North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, January 29, 2012

From Nigeria to Egypt to Somalia ...

Nigeria, Libya, South Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia - each of these countries across North Africa made the news this past week for a variety of reasons.

Click on image for full picture

Nigeria - The onslaught of the Boko Haram in northern Nigeria escalated this week with the group’s deadliest ever strike on Jan. 20 in Nigeria’s second largest city of Kano. There, a coordinated set of gun and bomb attacks killed at least 185 people. Heavily criticized amid the escalating violence, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan urged the Boko Haram to enter dialogue, challenging the violent Islamist sect to identify themselves and state clearly their demands as a basis for talks, while acknowledging that military confrontation alone will not end their insurgency. At the presidential villa in the capital Abuja, President Jonathan said, “If they clearly identify themselves now and say this is the reason why we are resisting, this is the reason why we are confronting government or this is the reason why we destroy some innocent people and their properties ... then there will be a basis for dialogue.”

Click on image for full picture
Nigeria with the city of Kano as the site of the latest violence, and the district of Sokoto to the northwest now under threat. In the farther northeast, the town of Maiduguri is considered a stronghold of Boko Haram.

In another report, Boko Haram spokesman Abul Qaqa told journalists Sunday by telephone in the northeastern city of Maiduguri that Jonathan’s call for talks was “not sincere.” Moreover, the spokesman declared that if captured members of the group were not released, it “will launch attacks in Sokoto (another Northern Nigerian city) similar to the big Kano attacks.”

And from Reuters, "Islamist sect Boko Haram, whose attacks have killed hundreds in Nigeria, will continue its campaign until the country is ruled by sharia law, a senior member was quoted as saying by British newspaper, The Guardian. The same Abu Qaga told the Guardian, "We will consider negotiation only when we have brought the government to their knees, ... Once we see that things are being done according to the dictates of Allah, and our members are released (from prison), we will only put aside our arms - but we will not lay them down. You don't put down your arms in Islam, you only put them aside."

Boko Haram fighters. From a Cameroonian blogsite, a breakdown of boko haram is instructive: “The ideology and philosophy of the movement can best be understood by explicating the two words- “Boko” and “Haram”. In Hausa language, the word “boko” is an equivocal term which means either “Western” or foreign; while the word “haram” is an Arabic derivative meaning “forbidden”. Piecing the two words together, ‘boko haram’ means to forbid everything Western and Western education. The intent is to replace modern state formation with the traditional Islamic state, because Western values run contrary to Islamic values. (Teatree - it is a strange bit of logic that Western values are to be rejected while Western armaments are embraced)

Libya From Nigeria northeast to Libya, the hopes that the ouster of Gaddafi would lead to a clear improvement in governance was dealt a blow when Gaddafi loyalists retook Bani Walid. According to a Christian Science Monitor article, hundreds of well-equipped and highly trained remnants of Qaddafi forces raised the green flag over buildings in the western city late Monday after hours of clashes, said Mubarak al-Fatamni, the head of Bani Walid local council.

Click on image for full picture
Bani Walid once again under Gaddafi loyalist control

The retaking of this former Gaddafi stronghold comes as Libya's new leaders struggle to unify the oil-rich North African nation three months after the former dictator was captured and killed. There are new reports of torture in various prisons around the country, themselves held by a variety of militia's more or less acting on their own.

Bani Walid showing the scars of the recent fight, with apparently more to come.

South Sudan Moving Southeast from Libya, the world's newest country, South Sudan, is facing enormous difficulties. Once of the latest issues is a dispute with the Republic of Sudan over the transport fees in sending its oil north through pipelines for export. With the Republic of Sudan making demands that South Sudan considers unacceptable, it is mulling cutting off oil supplies altogether as a way to raise the stakes.

Ripe for disagreement or mutual benefit: Oil, transit, South Sudan, and the Republic of Sudan

The South Sudanese government has apparently decided to shut down oil flow north, in hopes of pressuring the Republic of Sudan to give better terms for the use of the pipelines.

The Republic of Sudan, meanwhile, is facing its own crisis with Chinese oil workers kidnapped by internal rebels. (What was first reported as five, the number was raised to 29, and the latest is approximately 70.) The men were working Saturday when they were abducted in the southern Kordofan province, the epicenter of Sudan's oil industry and next to Darfur where ethnic African rebels are fighting the Arab-dominated government.

"We are doing our best efforts to find them," Chinese Ambassador to Sudan Li Chengwen told The Associated Press. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the kidnapping and the circumstances of their capture remain unclear. The rebels, along with many international rights activists, accuse China of indirectly funding Khartoum's war effort in Darfur through massive investment in Sudan's oil industry.

