Africa and the Middle East

Sanctions resume for Iran 11-03-18

Source - Economist, Nov 03, 2018: "America turns the screws on Iran"     

Trump pulled the US out of JCPOA and now sanctions are reimposed upon Iran and Iranian oil. But how will hurting Iran persuade them to change?

“Ghost” oil tankers (ship that have turned off their transponders) are making trips between China and Kharg Island, Iran’s refilling station. These ships are evading the sanctions placed on Iran by America.  In 2015, Iran entered into a deal with the US and EU in which they agreed to stop nuclear weapon research in exchange for a lifting of sanctions. Trump pulled the US out of he deal and reimposed sanctions on Iranian oil beginning this November. The last time America did this, Iran’s exports tumbled from 2.5m barrels per day (bpd) in 2011 to 1.1m bpd three years later. No one knows how far they will fall this time. They have already dropped by about a third since their peak in April of 2.8m bpd. South Korea and Japan stopped buying Iranian oil. India reduced its imports. China is harder to gauge, in part because vessels like the ghost tankers hide themselves. By year’s end, though, Iranian oil sales will be at least 1m bpd below their peak. Oil accounts for almost 70% of its exports and half of government revenue. The economy is already weak. Inflation climbed to 15.9% last month. 

Trump will not drive Iran’s oil exports down to zero, as he hopes. But he will inflict pain. The question is what he hopes to achieve; sanctions are a tool, not a strategy. Barack Obama made clear that he wanted a nuclear deal. Critics argue that his focus was too narrow. Mr Trump has the opposite problem. His secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has a wishlist for any future agreement. It asks Iran not only to halt its nuclear program, but also to stop testing ballistic missiles, withdraw its troops from Syria and abandon regional proxies, such as Lebanon’s Hizbullah. Taken together this amounts to asking Iran to change its entire security doctrine of backing Shia militias. The Islamic Republic has maintained that posture despite decades of economic pain. It has little incentive to compromise with a president it sees as bent on regime change.

US calls for truce in Yemen 11-03-18

Source - Economist, Nov 03, 2018: "A hint of hope for a ceasefire in Yemen"     

US is now (after 3 years) calling for a truce in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels. The Saudi-sponsored death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have played a role in turning the opinion of US officials.

From the article: “America is finally losing patience with the war in Yemen. For more than three years it has backed the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels, swatting away concerns about human rights and civilian casualties. But on October 30th the secretary of defense, James Mattis, unexpectedly asked the Saudis to accept a truce. “Thirty days from now, we want to see everybody around a peace table, based on a ceasefire,” he said at a Washington think-tank. Hours later the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, followed with similar language. It was America’s strongest statement since the conflict began in 2015."

"...The war itself has become indefensible. The UN says Yemen is on the brink of famine, with 8m people in danger of starving. Cholera has killed at least 2,000 Yemenis. Estimates of the conflict’s death toll range from 10,000 to 60,000. Diplomats liken Yemen to Somalia: no longer a coherent state but a collection of fiefs. In June the coalition started a push to capture Hodeidah, the main Red Sea port. Four months later the city is still outside its grasp. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting. Even if the coalition does capture the port, the Houthis will still have the capital, Sana’a, and their strongholds in the northern mountains."

Scramble for ports in the Horn of Africa 7-21-18

Source - Economist, July 21, 2018: "Ports in the Horn"     

The northeast coast of Africa is underserved by existing port facilities. The UAE, China and private firms are all competing to build bigger ports, driven by the needs of 100+ million Ethiopians for access to international trade. 

Horn of Africa Detail

DP World - one of the world's largest shipping companies - is based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). From their offices in the busy port of Jebel Ali (just outside of Dubai) they oversee their African ports, including Doraleh in the former French colony of Djibouti. Doraleh is Djibouti's biggest employer and handles 800,000 containers a year. Most of the business is Ethiopian - there are 105 million people in that relatively prosperous but landlocked country and 95% of all Ethiopian trade flows through Djibouti. China built the railroad (Belt and Road initiative) that connects Ethiopia to Doraleh. 

