News Feed: Middle East and Africa
A British warrior abroad

WHEN Anna Campbell heard that Kurdish women were fighting the jihadists of Islamic State in Syria, she left her job as a plumber in Britain and joined them. Ms Campbell (pictured), who was privately educated, said she wanted to defend the “revolution of women” in Kurdish-held parts of the country—even though the British government regards such volunteers as, in effect, terrorists. On March 15th a missile killed her as she fought with the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), the Kurds’ all-female militia, against the Turkish army.

Kurdish women first took up arms in the early 1990s, as members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long war for self-rule in Turkey. Inspired by Murray Bookchin, an obscure American philosopher, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s leader, sought to empower his female comrades. “The 5,000-year-old history of civilisation is essentially the history of the enslavement of women,” wrote the now-imprisoned...


SINCE one in four Egyptian voters cannot read, political candidates pick symbols to identify themselves on the ballot. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the president, chose a star. It shines down from billboards across the country alongside his ubiquitous visage, smiling on a farm or peering through binoculars aboard a warship. His opponent in the coming election, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, chose an aeroplane. Walking past a poster of Mr Moussa, a man laughs at his choice: “It’s because he’ll need to fly away if anyone votes for him.”

There is little else to say about the election itself, which begins on March 26th and lasts three days. Mr Sisi will win. His opponent has lived up to a promise not to challenge the president. Across the whole of Cairo your correspondent has seen only four banners in support of Mr Moussa. The only question is whether the electorate will turn out in greater numbers than they did for the last presidential election, in 2014, when 47% voted. Mr Sisi’s critics have called for a...


“LET’S get together,” sang the choir to the rhythm of Bob Marley, as a succession of African leaders signed an ambitious, continent-wide free-trade agreement in Kigali on March 21st. Although all 55 members of the African Union (AU) had been involved in negotiations around the grandly named Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), not all were ready to sign as one. On the day, 44 put pen to paper. Among the holdouts was Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president and the host of the AU summit, had no time for sceptics. “Some horses decided to drink the water. Others have excuses and they end up dying of thirst.”

The logic of the deal is sound. Trade in Africa is still shaped by relationships and infrastructure dating back to the colonial era. Countries mostly sell primary commodities to other continents. Only 18% of their exports are traded within Africa, where they often face high tariffs. The CFTA is meant to change that by creating a “single continental market for goods and services”. UNCTAD, a UN agency, reckons that...


FOR President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the timing of Turkey’s victory in the Afrin region of northern Syria could not have been better. After a two-month offensive against Kurdish militants, Turkish troops took control of the enclave’s main town on March 17th. The next day Turkey celebrated the anniversary of the battle of Gallipoli, the only big Ottoman victory of the first world war. True to form, Mr Erdogan rolled the two conflicts into one, accusing Western powers of backing the Kurdish forces against Turkey. “In Gallipoli they attacked us with the most powerful army,” he said. “Now that they do not have the courage to do so, they come at us with the world’s basest, bloodiest, specially trained and equipped terrorist organisations.”

Capturing Afrin was easier than expected. By the time Turkish tanks rolled into the main town, the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, had melted away. Nearly 200,000 residents had already fled, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Britain-based monitoring group...

On their way home

IT WAS a crisis that ended as suddenly as it began. On the morning of March 21st gunmen from Boko Haram, a jihadist cult, swept back into Dapchi, a remote town in north-east Nigeria, and dropped off most of the 110 schoolgirls they had snatched a month earlier. The return was a rare victory for Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president. It is also a sharp contrast to the kidnapping of 276 girls from Chibok, another remote town, in 2014. Many of them remain in captivity.

The abduction of the “Chibok girls” by Boko Haram drew international attention and came to define the administration of Mr Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan: incompetent, detached and corrupt, unable even to provide security to threatened schools. That played no small part in Mr Jonathan’s defeat at the ballot box in 2015, the first by an incumbent president since the end of military rule in 1999.

A year ahead of presidential elections scheduled for February, the...


WHEN Kenya launched its new railway last year, connecting the coastal city of Mombasa to the capital, Nairobi, passenger tickets sold out. Travelling between the country’s two biggest cities overland had meant crowding into a bus for 12 hours, or riding the old British-built railway, which might have taken 24 hours. The new line, run by Chinese engineers who wander up and down the carriages, has cut the journey to between four and six hours, depending on the number of stops. The seats are comfortable and, at just 700 shillings (about $7), affordable. Lucky passengers see elephants along the way.

