Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 4 April 2017: Protests in South Africa, US and Chinese presidents to meet, UK triggers Article 50

The weekly briefing, 4 April 2017: Protests in South Africa, US and Chinese presidents to meet, UK triggers Article 50

by Kirsten Winterman, Raphaël Zaffran and Matthew Clarke

Briefing photo

Summary

Africa: UN Security Council unanimously renews MONUSCO mandate in DR Congo; protests in South Africa over president’s removal of finance minister and eight other cabinet members.

Americas: US president claims United States can ‘solve’ North Korea nuclear threat without help of China; left-wing ruling party candidate set to win second round of Ecuadorian presidential election.

Asia-Pacific: Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye detained during investigation into corruption, abuse of power and bribery; Filipino president removes head of the Department of the Interior and Local Government amid accusations of corruption.

Europe and Central Asia: United Kingdom submits letter to president of the European Council triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty; Turkmenistan inaugurates $1 billion potash plant built by Belarus, potentially increasing tensions with Russia.

Middle East and North Africa: Egyptian court overturns earlier ruling and rules in favour of transferring islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia; UN special envoy for Syria crisis to continue his term indefinitely.

Africa

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The UN Security Council unanimously renewed the mandate for the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) on 31 March. The UN is expected to reduce the number of troops for MONUSCO from 19,815 to 16,215, though it is not thought that this reduction will have a negative effect on the mission. The resolution is the first adopted since the United States began its review of the 16 UN peacekeeping missions that are currently underway as part of its efforts to cut foreign aid. MONUSCO is the largest and most expensive UN mission; however, the decision to renew the mandate is unsurprising – particularly in light of warnings that violence in DRC is likely to spread prior to the elections in the country scheduled for April 2018. Violence has been increasing in the central province of Kasai since August 2016 after government forces killed the tribal chief and rebel leader Kamwina Nsapu.

South Africa

Protests have broken out in South Africa in a series of demonstrations against the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, after a cabinet reshuffle on 31 March in which nine ministers were fired. Zuma’s removal of the finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his replacement with the home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba is particularly controversial. Gordhan is highly respected by investors, and was seen as a stabilising force within the South African government; his replacement, Gigba, has little economics experience, but is seen as loyal to Zuma. A social media campaign with the tag ‘Black Monday’ has called for South Africans to protest against Zuma while wearing black. The largest protest, with the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, is due on 7 April in the country’s capital, Johannesburg. Despite repeated scandals, Zuma remains popular in rural South Africa. It is too soon to assess the likely ramifications of the sacking for Zuma’s grip on power; however, the scale of the fallout is notable, with criticism coming from the deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and other ANC officials and all of South Africa’s main opposition parties.

Americas

United States

Ahead of a state visit by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, the US president, Donald Trump, has indicated that the United States will ‘solve’ the North Korea nuclear threat even without the help of China. Both China and the United States fear that North Korea might one day develop the necessary capabilities to launch long-range nuclear missiles. However, China has maintained diplomatic and economic links with Pyongyang, as it fears the collapse of the North and the eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula. The Trump administration argues that the Chinese stance has undercut diplomatic pressure and international sanctions against North Korea. Despite Trump’s recent statement to the contrary, the White House knows that it cannot resolve the North Korea question by itself. It will likely attempt to pressure China to play its part by calling out Chinese leaders on their recently self-assigned global leadership role. Following numerous scandals that have marred his first months in office, Trump will also likely try and use what constitutes one of his administration’s most pressing security concerns in order to change the subject and assert perceived leadership.

Despite US president's claims, the United States cannot solve the North Korea nuclear problem without ChinaClick To Tweet

Ecuador

The left-wing ruling party candidate, Lenin Moreno, looks set to win the second round of the presidential election in Ecuador and become the country’s next president. His conservative challenger, Guillermo Lasso, had been predicted to win the election following the first round in February. Lasso has challenged the result and asked for a recount. Moreno’s likely victory prompted unrest in several cities, including the capital, Quito, and the country’s largest city, Guayaquil. Should Moreno’s victory be confirmed, he is likely to largely follow in the footsteps of the left-wing incumbent president, Rafael Correa, who won three elections. On the other hand, Lasso had promised a policy programme that favoured business and promoted austerity.

