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Niger: a reminder of why the US military’s presence Africa needs constant scrutiny

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On October 4 an American Special Forces team was ambushed by a contingent of Islamic State affiliated fighters in Niger. Four American soldiers were killed and two wounded. The team of 12 soldiers was returning from a meeting with community leaders when it ran into a group of up to 50 terrorists.

The incident caused a furore in the US, sparking recollection of 1993’s “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia that saw 18 American soldiers killed. Questions were raised about how it was that four US soldiers died, why one of the bodies was retrieved only 48 hours after the ambush, and why US troops were in Niger in the first place. US President Donald Trump’s failure to address the matter with the necessary transparency and sensitivity fueled the agitation.

The Niger incident reaffirmed the need to ask important questions about US military presence in foreign territories and in this case, in Africa. African institutions that advocate for human security must continuously question the motives behind US military presence on the continent as well as its impact.

The US has an extensive military presence on the continent. In 2016 it was reported that its military had been involved with more than 90% of the 54 countries in Africa.

Two important and related questions arise following the Niger incident. Is the US military’s presence in Africa good or bad for Africa’s security? And is America pursuing the right strategy to combat terrorism on the continent? These are pertinent questions given that Africa is “the new battleground” in the fight against terrorism.

READ MORE: Why Is West Africa Less Attractive To Investors?

The history

The US military’s presence in Africa is best understood in the wider context of America’s national security strategy. In establishing a military presence with global reach, the Americans are informed by what they call “forward strategy”. This is a national security policy shaped during the Cold War.

“Forward strategy” was based on the idea that establishing and maintaining a significant US military presence in close proximity to the former Soviet Union would discourage communist expansion. This encouraged the emergence of America’s global military footprint either through a physical presence or in the form of proxy forces belonging to sympathetic or opportunistic governments.

Forward strategy gained renewed impetus following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. This renewal was marked when the president George W. Bush declared a war on terror.

Africa had already featured in the story of the fight against terror, when in 1998 US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed by Al-Qaeda. In 2007, and following Bush’s declaration, the “United States Africa Command” (AFRICOM) was established as the ninth unified combatant command. AFRICOM was founded with the operational objective to neutralise violent extremist organisations and beef up regional security on the continent.

The US troop contingent in Niger is part of this effort. AFRICOM is also engaged in an array of supporting activities deemed necessary for ensuring regional security. These include foreign military salesmilitary education and trainingprovision of healthcare and veterinary services.

The US military’s strategic objective is underpinned by two ideals: the “economy of force” and “preventative war”. “Economy of force” refers to the idea that it’s more cost effective to train and equip African forces in the fight against terror than to commit extensive numbers of US troops. “Preventative war” centres on the argument that large wars can be avoided by fighting on smaller scales wherever necessary.

America’s forward strategy persisted under both the Bush and Obama administrations. By all indications it is a strategy that’s likely to continue under Trump.

READ MORE: Trump’s Africa policy is still incoherent

Citizens will pay a price

The danger is that, in some instances, citizens can bear the brunt of a US military presence that involves training and equipping of African forces. This is particularly true in countries where interventions, inadvertently perhaps, strengthen repressive state apparatus. On the other hand Africa’s gatekeepers – self-interested, ruling elites – have the means to ensure their own security. They control the state, and its access to foreign partnerships and aid, whether military or otherwise.

case in point is Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni – a key African ally in the war on terror.

And of the 16 African countries that host US military presence, 10 are categorised by the US-based Freedom House as “not free”, four as “partly free” and only two as “free”.

Various reports this year indicate that armed forces in a number of countries that host a US military presence have abused civilians. Burkina FasoCameroonChadEthiopiaKenya and Uganda are a few examples.

These sorts of situations have the potential to fuel fundamentalist backlash.

READ MORE: Qatar’s conflict with its neighbours can set the Horn of Africa alight

Is America’s strategy working?

What is the efficacy of the US’s military presence in Africa?

Research by the Institute for Security Studies suggests that heavy-handed anti-terrorism strategies breed insecurity by making fundamentalist organisations appear attractive to ordinary citizens. The exercise of what ordinary citizens perceive to be illegitimate force, on the part of state security institutions, increases the likelihood of those same citizens joining fundamentalist organisations.

But it seems these findings are being ignored. The danger is that if current patterns encouraged by the US military persist, countries are likely to experience an increase in extremism. This in turn is likely to perpetuate the heavy-handedness of already illiberal regimes and the vicious cycle of interventionism in Africa.

