Saturday, the 12th of January

Talking points

Budapest challenges Orbán. PHOTO: László Balogh
  1. Hungarians demonstrated against an onerous overtime "slave law"
  2. 'El Chapo' wiretapped his wife and mistress's phones - so did the FBI
  3. In his first public appearance Carlos Ghosn protested his innocence
  4. Kim Jong-un enjoyed a fruitful China trip ahead of further US-Korea talks
  5. Michael Cohen agreed to testify publicly before Congress
  6. Britain started preparing for a 'catastrophic' no-deal Brexit
  7. Two immigration cases tested Thailand's international standing
  8. Trump threatened to declare a 'national emergency' for border wall funds
  9. Malta followed Italy's lead in refusing access to migrant rescue ships
  10. Boyan Slat's Pacific garbage-collecting boom broke apart

Deep Dive

Tshisekendi supporters take to the streets. PHOTO: AFP

After an agonising wait electoral officials have revealed the Democratic Republic of Congo's new president - and a surprising one at that. After 22 years of dynastic rule the Congolese have voted to restore the D in DRC. A monumental change is underway - or is it?

The Kabila dynasty

First, some historical exposition. Kinshasha's Palais de la Nation has hosted a member of the Kabila family ever since Laurent-Désiré Kabila fought his way there in 1997. Backed by neighbouring Rwanda, the career fighter harried and eventually toppled the sclerotic and hated regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. In office, despite his Communist credentials, Laurent-Désiré succumbed to the same personality cult and tendency for self-enrichment that had defined his predecessor. The self-proclaimed president was assassinated four years later. Rather than succumbing to infighting - as some assumed would happen - the inner circle coalesced around the dead president's son.

Jospeh Kabila inherited Congo's Second Civil War which had begun almost immediately after the First Civil War installed his father. A constellation of rebel groups and opposition parties opposed his rule and in 2004 a attempted coup threw Kinshasha into violence. But when putsch came to shove, Joseph Kabila resisted. He went on to win two (widely discredited) elections in 2006 and then 2011. During his reign the DRC was riven by internal disputes, foreign rebel incursions, and the inexorable creep of authoritarianism. The country's dizzying wealth of minerals (cobalt, copper and gold) has been plundered by foreign miners. The end result has been a decade of missed opportunities for most Congolese - and especially for the millions of rural poor.

Mistakes, miscounts and misdeeds

After 18 years in power Joseph Kabila was dragged to the polls, and although he delayed the vote, the plebiscite was finally held late last year. Barred from running again, Kabila backed Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary as the candidate to continue his legacy (enrichment). Arranged against Shadary was Martin Fayulu, a veteran opposition figure who shot to prominence when his name was suggested as a compromise candidate. The final player was Félix Tshisekedi, the son of the man who lost to Joseph Kabila in 2011, Etienne Tshisekendi.

On December 30th a total of 46 million Congolese cast their votes. The call for change was deafening. But, as had been the case in every vote under the Kabilas, monitors once again warned of widespread vote-tampering, missing ballots and outright fraud. The good news was that at least the state-sponsored violence that had bloodied the 2006 and 2011 elections did not reappear. As the first votes trickled in it quickly started to become clear that Fayulu would win in a landslide; this prompted the government to cut off internet access and crack down on foreign news outlets. It seemed as if Kabila was stalling to fix the vote in Shadary's favour. But the Catholic Church, perhaps the most trusted institution in the country (and the major electoral monitor) confirmed the initial figures.

But this week the electoral commission’s official (and surprise) announcement punctured Fayulu supporters' celebrations: Félix Tshisekendi, not Martin Fayulu, had won the election. 

Perpetual opposition

The news brought tens of thousands of Fayulu supporters to the streets. Clashes between his supporters and police have left at least four people dead. Senior Catholics have openly questioned the result, and rumours swirl around Tshisekendi. Did Kabila make a last-minute deal to retain some semblance of power? Many Congolese believe that ex-president prefers Tshisekendi over Fayulu, not least because the latter is backed by Kabila’s old enemies Moise Katumbi and Jean-Pierre Bemba.

Fayulu is worth quoting at length here, “In 2006, they stole Jean-Pierre Bemba’s victory, in 2011, they stole Etienne Tshisekedi’s victory and now they can’t steal the victory of the people. The people made a choice and they must respect that choice. These people have negotiated with Kabila so that he can stay in power. It’s Kabila who’ll manage things, these people have no power.”

There is a great deal of confusion in Kinshasha. While Tshisekendi's supporters have celebrated through the night there have been few external signs of support. Most foreign leaders have declined to congratulate him on the victory until the truth emerges. "Electoral coup" or not, the president-elect has taken a conciliatory tone, thanking both Kabila and his father, and promising to honour any legal challenge that Fayulu brings to the vote. 

The end of dynastic rule was never going to be a pretty affair in the DRC, but until both sets of results are published and scrutinised, we won't know if its a legitimate affair. 


A meeting of secular and spiritual in Istanbul. PHOTO: Ozan Köse / AFP

Unorthodox churches

Christianity is no stranger to internal disputes, sectarian rivalries and, on the odd occasion, schism. Eastern and Western forms of Christianity reflect vastly different cultural, religious and political heritages.

