called on Islamists and secularists to work “hand in hand” to bring about change in Algeria. Judging from the reception to the ANC's first meeting in the Algerian press, this will be no simple task, as the level of mistrust of the intentions of former Islamists such as Belhadj still runs high.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

ExxonMobil to start drilling in Vietnam at the end of April

ExxonMobil will start its first exploratory drilling off the central coast of Vietnam at the end of April. The decision followed a meeting of the company's representative and leaders of the People's Committee of Da Nang City.

The two sides discussed plans to avoid environmental pollution and ensure safety. The drilling will be conducted at block 119 on the continental shell offshore from Quang Ngai Province and Da Nang City. Vice chairman of the Da Nang People's Committee, Phung Tan Viet, ordered the city's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to inform fishermen not to use the exploration area during the 40 days of drilling.

ExxonMobil' Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson recently said that the company plans to spend around $100 million a day for the next half decade as it drills previously unreachable oil and natural gas deposits. He added that the company has budgeted $34 billion for capital projects this year, a 5.6 per cent increase from 2010.

Sources: Viet Nam News, Huston Chronicle, AP

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

Arms factory death toll rises

Reports have emerged that the death toll from the arms factory explosion in the southern town of Jaar has more than double from 70 to 150 people. The incident has caused an outcry of anger from the locals, who have accused the Yemeni government of staging the blasts and blaming them of the Al-Qa'ida in a bid to gain sympathy from the international community.

The death toll is based on the number of bodies found among the rubble, and the people reported missing. A local official said some bodies were burned beyond recognition. The blasts occurred while locals were searching for ammunition left behind by suspected Al-Qa'ida militants who had reportedly raided the factory on Sunday 27th March.

News of the explosion quickly spread across the country, prompting hundreds of people to take to the streets in Aden. A statement released by the opposition group Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cronies of plotting with the al-Qa'ida “in a desperate attempt…to prove that he was right when he said that Yemen is a ticking time bomb, that he is the only one who can prevent it from blowing up".

Inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia, Yemeni people took to the streets in protest to poor living conditions and unemployment but are now demanding that Saleh step-down immediately, saying his power is a danger to the country and its people.

Sources: BBC News, Dawn, Kyiv Post

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

Nana Rawlings to challenge Mills' candidacy

For the first time former first lady and President of the 31st December Women's Movement, Nana Rawlings, has publicly said that she will challenge incumbent John Atta Mills for the National Democratic Congress'(NDC) presidential nomination in the 2012 elections.

Last week, when asked about her political intentions at a conference on women's empowerment, Rawlings said: “Having an intent is a good thing and I'm sure you all have aspirations, It is good to have aspirations and it is good to have an intent. The intent is there but I have not declared yet.”

We hear that Rawlings made a similar declaration to former minister of education, Harry Sawyer, at the NDC's Council of Elders in January. Rawlings' supporters are already wearing tee-shirts bearing slogans such as “I believe in Nana Konadu” and “Change, real change”, many of which are said to have been printed on the former first couple's instructions.

In Winneba, Rawlings said that that emerging democracies would only prosper if women are encouraged to run for high office. She spoke of her political ambitions in the context of women's rights: “It is only when women are part of policy planning and implementation that we see the requisite improvement in the lives of women.” This is a shrewd tactic given the growing business and political profile of women in Ghana.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

South Sudan and Egypt in Nile talks

Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir on Monday 28th March, while on a two day visit to Juba. The talks between the two officials revolved around plans to increase water resources from the Nile Basin.

Sharaf was accompanied by a delegation of government representatives, including Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hussein El-Atfi. The two sides agreed to revive plans to construct the Jonglei Canal in South Sudan, which would channel swamp-water back into the Nile increasing availability by almost 4 billion cubic metres per year.

Speaking about the deal, El-Atfi said Egypt had already contributed $800,000 to the renovation of three water level measurement stations in South Sudan, and promised to contribute a further $1.1 million to restore three more stations by the end of this year.

Both side agreed that water saved by the canal would be divided equally, and signed an MoU to that effect.

On his part, Kirr commended the Egyptian delegation for its willingness to co-operated with one of Africa's newest countries, and expressed hope to improve bilateral business in oil, gas, transport and agriculture.

Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Nabil Al-Arabi said Egypt will recognise the newly-formed state of South Sudan, adding: "Sudan intends to be the first to recognize Juba and Egypt intends to be the second.”

Sources: Bikyamasar, Sudan Vision, AllAfrica

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

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

Algeria to build its first nuclear plant by 2020

Algeria's Energy and Mines Minister Youcef Yousfi has said that the country will build a nuclear power plant to meet its long-term energy needs. During a briefing at the National People's Assembly (APN) Yousfi said: "We may have to resort to nuclear power in the long-term, we have no other alternative," adding “Algeria must prepare for this choice”.

The minister said that it will take up to 15 years of study to prepare for "the construction of a first power plant operating with nuclear”. He noted that Algeria has set a 2020 target date for the construction, after which it plans to build a new station every five years.

Algeria is prone to earthquakes some of them major, including one of 6.8 magnitude which killed more than 2,000 people east of Algiers in May 2003. In view of the recent events in Japan, Algeria's decision may prove to be a contentious one.

In related news, Iran has said it is keen to boost economic ties with Algeria and to assist the North African state in its industrial development. In a meeting, on Monday 28th March, Algeria's Minister of State for North Africa Abdelkader Messahel and Iran's Ambassador to Algeria Mahmoud Mohammadi discussed technical and development projects that could potentially bolster bilateral trade.

Sources: AFP, Bloomberg, Ennahar, Press Tv

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

Algerians flee Libya

According to Algerian government sources, nearly 8,000 Algerian were living in Libya. Since 20th February, at least 4,000 Algerians, probably more, have returned home, the vast majority on Air Algérie flights. Some 1,400 people were reported as having crossed back into Algeria at the Debdeb border crossing, just south of Tunisia.

This number could, in fact, be much higher and include nationalities other than just Algerians. The Debdeb area has been turned into something of a temporary crisis zone, with assistance being provided by the Algerian army, gendarmerie, Civil Protection Force, Algerian Red Crescent, and the medical service of Sonatrach.

The latest figure, released by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on 11th March, was that 5,400 people had fled from Libya into Algeria. This figure includes both Algerians and non-Algerians. The United Nations puts the total number of people who have fled since mid-February as over 250,000.

