Khan After Putin Visit: Pakistan to Import Wheat, Gas from Russia

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Monday that his country will import about 2 million tons of wheat from Russia and buy natural gas as well under bilateral agreements the two sides signed last week during his official trip to Moscow.  

Khan pressed on with his two-day visit and met with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Thursday, hours after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, with Western countries pushing to isolate the Russian leader for his actions. 

On Monday, the Pakistani prime minister defended his trip and responded to critics in a televised speech to the nation, saying Pakistan’s economic interests required him to do so.  

“We went there because we have to import 2 million tons of wheat from Russia. Secondly, we have signed agreements with them to import natural gas because Pakistan’s own gas reserves are depleting,” Khan said.  

“Inshallah (God willing), the time will tell that we have had great discussions,” the Pakistani leader said, referring to his three-hour meeting with Putin. He shared no further details. 

Critics, however, are skeptical about Moscow-Islamabad economic collaboration, citing tougher international sanctions slapped on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.  

On Thursday, Putin warmly received Khan at the Kremlin in front of cameras, shook hands and sat just next to the visitor for what Pakistani officials said were wide-ranging consultations on bilateral, regional and international issues.  

“The Prime Minister regretted the latest situation between Russia and Ukraine and said that Pakistan had hoped diplomacy could avert a military conflict,” a post-meeting statement quoted Khan as telling Putin. 

Pakistani officials and Khan himself maintained that the Moscow visit was planned long before the Ukraine crisis erupted and was aimed solely at reviewing bilateral trade relations, including energy cooperation. 

Pakistan’s frosty relations with the United States, analysts say, have pushed the South Asian nation closer to its giant neighbors China and Russia in recent years. 

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who accompanied Khan on the visit, said after the delegation returned to Pakistan that Washington had contacted Islamabad ahead of the Moscow trip. 

“[U.S. officials] presented their position and we explained to them the purpose of the trip and went ahead with it,” Qureshi told reporters when asked whether the U.S. was opposed to the visit. “I’m convinced after the visit that we did the right thing.” 

Speaking on the eve of Khan’s trip to Russia, a U.S. State Department spokesman, when asked about it, said Washington believed that Pakistan, like “every responsible” country, would voice objection to Putin’s actions. 

But Pakistani leaders have avoided criticizing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and stressed the need for seeking a negotiated settlement to the crisis.  

Islamabad also has developed close economic and military ties with Ukraine in recent years, with Pakistan being a major importer of Ukrainian wheat.  

Qureshi spoke to Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Sunday and reiterated Islamabad’s “serious concern at the situation, underscoring the importance of de-escalation, and stressing the indispensability of diplomacy.” 

Pakistan sided with the U.S. during the Cold War and played an instrumental role in arming as well as training Washington-funded resistance to the decadelong Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980s.  

While Islamabad’s often uneasy relations with Washington have lately strained over the country’s backing of the Islamist Taliban in Afghanistan, ties between India and the U.S. have solidified in recent years due to shared concerns stemming from China’s growing influence in the region.  

India, Islamabad’s bitter foe, had close ties with Russia during the Cold War, as Moscow was a major arms exporter to New Delhi. 

Moscow has restored ties with Islamabad in recent years, however. The two countries routinely hold joint military exercises and are working to deepen energy cooperation to help Pakistan overcome shortages. 

Khan in his address Monday reiterated that Pakistan’s decision to join the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan was an outcome of “the wrong foreign policy” of his predecessors.  

“I maintained from day one that we should not have taken part [in the U.S.-led war],” he said, adding that Pakistan suffered 80,000 casualties because of an Islamist retaliation and incurred billions of dollars in economic losses.  

“The most embarrassing part was that a country was fighting in support of a country that was bombing it,” Khan said, referring to U.S. drone strikes against suspected militant hideouts in Pakistani areas near the Afghan border. 

Khan also announced a cut in fuel and electricity prices to help offset a steep rise in the global oil market because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

He promised to freeze the new prices until the next budget in June. Critics said the move could result from opposition protests over rising inflation that officials blame on the coronavirus outbreak and tough economic reforms the government is undertaking in line with a $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. 


