Saturday, October 24, 2020

Lekki Toll Gate Shootings - Nigerian Lawmakers Demand Justice for Protesters

Tobi Oshinnaike

Witnesses said gunmen opened fire on a crowd of over 1,000 people in Lagos, and local news outlets and Amnesty International are reporting that people were killed during the latest #EndSARS protests, though the death toll remains unclear.

21 OCTOBER 2020

Premium Times (Abuja)

By Yusuf Akinpelu

"We demand that the perpetrators of this dastardly act and all those who gave the orders should be brought to account in a transparent and accountable manner."

Following Tuesday's shooting by security operatives at protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos State which left many people injured and a yet to be confirmed number dead, a group of lawmakers has asked President Muhammadu Buhari to ensure the perpetrators are brought to book.

The group of legislators from both houses of the National Assembly said they were appalled by the use of "force, intimidation and manipulation by (the) government and security agencies" to disperse peaceful protesters.

"We demand that the perpetrators of this dastardly act and all those who gave the orders should be brought to account in a transparent and accountable manner," they said in a joint release on Wednesday.

"We ask the President to immediately identify all the officers involved and prosecute them for murder."

Young Nigerians for the past two weeks had been on the street, protesting against police brutality which many have been victims of, especially at the hands of the now-banned special anti-robbery squad, SARS.

The past week has, however, seen hoodlums disrupting theprocessions of the protesters, and in many instances causing mayhem and destroying properties.

As a result, some governors declared curfew in their states, including Lagos, whose governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced around noon that the statewide curfew would start by 4 p.m., in a state that has about 18 million people and some of the world's worst traffic jams. The governor later announced the extension of the curfew time to 9 p.m.

Despite the governor's announcement, a horde of protesters simply remained at one of the protest grounds in Lekki, an upscale suburb of the state

But the scene turned awry as some officials of the army opened fire on the protesters who sang the national athem and hoisted the nation's flag, footages shared by witnesses showed.

Although the army denied the shooting, Mr Sanwo-Olu admitted on Wednesday that there were attacks and he shared pictures of those injured by bullets. The governor, however, said no one died from the attack.

Still, the shootings continued till Wednesday, eyewitnesses said.

Call for justice

The coalition of lawmakers, in their joint statement, called on President Buhari to order all security agencies to stop shooting at protesters

"We are enraged by reports of shooting of unarmed, defenceless protesters by military officers at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos after the lights were turned off and CCTV cameras put off," they wrote.

"We condemn this action by government and security agencies. This is inexcusable and totally unacceptable. There is no justification whatsoever for security officials who are paid with tax payers' money to kill unarmed protesters.

"We recognise that over the years, socio-economic indicators in Nigeria have remained precarious. The fragile states index has consistently classified Nigeria among the 15 worst states that are failing across the world.

"We call on the President to address the nation and take concrete actions to respond to the demand of the protesters. He should commit in words and action to respect and protect the right to protest. He should publicly invite the leaders of the protesters to an urgent dialogue while assuring them of their safety and that outcomes would be expeditiously implemented."

They also condemned the attacks and burning of properties belonging to citizens and the government.

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"We call on the government to respond expeditiously to demands of the protesters and other lingering issues of addressing the security architecture of the country and addressing revelations of corruption in many government agencies," the statement read.

Signatories to the joint statement include senators Olu Adetunmbi, Michael Opeyemi Bamidele, Tolu Odebiyi and Surajudeen Ajibola Basiru.

Others are members of the House of Representatives: Julius Ihonvbere, Rimamnde Shawlu Kwewum, Francis Waive, Peter Akpatason, Umeoji Chukwuma, Kingsley Chinda, Abubakar Hassan Nalaraba, Francis Ottah Agbo, Unyime Idem, Omowumi Olubunmi Ogunlola, Ibrahim Kunle Olarewaju, Segius Ogun, Preye Oseke, Ibrahim Obanikoro, Ifeanyi Chudy Momah.

The rest are Bamidele Salam, Dennis Idahosa, Nnolim Nnaji, Benjamin Bem Mzondu, Timehin Adelegbe, Taiwo Olukemi Oluga, Ben Kalu, Amos Magaji, Olododo Cook Abdulganiyu Saka, Igariwey Iduma Enwo, Olubukola Oyewo, Tolulope Akande-Sadipe Oluyole, Uzoma Nkem Abonta, Satomi Ahmed, Wole Oke, Miriam Onuoha.

Read the original article on Premium Times.

 #ENDSARS Protest: Nigeria Kills Her Youths, Betrays Self

By Tony Eluemunor

What a shame. Last Saturday, I had written that the problem with that much-hated police unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was the same problem with all Nigerian security (and armed) agencies; impunity.

Impunity made the security agencies to deal ruthlessly with citizens like an army of occupation, like a hard-hearted colonising force during a war, instead of agencies funded solely for the protection of Nigeria and Nigerians.

Another problem: the authorities that ran such outfits failed woefully to reform them simply because their hearts and souls were also wedded to impunity. Lastly, I posited that impunity was Nigerians’ favourite sin; all would be involved in it as long as they were convinced they would get away with it.

Then, starting from Monday, the protest and protesters and Nigeria  were betrayed as the protests and the controlling of it by the security agencies became not only violent but totally brutal.  Writing this, I feel personally betrayed. For once, I had written my column for this week in time. It was ready on Monday October 19th and it gushed with pride at the fact that the youths were peaceful and peaceable, had disdained ethnic divides that have bedevilled the Nigerian polity.

That column which is now on hold, had a celebratory title: “#endSARS protest: Rejoice for the giant (the Nigerian Youth) awakes”.

Ah, I borrowed that phrases from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka’s anthem. The article on hold started by correcting one terrible impression; that the initial #endSARS protest, before it was hijacked by hoodlums, both of the governmental and street hues, was the first time Nigerian youths had nationalistically and effectively. I wanted to point out to those who hold such a wrong impression that this was the THIRD TIME.

The first was when the ikolos (youths) of the Anioma villages of the present Delta State organised themselves and gave hell to the British colonialists. A fight ensued and lasted for 31 long years. That was the first popular uprising involving a vast area, after the British had clamped its authority on any part of Africa.

The second was the civil disobedience organised by the Zikist movement from the 1940s; it was pan-Nigerian and totally nationalistic. I will bring up that piece next week, if events permit.

Now, our attention should be totally focused on the theme of the killing of our children (the youths) and another self-betrayal by the Nigerian nation.

In my column of last week, I remembered Chinua Achebe decrying Nigeria’s suicidal refusal to learn valuable and useful lesson from events; that while Japan snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the World War II, Nigeria snatched defeat from the jaws of its victory in the Nigerian Civil War.  Achebe’s real anger was that the leaders did not view Nigeria as one entity in 1970 and so failed to leverage on the scientific and technological gains Biafran scientists had achieved.

This time, we have again striven mightily to snatch defeat from the jaws of another victory. The youths who were on the streets protesting the total disregard the security agencies have for Nigerians, including the dehumanised agents themselves, had remained peaceful.

They did not attack anybody. They avoided the religious and ethnic rancour that had terribly divided and devalued Nigeria. There gave ample notice that they could be harbingers of a better Nigeria, a one united country, were tribe and tongue should not define anyone. They were also calling leaders to order.

And then, as though someone switched off a light, it all vanished. The promise had been betrayed. The people who were out in the streets fighting to enhance the human dignity of every Nigerian, and those who were supposed to guide the them and so were allowed to bear arms, met untimely deaths in the streets of the cities and villages, in broad daylight and their deaths being videoed and shared so casually that the lives of Nigerians have become cheaper in a matter of three days – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – than before the protests began.

Writing this, I remember Chinua Achebe again. In 1979, he became the first to receive the revered Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) – the highest academic award in Nigeria, instituted in 1979, has so far been conferred on only 70 distinguished academicians. His acceptance was titled “What Has Literature Got To Do With It?” The “it” he was was development. And he replied that the “it” had plenty to do with Literature. He said that “people tell stories and stories tell people.”

Watching events since the murder (murder?) of the protesting youths at the Lekki Tollgate, Lagos, and elsewhere across Nigeria, how a gun would go pua and a human being that God created would bite the dust, I have also been noting how the story has been changing. At first, the youths were nothing but Nigerians. Then, according to some version of events seen on online videos, some well-heeled persons in SUVs were seen arming some scoundrels and directing them to go and attack the peaceful protesters.

