Africa: Angolan president plans to step down ahead of elections in August; Nigerian president extends his medical leave prompting questions over his health.
Americas: United States’ controversial travel ban suffers major legal setback; Diplomatic relations between Mexico and United States increasingly tense, highlighting risk of trade war.
Asia-Pacific: Fractious phone call between US and Australian leaders threatens agreement for United States to re-home refugees from Australia’s controversial Nauru migrant detention centre; Filipino president cancels ceasefire with Maoist rebels.
Europe and Central Asia: MPs vote in favour of allowing prime minister to trigger Article 50 and begin negotiations to take United Kingdom out of EU; Controversial government decree provokes considerable popular uproar in Romania.
Middle East and North Africa: EU leaders meet in Malta to agree strategy to reduce number of migrants and refugees leaving Libya; Turkish police arrest suspects across Turkey with links to Islamic State.
On 3 February, Angola’s president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, confirmed that he plans to step down ahead of the elections in August and announced that his preferred successor is Joao Lourenco, the current defence minister and deputy leader of the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party. Lourenco is loyal to dos Santos, but is widely regarded as a moderate. Dos Santos has been in power for nearly 38 years, and despite stepping down he will retain considerable influence, including remaining a key member of the MPLA. Confusingly, multiple reports claim that dos Santos will remain the leader of the MPLA; however, under the revised constitution Angolans no longer directly elect the president, but rather the leader of the party that wins the election – which the MPLA is expected to do – automatically becomes head of state, the position that dos Santos is stepping down from.
The Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, requested an extension of his medical leave on 5 February, prompting suspicions that his health is significantly worse than has been publicly admitted. Buhari was expected to return to Nigeria on 5 February after undergoing tests for two weeks in the United Kingdom, but the request delays his leave indefinitely. The vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, is taking on presidential duties until the president returns. Buhari’s extended leave could further damage confidence in his administration, which is under pressure due to the country’s weak oil-driven economy.
The United States’ controversial travel ban against people from seven Muslim-majority countries suffered a major setback on 3 February when a Seattle federal judge, James Robart, issued a temporary restraining order, which effectively blocked enforcement of the ban nationally. As a result, standard travel procedures resumed the next day, allowing stranded travellers to enter the United States. In a series of characteristically hostile tweets, the US president, Donald Trump, criticised the ruling and attacked Robart as a ‘so-called judge’. In a statement, the White House insisted that the ban was ‘lawful and appropriate’, and indicated that the justice department would appeal the ruling. The ruling represents the first real constitutional challenge to Trump’s inclination to govern through executive orders. It is also an illustration of the United States’ powerful system of checks and balances, which is likely to offer some reassurance to those concerned by the Trump administration’s cavalier attitude to civil liberties. The justice department’s court appeal was filed on 6 February, with oral arguments scheduled for the next day; should it fail, it is highly likely that a Supreme Court appeal will follow.
Diplomatic relations between Mexico and the United States have become increasingly tense and highlight the increasing risk of a trade war between the two countries. The Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, decided not to attend a meeting planned for 31 January with the US president, Donald Trump, during which the two leaders were meant to discuss immigration and border security issues as well as the future of the NAFTA free-trade agreement. Following Peña Nieto’s snub, the White House announced that it would consider a 20% tax on imports from Mexico, which would help pay for the construction of Trump’s infamous wall on the United States’ southern border with Mexico. The announcement was met with anger in Mexico, provoking calls to boycott US products. A tariff on Mexican imports into the United States would threaten the Mexican textile and clothing industries. If applied, a 20% tax on imports would likely result in Mexico implementing ‘mirror actions’, as Mexico’s economy minister, Ildefonso Guajardo Villarrea, warned in January. While the government is likely to come under popular pressure to stand up to the United States, Mexico stands to lose the most from a trade war, given its reliance on the US consumer market, and this will possibly discourage Peña Nieto from tit-for-tat measures over the long term and bring both parties to the negotiating table.Mexican government will likely face popular pressure to stand up to the United States, but it has the most to lose from a trade warClick To Tweet
A fractious phone call on 28 January between the US president, Donald Trump, and the Australian prime minister, Malcom Turnbull, has called into question the future of an agreement for the United States to re-home 1,250 refugees from Australia’s controversial Nauru migrant detention centre. Trump accused the Australian government of attempting to export the ‘next Boston bombers’ to the United States. The US president told Turnbull it was a ‘dumb’ deal, and abruptly ended the call. However, on 3 February, Trump agreed to honour the deal in ‘some way’ amid media accusations that the United States was distancing itself from its allies in the Asia-Pacific as it become more isolationist. Trump’s U-turn has reduced the pressure on Turnbull, who has been accused of weak leadership; however, the media continues to ask questions about what the prime minister offered to keep the deal alive. There are concerns that Trump may ask for Australian military support in either Asia or the Middle East, though Turnbull dismissed this and said that military decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis. Trump’s erratic diplomacy has likely shored up domestic support for Turnbull in the short term, but raises serious questions over whether the US president is prepared to be a stable partner to Australia over the coming years.