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US to Expel 12 Russian Diplomats at UN Mission for Spying

The United States said Monday that it was expelling 12 Russian diplomats based at Moscow’s U.N. mission in New York for engaging in espionage activities.

“The United States has informed the United Nations and the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations that we are beginning the process of expelling twelve intelligence operatives from the Russian Mission who have abused their privileges of residency in the United States by engaging in espionage activities that are adverse to our national security,” U.S. Mission to the United Nations spokesperson Olivia Dalton said in a statement. “We are taking this action in accordance with the U.N. Headquarters Agreement. This action has been in development for several months.”  

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told reporters that the U.S. gave them until March 7 to leave the country. He said that it is a “hostile action” by the U.S. government and violates Washington’s obligations as the host country of the United Nations.

Nebenzia also called the order “sad news” and said the U.S., the host country, was showing “gross disrespect” to its commitments “both under U.N. Charter and the Host Country Agreement, and Vienna conventions.” The Vienna Convention also applies to the treatment of diplomats.  

Nebenzia received the news in a phone call during a press conference about the Ukraine conflict. He said the U.S. had delivered a letter to Moscow’s New York mission with the decision.  

It is not the first time the U.S. has declared Russian diplomats at the U.N. persona non grata. Most recently, in 2018, the Trump administration expelled a dozen Russian diplomats from the U.N. mission on similar charges as tensions rose over a poisoning attack on a former Russian spy in Britain.  

Nebenzia also informed members of the U.N. Security Council of the development at the start of a meeting on the growing humanitarian crisis.  

“We keep being told about the need for diplomacy, diplomatic solutions. And at the same time, our opportunities to conduct this kind of activity are being restricted,” he said. “We deeply regret this decision and will see how events develop within the context of this decision.”  

U.S. envoy Richard Mills replied that the decision was taken in full accordance with the U.N. Headquarters Agreement.  


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Protesters March on Russian Embassy in Nigeria’s Capital

Parents, relatives and friends of Nigerian students stranded in Ukraine chanted as they marched outside the Russian Embassy in Abuja on Monday, calling for peace in Ukraine and the students’ immediate evacuation from the war-torn country. 

“We need peace because of our children,” said protester Blessing Keri, whose relative is studying in Ukraine. “We don’t want our children there or our sisters or our brothers to go there and perish. We want them to stay in peace and come back to Nigeria in peace.” 

Nigerian authorities have been unable to evacuate thousands of nationals, including some 5,600 students who were in Ukraine when the crisis began. Airport and train service out of Ukraine has been shut down since Russian forces invaded last week. 

Some Nigerians have joined the exodus of people trying to flee Ukraine on foot into Poland and Romania. 

There have been reports that Africans are being blocked from entering Poland while Ukrainians are allowed to cross the border.

On Sunday, an adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari said “it is paramount that everyone is treated with dignity” and “the color of their passport or their skin should make no difference.” 

Poland has denied that Nigerians are being blocked from entering the country. 

Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs, spoke to the local Arise News station, saying Nigeria is making plans to evacuate the students and nationals willing to leave. 

“Our people are dispersed all over the country, so it has to be something that’s well organized, getting people to go to the closest airports to where they are,” he said. 

The ministry Sunday said some 256 Nigerians have safely passed into Poland. 

Meanwhile, a coalition of Nigerians in Poland are providing relief to their countrymen arriving at the borders and are gathering funds online to help resettle the displaced. 

“So these people that are coming in, we need to shelter them, we need to provide for them, we need to give them food, accommodation, even the transport to take them from the border to the accommodation we’ve provided,” said Rawlings Onyi, one of the online campaigners in Poland. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has attracted criticism from around the globe, including the West African bloc ECOWAS, which has called for an end to the fighting and for all parties to ensure the safety of West Africans living in Ukraine.  