In no time, hoodlums took over. And Nigeria started burning. And it burnt and burnt and burnt. No, I do mean only the buildings and cars that were torched, I am most of all worried by the ethnic and linguistic hues that the protest, once peaceful protest, has now been dressed in.

And the result? Nigeria has once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Why? Because of the acts of impunity of those who armed the rascals and tasked them, even paid them really, to attack the future of Nigeria.

That changed the story of the 2020 protests; though nationalist at the beginning, it has now turned ethnic because people chose to tell false and terrible stories and those stories told the lies told the lies to people. How do we beg Achebe for forgiveness … because we have failed to learn from his remarkable insights?

VANGUARD

Ensure Justice Is Done, Victims Of Police Killing In Kano Cry Out

OCTOBER 24, 2020 AT 1:58:35 AM

UMAR AMINU, KANO

Although normalcy has since returned to Kofar Mata area of Kano metropolis, family, friends and neighbours insist that the only way to ensure relief to the family of the deceased is for justice to take its course.

The killing of 23-year-old Saifullahi Sani allegedly by policemen had sparked a violent protest in the area as youths took to the street, burning tires, chanting war songs and disrupting the free flow of traffic for hours, while calling for justice for the deceased. Apart from the recentcase of Saifullahi Sani, other young men have died in the custody of police officials in Kano in the past.

Their families are still seeking justice over the senseless killings as they narrate their tragic experiences to Daily Trust Saturday.

I took my son to police, only for him to be killed there – Madobi

Malam Nasiru Madobi

Nasiru Abdulkadir Madobi, whose 26-year-old son Abdulkadir died in police custody last year, said a judgement has already been gotten in the matter.

What happened? 

My son was not at home when one police officer named Haruna came looking for him. I vouched to bring him to the station whenever he returned.

I called my son on phone and he came. He was about to take tea, but I pressed on him until he abandoned it and I took him to the police station. On getting to the station, I discovered that the complainant was my friend’s child.

When you went to the station with him what transpired? 

He was asked to go behind the counter for detention. In the process of trying to search him, an altercation ensued as my son insisted that there was no need for the search because he had only N50 and his phone, which he brought out of his pocket.

And then? 

One of the policemen at the counter, known as Dan-Bichi, slapped him and he retaliated. In the process, other policemen at the counter, including Haruna, Dan-Bichi, Takalmin-Zomo and one Mustapha started beating him with clubs and sticks until he passed out. The divisional crime officer of the police outpost tear-gassed him. I left the station because I could not stand the sight of the beating and not being able to rescue him.

My son was blindfolded and handcuffed when brought before me – Yahaya Bagobiri

Yahaya Bagobiri

Yahaya Umar Bagobiri, whose son Abubakar Yahaya, a level 10 staff of Nasarawa LGA, was allegedly killed in police custody, said the images of his son blind folded in handcuffs still haunts him.

What led to your son being in police custody?

The DPO of Gwagwarwa asked for my son to come and make a statement and I sent him to the police station. He went voluntarily to make his statement and was arrested immediately.

On what ground was he arrested?

Someone in our area who was arrested over a planned kidnap offence kept mentioning names of some children in the area, including the daughter of the Mai Unguwa and other well-to-do individuals. Some of those arrested since then are still in detention.

After his arrest what transpired?  

I made several efforts to reach superior officers to no avail. I went to the station the next day. They had rushed them to SARS office where they beat him up while forcing him to admit to the offence. He has never been arrested before. They brought him and asked me not to talk to him, but my son asked them to allow him perform ablution first since they were going to kill him. He was handcuffed from behind and blindfolded.

Can you recall the moments? 

I don’t want to ever remember that scene in my life. When I returned home, I gathered his brothers, mother and other family members and asked them to be patient and bear whatever might come because I strongly felt my son would not survive from the condition he was in.

I knew my son would not be able to cope with what they’d put him through and unfortunately, he died the next day in their custody. I got lawyers to petition the IGP and other relevant authorities; a committee was constituted in Abuja where I was represented by one of my sons and lawyers. They met with the panel and made their submission.

What happened to those involved?

The officers were invited and detained but till now, I have not heard anything. We are still waiting for the outcome. I want justice for my son. It’s been seven months since we petitioned the IGP.

Was my son brutally killed because we are poor?

Sani Musa and Lami, mother of Saifullahi

The death of Sani Musa’s son Saifullahi in the hands of policemen sparked outrage in Kofar Mata area of Kano city in the wake of #EndSARS protest in the country.

What happened? 

At about 1.30am on Monday, one ASP Ismail attached to Kano Central police command Shahuci led a patrol team alongside Aminu, Maisulu, Nagwaduwa, Bahago and 5 other civilians, on a cruel patrol operation in kofar Mata.

And then? 

The said patrol team stormed Babban Layi and Lungun Sharifai streets of Kofar-Mata armed with cutlasses, swords, sticks and other dangerous weapons where they met the deceased and some other young persons on their sleeping mats in front of my house. On getting to them, without identifying themselves and the reasons for their coming, the team started attacking all persons present indiscriminately, including the deceased who was asleep. Later, we heard that the team came looking for mobile phone thieves.

Where was your son during the invasion.

My son just woke up and couldn’t escape like the others, as a result, they arrested him and continued beating him with sticks indiscriminately until he could not move due to the fracture he sustained on his left limb as well as internal injuries as witnessed by some people. They dragged him on the ground all the way from Lungun Sharifai to the main road where they parked their patrol car and threw him into the car and drove away.

What happened afterwards? 

Some people trailed the patrol car to the Murtala Mohammad hospital. On getting there, they found out that my son was dumped at the emergency unit where he died around 4.30 of the same day.

Since the death occurred, have there been any development? 

The press release by the police claiming that thugs were fighting is untrue. Such press release does more harm that good to us, the deceased and the police, it is capable of damaging the deceased’s reputation. Already, Human rights activist have moved into the case assuring of doing their best to secure justice for the family.  I’m still confident that justice will be served in the end.

The deceased’s mother, Lami kofarmata, also spoke to Daily Trust Saturday.

What can you say about the incidence?

The death is one too many. It’s heartbreaking to lose someone so close in such a manner. My son is a quite type who everyone can attest to being an easy going and friendly person. He does his laundry business in the neighbourhood.

Why do you think his death sparked a protest? 

It is an attestation that he was loved and cherished. If he was a bad person, no one will bother to raise his/her voice not to talk of protesting. Instead, the community would be happy that a bed egg has finally left but that wasn’t the case.

What do you want to be done?

I demand to know the reason behind this brutal killing, is it because we are poor? The authorities concerned should ensure that he rests in peace by doing the needful in this case.  He was such a good son and justice is the only way out.

‘People Were Falling Left, Right’, DJ Switch Recalls Lekki Shooting Night

OCTOBER 23, 2020 AT 8:55:48 PM

DAILY TRUST ONLINE

Catherine Udeh, better known as DJ, has reiterated claims that soldiers and security agencies confronted ENDSARS protesters at Lekki toll gate in Lagos late Tuesday.

Denials have come from several quarters insisting no security deployment was ordered to the site, and discounting the casualty figures for the night.

She has gone public for the first time since the incident on her Instagram account to retell her experience.

“People were falling left and right,” she said in the stream. “Yes, there were soldiers. The SARS people we were talking about also came, maybe 45 minutes after the soldiers left. People were teargassed. it was like Cotonou pepper mixed with acid.”

DJ Switch was on Instagram livestream relaying events at the site Tuesday night until her battery ran out. In the video, injuries to her face are still visible, and she has a bandage on the bridge of her nose.

Her stream from Tuesday night has become a rallying point for many identifying with the incident.

Udeh addressed counterclaims to the experiences related by protesters at the scene.

“To our leaders, I urge you: please do not minimise the suffering of families, do not insult the grief of Nigerians, do not insult the intelligence of Nigerians, do not insult the pain families are facing,” said the survivor.

There have been controversies surrounding the incident—that CCTV cameras were taken down, and lights were turned out in preparation for what has been called the “Lekki shooting”.

“We were running,” she recalled the chaos at the scene.

“We would run and come back. And the only thing we fought with was our flags. We’d sit on the floor and raise our hands, waving our flags and singing the national anthem. That’s all we had.

“They put off the lights. Even if there is no power, on a good day in that axis there is always light at the toll gate. There was no light, the light was off, the street lights were off. it was pitch black.

