Nigeria elects former coup leader; US banning gays on religious grounds; India’s free speech; capital punishment. By Hamish McDonald.

Yemen Shia uprising threatens Iran nuclear deal

Supporters of Muhammadu Buhari celebrate his win in Nigeria’s presidential election..
Supporters of Muhammadu Buhari celebrate his win in Nigeria’s presidential election..

With the talks on limiting Iran’s nuclear program coming down to the wire in Switzerland this week, sceptics were only too happy to jump on the advances of the Shia movement in Yemen known as the Houthis, to whom limited Iranian support has been given, mostly money.

After the Houthis overthrew the Sunni-led government in Yemen and forced its president to flee the capital, Sanaa, Saudi Arabia and other regional states led by nervous Sunni despots jumped in with air strikes, and announced the formation of a 40,000-strong force of “elite” troops to push the Houthis out. 

This was grist to the mill of the Republicans in Washington, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Sunni-ruled Arab states, which have all seen the prospective nuclear deal and possible easing of US–Iran relations with alarm. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher wrote about this new Iranian threat under the headline “Iran now as much a threat to peace as IS”.

We could ask what the Saudis have been doing while al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Sunni terrorist disciples of the late Saudi jihadist Osama bin Laden, was plotting havoc in the West from hideouts in Yemen. We could ask what is the Saudi game plan in making Yemen’s civil war into a region-wide sectarian war, and whether bringing in foreign troops against an entirely local force (unlike AQAP) is a formula for success. Some kind of negotiated power-sharing settlement is surely better, rather than bringing more war down on Yemen’s already miserable population.

And what is more likely to loosen the grip of the more absolutist ayatollahs and their Revolutionary Guards in Iran itself than a lowering of the fences around the country? The country’s younger generation is desperate to open the political system up. The nuclear deal is not perfect, but in my opinion the alternative is war and even more inducement for the regime to go all-out to build nuclear weapons.

1 . Nigeria elects former coup leader

Nigeria’s elections this week have produced something new in Africa’s most populous country – the first transfer of power between competing civilian parties. The new president, Muhammadu Buhari, may have been a former general who seized power for two years through a military coup in the 1980s, but now he’s won power through the ballot box, after three previously unsuccessful tries.

The Nigerians have turned away from the defeated president, Goodluck Jonathan, because of rampant corruption and inequality, and Jonathan’s weak handling of the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-east states, which has killed some 7400 people in the past year. Exasperated regional neighbours have formed their own force to take on the brutal movement. The collapse in oil prices has also led to lean times in Nigeria and a fall in the currency.

It remains to be seen how Buhari will behave as an elected president. In his previous period as military ruler, he locked up opposition politicians and applied a sweeping anti-corruption drive against officials and businessmen, without much lasting effect. Famously he ordered Nigerians to form neat queues at bus stops, instead of the usual stampedes to get on board, and stationed soldiers with whips to make sure it happened.

2 . US banning gays on religious grounds

Africa is not a continent in which it’s advisable to be overtly gay, but the Christian religious lobbies that have been encouraging the Africans in repressive attitudes are also hard at work in the United States.

Last month the governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, signed a so-called religious freedom law that allows individuals and businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians, avoiding anti-discrimination lawsuits by claiming such interaction would “substantially” burden their religious freedom. This week the state legislature in Arkansas passed a similar bill and rejected an amendment that would disbar discrimination against homosexuals. The trend has been enabled by the conservative tenor of Supreme Court judges ruling that family-held corporations could invoke a federal religious-freedom law if they refused to comply with a law requiring employer-paid health plans to cover contraception benefits. The state laws closely follow the wording in the Supreme Court judgement.

But seeing the nationwide backlash against Indiana, the Arkansas state governor, Asa Hutchinson, has hastily reversed his previous support for the law.

3 . India’s free speech

India’s top judges last December shunted back to parliament the issue of overturning an 1860 law against homosexual activity, but they have shown exemplary zeal in upholding freedom of expression. 

Two weeks ago they struck down a clause in an innocuously titled information technology law that was enabling powerful people to go after their critics in the social media and internet.

Section 66A of the IT Act gave police power to arrest a person for sending grossly offensive or menacing messages, or causing annoyance and inconvenience through electronic communication service, with penalties up to three years’ jail. Police “cyber cells” used it to monitor websites and postings, and demand service providers take down offending items. In 2012, two girls were arrested, then terrorised by a mob, over Facebook postings criticising the shutdown of Mumbai for the funeral of Bal Thackeray, a demagogic politician. One had only “liked” the post. Karti Chidambaram, son of a former senior National Congress party minister, got a businessman arrested for posts on Twitter. Police in West Bengal arrested a professor for forwarding an email joke about the state’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee.

The Supreme Court found the clause violated the article in the Indian constitution that guarantees freedom of speech. Oh, for a bill of rights in our constitution.

4 . Capital punishment

On the capital punishment front: Pakistan has stepped up its hangings since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted a moratorium on executions last December, following the Taliban attack on an army-base school that killed 134 children and 19 adults. 

One day last month, jail officials executed 12 convicts, including one man whose lawyers said he was 16 when his murder offence was committed. Initially hangings were only to be applied in terrorism cases, but now the penalty is faced by all convicts whose appeals have been exhausted. Pakistan has about 8000 convicts on death row.

In Boston, defence lawyers have made their case in the trial of the surviving Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The defence admitted Tsarnaev helped carry out the bombings, but argued he was a troubled 19-year-old under the influence of his radicalised brother, Tamerlan, 26, who died after a shootout with police. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Utah has just passed a law restoring the option of the firing squad for its executions. Now Utah governor Gary Herbert says he needs a back-up in case the state can’t keep up its stock of sodium thiopental and other drugs for lethal injection, the preferred method. The drug is in shortage because European and some US pharmaceutical companies refused to supply it for executions: it was getting too embarrassing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 4, 2015 as "Yemen Shia uprising threatens Iran deal ".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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