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Vatican Offers to Mediate End to Ukraine War

Pope Francis is suffering from acute knee pain and won’t preside over this week’s Ash Wednesday celebrations after his doctor ordered him to rest. Despite his health issues, the pope has launched efforts to mediate an end to the war in Ukraine.

Pope Francis will not be presiding over the customary mass for the start of Lent at the Basilica of Saint Sabina on Rome’s Aventine Hill this year.

The pope’s knee ailment also forced him to cancel travel plans for the first time in his papacy. Francis was scheduled to celebrate mass Sunday in Florence for the closing of a meeting of bishops and mayors from the Mediterranean region.

But knee pain has not stopped the Pope from repeatedly voicing his concern about the developments in Ukraine.

On Friday, he visited the Russian ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, to express those concerns in person.

The Pope has called for Ash Wednesday this week to serve as a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine.

His worries were voiced again Sunday when he said his “heart is broken” and called for arms to fall silent.

Referring to those in search of refuge as brothers and sisters, the pope made an impassioned appeal for humanitarian corridors to help refugees leave Ukraine.

The Vatican has now said it is prepared to assist in any negotiation aimed at ending the war in the eastern European country. The Vatican’s No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said in interviews published in Italian newspapers Monday that the Vatican is offering to facilitate dialogue with Russia. He said there is always space for negotiation.

Earlier, the head of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, announced the pope would not travel after speaking to the Holy Father on the phone.

Bassetti said the pope had given his strong backing to the “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace” meeting in Florence and had wanted to attend but the doctor recommended that he take a “period of greater rest” for his leg.

It remains unclear whether the pope’s current knee problem is linked to previous sciatica conditions that have forced him to cancel some of his public appearances in recent times and has also caused him to limp. Only last month, the 85-year-old pontiff complained of a pain in his leg, saying it was worse when he remained standing.

Pope Francis underwent colon surgery in July in what was considered his most serious health issue since he was elected head of the Catholic Church in March 2013. After spending 10 days in a hospital, he appeared to recover well and soon returned to his daily activities.

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Ukraine President Appeals for Immediate EU Accession

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed Monday for the European Union to immediately admit Ukraine to the bloc, as the country battled a Russian invasion.

Zelenskyy posted photographs of himself on social media signing an application to join the 27-member nation EU. In a video, he said, “We appeal to the European Union for the urgent accession of Ukraine via a new special procedure.”

“We are grateful to our partners for being with us,” Zelenskyy said. “But our goal is to be together with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be on equal footing. I’m sure it’s fair. I’m sure we earned it. I’m sure it’s possible.”

It usually takes years for any country to officially join the EU, part of a multi-step process that often requires nations to make reforms to reach EU standards.

The head of Zelenskyy’s office, Andrii Sybiha, said on his official Facebook page that the documents requesting EU admission “are on the way to Brussels.”

The EU has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has offered military assistance to Kyiv as well as imposed tough economic sanctions on Russia and blocked Russian planes from EU skies.

Ukraine’s request comes after European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told Euronews in an interview Sunday of Ukraine: “They are one of us, and we want them in.”

However, Von der Leyen’s spokesperson, Eric Mamer, clarified Monday that the EU chief did not mean that Ukraine could join immediately.

He said Von der Leyen “specified that there is a process (for joining the EU). And I think that this is the important point.”

The application for Ukraine to join the EU, even if largely symbolic, is likely to anger Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to bring Ukraine under its influence.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

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Women Join Cameroon Militias to Fight Boko Haram

In the last few years, villages along Cameroon’s northern border with Nigeria have formed militias to ward off Boko Haram militants and inform authorities about suspicious activities. These so-called vigilance committees were exclusively male until last year when a number of women joined. Anne Nzouankeu reports from Mora, Cameroon.

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Ukraine Crisis: Will African Oil Producers Take Advantage of Increasing Oil Prices? 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the sanctions that followed, has pushed the price of oil to over $100 per barrel, the highest level in eight years. But, it’s also opened an opportunity for African oil producers like Nigeria, Angola, Libya, and Algeria to cash in with more crude oil exports. But a lack of refineries in Africa means crude oil exporters will also have to pay more for imported fuels.