In the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “Our responses to terrorism, as well as our efforts to thwart it and prevent it, should uphold the human rights that terrorists aim to destroy.” – Written by Craig Bailie, Lecturer in Political Science (Mil), Stellenbosch University

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Johnson & Johnson Moves to Limit Impact of Report on Asbestos in Baby Powder

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 Johnson & Johnson on Monday scrambled to contain fallout from a Reuters report that the healthcare conglomerate knew for decades that cancer-causing asbestos lurked in its Baby Powder, taking out full-page newspaper ads defending its product and practices, and readying its chief executive for his first television interview since investors erased tens of billions of dollars from the company’s market value.

J&J shares fell nearly 3 percent Monday, closing at $129.14 in New York Stock Exchange trading. That drop was on top of the 10 percent plunge that wiped out about $40 billion of the company’s market capitalization following the Reuters report Friday. J&J also announced Monday that it would be repurchasing up to $5 billion of its common stock.

Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, on Friday sent a letter to the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calling on the agency to investigate the findings in the Reuters report to determine whether J&J misled regulators and whether its Baby Powder products threaten public health and safety.

J&J Chief Executive Alex Gorsky, in his first interview since the Reuters article was published, defended the company during an appearance on CNBC’s “Mad Money” with host Jim Cramer on Monday night. J&J knew for decades about the presence of small amounts of asbestos in its products dating back to as early as 1971, a Reuters examination of company memos, internal reports and other confidential documents showed. In response to the report, J&J said on Friday that “any suggestion that Johnson & Johnson knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false.”

A Monday full-page ad from J&J — headlined “Science. Not sensationalism.” — ran in newspapers including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The ad asserted that J&J has scientific evidence its talc is safe and beneficial to use. “If we had any reasons to believe our talc was unsafe, it would be off our shelves,” the ad said.

J&J rebutted Reuters’ report in a lengthy written critique of the article and a video from Gorsky. In the written critique, posted on the company’s website, J&J said Reuters omitted information it supplied to the news organization that demonstrated the healthcare conglomerate’s Baby Powder is safe and does not cause cancer; that J&J’s baby powder has repeatedly been tested and found to be asbestos-free; and that the company has cooperated with the U.S. FDA and other regulators around the world to provide information requested over decades.

“Since tests for asbestos in talc were first developed, J&J’s Baby Powder has never contained asbestos,” Gorsky said in the video. He added that regulators “have always found our talc to be asbestos-free.”

A Reuters spokeswoman on Monday said the agency “stands by its reporting.”

Reuters’ investigation found that while most tests in past decades found no asbestos in J&J talc and talc products, tests on Baby Powder conducted by scientists at Mount Sinai Medical Center in 1971 and Rutgers University in 1991, as well as by labs for plaintiffs in cancer lawsuits, found small amounts of asbestos. In 1972, a University of Minnesota scientist found what he called “incontrovertible asbestos” in a sample of Shower to Shower. Other tests by J&J’s own contract labs and others periodically found small amounts of asbestos in talc from mines that supplied the mineral for Baby Powder and other cosmetic products into the early 2000s.

The company did not report to the FDA three tests by three different labs from 1972 to 1975 that found asbestos in the company’s talc.

The Reuters story drew no conclusions about whether talc itself causes ovarian cancer. Asbestos, however, is a carcinogen. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed asbestos-contaminated talc as a carcinogen since 1987. Reuters also found that J&J tested only a fraction of the talc powder it sold. The company never adopted a method for increasing the sensitivity of its tests that was recommended to the company by consultants in 1973 and in a published report in a peer-review scientific journal in 1991.

The ad J&J ran in newspapers Monday also pointed to an online talc fact page the company created with “independent studies from leading universities, research from medical journals and third-party opinions.”

That website has changed since early December, according to a Reuters review of online archives.

The website, for instance, no longer contains a section headlined “Conclusions from Global Authorities” that as recently as Dec. 5 listed organizations including the U.S. FDA, the European Union and Health Canada as among entities that have “reviewed and analyzed all available data and concluded that the evidence is insufficient to link talc use to cancer.”

On Dec. 14, the day Reuters published its report, that section of the website had been removed. It is not clear exactly when the online page changed.

The Canadian government released a draft report this month that found a “consistent and statistically significant positive association” between talc exposure and ovarian cancer. The draft report also said that talc meets criteria to be deemed toxic.

The draft report put forth proposed conclusions that are subject to a public comment period and confirmation in a so-called final screening assessment, Health Canada said.