Last weekend a schism cut through the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe. On Sunday the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, officially recognised the independence of the Ukranian Orthodox Church from the Russian Orthodox Church, ending a union of subservience that has favoured the Moscow patriarchate since 1686. While there have been two wayward denominations in Ukraine for quite some time, the Russian religious authorities has historically held sway. 

Recognising an independent Ukrainian church is not merely a matter of religious scripture or moral authority. The issue is rather more temporal than that. The Moscow patriarchate will lose perhaps a fifth of its followers, not to mention the wealth and property it derives from Ukraine. And there is the political context - Russia's dirty war in the Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk is widely viewed as the trigger for this ecumenical plot. 

What's extraordinary about this whole story is that Bartholomew I is the nominal leader of the Greek Orthodox tradition with seemingly little real-world power. This is a man whose title corresponds to a city that hasn't existed for quite some time, and perhaps a few thousand followers in what's now the majority-Muslim Istanbul. And yet, this edict will have ripple effects across the asymmetrical conflict in Eastern Ukraine. 
Anarchy in the UK's restricted airspaces. PHOTO: PA

Begun, the drone wars have

As you will no doubt know, London's major airports are being haunted by mechanical phantoms. After last week’s debacle at Gatwick, this week flights were briefly suspended at Heathrow (Europe's busiest airport) due to drone sightings within restricted airspace. Some believe it was the work of malicious actors hell-bent on disrupting air travel and endangering jets at the most vulnerable point of flight. Others have suggested that it could simply be the modern-day, technology-enabled equivalent of bored teenagers placing traffic cones along busy roads to disrupt commutes. Either way, the debate is urgent. Britain reported 120 near-misses in 2018.

Also this week, Houthi fighters attacked a military parade at Yemen's largest military airfield. Footage shows a commercially-available drone zooming just metres above the ground before exploding; showering the Yemeni army's high command with shrapnel. Six soldiers were killed and the country's chief of staff narrowly escaped with injuries. 

In the meantime, a plethora of new drones was on display this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. As their capabilities and ubiquity grow we can expect drones to be used more and more - both for good (like searching for missing tourists in the Australian outback), and for bad.


The Best of Times

Clawing their way home. PHOTO: Galapagos National Park Authority

A triumphant return

The humble iguana has made a triumphant return to the Galápagos archipelago after a 200-year absence. The introduction of invasive species onto Santiago Island two centuries ago was thought to have spelled the end for the land iguana. Feral pigs were particularly partial to them. But a native ecological rehabilitation program that began in 2001 saw the feral pigs being killed or removed from the island in preparation for the long-awaited return of these scaly beasts. 

The kids are alright  

The next time you hear a Silicon Valley executive wringing their hands about how difficult it is to moderate social media platforms, remember this story. Teenage Instagram users recently discovered that the hashtag #dropboxlinks was being used by online traffickers of child pornography. The tech giant was notified but failed to act, so the youth did what youth do best: they spammed the hashtag with homemade memes. A massive call-out campaign blitzed those who were seeking to trade in child porn, and this week Instagram finally cottoned on. 

The Worst of Times

The US embassy in Havanna. PHOTO: Yamil Lage / AFP

Insect warfare

Our readers will be familiar with the perplexing case of the acoustic attack on the US embassy in Cuba. Multiple staff underwent medical evacuations after reporting a shrill and piercing sound that blanketed them at night. It was assumed that Cuba, or perhaps Russia, was testing a deadly new sonic weapon. Back on American soil doctors reported that some staff had indeed suffered concussions (although this view remains hotly contested among the medical community). Now, we may have a culprit: the Indies short-tailed cricket. These rather loud and shrill insects produce a sound at night that is strikingly similar to recordings of the supposed acoustic weapon. Crickets as weapons? Sounds far-fetched. Crickets with machine guns though...

Policy vacuum

The Trump administration is nothing if not confusing. But the US retreat from Syria is even more confusing than most other issues. This week National Security Advisor John Bolton contradicted the president by insisting that America would retain a military force in northern Syria to ensure the safety of its Kurdish allies. He himself was then contradicted by the Pentagon who brusquely reminded Bolton that the armed forces take their orders from the White House. And then the generals were left with egg on their faces when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in Cairo outlining the ongoing US commitment in Syria. Meanwhile several senior staff have already resigned following Trump’s withdrawal announcement. They include Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, his Chief of Staff Kevin Sweeney, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson Dana White, and the special presidential envoy to the coalition against ISIS - Brett McGurk.

What happens next? At this point it's anyone’s guess.

Weekend Reading

Quote of the week

"I have sailed 2 million miles, give or take. I have not encountered one sea captain who believes the Earth is flat"

- Former cruise ship captain Henk Keijer queries the logic behind the recently unveiled Flat Earth International Conference 2020 cruise

Headline of the week

Don't Reply to Your Emails - The Atlantic

Featured long-reads from inkl publishers:

Tom Wharton

P.S. Welcome back and happy new year.

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