Africa: The Gambia’s president defeated in election after 22 years in power; UN commission on human rights in South Sudan concludes that steady process of ethnic cleansing is underway in country.
Americas: Donald Trump announces he will nominate controversial retired Marine General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as his defence secretary; Colombia’s congress approves revised peace deal with FARC rebel group.
Asia-Pacific: Donald Trump breaks with United States’ traditional One-China policy and accepts call from Taiwanese president; the New Zealand prime minister resigns for ‘personal reasons’.
Europe and Central Asia: Italy votes to reject constitutional reform and prime minister resigns; Kazakhstan’s president first Central Asian leader contacted by US president-elect signalling Trump’s interest in the country.
Middle East and North Africa: Violence escalates between rival militias in Libyan capital after heaviest fighting seen in city in two years; Saudi king replaces labour minister and reshuffles Shura Council and Council of Senior Scholars.
The Gambia’s opposition leader, Adama Barrow, defeated the country’s incumbent president, Yahya Jammeh, in the election on 1 December. Barrow received 263,515 votes against Jammeh’s 212,099. The result brings to an end to the president’s 22-year rule. Jammeh came to power aged 29 in 1994 following a military coup, and has since won four elections. His defeat prompted thousands to take to the streets of the capital, Banjul, in celebration. Jammeh conceded defeat to Barrow, congratulated the new president and offered support during the transition period. Barrow’s election is being hailed as a ‘new hope’ for the Gambia. Opposition politician Ousainou Darboe – leader of the United Democratic Party – and 18 other political prisoners were granted bail on 4 December, just days after the vote. It is hoped that Barrow’s administration will address the country’s struggling economy as well as bring in legislation that will democratise the state.
After a 10-day fact finding mission ending on 30 November, a UN commission on human rights in South Sudan has concluded that a steady process of ethnic cleansing is underway in the country. The alleged ethnic cleansing comes after almost three years of fighting between forces loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, and the former vice-president, Riek Machar. The US government has also warned of the escalating violence, claiming that civilians have been targeted in the Equatoria region. The UN report claims that there is evidence of massacres, starvation, gang rape and the destruction of villages. Kiir has strongly denied the allegations, though there is a substantial amount of evidence against him and the government. The conflict in South Sudan is likely to worsen, and the deployment of an additional force of 4,000 soldiers in the Equatoria region is likely to exacerbate tensions.
The US president-elect, Donald Trump, continues to make controversial appointments and cabinet nominations. Trump announced on 2 December that he will nominate retired US Marine General James Mattis as his administration’s defence secretary. Mattis earned the nickname ‘Mad Dog’ from his troops during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004 for being a fearless, outspoken and authoritarian leader. Despite his reputation, Mattis it is popular in Congress among both Democrats and Republicans because of his battlefield successes, and he is unlikely to face a difficult confirmation hearing, though he will need a special waiver, as he has not been retired from the military for the required seven years. Trump has turned to many retired military officials for top government positions, including top jobs at the defence department, the Department of Homeland Security and the CIA, as well as the job of national security adviser recently offered to General Michael Flynn. Trump has very limited experience and knowledge of defence and diplomacy matters, and it is likely that these retired military officials will exert considerable influence on key decisions in these areas, risking the further militarisation of US foreign policy. Trump’s upcoming nomination for secretary of state will offer further guidance on the likely direction of US diplomacy, foreign policy and international relations.
On 1 December, Colombia’s congress approved a revised peace deal with the FARC rebel group, hoping to put an end to a five-decade-long armed conflict that claimed over 260,000 lives. The initially-historic peace accord was rejected by a small margin in a referendum on 2 October, mostly because of popular concerns over the deal’s supposed excessive leniency for the crimes committed by the FARC rebels. The Colombian government therefore decided to bypass the referendum result and ratify a revised deal through congress. The deal remains essentially the same for fear that too many concessions to the opposition would have led the FARC to leave the negotiations table, though the revisions address some of the opposition’s concerns. The expedited parliamentary ratification is intended to bring an end to one of the country’s most sensitive political dramas; however, it is likely that the process will polarise Colombian society. The FARC rebels are due to disarm and demobilise under the supervision of UN inspectors two weeks after the date deal was ratified.