The Brent crude oil prices hit $105 per barrel last week, it’s highest mark since 2014 and up by 47% since December, amid fears that supplies from Russia may be impacted by crisis.

Russia accounts for a significant amount of the world’s total crude oil output between 25-30% making it the second highest producer globally.

But experts say the crisis and sanctions slammed on Russia by Europe and America could significantly impact demand for Russian products and tip the odds in Africa’s favor.

“For Africa it’s a gain, it’s an opportunity, it presents that window of opportunity for African countries to see how they can increase their production capacity and meet the need of global demands of crude oil,” says Isaac Botti, a public finance expert.

However, Africa’s production combined accounts for less than a tenth of total global output. Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of oil followed by Libya. Other notable producers are Algeria and Angola.

Experts predict oil prices will rise further but worry Nigeria could be facing a backlash.

“At the end of the day it’s going to hit on our economy. We may think that we’ll gain but remember we don’t refine out crude oil,” said economic analyst Paul Enyim.

Nigerian refineries have been shut down for about one year. The country depends on imports to meet it’s energy needs. Experts say prices paid for imported will also increase.

Authorities are also grappling with huge subsidies to keep pump price of oil products within affordable limits.

Last week Nigeria’s minister of state for Petroleum said authorities were not comfortable with the surge in prices of crude oil.

But this week, Algerian state-owned oil and gas giant said it would supply Europe if Russian exports dwindled as a result of the crisis.

Botti says it’s a good example for other African nations.

“We need to develop our capacity to produce locally, we need to look at various trade agreements that are existing,” he said.

For years African oil producers including Nigeria have been struggling to meet required daily output levels.

Experts however worry African producers may struggle to fit into the big market with increasing global demands for crude oil.

For weeks, Nigeria has been battling to normalize fuel supply in the country after authorities recalled millions of liters of adulterated petrol from circulation causing a major shortage in West Africa’s most populous nation.

As the crises between Russia and Ukraine lingers, experts say the shifting focus on Africa could be both a blessing and a burden.

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Rapid Testing for Malaria and COVID Set to Roll Out in Kenya

Kenya has ramped up its efforts to control the twin challenges of the coronavirus and malaria by introducing locally made testing kits for the two diseases. Kenya’s Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) says the kits offer quicker detection and will soon be exported to the region. Brenda Mulinya reports from Nairobi. Videographer and producer: Amos Wangwa

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EU, Russia Spat over Ukraine Overshadows Environment Summit

Anger at the Russian aggression against Ukraine spilled into the United Nations Environment Program Summit in Kenya Monday.  Delegates and leaders from over 100 nations are trying to agree on a treaty to tackle plastic waste.

While addressing participants, European Union representative Virgijus Sinkevicius veered off topic.

He said celebration of a possible deal on plastic waste is “saddened” by Russia’s act of aggression against its neighbor. He added, “In these dark hours, our thoughts are with Ukrainians.”

The commissioner also called on Russia’s leadership to abide by international law and engage in dialogue with its neighbor.

A Russian delegate in the conference responded to the EU official by blaming the Ukraine government for not doing enough to avoid the conflict with his country.

At a news conference, United Nations Environment Assembly President Espen Barth Eide of Norway said it didn’t surprise him that controversy over the Ukraine conflict spilled over into the summit.

“The United Nations and other bodies have the right arena in dealing with peace and security and right now, the Security Council is with this issue. I think that’s the view of many, but I am not surprised this very dramatic situation appeared in statements but apart from that, both the executive director and myself make reference to it, as well as the way we have said just now this should actually strengthen our resolve, to demonstrate that there is something that works in the world and the multilateral system continues to deliver,” he said.

Russia is facing mounting international exclusion because of its invasion of Ukraine. Many western countries have imposed economic sanctions aimed at Russia and its leaders, and the world football governing body said football matches will not be played on Russian soil.

