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Blackwater USA | Daily Brief

Iran

  • Iranian Pres. Rouhani claimed Iran “will never seek nuclear weapon[s]”—“with or without the nuclear deal.” That makes it sound like he’s trying to walk back some of the concerns Iran raised by creeping past nuclear deal limits, and get back on friendlier terms with EU countries now formally accusing Iran of violating the deal.
  • Iranian Basij militia commander Abdolhossein Mojaddami—an ally of the late Qassem Soleimani—was shot and killed by two men on a motorbike in Darkhovin, southern Iran on Tuesday. Nobody has claimed the assassination yet.

Iraq

  • Pres. Trump met Iraqi Pres. Saleh on the sidelines of Davos, and exchanged niceties—but not much real content. It’s the first time the two have spoken since the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad raised tensions between them.
  • Influential Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr is organizing a march in Baghdad tomorrow to call on U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq. The event is backed by several influential politicians, so it could attract a large crowd.

China

  • Chinese authorities in Wuhan—where the coronavirus outbreak originated—are taking drastic steps to contain the outbreak by essentially walling the 11 million-person city off: they indefinitely cancelled all flights, trains, buses, subways, and ferries in / from the city. The timing is highly inconvenient for Wuhan residents who’d planed to travel for the Chinese New Year holiday that starts tomorrow.
  • There have now been 17 deaths from the virus, and over 400 infections. Analysts worry that “the worst is yet to come,” and say we’ll know more about the virus and the extent of the outbreak after the Chinese New Year holiday.

Saudi

  • A third-party analysis concluded with “medium to high confidence” that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s cell phone was indeed hacked by malware he received in a text from a WhatsApp account allegedly owned by Saudi Crown Prince MBS. Saudi Arabia still says it had absolutely nothing to do with the hack.

Venezuela

  • Pres. Guaido now says he’s no longer willing to talk to Pres. Maduro: “the dictatorship killed that opportunity.”
  • Guaido met UK PM Johnson on Tuesday, and hopes to sit down with Pres. Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos—though that’s probably a long shot, given that Trump’s Davos schedule is likely full and firm, and Guaido just met SecState Pompeo in Colombia.
  • Guaido said he plans to return to Caracas after his European tour, but Maduro may try to block his entry.

U.S.

  • The Trump administration reportedly plans to extend travel restrictions to nationals of seven new naughty countries: Belarus, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania (this list isn’t final). Early reports suggest the restrictions would only limit the types of visas that nationals of those countries can receive, and what they can do on those visas, e.g. by ending the diversity visa lottery in those countries, and (somehow) barring pregnant women from those countries from giving birth in the U.S. on tourist visas—that falls far short of a blanket travel ban.

Lebanon

  • Lebanon’s new government met for the first time yesterday, but protests against it continued outside. SecState Pompeo said the U.S. is taking a wait-and-see approach to decide whether it can work with the Hezbollah-dominated government, and will withhold aid for now.

Libya

  • An Al Jazeera op-ed by a Brookings Fellow calls for Libya to reinstate the National Conference Process in order to reclaim leadership of the peace process. Of course, both sides would have to agree to walk away from their foreign backers. Op-ed pasted below.
  • Algeria is hosting ministers from six African countries—Egypt, Tunisia, Sudan, Chad, Mali, and Niger—to discuss the Libyan ceasefire today. As opposed to the “International Follow-Up Committee” the Berlin agreement would create, this meeting will have a much more local focus.

Sudan

  • UN peacekeepers say that Sudan-allied Misseriya fighters attacked a Dinka village near Abyei on the Sudan-South Sudan border, killing at least 19. Abyei is one of the odd areas that still isn’t clearly part of Sudan or South Sudan, and its oil wealth makes it attractive to both.

Strategic Minerals

  • Reuters pointed out a surge in demand for rhodium—which is used in car exhausts to reduce emissions—that has pushed prices up 40% in the last three weeks. On the other side of the supply balance, 80% of the world’s mined rhodium comes from South Africa, which is facing power issues that restrict production.
  • Speaking of rhodium…precious metals miner Sibanye-Stillwater (which has seen its share price surge 290% since Jan. 2019 because of booming demand for the rhodium and palladium it produces) says it’s considering an expansion into minerals like copper and cobalt. Copper and cobalt are becoming more precious as electric vehicle production creates new demand, and Barrick Gold recently said it’s also considering a shift towards the same “high-tech” minerals. A WSJ interview with Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman pasted below has more.
  • Brazilian prosecutors charged former Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman and 10 other Vale execs with homicide, in relation to the Jan. 2019 dam collapse that killed 270 people. Five people from the German company that audited the site, TÜV SÜD, were also charged. Prosecutors allege that the individuals who were charged knew the site was unsafe, but chose not to evacuate or fix it.