The US president-elect, Donald Trump, has broken with the United States’ traditional One-China policy and accepted call from the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen. The United States has until now refused diplomatic relations with Taipei, favouring Beijing since 1979. China expressed its displeasure with the phone call, reminding the United States that the One-China policy is considered a cornerstone of US-China relations, and that Beijing hopes politics will not change that. Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of China, and hopes that the two countries will be reunited in the future, by force if necessary. It is another sign that Trump may move the United States away from the established policy of favouring an amicable, if tense, relationship with China and economic integration with other parts of Asia, towards a more standoff approach to China and protectionist economic policies.
The New Zealand prime minister, John Key, has resigned and will be leaving office on 12 December. Key cited personal reasons in the shock announcement, and the prime minister of eight years has said he will not run for re-election in 2017. The country’s deputy prime minister, Bill English, is likely to take over until the National Party holds a leadership election. The National Party has been in power since 2008, and Key was expected to win the 2017 elections. Key was known as ‘Teflon John’ due to the lack of controversy and scandal that stuck to him over his years in office. Key was vocal supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. In the short term, it is likely that little will change in New Zealand’s politics, though English is against abortion, civil unions and gay marriage. In the longer term, it is possible that the Labour Party will take back control of parliament in the next elections, though much will depend on whether the National Party’s winning streak was due to Key or the party.
Europe and Central Asia
In a referendum on 4 December, Italy voted to reject a constitutional reform that would have significantly increased the power of the parliament while reducing the power of the senate. The country voted 59.11% against to 49.89%, with a 70% turnout. The referendum was the third such vote since the end of the monarchy in 1946. Proponents of the change argued that it would improve the stability of the country, while opponents claimed it would give the central government too much power. The country’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, has resigned following the popular rejection of his constitutional reforms. As such, the political crisis in Italy has claimed one of the last of the pro-European reformer leaders in the country. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, will decide on 12 December whether to hold elections or appoint a new prime minister. There will almost certainly be calls from anti-EU and anti-austerity popularist parties for elections to be held in Italy, and a chance that this will be seen by parties such as Front National in France and far-right parties in northern Europe as a further sign of a rise of anti-EU sentiment.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was the first Central Asian leader contacted by the US president-elect, Donald Trump. This likely signals Trump’s interest in the country, which is strategically located on the doorsteps of both Russia and China. Nazarbayev and Trump reportedly exchanged their views on nuclear non-proliferation and international terrorism, while Trump praised the Kazakh president’s leadership in managing his country’s independence and economic success following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan enjoys friendly political and economic relations across the diplomatic board: it is a long-term ally of Russia, China and the United States; it has economic ties with both India and Pakistan; and it enjoys close diplomatic and military ties with Israel, despite Kazakhstan’s membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It is likely that Trump’s interest in Kazakhstan will play a part in his larger strategic move to resume friendlier US-Russia relations. However, Trump’s pledge to go back on the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran is at odds with Nazarbayev’s view that the accord is a positive achievement. Furthermore, it not in Russia’s interest to see a major regional player like Iran developing nuclear weapons. It is therefore highly likely that Trump will nuance his stance on the Iran nuclear deal as he moves closer to Russia and Central Asia.
Middle East and North Africa
Violence has escalated between rival militias in the Libyan capital of Tripoli after the heaviest fighting seen in the city in two years. Medical sources claim that over 20 people have been injured and at least eight killed. The clashes are another setback to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which was put in place in March in an attempt to stabilise the country. Fighting is likely to continue as disputes over territory continue between rival groups that appear to be mobilising after delays and a lack of trust has led to difficulty in forming a new cabinet.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz replaced Saudi Arabia’s labour minister on 2 December after recent statistics showed a rise in unemployment in the kingdom. The king has also reshuffled the Shura Council and the Council of Senior Scholars. Changes in leadership in Saudi Arabia are necessary, as the country implements new reforms based on its Vision 2030 plan, which aims to reduce oil dependency and attract more foreign investment. The previous labour minister was only in the position for seven months, but was accused of not being hands on enough. The Shura Council now has 30 women, an increase on previous numbers, and while the Council of Senior Scholars remains dominated by conservatives, several moderate clerics have been appointed.