“A boy jumped on me and was shouting, ‘cover her, cover her’. I didn’t even understand why he did that. they shot that boy on my back.

Picking shells

She survived. She recalls falling down and remembers seeing soldiers scampering to pick up spent shells.

She said protesters also ran around to pick shells “because we wanted proof.”

On her video, she displays at least 20 spent shells she collected on the night.

“One landed next to my ear. One was taken out of someone’s lap,” she said.

“The military was there on Nigerian soil killing Nigerian citizens. the police and their SARS like people came doing the same thing, aiming and shooting. they were pointing the guns at us and shooting live bullets. who takes live bullets to a protest? who does that?” Her voice choked with tears, and she paused.

“We carried dead bodies and dropped them at the feet of the soldiers so that they could see what they did to us. when I asked their unit commander why are you killing us. I wish we didn’t do that; I wish we kept the bodies because they ended up throwing the bodies in their van. this was up until the next morning.

Counted 15 bodies

The absence of bodies has made actual casualty figures uncertain.

“When I was doing the live, seven people had died. when my battery died, we had counted about 15 people I don’t know if it was more than that. we had a lot of people that had stray bullet wounds, gunshot wounds and all that.

“People did die it wasn’t photoshopped. I must be a tech genius to have photoshopped a live feed,” she said, referring to claims that have branded her video as fake news online.

ENDSARS movement against police brutality was hijacked by hoodlums to cause chaos since Tuesday, resulting in arsons, looking and destruction of public and private properties in states across the different.

“We must continue to move. If we stop, I swear it will probably be another 60 years before we talk about this again. we must continue but we must continue peacefully.

“I condemn any sort of violence. I condemn the burning of buses or people’s livelihood. I know we are very angry but the most powerful weapon we have is peace.

“We need accountability. People have to brought to book. If you don’t bring people to book, it will continue.”

Nigeria Says 51 Civilians, 18 Security Forces Dead in Unrest

By SAM OLUKOYA and LEKAN OYEKANMI

Police officers stop and search a bus carrying passengers around Lekki toll gate in Lagos Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. Resentment lingered with the smell of charred tires Friday as Nigeria's streets were relatively calm after days of protests over police abuses, while authorities gave little acknowledgement to reports of the military killing at least 12 peaceful demonstrators earlier this week. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — At least 51 civilians have been killed in Nigeria’s unrest following days of peaceful protests over police abuses, the president said Friday, blaming “hooliganism” for the violence while asserting that security forces have used “extreme restraint.”

President Muhammadu Buhari’s comments are expected to further inflame tensions in Africa’s most populous country after Amnesty International reported that soldiers shot and killed at least 12 demonstrators Tuesday night as a large crowd sang the national anthem. The deaths sparked international condemnation.

In a statement, Buhari also said 11 policemen and seven soldiers had been killed by “rioters” as of Thursday, and “the mayhem has not stopped.” He said another 37 civilians were injured in some of Nigeria’s worst turmoil in years.

The president said the well-intentioned protests were hijacked by thugs.

But many Nigerians are upset by what the president hasn’t said. Buhari in a national address Thursday night didn’t mention the shootings, instead warning protesters against “undermining national security and law and order.” On Friday he said the government “will not fold its arms and allow miscreants and criminals continue to perpetrate acts of hooliganism.”

Resentment lingered with the smell of charred tires Friday in Nigeria’s relatively calm streets. Soldiers remained in parts of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, as a 24-hour curfew remained in place.

A witness of Tuesday night’s shooting, 33-year-old Isaiah Abor, ventured out anyway to visit the scene where solders had opened fire. He managed to escape the chaos.

“When (the soldiers) were making comments that the flag is not bulletproof, that’s when I knew this was going to go out of hand,” Abor said. Empty ammunition shells still littered the ground.

The president’s speech annoyed him. “The blood that stained a whole Nigerian flag, those youths were not even mentioned,” Abor said. He added: “We are not cowards. We will always come to this ground, and we will always feel for those that are gone.”

Another protester, Olatunde Joshua Oluwanifemi, said simply: “The speech killed our spirit.”

The president’s comments, “devoid of sympathy,” were worrying, said Okechukwu Nwanguma with the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Center. Shielding those behind the shootings will only lead to abuses by the police and military, he said: “If those who carried out the killings did so and nothing happens, it will encourage them and others to do the same thing next time.”

But citing the president’s comments, one influential group behind the protests, the Feminist Coalition, urged youth to stay at home, saying that “we need to stay alive to pursue our dreams to build the future.”

Others disagreed. If the protests have been hijacked, then Nigerian youth should not give up the struggle and instead should “go back and re-strategize,” said Seriki Muritala with the National Youth Parliament.

This week’s scenes have touched a chord with Black Lives Matter supporters in the United States, while the U.S. government has strongly condemned the “use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos, causing death and injury.”

The protests turned violent Wednesday after the military’s shooting as mobs vandalized and burned police stations, courthouses, TV stations and a hotel. Police battled angry crowds with tear gas and gunfire. The looting and gunfire continued Thursday.

The demonstrations began early this month with calls for Nigeria’s government to shut down the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit known as SARS. The squad was launched to fight crime, but it carried out torture and killings, according to Amnesty International.

The #EndSARS campaign spread across the country and Buhari’s government announced that it would disband the SARS unit. The protest persisted with demonstrators calling for more widespread reforms of the police and an end to corruption.

In one attempt at calming tensions, the Lagos state government on Friday shared a list of ongoing prosecution against police officers accused of human rights abuses.

“Today seems like a good day to get on to the work of rebuilding Lagos and ending police brutality,” Gov. Babajide Sanwo-Olu said.

But an angry crowd shouted at him over the unrest as officials toured burned-out vehicles and the sacked palace of a Lagos ceremonial leader. The leader, or oba, isn’t popular with some Nigerians who see him as a product of the country’s often corrupt politics.

Opulence and grinding poverty are in close contact in Lagos, a city of some 20 million, and the inequality sharpens Nigerians’ grievances.

After touring the battered city, the governor told reporters he was “very traumatized” and that “we lost people in several parts of the city.” He didn’t give details.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “We need to heal ourselves.” He said the curfew would begin easing Saturday morning and a panel looking into the unrest would begin receiving petitions on Monday.

And yet nerves were frayed. Near the scene of Tuesday’s shooting, police shouted, then fired into the air, to stop a convoy carrying the body of a Muslim who had died overnight; the cause of death was not clear.

After questioning by police, the mourners were allowed to continue, to go on and bury the dead.

Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed.

Sudan Does Not Expect Immediate Improvement in its Economy: Minister

October 20, 2020 

(KHARTOUM) - Sudan’s Minister of Finance said they do not expect a quick improvement of the economic situation in the country after its removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Economy minister Heba Mohamed Ali talks to the press on 10 September 2020 (SUNA photo)On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump announced his readiness to remove Sudan from the terror list as soon as compensations of the victims are transferred to an escrow account before the end of the month.

"There will be no fundamental change in the Sudanese economy tomorrow, once the country is removed from the list," said Heba Mohamed Ali in a joint press conference with the foreign minister and the governor of the Central Bank.

She pointed out that the immediate benefits for the country can is the moral aspect and the possibility for banking and cash transfers, but for the remaining issues Sudan still has to exert more efforts.

"Sudan needs to adjust the exchange rate so that the expatriates are not harmed and to when they use the official channels," noting that there are 5 exchange rates in the country.

However, the Sudanese pound strengthened on the black market after a tweet by Trump about the removal from the terror list.

Heba said that the country’s delisting enables it to benefit from grants by international institutions to finance development projects without the objection of the United States.

She added that the country meets the needed conditions to benefit from debt relief. Once Sudan finalizes the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) process, it would get $ 1.7 billion annually, as it is one of the poorest countries, she stressed.

She further pointed out that the lifting allows her country to cooperate directly with various institutions to purchase basic commodities after it was buying it at a high price through intermediaries.

Sudan says that it has to spend $128 million per month to buy petroleum products, $48 million per month to buy wheat and $30 million monthly to buy medicines, but due to the lack of foreign currency, it often fails to fulfil these obligations.

Heba said that about 40% of the government-subsidized oil and wheat supplies are smuggled out of the country.

The minister disclosed that Sudan’s removal from the blacklist could enable the country to receive one million tons of wheat from the USAID annually, adding that they are currently working on this file.

