Is Boko Haram Gaining Foothold in Nigeria’s Northwest?

Boko Haram’s claim of responsibility for a recent kidnapping of more than 300 students in Nigeria’s northwestern state of Katsina signals that the militant group is expanding its terror activities beyond its traditional stronghold in the West African country’s northeast, experts warn.  On December 11, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in an audio recording that his group was behind the abduction of the schoolboys in the town of Kankara in Katsina. The students, however, were released several days after being abducted by gunmen.   FILE – Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau holds a weapon in an unknown location in Nigeria in this still image taken from an undated video obtained Jan. 15, 2018.The militant group also released a video showing some of the students before their release.   Regardless of whether Boko Haram was responsible for the kidnappings, some experts say the incident represents a worrying sign for stability and security in northern Nigeria.      Shekau “has been able to claim it and that is in part because northwest Nigeria has been facing a simmering security crisis over the last year,” said Daniel Eizenga, an expert on violent extremism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.   In recent months, northwestern Nigeria has witnessed growing intercommunal violence, including conflict between herders and farmers, violent crime from bandits, and initial indications that extremist groups may be gaining ground in the area.  “Within this complicated context of rising insecurity, it is possible for Boko Haram to appear more dangerous and expansive than it may actually be,” Eizenga told VOA.   He added that “should the trajectory of northwest Nigeria follow a similar path as the northeast, much of northern Nigeria will have become embroiled in a security crisis that has been simmering for the better part of the past decade.”  FILE – Mourners attend the funeral of 43 farm workers in Zabarmari, about 20km from Maiduguri, Nigeria, Nov. 29, 2020, after they were killed by Boko Haram fighters in rice fields near the village of Koshobe.Boko Haram, which has been fighting to create an Islamic state based in Nigeria, has killed 36,000 people and displaced millions since it began its insurgency a decade ago.   Despite carrying out terror attacks in neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger – mostly in the Lake Chad Basin – the group’s activities inside Nigeria have largely remained limited to its stronghold in the northeast.   Various hypotheses   While the Nigerian government hasn’t confirmed whether Boko Haram was responsible for kidnapping students in Katsina, experts say there are several hypotheses for a possible Boko Haram presence in Nigeria’s northwest.    “One is that a faction of Boko Haram might well have contracted with a criminal gang to carry out the kidnapping without actually doing it itself,” said John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.  FILE – Military men walk inside the Government Science school in Kankara, in northwestern Katsina state, Nigeria, Dec. 13, 2020.”Another hypothesis is that Boko Haram simply claimed responsibility (for the kidnapping) as part of a propaganda initiative,” he told VOA, adding that another “possibility of course is that indeed Boko Haram has become active in the northwest.”   However, Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, stressed that “if we’re going to talk about Boko Haram being active in the northwest, I think we need some evidence of a political or ideological dimension.”    Other jihadist groups have in the past carried out attacks in northwest Nigeria. For example, the Ansaru, a Boko Haram breakaway group, has claimed responsibility for several attacks in the area in 2020.    Government response   The recent developments in the northwest should be “a cause for the Nigerian security forces to redouble their efforts in the region, especially with regards to intelligence,” said Gbenga Akinbule, a Nigerian affairs analyst.  The fact that Boko Haram might be present in the northwest requires a serious response from the Nigerian military, he said.   “Our security forces should go back there to clean up and see how best they can get to look at the dangerous trend that is happening,” Akinbule told VOA.   Analyst Eizenga disagrees.   “Approaching the growing insecurity in the northwest with heavy-handed operations that neutralize militants and destroy their camps is unlikely to resolve the main drivers of these different security threats,” he said.   Eizenga suggested that the Nigerian government needs “to work closely with local communities to develop differentiated responses to the threats they are facing.”  In late 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said his military had “technically defeated” Boko Haram militants in the country.  VOA Hausa Service’s Sani Malumfashi contributed to this story from Katsina, Nigeria.

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Tight Restrictions Across Italy for New Year’s Celebrations

