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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief 6/18/19


  • China is still supporting Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam—and reportedly blocking her from stepping down—but calls for her resignation are intensifying.
  • Separately, Huawei’s CEO estimated that U.S. restrictions on the company will cost it $25 billion in sales this year—around 20% of the revenue it expected for 2019.


  • Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Mohammed Morsi, collapsed and died after a heart attack in a courtroom where he was being tried for espionage.


  • The Atlantic had an excellent article on the “hustle” of using global tragedies like starvation in Sudan to win social media followers. Pasted below.

DRC & Ebola

  • Kenya had an Ebola scare, but the woman who showed Ebola-like symptoms after a visit to the border with Uganda later tested negative for the virus.
  • DRC’s Ebola case count has spiked over the last few days, reversing a recent trend of slower growth in new cases.
  • Meanwhile, Ugandan authorities are rushing to “ring vaccinate” everyone who came into contact with the two Congolese cases in Uganda.

South Africa

  • NYT op-ed (pasted below) argued for a different approach to land reform in South Africa. The Ugandan author is pro-land transfers, but thinks they’d be more effective at reducing poverty if tweaked.


  • The Afghan Central Bank Governor resigned yesterday, citing breathing problems due to heavy air pollution in Kabul. He wasn’t a particularly great bank governor—the Afghani depreciated 43% during his tenure—but the pollution problem he brought up is real.
  • Kabul was recently ranked one of the ten most polluted cities in the world (due to emissions from old cars, trash burning, etc.), and an official estimated that 30,000 of its residents die from related problems every year. (But—as always in Afghanistan—real stats are rare).
  • The Taliban said it won’t consider intra-Afghan talks until the U.S. announces a timeline for withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, but that’s probably bluster. A Taliban delegation is in Beijing talking to Chinese officials ahead of a seventh round of talks with the U.S. in Doha.


  • The NYT reports that the U.S. has deployed code into Russia’s power grid over the last three months, ramping up a “digital Cold War.”


  • A Boko Haram triple suicide bombing killed at least 30 people outside a video hall in Borno. Boko Haram thinks that watching soccer and movies is un-Islamic—just like Western education (“Boko Haram” loosely means “Western education is sinful”).


  • A prominent Muslim leader was arrested in Niger, leading to a rise in Christian-Muslim animosity and retaliatory attacks on Christian churches.
  • Militants attacked an IRC vehicle in eastern Niger on Saturday, killing one staff member.
  • The UAE is reportedly building a military base in Niger, as part of an agreement to support Khalifa Haftar’s LNA in Libya. France, the U.S., and Germany all have bases in Niger already.


  • Libya’s HoR scrapped a role it had created in 2015 for Khalifa Haftar, essentially giving up on the idea of working with him.


  • The USNS Comfort hospital ship left Norfolk on Friday for a five-month stint near Venezuela, where its crew will offer medical assistance to desperate Venezuelan refugees.
  • Trying to look good ahead of the UNHCHR’s visit this week, Pres. Maduro freed an opposition lawmaker who was detained after his parliamentary immunity was revoked in April. The UN had criticized his particular case, calling it an “enforced disappearance” because the government refused to confirm his status.


  • Mexico apprehended 791 illegal migrants in Veracruz on Saturday, showing some resolve to live up to its end of the deal it signed with the U.S. to avoid tariffs.
  • A Mexican judge halted construction on Pres. AMLO’s controversial cheaper airport project, and ordered the government to preserve the $13 billion mega-airport that AMLO’s was intended to replace. Analysts say that’s a big blow to AMLO’s reform agenda.


  • There was a nuance that I didn’t catch in Iran’s threat to exceed nuclear deal limits yesterday: Iran is asking the remaining signatories to the deal to help it skirt punishing U.S. sanctions, and warning that it’ll violate uranium stockpile limits if it doesn’t get that help.
  • Pres. Trump sent a further 1,000 U.S. troops to the Middle East, in light of rising tensions with Iran. They’ll join the 1,500 troops who arrived in May.
  • CENTCOM confirmed that an MQ-9 Reaper drone was shot down over Yemen last week, corroborating the Houthi’s claims to have taken a drone out with an Iranian-built surface-to-air missile.