For his part, the Governor of the Central Bank of Sudan Al-Fateh Zain al-Abidine pledged to take measures to ensure the stability of the exchange rate.

He said that there are undertaking some arrangements to strengthen the value of the national currency.

The official said that the delisting would speed up the procedures for joining the World Trade Organization, and improve Sudan’s risk rating, as it is now classified as a country with high risks for investors.

(ST)

Umma Party Rejects Normalization with Israel, Threatens to Withdraw Support to Sudan’s Government

Al-Mahdi speaks at a workshop on the state of emergency on 3 April 2019 ( ST photo)

October 22, 2020 (KHARTOUM) -The leader of the National Umma Party (NUP) Sadiq al-Mahdi Thursday rejected any normalization of relations with Israel and threatened to withdraw his support to the transitional government.

Al-Mahdi’s statement came after reports that a Sudanese, American and Israeli meeting in Khartoum on Wednesday had finalized the details of a deal to normalize the relations between the two countries.

The agreement would be announced soon in the context of removing Sudan from the list of countries supporting terrorism.

Al-Mahdi said that establishing relations with Israel is similar to establishing relations with South Africa before the end of the apartheid regime.

He also said that the transitional governing institutions have no mandate to make any decision on contentious issues such as establishing relations with Israel.

"We hope that all the institutions of the transitional government abide by this position. We will withdraw our support for the institutions of the transition if they establish relations with the apartheid and occupation state," he emphasized

Furthermore, al-Mahdi called on the Bar Association to file lawsuits against the process and question those who violate Israel boycott act of 1958.

The NUM has a troubled relationship with the transitional government in Sudan and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).

Last April, it had frozen its activities in the FFC. In July, it rejected the appointment of the state governors.

On 31 July, Sadiq al-Mahdi the leader of the National Umma Party (NUP) called to form an alliance between the "Forces of the National Agenda" to protect Sudan from the Islamists and secular groups and called on the army to support it.

(ST)

Friday, October 23, 2020

Sudan Protests Against Dire Living Conditions Turn Deadly

Protesters have taken to the streets in the capital and across the country over dire living conditions and a deadly crackdown on demonstrators 

Copyright © africanews

Marwan Ali/AP

By Africanews and AFP

 22/10 - 11:45

Protests in Sudan have turned deadly after one person was reportedly killed and a dozen others were wounded, according to a group of doctors linked to the movement that led to the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir.

The demonstrations on Wednesday in the cities of Kharthoum and Omdurman are over the country's worsening economic situation. Protesters are also demanding justice for the hundreds killed during the 2019 uprising, which led to Bashir being toppled.

'We demanded freedom, peace and justice'

Eyewitnesses said police fired teargas to disperse the small gatherings of about 100 protesters.

"There has not yet been any sentencing for the martyrs," said one protester.

"We demanded freedom, peace and justice and neither achieve peace, neither freedom nor justice."

Sudan has embarked on a rocky three-year transition since then under a joint civilian-military administration but has struggled with severe economic woes and skyrocketing consumer prices.

High inflation and a shortage of hard currency mean people are finding it difficult to even buy the basics. Long queues outside grocery stores have also become the norm as have power cuts that can last up to six hours.

Authorities have vowed to rebuild the economy and to bring to justice those responsible for killing protesters.

More than 250 people were killed during the anti-Bashir protests and the ensuing unrest, according to doctors linked to the protest movement.

The transitional authorities have been pushing to end the country's isolation and to rebuild its economy.

On Monday, President Donald Trump declared his readiness to remove post-Bashir Sudan from a US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, a move Khartoum hailed as a vital step towards securing debt relief and spurring economic recovery.

Libya's Rival Forces Sign Permanent Ceasefire at UN-sponsored Talks

Deal includes departure of all foreign fighters for at least three months and prisoner exchange

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor, The Guardian

Fri 23 Oct 2020 08.50 EDT

Rival forces in Libya have agreed a permanent nationwide ceasefire including the departure of all foreign fighters and mercenaries from the country for a minimum of three months.

“This is a good day for the Libyan people,” said Stephanie Williams, the acting head of the United Nations mission in Libya. She added that she saluted the courage and patriotism of the negotiators who made the deal at UN-sponsored talks in Geneva between military officers representing forces in the east and west of the country.

“The parties have signed a complete countrywide permanent agreement with immediate effect,” Williams said. “The parties agreed to the departure of all mercenaries and foreign fighters from Libyan territory, air, land and seas for three months.” Military trainers will also leave.

Williams said the aim now was to reintegrate the armed forces into a single body, and that this would start with the categorisation and identification of all armed units, whether integrated or not within the main forces on either side.

Although there has been a de facto ceasefire on the ground, the scale of the announced ceasefire and the plans to bring together police and security forces into a joint operations centre is a remarkable advance, at least on paper. The main frontline is between Sirte on the coast and Al Jufrah in central Libya.

The ceasefire includes the full opening of land and air routes, efforts to curb hate speech, an exchange of prisoners and plans to reconstruct the Petroleum Facilities Guard, an oil company and militia body linked to the eastern warlord General Khalifa Haftar that is seen as a threat to the stable flow of oil from Libya.

Although previous ceasefires have been agreed and broken in Libya with frequency, Williams cited the seniority of the military officers singing the agreement. “We should not let the cynics win. If they can reconcile after this long crisis they deserve our support,” she said.

Williams said she had heard optimistic suggestions from the military negotiators that the Ra’s Lanuf refinery and Es Sider oil terminal in eastern Libya would be opened shortly. El Sharara oilfield, Libya’s biggest,resumed operations on 11 October. It is operating at more than half its 300,000 barrels-a-day capacity.

Many oilfields have been shut for a year, depriving the Libyan treasury of billions of dollars in revenue. But with the projected further openings, the country’s production could now reach 1m bpd.

The surprisingly high level of progress in Geneva means the focus now shifts to whether the external actors will end the supply of arms to the warring factions, and agree to withdraw their troops.

Turkey has sent as many as 4,000 Syrian mercenaries to support the UN-recognised government in Tripoli headed by the prime minister, Fayez al-Sarraj. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organisation, have supported Haftar, and a steady flow of weaponry has been sent by the United Arab Emirates in blatant breach of the UN arms embargo.

The degree to which the external forces adhere to the terms of the ceasefire will be an issue in the weeks ahead. Williams said: “It is time to listen to the Libyans themselves. Libya is for Libyans. They want to come together to rebuild their country. It is incumbent on the international community to support them in this effort.”

The ceasefire also opens the way for political talks between the parties on future power-sharing arrangements, as well as the future of sovereign institutions including the Central Bank of Libya and Libyan Investment Authority. One cause of the on-off civil war since 2011 has been disputes over the distribution of oil revenues between west and east of the country, and the role of the state institutions.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Zimbabwe Basks in Regional Anti-sanctions Solidarity

23 OCT, 2020 - 00:10 

Fungi Kwaramba Political Editor

Herald

AHEAD of the SADC Anti-Sanctions Day, President Mnangagwa has paid tribute to resilient Zimbabweans and the region in calling for the unconditional removal of the illegal economic embargoes imposed by the United States and her allies.

The President rallied Africa to harness its vast resources for the empowerment of its people.

This comes as SADC nations will on Sunday commemorate the Anti-Sanctions Day under the theme “Resilience, Progress and Solidarity under an environment of sanctions”, an apt description considering the trials and tribulations that Zimbabweans have endured under the yoke of the illegal economic embargoes.

“This theme is appropriate as it speaks of the difficult road Zimbabwe has travelled as an independent and sovereign nation. Surviving under the baneful shadow of sanctions has not been easy for us. It equally refocuses us to gird our strength and draw from our national endowments to develop our country and improve the plight of citizenry, in spite of the apparent odds against us.

“Our people have borne the brunt of these illegal sanctions. As a nation let us never doubt the certainty of our victory over these illegal inhumane sanctions. They continue to make huge sacrifices for our sovereignty and territorial integrity. I applaud their resilience, their courage, their fortitude, their unflinching determination in enduring the impact of the illegal sanctions.

“We must continue to improve production and productivity across all sectors of the economy. SADC deserves a Zimbabwe which can play its effective and strategic role towards the achievement of regional diversity and collective prosperity.”

With the cloud of the Covid-19 still casting shadows across the world, this year’s commemorations on October 25 will be held virtually.

