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Comoros awaits results of divisive poll

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An officer stands in front of campaign posters of incumbent Comoros President and Presidential Candidate Azali Assoumani as Comoros Gendarmerie disperses disperses opposition supporters, in Moroni, on March 25, 2019. - Police fired teargas and rubber bullets on March 25 to disperse more than 100 opposition supporters as Comoros awaited results of elections President Azali Assoumani is expected to win, AFP journalists said. The main opposition grouping, the Union of the Opposition, alleged that irregularities at several polling stations reported by the electoral commission on March 24 when polling took place, amounted to a "coup d'etat" and called for public "resistance". (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Counting of votes cast in the first round of Comoros’ presidential polls was expected to wind up on Tuesday as tensions mounted between re-election-seeking President Azali Assoumani and his rivals, who accuse him of fraud.

Twelve people were injured on Monday when police fired teargas and rubber bullets at opposition candidates and supporters as they marched through the capital Moroni protesting alleged irregularities.

Interior Minister Mohamed “Kiki” Daoudou said that counting, underway at the National Assembly in Moroni, would be concluded later Tuesday.

He did not say when the results, which must announced within five days of Sunday’s vote, would be announced.

“We have authorities who have gone mad and fired at the very candidates who won at the ballot box,” said opposition Juwa party candidate Mahamoudou Ahamada.

But Daoudou insisted Ahamada and his allies “want to create disorder in Moroni, there’s no question of that being allowed.

“We will do everything necessary to guarantee the peace and stability of the country,” he told AFP.

Heavily-armed soldiers were deployed to several key locations in the capital with orders to prevent unrest.

Sixty-year-old Azali’s main rivals, the Union of the Opposition, allege that irregularities at several polling stations reported by the electoral commission on Sunday amounted to a “coup d’etat” and called for public “resistance”. 

“We utterly reject these results,” said Juwa’s Ahamada at a media briefing.

“The most sensible solution would be to organise elections worthy of a civilised country as soon as possible.”

An electoral commission official told AFP on Sunday that a dozen booths had been vandalised during polling.

– ‘A climate of panic’ -Witnesses said several stuffed ballot boxes were found on Anjouan island — an opposition stronghold. 

Some opposition poll monitors were also prevented from carrying out their duties, they added.

Counting started Sunday night at the National Assembly under police guard.

“We will use all peaceful means to oust the government,” said opposition figure Soilihi “Campagnard” Mohamed.

Official observers were also critical of the poll.

“(We) condemn the incidents witnessed which meant voters were unable to exercise their civic right in conditions of calm,” said a joint statement issued by observers from the African Union, the Comesa east and southern African bloc, and the Eastern Africa Standby Force.

Azali’s campaign director Houmed Msaidie described opposition claims of election fraud as “pathetic”, accusing them of creating “a climate of panic to invalidate the electoral process”.

“If there was fraud, they should go to the appropriate authorities,” he told AFP.

Some 300,000 voters were eligible to vote in the Indian Ocean archipelago, which has a two-round system for electing the president.

The mainly Muslim nation of 800,000 people is one of the world’s poorest and most coup-prone states — there have been more than 20 attempted or successful power grabs since independence from France in 1975.

The Supreme Court barred some of Azali’s major rivals, including former president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, accused of corruption, from running. 

Azali staged the poll after Comorans voted in a referendum, boycotted by the opposition, to support the extension of presidential mandates from one five-year term to two.

The change upset a fragile balance of power established in 2001 that sought to end separatist crises on Anjouan and Moheli, and halt the endless cycle of coups.

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President pardons 4 jailed opponents in Comoros

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May

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Comoros President Azali Assoumani pardons 4 political opponents

Comoros President Azali Assoumani has pardoned four opposition figures jailed for life for an attempted coup in the Indian Ocean islands. In a decree issued Saturday, writer Said Ahmed Said Tourqui, lawyer Bahassane Ahmed Said, Mohamed Ali Abdallah and El-Had Ibrahim Halifa were “pardoned from all of their remaining sentences”.

The four were jailed for life for attempting a coup and threatening state security but had their terms reduced to 20 years in May when 17 other jailed opponents were pardoned. The charges were linked to unrest that followed a controversial constitutional referendum to extend the president’s term last year. 