Shuttling passengers, however, is not what the new line was built for. When Kenya borrowed $3.2bn from China for the railway in 2014, the aim was to move freight efficiently between the capital and the port at Mombasa, 484km (301 miles) apart. Unlike the passenger service, the cargo one has been a disaster. The second train out of Mombasa arrived a day late, because it didn’t have enough goods to leave the port. Passengers may find the biggest...


A BIT like President Donald Trump, Tanzania’s president, John Magufuli, likes to fire employees on television. In November Mr Magafuli used a live broadcast from a small town in the north of the country summarily to dismiss two officials after they failed to remember instantly details in their budgets. When one protested that she couldn’t reasonably be expected to be able to recall every figure, Mr Magufuli told her, “You can’t talk to me like that.”

Sacking minor officials in front of an audience is only one part of Mr Magufuli’s authoritarian populism. Since coming to power in the country of 55m on the east coast of Africa in 2015, Mr Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer” from his time as roads minister, has bashed foreign-owned businesses with impossible tax demands, ordered pregnant girls to be kicked out of school, shut down newspapers and locked up “immoral” musicians who criticise him. A journalist and opposition party members have disappeared, political rallies have been banned and...


STANDING ankle-deep in water between neatly spaced rice plants, an instructor shows a group of about 100 farmers in Kebbi, a state in north-west Nigeria, how to apply herbicide. The training session, arranged by TGI Group, a Nigerian conglomerate that runs a large rice mill nearby, has an enthusiastic audience. Hussein Ahmed, a farmer, says the yield from his small field has increased by about 50% since he started using chemicals and carefully spacing the seedlings. Another farmer boasts of marrying a second wife thanks to the extra money he is earning from growing rice.

Across the region the grain is cooked with tomatoes and mounds of chili to make jollof, a dish that is almost always eye-wateringly spicy, no matter how mild the cook insists it is. Jollof is not just the cause of many arguments in the region—Ghanians and Nigerians each insist theirs tastes better. Its main ingredients have also become symbols of how Nigeria is trying to diversify an economy that exports crude oil and imports...


“WE FEEL so hungry,” says Agatha Khasiala, a Kenyan housekeeper, grumbling about the price of meat and fish. She has recently moved in with her daughter because “the cost of everything is very high”. The data back her up. The World Bank publishes rough estimates of price levels in different countries, showing how far a dollar would stretch if converted into local currency. On this measure, Kenya is more expensive than Poland.

This is surprising. The cost of living is generally higher in richer places, a phenomenon best explained by the economists Bela Balassa and Paul Samuelson. They distinguished between goods that can be traded internationally and many services, like hairdressing, that cannot. In rich countries, manufacturing is highly productive, allowing firms to pay high wages and still charge internationally competitive prices. Those high wages also drive up pay in services, which must compete for workers. Since productivity is low in services, high pay translates into high prices, pushing up the overall cost of living.


THE shifting sands of the Sahara have long been crossed by trade and smuggling routes. Traffickers send people and drugs north over the desert. But they have a problem: what to put in the empty trucks going back? The answer—pasta.

Some informed sources reckon that, apart from people, by weight pasta is probably the most smuggled product to cross the desert. Drug trafficking and gunrunning may earn fatter margins. But many smugglers diversify their load by pushing penne.

In part the trade is fuelled by subsidies in places such as Algeria, which spends about $28bn a year keeping down the price of food and energy. In Libya, which still subsidises food prices, even if somewhat erratically because of the civil war, 500g of pasta can be bought for 15-25 American cents. The same bag of pasta might cost 250 CFA francs ($0.50) in Timbuktu and about 800 CFA francs ($1.50) in Senegal or some of the posher parts of Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Another incentive to smuggle is found in...

Bouteflika, hanging on

TO ALGERIANS, Abdelaziz Bouteflika is like Schrodinger’s cat: simultaneously alive and dead until his actual state has been observed. Occasionally Mr Bouteflika, the 81-year-old president of Algeria, who has suffered at least one bad stroke, is rolled out in his wheelchair for an appearance. In October, for example, he met Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister. A short video of the encounter showed Mr Bouteflika staring blankly into the distance and mumbling a few words. Behind the scenes, a clique of military officers and economic officials actually runs the country.

