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Renzi ally Gentiloni named as new Italy PM

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AFP — With a brewing banking crisis as a backdrop, Paolo Gentiloni was named Italy’s new prime minister on Sunday, filling a void left by close ally Matteo Renzi, who quit after a crushing referendum defeat.

Renzi’s softly-spoken foreign minister, Gentiloni, 62, was asked by President Sergio Mattarella to form a new centre-left government that will guide Italy to elections due by February 2018.

Opposition parties demanded an immediate vote, claiming Renzi would continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

“Gentiloni is Renzi’s avatar,” said Luigi Di Maio, one of the leaders of the populist Five Star Movement.
Far right leaders Matteo Salvini and Georgia Meloni dismissed the new premier as, respectively, “a Renzi photocopy” and “a puppet.”

The silver-haired, grey-suited Gentiloni, a one-time student radical from an aristocratic family, will mark a distinct change in style from the ebullient, hyper-active Renzi.

He began consultations on his new cabinet Sunday and is hoping to have finalised his line-up by lunchtime Monday, before seeking parliamentary approval of his new government, probably on Wednesday.

In a brief statement after meeting Mattarella, he said there was an “urgent need for a fully functioning government” to address several pressing issues.

Chief among those is the fate of Italy’s third largest bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena (BMPS), whose board was locked in crisis talks Sunday about whether to request a state-funded and politically complicated rescue package.

Mattarella turned to Gentiloni after opposition parties rebuffed overtures about a possible national unity government.

– Renzi vows return –

Renzi, who had been in power for two years and 10 months, resigned last week after voters overwhelmingly rejected a package of constitutional reforms in a referendum he had inadvertently turned into plebiscite on his own record.

In his first explicit confirmation that he plans to try and mount a comeback, he admitted on his Facebook page Sunday that he had found it a wrench to leave office.

“It was painful to pack the cartons yesterday evening, I’m not ashamed to say: I’m not a robot,” the 41-year-old wrote.

“Only those who try to change things can help a country as beautiful and difficult as Italy.”

Five Star, Italy’s biggest opposition party, and Salvini’s Northern League are demanding a vote as early as possible.

But Mattarella, who enjoys extensive executive powers during government crises, has ruled that the current electoral laws must be revised first.

Theoretically that could happen quickly but the process of harmonising the rules governing elections to the two houses of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, could also drag on for months.

– Bank on the brink –

As things stand, the lower house would be elected by a system under which the largest party is guaranteed a majority of seats while the Senate would be voted in under a proportional representation system.

Most observers agree that this is a recipe for chaos but the situation could be simplified at the end of January, when the constitutional court is due to rule on the legitimacy of the new winner-take-all system for the Chamber of Deputies.

Before then, Gentiloni will have to handle a long-feared banking crunch centred on the ailing BMPS.

The bank’s share price has fallen by 85 percent this year after another slide on Friday, when it emerged that the European Central Bank (ECB) is refusing to grant any more time for it to raise badly-needed new capital from private investors.

Analysts see a state financed rescue as inevitable but, under EU rules, that can only happen if private investors also take a hit.

The issue is difficult politically with BMPS because of the large number of small investors who hold the bank’s junior bonds.

Imposing losses at smaller banks last year caused outrage in Italy and damaged Renzi’s standing.

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KENYA

Somali refugees in Kenya between rock and hard place

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NAIROBI, Kenya- Around half-a-million refugees stranded in Kenya face an impossible choice: either go home to al-Shabaab-wrecked Somalia under a controversial UNHCR “voluntary repatriation” program or stay and face massive debts accumulated due to food shortages at camps.

The dire situation can be witnessed firsthand at the Dadaab Refugee Complex in North Eastern province where over 486,460 refugees have taken asylum, according to figures released in January by The UN Refugee Agency.

Somalis living at the complex, which hosts thousands of makeshift refugee shelters, told Anadolu Agency the only reason they came to Kenya was because they were forced to flee the civil war back home and the threat of al-Shabaab militants who have killed many in the Horn of Africa region.

Dadaab is located 474 kilometers (294 miles) from capital Nairobi. It is an arid place with no paved roads but just swathes and swathes of barren fuscous-golden brown sand. Usually there is no sign of life en route to the camp except for lizards skittering across the sand. But sometimes people appear out of nowhere who can be seen herding camels. They are locals of the area who are mostly nomadic pastoralists and are always on the move.

As soon as one reaches the refugee complex, the picture of neglect and misery hits in the face as harshly as the scorching heat under which the extremely poor people live there.

Anyone who approaches the K1 block at the camp gets overwhelmed with requests from refugees scrambling over a barbed wire fence, urging for food, water, money or anything that one could spare for them.

Men, women and children can be seen squeezing into any spot that provides them with shade, others stare aimlessly into the distance deep in thought.