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Russian Media Sites Hacked; Anonymous Claims Responsibility

Many Russian media outlets have been hacked, with anti-war messages being placed on their websites, as Russia continues its massive, unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

Twitter accounts historically associated with Anonymous, the amorphous online activist community that first grabbed global attention about a decade ago, claimed it was behind the hacker attack.

Among the media outlets impacted were websites of such news agencies and newspapers as TASS, Kommersant, Izvestia, Fontanka, Forbes, and RBK.

“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin forces you to lie and puts you in danger. Why do we need it? So that Putin was added to textbooks? This is not our war, let’s stop him!” one of the messages read.

“This statement will be removed, and some of us will be fired or even jailed. But we cannot stand it anymore,” the statement signed by “Not indifferent journalists” said.

The official website of the Kremlin was down on February 26, following reports of denial-of-service attacks on various other Russian government and state media websites.

Anonymous also claimed it was behind that cyberattack as well.

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In Somaliland, COVID Brings ‘Cutters’ Door to Door for Girls

Safia Ibrahim’s business was in trouble. COVID-19 had taken hold in Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa. The 50-year-old widow with 10 children to support set out door to door on the capital’s outskirts, a razor at hand, taking advantage of the lockdown to seek work with a question: Have your daughters been cut?

Her business is female circumcision, learned at the age of 15, performed hundreds of times and now being passed along to her daughters. She congratulates young girls upon completing the procedure: “Pray for me, I’ve made you a woman now.”

She believes her work keeps girls pure for marriage. “This is our Somali culture. Our great-grandmothers, grandfathers — all of them used to practice,” she said, even though she now knows there’s no medical or even religious reason for the removal of external genitalia, which can cause excessive bleeding, problems with urination and childbirth, infections and even death. But it remains legal in Somaliland, so Ibrahim will continue until authorities tell her to stop.

Her story echoes through Muslim and other communities in a broad strip across Africa south of the Sahara, as well as some countries in Asia. In many places, COVID-19 brought stark challenges to efforts by health workers and activists to stop what they along with the United Nations and others call female genital mutilation.

Government officials, health workers and advocates say instances of FGM rose alarmingly during the pandemic in Somaliland and other parts of Africa as lockdowns kept girls out of school, making them vulnerable to “cutters” like Ibrahim, and economic pressures led impoverished parents to give their daughters in marriage, for which FGM often remains a cultural expectation, if not a demand.

In the early months of the pandemic, the U.N. Population Fund warned that disruptions to prevention programs could lead to 2 million cases over the next decade that otherwise might have been averted, and that progress toward the global goal of ending FGM by 2030 would be badly affected.

Hard data are lacking on the increase in FGM cases, but officials point to anecdotal evidence, local surveys and the observations of medical and advocacy groups. In Somaliland, an arid region that separated from Somalia three decades ago and seeks recognition as an independent country, community assessments by government workers and aid groups found that FGM rose during the six-month pandemic lockdown. Advocacy groups say they’ve also seen increases in Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Somalia.

Sadia Allin, Somalia director for the Plan International nongovernmental organization, said she was alarmed when an FGM practitioner came asking about her daughters in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa.

“I asked her what she wanted to do with the girls. She said, ‘I want to cut them,’ and that was the shock of my life,” Allin said. “I did not expect that something like that can happen in this age and time, because of the awareness and the work that we have been doing.”

She said their survey found that 61% of residents of Hargeisa and Somaliland’s second-largest city, Burao, believed that FGM was increasing under the lockdown.

Mothers give in and allow their girls to be cut, Allin said, “because the social pressure is greater than the pain.”

FGM often is still performed in homes. Ibrahim demonstrated the procedure for The Associated Press in her branch-barred courtyard. Using the palm of a female translator’s hand to stand as a girl’s genital area, she held a syringe just above the skin and pretended to inject anesthetic — a relatively new addition to her routine.

Then, with a razor blade, she swiped at where the girl’s clitoris would be. Further slashes and the labia were gone. Finally, with needles and thread, she pretended to sew up the girl’s opening, leaving a small hole for urine and the menstrual blood that would begin in the years to come.