The monopoly Djibouti enjoys over Ethiopian trade maybe ending. DP World is building a large port in Berbera in territory claimed by Somaliland, a breakaway province of Somalia not recognized by any other government. The Berbera port is projected to handle 1.25 million containers per year - and is being partly financed by Ethiopia. The new competition could cost the government of Djibouti millions in taxes and transit fees.

China is heavily invested in Djibouti, lending the small country $1.4 billion over the last two years, more than 75% of Djibouti's GDP. China also owns 82% of Djibouti's external debt. China wants to build a large free trade zone in Djibouti and then use the port in Doraleh as a primary "staging post" on the Belt and Road. To do that, China needs to end DP World control over the port. And to that end, Djibouti seized the port from DP World in February of 2018, claiming DP Word had broken promises to expand. Now (perhaps) Djibouti can discharge some of its debt by turning over the port to China. A similar thing happened in Sri Lanka in 2017 when the Sri Lankan government handed over a port to China. 

Migration through Niger 7-7-18

Source: "Last stop before desert"  

Niger MigrationAgadez is a city of 200,000 in Niger on the border of the Sahara desert. It exists because it is the last stop before the desert as you move north out of Africa. For centuries, it profited from trans-Saharan trade. Now it profits from trans-Saharan migration. After the toppling of Qadaffi in Libya in 2011, thousands of Africans moved through Agadez on their way to Tripoli, from which they hoped to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, usually through Italy. 

From 2014 to the present (2018), about 600,000 migrants have passed through Agadez on their way to Tripoli. 2016 show the largest migration - 330,000 people that year. On average since 2000, 100,000 people a year pass through Agadez on their way to Libya. And the economy of Agadez is dependent upon these migrants: 6,000 residents were directly employed in trucking migrants across the desert and 1 in 2 households in Agadez indirectly profited from the flow.

Now the EU has put pressure on the government of Niger to enforce its anti-trafficking laws. Those caught transporting migrants today face jail time and confiscation of their vehicles. As a result, the flow of migrants has been reduced. Now less than 15,000 people a year pass through Agadez en route to Libya. Algeria has also stepped up its enforcement efforts and routinely turns back migrants who attempt to cross the border from Niger.

This means the United Nations has more refugees to deal with in the region. Those refugees include Sudanese fleeing violence in Darfur; 60,000 from Mali also fleeing war and 250,000 Nigerians fleeing persecution from the jihadist group Boko Haram. 

Situation demonstrates how migration routes are tied to incentives. Like water, people flow through the paths of least resistance. 

In the southernmost Libyan city of Sabha, migrants are reportedly being enslaved and sold.  

Ethiopia's new Prime Minister - Abiy Ahmed 4-07-18

Source: "New man in charge"  

Ethiopia by ethnicityEthiopia is run by a coalition known as the EPRDF - the Ethiopian People's Evolutionary Democratic Front. This coalition consists of Ethiopia's primary ethnic groups: the Amharas, the Oromos (about 30%) and the dominant Tigrayans (who only make up about 6% of the population). Ethnic tensions have increased and the government has used violence to put down protestors. In March, the EPRDF surprisingly selected a young Oromo named Abiy Ahmed to head up the EPRDF and become Ethiopia's new Prime Minister.

Ahmed is popular now and enjoys wide support for his two big promises - stop government violence against opposition groups and make peace with Ethiopia's long-time enemy, Eritrea.

From the article: "The appointment of Mr Abiy reflects a shift in the balance of power in the EPRDF. His Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) now takes the helm of the coalition, which had been dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF represents Tigrayans, who form only about 6% of the population, whereas Oromos make up over 30%. Many in the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the coalition’s Amhara wing, also bristled at the TPLF’s power. Its candidate for chairman, Demeke Mekonnen, the deputy prime minister, withdrew at the last minute. Mr Hailemariam’s Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement also brought Mr Abiy crucial votes.
The new prime minister faces two daunting challenges. The first is to reunite the EPRDF, which has suffered from infighting ever since Meles Zenawi, its first leader, died in 2012. Before the vote, Mr Abiy and his OPDO colleagues were subjected to criticism from all wings of the coalition. Many resent his ambition and suspect him of using unrest in Oromia for political advantage. Some think he and Lemma Megersa, Oromia’s popular president, turned a blind eye to attacks on non-Oromos. TPLF supporters accused the OPDO of fomenting a Western-sponsored revolution."