  • The NYT says analysts are expecting Pres. Xi to try to revive nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea during his trip to Pyongyang this week, though we probably won’t hear anything about it until after Xi meets Pres. Trump around the G-20 summit on June 28.


  • Pres. Trump tweeted that ICE is going to start “removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the U.S.,” but he didn’t add any details about the apparently massive new initiative. Nor did ICE’s director mention the big news when he spoke in Kentucky on Saturday.


  • Goldman is forecasting a rise in commodity returns as investors look for alternative investments that won’t be as vulnerable to trade disputes.

Other News

  • A shooter injured two people near the Raptors’ victory parade in Toronto, putting a damper on the team’s first NBA championship.
  • Ecuadorians are protesting a plan to build a U.S. military stopover base for anti-drug trafficking programs on an empty Galapagos island, citing concerns that human presences and flights will disrupt the area’s unique ecosystem.

Why South Africa Can’t Avoid Land Reforms (NYT)

A mobilization spearheaded by student and labor movements is focusing on the land question to address the social legacy of apartheid.

Author: Mahmood Mamdani is the director of the Institute of Social Research at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and a professor at Columbia University.

In 1996, while I was teaching at the University of Cape Town, I was invited by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be an in-house critic at a town hall it had organized. A member of the largely black African audience told this story:

“Tom and John were neighbors. One day Tom stole John’s bicycle. They did not speak for years until the day Tom extended his hand to John and said, ‘Let us reconcile.’

“‘What about my bicycle?’ John asked.

“‘Forget the bicycle,’ Tom said. ‘Let it not stand between us.’”

John’s question has now turned into a growing social movement. Students and labor movements in South Africa are leading a mobilization of transformative potential by focusing on the land question to address the social and economic legacy of apartheid in the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was re-elected in May, conveyed his awareness of the challenge during his inauguration speech, saying that the country “can no longer abide the grave disparities of wealth and opportunity that have defined our past and which threaten to imperil our future.”

The African National Congress won the May elections but with the lowest share of votes since the end of apartheid in 1994, illustrating its failure to address these disparities. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a far-left populist party that has been pushing for the nationalization of land, banks and mineral rights, got the votes A.N.C. lost.

South African apartheid borrowed key institutions from its North American predecessor. The Natives Land Act of 1913 appropriated 87 percent of all arable land for the whites and left a mere 13 percent for the black majority, who were herded into separate ethnic homelands. The American “reservation” became the South African “reserve” whose native inhabitants were governed by an ethnically coded patriarchal “customary” law enforced by state-appointed “traditional chiefs.”

After 1913, in rural reserves, black people were deprived of the right to buy or sell land; they could occupy and use land only with the consent of a government-appointed traditional chief. In 1923, black people in urban areas were deprived of freehold property rights.

After the Afrikaner National Party won the whites-only elections in 1948, it introduced formal apartheid. It ensured white hegemony by keeping black South Africans away from the urban-industrial economy by restricting their movement into cities, forcing back those who had left the reserves through mass removals and restoring autonomous tribal authorities in the reserves, charged with disciplining and containing its black population. The reserves were renamed Bantustans, the ethnic homeland areas for various tribal groupings.

At the end of apartheid in 1994, 60,000 white farmers held 86 percent of all farmland. Thirteen million blacks, many of whose forebears had been dispossessed in 1913, held the remaining 14 percent, much of it poor-quality land.

Post-apartheid South Africa was marked by two glaring birthmarks: racialized inequality in urban areas and tribalized despotism in Bantustans. President Nelson Mandela and the A.N.C. promised to transfer 30 percent of agricultural land from white to black hands by 1999, securing their ownership rights through tenure reform, and to reform the power structure in the former Bantustans.

