Saturday, the 23rd of October

Talking Points

Truth is marketed as an "non-cancellable community". PHOTO: AFP
  1. Trump's response to social media bans: I'll build my own
  2. Beset by scandals, Facebook slammed by its own Oversight Board
  3. PayPal eyed off a $45bn acquisition of Pinterest
  4. The FBI confirmed it found the remains of Brian Laundrie
  5. A Haitian gang demanded $1m ransom for each kidnapped missionary
  6. Jair Bolsonaro railed against allegations of crimes against humanity
  7. Russians were paid to stay at home for a week to slow Covid spread
  8. Seville started naming and ranking its worsening heatwaves
  9. More cracks appeared for Evergrande as a key sale fell over
  10. Late monsoon downpours claimed 200 lives in India and Nepal

Dive deeper

Sudanese factions face off in Khartoum. PHOTO: Ashraf Shazly / AFP

This week we're visiting Africa to take stock of a rocky transition, a long-forgotten civil war, and the fate of the continent's last ruling king. And last but not least, a piece from Kinshasha that repudiates some memorable Pink Floyd lines...

Transitions and terror charges

Sudan's painful transition from military to civilian rule is at a critical, vulnerable juncture. In 2019, Omar al-Bashir was ousted after 30 years of rule. Widespread protests had made his position untenable – the Sudanese Armed Forces stepped in to place him under house arrest. Then came the tricky part: forming an interim government that shared power between the Forces for Freedom and Change (civilians) and the Transitional Military Council (the guys with all the guns). Progress has been slow, and in the last month has been reversed. A coup attempt by Bashir's old guard in the military was quashed in September, but the event has heightened the distinction between two competing visions for Sudan .

Demonstrators flocked to Khartoum in recent days to hold a sit-in at the presidential palace. They've castigated the civilian "hunger government" for failing to improve Sudan's dire economic straits: food and oil prices are surging beyond the reach of most Sudanese. The demonstrators also demand that General Abdel Fatteh al-Burhan seize power and implement full military rule. At the same time, thousands of pro-democracy supporters are also arriving in the capital - to "save the revolution" . The second group see every delay in the transition to civilian rule as another opportunity for despotism to return. It's undeniable that the generals have been reluctant to hand over the power and privileges they're accustomed to. Keep an eye on Sudan in the coming months.

On the other side of the continent, a story has traced the wellspring of political action in the Nigerian region of Biafra. Africa's most-populous and richest state is facing a new challenge from old opponents . In the 1960s, government-led pogroms against the Igbo people ignited a secessionist movement in their home region of Biafra. What followed was a brutal civil war (1967-1970) that killed a million people and resulted in total victory for Lagos. Many things have changed in Nigeria over the intervening 50 years, but the desire for Igbo self-rule in Biafra is not one of them. Right now the country is on tenterhooks as it follows the trial of Nnamdi Kanu – a Biafra separatist leader facing terror charges in Abuja. Kanu, a British citizen, uses his London-broadcast Radio Biafra to hammer the cause. The show is immensely popular among southern youths. A significant sentence will inflame an already restless region.

The king and the striking teachers

King Mswati III of Eswatini is the last absolute monarch in Africa. Mswati faced his most significant test in this, his 35th year in power. He failed it. In June, a popular movement urged the king to commit to democratic reforms. It was met with police brutality, mass arrests, and the stifling of political opponents. In the months since, the torch has been picked up by Eswatini's university students . Non-violent action has been met with a communications blackout: major phone carriers have been instructed to kill access to Facebook to prevent demonstrators liaising . The end appears nigh for absolute monarchy in southern Africa.

And, finally, we'll leave you with a striking story from the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2019, President Felix Tshisekedi launched an initiative to offer universal free primary education. Three million extra children have enrolled in school since then. A great result, but one that was not attended by improved wages or conditions for Congo's overworked teachers. Since the beginning of October, teachers across the country have gone on strike – and they aren't alone. Congolese students marched through the capital and stormed parliament this week – demanding that the government raise teachers' wages. They had two compelling chants, "We want to study", and "If we don't study, we'll resort to drugs". Turns out they do need an education.


Battlefields real and imagined. PHOTO: Netflix

Cephalopods and culture wars

Two Netflix debuts garnered attention this month — each for very different reasons. Squid Game beamed into 142 million households in its first four weeks, making it the most watched show ever on the streaming service. That a South Korean product has grabbed the mantle won't be a surprise to anyone who has been following the fashion, music, TV and film industries over the last few years. The 'Korean wave' is swelling in size. In 2020, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite became the first foreign language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, K-pop outfits BTS and Blackpink have cleaned up the US Billboard charts , performed at the UN, and collaborated with brands from McDonalds to Gucci .

This is the rise of hallyu ('Korean wave' – a phrase so potent that it has recent been added to the Oxford Dictionary ). And it's no accident. Since the 1990s, successive South Korean governments have deliberately targeted media and popular culture as drivers of economic growth. The success of these exports has afforded South Korea status as a ‘cool’ albeit unthreatening ally to both China and the West. The cultural heart of the world isn't San Francisco or Shenzen – it's Seoul. Which brings us back to Squid Game and its subtle-as-a-brick-through-a-window critique of capitalism . Most of us (including Netflix) are deeply aware of the trappings of debt and addiction and a bloodthirsty demand for reality TV. That the streaming service estimates the show is worth $900m might be the sharpest barb of all – an unintended one too.

Dave Chappelle’s The Closer proved less popular. Viscerally so, with Netflix's trans employees incensed over the company's handling of queerphobic content . During the week, employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s treatment of trans employees and transphobic content. They were met with pro-Chappelle supporters shouting "free speech is a right" . More cannon fodder for America's civil culture war.

