Sub-Saharan Africa: At least six people killed during widespread demonstrations against Congolese president; First transition between democratically-elected leaders in Liberia since 1944 takes place.
Americas: US government shut down postponed for 17 days after Democrats agree continuing resolution; Ecuadorian president describes Julian Assange as ‘more than a nuisance’ for his administration.
Asia-Pacific: South Korea signals it plans to crack down on trading in cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin; Volcanoes erupt in the Philippines and Japan.
Europe and Central Asia: 48th World Economic Forum annual meeting taking place in Davos, Switzerland; Kazakh president on first official visit to United States since Donald Trump’s election.
Middle East and North Africa: Protesters demanding jobs clash with police in two towns in southern Tunisian; United Nations launches its 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
At least six people are believed to have been killed during widespread protests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 21 January. Demonstrators are continuing to demand that the country’s president, Joseph Kabila, resign. Kabila’s term in office expired in 2016, but he remains in office despite an agreement to step down at the end of 2017. The election that should have taken place in 2016 is now due to take place in December 2018. Demonstrations in early January also led to a number of deaths. UN reports estimate that 50 people were injured in the clashes and that many more were arrested for taking part. The Catholic Church called for peaceful marches, and continues to strongly oppose Kabila. The gatherings were also support by the Muslim and evangelical Christian communities. It is likely that protests will continue for the foreseeable future despite the government banning such marches and the military cracking down on demonstrations.
In the first transition between democratically-elected leaders in Liberia since 1944, George Weah was sworn in as president of the West African country on 22 January. Weah, a former international footballer, defeated the incumbent vice president, Joseph Boakai, on 26 December 2017 with just over 60% of the vote. He was elected on a platform to fight corruption and improve business investment and the private sector. Weah thanked his predecessor, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who attended the inauguration, for her role in bringing the civil war in Liberia to an end. Johnson Sirleaf had previously defeated Weah in the 2005 presidential election. Many of Weah’s supporters come from slum communities similar to his own background. Many Liberian’s believe that he will bring positive change to the country.
The US federal government officially shut down at 00:01 on 20 January after Congress failed to reach a compromise on a bill to fund the government. Senate Democrats and Republicans have disagreed on the issue of immigration reform and related government spending. Democrats have been fighting for protections for the 700,000 so-called Dreamers who entered the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy but who face deportation following recent moves by the White House to sunset the programme by 5 March. On 22 January, the US president, Donald Trump, signed a continuing resolution that will keep the government open for 17 days after Democrats agreed to back the resolution on the condition that there will be a debate about DACA in any future discussions. Trump and his close advisers have attempted to frame the continuing resolution as a victory, claiming that the Democrats ‘caved in’. However, the bill is only a temporary measure, and it is likely that the spectre of government shutdown will loom again in early February. Moreover, many Democratic heavyweights and presidential hopefuls in the Senate, such as Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gilibrand and Kamala Harris, voted against the continuing resolution.
On 22 January, Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, stated in a television interview that the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, has created ‘more than a nuisance’ for his administration, describing the controversial figure as ‘an inherited problem’. The Ecuadorian government has had to repeatedly warn Assange against making statements that could affect Ecuador’s international relations. Assange has been living in Ecuador’s London embassy since June 2012. Moreno’s predecessor, Rafael Correa, granted Assange political asylum two months after he entered the embassy. Assange originally sort asylum to avoid extradition to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault and rape, as he purportedly feared onward extradition to the United States for his role in publishing secret US documents leaked by Chelsea Manning. While Sweden revoked his European arrest warrant in May 2017, the Metropolitan Police has indicated that a British arrest warrant for Assange is still in force, as he had breached his bail over the extradition. Ecuador granted Assange citizenship in December 2017, and subsequently asked the United Kingdom to give him diplomatic status, which was refused. London maintains that the only way to resolve the issue is for Assange to leave the embassy and face justice.