Iran nuclear deal under Trump 3-31-18

Source: "Kettle of hawks"  

Iran nuclear deal is called the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). It was signed by Russia, China, Iran, the US and the "E3" (Germany, France, the UK). From the article "The Iran deal was designed as a pragmatic arms-control agreement that cuts off Iran’s route to a nuclear weapon for a period of time. But its opponents have always wanted it to do far more. Some wish it would also check Iran’s prolific meddling across the Middle East. Iran backs Shia militias in Syria and Iraq, stokes the war in Yemen and supports Hizbullah—a Lebanese Shia militia that threatens Israel with thousands of missiles and occasionally fires them. For the accord’s critics, Iran is a “bad actor” to be isolated, not engaged. ...even on its own terms, as an arms-control pact, the Iran deal falls short. It allows for unprecedented levels of inspection, but critics say that it still allows the Iranians to keep anything they classify as a military site off-limits to inspectors. This is not strictly true—an admittedly slow and cumbersome procedure allows access to such sites if evidence emerges of their being used nefariously."

Bolton's attitude (from the article): "A few months before the deal was signed in July 2015, Mr Bolton boomed: “The inconvenient truth is that only military action…can accomplish what is required.” Air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, he argued, could set the program back by “three to five years”. In an article this year Mr Bolton struck a less bellicose note, claiming that the reactivation of nuclear-related sanctions, plus some new ones, could bring the “seemingly impregnable authoritarian” Iranian regime to its knees. America’s declared policy, he argued, should be to end Iran’s Islamic revolution before its 40th birthday in 2019. But it is unlikely that sanctions, combined with unspecified “material” support for Iranian opposition groups, could bring about regime change, and unclear whether Mr Bolton really believes that they could. About North Korea, he is equally blunt. In August Mr Bolton called talking to the hereditary Marxist dictatorship “worse than a mere waste of time”. If China would not agree to work with America to dismantle Kim Jong Un’s regime (an implausible scenario), the only alternative was “to strike those [nuclear] capabilities preemptively”. In this view, if the proposed summit between Mr Trump and Mr Kim takes place, it may be no more than the prelude to an ultimatum and perhaps even to war."


Iraq in 2018 3-31-18

Source: "Iraq - under construction"  

2018 IraqFrom the article: "When IS captured the city (Mosul) in 2014, Iraq seemed a lost cause. Its armed forces had fled. The government controlled less than half the country and the jihadists stood primed to march into Baghdad. With the collapse of oil prices in 2015, the government was broke. Iraq was a byword for civil war, sectarianism and the implosion of the Arab state order established at the end of the first world war. Now Iraq, home to nearly 40m people, is righting itself. Its forces have routed the would-be caliphate and regained control of the borders. A wave of victories has turned Iraq’s army into what a UN official calls the Middle East’s “winniest”. Baghdad feels safer than many other Middle Eastern capitals. The government is flush with money as the oil price has doubled since its low in 2016 and production has reached record levels. Iraq remains a rarity—the only Arab state, other than Tunisia, to get rid of its dictator and remain a democracy. Its fourth multiparty election since 2003 will take place on May 12th. In a region of despots, Iraqis talk freely. Media and civic groups are vibrant."

From the article: "In the 15 years since America’s invasion of Iraq, some 300,000 Iraqis and 4,400 American soldiers have been killed. In quick succession, three ideologies tearing the country apart have been tamed. Revanchism by the Sunni Arab minority, who are about 15-20% of the population but have dominated Iraq since Ottoman times, was a cocktail of Saddam Hussein’s brutal Baathist nationalism and even more brutal jihadism. It spawned al-Qaeda in Iraq and IS. But today it seems weaker than ever. Triumphalism by the long-repressed Shia Arab majority, making up about 60% of the population, also turned violently sectarian. But this seems to have lost much of its appeal after 14 years of misrule by Shia religious parties. And Kurdish nationalism lies in tatters, too. Denied independence in the 1920s, the Kurds are scattered across four countries. In Iraq they have long enjoyed quasi-independence in an enclave in the north-east. But last September Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, overreached by calling a referendum for a fully fledged state, defying Baghdad as well as protests from America and Iran. When he refused to back down, Iraqi forces snatched back the disputed territories that Kurds held beyond their official autonomous region (about 40% of their realm)."