Somaliland, with a population of well over 3 million, already had the highest rate of FGM in the world before the pandemic, according to the U.N. children’s agency, with 98% of girls undergoing it between ages 5 and 11. The majority undergo the most severe kind, being sewn up until marriage, as opposed to the less severe kinds where the clitoris is cut or the clitoris and labia are removed.

Thorns have been used in place of needle and thread in the most basic of such procedures in rural areas. Before marriage, some rural women are still placed on a sheet and inspected so witnesses can confirm that she has remained “sealed.”

In Somaliland, COVID-19 hit as activists and officials said they were gaining momentum in securing an anti-FGM policy, a government position backed by the country’s Cabinet. They call it a crucial step toward a law barring FGM for good. That would bring Somaliland in line with regional neighbors such as Djibouti or, more recently, Sudan.

The work has never been easy. Somaliland’s president, Muse Bihi Abdi, has said he wants to make the practice illegal. But many religious authorities, along with others in the conservative society, have pushed back.

Some claim progress in promoting a less harsh kind of FGM, or in making sure it’s performed by health workers in a medical setting. But activists say even when performed by a health worker with sterile medical tools, FGM is damaging and a violation against a minor.

The tensions were clear in the Somaliland capital on Feb. 6, when government and civil society leaders gathered to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, a U.N.-sponsored awareness event.

Former first lady Edna Adan Ismail — the first person in Somaliland to speak out publicly against FGM, almost five decades ago — gave a fiery speech in favor of banning the practice entirely. But the government’s religious affairs minister, Abdirizak Hussein Ali Albani, would not go so far. He acknowledged that the most severe type of FGM can damage a girl’s reproductive organs but said the least severe type that nicks at the clitoris should remain optional.

His comment reflected the thinking of many in Somaliland’s powerful religious community, who feel they are making a concession to anti-FGM efforts.

Women are Allah’s original creation and nothing in Islam says to cut them, the minister acknowledged, but he said society must also protect them. He compared the least severe type of FGM to the shaving of armpits, the pass of a blade.

Increasingly, women and some men in Somaliland’s younger, more educated generation are speaking out publicly to counter such religious and cultural beliefs. Some are traumatized by their own experience and have begun to explore the relatively new practice in Somaliland of mental health counseling, even discussing the effects of FGM on sexual pleasure.

Others who speak out are health workers who have seen FGM’s sometimes fatal complications — girls who bleed to death and young women who struggle to deliver their first children. Some develop fistulas, or tears that allow urine or feces to leak.

One young nurse in Hargeisa, 23-year-old Hana Ismail, was moved to write a poem about it. At the zero-tolerance event, she recited it: “I have a mark that can never be erased,” she began, later describing how a knife had to be used to make way for childbirth, a life “that managed to get in.”

Ismail said she speaks with every patient about the practice and the need to stop it, defying the hush around the subject that lingers even now.

Somaliland’s half-light existence as an unrecognized state has complicated its pandemic response. Vaccines from the global COVAX initiative must come via the government in Somalia, which claims Somaliland but by some measures has the weakest health system in the world. Somaliland’s pandemic data, too, is combined with Somalia’s by the World Health Organization, though Somaliland’s health ministry in December reported more than 8,300 cases and more than 580 deaths.

But now that Somaliland’s COVID-19 lockdown has ended and vaccines have begun to arrive, the minister for social affairs and activists expect that the anti-FGM policy newly submitted to the Cabinet of ministers will be approved.

They hope an anti-FGM law will follow, but another challenge presents itself, one unique in Africa: Every lawmaker in Somaliland is a man.

Still, the minister for social affairs, Mustafe Godane Cali Bile, believes there is momentum. National television even aired a religious debate about the practice in recent days, giving a rare public glimpse of religious leaders who are against the practice completely.

The anti-FGM policy should be approved within weeks, the minister said, “and we’re hoping the practice will be illegal by the end of the year.”

