Author: On Call International’s Global Security Team
On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.
Sudan – Political Uncertainty: The Way Forward
The Sudanese socio-economic crisis that began in December 2018 culminated into a full-fledged political crisis on 11 April 2019 when the Sudanese military ousted President Omar al-Bashir. Almost five months back, when the government cut bread and fuel subsidies, widespread demonstrations occurred across the country. The protesters, organized under the aegis of Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), were mostly youth and women from all walks of life – including doctors, health workers, and lawyers. However, the removal of Bashir (who ruled for 30 years) has not reduced the intensity of the demonstrators. The groups involved have vowed to keep the momentum alive until there is a definite charter toward civilian rule.
On 21-22 April 2019, the military government/council asked the protesters to remove the roadblocks in the capital city of Khartoum to enable movement of essential products. On the other hand, on the same day, the protest leaders announced they had reneged contact with the military council that had removed President Bashir. The reason they cited was that the military council also comprised ‘friends’ and ‘well-wishers’ of Bashir. Refuting these allegations, the military council stated it was dedicated toward handing over power but will favor a joint military-civilian council to ensure the security of the country. Notably, the military council had stated, after ousting Bashir that it would hand over power to civilian authorities within two years.
Due to this development, the leaders of the protest movement have refused to continue talks and cooperation with the military. However, several weaknesses have also become evident within the group of protesters and their leaders. The protest leaders have failed to announce their candidates who will create a civilian council enabling implementation of full democracy through the transition period. Having failed to do so, they have called off negotiations with the military and instead heightened the protests.
The country’s political control is currently torn between the civilian protesters and the military council. While socio-economic problems in the country have fueled one group, the other group has a strong political and financial backing. Reports have stated the military council has been given more than USD 3 billion in aid by Saudis and the United Arab Emirates. This has further strengthened skepticism among the protesters regarding the military council’s willingness to hand over power to the civilian-led transitional council. While the military has acceded to most of the demonstrators’ demands (including shifting Bashir to maximum security prison), it has currently refused to step aside. With the military continuing to have a stronghold in Sudan, the political way forward sans military generals looks improbable now – despite increasing pressures from the protesters group.
Deciphering Indian Elections: Background, Main Issues and Possible Outcomes
The third phase of the seven-phased Indian elections (11 April-19 May 2019) concluded on 23 April 2019. Elections in the world’s largest democracy is a huge endeavor given the size, diversity, and population. India has an electorate of 875 million people, of which 100 million are first-time voters. It has 29 states, 464 political parties, 3,000 castes, and six religions – all leading to diverse issues that motivate people to vote. Though the fight is often portrayed between the two large national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC), the reality is that national elections in India are an accumulation of several state-level and local alliance systems and their electoral outcomes.
The 2019 elections have been a referendum on the performance of the Prime Minister (PM) Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). BJP’s perceived invincible position has been challenged in the last few months. The dislodging of BJP governments in the December 2018 assembly elections in key ‘Hindi heartland’ states was a wake up to the ruling party. Issues like demonetization that impacted the Micro Small and Medium Enterprises sector, increasing farmer unrest, and some real/perceived communal decisions have eroded support for the party. The INC, which had been significantly weakened in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, has made an electoral comeback. The regional parties, especially in the key state of Uttar Pradesh, have formed alliances to take on the BJP. However, a number of factors still signal advantage to the BJP. PM Modi remains a popular leader and has formed alliances with 31 regional parties. BJP’s championing of national security issues, especially in wake of the Pulwama terror attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in India, and of religious identity issues have given them an edge in some states.
While it is challenging to predict elections in India, most polls are giving an advantage to the BJP that is likely to form the government mostly with reduced seats but supplemented by the major NDA (National Democratic Alliance) alliance partners. An outlier scenario is a ‘rag-tag’ coalition of regional parties that can pose business risks as a result of too many actors involved. However, India has a mature political system with successful coalition governments so, regardless of the electoral outcome, political and business risks are unlikely to change much.