From the article: "The calm is drawing Iraqis home. Worldwide it takes five years on average for half of those displaced by conflict to return home after a war, says the UN. In Iraq it has taken three months. “We’ve seen nothing like it in the history of modern warfare,” says Lise Grande, who headed UN operations during the war on IS. Millions returned without compensation, electricity or water. Rather than wait for the government to provide homes, they are repairing the wreckage themselves."

From the article: "Against this background one worry stands out. Iraq’s politicians are mostly failing to rise to Iraq’s new spirit. The main government jobs are still dished out by sect and ethnicity. In healthy democracies the opposition holds the executive to account. In Iraq the government is a big tent. Factions name their own ministers, and they in turn appoint ghost workers to claim salaries. Ports, checkpoints and even refugee camps are seen as sources of cash and divvied out between factions. Appointment is rarely on merit. Opinion polls suggest that most Iraqis want new faces, but Iraq’s leaders remain mostly the ones America installed in 2003."

Can China corner the Congo cobalt market? 3-24-18

Source: Economist: 24 Mar 18 "Goblin metals"         

cobalt rushNote on the article title: cobalt derives from the Germanic "kobold" meaning a type of goblin. A similar story for "nickel". EV (electric vehicle) btteries typically require about 10 kilograms of cobalt. More than half the world's cobalt reserves are in the war-torn and chaotic country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.In 2017, 9,000 tons of cobalt were mined for EV batteries. That amount could increase to 107,000 tons by 2026.

The company Glencore does most of the mining in Congo and currently, Chinese companies control one-third of Glencore's output. China is in position to control 95% (!) of the world's cobalt chemical market.

EV batteries can be based on nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) or based on nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA). Reduce the amount of cobalt in either and bad things can happen (overheating, fires or short charge life).

Nickel has not had anything like cobalt’s price rise. Nor do the Chinese appear to covet it. Oliver Ramsbottom of McKinsey, a consultancy, says the reason for this relative indifference dates back to the commodities supercycle in 2000-12, when Indonesia and the Philippines ramped up production of class-2 nickel—in particular nickel pig iron, a lower-cost ingredient of stainless steel—until the bubble burst. The subsequent excess capacity and stock build-up caused nickel prices to plummet from $29,000 a tonne in 2011 to below $10,000 a tonne last year. As yet, the demand for high-quality nickel suitable for EVs has not boosted production. Output of Class-1 nickel for EVs was only 35,000 tonnes last year, out of total nickel production of 2.1m tonnes. But by 2025 McKinsey expects EV-related nickel demand to rise 16-fold to 550,000 tonnes.

In theory, the best way to ensure sufficient supplies of both nickel and cobalt would be for prices to rise enough to make mining them together more profitable. But that would mean more expensive batteries, and thus electric vehicles. Only a goblin would relish such a conundrum.

Kabila's ambition endangers Congo 6-3-17

Source: "Congo: match in a tinderbox"         

Congo timeline: ruled (as Zaire) by dictator Mobuto Sese Seko from 1965 to 1997 until overthrown by Rwandan-backed rebels who installed Kabila as new ruler. Country and region dealt with civil war post-1997. Congo has stabilized under the son of Kabila, Joseph. But his term of office expired 6 months ago. Why have there been no elections? In the Kasai province in central Congo, a running conflict has been going on since August ’16 against a tribal militia called the Kamuina Nsapu (the “Black Ants). This civil war is preventing elections and keeping Kabila in power. Kasai is also the traditional home of the Congolese opposition - Le Rassemblement. They think Kabila has engineered the Black Ant conflict to have an excuse to stay in power long enough to change the constitution and remove his term limits.

The Congolese economy is dependent upon copper, cobalt and diamonds. Both copper and cobalt have had price declines. The central bank has resorted to printing more francs to pay the bills given the copper and cobalt revenue declines and the franc has lost half its value since November 2016. Seko-era corruption and the civil war have resulted in a poor infrastructure meaning that Congo must import almost everything,including food.  

