Women drivers, corrupt cops, and dating refugees: The Cheat Sheet

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:

Was letting women drive a Saudi PR stunt?

It would have been hard to miss the news that Saudi Arabia will soon let women drive, trumpeted as a major victory led by brave activists. The policy change is a big deal, but might it also have been a PR stunt to try to appease the West? Perhaps, distraction from the war in Yemen and today’s hotly debated UN Human Rights Council vote on an independent investigation into the war in Yemen? Don’t rule it out. Saudi Arabia was certainly nervous – it reportedly sent a letter warning other countries that such a probe could “negatively affect” trade and diplomatic ties with the kingdom. The proposal, which has been written and rewritten, negotiated and hashtagged (#YemenInquiryNow), was strongly supported by advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch.

Diplomacy has singularly failed to do anything for the people of Yemen, who are enduring the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. So, especially as Saudi Arabia has several friends in high places, expectations were low ahead of the vote. But as Cheat Sheet went to press the council passed a resolution by consensus that mandates a group of international experts to investigate abuses. Amnesty International Senior Director for Research Anna Neistat said the move “sends an unequivocal message to all parties to the conflict in Yemen – that their conduct will be scrutinised and the abuses they commit will not go unpunished.” The independent investigation falls short of a full-scale UN international commission of inquiry that could have led to referrals to the international criminal court, but it won’t leave the powers-that-be in Riyadh particularly happy. If allowing women to drive was a PR stunt, it was an epic fail.

Biafra redux

A growing secessionist swell in southeastern Nigeria is dividing the country once again, 50 years after the civil war that claimed a million lives (see an earlier IRIN report). Thousands of troops have been deployed to the region in a heavy-handed crackdown on pro-Biafra agitation, and the leader of the breakaway Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) campaign, Nnamdi Kanu, has gone missing – reportedly detained by the army. Secessionist sentiment has been building in recent years under the leadership of Kanu, a skilled propagandist. He won sympathy among Igbos in the southeast during a lengthy trial on terrorism and treason charges. A pro-Biafra social media campaign portrays President Muhammadu Buhari as a pro-Muslim northerner out to crush the southeast. In June, northern youth groups upped the ante by demanding that all Igbos must leave the north by 1 October – an uncomfortable reminder of the pogroms in the north that led to the declaration of Biafra in 1967. Kanu’s announcement of the formation of self-defence units and threat to prevent elections in the southeast has also worsened the tension. Igbos are a successful trading community, spread throughout the country. Many leading Igbos have condemned Kanu’s cause, including the southeastern governors. But the governors have also called for urgent dialogue, drawing parallels between IPOB, an inflexible government, and the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast.

Drying out and dying out in Kenya’s Turkana

Turkana County lies in the 80 percent of Kenya’s landmass that is classed as drylands, where most inhabitants eke out a living raising livestock – cows, goats, sheep, and camels. Pastoralism is a way of life that is defined by environmental variation, with herders constantly moving their flocks across vast distances to the best available pasture and water points. Coping with the occasional failure of seasonal rains has always been a feature of this arduous livelihood. But as IRIN discovered on a just-concluded reporting mission to Turkana, the drought which for months has ravaged much of east Africa, and which the Kenyan government has termed a national emergency, is the worst in living memory. One local official said half a million head of livestock had succumbed to thirst, hunger, and disease, leaving many herders destitute. Much of the human population has fallen into crisis levels of food insecurity. The climate shock is all the more severe because of the Kenyan drylands’ chronic poverty, and the absence of basic services that would have served as a cushion. And while grassland tends to recover from droughts once rains return, this one is so severe and prolonged that there are fears that some pasture has been scorched beyond repair. All these issues and more – including the pernicious threat posed by an aggressive, invasive, and tantalisingly evergreen shrub – will be explored in depth in IRIN’s forthcoming package of stories.

The refugee’s dating coach

This week, we bring you something a bit different – dare we say it, even uplifting? It’s the final episode in the inaugural series of a new NPR podcast – Rough Translation – all about navigating the dating landscape in Berlin as a Syrian refugee. This is not yet another piece about teaching Arab men how to approach women in miniskirts in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks, although the repercussions of the media frenzy after those events certainly form a backdrop to this must-listen. Instead, this is the story of Aktham, known as “Abu Techno” for his role in getting the word about the Syrian uprising out – and his quest to find a relationship in a new language and culture, with a little help from his German flirt coach Sophia. There are misunderstandings aplenty, honesty, and some fresh perspective on how the little things matter even when you've fled something vast and terrible.

Did you miss it?

Unfair cop: Why African police forces make violent extremism worse

Studies indicate that the majority of young people who sign up to extremist groups do so because of the actions of government security forces, often the killing or arrest of friends or family members. Often the culprit in many African countries is the abusive and intimidatory behaviour of corrupt police officers. In this hard-hitting analysis, IRIN’s Africa Editor Obi Anyadike strikes at the heart of issue, offering his depressing but acurate critique of those paid to protect not endanger society. But in Kenyan senior sergeant Francis Mwangi, someone at the forefront of efforts to reform policing, Anyadike finds some hope. But are the lessons Mwangi is learning as he builds bridges in the Nairobi slum of Kamakunji being written down and taught in police academies across the continent? Probably not. Meanwhile, from Nigeria to Somalia, from Kenya even to South Africa, police forces are seen as subservient to the wishes of ruling elites. In insurgeny-prone areas, hit squads take priority over proper detective work. Tolerance of abuse is mainstream. Governance failures abound. All the talk is of the soft power of preventing violent extremism, or PVE. But if this is to work in an African context, policing needs a radical overhaul.

Anyadike’s story is part of IRIN’s special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel.

(TOP PHOTO: A young girl in a displacement camp in rural Taiz in Yemen. Ahmed al-Basha/IRIN)

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