In his address, the President chronicled to SADC how the sanctions, imposed as punishment for the land reform by Western nations, have stymied Zimbabwe’s economic growth.

The President saluted the SADC region for standing by Zimbabwe during difficult times spawned by the illegal punitive and nasty sanctions that were imposed to instigate regime change after the Zanu PF Government honoured its war pledge to ultimately reunite the people with their land.

“I want to yet again express our profound gratitude to the SADC heads of States and Governments for taking this historic decision in Tanzania, itself the cradle of all liberation movements in Southern Africa. We are also appreciative of the many more voices calling for the unconditional removal of these illegal sanctions. This posture by SADC will indeed be in line with our mantra that an injury to one is indeed an injury to all.”

The President added that going forward African states must continue to stand together, as demonstrated in the anti-sanctions solidarity, and defend the continent against foreign aggression and neo-imperialism.

“Africa is an awakening giant equipped with its rich heritage and indigenous knowledge system of Ubuntu, which says, ‘I am because you are’. Let us be our brother’s keeper.

“Additionally, let us leverage the abundant and diverse natural resources within Africa to grow our economies and improve the quality of life of our people. In line with the SADC industrialisation Strategy and in the context of the African Continental Trade Agreement; mutual cooperation and trade must be promoted. Intra-regional and continental synergies, science and technology innovations and inventions must be encouraged towards a more prosperous, modern, industrialised and empowered Africa. To this end, we remain committed to play our part within the comity of nations towards the success of multilateralism and a peaceful world, with a shared future” the President said.

He said the show of solidarity was a reflection of the principled revolutionary character of the regional bloc, which has consistently opposed injustices and oppression.

He said the regional revolutionary bond has its genesis in a rich shared liberation heritage that embolden its leadership to take head-on, the neo-colonial machinations by detractors and opponents.

The President described the misnamed Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) of 2001 and subsequent orders imposed by the US and the European Union (EU) against the country as impediments to the much needed development for almost 20 years.

“Due to sanctions, Zimbabwe has limited access to multilateral and financial support from international financial institutions.

“The cumulative effect of these illegal sanctions has been devastating in every sector of our economy. Sanctions are a blunt, coercive instrument with far-reaching implications on the ordinary people, especially women, children, youths and the elderly, people with disabilities and those suffering from chronic illnesses. My country’s citizens have fallen victim to this indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction which is being deceitfully presented to the world as targeted”.

With the albatross rock of the illegal economic sanctions Zimbabwe has been exposed to natural disasters and pandemics such as Covid-19.

“Furthermore, sanctions have limited Zimbabwe’s capacity to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we are grateful to those nations and organisations who have stood by us and supported us in fighting the pandemic.

“Sanctions are without doubt a form of aggression against my country and a tool of regime change, coupled with the vicious cyber-attacks, hostile propaganda, calculated to divide Zimbabwe, sanctions undermine our people, unity and national cohesion.

“The cyber-attacks on my country are built on gross falsehoods and non-existent narratives of a nation in crisis. I would like to reiterate once yet again that there is no crisis in Zimbabwe.

“We are a peaceful nation on the cusp of implementing robust reforms across all social economic and political spheres, to entrench constitutionalism. Our focus is on improving the quality of life of our people and leapfrogging our national development,” he said.

With the country robustly pursuing the UN agenda 2030, towards sustainable development and the Second Republic aiming to make the country an upper middle class economy by that year, the continued existence of unjust economic sanctions is an unnecessary onslaught on a sovereign nation by neo-colonial forces who fail to appreciate the strides that have been made by President Mnangagwa’s administration.

“Zimbabwe has achieved closure to the land question through various internal constitutional processes. The land is now united with its people and the people with their land.

“Sanctions have no basis and must be unconditionally removed. This will give impetus to my country achievement of Sustainable Development Goals and help us realise development which leaves no one behind. This is even more important given the overriding essence of the Decade of Action”.

The President added that as a result of the Second Republic’s re-engagement thrust, the country is emboldened by the solidarity oozing from well-meaning nations and the international community, not least the unequivocal call by the UN Secretary General António Guterres for the unconditional removal of the illegal sanctions.

Apart from the UN chief other prominent world bodies that have also called for the lifting of the economic embargoes that continue to stifle development, include the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and many African and Asian leaders.

The re-engagement thrust adopted by the New Dispensation has also seen the European Union lifting some of the sanctions it had imposed on Zimbabwe.

“We urge the United States, the United Kingdom to reciprocate the hand of peace and friendship Zimbabwe has extended. Our hand of friendship remains stretched out to all.

“In light of the above, Zimbabwe is open for business and dialogue, and stands ready to welcome investments into our mining, agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and infrastructural development among others.

He paid tribute to China and Russia for the resolute support and cooperation dating back to the country’s liberation struggle where the two countries offered both moral and material support fighting colonialism.

“To my fellow countrymen and women; the greatest way we can make us deserving of this solidarity from across the region, continent and the world, is to be united and staying on the course of principle. We are a determined people, a resilient African nation with a history of standing for what is right and just.

“We are an integral part of SADC and the African Union. Our outlook has always been pan-African — making Zimbabwe home to different nationalities. In return, we have been hosted by other nations always exhibiting hard work, honesty and commitment to laws of countries that host us. That character must never change, it must be supported and strengthened by the shared solidarity with which Africa and the progressive world continue to favour us.”

Zimbabwe President Addresses Nation, Opens Ninth Parliament

22 OCT, 2020 - 13:10 

Farirai Machivenyika Senior Reporter

Herald

President Mnangagwa has delivered the State of the Nation Address and officially opened the third session of the Ninth Parliament.

In his account, the President noted the stability in the economy brought about by policies contained in the Transitional Stabilisation Fund and the adoption of the foreign currency auction system.

He said the stability and improvements in the economy had resulted in a decrease in imports and growth of exports and foreign currency receipts.

President Mnangagwa also said other sectors of the economy that include energy, tourism and agriculture among others were poised for growth.

The President also outlined the third session’s legislative agenda that is expected to consolidate the Government’s political and economic reform agenda.

He said Parliament had passed 10 Bills out of 39 that were expected to be tabled before Parliament.

Outrage in South Africa Over Police Brutality in Nigeria

AFP

By Jerry Fisayo-Bambi

Hundreds of people took to the streets in South Africa on Wednesday to voice outrage at the shooting of peaceful demonstrators in Nigeria.

Africa's most populous country has faced growing unrest as a protest over brutality by a Nigerian police unit known as SARS ballooned into wider grievances against the government.

Witnesses said gunmen opened fire on a crowd of over 1,000 people in the main city of Lagos on Tuesday, with Amnesty International reporting that several people were killed.

On Wednesday, demonstrators draped in the national flag of Nigeria and chanting liberation slogans marched to Abuja's embassy in Pretoria carrying banners reading "End police brutality".

Another group of about 400 people in Cape Town, mostly Nigerian nationals, vowed to continue picketing until there was change in Nigeria.

Well-known South African rap star AKA voiced solidarity with the people of Nigeria, saying: "How can people shoot to KILL their own countrymen and women?"

"This is insane... Sending love and strength to Naija," AKA tweeted to his 4.6 million followers.

South African opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), pledged its "moral and political solidarity" with Nigerians and called on the government to rein in its army and security services.

"The EFF salutes the young lions of Nigeria in their resolve to graduate their successful fight against police brutality under the banner of #ENDSARS," it said in a statement.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions condemned the crackdown, saying the accumulated anger of citizens over decades of failure in the delivery of basic social services and endemic corruption, was "visible in the pent-up anger, which has been boiling over in mass street protests in cities across the country".

Both groups called on the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States to send a strong message to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to immediately end crackdown on protesters.

South Africa and Nigeria are the economic giants of Africa, competing for sporting prowess, cultural dominance and economic strength.

US Ice Officers 'Used Torture to Make Africans Sign Own Deportation Orders'

Cameroonians say officers choked, beat and threatened to kill them, as lawyers tell of pre-election removal drive

Protesters rally against Ice outside City Hall in Seattle. Human rights advocates says there has been a significant acceleration of deportations linked to the possibility that Ice could soon be under new management. Photograph: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Julian Borger in Washington

Thu 22 Oct 2020 06.00 EDT

US immigration officers allegedly tortured Cameroonian asylum seekers to force them to sign their own deportation orders, in what lawyers and activists describe as a brutal scramble to fly African migrants out of the country in the run-up to the elections.