On 26th February, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika ordered the despatch from Algiers of a large ferry, the Tassili II, to collect Algerians from Tripoli and Benghazi. The ship took with it a delegation from the Foreign Ministry, a medical team, police officers, and journalists. It returned to Algiers carrying 1,300 people including American, Moroccan, and Tunisian nationals as well as Algerians.

Sonatrach announced that it had repatriated all its employees working in Libya. It said that it had 80 employees working with SIPEX, whose Libyan operations cover two exploration blocks in the Ghadames basin, close to the Algerian border. Although Sonatrach said that there had been no damage to any of its facilities, there have been reports that its bases in Libya have been subjected to substantial looting.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Monday, 28 March 2011

Iraq: Investment environment still poor

Iraq announced this month that it was seeking investment in its agricultural sector. The country, once known as the bread basket of the Middle East, is keen to redevelop its agricultural sector, which is unable to meet domestic needs.

Iraq is only able to supply around half of its grain needs, which total some 9 million tonnes. In a bid to boost the sector, agriculture minister Ezzeddine Al-Dawla announced in March that the government intended to offer incentives for farmers, such as providing loans for projects. The minister also announced that he would welcome foreign investors into the sector. Despite the high hopes of many Iraqis, including those in the investment committee that foreign investment would be streaming in to the country by now, the investment climate is generally still poor. This lack of interest among foreign investors has prompted huge disappointment in the country as Iraq is as desperate as ever for housing and basic services.

One of the main hurdles to attracting foreign investment continues to be the investment law and in particular the ruling within it that foreign companies cannot buy land in Iraq, only rent it. According to the Investment Committee this is putting many foreign firms off. This is only one issue that makes Iraq an unappealing prospect for many potential investors. Bureaucracy, corruption, inefficiency, not to mention the security situation, all mean that Iraq has a long way to go to convince foreign firms to invest outside the energy sector.

To make matters worse, many foreigners are struggling to get visas. It is rumoured that this is because of a recent decision by the Prime Minister's Office to take control of the matter itself. This move was supposedly a means to prevent corruption. Some sources, however, claim that bringing visa issue into the Prime Minister's Office will have the opposite effect. Iraq still has an uphill struggle to turn itself into the foreign investment hub it dreams of.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Explosions in an arms factory leave at least 70 dead

A series of explosion in an ammunition factory in the southern town of Jaar has killed at least 70 people and left many injured. According to a number of reports, the factory had recently been seized by Islamist militants that clashed with Yemen's security forces on Sunday 27th March.

Government officials have said they expect the death toll to rise as victims were still being recovered from beneath the rubble. The factory, in the Khanfar area, makes munitions and Kalashnikov rifles.

Over the last few weeks, Yemen has been shaken by political turmoil and an upraising which seems to be gaining momentum with eatch day. Inspired by the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia, Yemeni people took to the streets demanding better living conditions, employment opportunities and more political freedom.

Yemen has been plagued by security issues including Al-Qa'ida activity, members of which are said to have looted the factory while taking control of Jaar. The cause of the explosion remains unclear.

Sources: BBC News, Aljazeera, Reuters, Ynet News

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

Tullow discovers hydrocarbons in offshore Ghana

Tullow has discovered hydrocarbons at the Teak-2 exploration well in the West Cape Three Points licence in offshore Ghana. The company who owns a 22 per cent share in the licence, said it was targeting an undrilled fault block between the Jubilee field and the Teak-1 discovery. Six metres of net oil and gas pay were found at the top of good quality Campanian reservoirs.

Tullow's Exploration Director Angus McCoss said: “The discovery of hydrocarbons at the Teak-2 location is a very good result, providing important data for the future development of the Jubilee field…The well demonstrated that the Teak-2 discovery is not part of the Teak-1 discovery but is potentially a Jubilee field gas cap. The Campanian reservoirs at Teak-2 confirm significant up-dip potential in the greater Teak area."

The company also said that once the operations are completed, the rig will move to drill the Banda-1 well, targeting Campanian and Cenomanian reservoirs in the east of the licence.

Sources: Irish Times, Proactive Investors, Business Week

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

Nigeria: The government keen to pass the PIB before June

The House and Senate have now adjourned until 19th April when they will have one more day in session before departing for the Easter break and only retuning on Thursday 28th April.

The government will therefore redouble its efforts to get the controversial Petroleum Industries Bill (PIB) passed in the last two weeks of May before the official handover of power on 29th May – assuming that there is a clear victor in the first round of voting in the presidential election.

There is, however, considerable doubt as to whether the government will be successful and a lot that could happen in the intervening period. The Bill was put down on the House order paper last week but was not raised in time and there was no call of a vote before the House moved quickly to adjourn.

The House speaker, Dimeji Bankole who was implicated in the recent Wikileaks embarrassment - is reticent and reclusive and is unwilling to preside over major legislation at the moment. There is a realisation that that there will probably have to be amendments on the floor of thee House and consequently the PIB can not be rushed. If the government tries to get the PIB though in May it will find a resistant Senate and a post-election House. While harmonisation between the various versions of the bill may be possible this would only be the case if the Senate backs down.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Algeria not helping its friends

Algeria is the one North African regime which the West does not want overthrown. It has stood beside it throughout its 'Dirty War' and is not going to abandon it now. Indeed, the US in particular, but also we believe the UK and France in their lesser ways, have been urging the regime 'to make sufficient changes' to dispel the protests and thus lessen, if not entirely remove, the threat of being overthrown.

For the last three months, however, since such pressures have been becoming more overt, the regime has done absolutely nothing to reassure its friends. “At least it could help its friends,” said one opposition source. Even the US Ambassador David Pearce, in his own diplomatic way, has expressed his exasperation at the apparent stubbornness and arrogance of the regime.

On Thursday 24th March, the Ambassador told a news conference at the US Embassy that “the authorities should open channels of debate with society and listen to its concerns.…. The Algerian people are seeking more freedom and democracy. Reforms will achieve its goals when they are delivered in time and with transparency, sincerity, seriousness and peace." In a clear warning to the regime, he said: “Algeria's interests needs to speed up reforms before it is late.”

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Friday, 25 March 2011

Iran says UN's decision to appoint special human rights monitor is “biased and unfair”

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast has described Washington's resolution on Iran's human rights conditions as “biased and unfair”. On Thursday 24th March, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted for the appointment of a special investigator to monitor abuses in the Islamic Republic for the first time since 2002.

The motion was passed after 22 members voted in favour, 14 abstained and seven, including China, Russia and Cuba, voted against. Speaking of the UN's decision, Mehmanparast said the resolution was adopted under pressure from the US.