Even a hard-won law, however, is expected to face backlash in a society where FGM has been part of life for generations. Ismail, the former first lady who runs a hospital in Hargeisa and put forward anti-FGM legislation two decades ago, was blunt about the fight that remains.

“It is not legislation that will stop it,” she said. “Because if legislation would stop it, it would have stopped it in Sudan, and it has not. It would have stopped it in Djibouti, and it has not.

“Whatever women say, whatever we say, at the end of the day there’s some imam who says, ‘Oh, this is wrong.’ Those few words wipe out all the efforts that have been done.”

But Ismail is no longer alone as a reformer. Elsewhere in Hargeisa, women are questioning the roles society expects them to play. Shouting and laughing one recent evening, they took to a soccer field at the only sports center strictly for women in Somaliland.

The center is run by 32-year-old Amoun Aden Ismail, who recounted the challenges of having a groundbreaking tournament canceled in 2020 because the sports ministry declared it against the Islamic religion, and of being accused of wanting to turn women into men. It’s not easy, she said.

She is against FGM and speaks openly about the practice with her club’s members. “Some girls ask, ‘How does FGM go?'” she recalled. “Some ask how normal vaginas look like.” At first, the girls laughed at her explanations, accompanied by illustrations. “But I told them it’s just part of life. You have to love your body, protect it.”

Club member Muhubo Ibrahim, a 25-year-old health worker who plays defender, is passionate about preventing further generations of girls from being cut. “The day my mother did it to me, I said, ‘I won’t forgive you, forever,'” she recalled.

That didn’t last, and later her mother confided, “I believe now I made a mistake.” She has since encouraged Ibrahim to do what she likes with her own daughters when the time comes.

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Reporter’s Notebook: This is What Ukraine’s War Looks Like as We Worked Our Way out of Kyiv

A snapshot of war: the young tearfully saying goodbye to parents and grandparents who are too infirm or otherwise unconvinced to leave their homes. Some say they want to remain rooted in these uproarious times

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Putin Ally Lukashenko Expected to Order Belarusian Forces to Ukraine

US intelligence expects Belarusian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko to throw in his 48,000-strong army into the war raging in Ukraine in the next few hours or day and to reinforce Russia in its faltering invasion of Ukraine

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Counting Both US and Russia as Partners, India Faces Diplomatic Test in Ukraine Crisis

Balancing relations with the West and Russia will become a harder challenge for New Delhi

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Sporting Sanctions Can Land Significant Blow on Putin, Say Experts

Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup, the scandal-plagued 2014 Winter Olympics and Gazprom’s sponsorship of the Champions League were powerful tools for the country’s global image and gained Vladimir Putin prestige amongst the Russian population.

However, the Russian president’s decision to invade Ukraine has resulted in destroying the warm global afterglow and experts believe it could cost him dearly internally.

Saint Petersburg has already been stripped of hosting this year’s Champions League final with Gazprom’s reported 40-million-euro ($45 million) a year sponsorship deal with UEFA also in doubt. 

The Russian Formula One Grand Prix has been cancelled and there are calls for the country’s football team to be expelled from the 2022 World Cup play-offs. 

“Sport has always had a tremendous impact on society,” Michael Payne, former head of marketing at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told AFP. 

“The South African sports boycott over apartheid probably had as much or greater impact than economic sanctions, over forcing regime policy change.”

For Hugh Robertson, Chairman of the British Olympic Association (BOA), a blanket sports ban could affect Putin’s standing domestically.  

“Sport is disproportionately important to absolutist regimes,” he told AFP. 

“The potential inability to compete would hit Russia hard.”

Payne, who in nearly two decades at the IOC was widely credited with transforming its brand and finances through sponsorship, said Putin risked his standing with his own people. 

“Putin may not care what the rest of the world thinks of him, but he has to care what the Russian people think of him,” said the Irishman.

“Lose their support and it is game over -– and the actions of the sports community has the potential to be a very important influencer towards the Russian people.”