Many of the Cameroonian migrants in a Mississippi detention centre refused to sign, fearing death at the hands of Cameroonian government forces responsible for widespread civilian killings, and because they had asylum hearings pending.

According to multiple accounts, detainees were threatened, choked, beaten, pepper-sprayed and threatened with more violence to make them sign. Several were put in handcuffs by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) officers, and their fingerprints were taken forcibly in place of a signature on documents called stipulated orders of removal, by which the asylum seekers waive their rights to further immigration hearings and accept deportation.

Parents of 545 children still not found three years after Trump separation policy

Lawyers and human rights advocates said there had been a significant acceleration of deportations in recent weeks, a trend they see as linked to the looming elections and the possibility that Ice could soon be under new management.

“The abuse we are witnessing, especially right now against black immigrants, isn’t new, but it is escalating,” said Christina Fialho, executive director of an advocacy group, Freedom for Immigrants (FFI). “In late September, early October of this year, we began to receive calls on our hotline from Cameroonian and Congolese immigrants detained in Ice prisons across the country. And they were being subjected to threats of deportation, often accompanied by physical abuse.”

“The reality is that Ice operates in the shadows. They thrive in secrecy,” Fialho added. “We know that the US government is deporting key witnesses in an effort to silence survivors and absolve Ice of legal liability.”

A plane carrying 60 Cameroonian and 28 Congolese asylum seekers was quietly flown out of Fort Worth Alliance airport in Texas on 13 October to deliver them to their home countries. The charter plane did not release a flight plan, but it was tracked by immigration rights group Witness at the Border, which said it stopped in Senegal, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and then Kenya before flying back to Texas.

The Cameroonian deportees were from the country’s English-speaking minority, which has been the target of widespread abuses, including extrajudicial killings, by government security forces seeking to crush a separatist movement. The Trump administration cut the country’s trade privileges at the beginning of this year because of the persistent abuses.

Most of the deportees on the flight had testified that they had suffered detention without charge and torture at the hands of the Cameroonian military, and had relatives who had been killed. They were detained for questioning on arrival in Douala, but some were freed after their families paid bribes, and have since gone into hiding.

As for the others, the lawyer Evaristus Nkongchu said: “We have no knowledge of what happened to those that were deported. We know they arrived, but we haven’t heard what happened after they arrived at the airport.”

The Cameroonian embassy in Washington did not reply to several requests for comment.

Detainees and their lawyers have been told there will be another deportation flight in the coming days, possibly as early as Friday.

‘I kept telling him, “I can’t breathe”’

Cameroonians are routinely denied asylum or parole in the US immigration court system, which is run by the justice department.

Victims, family members, lawyers and human rights activists have described a range of coercive measures used by Ice on Cameroonian detainees at the Adams county correctional centre in Mississippi to make them sign their own deportation orders.

A complaint filed by FFI and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites eight cases of forced signatures or fingerprints on stipulated orders of removal.

One of those involved, identified by the initials BJ, said that on 27 September, Ice officers “pepper-sprayed me in the eyes and [one officer] strangled me almost to the point of death. I kept telling him, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I almost died.”

“As a result of the physical violence, they were able to forcibly obtain my fingerprint on the document,” BJ said.

Another detainee, known as DF, said that he was ordered to sign his deportation order by an Ice agent on 28 September.

“I refused to sign. He pressed my neck into the floor. I said, ‘Please, I can’t breathe.’ I lost my blood circulation. Then they took me inside with my hands at my back where there were no cameras,” DF said. According to his account, he was then taken to a punitive wing of the Adams county centre, known as Zulu, and subjected to further assault.

“They put me on my knees where they were torturing me and they said they were going to kill me. They took my arm and twisted it. They were putting their feet on my neck. While in Zulu, they did get my fingerprint on my deportation document and took my picture,” he said. DF was one of the detainees on the 13 October flight to Douala. It is unclear what has happened to him since.

A third detainee, CA, said he was forced to the ground, sat on, handcuffed and pepper-sprayed. “I was crying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ because they were forcefully on top of me pressing their body weight on top of me. My eyes were so hot ... I was dragged across the ground,” he said. “The officers told me to open my eyes. I couldn’t. My legs and hands were handcuffed. They forcefully opened my palm. Some of my fingers were broken. They forced my fingerprint on to the paper.”

CA was taken off the 13 October flight, but still faces deportation.

A brief reprieve

Two Cameroonians were taken off the 13 October deportation flight at the last moment after the intervention of human rights advocates through the office for civil rights and civil liberties in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but they have been told by Ice agents it will not save them from deportation.

Patrick, a detainee who has been told he is on the deportation list, said he has not been able to sleep knowing that Ice agents could come for him at any time, and that for him, deportation could well be a death sentence.

“I live in worry because I don’t know what awaits me. I don’t even know what the next day is going to look like, and will I be taken back home,” Patrick (a pseudonym) told the Guardian in a call from a detention centre. He did not want his name used because of the risk to his surviving family members.

His lawyer, Ruth Hargrove, said: “He actually has a very strong case for asylum, but the problem is he may die before he gets his hearing, because he was supposed to be on that plane that went out last week, and his Ice officer just guaranteed that he will be on the next flight.”

An Ice spokeswoman, Sarah Loicano, confirmed that a formal complaint over use of force against the Cameroonian detainees had been submitted to the DHS inspector general.

Loicano added: “That said, in general, sensationalist unsubstantiated allegations, particularly those made anonymously and without any fact-checkable specifics, is irresponsible, and should be treated with the greatest of scepticism.”

“Ice is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody. Ice provides safe, humane, and appropriate conditions of confinement for individuals detained in its custody,” she said.

For those who have already been deported, any reforms to Ice would be too late, and they are currently in no position to give evidence about their treatment in the US.

The Texas-based sister of one of the deportees who escaped into hiding after the 13 October flight to Douala, told the Guardian: “My brother ran away to America thinking that you will be safe here in another culture. But they sent him back and right now he has no life. He’s hiding in the bush. What can you do in the bush?”

WHO Africa: New Rapid Tests a 'Game Changer' Against COVID

Health officials in Africa say the rollout of rapid diagnostic tests for COVID-19 could be a “game changer” for their fight against the coronavirus.

By Associated Press, Oct. 22, 2020, at 11:11 a.m.

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 1, 2019 file photo, Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, speaks to the media at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Health officials in Africa say the rollout of new rapid diagnostic tests for COVID-19 could be a “game-changer” for its fight against the coronavirus, while warning that increased testing could also drive up numbers for a continent that has seen a decline or a plateauing in confirmed cases — at a time when the West has seen case counts soar. “African countries are gearing up to introduce antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests on a large scale, and this will be a game changer, we think, in the fight against COVID-19,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, file) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

BY JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — Health officials in Africa say the rollout of rapid diagnostic tests for COVID-19 could be a “game changer” for their fight against the coronavirus but also warned Thursday that increased testing could drive up confirmed cases on a continent that has seen them decline or plateauing as case numbers soar in the West.

Some experts worry that Africa so far has lacked the ability to test widely enough, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas, and that its case counts therefore don't reflect reality and impede tracking the virus.

“African countries are gearing up to introduce antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests on a large scale, and this will be a game changer, we think, in the fight against COVID-19,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, said. “These high-quality rapid tests will help meet the huge unmet need for testing in Africa.”

Speaking from Brazzaville, Congo, at an online news conference, Moeti noted that WHO Africa region comprising sub-Saharan Africa plus Algeria - has seen a downward trend from a daily average of more than 15,000 cases in July to less than 4,000 in the past month -– prompting some governments to pull back from their toughest containment measures.

“As countries ease restrictions on movement, some increase in cases is expected, but preventing an exponential rise is absolutely critical,” she said.

From early on in the pandemic, officials at WHO headquarters in Geneva, including the U.N. health agency's Ethiopian director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have expressed concerns that COVID-19 could have a big impact on weaker health systems like those in Africa.

However, developed countries with world-class health systems so far have been among the ones hardest hit by virus outbreaks. WHO's 54-nation European region tallied 927,000 cases in its latest weekly count, a new record high.

Dr. Susan Ndidde Nabadda, head of the Ugandan National Health Laboratory Services and Central Public Health Laboratory, suggested that it could take some time to ensure proper authorizations and a high-quality process before rapid diagnostic tests on a broader scale because “there is no longer really a lot of emergency” in Africa.

