World

Venezuelans suffering in superpower standoff. Red Cross reveals New Zealand nurse is a Daesh hostage. Joko Widodo looking the winner in Indonesia election. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Women and youth rise up in Sudan

Sudanese women with national flags painted on their faces rally near the country’s military headquarters in Khartoum last month.
Credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Venezuela: Last month, as United States president Donald Trump was warning that “all options are on the table” in his bid to remove Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro from power, two Russian air force jets landed at Simón Bolívar International Airport near Caracas. The large planes, carrying troops and equipment, were not hard to spot. Nor was a Russian-chartered tanker, the Serengeti, which arrived off the coast to assist Venezuela to keep exporting its crude oil.

Meanwhile, China, another of Maduro’s supporters, was proving equally defiant, resisting calls for new elections and accusing Washington of causing devastating power blackouts across Venezuela.

Earlier this week, the standoff became more heated, after United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo toured the region and directly attacked Russia and China for their support of Maduro. The White House has led a growing international push to recognise opposition figure Juan Guaidó as interim leader.

During a visit to four countries in South America, Pompeo said China’s estimated $US60 billion in loans to Venezuela had “helped destroy” it and had been used by Maduro to crush political enemies and prop up wasteful spending programs. Russia, Pompeo said, had engaged in “obvious provocations”.

In response, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson accused the US of spreading chaos and “treating Latin America as its backyard”. China’s ambassador to Chile, Xu Bu, told a local newspaper “Mr Pompeo has lost his mind”. Russia accused Trump of violating international law.

Analysts said Pompeo’s trip was aimed at shoring up support for Guaidó amid concerns that the effort to remove Maduro has stalled.

Back in Venezuela, the population faces rolling blackouts and worsening food and water shortages. Hospitals have asked patients to bring their own gloves to surgery, and churches, synagogues and mosques have posted record attendances as people seek aid and solace. According to the United Nations, about 5500 people flee the country every day.

AUSTRALIA’S BACKYARD

New Zealand: On Monday morning, the International Committee of the Red Cross went public with a five-year-old secret: three of its aid workers had been kidnapped by Daesh in Syria and at least one, a New Zealander, could still be alive.

The Red Cross named the three as Louisa Akavi, a 62-year-old nurse from New Zealand, and Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes, both drivers from Syria.

Senior New Zealand officials and local media outlets have known about Akavi’s abduction for years, but agreed to keep quiet to improve her chances of surviving. She is believed to have been held hostage by Daesh in its final holdout of Baghouz, a small town that was finally defeated by Kurdish-led forces last month. New Zealand’s last confirmed identification of Akavi came as late as January. The whereabouts of Rajab and Bakdounes are unknown.

The Red Cross said it went public because Daesh’s loss of its remaining territory meant “there is an extra risk of losing track of Louisa”. But New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said Akavi’s fate should not have been made public. Ardern, who said little more, was reportedly concerned that Akavi’s captors might consider it too risky to keep her alive after being publicly identified. But the Red Cross’s operations head, Dominik Stillhart, said the decision to name Akavi was made in “full alignment” with the New Zealand government.

During the past five years, Daesh has requested payment for Akavi’s release and provided her insurance number, which she kept with her, as proof of life. New Zealand has a strict policy of refusing to pay ransoms. The search continues.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Sudan: Four months ago, a group of school and university students in the small Sudanese city of Atbara began protesting against the government’s decision to increase the price of bread. This led to further demonstrations across the nation which quickly extended beyond cost-of-living concerns and led to a call for an end to the corrupt, repressive rule of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an autocratic leader who oversaw a genocide in Darfur and, more recently, an economic crisis.

Earlier this month, the military deposed Bashir and replaced him with a veteran general. The protesters, unsatisfied, adopted a new chant: “We do not replace a thief with a thief.”

As the cries for democracy in this nation of 43 million people grew, the new leader, Awad Ibn Auf, resigned. Bashir had held power for 30 years but Ibn Auf lasted just over 24 hours. The military has pledged to transfer control to a civilian government. Its claim that this will take two years has prompted further demonstrations.

Significantly, the protests have not been led by Sudan’s opposition parties, but by a younger generation that has only ever known Bashir’s rule. The protesters were led in Khartoum, the capital, by professionals, particularly doctors, but have also included farmers and herders in small villages. Women, who were targeted by Bashir’s so-called Islamisation program and subjected to strict rules about their dress and public behaviour, were among the leaders and organisers.

The protesters have urged the African Union and the international community to pressure the military to peacefully transfer power. The future of Bashir, who has been imprisoned in Khartoum, remains unclear. According to the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant in 2010, he oversaw the attempted extermination of the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa people of Darfur, and “there are reasonable grounds to believe him responsible for three counts of genocide”.

SPOTLIGHT: INDONESIAN POLL

Indonesia: The official results of Indonesia’s election on Wednesday will not be released until May 22, but initial counts by pollsters, which are typically accurate, indicate president Joko Widodo has been re-elected.

However, the hopes that accompanied Widodo’s election in 2014 – he was the first modern president to emerge outside of the military and political elite – have largely faded. This is partly because, as an incumbent based in the presidential palace, it is harder to present himself as the humble, former furniture maker who grew up in a one-room bamboo shack and would rule as “a puppet of the people”.

But Widodo has also surrounded himself with military figures, pandered to hardline Islamists, and failed to bolster human rights or seriously tackle corruption. He has also used the instruments of state, including law-enforcement agencies and the military, to curb his political opponents and critics.

Despite the waning excitement, however, he has maintained strong support by showing commitment to developing much-needed infrastructure and by overseeing a reduction in poverty and economic growth of 5 per cent.

As in 2014, Widodo’s opponent was Prabowo Subianto, a former general who has cultivated links to hardline Muslim groups. Prabowo has promised to boost military spending and to limit food imports and review projects funded by Chinese investment.

Before the vote, both sides claimed there had been voter fraud and signalled a challenge to the results. But the election itself was a remarkable feat involving about 190 million registered voters and one of the largest single-day polls in history. The campaign, though vitriolic, was peaceful, but is not expected to address growing concerns that the country is sliding away from democracy. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Women and youth rise up in Sudan". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.