But it has failed to do either meaningfully. Instead of being democratized, chiefship was rationalized as native “custom.” In the new South Africa, nonracial democracy in urban areas coexists with ethnicized despotism ensuring chiefly control over land in rural areas.

A mere 8 percent of land was transferred from white to black hands over 24 years. The budget for land reform was pitiful — less than 1 percent of the national budget. The “Willing Buyer, Willing Seller” market-based reform, under which government bought large tracts of land from white farmers to sell pieces to landless applicants, allowed white farmers to drive up the price of land. And many whites weren’t willing to sell.

The demand for land is increasingly urban in South Africa. In the post-apartheid South Africa, a third of the population lives in predominantly rural former Bantustans, another third in urban areas that comprise both affluent suburbs and impoverished townships, and the remaining third in informal shanties around formal townships.

Out of South Africa’s 58 million people, over 27 million are without proper housing, living in matchbox houses built by the A.N.C. government, slum-type shacks, on farms belonging to others and in impoverished communal areas in former Bantustans, according to an estimate by Ben Cousins, a researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

How land is utilized and by whom has direct bearing on growing unemployment, which at the current rate of 27 percent is the premier economic and social issue in South Africa.

The post-1994 land reform program has been a dismal failure. And that failure and growing dissatisfaction have led to an intense debate on land reform, forcing the A.N.C. to introduce a bill in the parliament last year to carry out expropriation of land without compensation, which is yet to be debated.

The “Willing Buyer, Willing Seller” formula is defended by the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party, a post-1994 liberal coalition of whites and the newly rich black middle class, which stands for an unqualified defense of the right of private property.

In 1996, Nelson Mandela signed into law the new Constitution of South Africa, Article 25 of which deals with land and property rights. It prohibits “arbitrary deprivation of property” but allows expropriation of land for “public interest” after “just and equitable” compensation.

Part of the debate focuses on whether the country needs a constitutional amendment to the sections dealing with land and property rights. Many in the A.N.C. say no, since Article 25 allows for appropriation without compensation where public interest is concerned. Skeptics argue that the clause will not deter endless litigation in courts. The Economic Freedom Fighters are calling for nationalization of all rural land without compensation.

On May 16, Mr. Ramaphosa assured foreign investors at an event organized by Goldman Sachs and the Eskom public utility that there will be no land grabs and that land reform and expropriation without compensation would take place in an orderly manner.

South Africa needs a triple reform to have an even chance of dismantling the social legacy of apartheid: a land reform that passes control over communal areas from traditional chiefs to the present tillers of the land in rural areas, allows the urban poor to produce food and graze livestock in municipal commons, and provides land for housing for the millions in informal settlements.

Without land reform, the A.N.C. and Mr. Ramaphosa will fail to lift a majority of the black people from abysmal poverty and will fail in ending social apartheid. Few doubt that the specter of Zimbabwe plagues South Africa’s political leaders. In the absence of a credible response to the land question, the A.N.C.’s fear of populism and demagogy is likely to come true.

Sudan and the Instagram Tragedy Hustle (The Atlantic)

The Sudan Meal Project and similar accounts claim to be helping—but they’re really just a ploy to get more followers.

As the political crisis in Sudan deepens, Instagram users are flocking to accounts that claim to be helping. @SudanMealProject, the largest of these accounts, racked up nearly 400,000 followers in less than a week; it is joined by hundreds of similar accounts with copycat names such as @SudanMealProjectOfficial, @SudanMealOfficial, @sudan.meals.project, @mealsforsudan, and @Sudanmealprojec.t, each of which has amassed tens of thousands of followers.

“We’re committed to donating up to 100,000 meals to Sudanese civilians,” @SudanMealProject’s bio read. The account’s only post promised, “For every STORY REPOST this post gets, we will provide one meal to Sudanese children, and you will help spread awareness on what’s happening in Sudan.”