Chinese oil workers in the Republic of Sudan

Egypt North from South Sudan to Egypt, the disquieting results of the "Arab Spring" came in the form of Islamists filling the first round of parliamentary positions. From the New York Times, Islamists,propelled largely by the Muslim Brotherhood, won the overwhelming majority of seats in Egypt's parliament, which held its first session Jan. 23 and is set to elect a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution. The "mainstream" Brotherhood won about 47 percent of the seats, and an alliance of ultraconservative Islamists known as the Salafis gained another 25 percent."

For most of its 84-year history, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and most organized political group, had been banned from political participation, but that changed last spring with the revolt that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

The young leaders who began the revolt won only a few percent of the seats in parliament.

Protests over Egypt's interim army rulers continue, and no one really knows what the future holds for an eventual new government - Islamic rule clashing with secular and modern values seems most likely.

Kenya South from Egypt to Kenya. A Christian Science Monitor article reports, "The International Criminal Court in The Hague has sent a signal that there are consequences for political leaders who use violence to achieve political goals by confirming charges of crimes against humanity against four prominent Kenyans. Whether this changes the political landscape, ends the culture of impunity, or prevents future violence in Kenya, is a matter for Kenyans themselves to decide."

The article continues, "In its decision, announced from the Hague today, the ICC confirmed charges of crimes against humanity first laid in Dec. 2010 against four men for their alleged role in organizing mass violence following the 2007 presidential elections. The charged are former Higher Education Minister William Ruto, former Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, former civil service chief Francis Muthaura, and radio talk show host Joshua arap Sang. The four men are accused of organizing mass violence following the disputed presidential elections of 2007, in which President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner. Senior leaders of both main parties, the president’s Party of National Unity and the opposition Orange Democratic Movement, are accused of stirring up ethnic violence for political advantage and retribution. At least 1,200 people were killed and 600,000 displaced from their homes.

Two of the accused, Mr. Ruto and Mr. Kenyatta, have declared their intentions to run for president in the 2013 elections, and the newly written Kenyan constitution is ambiguous on whether those facing criminal charges can run for public office. “The constitution does not forbid a person from running for office who is faced with criminal charges,” said Comfort Ero, who heads an International Crisis Group based in Nairobi. But the constitution does say that a president who faces criminal charges is vulnerable to impeachment, and in that spirit, Ruto and Kenyatta could possibly be tossed out of office with a two-thirds vote of parliament. The question is more a political and moral one than it is a legal one,” she adds. “How will Kenyans react to this decision? How will they feel about a candidate, knowing that he faces such charges? Is this the sort of person they want to have in office?”

A combination photograph shows Kenya's finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta (L) addressing a news conference in his office in the capital Nairobi in a file photo, and former Kenyan cabinet minister William Ruto, both running for the Kenyan presidency.

South Sudan, Republic of Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia

Ethiopia. Back north to Ethiopia. Here, the Africa Union is meeting in a brand new headquarters. It was built as a gift by China - illustrating the ties China is building in various African nations.

Not bad, hopefully the new building will house strong, ethical institutions and allow similar decision making in Africa to grow.

Somalia The last of the brief country highlights. A US special forces raid freed two aid workers unharmed who had been held for nearly three months. Jessica Buchanan, 32, and Poul Hagen Thisted, 60 were abducted on Oct. 25 in Galkayo, while visiting a de-mining project there, according to their employer, the Copenhagen-based Danish Refugee Council.

Somalia, splintered now for decades, has Kenyan troops pushing from the southwest, and Africa Union forces supporting a weak central government, against the main Islamist group, Al Shaabab, in control of most everywhere else. Famine and lack of security go hand in hand in this stricken land.

So this long blog post covers thousands of miles and a reminder of how big and varied is just the north half of the African continent.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Scottish Independence?

Even the referendum vote on the simple question, “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” is not to be on a ballot until the fall of 2014, but the newsworthiness is.

The United Kingdom (UK) is comprised of Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. Scotland's population is around 5.2 million, less than 10 percent to that of the rest of the UK population of 57 million .

From a Bloomberg Business article, we find out that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond put forward a consultation document for the vote in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on January 25. “The next 2-1/2 years promise to be the most exciting in Scotland’s modern history,” Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, said on the day Scots commemorate the birth of national poet Robert Burns. “The people who live, work and bring up families in Scotland should make the decision on its future. Our success should be in our own hands.”

Edinborough, the Scottish capitol city

The First Minister fired the starting gun on the debate over might be the break-up of the U.K. The Scottish National Part, which won an unprecedented majority in the semi-autonomous Edinburgh legislature last year, seeks to maximize revenue from North Sea oil and minimize how much debt Scotland must assume. The opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament, including U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, oppose independence.