He said: "The aim of the resolution was to put pressure on the Islamic Republic and to further side track the current process of the UN Human Rights Council' periodic review of the human rights situation across the world.”

The White House welcomed the move, with President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon saying it is "a historic milestone that reaffirms the global consensus and alarm about the dismal state of human rights in Iran."

Sources: AFP, AP, Reuters, Fars News Agency

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

Nigeria's opposition accuses Jonathan of “arrogance”

Three of Nigeria's main opposition candidates – Gen Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC); Mallam Nuhu Ribadu of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN); and Ibrahim Shekarau of the All Nigerian Peoples Party (ANPP) – have pulled out of election debates with President Goodluck Jonathan on account of Jonathan's “arrogance”.

Jonathan declined to take part in a debate last week, organised by NN24 TV, saying he would only participate in a debate organised by Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON). The other candidates have voiced their concern over Jonathan's affiliation with BON, saying it was somewhat "suspicious".

The three candidates released a joint statement, saying: “We state without ambiguity that our principals will not honour any debate session with President Jonathan in the 2011 elections as he has arrogantly shunned the credible debate for which we made ourselves available. We wish to clear the air on the matter of the presidential debate organised by NN24 so that our teeming supporters and Nigerians in general will understand and appreciate our position.”

Jonathan, who inherited power last year after president Umaru Yar'Adua died, is the candidate of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) which has won every national poll since 1999. Elections for the National Assembly are scheduled for 2nd April.

Sources: BBC News, Afrique en Ligue, AFP

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

Ghana and Turkey pen five deals to boost trade ties

President John Atta Mills met with Turkey's President Abdullah Gul during Gul's official two day visit to Accra. Gul, who was accompanied by a delegation of 150 business representatives, commended Ghana for its efforts to open new doors for Africa.

He also praised the burgeoning relations between Accra and Ankara, and the collaboration between the two countries on several projects, including the joint organisation of the Turkey-Africa summit.

The two leaders discussed five agreements to enhance diplomatic and bilateral relations. The agreements, signed by sector ministers of both countries, cover Bilateral Air Services, Health and Medical Sciences, Military Training and Science, Mutual Abolition of Visas for Holders of Diplomatic Passports and an MoU for the Establishment of Consultations on Political Mechanism.

Ghana and Turkey have nurtured diplomatic relations since 1957, and have in recent years vowed to strengthen their bilateral and trade ties. Gul's two day visit, co-organised by the Turkish Exporters' Union (TIM) and Turkish Confederation of Industrialists and Businessmen (TUSKON), will revolve around business trade with the West African Nation.

On his part, Mills seconded Gul's commendation of relations and noted that Ghana is looking forward to conducting business with one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, attributing the Turkey's success to Gul. Mills added that Ghana will learn a lot from Turkey in areas of agriculture, training and industry.

The trade between Ghana and Turkey rose from $175 million in 2009 to $230 million in 2010. Both leaders expressed hope that the figure should grow even further this year.

Sources: GNA, My Joy Online, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation

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

Yemen prepares for mass protests

Yemen's security forces are gathering in the capital's square as news of the biggest rally to date spreads around Sana'a. The protesters are demanding that long-term President Ali Abdullah Saleh step-down immediately.

The anti-government demonstrations have grown in momentum and violence, with an estimated 50 people killed on Friday 18th March in Sana'a. In a bid to appease the increasingly angered public Saleh promised to step-down within a year, but the opposition is calling for his immediate resignation. The protesters are also demanding constitutional reforms, a change of government and the dissolution of the country's internal security.

Military troops have been deployed to various posts around the capital, to identify protesters and prevent them from taking part in the rally. On Wednesday 23rd March, Yemen's parliament passed emergency laws giving security forces permission to detain suspects and intercept demonstrations.

A top military official who defected to the opposition this week met privately with Saleh to suggest ways to resolve the situation in the country. Saleh, however, rejected the idea of stepping down or entering talks with the opposition, saying: "Even if we entered with them now into an understanding, the situation will be worse than it is now."

The defection of Maj Gen Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar on Monday 14th March is seen as a key turning point that could potentially end Saleh's 30 year rule.

Sources: BBC News, AP, Sify News

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

Kazakhstan tightens control of resources with nationalisation law

Claiming the need for predictability and clarity, on 24th March the government of Kazakhstan announced that its ability to nationalise private property was now enshrined in law. Seeking to calm the concerns of foreign investors, already concerned about growing resource nationalism in the energy sector, Economy Minister Zhanar Aitzhanova insisted that nationalisation would occur only as a last resort, and that market-based compensation would be paid out. In a choice of phrase that underlined the importance of gas and oil to Kazakhstan's economy, Aitzhanova said that nationalisation would only occur in the case of a “ threat to national security".

The nationalisation provision is already law, having been slipped into a new state property bill which was passed by Kazakhstan's rubberstamp parliament last month. Industry experts have quickly drawn a link between the ruling and the ongoing dispute between the Kazakh government and a Western-led consortium (comprising Eni, BG Group, Chevron and Lukoil) investing in the vast Karachaganak gas condensate field in northwest Kazakhstan.

The Karachaganak contracts were drawn up in the chaotic 1990s, when enterprising oilmen used post-Soviet Kazakhstan's economic upheaval and lack of negotiating knowledge to seal extremely profitable deals. As Astana has gained confidence and expertise, it has pushed back on Western investors and sought a bigger slice of the technical action and the profits. Karachaganak is now the only significant hydrocarbon project in the country without the participation of KazMunaiGas, the state energy firm.

An increasingly acrimonious dispute, featuring several lawsuits has emerged between the Karachaganak consortium and the Kazakh government. In August 2010 it was confirmed that the two sides were close to an agreement which would give KazMunaiGas a stake, and in February and March this year senior officials - including Prime Minister Karim Masimov – said that a deal would be reached this year.

Whether the nationalisation law had this project specifically in mind is unlikely: it seems that the two sides have already gone most of the way towards a solution, and suddenly nationalising the project would be a risky step. However, the lengthy tussle over the Karachaganak field has clearly been a lesson for Astana. The new law provides another tool to ensure that any future investments reap suitable rewards for Kazakhstan.

Sources: Reuters, Silk Road Intelligencer

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

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Protesters clash with riot police in Algiers

On Wednesday 23rd March, hundreds of people clashed with riot police in Algiers. The violence broke out in the early hours of the morning following an announcement by city authorities that a group of houses, built on public gardens, were there illegally and would therefore be torn-down. Reports of those injured vary: witnesses say that around 40 people were hurt, while the police says it is closer to 20, most of them being officers.