‘A greater good’ 

Prominent Russian sports stars have not been shy in voicing their disquiet over Putin’s invasion.

Andrey Rublev, who won the Dubai ATP title on Saturday, veteran Russian football international Fedor Smolov, United States-based ice hockey great Alex Ovechkin and cyclist Pavel Sivakov, who rides for the Ineos team have all expressed a desire for peace. 

“Russian athletes speaking out to their national fan base, will only serve to further prompt the local population to question the actions of their leadership, and undermine the local national support for the war,” said Payne. 

However, another former IOC marketing executive Terrence Burns, who since leaving the organization has played a key role in five successful Olympic bid city campaigns, has doubts about their impact.

“You are making the assumption that Russian people actually see, read, and hear ‘real news’,” he told AFP. 

“I do not believe that is the case. The Government will portray Russia as a victim of a great global conspiracy led by the USA and the West. 

“It is an old Russian trope they have used quite effectively since the Soviet days.”

Burns says sadly the athletes must also be punished for their government’s aggression.

“I believe that Russia must pay the price for what it has done,” he said.

“Sadly, that has to include her athletes as well. 

“Many people, like me, believed that by helping them host the Olympics and World Cup could somehow open and liberalize the society, creating new paths of progress for Russia’s young people. Again, we were wrong.”

Robertson too says allowing Russians to compete when Ukrainians are unable to due to the conflict is “morally inconceivable.” 

Payne says individual sports have to look at a bigger moral picture than their own potential losses over cutting Russian sponsorship contracts. 

“The sports world risks losing far more by not reacting, than the loss of one or two Russian sponsors.” 

Former British lawmaker Robertson, who as Minister for Sport and the Olympics delivered the highly successful 2012 London Games, agrees. 

“The sporting world may have to wean itself off Russian money,” said the 59-year-old.

“Over the past few days, it has become apparent that political, economic and trade sanctions will hurt the West as well as Russia, but this is a price that we will have to pay to achieve a greater good.”

For Robertson sport could not stand idly by in response to Russia’s invasion. 

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine will impact sport but the consequences of inaction, or prevarication, will be far more serious.” 

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Belarus Votes to Give Up Non-nuclear Status

Belarusians voted Monday to allow the country to host nuclear weapons and Russian forces permanently, results showed, part of a package of constitutional reforms that also extended the rule of leader Alexander Lukashenko.

The referendum was held Sunday as the ex-Soviet country’s neighbor Ukraine is under attack from Russian troops and delegations from Moscow and Kyiv are expected to meet for talks on the Belarusian border.

Central Election Commission head Igor Karpenko said 65.16% of referendum participants voted in favor of the amendments and 10.07% voted against, Russian news agencies reported.

According to Karpenko, voter turnout stood at 78.63%. 

To come into force, the amendments need to receive at least 50% of the vote with a turnout of over half the electorate.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, promised the referendum in the wake of historic protests against his disputed re-election in 2020.

By amending the constitution Lukashenko, 67, follows in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2020 oversaw a vote on constitutional changes that made it possible for him to remain in power until 2036.

The constitutional changes also grant immunity to former leaders for crimes committed during their term in office.

Russia is a key ally of Belarus and last week Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to use Belarusian territory to invade Ukraine from the north. 

Belarus inherited a number of Soviet nuclear warheads following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank, which it then transferred to Russia.

Lukashenko first floated possible changes after a presidential vote in August 2020 sparked unprecedented demonstrations that were met with a brutal crackdown.

He claimed a sixth term in the vote and imprisoned leading opposition figures, while his main rival, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was forced to seek refuge in neighboring Lithuania.

The amendments would reinstate presidential term limits — previously ditched by Lukashenko — to two five-year terms, but they would only apply to the next elected president.

Were Lukashenko to put himself forward as a candidate for re-election in 2025, he could remain in power for an additional 10 years.

Tikhanovskaya’s office in Lithuania has hit out at the vote, saying that a sweeping crackdown on any dissenting voices since the 2020 election made any real discussion of the proposals impossible.

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