North Sea oil has brought immense wealth to the UK and Norway, but the actual production is beginning to decline

In truth, we are a long way from witnessing Scottish Independence. While opinion polls show increasing support in Scotland for independence, only a minority in the country has declared an intention to vote for it. Others say that the referendum on independence is more likely a way to further actual governing power in Scotland. Supporters of more devolution (power transferred to local structures rather than centralized), including former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish, say it involves giving Scotland full fiscal autonomy, leaving the U.K. government responsible for foreign affairs and defense.

A modern building housing the Scottish Parliament

The Scottish parliament, re-established in 1999 after three centuries, has power over issues such as health, education and the legal system. The budget in Edinburgh is currently based on a grant from the U.K. government in London, totaling about 28 billion pounds ($43.6 billion) this year. Based on current figures, Scotland would have the sixth-highest gross domestic product per capita in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Salmond said today. The Scottish government is also looking at extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, he said, as another way to increase the Scottish sense of self governance.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond conversing with his Queen.

Fascinating ...

One of many breathtaking Scottish castle ruins

Lots of Scottish redheads ...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Syria continues to sink, Western media distracted

Unfortunately, it seems the Western media has slipped into a routine concerning the chaotic and violent stalemate in Syria. At least in the US, we are likely to read or hear (or be fed) the "implications" of a 30 vote swing in the Iowa caucus and what it might mean for the GOP, or the allegations of an "open marriage" request by another GOP candidate as he battles for votes in the religiously conservative state of South Carolina, than of Syria.

In Syria, Bashir Assad's regime fights on, perhaps even emboldened by the apparent declining pressure and coverage by the Western press. And it is not the Western press or governments alone. The UN blandly tracks and reports that perhaps 5,000 citizens have died since the uprising. The Arab League, which had sent an observer mission to the country, is now facing a report due Saturday on the observers findings, and the league seems particularly unexcited about further moves than perhaps a 1 month extension of the "observation." As the BBC notes, "the mandate of the Arab League observer mission in Syria is due to expire, a month after it arrived to verify the implementation of a peace initiative. The head of the mission is finalizing a report on the ongoing violence, which will be discussed at a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on Saturday."

Contrast the rhetoric and actions of Western nations, the UN, and the Arab League concerning Libya, with how they address Syria. There are major differences of course. Libya's Gaddafi had long been a loner when it came to support within the Arab League, as well as many international odious actions which isolated the regime. Libya is somewhat geographically isolated among a tier of north African Arab nations while Syria is embedded in close proximity to the Arab-Israeli powder-keg, as well as near the oil rich Persian Gulf. Iran had little at stake in Libya, but is deeply involved with both Lebanon and Syria. Libya was a small country of 6 million, Syria is 20 million. And then there is oil ... Libya has a lot, Syria has little.

Syria's borders - the most problematic is the one with Lebanon where arms are being smuggled into the country for the opposition, even though the Lebanese government is dominated by Iranian and Syrian leaning supporters.

All this to note that because there is little enthusiasm for dealing with Syria, observers are fearing that the failure to budge the entrenched Assad regime is increasing the chances for a widespread civil war.

An Australian newspaper report noted that "Lebanese black market arms dealers are struggling to cope with a soaring demand for weapons and ammunition from Syria, where a ten-month uprising is steadily evolving into an armed confrontation. The failure so far of peaceful protests to dislodge the regime of President Assad and international hesitancy to intervene in Syria ... has encouraged the emergence of armed rebel groups who are fighting back against security forces."

Captured weapons being smuggled into Syria from Lebanon are shown here to the press.

The article goes on, "The scale of the violence, the durability of the regime and the reluctance of the international community to intervene directly have persuaded many Syrian activists that peaceful protests have run their course and that armed resistance is the only alternative. "We don't need people. We have the people. We need weapons and ammunition. If we had that, I can assure you that Assad will be finished very quickly," said Ahmad, an activist in hiding in Lebanon. He added that the Free Syrian Army was ready to recruit from the civilian population but could not do so until more armaments become available. "Either we wait for support from other countries or we will play for time and see how much we can steal from the regime," he said."

Click on image for full picture
Syria's strategy to intercept smuggled weapons is two fold. Syria is mining its border with Lebanon ... which portends poorly for citizens in the future...

Syria is also pressuring the Lebanese government, shown meeting here, to aggressively stop smuggling, which the government has announced it will do.