The latest clashes between Algerian people and security forces come amid rising tensions within the country over poor living conditions and unemployment. In light of the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Algerian people are growing increasingly disenchanted with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his administration.

In a bid to placate the ever-increasingly disgruntled public, Bouteflika's government has promised progress in building more houses, roads and schools. On Saturday 19th March, Bouteflika's spokesman also announced political changes, but gave no details. It has now emerged that the promised changes would include a revision of the constitution to increase the prerogatives of the parliament, anchor the independence of the judicial branch from executive power, and cap the number of presidential terms.

A senior official with Algeria's National Liberation Front, Abdelhamid Si Afif, said the government intended to “modernize Algeria without plunging into uncharted political territory and violence” and will do so in accordance with the above outlined changes.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Reuter, Euronews, BusinessLIVE

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

No Al-Qa'ida presence in the Libyan revolution

The US has reported that, despite fears of Al-Qa'ida presence in the opposition, rebelling against long- term leader Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi, it has found no evidence to support such suspicions. The US began gathering intelligence when anti-Qadhafi rebels started seizing towns in eastern Libya last month.

Speaking about the exercise, a US counter-terrorism official said: "We're keeping an eye out for extremist activity in Libya, but we haven't seen much, if any, to date.”

Eastern Libya has always been synonymous with Islamic militants, with the vast majority coming from Benghazi and nearby Derna. The US is, therefore, concerned that long-term instability may prove a fertile breeding ground for Al-Qa'ida and its subsidiaries. There is no concrete evidence, however, to suggest this may be the case.

In the past, Qadhafi has always claimed that eastern Libya has long been dominated by Al-Qa'ida, a charge vehemently contested by opposition leaders in the region. With most of Libya's domestic Islamists in prison, the anti-Qadhafi revolution is being led by ordinary people.

Speaking about it, Menas Associates Managing Director Charles Gurdon said: “Although Libya's revolution has very broad support in Cyrenaicia, its leadership structure is loose and unwieldy and includes, secular technocrats and intellectuals; more conservative tribal and religious leaders; representatives of the youth population; and some officials and military officers who defected from the regime.”

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Bellingham Herald, The Business Insider

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

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates urges Egypt to take time over elections

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has urged Egypt's interim leaders to take time over new elections, pointing out that the country's various political groups, who helped oust president Hosni Mubarak, need time to organise themselves into political parties.

During a two day visit to Cairo, Gates said he wanted to reassure Egypt of Washington's commitment to help the country transition into a democracy. The US is somewhat concerned that early elections will mostly benefit the country's main opposition party, the staunchly Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

After talks with Egypt's interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, Gates said: "I'm absolutely not going to second-guess either the Supreme Council or the interim government…I would simply say that we believe it is important to allow those new elements that have become active in Egyptian politics, some of them for the first time, to have the time to develop political parties and to develop organisation and structure," in order to “play the same kind of leading role in Egypt in the future that they played in bringing about this change in the first place."

Gates also met with Egypt's Military Leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, to whom he spoke repeatedly during the protests, and commended the country's military for protecting the Egyptian people. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Gates said: "He told me the Army would protect the people…And in everything that ensued, he and the Army kept their word."

Sources: WSJ, Reuters, AP, CNN International

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

Russia remains bitter about military action in Libya

On 17-8th March, the volunteer groups of lightly-armed revolutionaries - which had largely chased the regime out of Cyrenaica during the preceding weeks – suddenly lost their military dominance on the Gulf of Sirte's littoral highway. The regime's much more heavily armed forces, supported by both lethal air-power and hundreds of foreign mercenaries, regrouped and counter-attacked.

The revolutionaries were driven from much of the road junction and its hinterland at Ras Lanuf and, by 18th March, they appeared to have lost control of the access to the southern route behind the Jabel Al-Akhdar to Tobruq. Worse was to come in subsequent days as Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi's army marched on towards Ajedabia which fell after bitter fighting.

This then opened up the road to a final drive to the city of Benghazi – headquarters of the Interim Transitional National Council. An initial assault on Benghazi began when a squadron of tanks and support vehicles pushed into the city's outskirts. At that point, Qadhafi ordered a ceasefire which was, however, only the first of a number which were never implemented.

Events overtook the ceasefire proposals because the advances into the city motivated the international acceptance of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which was the product of intensive diplomatic efforts at the UN on the part of France and UK with background support from the US and Arab League.

In essence, the resolution provided for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libyan air space but no provision to bring in-ground forces at any stage in what was an agreement to force Colonel Qadhafi's supporters to cease their attacks on un armed civilian populations.

Resolution 1973, which was initially given little chance of being implemented, was passed by ten votes to nil in the UN General Assembly. The role of the Russians was singularly unhelpful. On 20th March, Russia demanded that indiscriminate attacks on Libya be abandoned and claimed that 48 civilians were killed in air strikes by “indiscriminate use of force ”. Ultimately, the Russians abstained from the vote but will remain bitter critics of the military action.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Wintershall joins troubled South Stream project

Wintershall has announced that it is joining Russia's South Stream pipeline project. According to a press release on 21st March, the oil arm of German chemicals firm BASF will take a15 per cent share in the offshore section of the pipeline, slated to run across the bed of the Black Sea from Russia to Europe. Wintershall's stake will be worth approximately €2 billion, out of a total cost of around €20 billion.

The move is arguably a tactical success for South Stream, a vast and complex project which has been viewed with scepticism by many energy analysts as commercially unviable. Recently, Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seemed to signal that he, and Russia's energy giant Gazprom, were backtracking on the project. At a meeting with Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko, the two men discussed the possibility of abandoning the undersea section of the project and shipping liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia's distant northern Yamal Peninsula across the Black Sea instead. The plan, which was suggested in response to Turkey's reluctance to agree to South Stream traversing its territorial zone in the Black Sea, has been widely dismissed as commercially impossible.

The agreement with Wintershall implies that the original pipeline plan remains unchanged. The message was reinforced on 22nd March when Putin travelled to Slovenia and secured an agreement between Gazprom and Slovenian gas company Geoplin Plinovodi to develop the Slovenian section of the South Stream. In addition, French electricity firm Electricite de France is anticipated to join the project later in the year. Italy's Eni is already involved as one of South Stream's founding partners, alongside Gazprom.