Muted New Year’s Eve celebrations were expected in Italy, where tight restrictions are in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. The government has deployed thousands of police officers to ensure that rules are adhered to and that Italians do not hold large gatherings to celebrate the start of 2021. Adding to an abnormal end to the year is the Vatican’s announcement that Pope Francis will not preside over New Year’s Eve and Day services due to a painful back condition.Italians have grown used to the tight restrictions that come into place when the country is categorized a red zone. A person sits next to the Barcaccia fountain with Spanish steps in the background, as Italy goes back to lockdown as part of efforts put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Rome, Dec. 31, 2020.Until January 4, Italians will not be able to leave their homes unless they have filled out a self-declaration that explains where they are going. They will only be allowed to visit someone else’s home with one other person. Only people who need to go to work or have a health motive or an emergency are allowed out.All shops will be closed, except those for food and other urgent necessities like pharmacies. All bars and restaurants across the country will be closed except for carry out service.This restaurant owner said being placed in a red zone has meant working less than half what they were used to. The economic damage suffered by the sector has been significant with many fearful they will not be able to keep their businesses going in the future.Italian authorities have warned against large family gatherings. They have also tried to dissuade anyone from setting off fireworks to avoid accidents that could cause an extra burden on hospitals.While Italians are only too aware this will be a New Year’s Eve like they have never experienced, some are preparing to make the most of it, in their desire to bid this coronavirus-stricken year farewell.This man said, “We will see few friends, a relative or two and during times we are allowed to see each other.”Italy has a curfew in place from 10pm until 7am for the next four days. Travelling out of one’s municipality is also banned. Fines are stiff, so few are expected to take unnecessary risks.The recent news that COVID-19 vaccines have arrived in Italy and are being administered has many hoping there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that 2021 will be a better year than the one coming to an end. Still, not everyone in Italy is in favor of getting vaccinated, and many know the road ahead remains a long one.New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day will also be quite different at the Vatican. FILE – Pope Francis leads the Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s Basilica amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic at the Vatican, Dec. 24, 2020. Pope Francis is being forced to skip his traditional services because of a painful back and right leg problem. The Vatican’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said the pope is suffering from “sciatica” and will not be presiding at a year-end prayer service Thursday evening and will also not be celebrating Mass on New Year’s Day, both inside St. Peter’s Basilica.The pope is expected to deliver his Angelus prayer at noon on Friday, which will be streamed online from the library of the Apostolic Palace.

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Into the Brexit Unknown, a Divided United Kingdom Goes It Alone

The United Kingdom exits the European Union’s orbit Thursday, turning its back on a tempestuous 48-year liaison with the European project for an uncertain post-Brexit future in its most significant geopolitical shift since the loss of empire.Brexit, in essence, takes place at the strike of midnight in Brussels, or 2300 London time (GMT), when the United Kingdom leaves de-facto membership that continued for a transition period after it formally left the bloc January 31.For five years, the frenzied gyrations of the Brexit crisis dominated European affairs, haunted the sterling markets and tarnished the United Kingdom’s reputation as a confident pillar of Western economic and political stability.After years of Brexit vitriol, one of the most significant events in European history since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union will pass with little fanfare: The United Kingdom will slip away, serenaded by the silence of the COVID-19 crisis.Supporters cast Brexit as the dawn of a newly independent “global Britain,” but it has weakened the bonds that bind England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland into a $3 trillion economy.UK chief trade negotiator David Frost looks on as Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement at 10 Downing Street, London, Dec. 30, 2020.”This is an amazing moment for this country,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, said in his New Year’s Eve message. “We have our freedom in our hands, and it is up to us to make the most of it.”As EU leaders and citizens bade farewell, Johnson said there would be no bonfire of regulations to build a “bargain basement Dickensian Britain” and that the country would remain the “quintessential European civilization.”But Johnson, the face of the Brexit campaign, has been short on detail about what he wants to build with Britain’s “independence,” or how to do it while borrowing record amounts to pay for the COVID-19 crisis.BrexitIn the June 23, 2016, referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52%, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48%, backed staying in the bloc. Few have changed their minds since. England and Wales voted out, but Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in.The referendum showed a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union, and fueled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, the legacy of empire and what it now means to be British.Leaving was once the far-fetched dream of a motley crew of “eurosceptics” on the fringes of British politics: Britain joined in 1973 as “the sick man of Europe” and two decades ago British leaders were arguing about whether to join the euro. It never did.But the turmoil of the euro zone crisis, attempts to integrate the EU further, fears about mass immigration and discontent with leaders in London helped Brexiteers win the referendum with a message of patriotic, if vague, hope.”We see a global future for ourselves,” said Johnson who won power in 2019 and, against the odds, clinched a Brexit divorce treaty and a trade deal, as well as the biggest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher, in the 2019 election.Supporters see Brexit as an escape from a doomed Franco-German project that has stagnated while the United States and China surged ahead. Opponents say Brexit will weaken the West, further reduce Britain’s global clout, make people poorer and lessen its cosmopolitanism.When the bell known as Big Ben tolls 11 through a scaffold, there will be few outward displays of emotion as gatherings are banned because of COVID-19 restrictions.FILE – British Union flag waves in front of the Elizabeth Tower at Houses of Parliament containing the bell know as “Big Ben” in central London, March 29, 2017.United Kingdom?After the United Kingdom leaves the Single Market or the Customs Union, there is almost certain to be some disruption at borders. More red tape means more cost for those importing and exporting goods across the EU-U.K. border.After haggling over a trade deal for months, the British government published 70 pages of case studies just hours before its departure advising companies on what rules they would have to follow at the new U.K.-EU border.The Port of Dover expects volumes to drop off in early January. The most worrisome period, it says, will be in mid- to late January when volumes pick up again.Support for Scottish independence has risen, partly because of Brexit and partly because of COVID-19, threatening the 300-year-old political union between England and Scotland.FILE – In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during an event at the European Policy Center in Brussels.Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon has said an independence referendum should take place in the earlier part of the devolved parliament’s next term, which begins next year.After clinching the Christmas Eve trade deal that will smooth out the worst disruption, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen quoted both William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot.”Parting is such sweet sorrow,” she said. “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” 