Mr Bouteflika is indicative of the decrepit state of the region’s politics. Of the 18 Arab countries and territories, nearly a third are ruled by old men in terminal decline. They are a stark contrast to the region’s young population. Whereas the median age in the Arab world is 25, among Arab heads of state it is 72. Even when lucid, the old fogeys appear out of touch with...


BOUHDID BELHEDI is not easily intimidated. The campaigner for LGBT rights has been assaulted by Islamic extremists outside his house in Tunis and beaten by a mob as a policeman watched. Since helping to launch Shams Rad, an online radio station catering to LGBT people, he has received thousands of online threats and insults.

The station, which began broadcasting out of Tunisia in December, is the first of its kind in the Arab world. It is on six days a week and reaches 10,000 people in 15 countries, according to Shams, the Tunisian group behind the effort. The Dutch embassy provides funding. The aim is to create a space to talk about LGBT issues that is not “dominated by imams”, says Mounir Baatour of Shams.

The challenge is staying within the law. Anal sex is punishable by up to three years in jail in Tunisia. A court once suspended Shams’ operating licence on dubious grounds. Hosts are careful with their language, so as not to be seen as promoting homosexual activity. Nobody comes out on air. Common topics include the...


ABDEL-FATTAH AL-SISI, Egypt’s president, could not ask for a better mouthpiece than Khairy Ramadan, a talk-show host. When activists started a Twitter campaign to mock the president, Mr Ramadan proposed banning the social network. And like Mr Sisi he calls the revolution of 2011, when the previous strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown, a foreign plot.

But during his show on February 18th, Mr Ramadan talked of a police colonel who earns 4,600 pounds ($261) per month. To supplement his income, the colonel’s wife sought work as a cleaner. Mr Ramadan, who confessed to having a “soft spot” for the notoriously brutal cops, wondered why they were paid so little. He can now ask them directly. Apparently seen as disrespectful, on March 3rd he was arrested.

Later this month Egyptians will go to the polls to re-elect Mr Sisi. The outcome is all but certain. Serious challengers were arrested or coerced into dropping their bids. His sole opponent, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, was dragooned into...

But not this one

BARINGO county, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, is a hard place. Water is short in the dusty bush, so businesses tend not to thrive. But one industry is booming. At the edge of Mogotio, a town of roadside shops, hundreds of donkeys graze along the road. They are waiting to be sold for slaughter at the local abattoir. Next to a lorry, a woman in a shimmering dress says she has brought 100 donkeys from Moyale, two days’ drive north. She expects to make several thousand dollars from the sale.

Across Africa, donkeys are used as beasts of labour. Most Kenyans turn up their noses at the idea of eating them. But Chinese entrepreneurs have opened a new market. In China donkey skins are used to make a gelatine, called ejiao, that is used as traditional medicine. The meat is also a delicacy. The abattoir in Baringo has been running for almost two years, slaughtering hundreds of donkeys a day to satisfy Chinese demand.



IT ALMOST feels like old times. Before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Gulf Arabs partied on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river in southern Iraq. Many owned villas in the fields around Basra and took Iraqi wives. Now, after a break of three decades, they are back. Saudi Arabia is putting the finishing touches on a consulate in Basra’s Sheraton hotel, where Iraqi crooners sing love songs and waiters dance. Last month a dozen Saudi poets travelled to Basra for a literary festival.

Air links between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have also resumed, with 140 flights each month. Several state-owned businesses, including SABIC, the Saudi petrochemical giant, are registering offices in Baghdad. At a conference in Kuwait last month, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, pledged $1bn in loans and $500m in export credit to support Iraq’s reconstruction after the war with Islamic State (IS).

Saudi interest was initially pricked by America, which has been marshalling Gulf support to...

Khama, a cool and collected authoritarian

WHEN Ian Khama steps down at the end of the month, after ten years as president, he will leave his country looking perky. Mr Khama has been lavished with praise as he makes a series of farewell sorties around the country. At a recent gathering of farmers, he was “gifted with 35 cattle, a bull, two sheep and goats, a horse, and shares worth 25,000 pula [$2,628] at Tlou Energy”, a coal-development company, according to the pro-government Daily News.