The involvement of European companies is critical to reassuring European governments and the EU that South Stream is indeed commercially viable. The participation of Wintershall is particularly valuable for Gazprom, since the BASF subsidiary already works on the Nord Stream pipeline, which is being built along the Baltic seabed from Russia to Germany, demonstrating its track record of working on projects which actually do get built.

Wintershall's involvement, however, and the agreement with Slovenia, cannot dispel the issues which still remain for South Stream. The fact that Russia has even raised the possibility of using LNG instead of an undersea pipeline shows that very real political and technical challenges ahead, no matter how European companies participate.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Wintershall, Bloomberg, AFP

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

US imposes additional sanctions on Libya's NOC

The US has imposed additional sanctions on Libya's National Oil Corporation's (NOC)14 subsidiaries in a bid to increase the pressure on Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi.

According to the director of the US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, Adam Szubin, the NOC and its subsidiaries have been a “a primary funding source” for the Libyan government.

Szubin also added: “Consistent with the UN Security Council Resolution 1973, all governments should block the National Oil Corporation's assets and ensure that Qadhafi cannot use this network of companies to support his activities.”

This latest move follows a number of other attempts to stop Qadhafi, including the freezing of more than $32 billion in government assets, personal as well as those of his family, senior government officials and related companies.

The US Treasury Department said it would continue monitoring the corporation's activities, positing that should the corporation's subsidiaries “come under different ownership and control”, it may consider authorising deals.

Late on Tuesday [22nd March] Qadhafi made his first television appearance since coalition forces began bombing targets in an effort to enforce a no-fly zone. The Leader remained defiant, saying: “Long live Islam everywhere. All Islamic armies must take part in the battle, all free [people] must take part in the battle…We will be victorious in the end. In the short term, we will beat them. In the long term, we will beat them."

Sources: Upstream, RTT News, Sify News

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

Vietnam: 12th National Assembly session

As Vietnam Focus went to press delegates were gathering for the final session of the 12th National Assembly before May's elections. The session will last just over a week and will tackle only five new laws: on the prevention of human trafficking, government cryptography, independent audit, and an amendment and supplement to some articles of the Code of Civil Procedures and the Law on Capital. The body will meet again in late June for the first session of the 13th National Assembly.

One of the first items of business this week was the Vinashin affair. The Assembly has been very vocal in recent months, especially after its November and December session, in which delegate Nguyen Minh Thuyet from Lang Son attempted to bring a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for his mismanagement of the shipping conglomerate. His bid was ultimately rejected.

Vinashin was again a lead item in the final session, but those who hoped some blame would be assigned within the government will have been disappointed. On the opening day, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung, who is the former minister for finance, announced that no individuals or organisations other those already under investigation would be held responsible for the mismanagement of Vinashin and its losses of $4.4 billion.

The Politburo considered that the violations outside of Vinashin itself were not serious and that those involved within the economic group had already drawn enough criticism and would learn from the events.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

South Sudan seeks peacekeeping force for border

The UN Security Council met on Monday 21st March to discuss the situation in Sudan, and Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the South's Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) said he asked the council to consider deploying a new peacekeeping force at the border.

According to AllAfrica, the meeting was an unofficial sitting of the council, held in response to a request from a people's organisation in the US on the disputed Abyei region, although this has not been confirmed.

In a statement to Sudan's SUNA newspaper, Khalid Musa , the spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the request for an unofficial meeting reflects an 'unjustifiable trend towards escalation', resulting from the failure of some circles in South Sudan to solve their own political issues.

Musa said the Sudan's envoy to the UN had made available all the facts for the Security Council and reiterated his government's commitment to the peaceful solution of all issues.

Speaking after the meeting, Amum said that the UN would be involved in investigating the Northern National Congress Party 's aid to the renegade general, George Athor , that the SPLM/A is currently fighting. The south has in recent weeks accused the north of working to destabilise the South, and has recently withdrawn from talks.

The two sides have also bickered over UN Mission in Sudan head Haile Menkerios 's flying to Abyei on a UN helicopter with Ahmed Haroun , an NCP member who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.

Amum said that Menkerios was wrong for flying with Haroun, but according to Inner City Press , UN Peacekeeping Assistant Secretary-General Atul Khare criticised the SPLM for not granting it access.

South Sudan is preparing to declare its independence from Sudan in July, following an independence referendum in January, but the transition preparations have been overshadowed by violence in recent weeks. There has been considerable violence in the disputed border area of Abyei, as well as within South Sudan between supporters of rebel general Athor and the SPLA.

Amum said he asked the council to think about deploying a new peacekeeping force to the border, but it is not yet clear how that request was received.

Sources: Canadian Press, Inner City Press, AllAfrica

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

Former director general of GBC might sue over corruption allegations

The former director general of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), William Ampem-Darko, has given the National Media Commission (NMC) two weeks to provide concrete evidence of corruption during his directorship.

Ampem-Darko, whose appointment with the state broadcaster was terminated on 15th March, said that the failure to do so would force him to take legal action against the NMC in order to protect his reputation. He told Joy FM that he would not sit by whilst “unsubstantiated allegations of malfeasance and graft” were used to destroy his image.

On 24th November last year, the NMC asked Ampem-Darko to proceed on indefinite leave while a committee investigated allegations of wrongdoing against him. Ampem-Darko claims that he was not informed of the outcome of the investigation prior to his dismissal.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Egypt's Interior Ministry set on fire amid protests

Reports from Egypt have confirmed that the country's Interior Ministry is on fire in downtown Cairo, following protests by policemen and civilian employees, demanding salary increases, earlier in the day.

The protesters have denied setting the building on fire, saying it began inside. Earlier, Egyptian security forces surrounded the ministry to prevent the demonstrators from storming it.

Before the fire broke out, thousans of demonstrators made their way to the site through Tahrir Square, the place where the protests that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak began, and in the direction of the state television and radio offices.

Speaking about the latest wave of protests, Egypt's Interior Minister Mansour El-Essawy said the protesters were also asking for increased health benefits, and promised to consider their demands.

Sources: USA Today, Bloomberg, AP, ABC News, CNN

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

Iraq to hold fourth energy bidding round in November

Iraq's Oil Minister Abdulkareem Luaibi has said the country's fourth energy bidding round would be held in November. The minister added that there would be 12 explorations blocs on offer to international oil companies.

Luaibi said that 70 per cent of the offered blocs would contain natural gas and the rest a combination of both oil and gas. Speaking to the press in Baghdad, he said: "We think that these 12 blocks contain at least 29 trillion cubic feet of [non-associated] gas.”