If the conclusions are confirmed, Canadian officials will consider adding talc to a government list of toxic substances and implementing measures to prohibit or restrict use of talc in some cosmetics, non-prescription drugs and health products, Health Canada said.

A J&J spokeswoman said the company removed the website section after the Canadian government issued the draft report. “We chose to be conservative while that draft is under review,” the spokeswoman said.

While J&J has dominated the talc powder market for more than 100 years, the products contributed less than 0.5 percent of J&J’s $76.5 billion in revenue last year. – Reuters

  • Mike Spector, Lisa Girion and Ankur Banerjee 

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South Africa’s Tamaryn Green is first runner-up at Miss Universe pageant

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 Catriona Gray from the Philippines was crowned Miss Universe on Monday, the fourth time the Southeast Asian country has won the international beauty pageant.

Gray, a 24-year-old Filipino-Australian model, won the title in the Thai capital Bangkok where the pageant included for the first time a transgender contestant.

“My heart is filled with so much gratitude. There were moments of doubt where I felt overwhelmed and I felt the pressure,” said Gray, who wore a red and orange dress that was inspired by Mount Mayon, a volcano that erupted this year.

Miss South Africa, Tamaryn Green, 24 was the first runner-up, followed by Miss Venezuela, Sthefany Gutiérrez, 19.

Gray was asked during the contest about her views on legalizing marijuana and replied that she supported it for medical uses.

After she was crowned, Gray told reporters the question was “definitely relevant” and “an active topic”, in an apparent reference to the war on drugs in the Philippines that has killed thousands of Filipinos and caused international alarm.

Gray said during the pageant that working in a Manila slum had taught her to find beauty in difficult situations.

“If I could teach people to be grateful, we could have an amazing world where negativity could not grow and foster, and children would have a smile on their face,” she said.

Miss Spain, Angela Ponce, 27, made history as the first transgender contestant in the 66-year-old pageant.

Gray is the fourth Filipina to win Miss Universe and the second in three years. The pageant was shown live on the country’s biggest television network and dominated social media.

Salvador Panelo, spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte, said her win would put the country on the world map for its “beauty and elegance.”

“In her success, Miss Philippines has shown to the world that women in our country have the ability to turn dreams into reality through passion, diligence, determination and hard work,” he said.

The Philippines previously won Miss Universe titles in 2015, 1973 and 1969. – Reuters

  • Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Neil Jerome Morales 

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Youtube, Under Pressure for Problem Content, Takes Down 58 Million Videos in Quarter

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YouTube took down more than 58 million videos and 224 million comments during the third quarter based on violations of its policies, the unit of Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google said on Thursday in an effort to demonstrate progress in suppressing problem content.

Government officials and interest groups in the United States, Europe and Asia have been pressuring YouTube, Facebook Inc (FB.O) and other social media services to quickly identify and remove extremist and hateful content that critics have said incite violence.

The European Union has proposed online services should face steep fines unless they remove extremist material within one hour of a government order to do so.

An official at India’s Ministry of Home Affairs speaking on the condition of anonymity on Thursday said social media firms had agreed to tackle authorities’ requests to remove objectionable content within 36 hours.

This year, YouTube began issuing quarterly reports about its enforcement efforts.

As with past quarters, most of the removed content was spam, YouTube said.

Automated detection tools help YouTube quickly identify spam, extremist content and nudity. During September, 90 percent of the nearly 10,400 videos removed for violent extremism or 279,600 videos removed for child safety issues received fewer than 10 views, according to YouTube.

But YouTube faces a bigger challenge with material promoting hateful rhetoric and dangerous behavior.

Automated detection technologies for those policies are relatively new and less efficient, so YouTube relies on users to report potentially problematic videos or comments. This means that the content may be viewed widely before being removed.

Google added thousands of moderators this year, expanding to more than 10,000, in hopes of reviewing user reports faster. YouTube declined to comment on growth plans for 2019.

It has described pre-screening every video as unfeasible.

The third-quarter removal data for the first time revealed the number of YouTube accounts Google disabled for either having three policy violations in 90 days or committing what the company found to be an egregious violation, such as uploading child pornography.

YouTube removed about 1.67 million channels and all of the 50.2 million videos that were available from them.

Nearly 80 percent of the channel takedowns related to spam uploads, YouTube said. About 13 percent concerned nudity, and 4.5 percent child safety.

YouTube said users post billions of comments each quarter. It declined to disclose the overall number of accounts that have uploaded videos, but said removals were also a small fraction.

In addition, about 7.8 million videos were removed individually for policy violations, in line with the previous quarter. – Reuters

– Paresh Dave and Sankalp Phartiyal 

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