Pay Attention: Comoros awaits results of divisive poll

Bahassane is the younger brother of Jaffar Ahmed Said Hassani, a former vice-president to Azali now living in exile in Tanzania after denouncing the president’s authoritarianism. The pardons follow Azali’s re-election in March, in which he pledged “appeasement measures” to quell accusations of voter fraud.

He was credited with nearly 60 per cent of the ballot, an outcome rejected as fraudulent by the opposition. Comoros has had a volatile political history since independence in 1975, enduring more than 20 attempted coups, four of which were successful.

Pay Attention: Comoros oil boom dream hinges on seismic survey

Azali initially came to power in a coup, then ruled between 1999 and 2006. He was re-elected in 2016 in a vote marred by violence and allegations of irregularities.

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Inside Tanzania’s trend of disappearing dissidents

The Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) counts 17 kidnappings since 2016

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Tanzania to export 700,000 tonnes of maize to Zimbabwe

Some turn up dead or injured. Others are never heard of again: A wave of kidnappings in Tanzania that appears to target critics of the government has set the nation on edge.

In May, high-profile dissident Mdude Nyagali was snatched by four gunmen after leaving work, and was dumped, seriously beaten, in a village two days later, according to the main opposition Chadema party.

The incident came just hours after he had branded President John Magufuli a “hypocrite” in a Twitter post. He later blamed security forces for his kidnapping.

Nyagali was one of the lucky ones.

In February 2018 Chadema member Daniel John was kidnapped in the middle of a political campaign, only to turn up dead with machete wounds to the head.

Two years earlier, Ben Saanane, an assistant to Chadema leader Freeman Mbowe, disappeared and his fate is still unknown.

“I cannot recall a wave of kidnappings of this magnitude before 2016,” said Aidan Eyakuze, a civil society activist who has written op-eds criticising a clampdown on Tanzanian media and Magufuli’s approach to democracy.

The Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC) counts 17 kidnappings since 2016 of “human rights defenders, journalists, businessmen, politicians and artists”.

“People say they are afraid because no one seems to be safe. In public transport and bars, people no longer talk politics. They are scared of the people seated next to them,” an Arusha bus driver told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Magufuli, whose nickname “tingatinga” means “bulldozer” in Swahili, swept to power in 2015, presenting himself as a no-nonsense, corruption-busting, man-of-the-people.

However, rights watchdogs say a climate of fear has set in since his election. 

“Kidnappings have increased, mainly targeting people who openly criticise the regime, in particular, political opponents,” said Fatma Karume, former president of the Tanganyika Law Society.

“Even amongst us, in the CCM (ruling party), people are afraid. No lawmaker dares to say anything out of fear of being targeted or struck off the list of candidates in the next election,” an MP from the party told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Plot to divide the nation

Opposition parties place the blame on the government, recalling that since Magufuli’s election, their meetings have been banned, top officials arrested while newspapers have been shut and their journalists arrested or threatened for criticising authorities.

Opposition lawmaker Tundu Lissu has blamed authorities for an attack in 2017 which saw him shot multiple times at his home.

“The regime is behind all this. These are the tactics of a regime which does not accept any criticism,” said lawmaker Halima Mdee, leader of Chadema’s women’s branch.

A Tanzanian journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said those who survive their kidnappings often remain mum on the details out of “fear of retaliation”.

Opposition members and rights activists say that investigations into the kidnappings go nowhere.

As for the government, it says many of the disappearances are faked.

“On social media, there are people fabricating kidnappings and disappearances. This can divide the nation and sow panic among the population,” Interior Minister Kangi Lugola said earlier this month at a public gathering.

He ordered police to “find and arrest those spreading these lies in order to turn the population against the government”.

In March last year, student activist Abdul Nondo was kidnapped and found injured. But when he reported the incident to police he was arrested for making it up. 

A court acquitted him in November 2018. 

The THRDC this month called for a “national conference” to discuss the issue of kidnappings.

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Somalia begins military reforms following rising terrorist attacks

Government begins early and direct payment of soldiers’ salaries as part of strategies to boost combat morale

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Somalia begins military reforms following rising terrorist attacks
(File photo)

Deployed in one of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, Somali soldiers risking their lives daily against Al-Shabaab insurgents were growing weary of being paid months late and shortchanged by their superiors.