Nabadda cited reports indicating that the identification of COVID-19 cases increased in Guinea once the west African country started rolling out the RDTs, noting that “we might see more numbers coming on board” as the tests are deployed more widely.

She said the relative lack of testing in Africa could be one of the reasons why African case counts were lower than in developed countries.

WHO announced last month that it and leading partners have agreed on a plan to roll out 120 million rapid diagnostic tests for COVID-19 to help lower- and middle-income countries make up ground in a testing gap with richer countries.

The antigen-based rapid diagnostic tests for which WHO issued an emergency use listing are intended to provide better testing access to areas where it is harder to distribute the PCR tests often in many wealthier nations.

The rapid tests look for antigens, or proteins found on the surface of the virus. They are generally considered less accurate — though much faster — than PCRs, which are higher-grade genetic tests. PCR tests require processing with specialty lab equipment and chemicals. Typically, delivering results to patients takes several days.

US Hardly the ‘Superpower’ it Used to be: Putin

Thursday, 22 October 2020 10:31 PM

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks at a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank, via a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, October 22, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin suggests that, what he calls, the era of the United States’ “absolute dominance” throughout the international community is far over as the world’s power relations are undergoing important changes.

“The United States, which at some point absolutely dominated, can hardly claim to be exclusive," Putin told the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank, via video-link on Thursday.

"The times when all the most important international questions were discussed and solved effectively between Washington and Moscow have passed," he added.

China and Germany were advancing in the direction of becoming superpowers of their own, he noted, citing significant increase in their economic and political clout. The Russian head of state also named the UK and France as two other countries, whose role “in international affairs has noticeably changed.”

Notwithstanding the changes that were happening to the balance of power across the world, Putin warned those awaiting Russia to bow out of the ranks of influential and powerful states, jibing, “Our main concern is not to get sick at your funeral."

The Russian president, meanwhile, expressed willingness to potentially engage with other countries in discussion about global problems.

He even proposed dialog with the next US administration in terms of cybersecurity, other security-related matters, and nuclear arms control.

Russia offers to put a one-year freeze on the number of its nuclear warheads in return for a similar freeze on the number of the United States’ atomic warheads to facilitate a one-year extension of the last nuclear arms control treaty between the two countries.

Under the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and the Anti- Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with Russia, citing alleged violations by Moscow.

Putin criticized, what he called, lack of transparency in the area of nuclear weapons on the part of Washington.

"Don’t tell me they (the US) are all straight up and above board and have no intention to do things under the counter," he said, citing "issues of verification in nuclear arms" as an example, where the American side could have acted more honestly.

He, however, warned that the world would not have a “future” without effective arms limitation treaties that would bring ongoing arms races under control.

US in No Position to Lecture Yemenis, Iranians on Bilateral Ties: Ministry Spokesman

Thursday, 22 October 2020 7:19 PM

Press TV

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman reacts to interventionist remarks by a US official commenting on Iran’s relations with Yemen, saying Washington had better end its now-years-long atrocities against the impoverished nation than advise it on its ties with the outside world.

“The US has underwritten 5yrs of Saudi-led slaughter in Yemen,” Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted on Thursday.

US is thus in NO position to lecture Yemenis & Iranians abt their bilat ties.

He was referring to the United States’ unreserved military, logistical, and political support for the 2015 war that Saudi Arabia and its allies have waged against Yemen to restore the country’s Riyadh-allied officials.

The war has killed tens of thousands of Yemenis and forced the Arab world’s already poorest country close to the edge of outright famine. The overall situation has, according to the United Nations, turned Yemen into the scene of the world’s “worst” humanitarian crisis.

“Its (the US’) abuse of diplo (diplomatic) cover is also notorious: just ask ex-spymaster @SecPompeo (US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo),” Khatibzadeh added, referring to Washington’s political patronage for the conflagration that has been facilitated by former CIA chief and current top diplomat Pompeo among other senior American officials.

“US is thus in NO position to lecture Yemenis & Iranians abt (about) their bilat (bilateral) ties,” the Iranian official added, declaring, “Better to end your crimes & malign presence in our region.”

Khatibzadeh’s comments came a day after US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus issued a raft of meddlesome remarks on Iran-Yemen bilateral relations.

She had addressed Iran’s recent appointment of Hassan Irloo as its new ambassador to Yemen, claiming that the Islamic Republic had “smuggled” the official into the Yemeni capital Sana’a. This is while Khatibzadeh himself has verified the appointment and Iran’s reputable news agencies have widely reported on the development.

Ortagus also alleged that Irloo was representing Iran to Yemen’s Houthi “militias.” The Yemeni popular defense movement, also known as Ansarullah, took over managing the country’s affairs after Yemen’s former Saudi-backed government fled to Riyadh amid a power crisis and refused to stay behind and negotiate power with the Houthis.

The Houthis have also been defending their country against the Saudi-led and US-backed war by allying themselves with the Yemeni Army and popular committees, something that has won the praise of the nation and rallied it around the cause of resistance.

Yemen's Political Council Slams Bahrain’s Signing of Deal to Establish Formal Ties With Israel

Monday, 19 October 2020 4:38 PM 

Press TV

An Israeli delegation signs an agreement with Bahraini officials in Manama, Bahrain, on October 18, 2020. (Photo by Reuters)

A member of Yemen’s Supreme Political Council has denounced Bahraini officials over signing a joint communiqué with Israeli authorities to establish full diplomatic relations, after the Persian Gulf kingdom reached a US-brokered normalization deal with the Tel Aviv regime last month.

“Bahrain's normalization of relations [with Israel] is condemned; although its (Manama) regime is not considered a threat even in the event of a war with the Zionist regime,” Mohammed Ali al-Houthi wrote in a post published on his official Twitter page on Sunday.

“Nevertheless, normalization [of relations with Tel Aviv] is a crime, and whoever commits it is a tyrant that will never be guided as cited in the Holy Qur'an,” the Yemeni official pointed out.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is in Bahrain for formalizion of the kingdom’s relations with the Israeli regime.

At a ceremony in Manama on Sunday evening, Bahraini and Israeli officials signed a joint communiqué establishing full diplomatic relations. The Manama and Tel Aviv regimes are now expected to open embassies.

The Israeli delegation, led by Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, flew on an El Al Israel Airlines charter flight from Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, to Bahrain and was accompanied by US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin.

Following the signing, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani said in a speech that he hoped for “fruitful bilateral cooperation in every field” between his country and Israel, asserting Manama supported the settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through dialogue.

A senior UAE official accuses Palestinians of ‘ingratitude’ after Ramallah’s France envoy decries the Emirates’ normalization deal with the Israeli regime.

Sunday’s meeting followed a September 15 ceremony at the White House when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed US-brokered normalization deals with the Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Bahrain's top diplomat.

The normalization deals have drawn widespread condemnation from Palestinians, who seek an independent state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem al-Quds as its capital. They say the deals ignore their rights and do not serve the Palestinian cause.

Grand Mufti of Oman slams normalization with Israel 

Meanwhile, the Grand Mufti of the Sultanate of Oman, Sheikh Ahmad bin Hamad al-Khalili, has censured attempts by a number of Arab states to normalize ties with the Israeli regime.

“A new negative phenomenon has emerged in the Muslim world, which seeks to befriend the enemy that the God Almighty has commanded us to oppose… A number of prominent Muslim scholars, whom we treated with considerable respect, were quick to do so,” read part of a tweet by Sheikh Khalili.

The head of the Palestinian Hamas resistance movement’s political bureau condemns the US-brokered deals that the UAE and Bahrain signed to normalize ties with Israel, warning about “no mercy” for the Arab states that betrayed fellow Palestinians.

The Palestinian leadership has condemned normalization agreements with Israel as “a stab in the back” for Palestinian aspirations to establish an independent state of their own.

Many Arab states say they remain committed to the so-called Arab Peace Initiative – which calls for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied after 1967 in exchange for peace and the full normalization of relations.

But speculation has been rife that some countries in the region would soon join the bandwagon to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. 

All Seniors Could Get COVID-19 Vaccine by End of January, HHS Head Says

By Yasemin Saplakoglu - Staff Writer 

But even if vaccines are approved soon, several major roadblocks could significantly delay the timeline of distribution.