So, a sad and violent story continues to unfold far from the election frenzy in the US, and apparently no longer high on the agenda of the UN and the Arab League. The festering tragedy will continue ...

Click on image for full picture
The town of Zabadani, close to the Lebanese border is being fiercely contested by the Syrian armed forces and the Free Syrian army. The Free Syrian Army is still a lofty goal as it remains a loose knit grouping of armed opposition groups

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Feast of the Black Nazarene

Well, this one's a new one for me - just what is the "feast of the Black Nazarene."

Apparently an annual celebration and pilgrimage in the Philippines. A procession of millions of Filipinos made the news today because of their religious devotion, their "thanks but no thanks" response to the Philippine president's warning that such concentrations would invite attacks by Islamists, and that nearly a 1000 were hurt during the walk through crowded Manila streets.

The Philippines in South Asia, with neighbors including Vietnam and Malaysia.

As for the "Black Nazarene," it is a wooden statue of Christ, crowned with thorns and bearing a cross, and believed to have been brought from Mexico to Manila in 1606 by Spanish missionaries. The ship that carried it caught fire, but the charred statue survived and was named the Black Nazarene.

The feast of the Black Nazarene itself is a straightforward annual pilgrimage and celebration, with participation of millions. From one newspaper report regarding this year's festival, "The event got under way with a morning Mass by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle at Rizal Park attended by about 3 million mostly barefoot devotees. The crowd was expected to swell to 9 million later in the day... After the Mass, where prayers were offered for victims of recent deadly floods, organizers brought the life-size Black Nazarene statue down from a stage to a carriage for a procession expected to last well into the night."

There were some injuries during the procession as devotees stumbled and jostled each other as they rushed towards the statue as it wound its way through the streets ... Amazing.

The Philippines is an archipelago comprising 7,107 islands, and is categorized broadly into three main geographical divisions: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Its capital city is Manila. With an estimated population of about 94 million people, the Philippines is the world's 12th most populous country, and Asia's most Catholicized country, with over 74 million Filipinos formal church members.

Click on map for full image
It must be a challenge to govern such a conglomeration of islands and peoples.

Manilla is the country's largest and capitol city, and also the site of the Black Nazarene feast

As to the Feast...

Click on image for full picture

Filipino devotee carries his daughter to be able to kiss the foot of a centuries-old wood image of Jesus Christ known as the Black Nazarene

One of many depictions of the Black Nazarene

The procession gets underway ...

In full array - millions line the processional route

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Its forest fire season in Chile

Chile is that long string of a country running north south down the spine of South America. It's officially summer there, and each year, their wildfire season erupts. This week, a forest fire did some damage to the landscape inside the spectacular Torres del Paine national park, as well as destroying a large wood products facility nearby the park boundary. It also caused a spat between the Chilean government and Israel.

Chile is an unusually shaped country with its narrow band of land running from the Pacific Ocean to the high divide of the Andes mountain range. Chile has a population of over 15 million people, is one of the more prosperous nations on the continent, and is famous for its copper wealth, wines, seafood (and don't forget its forest products.)

Chile's amazing Torres del Paine national park is far south towards the tip of South America - full of glaciers, rock, and apparently forests.

The current wildfire is adding a layer of smoke to the landscape

As with forest fire fighting everywhere, there are high visibility yellow shirts, bandanas, hose, and shovels.

Apparently, an Israeli tourist may have started the forest fire, and if proven to be the culprit, would be subject to a small fine. The suspect, Rotem Singer, 23, who was backpacking in the Patagonian national park, has denied the allegations against him. "It wasn't me, they put the blame on me. I supposedly confessed, but I didn't really confess." So, that issue will be sorted out in due time, and Singer's father, and a lawyer from Santiago are apparently headed down to facilitate the personal legal aspects.

Singer is released from custody, but has had his passport taken away and is expected to report to the local police station once a week.

The Chilean government however is pressing Israel to pay for the costs of fighting the fire. This morning, Israel's Foreign Ministry rejected the call for restitution over blaze if Singer's involvement is proved, but stressed 'deep friendship' between two countries was 'stronger than ever.'

The ministry also said that Israel will plant seedlings in the Chilean nature reserve hit by wildfires. In the statement, Israel when on to note that it identifies with Chile following a similar disaster in Israel's own Carmel Forest and offered Chile aid through a delegation of forestation experts.

Tree planting in Israel has been a cornerstone of the nation's activities, restoring tree cover to hundreds of square miles, and creating a cadre of expertise in arid land afforestation. Here is the Neve Ilan Forest outside of Jerusalem.

So in the broader picture of Chilean-Israeli relations, we assume this will all be handled with diplomacy, rather than escalating rhetoric and tensions.