So far, Iraq has held three international bidding rounds since 2009 in an attempt to attract foreign investment and boost the country's economy.

Luaibi also noted that "global oil prices are moving toward $120 a barrel. We consider this an acceptable price that will not harm global growth".

Iraq expects its oil output to reach over 6 million b/d by 2014, forecasting an output of 2.75 million b/d for this year; a rise to 3.3 million b/d in 2012; 4.5 million b/d in 2013; and 6.5 million b/d in 2014.

Sources: AP, CB Online, Kipp Report, Reuters, Dow Jones Newswire

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

US warplane F-15E Eagle crash lands in Benghazi

A US warplane, F-15E Eagle, has crash landed in Libya after a mechanical failure. The two crew members on the plane were ejected to safety; one has been recovered by US forces, while the other is in the process of being rescued.

The plane crashed east of Benghazi in rebel held territory just after mid-night local time. It was discovered by a journalist working for The Daily Telegraph.

The US military confirmed that one of its jets had crash landed but said that it had not been shot down. A spokesman for the US military's African Command Vince Crawley confirmed that one crew member had been recovered and the other was "in process of recovery".

The F-15E Eagle is the first coalition warplane that has crash in Libya following the third night of air strikes. The crash comes shortly after British minister contradicted senior military commanders suggesting that coalition forces can legitimately target Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen Sir David Richards, said that targeting Qadhafi was, in fact, not allowed under the terms of the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973. The issue was further complicated when Britain's Defence Secretary Liam Fox suggested that Qadhafi could indeed be a "legitimate target", an opinion which was later seconded by No 10 who insisted it was legal to target anyone killing Libyan civilians.

Foreign Secretary William Hague refused to rule out an attack on the Libyan leader, telling BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "I'm not going to speculate on the targets…That depends on the circumstances at the time."

Sources: BBC News, The Daily Telegraph, Fox News

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

Petroceltic announces encouraging early results from Isarene well

Petroceltic has discovered "larger-than-expected" quantities of gas in AT-5 well on the Isarene permit in Algeria. The drilling, which began on 9th January, reached a total depth of 2,049 metres on 2nd March after drilling delays caused by equipment failures on the contracted drilling rig.

Logs at AT-5 showed the objective Ordovician reservoir to be fully gas bearing, and a gross gas column of 75.5 metres was logged, with no gas water contact seen in the well. The company is testing what it calls a “major pop-up” feature in the north of the field associated with enhanced un-stimulated gas productivity.

Petroceltic's Chief executive Brian O'Cathain said: "The results of well AT-5 are encouraging to date, the presence of natural fractures at this location augurs well for the test results, and the overall gas column logged was greater than expected at this location.”

Sources: Irish Independent, Oil Voice, Petroceltic Investors

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

At least 70 killed during clashes in South Sudan

Reports have emerged that at least 70 people have been killed during two days of fighting between South Sudan's army and rebels in three oil-producing states in the south. According to Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) spokesman the fighting broke out in Unity and Upper Nile states on Thursday 17th March.

The spokesman said that at least 70 people were killed during the clashes, including 34 South Sudan soldiers and 36 members of a rebel group led by former general George Athor.

Last week, after similar clashes in Jonglei state, South Sudan's government accused the North's President Omar Al-Bashir of trying to destabilise the South before it declares independence in July. An estimated 99 per cent of South Sudanese backed secession in January's referendum, part of a 2005 peace treaty between the North and the South after decades of conflict.

The conflict between SPLA and Athor's rebels erupted in April last year after the latter alleged fraud in State elections. The rebel leader, however, agreed to a ceasefire earlier this year.

Yet, shortly before the week-long referendum South Sudan's government accused the North of using Athor to derail the smooth running of the vote. Both the rebel leader and Khartoum dismissed the allegations as baseless. The ongoing conflict between the Noth and the South has forced Juba to suspend talks with Khartoum about the impending secession. It is yet unclear when and if the talks will be resumed.

Sources: BBC News, RTT News, AFP, Reuters

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

Monday, 21 March 2011

Egypt's referendum hailed as a success

An estimated 18.5 million, out of 45 million eligible voters, turned up for Saturday's [19th March] referendum. Organising commission chairman Mohammed Attiya said that 14 million Egyptians approved the constitutional amendments, and the remainder 4 million voted “no”.

Egyptian daily Al-Ahram said the referendum was a "win for democracy," a view that was seconded by the State owned Al-Gomhuria: "Everybody has won in this referendum, whether they voted yes or no."

Egypt's main opposition group, banned under former president Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), used its clout and organisational skills to crusade for a "yes" vote. The youth groups, largely responsible for ousting Mubarak, however, called for a “no” vote, saying that the deadlines set by the military were too tight and that the constitutional changes were simply too narrow.

The Coalition of the Revolution's Youth urged supporters to respect the result of the "historic democratic process" and posted the following statement on its Facebook page: "We are now on the doorstep of a new era, in which Egyptians will shape their state for decades to come... we must work to carry on fulfilling the ambitions of the revolution.”

US ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey said the referendum was "an important step towards realising the aspirations of the 25 January revolution".

Sources: AFP, BBC News, The Guardian

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

Yemen: Government and military officials begin defecting

Several of Yemen's senior military officials have defected, others have voiced support for the anti-government protests calling for Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. The head of the north western military zone Maj Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh said he had deployed army units to protect the protesters. Among the most senior of the officers to defect is Maj Gen Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, a long-time confidant of Saleh and commander of the army's 1st Armoured Division.

A number of other officials including, Brigadier Hameed Al Koshebi, Brigadier Nasser Eljahori, Gen Ali Abdullaha Aliewa, rallied behind Maj Gen Saleh and defected. The move came a day after President Saleh dismissed the cabinet following news that at least 45 people were killed on Friday [18th March] by government related groups. Other resignations include those of Yemen's Ambassador to Syria Abdel-Wahhab Tawaf and the Ambassador to Japan.

Yemen's formal political opposition Joint Meetings Parties (JMP) expressed support for the military officials, and took to the streets on Saturday [19th March] in a show of support for the protesters. A spokeman for the group Mohammed Qahtan said: “President Ali Abdullah Saleh will now see that change is a must”. Asked whether the group would participate in the formation of new government, that Saleh is trying to put in place, Qahtan added: “It is not possible that the JMP will participate in the new government if Saleh is president.”

