Sub-Saharan Africa: 44 African leaders sign deal to create the African Continental Free Area; Boko Haram releases most of the schoolgirls it abducted in Yobe state last month.
Americas: Brazilian appeals court rejects final procedural objections raised by former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva against corruption conviction; Three Ecuadorian soldiers killed in roadside bomb attack near border with Colombia.
Asia-Pacific: Kim Jong-un visits Beijing; Air New Zealand calls for tougher regulation of civilian drones and operators after near-miss at Auckland Airport.
Europe and Central Asia: German court extends detention of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont after European Arrest Warrant reactivated; Over 100 Russian diplomats expelled from more than 20 countries.
Middle East and North Africa: Egypt holding presidential elections; Saudi air defences intercept seven ballistic missiles fired from Yemen by Houthi rebels.
The leaders of 44 African countries signed a deal in Rwanda on 21 March to create the African Continental Free Area (CFTA). The agreement is designed to create a free trade zone to boost trade across Africa by eliminating or lowering tariffs and setting regulations for all member countries. Nearly a decade in the making, this agreement is a tangible step forward towards the goal of a pan-African economy that can compete on the global stage. Trade between African countries is currently relatively low. The CFTA will be one of the world’s largest free trade blocs; however, 10 countries, including Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, have thus far refused to sign the deal. It will also need to be ratified by all the signatories’ national parliaments.
On 21 March, Boko Haram released more than 100 of the schoolgirls it abducted last month from a school in Dapchi in Yobe state in north-eastern Nigeria. A militant reportedly told one of the girl’s aunts that five of the girls had died on the day that they were taken and a sixth girl – a Christian – had been killed after refusing to convert to Islam (other reports state that she is still being held). According to an Amnesty International report, the army and police had been warned that Boko Haram would abduct the girls but made no attempt to stop them. The return of most of the abducted children was attributed to Boko Haram’s desire to maintain the ceasefire it has with the Nigerian government. There is also speculation over what the government might have offered the militants in terms of ransoms or prisoner swaps. In 2014, Boko Haram abducted nearly 300 girls from their school in Chibok in neighbouring Borno state. Many have since been released, but over 100 of those girls are still believed to be being held by the Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau.
On 26 March, a Brazilian appeals court rejected final procedural objections raised by lawyers of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva against his conviction for corruption. In January, the appeals court in Porto Alegre had upheld Lula’s conviction and increased his sentence to more than 12 years. However, Lula will remain free until at least 4 April, when the country’s Supreme Court will decide whether to accept his request that he be allowed to exhaust his appeals process before being imprisoned. Lula insists the charges of corruption are politically motivated. The former president has said he intends to run for office again in the election scheduled for October. He remains one of Brazil’s most popular politicians after overseeing years of robust growth and falling inequality during his presidency.
Three Ecuadorian soldiers were killed and at least seven other people were injured by a roadside bomb in Mataje, Esmeraldas province, in north-western Ecuador on 20 March. The explosion targeted a patrol carrying out ‘surveillance and control’ operations on the border with Colombia according to the Ecuadorian communications ministry. The attack came only two days after two soldiers were wounded in an attack by an unidentified armed group in the province, while a police vehicle was damaged by a bomb in a separate incident. Security forces in the province have been targeted in a series of attacks since the start of the year. The biggest attack occurred on 27 January, when a car bomb explosion at a police facility left 28 soldiers and civilians wounded. The Ecuador blamed the attack on former FARC guerrillas working for Mexican drug cartels along the border. The Ecuadorian president, Lenin Moreno, has ordered reinforcements to the border area.
A senior North Korean official arrived in the Chinese capital, Beijing, in an armoured train on 25 March. Japanese media showed an image of a distinctive green train similar to the kind that Kim Jong-il used during foreign visits. The Beijing railway bureau warned of multiple train delays in the Beijing region. There was also heightened security around the Great Hall of the People, the Diaoyutai State Guest House and the North Korean embassy. The train departed Beijing on 28 March. There was media speculation at the time that the official may have been the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. This was later confirmed by Chinese state media. The ‘unofficial’ visit is Kim’s first foreign trip since becoming supreme leader, and comes ahead of planned meetings with the South Korean president in April and the US president in May. For North Korea, the visit was likely intended to improve relations with its closest ally, which have been tested recently by Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme and Beijing’s backing of sanctions against North Korea in the UN Security Council. For China, the visit was likely intended to ensure that it is not sidelined during North Korea’s ongoing and unexpected diplomatic efforts. During the visit, Kim reportedly pledged to the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, his commitment to denuclearising the Korean peninsula, though this should be seen as a long-term political intent rather than a change in policy.