Other News

  • The leader of Italy’s disorganized Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, resigned, sparking rumors that hard-right former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini may be politically reincarnated. Regional elections this weekend will offer some early insight on Salvini’s prospects.
  • Angola’s attorney general said that Isabela dos Santos—Africa’s richest woman and the daughter of Angola’s former president—is now a formal suspect in the country’s graft investigation. Businesses are starting to cut ties with dos Santos, too.

Why peace initiatives in Libya are failing (Al Jazeera)

And what can be done about it?

Author: Noha Aboueldahab is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre.

First, Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), refused to travel to Rome when he learned that his adversary, renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar, would be present at a meeting convened by Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte.

A week later in Moscow, al-Sarraj signed a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement, but Haftar walked out without signing.

And then, the leaders of Germany, France, Russia, Turkey, Egypt and several other countries gathered in Berlin to jumpstart a peace process on Libya.

The final communique of the conference called on all parties to respect the nearly decade-old UN arms embargo on Libya – an embargo many of those powers have repeatedly violated – and reaffirmed the need for a political, rather than a military, solution to the conflict.

The renewed call to respect the arms embargo is sensible but it lacks a plan for sanctioning those countries that continue to violate it.

Meanwhile, the complex situation on the ground in Libya has worsened. Even while the Berlin meeting was in session, pro-Haftar protesters and militias blocked four key oil terminals.

Recently, Turkey announced the deployment of its troops to Libya to back the GNA. The country has already seen the presence of mercenaries from a number of countries including Chad, Sudan, Syria and Russia.

This has exacerbated an already complex situation on the ground, making it difficult for the UN and other peace-brokers to navigate.

In this context, the failure of European and Middle Eastern actors to stabilise the situation in Libya comes as no surprise, particularly since many of the so-called peace-brokers have actually fed the violence through, for example, repeated violations of the arms embargo.

In their interventions in the Libyan conflict, some foreign actors have been pursuing opposing visions for the future of the region. Others, in particular the Europeans, have intervened, hoping to secure economic gains in Libya and its assistance in keeping migrants away from European borders.

None have had the best interest of the Libyans in mind. This is quite clear from the absence of representatives of Libyan civil society and grassroots organisations in many of these “peace” initiatives sponsored by foreign powers.

While the fate of Libya continues to be negotiated in various European and Arab cities, the aspirations of Libyans continue to be swept aside. But it does not have to be this way.

Libyans can still take the peace process into their own hands. An existing framework, known as the National Conference Process (NCP), is a good starting point.

The NCP was a consultative process launched in 2018 and led by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue with the support of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). The consultations were informed by the participation of 7,000 Libyans across the country. They resulted in a final report that outlined Libyan consensus on various policy areas that must be addressed to build the country.

It might seem futile to return to a process of national reconciliation while fighting is ongoing, but the outcomes outlined in the NCP’s final report still provide a critical opportunity to build a Libya by Libyans for Libyans – even during protracted conflict.

Given the current fragmentation of Libya’s political leadership, domestic civil society and business actors should shepherd this process, even if on the sidelines of the brutal theatre of war. These actors include local security and military figures, municipalities and community leaders – many of whom were involved in the NCP consultations themselves in 2018.

Much of the current fighting is over resource distribution and power – no doubt a central reason why several foreign governments in Europe and the Middle East are scrambling to retain influence and control in Libya. Distribution of power and resources is one of the five policy areas identified in the NCP report, alongside national and government priorities, security and defence, constitutional and electoral processes, and national reconciliation.

Haftar’s offensive in April 2019 was an attempt to take control of Tripoli by force, and it put an abrupt stop to plans to hold the national conference that same month. 

The national reconciliation process was meant to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections in Libya, after which the priorities outlined in the report would be among the issues addressed to build the country.