Tales of horror are in abundance here. One man said he arrived at the camp after spending three weeks in hiding after his family was killed in Somalia. Many others shared similar graphic realities.

Debts after food cuts

Several people at the camp told Anadolu Agency that after 30 percent food cuts were announced by the World Food Programme (WFP) for refugees living in Dadaab, they were forced to take loans to buy food and ended up accumulating “huge” debts of hundreds of dollars.

Many said it was because of these debts that they were now considering the recently-announced United Nations “Voluntary” repatriation program, which claims “to ensure the exercise of a free and informed choice and to mobilize support for returnees.”

Yassir Zahi said there is nothing voluntary about going back home and added he simply wants to run away from debt like many other refugees like himself at the camp.

“When the food cuts came, we were forced to accumulate debt since October 2017 because even the food was not enough for one person.

“Nothing is voluntary about me going home; I borrowed to buy food on credit and I am not alone; many have done the same, I owe the guy $300.

“All this I did to buy flour for porridge and milk and rice to feed my family; I used to sell flour but I ended up consuming it all with my family; they [money-lenders] came to ask for their money which I didn’t have and they threatened me and my family, especially my 16-year[-old] daughter,” Zahi said.

Through the voluntary repatriation program, the UN has created an avenue for people to clear off their debts “by returning back to my war-torn country,” he added.

In a 2018 report, Not Time to Go Home, Amnesty International also outlined how refugees were being coerced to go back to war at home due to the severe humanitarian crisis.

People left behind

Aamiina Osman, a 75-year-old woman, was found chained to a tree at the camp, attacking anyone who tried to come near her with a handful of sand.

Her adopted grandson Rashid Latif said she used to be happy and jovial but the terrible conditions at the refugee camp had destroyed the old woman.

“Her real family deserted her and went back to Somalia leaving her to fend for herself; they said that because she is too old she would slow them down once they got to war-torn Somalia; being deserted by the six family members made her partially mentally ill,” Latif said.

“On that night [they left], they chained four old women here [to the tree] and their families left; luckily, we found them, otherwise, they would have died; some went back to their homes but I adopted her [Osman] as my grandmother as I am an orphan and I take care of her,” he added.

Lack of funds

UNHCR’s Yvonne Ndege denied that refugees were being coerced to go back home. “The refugees are actually not ‘sent’ — they make a considered and informed decision to return or go to Somalia.

“There is a careful and detailed process that refugees who say they want to return follow before we help them return. That’s accompanied by up to date information from over 30 local organizations on the ground in Somalia constantly updating refugees on the situation back home. There are also what we call ‘go and see’ missions led by refugee leaders who go and see what’s going on in Somalia and come back with info for refugees considering return.”

She also told Anadolu Agency funding had not been adequate to help those wanting to return home.

“75,297 Somalis have voluntarily repatriated to Somalia since 2014, up to Dec 31, 2017; 35,407 returned in 2017 alone.

“There is a funding gap for the whole of Kenya. UNHCR support for refugees is only 32 percent funded, leaving a gap of 68 percent as of the 31st of December, 2017. We need $231.3M but only have $73.1M,” Ndege said.

Marco Lembo from the UNHCR said those who return get a “full package” in Somalia, which consists of conditional and non-conditional cash grants, including one-time payment of up to $1,000 per household and monthly grant of $200. He added that six months of food rations, supported by the WFP, are also given.

Somalia remains dangerous

Somali-based al-Shabaab militants continue to control cities in Somalia amid reports of them terrorizing women, men and children along the Horn of Africa region, which in turn causes massive displacement of people.

Guns have not been silenced in Somalia despite 25 years of conflict in the country. Experts repeatedly warn that going back to Somalia means returning to war and death.

But nonetheless, the Kenyan government has halted any new registration of Somali refugees and recently even disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs, creating an invisible wall to hundreds of thousands who desperately seek asylum. Kenya had also urged the UNHCR to expedite the voluntary return of refugees after shelving a decision to close the camp due to insecurity.

At Dadaab, most refugees who spoke to Anadolu Agency said al-Shabaab had played a major role in their decision to seek asylum in Kenya to begin with, but now things are so bad at their refugee complex they feel they have no option but to take the hard road back home despite the dangers.

Summing up the sentiments of thousands of refugees like himself, Zahi concluded: “Life here is a hellish nightmare, I tell you”.

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Africa

Warlord’s fighters become movie stars as Ugandan cinema booms

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BLOOMBERG — Opio was 16 when he was abducted by a Bible-quoting warlord and forced into a militia notorious for massacres and sexual slavery. Two decades on, he again took up a rifle — this time playing one of his former comrades in an award-winning Ugandan movie.

