Sub-Saharan Africa: Four Ethiopian opposition politicians imprisoned for six months for refusing to speak to judges in court; Decision-making executive of South Africa’s ruling ANC to meet to discuss ‘management of transition’.
Americas: US stock market suffers worst hit in six years; Venezuela’s ruling party nominate incumbent president as its candidate in forthcoming snap election.
Asia-Pacific: North Korea sending nominal head of state to Winter Olympics in South Korea; Civil unrest breaks out in Maldives after president refuses to obey a court order to release opposition politicians.
Europe and Central Asia: Trial of only surviving suspect in November 2015 Paris attacks begins in Brussels; Over 2,500 protesters march through Ukrainian capital demanding president’s resignation.
Middle East and North Africa: Up to 90 people drown off coast of Libya after their boat capsizes; Syrian government airstrikes kill more than 20 people in rebel-held areas of Eastern Ghouta.
Four Ethiopian opposition politicians were each sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to speak to judges in court on 5 February. The prison terms are similar to the sentences that the group received a month ago for singing in protest in court. The judgements come despite the surprise announcement on 3 January that some political prisoners will be pardoned in a move to support national reconciliation. The Ethiopian government has not previously acknowledged that political prisoners were being detained. Thousands of protesters have been detained and held without trial for attending demonstrations, which are frequent in Ethiopia, particularly in the Oromo region since 2015.
The decision-making executive of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), has called an emergency meeting on 7 February to discuss ‘management of transition’ as the pressure increases on the country’s president, Jacob Zuma, to resign. The six most-senior party officials reportedly also met on 4 February. Zuma has faced a number of corruption allegations since he came to power 2009. His position was seriously weakened when he was replaced as the leader of the ANC by the deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in December 2017. Although Zuma still has supporters in the ANC, others want to distance the party from the long-running corruption allegations surrounding the president in order to ensure victory in next year’s general election. There has been small, localised outbreaks of violence, particularly around the ANC headquarters, between supporters and opponents of Zuma. The president is due to deliver the State of the Nation address at the opening of parliament on 8 February.South Africa's ANC to discuss 'management of transition' as Zuma's days in power look numberedClick To Tweet
On 6 February, the US stock market suffered from its worst hit in six years, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average index suffering a 4.6% decline and closing at 24,345.75. This is the largest fall in US stocks since the notorious Black Monday of August 2011 when Standard & Poor’s announced that it had downgraded the United States’ credit rating. Counterintuitively, the recent stock movements followed positive news about improvement in the US economy, which led to very high market results. However, the relatively low level of unemployment has put pressure on wages, which have grown more than anticipated, and, in turn, impacted on interest rates. This encouraged investors to sell their stocks and invest in assets that benefit from higher interest rates, such as bonds. Both European and Asian markets have then mimicked this dynamic. It is likely that stock markets will continue being relatively volatile in the coming months and that gains in share prices will be modest over the next two years. Nevertheless, some analysts argue that this is a normal market correction due to the global economy’s renewed health rather than a sign of an economic downturn.
On 2 February, Venezuela’s ruling socialist party nominated the incumbent president, Nicolas Maduro, as its candidate for the upcoming presidential election. The snap election will take place on 30 April after the Constituent Assembly brought it forward from December. Maduro has faced considerable criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the economic and social crises that have affected Venezuela in recent years. He has built his political platform on the successful anti-capitalist, anti-US narrative of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. However, despite the country’s oil wealth, Venezuelans have suffered the consequences of US sanctions and faced massive inflation, food shortages and urban insecurity. Venezuela’s supreme court has barred the opposition coalition from fielding a candidate under its banner and banned several prominent opposition figures from participating in the forthcoming election. It is therefore possible that Venezuela’s opposition leaders will refuse to take part in the election at all in an effort to highlight Maduro’s lack of legitimacy.