Security risks in the run-up to the election results should be monitored. Jammu and Kashmir has been on a high alert since the Pulwama terror attacks in February 2019. The central government has cracked down on separatist groups and conducted raids at several places. The Election Commission has postponed the state assembly elections, citing security concerns; however, Lok Sabha elections are being held. The BJP government has sought to capitalize on this issue, along with the aerial strikes conducted in Pakistan, even though casualties in the valley, civilian and security forces, and recruitment by terror groups has increased since 2014.
Other risk-prone areas include southern parts of Chhattisgarh where Naxalite-Maoists groups have conducted some significant attacks on security forces. Political violence, including booth capturing or communal disturbances in Uttar Pradeshi, Bihar should be closely monitored.
Middle East and North Africa
Iran Faces Flooding Crisis in the Midst of Expanding U.S. Sanctions and Increasing Anti-Regime Unrest
From mid-March to April 2019, widespread flash flooding has affected 26 out of 31 provinces in Iran, especially the provinces of Golestan, Fars, Khuzestan, and Lorestan. The three major waves of rain and flooding over the course of two weeks led to major damage in terms of deaths, injuries, transport infrastructure, and agriculture. However, the inaccessibility of some of the provinces, inadequate government measures, and international politics related to U.S. sanctions on Iran have hampered relief efforts.
According to some reports, Iran’s flood repairs are likely to cost an estimated $2.5 billion. As of 6 April 2019, at least 70 people died nationwide, 36% of Iran’s national road network was impacted, and overflowing dams required the evacuation of cities and villages – leading to a humanitarian crisis. The impact of the floods was heightened due to the Nowruz holiday; many Iranians were traveling, and flash flooding on roads and highways caused several casualties.
Civilian and armed forces were mobilized after 24 March 2019 to provide relief efforts, with several ministers and army commanders visiting affected areas. However, the delay in delivering government aid (since 17 March 2019) quickly heightened political discontent against the Iranian regime. Several Iranian citizens used social media and localized protests to criticize the handling of floods by the Hasan Rouhani government. Citizens are also questioning why the government did not take adequate steps despite alleged warnings two weeks prior to the floods, as well as questioning the country’s poor water management and drainage system.
To deflect criticism of the inadequate relief efforts, Iran has apportioned the maximum blame on the U.S.-led sanctions on Iran. Iran’s Red Crescent has repeatedly complained that the U.S. banking sanctions reimposed last year have made it impossible to receive foreign donations. Iran’s Foreign Minister has accused the U.S. of ‘economic terrorism’ and of using a humanitarian crisis to discredit the Iranian regime. While the U.S.-led sanctions have complicated the relief effort, the Iranian regime bears the brunt of the blame for this national crisis.
The discontent over the inadequate handling of relief efforts has the potential to enmesh with other political and economic grievances to increase political tensions in the country. Environmental issues and government resource mismanagement have previously fueled anti-regime protests, especially in southwestern Iran and Khuzestan province. Combined with re-imposition of U.S. sanctions and distrust of the Iranian regime, this is likely to increase instability in the country.
Europe and Central Independent States
Notre Dame Cathedral Fire: Impact on French Culture and Tourism
The Notre Dame Cathedral Fire on 16 April 2019 in Paris was deeply felt by the French people and garnered shocked reactions from across the world. Notre Dame, to many Parisians, is considered the foremost symbol of France, both for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The 850-year-old building outlived the French Revolution, World War I, Nazi occupation, and became a symbol for Paris. In addition, it is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture.
On Monday, 15 April 2019 at 6:20 pm local time, an alarm sounded at the Notre Dame Cathedral. The priest and the rest of the church occupants did not immediately react. The alarm was unprecedented, and nobody knew the reason for this warning. No sign of fire was found, but authorities evacuated the cathedral as a security measure. At 6:43 pm, another alarm went off, and the fire was declared. Soon, the iconic spire collapsed, along with sections of the roof. At 3:40 am, the fire service spokesman claimed the fire was ‘completely under control.’