“We never received the complete amount,” a captain told reporters on condition of anonymity, grumbling about “middlemen” who syphon off troops’ meagre wages — some as low as $100 a month — and plunder budgets meant for weapons, rations and uniforms.

Then in March, his pay arrived on time, in full and straight to his bank account, in what officials say is the first step in a radical shake-up of its graft-ridden armed forces.

The government, under pressure from foreign backers, has started paying troops directly, bypassing army commanders previously tasked with disbursing their pay but diverting the money instead.

READ: Mayor of Mogadishu, other top government officials injured in office explosion

Under the new system, payments are linked to a biometric database containing soldiers’ fingerprints, personal details, and bank accounts, replacing patchy records kept on Excel spreadsheets.

Officials say about 10,000 “ghost soldiers” were expunged from the records — roughly one in three troops according to government estimates, though analysts questioned these figures.

These fictitious troops either did not exist at all or had long ago deserted.

By taking control of salary payments, Mogadishu is seeking to cut out powerful commanders who, for decades, ran the Somali National Army (SNA) “as private fiefdoms,” Fiona Blyth from the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia wrote in an April report.

The shake-up was fiercely resisted in some quarters of the army, with several soldiers deserting their barracks in March in protest.

A game-changer? –

But the government is pressing ahead. In July, it also began registering fighters from an allied militia into its security forces, and identifying older or injured soldiers for retirement.

READ: Al-Shabaab attack claims 12 lives in Mogadishu

Mogadishu says the reforms are a milestone in decade-long efforts to rebuild the army into a force capable of taking over when the roughly 20,000 African Union AMISOM peacekeepers leave.

“We are not there yet. A lot of things need to be done first… but ultimately I think it will be a game-changer,” a government adviser told reporters.

African soldiers were deployed in 2007 to provide muscle until Somalia’s army could stand on its own. AMISOM’s withdrawal is slated for 2021.

Somalia’s donors have long complained that there is little to show for the hundreds of millions poured into rebuilding the SNA.

In 2017, after a decade of international aid and support, an internal review concluded the army was a “fragile force with extremely weak command, control and military capabilities”.

Many units lacked weapons, basic medical supplies, and even uniforms.

That same year, the United States suspended aid for the SNA over fraud concerns.

But recent efforts to boost accountability and professionalism in the military have struck a chord with traditional allies.

The United States announced this month it was resuming limited, non-lethal assistance to an army unit in Lower Shabelle, where SNA and AMISOM troops liberated key towns from Al-Shabaab in April and May.

“The US notes several Somali-led steps towards security sector reforms over the last year, notably the biometric registration”, a State Department official told reporters.

Mohamed Ali Hagaa, a cabinet minister and top defence official, told reporter this “clearly demonstrates increased confidence in the security sector”.

Army in name only –

Analysts say the reforms, though important, gloss over a sobering reality: the SNA is nowhere near ready to secure a nation mired in civil war, clan violence and jihadists still controlling swathes of countryside.

“It’s really an army in name only,” said Matt Bryden, director of Nairobi-based think tank Sahan.

“Just because an individual has been biometrically registered and is on some payroll list, doesn’t mean that they are actually a trained soldier in a formed unit.”

The SNA faces a formidable foe in Al-Shabaab, which this month alone bombed the Mogadishu Mayor’s office, blew up a checkpoint near Somalia’s international airport and stormed a hotel with gunmen, collectively killing 49 people.

In January, heavily-armed jihadists overran a military camp on the outskirts of Kismayo, killing at least eight soldiers in one of their frequent ambushes of SNA locations. 

Efforts by Somalia’s international partners to ready the SNA for war have been criticised as being uncoordinated and piecemeal.

Some are trained by the British, others by the EU or the Turkish. Until 2018, the United Arab Emirates drilled its own troops in Somalia while the US, which focuses on drone strikes and Somalia’s special forces, mentors another unit.

READ: Militant group kill nine civilians in Somalia

Encouraging these myriad stakeholders — all with their own strategic ambitions in the Horn of Africa nation — to work together has been difficult, say analysts.

Until this happens, the SNA would be “highly uneven in their effectiveness,” said Paul D. Williams, associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

“Ideally, greater coherence would come from fewer partners directly training and mentoring the SNA. But no single country has proved willing to offer the entire package,” he said.

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