Asia-Pacific

South Korea

The former South Korean president Park Geun-hye has been detained at a detention facility south of Seoul after the Seoul Central District Court issued a warrant for her arrest the day after a nine-hour court hearing on 29 March into allegations of corruption, abuse of power and bribery. In a statement, the court said that key charges were justifiable and the chance that evidence will be destroyed meant that Park must be detained while the investigation continued. Park can be held for 20 days without charge. The case involves allegations that Park granted a close friend access to government information that she then used to extort money from companies in exchange for political favours. Park was impeached and ousted from office in March. If found guilty, she faces up to 10 years in prison. Her political ally Hwang Kyo-ahn is now acting president, with elections scheduled for 9 May 2017.

Philippines

On 4 April, the Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, removed his close ally Ismael Sueno from his position as head of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) over a ‘loss of trust and confidence’. Sueno’s summary dismissal is the latest in a string of sackings of senior ministers on grounds of corruption. Three undersecretaries at the DILG have accused Sueno of corruption, including abuse of power and questionable wealth and business dealings. Corruption is a pervasive and longstanding problem in the Philippines. Duterte made much of his anti-corruption stance during the election, and has a history of removing apparently corrupt individuals from office. The government has not yet announced who will become the new head of the DILG.

Europe and Central Asia

United Kingdom

On 29 March, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, submitted an official letter from the British prime minister, Theresa May, to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In doing so, the United Kingdom has taken the first official step in leaving the European Union. Official negotiations over the exit terms will begin when EU leaders meet on 29 April and should be concluded by 28 March 2019. In a blow to the government, the EU has for now ruled out starting tandem negotiations over a future trade deal between the United Kingdom and the EU, further adding to the political and economic uncertainty that Brexit is creating. On 25 March, thousands of demonstrators marched in central London to protest against Brexit and EU leaders met in Rome to sign a formal declaration of unity at the EU’s 60th anniversary summit. The British government will now begin work on a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to turn all EU law into UK law on the day that the country leaves the EU.

Lack of negotiations over a future trade deal between the United Kingdom and the EU adds to the uncertainty around BrexitClick To Tweet

Turkmenistan

On 31 March, Turkmenistan inaugurated a $1 billion potash plant built by state-owned Belarus Potash Company, also known as Belaruskali, during an official state visit by the Belarussian president, Alexander Lukashenko. Potash is largely produced for use in fertilisers, and Turkmenistan hopes that the new plant will lead to the export over 1.2 million tonnes of fertiliser to large neighbouring markets, such as China and India. The move will likely mark a historic turn in Turkmenistan’s economic strategy as it diversifies from its reliance on natural gas exports. The new plant is also likely to increase cooperation between Turkmenistan and Belarus, two relatively isolated countries on the world stage. However, it is likely to generate tensions with the Russian government, which part owns Uralkali, the world’s biggest potash fertiliser producer and exporter.

Middle East and North Africa

Egypt

On 2 April, the Egyptian Court of Urgent Matters overturned an earlier ruling and ruled in favour of transferring the islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The new ruling is still subject to appeal and must be approved by the Egyptian parliament. The transfer of sovereignty of the islands was first agreed in April 2016, but has proved highly controversial, leading to protests and accusations that the Egyptian president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, is ‘selling’ the islands to Saudi Arabia in exchange for a multi-billion dollar aid package. Egyptian and Saudi officials argue that the islands belong to Saudi Arabia and that they are only currently under Egyptian control because Riyadh asked Cairo to protect the area in 1950. The islands are strategically important due to their location at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is used by Israel to access the Red Sea. It seems increasingly likely that the sovereignty of the islands will be transferred, particularly after recent meetings between the Egyptian president and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Jordan during the Arab League Summit.

Syria

The United Nation’s special envoy for the Syria crisis, Staffan de Mistura, is due to continue his term indefinitely after the fifth round of talks on the Syrian conflict concluded on 31 March. De Mistura had been due to finish his term on 31 March. A peace deal remains a long way off and the latest talks have not made significant progress, though De Mistura maintains that a sixth round of talks will be scheduled in due course. Rumours had been circulating for over a year that either De Mistura would be removed or he would resign, though the UN and De Mistura repeatedly denounced such claims. De Mistura’s continuation as the UN envoy provides some stability to the peace process from which two previous envoys have resigned.

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