There are questions as to the implications of this incident on French tourism. Approximately 13 million people visit the cathedral each year, not just for the stunning architecture, but to pray and view religious artwork. A great deal of the artwork has been saved, including the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. The rector of the cathedral, Monsignor Chauvet, suggested the building of a temporary wooden cathedral in the shadow of Notre Dame, where the religious artifacts could be stored. This would help ensure that tourism for the artwork and religious artifacts would not reduce by a great extent. This terrible fire has raised awareness as for the famed cathedral, and perhaps the very process of reconstruction could become a tourist attraction.
However, the road to reconstruction is not easy – France has received large donations for restoration, but massive spending at the time of a deteriorating economy and large-scale protests could increase social tensions. Significant political fallout is likely to cause backlash against ‘Gillet Jaunes’ protesters and their modus operandi of property defacement. On 19 April 2019, the French Interior Minister announced a ban on protests near Notre Dame. Some ‘Gillet Jaunes’ protesters have questioned the huge donations to restore the cathedral at a time when low-income workers are unable to afford basic sustenance. They have also expressed concerns that the fire will be used by the Macron government to suppress legitimate protests.
As of now, there is still no consensus regarding the cause of the fire, with the latest reports suggesting the possibility of an electrical cause and an accident in renovations. This is likely to encourage increased vigilance for the next few months in other French tourist attractions. However, most other French tourist attractions – Eiffel Tower, Louvre and several art museums – are not at risk to the same dangers as an 850-year-old gothic cathedral. They are made of more modern materials and have the luxury of being renovated with modern techniques without losing historical authenticity.
Deforestation in the Amazon Basin: Security Implications in Brazil and Peru
In September 2018, the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an advocacy group in Brazil, collected satellite imagery to reveal that more than 1,863 hectares of deforestation took place in 2018 alone in the northern Para state. Researchers state that if more than 40%of the Amazon is deforested, it will cross a tipping point leading to extensive climatic impact – destabilizing the hydraulic cycle and increasing global temperatures.
In Brazil, deforestation in the Amazon basin has been a result of logging, cattle ranching, and agriculture. On the other hand, illegal mining – especially gold mining – has been the main cause for Peruvian deforestation. In both the countries, deforestation in the Amazon basin has created a ‘criminal ecosystem’ around it including prostitution, human trafficking, homicides, and smuggling.
Brazil has shown a slight reduction in deforestation of the Amazon due to increased law enforcement, satellite monitoring, new protected areas, and environmentalists’ pressures. However, the realm of deforestation in Brazil has been enabled by the following factors:
- Land grabbers have been encouraged by the bancada ruralista, which is the agribusiness lobby. It has won several legislative and administrative victories and has been pivotal in the cutting of environmental and indigenous agency budgets that protect conservation and land rights.
- Under the Forest Code, landowners could keep some percentage of land forested. However, the 2012 ruling relaxed this part of the law and gave the liberty to landowners, including waiving off many fines against illegal miners. When the Supreme Court debated the verdict in February 2018, there was a wave of optimism among conservationists. However, the ruling that those who had cleared the forests before 22 July 2008 do not have to pay the fines was a significant setback. The decision cast major aspersions on the country’s judicial system to arbitrate on issues related to the environment.
- Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing populist president of Brazil, also does not have a good reputation among conservationists – his election further provided a boost to those engaged in illegal deforestation. During his campaign, Bolsonaro spoke about rolling back protections of the rain forest and indigenous rights. In January 2019, Bolsonaro issued an executive order giving full power to the agriculture ministry to regulate and create new indigenous reserves. This move provided a symbolic ‘go ahead’ to the farming sector, which further endangered the rainforest.
Unlike Brazil, Peru has seen an upward tick in deforestation due to the following reasons:
- Illegal gold mining in Madre de Dios and other areas (main reason)
- The development and construction of the Transoceanic Highway
- Increase in logging and extractive activities
Apart from environmental degradation, deforestation in the Amazon basin poses a significant security threat to industries, travelers, and local inhabitants. Criminal activities such as homicides, extortion, and murders due to land conflicts are typical security challenges in the region. Adding to this, community and social risks also are on the rise due to the lack of alternative livelihoods in the area.