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Peacekeeping Mission in Sudan’s Darfur Ends

The United Nations-African Union mission in Darfur is set to end 13 years of peacekeeping in the vast Sudanese region Thursday, even as recent violent clashes leave residents fearful of new conflict. 
 
Fighting erupted in Darfur in 2003, when ethnic minority rebels rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, which responded by recruiting and arming notorious Arab-dominated militia known as the Janjaweed. 
 
A total of 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced, according to the United Nations. 
 
“The last day for UNAMID is tonight at midnight,” said UNAMID’s team leader in Darfur office Islam Khan. “UNAMID will not have any protection mandate after December 31, 2020.”   Sudanese children walk past an armored vehicle of the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) in Kalma Camp for internally displaced people in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, Dec. 30, 2020.The mission said the Sudanese government “will take over responsibility for the protection of civilians in the area.” 
 
Darfur’s bitter conflict has largely subsided in recent years and longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir — wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and other alleged crimes in the western region — was deposed last year. 
 
But the country’s transitional government is fragile, and ethnic and tribal clashes still periodically flare, including clashes last week that left at least 15 people dead and dozens wounded. 
 ‘Big trouble’ ahead Darfuris, many of whom remain in teeming camps years after they fled their homes, have held protests in recent weeks against the mission’s imminent departure. 
 
“The lives of Darfuri people are at stake, and the United Nations should reconsider its decision,” Mohamed Abdelrahman told AFP on Wednesday at Kalma camp in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur.  
He is among hundreds who staged a sit-in outside the mission’s headquarters at the camp.  Sudanese internally displaced people hold a banner as they stage a sit in to protest the end of the mandate of the United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID), in Kalma camp in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, Dec. 31, 2020.Protesters held up banners reading: “We trust U.N. protection for IDPs [internally displaced people],” and “we reject UNAMID’s exit.” 
 
The U.N. said that the phased withdrawal of the mission’s approximately 8,000 armed and civilian personnel will begin in January and be completed inside six months. 
 
Longtime Kalma resident Othman Abulkassem fears the troops’ departure signals “big trouble” for Darfuris, leaving them at risk of further violence. ‘Great deal’ of improvement
 
UNAMID spokesman Ashraf Eissa sought to allay those fears.  
 
“We understand the concerns of the Darfuri population especially IDPs and other vulnerable groups, but the situation has improved a great deal over the past few years,” Eissa told AFP.  
 
“The responsibility now lies with the transitional government and the Sudanese people themselves to enhance peace and security in Darfur.” 
 
A U.N. political mission — the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) — will be installed in Darfur after UNAMID’s departure.  
 
It will be tasked with assisting Sudan’s transition, peacebuilding, and aid disbursement. 
 
Following last week’s clashes, Sudanese authorities said government troops will be deployed to the region to contain any violence. 
 
On Thursday, acting foreign minister Omar Qamareddine said UNAMID “contributed to achieving peace.” 

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China Accused of Offering Bounties to Afghan ‘Nonstate Actors’ to Kill US Troops 