The Filipino president, Rodrigo Duterte, has cancelled a ceasefire between the government and Maoist rebels after six soldiers were killed and two others kidnapped in an attack by the New People’s Army. Both sides have separate ceasefires in place, and have been negotiating an end to the 50-year rebellion for the past three months. Peace talks moderated by Norway had been steadily progressing towards ending the conflict, which has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives. The rebels accused the government of violating the ceasefire first, by deploying 500 troops to previously rebel-held areas. On 3 February, the president lifted the ceasefire with immediate effect, and warned soldiers to prepare for fresh fighting. The next day, he cancelled peace talks and revoked an amnesty of rebel commanders that allowed them to travel to the peace talks. Despite this, the rebels have said that they intend to attend discussions on 22-23 February to negotiate new peace talks. It is likely that, in reality, neither side wishes to end the talks and cancel the ceasefire, and so negotiations will likely continue after a brief cooling-off period. However, this recent setback demonstrates that conflict could reignite at any moment.
Europe and Central Asia
On 1 February, MPs voted in favour of allowing the prime minister, Theresa May, to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon and begin the negotiations to take United Kingdom out of the European Union. The bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons by 498 to 114 – a government majority of 384. However, the real test will be the third reading, in which MPs will this week vote on amendments to the bill. The vote revealed the divisions within both the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties. A quarter of Labour MPs went against strict instructions from their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and voted against triggering Article 50, resulting in two front bench resignations and 10 junior shadow government resignations. Rebel Conservative MPs announced plans to block the entire bill at its third reading should parliament reject an amendment to allow EU nationals to remain in the United Kingdom. It looks increasingly likely that MPs will demand a second review of the bill during the departure negotiations, with the right to call for a second referendum should the final package not be in Britain’s best interests. The government will attempt to provide more clarity on the precise nature of a post-Brexit Britain and give the impression of being in control of the process; however, internal politics and potential amendments make a government embarrassment increasingly difficult to avoid.Article 50 vote reveals the divisions within both the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour partiesClick To Tweet
There has been considerable popular uproar in Romania following a controversial government decree issued on 31 January. The order decriminalised corruption offenses in cases involving sums less than €44,000 (£38,000). The government justified the measure by arguing that it would help decrease prison overcrowding; however, many Romanians saw the move as an attempt by the government to give a free pass to many of the officials that are facing corruption charges. The measure would have marked a significant setback in the country’s efforts to address endemic corruption since it joined the EU in 2007. The mass protests across the country eventually forced the government to back down and scrap the decree during an emergency meeting on 5 February. However, demonstrators have continued to gather, as it is likely that the government will attempt to redraft the decree and introduce it as a bill in parliament.
Middle East and North Africa
The Libyan authorities announced on 4 February that some 400 migrants and refugees were intercepted by Libya’s coastguard attempting to reach Europe between 2 and 4 February. Many of those detained were reportedly women and children. The announcement came the day after EU leaders met in Malta to agree on a strategy to help reduce the numbers of refugees leaving Libya in the coming months. The new plan promises to provide the Libyan government with funds to increase its efforts to stop migrant boats from crossing the Mediterranean. Human rights groups have heavily criticised the plan, as Libya’s coastguard sends migrants to detention centres and has not, to date, actively targeted the traffickers.
Turkish police carried out raids in 18 provinces across Turkey on 5 February, detaining 445 people that the police suspect have links to Islamic State. Many suspects were detained close to the Syrian border, and the majority of those held are understood to be foreigners. The raids took place a few days after the Turkish military and US coalition forces carried out a significant bombing operation close to Al-Bab in northern Syria on 2 February. The area is one of the few remaining IS strongholds. A total of 47 IS fighters are believed to have been killed and a number of infrastructure targets destroyed in the airstrikes. These recent developments evidence Turkey’s increased efforts against Islamic State.
These weekly briefings are offered free of charge to non-profit organisations, journalists and concerned citizens. Governments and corporations using our political and security risk updates are asked to consider making a donation to Open Briefing.