South Korea is signalling that it plans to crack down on trading in cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, by banning the use of anonymous bank accounts. While the move is purported to be aimed at curbing a surge in Bitcoin speculation and stopping the currency being used for criminal activities, it may have a knock-on effect on NGOs, activists and other communities that require privacy. Bitcoins are sometimes used by human rights groups and other NGOs to transfer money across borders in countries where governments make it difficult to operate. The ban in South Korea may allow repressive governments elsewhere to justify their own crackdowns on cryptocurrencies and other alternative funding routes. South Korea is currently the third-largest Bitcoin market, and the proposal caused a dramatic fall in Bitcoin value. However, it should be noted that the value of Bitcoin rebounded and continued to increase significantly after China closed local exchanges in September 2017. Furthermore, the near-anonymity of buyers and sellers of cryptocurrencies and the ability to move digital assets anywhere in the world makes national regulations potentially meaningless without a global consensus.The nature of cryptocurrencies means that Bitcoin will fortunately be impossible to control at the national level aloneClick To Tweet
Mount Mayon on the Filipino island of Luzon erupted on 22 January. The volcano had been spewing lava and ash since 13 January. The authorities have evacuated up to 56,000 residents and implemented a five-mile exclusion zone around the volcano. The smoke plume from Mayon is 10 km high, prompting fears that it may disrupt Asian flights. Emergency funds have run out in Albay, the province in which Mayon is located. Questions are being asked about the contingency planning in the province, especially as Mayon is the most active volcano in the Philippines having erupted 51 times in the last 500 years. Elsewhere, a volcano 93 miles north-west of the Japanese capital, Tokyo, erupted on 23 January. One soldier was killed and eleven other people were injured in the eruption of Mount Kusatsu-Shirane and a subsequent avalanche. In addition, at least 78 people are trapped on the mountain. Further eruptions in the area are expected.
Europe and Central Asia
The 48th World Economic Forum annual meeting is taking place in Davos, Switzerland, on 23-26 January. Davos is a chance for the political and economic elite to discuss developments in international politics and the global economy. The forum began as the IMF upgraded the global economic outlook with all countries — except the United Kingdom — expected to achieve better than previously predicted growth. PwC predicted that each country’s higher growth will be further compounded by other markets’ higher growth, leading to the most optimistic Davos since 2008. Despite these figures, structural economic inequality can no longer be ignored — with Oxfam warning in the run-up to Davos that the world’s eight richest people now control the same total wealth as the poorest 4 billion. Structural economic inequality will be a key issue at the meeting this year. Another issue garnering media attention is the presence of the US president, Donald Trump, at the meeting, and the likely controversial ‘America First’ view he will espouse in his closing address.Structural economic inequality will need to be a key issue at the 48th World Economic Forum annual meeting in DavosClick To Tweet
On 16 January, the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, made his first official visit to the United States since Donald Trump’s election. The two presidents discussed bilateral trade, the war in Afghanistan, North Korea, and the conflict in Ukraine within the framework of what they referred to as an ‘enhanced strategic partnership’. With regards the conflict in Ukraine, Nazarbaev sparked controversy after suggesting that after discussing the matter with Trump the so-called Minsk peace talks could be moved to a different location in order to break the current deadlock. The Belarus government criticised the statement, arguing that a change of location would achieve nothing and accusing Kazakhstan of ‘seeking peacemaker’s laurels’. Kazakhstan has always portrayed itself has friend to all and foe to none, and will likely continue drawing on this narrative in its relations with the United States at a time when many traditional US allies are increasingly critical of Trump’s policies and public statements.
Middle East and North Africa
Protesters demanding jobs clashed with police in the southern Tunisian towns of Metlaoui and Mdihla just days after violent protests marking the seventh anniversary of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s exile on 14 January subsided. Police officers targeted demonstrators with tear gas in order to disperse the crowd. Protesters argue that the governments after Ben Ali have failed to address the issues of economic and social justice and freedom of expression. Protests mainly subsided after the announcement on 13 January of a new social reforms package worth around $70 million. Despite a new constitution and free elections, many Tunisians, particularly the youth and those living in the interior of the country, remain unemployed. It remains unclear as to whether the recently announced reforms will be far-reaching enough to encourage real change and curtail the protests in the long-term.
The United Nations launched its 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen on 21 January. The intergovernmental organisation is appealing for $2.96 billion in order to assist the 13.1 million people at high risk in Yemen. This includes around 8.4 million people who are considered severely food insecure and at risk of starvation. The UN has stated that the situation in Yemen is ‘the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time’. In response to the UN’s plea, the Saudi-led coalition has announced that it will provide $1.5 billion in new funding to support the aid efforts. The coalition also announced that it will create a number of safe passage corridors in Yemen to allow aid to move more freely. However, there has not been any indication of an end to the restrictions at the rebel-held Hudaydah port, which has been crippled by a blockade. The new pledge comes a week after Saudi Arabia gave the Yemeni central bank $2 billion in an attempt to save the currency and help avert a famine.