Media reports say U.S. President Donald Trump recently received unconfirmed intelligence information indicating that China offered money to nonstate actors in Afghanistan to attack American soldiers.A senior Trump administration official Thursday confirmed to VOA details of “the declassified intelligence” published by the Axios news website the previous day. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.“The intelligence was included in the president’s briefing on December 17, and Trump was verbally briefed on the matter by national security adviser Robert O’Brien,” FILE – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin speaks during a press conference in Beijing, Nov. 13, 2020.“The international community has a fair conclusion on who is flexing muscles, waging proxy wars and stirring up problems that disrupt regional peace and stability,” Wang said, without elaborating.It was not known immediately whether President-elect Joe Biden has also been briefed on the findings about the alleged Chinese plot.“Our teams will seek to learn as much as we can about these allegations from the outgoing administration, and this is another illustration of why we need full cooperation, including from the Department of Defense,” an unnamed Biden transition official told CNN.U.S.-China relations have lately been strained over trade, intellectual property and other issues.  Washington has also been highly critical of human rights abuses China is allegedly committing against the Uighur Muslim minority in its western Xinjiang region.Beijing denies allegations it is suppressing rights of the Muslim community, saying they are part of a Western propaganda campaign aimed at maligning China.It was unclear whether the so-called nonstate actors China allegedly offered bounties to were part of the Taliban waging a deadly insurgency against the U.S.-backed Afghan government.Earlier this year, U.S. media reports indicated that Russia allegedly had sought to pay militants linked to the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan to kill U.S. soldiers.Trump, however, has not publicly called Russia out on the issue, dismissing the reports as “fake news.” White House Updates More Lawmakers on Alleged Russian Bounties on US Troops in Afghanistan News reports say Trump was briefed earlier this year, but US leader insists he was not Skeptics like Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at Washington’s Wilson Center, say nothing can be ruled out given how tense and toxic the U.S.-China relationship has become.“I’m skeptical that China would do such a thing, given that Beijing largely agrees with U.S. policy in Afghanistan and it prefers to keep a low profile there and not rock the boat,” Kugelman told VOA.
 
“Also, while [China] has a large diplomatic profile in Afghanistan, it doesn’t have much of a security presence and seemingly lacks the network to collude with militants,” he said. “In other words, if Beijing is looking to hit out against the U.S., it’s more likely to do it elsewhere.”The U.S. is reducing its troops in Afghanistan as part of a deal it signed with the Taliban in February aimed at ending the Afghan war, the longest overseas intervention in U.S. history. The Trump administration says that there will be around 2,500 U.S. soldiers left in Afghanistan by mid-January.The February agreement requires America and its allies to withdraw all their forces from the country by May 2021. It has also initiated the first direct peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government to negotiate a power-sharing deal and a nationwide cease-fire.The intra-Afghan negotiations started on September 12 and will resume in Qatar on January 5 after a three-week break.Paris Huang of VOA’s Mandarin Service contributed to this report.

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Shona Celebrate Kenyan Citizenship as Decades of Closed Legal Doors Open

Members of the ethnic Shona community in Kenya are celebrating their new status as Kenyan citizens after decades of being stateless.Nazizi Dube gazes at what is now her most prized possession – a document declaring her a citizen of Kenya.Dube is one of almost 1,700 ethnic Shona, and 1,300 ethnic Rwandans, who gained legal status this month after decades of being stateless.On December 12th, as Kenya marked its 57th independence anniversary, Nazizi, and other members of the Shona community in Kenya were recognized as citizens, following a decree by the country’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. “All the challenges that we went through with the statelessness status, we were very excited knowing that all has come to an end, it was a new beginning,” said Dube.A beginning that they hope will open new opportunities.  Diana Gichengo, of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, says that decades of statelessness left the community marginalized.“When they were stateless all their rights were violated, their freedom of movement was violated, they couldn’t leave the country, the few who managed to travel were forced to acquire fake or irregular identities to travel, they couldn’t access education,” said Gichengo.Ishmael Dlamini has run his carpentry workshop just outside the capital Nairobi for nearly 20 years without identification documents. As a Shona, his earnings were limited because he could not use banks or borrow, the way Kenyan citizens can.That has changed.Dlamini says, we will have the certificate of citizenship.  He says it will enable me to go to a bank or any other lending institution and get a loan to allow me to do more business.The Shona began arriving in Kenya in the 1930s, primarily from what is now Zimbabwe, and more came in the early 1960s as missionaries. But when Kenya became independent from Britain in 1963, most missed the two-year window to become citizens, along with their children born in the country.The push to have them recognized as Kenyans escalated over the past four years.Wanja Munaita, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, welcomes the decision to grant the Shona citizenship.“Legal identity is really important especially now that Kenya is going into the digital identity because then they would have been left out of that system, because they didn’t have those documents,” said Munaita.Gichengo, of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which was involved in the campaign to end statelessness, says more needs to be done to help the Shona community.“We hope that they can be supported by both the national government and the county government just in terms of affirmative action, to catch up for the years of marginalization,” said Gichengo.An estimated 1,300 Shona have yet to apply for citizenship but, those waiting for their certificate say they are ready to prove their worth.‘’We want to show that we are not just a burden to the country – we are birds with bright feathers,” said Dube. “We are unworthy to be caged. We now want to fly and showcase our bright feathers.’’The U.N.’s refugee agency says Kenya is home to about 18,000 stateless people, most of them ethnic minorities.

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