North Korea is sending Kim Yong-nam to the opening of the Winter Olympics in South Korea on 9 February. The 90-year-old Kim has been president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea since 1998. He is often referred to as the country’s nominal head of state and its ‘number two official’. He will be the most-senior North Korean official to ever visit South Korea. Other plans for the Winter Olympics include North and South Korea marching under one unified flag during the opening ceremony, the countries fielding a unified women’s ice hockey team, and the North sending an art troupe by ferry under an exception from bi-lateral sanctions. These developments are seen by some commentators as evidence of a detente between the two countries after months of tensions over Kim Jong-un’s nuclear programme. However, other analysts doubt that the improved relations will last beyond the Olympics, as the North continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions. What it does show is a willingness on both sides to return to pursuing improved relations despite periods of increased tension.
Civil unrest has broken out in the Maldives after the country’s president, Abdulla Yameen, refused to obey a court order to release opposition politicians after it ruled that the trial of former president Mohamed Nasheed was unconstitutional. Yameen sacked the island’s police commissioner after he said that he would enforce the ruling. The president also ordered the country’s defence force to resist any attempt to impeach or remove him from power. On 5 February, the government declared a state of emergency, and ordered the detention of the former president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Although foreign leaders have expressed concern over the threat to democracy and potential slide into chaos in the Maldives, it is likely that Yameen will further solidify his rule if the Maldives National Defence Force continues to support him. However, the unrest could have unforeseen economic ramifications if it impacts on tourism – the most-significant source of revenue for the island country.
Europe and Central Asia
The trial of the only surviving suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks began in Brussels on 5 February. French prosecutors believe that Salah Abdeslam played a key role in the Paris attacks; however, he is standing trial in Brussels for a subsequent shoot-out with Belgium anti-terror police as they raided an apartment that Abdelslam and two other suspects were hiding in. Prosecutors in Belgium have charged Abdeslam with the possession of illegal weapons and the attempted murder of police officers. He has so far refused to answer questions from the judge at his trial. It is likely that Abdeslam will be found guilty of his crimes in Belgium and then face trial for his role in the Paris attacks next year.
On 4 February, over 2,500 protesters marched through the streets of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, demanding that the country’s president, Petro Poroshenko, resign. The Ukrainian opposition politician and former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, was behind the demonstration. His Movement of New Forces party has been trying to position itself as the logical alternative to the current administration. It has been playing on Ukrainians’ frustrations over what they see as a deeply corrupt political system and Poroshenko’s failure to deliver on his promises following the ousting of the Moscow-friendly former president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. In his remarks at the rally, Saakashvili targeted Poroshenko’s out-of-touch governing style and his failure to deliver on the people’s demands. Saakashvili enjoys significant legitimacy and political capital, as he resigned his Odessa governorship in protest over the government’s efforts to prevent him from tackling corruption in his region. Saakashvili and his followers are asking for early parliamentary elections and the formation of a new government. In the meantime, they are planning nationwide protests on 18 February. It is likely that Poroshenko will seek to accelerate the procedure to strip Saakashvili of his Ukrainian citizenship.
Middle East and North Africa
Up to 90 people are believed to have drowned off the coast of Libya on 2 February after their boat capsized. It is thought that the majority of those attempting to make the dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy were of Pakistani origin. The Libyan Navy has insisted that the reports are false, claiming that the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is biased against the North African country. Meanwhile, 16 bodies were recovered off the coast of Melilla, a Spanish enclave bordering Morocco, on 4 February. Last year, EU measures, including training and equipment for the Libyan coast guard, halved the numbers of migrants leaving the coast of Libya compared to previous years. However, over 240 people have died or gone missing while attempting to make the trip from North Africa to Europe since the beginning of 2018 according to the IOM.Up to 90 people are thought to have drowned off the coast of Libya after their boat capsizedClick To Tweet
Syrian government airstrikes killed more than 20 people in rebel-held areas in Eastern Ghouta on 5 February. The area is the last rebel stronghold close to the Syrian capital, Damascus, and has been under siege since 2013. An estimated 400,000 residents remaining in the area are believed to be severely malnourished. A further airstrike occurred in Idlib, where the International Committee of the Red Cross has accused Syrian forces of targeting medical facilities. The strike came shortly after a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft was shot down in the province on 3 February. The al-Qaeda affiliate the Hayat Tharir group has claimed responsibility for downing the attack aircraft. Both Eastern Ghouta and Idlib were part of a ceasefire agreement in late 2017 that was designed to create de-escalation zones to end the violence between rebel and government forces.