All seniors, health care workers, first responders and vulnerable individuals could be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar told reporters Wednesday (Oct. 21) during a news briefing. 

But this ambitious timeline rests on a critical factor: enough data to know that the vaccine is safe and effective. Not even the drug companies conducting late-stage phase 3 clinical trials know yet if their candidate vaccines meet those standards.

The question of "when" we will know whether those vaccines are safe and effective "will really be dependent on events in the trial. That's outside of anyone's control," Azar said. In order to understand whether or not a potential vaccine is protective against COVID-19, enough people enrolled in the trial need to be exposed naturally to the virus. 

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which is testing one of the leading vaccine candidates in the U.S., expects to have enough safety and efficacy data by the third week of November. Assuming the results are positive, the company will at that point apply for emergency use authorization (EUA) in the U.S., according to a statement published online Oct. 16 by the company's Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla.

But even if vaccines are approved, it's not clear how long it will take to manufacture and distribute them to everyone in the U.S. As part of the government's Operation Warp Speed, many of the leading vaccine candidates are already being manufactured prior to trial results. These vaccines will be ready to be distributed before they are given approval, Azar said.

By the end of the year, officials expect that there will be enough FDA-authorized vaccine to be able to vaccinate the most vulnerable individuals, Azar said. "Then by the end of January, we expect we'll have enough to vaccinate all seniors as well as our health care workers and first responders. And by the end of March to early April, enough vaccine for all Americans who would want to take a vaccine." However, he did not mention children, an age group on which the leading vaccines have not yet been tested and who will thus likely receive a vaccine much later.

Trust roadblocks

"Having a vaccine ready is one thing, being able to deliver it is yet another," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "I think that process will take much longer than this timeline."

One of the reasons for that is public skepticism on the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, which runs high especially in African American and ethnic communities that have been disproportionately affected by the virus, Schaffner told Live Science. Surveys have shown that as many as half of Americans do not trust these vaccines, he said. That's because "this whole process is so politicized, unfortunately."

When a vaccine is approved, assuming that it meets the standards of efficacy and safety and has been thoroughly vetted by the Food and Drug Administration's external advisory panel, "we're going to have to work...very very hard," to reassure people that the vaccines are safe, effective and worthwhile to get, Schaffner said. The first group of people that will need convincing are the medical professionals, because they are the ones that will be reaching out to their patients to provide knowledge and reassurance, Schaffner added.

In order for people, including the medical professions who are "standing back and watching this with great care and skepticism themselves," to be convinced, complete and transparent data from these clinical trials will need to be published from day 1, Schaffner said. How successful vaccination programs are is "likely to vary substantially across the country."

To get into the hands of the public, the vaccines will first need to pass five independent checkpoints, and so people in the U.S. should "feel very reassured," by the process, Azar said. 

First, an independent data safety and monitoring board will examine the data and determine if a vaccine clinical trial has achieved its pre-specified endpoints, or milestones that can clearly show whether or not a vaccine is successful. If it has, that data will be revealed to the company and the FDA, he said. Second, the company will have its own review process, and the results will have to meet their own ethical standards before the company submits an EUA. Third, the FDA will evaluate the vaccine according to two sets of guidance, a general vaccine guidance for COVID-19 and a second EUA guidance. Fourth, an external advisory committee will advise the FDA and this meeting will be webcast for the public. And fifth, the FDA's career scientists will decide whether to approve the vaccine, Azar said.

Physical roadblocks

But there will also be physical roadblocks to the distribution of the vaccines. "There are going to be packaging, shipping and handling issues as there are with all vaccines," Schaffner said. Pfizer's vaccine, for example, needs to be kept at extremely cold temperatures around minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit). So the vaccine can't just be distributed to doctor's offices and pharmacies because they don't have the freezer capacities, Schaffner said. Instead, states will have to set up vaccination centers, which is currently being planned out.

"There are very restrictive constraints on how that vaccine is to be used, people need to be trained for that," Schaffner said. "The other vaccines likely could be distributed by the average clinic and physician's office and pharmacy but they may come online later."

Of course, this is all assuming that these vaccines will be sufficiently effective and safe, he added. Clinical trials aren't without their own hiccups.

For example, a phase 3 trial of one of the world's leading coronavirus vaccines, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, is still on pause in the U.S. while the FDA reviews the case of a participant in the U.K. trial who developed spinal cord damage. While these pauses are normal in a clinical trial, it can cause delays. The 37 volunteers in the AstraZeneca trial in the U.S., should have already received a second dose of the vaccine, for example, but they didn't due to the pause, according to NBC News.

"I wish we had a crystal ball," Dr. Jay Butler, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deputy director for infectious diseases, said in the briefing. "I wish I could say everything is going to go 100% according to plan, but we also know that we have to be ready for if it doesn't."

Looking at current trends, "it's reasonable to expect that we will have at least one, possibly two products available for the end of the calendar year," he added.  

Even when the general public is vaccinated, the vaccines will likely not be 100% effective. The FDA requires that the vaccine be at least 60% effective, Schaffner said. "I think the public will be dismayed to know that even though they've received the vaccine, they'll have to keep wearing a mask and social distancing," for a while until the spread of the coronavirus is substantially diminished, he added.

"There's this illusion that once you get vaccinated it's like putting on a suit of armor, you don't have to worry about it anymore," he said. "That's incorrect."

Originally published on Live Science.

CDC Changes Definition of 'Close Contact' for COVID-19

By Rachael Rettner - Senior Writer

The update follows the news that a correctional officer caught COVID-19 even though he was never around the infected people for more than a minute at a time.

Having "close contact" with COVID-19 is usually defined as being near an infected person for at least 15 consecutive minutes. But a new report suggests that even very brief exposures — a minute or less — could spread the disease, if those exposures happen frequently.

The report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), describes a correctional officer in Vermont who caught COVID-19 after exposure to infected prisoners, even though he was never around the infected people for more than a minute at a time.

The exposure likely happened on July 28, when six inmates were transferred to the Vermont prison from an out-of-state facility, according to the report, published today in the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. None of the inmates showed symptoms of COVID-19, but all of them underwent routine testing for COVID-19 upon arrival; and all six inmates received positive results the next day.

After learning of the positive results, officials went back to see who had close contact with the inmates the day before. The team  reviewed video footage and found one correctional officer who did come within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of the inmates, but was not considered a close contact because he was not around the infected people for 15 consecutive minutes.

The officer continued to work as usual, but on Aug. 4 (one week after the infected inmates arrived), he developed loss of smell and taste, runny nose, cough, shortness of breath, headache and other symptoms of COVID-19, the report said. The next day, the officer tested positive for the disease.

As a result of this positive test, officials once again reviewed the video surveillance footage from July 28. Though the correctional officer never spent 15 minutes straight close to the infected inmates, he had multiple brief encounters with them. Specifically, during his 8-hour shift, the officer had 22 brief encounters (between 10 and 60 seconds each) with the inmates, totaling 17 minutes of cumulative exposure. 

The correctional officer wore a cloth mask and goggles during his encounters, but the inmates were not always masked. The officer had no other known contacts with COVID-19 and hadn't traveled outside of Vermont in the 2 weeks before his illness. In addition, the rate of new COVID-19 infections in Vermont was low at the time, meaning the officer was unlikely to catch the disease through community spread.

The findings suggest that "at least one of the asymptomatic [inmates] transmitted SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] during these brief encounters," the report authors said.

The findings have implications for contact tracing, which usually defines "close contact" with a person infected with the novel coronavirus as being within 6 feet for at least 15 minutes.

Indeed, following publication of the report on Wednesday, the CDC updated its definition of a close contact, according to The Washington Post. The agency now defines close contact as "someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period," the CDC's website says. 

Additional factors may also be considered, such as how close the individuals came to each other, whether the infected person was doing something like singing or exercising, which generates a lot of respiratory aerosols and whether the environment was crowded or adequately ventilated, the report said.

In the current case, "although the initial assessment did not suggest that the officer had close contact exposures, detailed review of video footage identified that the cumulative duration of exposures exceeded 15 minutes," the authors wrote. In correctional settings, frequent close encounters between inmates and facility staff members are necessary, the authors said, and "public health officials should consider transmission-risk implications of cumulative exposure time within such settings," they concluded.

Editor's note: This article was updated on Thursday (Oct. 22) to include information on the CDC's expanded definition of a close contact.

Originally published on Live Science.