The US has expressed strong criticism over the way Saleh has handled the protests. President Barak Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, reportedly telephoned Saleh on Sunday [20th March] to say that “any Yemeni government, no matter what its composition, must refrain from violence against protesters and support the right of the people of Yemen to engage in peaceful assembly…Any government must also support political change that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people”.

Brennan also commended Saleh for ordering an investigation into the bloody clashes on Friday, and urged him “to follow through on that effort, and to ensure that anyone who has committed acts of violence is held accountable.”

Sources: New York Times, The Guardian, BBC News, FT

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

Libya: Playing on religion

Alongside its strategy of employing brute military force, the regime has also been making efforts through other channels to resolve the situation. Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi is still trying to reach out to some of the eastern tribes, offering them incentives in a bid to neutralise them.

The regime is also playing on the religious sensibilities of the Libyans. It has made appeals to a number of influential Saudi Islamic scholars, including Sheikh Salman Al-Awda and Sheikh Aaidh ibn Abdullah al-Qarni, asking them to impress upon Libyans that it is Islamically unacceptable to rise up against one's rulers.

This was presumably a bid to capitalise on the popularity that Saif al-Islam gained by inviting figures such as these to Libya last year in sup¬port of his de-radicalisation initiative with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. However, while these scholars may have been willing to play ball where the de-radicalisation programme was concerned, they have unsurprisingly proved com¬pletely unwilling to back the regime in this way.

The last rather desperate tactic on this front was to wheel Sa'adi Qadhafi out on state television. Dressed in a long white jalaba and sporting a beard, surrounded by religious books and quot¬ing from the Qu'ran, Sa'adi explained to Libyans that they should not rise up against the state.

This is not quite as bizarre as it appears. Although Sa'adi is known these days primarily for his love of football and his penchant for parties and Hollywood actresses, he went through a religious phase in the 1990s, so much so that Qadhafi senior was reportedly worried about him. Therefore his being the one to try to tap into religious sensibilities was not so surprising. Such attempts, however, are unlikely to have cut much ice with the opposition.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

NNPC negotiating Brass Liquefied Natural Gas project with international partners

There are reports that Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is currently in negotiation with LNG Japan and Itochu Corporation and the US-based Sempra Energy, to jointly acquire 9 per cent of NNPC's stake in the Brass Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project. Negotiations are said to have reached an advanced stage and will soon be concluded. NNPC currently has a 49 per cent stake in the potentially hugely lucrative project, whilst ConocoPhillips, Eni and Total each hold 17 per cent stakes in the project which is located in Bayelsa State.

As part of the Federal Government's Niger Delta post amnesty policy the NNPC will cede 10 per cent of its stake in the Brass LNG project to Rivers and Bayelsa States, under the scheme to allow host States to own stakes in such projects. This means that if the current negotiations are indeed successful the NNPC will only hold a 30 percent stake in Brass LNG after ceding 9 per cent to the consortium and 10 percent to the Bayelsa and Rivers State Governments.

Long fuel queues have suddenly returned to most of Nigeria's major cities. On Friday 18th March residents in Abuja and Lagos State awoke to the reality of fuel scarcity and the resultant queues.

The NNPC has not yet made any statement on the reasons for this recent fuel scarcity. Some observers believe that, unless the fuel scarcities are quickly resolved, it could definitely have an adverse effect on President Goodluck Jonathan's popularity in the presidential polls which is now less than a month away.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

The dissolution of the DRS

There is very rarely much reference to, least of all discussion about, the DRS in the media. It is perhaps significant that El Watan , in particular, has devoted quite a lot of column space this week to its inevitable reconstitution.

We have frequently opined that the DRS cannot continue in its current form and must inevitably be restructured. Its fundamental problem is that the nature of its mandate ' the security of the state' inevitably means that it, or rather its director, accrues more and more power to himself, to the point that a series of ' strong men' , now General Mohamed Mediène, acquire so much power that they effectively become the 'state' , or at least its most powerful person.

That, in itself, is a threat to the state's security, as we have seen throughout much of the last few years in the case of Mediène. Chadli succeeded in restructuring it for a while. Zeroual tried and failed. Bouteflika also tried and failed.

The fact that newspapers such as El Watan can give long editorial discussion to the subject, questioning whether the DRS is actually the department of intelligence and security or the ' real power' , and can openly discuss proposals that it should be radically reconstituted (as Chadli had almost succeeded in doing), is indicative of the mode taking hold in the country for ' significant' and perhaps even ' radical' change.

Indeed, the FFS , which is now beginning to play a more prominent role in the call for radical change, has long argued for the ' necessary dissolution' of the ' political police', arguing that the existence and practices of political police (such as the DRS ) are incompatible with a state based on law. Again, the media, in the principle form of El Watan , has given much space this week to the expression of the views of the FFS ' first secretary, Karim Tabbou, whose arguments on why the political police should be done away with will not make comfortable reading for General Mediène.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Libyan regime is planning to plant dead bodies at strategic sites

Today Menas Associates has heard from our sources in Tripoli that the regime is planning to trick the world into believing that that Allied aerial attacks against strategic targets has led to many civilian deaths.

In recent weeks the bodies of the numerous civilians who have been killed by the regime's forces in and around Tripoli and Zawiya have not been handed back to their relatives. Instead they have been taken away by the regime and have reportedly been stored in morgues.

Foreign minister Musa Kusa has now publicly called on volunteers to go to strategic sites that the Allied aircraft might strike and act as human shields. We have heard from very reliable sources in Tripoli, however, that the real plan is to plant the bodies of the already dead civilians at these sites and then claim that they have been killed by the Allies.

This will be done to discredit the Allies, sow doubt in the Arab street about the air-raids, and bolster support amongst the regime's own supporters.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Libya declares an immediate ceasefire

Libya has declared an immediate ceasefire after UN Security Council backed a no-fly zone over the country; the resolution also gave UN members permission to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians. Anti-government protesters in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi greeted the news of UN's resolution with cheers and celebratory fireworks.

Libya's Foreign Minister Musa Kusa said the ceasefire was intended "to protect civilians". The announcement came amid heavy fighting between Colonel Mu'ammar Qadhafi loyalists and rebels.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 gave broad backing to taking military action against all threats to civilians. Speaking about the resolutions, President of the Justice and Democracy Party of Libya Hadi Shalluf said the anti-government protesters would welcome UN peacekeepers in Libya to help enforce the no-fly zone on the ground. Shalluf said: “All the Libyans now, they are very, very happy even as this resolution is coming very, very late. But we are really glad and then happy. Today, just now in Benghazi where the people go outside singing, and then dancing, and are very, very happy about this resolution.”