It is no wonder, then, that Haftar and his army timed their offensive to thwart any kind of meaningful dialogue, especially a Libyan-owned one, whereby his legitimacy would have certainly been undercut.

But the NCP is, as its name indicates, a process as opposed to a mere two-day conference. The work of Libyan community leaders, civil society and security sector figures that drove the national conference consultations need not stand still because of the persistent fighting.

It could, as Yemeni civil society leaders have done through initiatives such as the Yemen Peace Forum, be used to organise strategic workshops at the community level in more stable areas in Libya.

Of course, certain Libyan organisations have indeed been working together, but there needs to be a more coherent process that also aims to develop the policy areas identified in the NCP. If the military conflict makes this option difficult, there is a robust group of Libyan civil society leaders operating in the diaspora who could, together with local community leaders based in Libya, pursue such initiatives in other safe spaces.

It is difficult to envisage any follow-through on the implementation of the NCP policy areas in the absence of the participation of Libya’s rival governments, or at least that of the GNA. It is even more difficult to envisage this without elections. But it is not impossible.

Libya’s civil society both domestically and in the diaspora has been quietly, but actively, working to support the various policy areas outlined in the NCP. Those efforts must be supported – and not meddled with – by the international community. They form a crucial part of the groundwork needed to re-build Libya once the violence subsides.

Without support for such efforts, foreign military and political interference – the very problem that the NCP explicitly warns against – will continue to be afforded more space as the demands of Libyans continue to be ignored.

As the political squabbling continues in European cities, and as the fighting rages on in Tripoli and other parts of the country, the vision that Libyans put forward in the NCP should no longer be deferred.

It is time to revive the National Conference Process in Libya, with or without a ceasefire agreement.

Sibanye-Stillwater Weighs Buying Copper, Other Metals Amid Clean Energy Trend (WSJ)

The South African miner Sibanye-Stillwater looks to take advantage of surging demand from auto makers

The chief executive of Sibanye-Stillwater SBGL 3.16% said the South African miner wants to expand beyond precious metals, through acquisitions, into copper, cobalt and other metals used in electric vehicles, making the company the second big miner to plot such a move.

The miner also aims in the year’s second half to make a decision on moving its primary listing from South Africa to an exchange in New York, London or Toronto, CEO Neal Froneman told The Wall Street Journal.

“We are considering what we call a move into the high-tech metals, which includes copper,” Mr. Froneman said. “If you look into the future, there is no doubt that the [auto] market will change, in that electric vehicles are becoming sizable in terms of their market penetration,” he said.

Resources including copper, lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel are used in electric-car batteries and other energy-storage technologies central to the drive toward cleaner energy.

In recent months, Mark Bristow, CEO of Barrick Gold Corp., has said his company is considering a move into copper to exploit such trends. Barrick is the world’s second-largest gold miner by market capitalization. Precious-metals miners, in particular those in gold, tend to steer clear of industrial metals such as copper.

Sibanye already has a broader portfolio than just gold, with 51% of its production coming from platinum and 41% from palladium. These metals complement other resources such copper, lithium, graphite, cobalt and nickel, since all of these materials are used in electric-car engines and other parts of the auto industry, Mr. Froneman said.

Any move into these metals will be done through acquisitions of operating miners rather than through exploration or developing green-field sites, he said. The company, though, will prioritize paying down debt and dividends before turning to strategic moves—such as acquisitions and moving the company’s primary listing—in the second half of the year. Moving its listing would help Sibanye access international investors and grow its business outside of South Africa, Mr. Froneman added.

Sibanye’s share price has risen by over 290% since the start of 2019, as precious-metals prices surged on the back of auto-industry demand. Car makers use palladium, rhodium and platinum to remove toxic pollutants from exhaust fumes to meet tightening emissions regulations.

Rhodium prices have jumped 62% so far in January and are just below their record at $9,800 a troy ounce, according to U.K. chemicals company Johnson Matthey. Palladium futures have jumped 21% to $2,326 a troy ounce in New York.

But Sibanye doesn’t plan to raise production to take advantage of the rally, fearing that doing so would flood the relatively weaker platinum market with excess supply.

“Palladium, rhodium and gold are I think in good territory from a supplier point of view. Platinum remains relatively depressed,” Mr. Froneman said. “So we need to be very careful about producing more platinum at this stage, because we will depress the price even more, and of course in South Africa that’s our primary product.”

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