Leaders: Why Israel Needs a Palestinian State 5/20/17

Article: ""Leaders: Why Israel Needs a Palestinian State" 

The 1967 War increased Israel’s size due to the conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Along with those conquests came the Palestinian inhabitants. Israel could not expel them, nor absorb them and still remain “Israel”. The Israeli government has built Jewish settlements in the conquered areas and has kept the Palestinians under military occupation, tightly controlled and completely disenfranchised. This has caused widespread Palestinian resentment and hurt Israel’s reputation in the world. Some are calling for investors to stop investing in Israel, much in the same way investors were asked to avoid apartheid-era South Africa.

As Israeli settlements increase - and the Palestinians themselves are winning the demographic race, the situation in Israel will only worsen. The outlines of a permanent peace plan are visible - Israel needs to create an autonomous Palestinian state from the territory it conquered during the ‘67 War. This would result in an Israeli state made up of about three-fourths of the original British Palestine, with the Palestinians occupying the remaining one-fourth. There is little impetus for such a deal now. The leader of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas, is old and weak while in Israel, there is much prosperity and a general peace under PM Netanyahu.

Progress vs poverty - except in Africa 4/1/17

Article: ""Fewer but still with us"

 >In 1981 some 42% of the world’s population were extremely poor, according to the World Bank. Since then the number of people in absolute poverty has fallen by about 1 billion and the number of non-poor people has gone up by roughly 4 billion. By 2013, just 10.7% of the world’s population was poor (the modern yardstick is that a person consumes less than $1.90 a day at 2011 purchasing-power parity).

>Economic historians reckon that it took Britain about a century, from the 1820s to the 1920s, to cut extreme poverty from more than 40% of its population to below 10%. Japan started later, but moved faster. Beginning in the 1870s, the share of its population who were absolutely poor fell from 80% to almost nothing in a century. Today two large countries, China and Indonesia, are on course to achieve Japanese levels of poverty reduction more than twice as fast as Japan did.

>In China and India, economic growth has benefited the poor as well as the rich, peasants as well as city-dwellers: the magic ingredient in China’s poverty-reduction formula since the 1980s has been not its factories but highly productive small farms.

World Poverty

 > Today about four-fifths of all extremely poor people live in the countryside, and just over half of them live in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is as studded with examples of failure as Asia is filled with success stories. Look at Nigeria, says Kaushik Basu, an economist at Cornell University. In 1985 the share of Nigerians below the international poverty line was estimated to be 45%—a lower proportion than in China or Indonesia. Now Nigeria has a much higher share of poor people than either country.

>African poverty is particularly intractable. The first problem is that economic growth has been weak, considering the continent’s swelling population. According to the IMF, since 2000 GDP per head at purchasing-power parity has doubled in sub-Saharan Africa; in emerging Asia it almost quadrupled. A second problem is that many African governments are flimsy, incompetent, authoritarian or rapacious. The OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, counts 56 places in the world as “fragile”—mostly countries, but including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Fully 36 are in Africa.

Poverty By Location>Interesting comment: “The dramatic progress in China and India was achieved mainly by opening up international trade opportunities, however the political tide looks set in the other direction for the next few years at least. We need other levers that will help Africa in particular make the jump to prosperity. One obvious step is to end Global tax havens and profit shifting, as Oxfam has advocated for years. Tax avoidance costs developing countries at least $170 billion per annum in lost tax revenues, and worse still fuels corruption in governments by enabling officials to freely milk off money into secret offshore accounts that should be going to help the poorest in their countries. The second big lever for Africa is to extend education, work opportunities, and access to birth control to women, and at the same time raise the legal minimum age for marriage. The dramatic progress in Bangladesh where birth rates have dropped to just 2.1 children per woman show what can be achieved by empowering women in poor communities. Few programs would have a bigger impact on the future of poverty in Africa.” (Robert P Bruce - author of "The Global Race")

Nigeria and its militants 6/25/16

Article: "Avengers unite!"  

The Niger Delta Avengers. This mysterious group is blowing up pipelines in southern Nigeria and impacting oil exports (down by half a million barrels per day since the attacks started).

Nigeria’s government is nearly completely dependent upon oil revenues for its funding. A few years ago, the last group that tried this got bought off by the government with a monthly stipend (likened to the Danegeld). World oil prices are rising as a result of the attacks and their interruption to the flow of oil.