Shalluf also thanked both the US and France for their part in making the no-fly zone resolution possible, adding “We would like to say thank you to Mr Obama and then we would like to say thank you to Mr Sarkozy and Mr. (Alain) Juppe, the French president and foreign minister about what they did for the Libyan people.”

Speaking shortly after Libya declared ceasefire, Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain would judge Qadhafi "by his actions not his words". He added: “What is absolutely clear is the UN Security Council resolution said he must stop what he is doing, brutalising his people. If not, all necessary measures can follow to make him stop…That is what we agreed last night, that is what we are preparing for and we'll judge him by what he does."

Sources: BBC News, Voice of America, Reuters, New York Times

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

Armenia protests gather pace

Could the Arab Spring spread to the Christian former Soviet republic of Armenia? During a large and determined rally in Yerevan on 17th March, opposition leaders were confident that President Serzh Sarkisian would be the next leader to be swept aside by people power. Former president Levon Ter-Petrosian, the leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (ANC) said that “the events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere will happen in Armenia as well”.

Around 10,000 people are believed to have joined the rally, which moved across the city to occupy Freedom Square. The square has special resonance for opposition figures: in March 2008, security forces killed eight as they drove out thousands who had been protesting fraud in the elections which brought President Sarkisian to power.

The authorities treated the 17th March rally more carefully: riot police withdrew from the square's perimeter to allow the demonstrators to move in. It remains to be seen whether they will continue to exercise restraint until 31st March, when the wave of demonstrations is due to end. The presence of international diplomats and parliamentarians in Yerevan may, analysts argue, be one factor behind the government's soft approach, which included releasing several political prisoners.

Street protests are nothing new in Armenia, but the recent wave – which started on 1st March, the anniversary of the 2008 crackdown – have sought to capitalise on an economic crisis, the government's lack of accountability, and the example of the uprisings in the Middle East.

The rally was led by the charismatic if controversial Ter-Petrosian, who resigned in 1998. His ANC has been the most coherent and popular opposition group in recent years, although Ter-Petrosian's polarising character and divisions with other opposition parties have limited its appeal. The latest protests, however, have seen relative – and perhaps temporary - unity amongst anti-government groups. The leader of the nationalist Heritage Party, Raffi Hovannisian, went on hunger strike on March 15th, demanding early elections - also the demand of the ANC.

Opposition figures are keen to stress that unlike the Arab uprisings, the Armenian protests will remain non-violent. If they remain so, the authorities will probably tolerate them or try to disrupt them non-violently, through restricting transport to Yerevan on the day of large rallies (a tactic which has been used throughout March). Previous high-profile street campaigns have fizzled out and President Sarkisian may be calculating that the latest round also fades without forcing him to make significant concessions. But given Armenia's deepening economic woes and the tide of protests to the south, this could be a dangerous gamble.

Sources: Eurasianet, AFP, Armenia Liberty, ArmeniaNow.com

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

Iran: Azar handed to domestic contractors

Petroleum Engineering and Development Company (PEDEC) managing director Naji Sa'douni announced that Iran will not wait for Russia's Gazprom to develop the Azar oil field and that a $1.5 billion contract will soon be signed with an Iranian consortium instead.

In late October 2009, PEDEC had signed an MoU with Gazprom Neft for the potential development of Azar and Changuleh fields, giving the Russian company a three-month deadline to offer a development plan.

Industry insiders say that Gazprom Neft's offer to develop the Azar field was not given in good faith. Because Gazprom was also working on developing the Iraqi side of the field, namely Badra, its offer to Iran was made to gain an advantage in negotiations with Iraq and to gain access to Iran's information on the field.

It therefore comes as no surprise that Gazprom has not initiated the project and that Iran is seeking to hand it over to domestic contractors.

Also significant, however, is that technocrats within the Ministry of Petroleum and NIOC have always hesitated to sign a development contract with a Russian company – considering that Russian technology would be inferior to what the projects would require.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Divisions in the country have put the army in a quandary

When the army first announced that it was appointing a distinguished jurist Tariq Al Bishri to oversee a committee to supervise the proposed amendments to the constitution, the move was broadly welcomed. The committee recommended limiting the number of terms a president serves, allowing for opposition candidates to stand, ensuring judicial supervision of elections and restricting the imposition of emergency powers.

Another proposed change stipulates more stringent nationality criteria for presidential candidates, banning those with dual citizenship or a foreign parent or wife.

Egypt is used to having referenda — and traditionally, the full force of the state has been deployed to ensure that nothing less than a thumping majority in favour of the government is achieved.

This time is different. There is no regime to call the shots. The groundswell of opposition to the changes has been growing. Some jurists have objected on procedural grounds.

They say there was insufficient time and consultation over the changes.

Increasingly, opposition has been voiced by those calling for more radical changes to the constitution, not tinkering. The issue has polarised opinion even among the reformers.

There are those who feel that voting “Yes” would be the least bad option and help the army return to barracks more quickly.

The divisions put the army in a quandary. It had set a sixmonth timetable for handing over power to a new civilian authority. It now finds that the myriad of organisations within the protest movement which called for the immediate departure of President Mubarak are now calling for more time before elections are held and more time to draw up a new constitution.

What will happen if the people vote against the amendments? The army will, in effect, have to come up with a Plan B. They are being asked by the people — or at least those who led the protests — to stay out of their barracks a little longer to give the new political forces time to prepare.

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

© 2011 Menas Associates

Kazakhstan plans to carry on with its nuclear programme

Kazakhstan's Vice Minister of Industry and New Technology Duisenbai Turganov told a conference in Astana that the government believes that the “construction of a nuclear power plant should take place” irrespective of the ongoing crisis in Japan.

Turganov added: “We hold the world's second-largest uranium reserves, and we are in front of everyone in terms of production. Allah himself has commanded us to engage in this industry." He said the events in Japan “have given rise to radiophobia," and confirmed Khazakhstan's plans to build a nuclear power plant, but noted: "It goes without saying that there must be a thorough selection of projects and significant attention must be paid to security."

Kazakhstan signed an agreement with three Japanese companies – Toshiba, Marubeni and Japco – last September to build a new plant. The programme is still in its early stages, and the location of the plant and other details are yet to be announced. The country holds more than 15 per cent of global uranium reserves; Australia is the only other country to hold more uranium in the ground.

Sources: The Daily Telegraph, Reuters, Bloomberg

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