The statistics paint a pretty picture, too. In its annual report card on African governments, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation regularly ranks Botswana near the top. At independence in 1966 it was one of the world’s poorest places, with “only 7km of tarred road and a capital, Gaborone, that amounted to little more than a railway station,” wrote a historian. Now it boasts a GDP per head among the highest in Africa. This is largely because Botswana is the world’s...


“A FOOL’S bargain.” That is how Idriss Déby, Chad’s president, now describes the state oil company’s decision to borrow $1.4bn from Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss commodities trader, in 2014. The loan was to be repaid with future sales of crude, then trading above $100 a barrel. But two years later, as the price dived, debt payments were swallowing 85% of Chad’s dwindling oil revenue. For weeks schools have been closed and hospitals paralysed, as workers strike against austerity. On February 21st, after fractious talks, Chad and Glencore agreed to restructure the deal.

Chad’s woes recall an earlier era, when African economies groaned beneath unpayable debts. By the mid-1990s much of the continent was frozen out of the global financial system. The solution, reached in 2005, was for rich countries to forgive the debts that so-called “heavily indebted poor countries”, 30 of which were in Africa, owed to the World Bank, IMF and African Development Bank. With new loans and better policies, many of these countries turned their economies around. By...


FOR over a year, fishermen, miners and jobless graduates in northern Morocco have demanded more help from the government. To be fair, the government is acutely aware of the need to create more jobs. Even as the protests rage, workers are putting the finishing touches on Marchica, the first of seven eco-resorts planned for the northern coast under the king’s ten-year plan to increase tourism. “We can’t just build hospitals and schools,” says Sami Bouhmidi, one of Marchica’s managers. “We need to lay the foundations for investment and regeneration.”

Morocco’s development has been impressive. A growing manufacturing sector, investment by European and Chinese firms, and stronger links with sub-Saharan Africa have boosted the economy. Since 2000 GDP per person has increased by 70% in real terms. Tax breaks have drawn a splurge of foreign investors, including 110 aerospace firms and 150 automotive companies, to the north. Progress can be seen in new roads that cut through the mountains and a high-speed train that is set to hurtle down the coast...

“THE land resettlement was a huge success in terms of our people, 367,000 of our people, back in possession of the land,” says President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the expropriation of most of Zimbabwe’s white-owned farmland since 2000—a move that wrecked the economy and pushed millions into poverty. Was it fair that bigwigs of his ruling Zanu-PF party took several farms each? “No, no, it is one farm, one person,” he says. “I have 404 hectares and I paid for the equipment myself.”

Mr Mnangagwa admits, however, that Zimbabwe “became almost a country without friends” under Robert Mugabe, who was ejected in a coup last year. Now “Zimbabwe is open for business,” says Mr Mnangagwa, speaking in his home in Borrowdale, the poshest suburb of Harare, the capital.

Stockily built, with watchful hooded eyes and a friendly gap-toothed smile, Mr Mnangagwa is viewed as a pragmatist. And he says much to reassure Western diplomats and investors. He wants to arrange compensation for those whose land was seized. But his economic vision is hardly liberal. He extols a “command” model where agriculture is guided by government. He blames the economy’s collapse on sanctions, even though these were targeted on leading figures such as himself. He testily rejects a suggestion that they were far lighter than those levelled against the white-supremacist regime of Ian Smith before Mr...


AS A middle-class Senegalese man, Salou (not his real name) was rather proud of his roundness in 2002. But by 2003 his clothes were falling off. He got tested and found he had AIDS. His pregnant wife was also infected with HIV. They went to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, and she was put on antiretroviral drugs to prevent the infection of her unborn child. “When my son was born he tested negative, thank God,” exclaimed Salou.

The hopeful tale of Salou’s baby is far from universal. Although west and central Africa have long had a lower prevalence of HIV than the south and east (see map), the region still has a stubbornly high rate of new infections. In south and east Africa close on 20m people have the virus, almost four times more than in west and central Africa. From this high base, the number of new infections each year in the south and east has fallen by 29% since 2010, to 790,000. Alas, new infections in west and central Africa have fallen just 9%, to 370,000. Moreover, about 310,000 people die from HIV-related illnesses each year in west...