As the cameras rolled, he and other actors stormed a village set, shot at civilians and were ambushed at a river crossing. It was all for ‘The Devil’s Chest,’ one of two feature films about Joseph Kony and his rebel Lord’s Resistance Army that was made on location in northern Uganda last year and stirred some painful memories.

“I felt it all coming back, the frustrations, the helplessness and how sometimes I would feel that I just wanted to die,” said Opio, who’s now 38 and spent seven years in the LRA before fleeing and accepting a state-sponsored amnesty. “But at the end of it all, I knew it was just a movie — I had already left that real life in the past.”

Uganda, too, has moved on from the chaos sown by Kony’s militia, which may have been responsible for 100,000 deaths in central and eastern Africa in the past three decades. There’s been an investment in oil exploration and infrastructure in the north, which the LRA terrorized until 2005, while the capital, Kampala, is touted as a hot new nightlife spot. Now at peace — and still under the iron rule of President Yoweri Museveni — U.S. ally Uganda is a regional heavyweight, sending troops to Somalia and South Sudan.

The country isn’t a complete stranger to Hollywood: ‘The Last King of Scotland’ recreated the despotic 1970s rule of President Idi Amin, while Lupita Nyong’o played the mother of a chess prodigy in Disney’s ‘Queen of Katwe,’ which takes its title from a Kampala neighbourhood. Recent years, though, have brought a surge in locally funded films. Museveni’s drive to remain in office may have curbed political expression, but it hasn’t dampened creativity in an economy that’s almost quadrupled in size since he took power in 1986.

At least 700 Ugandan features and short films have played at festivals in the past five years, according to Ruth Kibuuka, content development manager at the Uganda Communications Commission, the industry regulator. While quality was initially “wanting,” it has “greatly improved,” partly due to technical training, she said.
There’s still a long way before Uganda challenges Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry that produces movies at a rate second only to India’s. That’s despite the efforts of Nabwana Isaac Godfrey. The founder of Wakaliwood, a studio that turns out scrappy, fast-paced action movies from a Kampala slum, he says he’s directed about 60 since 2005 — at less than $300 each.
Driving Passion

“The industry is growing at a very good speed and it’s passion that is driving it,” said Godfrey. His most famous production,‘Who Killed Captain Alex?,’ showcases the crude computer-generated effects and over-the-top violence that’s won him a cult following outside Uganda.

For director Hassan Mageye, ‘Devil’s Chest’ commemorates the insurgency’s victims while showing that people have moved on. It won best feature at Uganda’s main film festival in September but hasn’t yet been widely released. He estimated about 90 percent of the 400-strong cast were affected by Kony’s rebellion, including some ex-fighters.

Roger Masaba, who portrayed Kony, said he was advised by some of the cast who’d met the real man. The 47-year-old said he was surprised not everyone off the set in the north expressed dislike for the warlord. While he was in costume, some even thought he was Kony.

Kony, who’s been indicted by the International Criminal Court and still on the run, went on to plague South Sudan and the Central African Republic with a much-diminished militia. His former fighters in Uganda were mostly granted amnesty by the government, which has provided counseling and outlawed discrimination against them.

There’s a strong local appetite for stories about Uganda’s past, according to Steve Ayeny, the director of ‘Kony: Order From Above,’ another feature about the rebels and their captives filmed at a northern army base. He said about half his 445 actors and extras were former insurgents.

Reenacting the lynchings and burning of villages “was not easy,” said Ayeny, who had friends killed during the period his film portrays. “Because they were the truth, we just had to deal with it and say, ya, let’s move on.”

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Djibouti

PODCAST: A Dissident from Djibouti is Fighting for Democracy in a Country Being Squeezed by The Major Global Powers

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UN DISPATCH — Djibouti is the only country in the world that hosts military bases for both the United States and China. The US base, Camp Lemmonier, hosts US special forces and its only a few kilometers from China’s only military base outside of Asia. France, the former colonial ruler, also has a base in the country.

That so many countries would want their military stationed in tiny Djibouti is partly due of the country’s geography. It is strategically located in the horn of Africa, bordering Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea at the exact point where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea, across the straight from Yemen.

But in part as a consequence of its strategic location its longtime leader President Ismael Omar Guelleh has had a stranglehold on power since 1999, cracking down on civil society, thwarting any potential political rivals and subverting democratic institutions.

One person trying to restore democracy to Djibouti is Daher Ahmed Farah, who is on the line with me today. He is the leader of the country’s main opposition political party, the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD). He is currently in exile, living mostly in Brussels after the government issued a warrant for his arrest. We caught up as Farah was visiting Washington, DC for meetings at the state department and elsewhere.

Djibouti is obviously not much on the news radar and I found this conversation an interesting explanation of how a government that is a strategic ally of many world powers can use that position to consolidate power at home at the expense of democracy.

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