This weekend, discerning viewers will be watching the performance of imports such as the K-drama My Name and / or the new season of Spanish hit series Money Heist . Investors and employees will be tuning in to Netflix's own surreal drama: trying to balance its diversity and inclusion policies with politically explosive comedy.

The infamous UN speech. PHOTO: Ray Stubblebine / Reuters

Colin Powell's conflicted legacy

The obituaries speak of a titan: politician, diplomat, four-star general. It's the kind of resume that makes a president. Think Eisenhower, Truman, Johnson. Colin Powell was, from the late 1980s until his ignominious resignation in 2004, a potent figure in American political life. He too harboured ambitions for the White House. Those ambitions exceeded him. He died this week from complications relating to Covid-19, though he was already suffering grievously from blood cancer. The question is, now, how do we judge the shaded legacy of a man like Colin Powell?

His supporters have held up his identity, service, and beliefs as evidence of his ascendency. Powell was the first Black Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State, and National Security Advisor. It is indisputable that the path to power for a Black man born in 1937 was infinitely more trepidatious than that of his White colleagues. His service too was underlined: Powell gave his entire life to enacting the will of the government of the United States. And finally, an addendum in the years after 9/11, he lionised America as a multicultural and multi-faith mosaic – a difficult position to hold in hardening times. His detractors meanwhile point to a coverup of the My Lai massacre, and to him selling fabricated evidence at the UN to justify an unjustifiable war.

The truth is, it is not our place to contend with Colin Powell's legacy. It's most certainly not the place for his colleagues, or subordinates, or critics. A life can only truly be judged by the summation of one's actions, and with objectivity that time and distance afford. This week Muntader al-Zaidi – a prominent Iraqi opponent of the American invasion – responded to the passing, "I am sure that the court of God will be waiting for him".

The best of times

Prayer at al-Nuri. PHOTO: AFp

Mosul returns to the light

There's a good chance that the last time you set eyes on the Grand Mosque of al-Nuri it was a broken hulk standing alone among flattened buildings. The 850-year-old mosque and its famed leaning minaret were destroyed in the frenetic Battle of Mosul in 2017. Islamic State fighters blew up the site in the final days of their doomed defence. In the interceding years, al-Nuri has been slowly rebuilt with funds from UNESCO. And this week, for the first time in years, the muezzin called out to Mosul and drums sounded, as a battered people returned to their house of prayer.

A gargantuan effort

This week, somewhere in India, a medical professional administered the country's billionth coronavirus vaccine dose . That 50% of the world's second-largest country has received their first shot is not just laudable – it's extraordinary.

The worst of times

Australia wants the coal-fired power plants but doesn't want the criticism. PHOTO: ABC

A rearguard action

A revolution in clean energy is underway and it is not without its challenge from counterrevolutionaries. Countries that derive a significant share of their wealth from fossil fuels are fighting to protect the profitability of their assets. They seek to dissuade swift action in order to protect their material interests. Australia and Saudi Arabia are two such countries; nations which have built up their economies on coal and gas respectively. Documents leaked to Greenpeace this week revealed that both Canberra and Riyadh have lobbied to have an upcoming IPCC report weakened .

Filibuster kills voting rights bill

A bill to clear the grounds for a challenge against restrictive state voting laws has been smothered by a GOP filibuster in America's Senate. As it stands the Federal Government is ill-equipped to sue the likes of Texas, Florida, and Georgia – three states which have passed particularly egregious curbs on voting. There are new laws springing up across the country to wrest control over mail-in-votes, who can deliver and collect ballots, and when a state election board can dismiss officials. The 2022 midterms are a dry-run to see which restrictions work best ahead of 2024.

Weekend Reading

The image

The Japanese volcano Mount Aso erupted this week, sending plumes of ash kilometres into the sky. Pretty scary stuff, huh? Well, see below... Image supplied by Reuters.

The quote

"I have lived near Mount Aso since I was a little girl, and I've experienced several big eruptions. Wednesday's eruption didn't really impress me. I wasn't afraid, there wasn't even any lava..."

One extremely nonchalant Kyushu resident gave their pronouncement on the eruption. As you were, nothing to see here .

The numbers


- The office-sharing startup WeWork relaunched as a public company this week just two years after imploding in spectacular fashion. And it got a warm reception from the market - the stock was up almost 20% at time of writing. Another number floating about this week: $17b. Will SoftBank ever recoup the money it ploughed into WeWork?


- The World Health Organisation has estimated that tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, and other health workers died of Covid-19 from the beginning of the pandemic through May of this year. It's a shocking toll, worsened by the fact that on average just two in five health workers are fully vaccinated.

The headlines

"Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Role in $4 Billion OneCoin Fraud" Bloomberg . Another worthy 'Florida Man' entry.

"Egypt detains artist robot Ai-Da before historic pyramid show"

The Guardian . Better safe than sorry.

The special mention

It's with great excitement that we announce Christopher Columbus inaugural winner of our "Tardy Italians of History" special mention. That's right, folks, the 15th century Italian explorer credited with the first trans-Atlantic crossing was actually really, really late to the party. New research has dated a Viking settlement in Newfoundland to 1021CE. It seems the answer was in the name all along. You snooze, you lose, Christopher!

A few choice long-reads

  • It's not sexy, but it is necessary. Bloomberg Businessweek on the need to retrofit our buildings to meet the climate challenge.
  • Novel data, fast analysis, and the perils of doing macroeconomics on the run. The Economist with a cracker.

Tom Wharton @trwinwriting