Air New Zealand has called for tougher regulation of civilian drones and operators after a near-miss at Auckland Airport on 25 March. Flight NZ92 from Tokyo was coming in to land when aircrew spotted a drone. The pilots were unable to take evasive action, and the drone passed within 5 m of the airliner. It is not known who was operating the drone at the time. Current rules forbid the use of drones within 2.4 miles of an airport, with breaches punishable by a NZ$5,000 (£2,500) fine. The increasing popularity of consumer drones has led to numerous near-misses between drones and other aircraft. While geofencing can be built into drone firmware to exclude them from restricted airspace, such as around airports, the technology is not a legal requirement in most countries. Further similar incidents are likely until governments bring in tighter regulations on the civilian use of drones. Airports and other potentially dangerous or sensitive sites may also have to install passive and active measures to counter accidental or malicious targeting by drone operators.Air New Zealand calls for tougher regulation of civilian drones and operators after near-miss at Auckland Airport.Click To Tweet
Europe and Central Asia
A German court in Neumünster in Schleswig-Holstein state has extended the detention of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. He was travelling by car from Finland to Brussels when he was detained on 25 March in Germany after a European Arrest Warrant issued by a Spanish judge was reactivated. Puigdemont may be extradited to Spain, where he faces sedition charges for his role in the October 2017 independence referendum and subsequent declaration of independence from Spain by the Catalan parliament. Demonstrators in Catalonia continue to block roads in Barcelona and across the autonomous community in protest at Puigdemont’s detention. Earlier in March, the former president’s lawyers submitted a complaint to the UN human rights committee alleging that Spain has violated his right to participate in political life by forcing him into exile in Belgium.
Over 20 countries have expelled a total of more than 100 Russian diplomats in a global response to the attempted assassination of a Russian double agent in the United Kingdom on 4 March. The British prime minister, Theresa May, concluded that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack, which left Sergei Skripal, his daughter and a British police officer critically ill. Skripal is a British citizen. The United Kingdom has already expelled 23 Russian ‘undeclared intelligence officers’ and suspended planned high-level contacts with Russia. The new expulsions come after the EU and United States agreed with the British conclusion that Russia was likely behind the attack. On 27 March, the Australian government announced that it would expel two Russian diplomats suspected of being undeclared intelligence officers. Russia called the expulsions around the world a ‘provocative gesture’, and has vowed to retaliate. It is uncertain whether this retaliation will be proportional, in the form of similar expulsions, or an escalation, such as economic sanctions, cutting off Russian gas supplies to Europe or launching cyber offensives. Moscow has already expelled 23 British diplomats, ordered the British Council to cease activities in Russia and withdrawn permission for the British Consulate in St Petersburg to reopen.Will Russia's retaliation for expulsions be proportional, in the form of similar expulsions, or an escalation, such as economic sanctions, cutting off Russian gas supplies to Europe or launching cyber offensives?Click To Tweet
Middle East and North Africa
Egypt is holding a presidential election on 26-28 March. The results will be announced on 2 April, with a run-off taking place towards the end of the month if necessary. The current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is expected to win a second and final term, as all the other candidates bar one were prevented from standing or withdrew following arrest or pressure from el-Sisi. The only ‘opposition’ to the incumbent comes from Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who is an ally of the president and is thought to have only stood to stop the election becoming a farce. While the continuation of el-Sisi’s rule will maintain relative stability in the country, the ongoing corruption and human rights violations by his government will mean that an environment of political and civil tension will continue.
Saudi forces shot down several ballistic missiles over Riyadh on 25 March. Houthi rebels fired three missiles on the Saudi capital and four others against the southern cities of Khamis Mushait, Jizan and Najran, which were also intercepted by Saudi air defences. Houthi media claimed the weapons were aimed at airports in Riyadh and the other cities. One person was killed and two others injured in Riyadh by debris from the destroyed missiles. This is the first time that a Houthi missile attack has caused casualties in the Saudi capital. The coalition has accused the Houthis of using Iranian-made missiles and said that it reserves the right to respond to Iran. The missile barrage marks an escalation of cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia ahead of the third anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war. The war in Yemen has created what the United Nations considers to be the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.