But no one can send meals to Sudan in the way the viral Instagram accounts claim. “It’s incredibly difficult to send meals to Sudan,” said Joe English, a UNICEF communications specialist. When reached for comment via Instagram direct message, the administrator of @SudanMealProject could not provide any proof that the account was working with any aid organizations, nor could the administrator back up any of the claims made in the account’s posts. “What I am obtaining is followers and exposure,” the administrator for @SudanMealProject told me. “… I love how the left likes to twist these stories.”

The administrator later deleted the account’s post, updated its bio, and changed its handle to @SudanPlan. After The Atlantic contacted Instagram, the company removed the account for violating its policies. Many copycat accounts are still live. “We will continue to look into this matter and disable further accounts we find in violation of our policies,” an Instagram spokesperson said.

Sudan has been ravaged by violence since its former president, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted in a military coup in April. On June 3, the conflict boiled over when scores of protesters were killed, including 26-year-old Mohamed Hashim Mattar. His Instagram avatar at the time of his death was steel blue, and after he was killed, the color became a symbol of the pro-democratic uprising. Hundreds of thousands of users have made their profile photos blue in a sign of solidarity.

In addition to misrepresenting their intentions, these accounts are sowing misinformation. A since-deleted post on @SudanMealsProject, copied and shared elsewhere, stated that “more than six million people need urgent food assistance”—but that figure refers to South Sudan, not Sudan. It also stated, “Near-famine conditions are predicted in four of Sudan’s states.” This also is true of only South Sudan, which has been a separate independent nation since 2011. “It’s difficult to argue that [these campaigns] are effectively raising awareness when they’re using facts and figures relating to an entirely different country,” said English.

Even the very premise of the Sudan Instagram accounts is flawed: While many of the initial protests last year in Sudan did focus on fuel shortages and rising food costs, they quickly became about freedom and democracy, not food. According to English, the latest estimates suggest Sudan is home to 5.5 million food-insecure people—but, he said, “there has not been a famine declaration in Sudan since the early 2000s.”

When tragedy breaks out, it’s natural to turn to social media to find ways to help. But legitimate aid organizations—most of which don’t have the social-media prowess of top Instagram growth hackers—are no match for the thousands of Instagram scammers, meme-account administrators, and influencers who hop on trends and compete for attention on one of the world’s largest social networks.

Some Instagrammers change their name, avatar, and bio to a trending term in order to gain followers. For example, earlier this year, when a photo of an egg became the most-liked picture on Instagram, many users capitalized on the moment by changing their display name to World Record Egg and their avatar to the egg. Because users typically click on the first accounts they see in the search box, hundreds of thousands followed copycat egg accounts—which then swapped their display name and avatar after the trend died out.

One of the Sudan accounts, @sudanese.meal.project, is promoting a streetwear-clothing-resale group. Another, @SudanMealOfficial, has changed its name several times before.

Nico—a 15-year-old whose last name The Atlantic is withholding because of his age—founded an account called @exposinginstascams to shine a light on these practices. He has used his account to report people promoting fake environmental charities, and when he saw posts about Sudan pick up last week, he recognized the scam immediately and began posting about it to his feed. After he saw some Sudan-related accounts asking for money via PayPal, he created a GoFundMe, with all the money going directly to the International Rescue Committee. He hopes it can provide people with a more legitimate way to donate. As I write this, it has raised just $21.

As Nico and others have started to name bad actors, some of them have already begun cannily cashing in on the backlash, changing their handles to names like @fakesudanmeal.project and @fakesudanmealprojects_. “Share our account to spread awareness that [@Sudanmealproject] was fake,” a story post by @fakesudanmeal.project reads.

According to English, the best way people can help is by amplifying the voices of actual Sudanese activists and organizations already working in the country, such as Save the Children, UNICEF, and the International Rescue Committee. And, at the least, users should fact-check posts before sharing them.