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Sensemaker: Conflict in Tigray

Sensemaker: Conflict in Tigray

What just happened

Long stories short

  • New York City closed schools again as the US Covid death toll passed 250,000.
  • A report found that Australia’s special forces were involved in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians between 2005 and 2016.
  • Experts said the dinosaurs would have continued to thrive, but for an asteroid.

Conflict in Tigray

The pandemic continues to absorb most of the rich world’s energies. Trump’s assault on democracy continues to distract like a traffic accident. Even so, there are at least three reasons to pay close attention to surging violence in northern Ethiopia:

  • There is evidence of appalling crimes by both sides in the conflict in Tigray, and it’s causing a humanitarian emergency in Sudan. Following an apparent massacre of civilians by separatist forces in the town of Mai-Kadra on 9 November, tens of thousands have fled to Sudan where refugees speak of “a genocide against the Tigray people”. Witnesses tell the Washington Post ($) that reprisals by government forces have included machete attacks and beheadings.
  • It’s barely a year since Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, won the Nobel Peace Prize for turning his country away from war and repression towards pluralism and prosperity. There seemed little doubt that he deserved it at the time. He’d made peace with Eritrea, released political prisoners and transformed Addis Ababa into a hub of enterprise and hope. A year on, conflict has returned to Oromia in the south as well as Tigray, an Ireland-sized area bordering Eritrea whose leaders have lost national influence under Abiy. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has implored him to resolve these disputes “by peaceful means”.
  • Now instability threatens the Horn of Africa – again. Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan have endured decades of authoritarian leadership and are among the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change. Four thousand refugees a day are arriving in Sudan, which is ill-equipped to host them.

Abiy has warned his forces will carry out “a final, critical act of law enforcement” in Tigray’s capital within days. So much more than his own reputation hinges on whether he can find it in himself to exercise restraint.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Rolling over
There’s a good chance of a UK-Canada trade deal by 31 December, Bloomberg reports. Talks are advanced and progressing well, the UK says. And Justin Trudeau, the Canadian PM, says this is “a really easy one”. No kidding. All either side wants is to roll over the existing trade agreement negotiated on Britain’s behalf by the EU. The same thing has already been accomplished with Japan, and the UK hopes for fourteen more rollovers by the end of the year. With apologies for repeating the point – and an invitation to put me straight if I’m missing something – this is the reality of post-Brexit Britain’s independent trade policy: a scramble for the status quo. Divergence may follow and apparently it will bring prosperity. We’ll see.

New things technology, science, engineering

Getting around
New York’s subway system faces a $12 billion shortfall and not much hope of filling it if Republicans retain control of the US Senate and decline to help out with federal funds. In that event the number of trains running could fall by 40 per cent, the NYT reports ($). For America, this is partly a story about ideological aversions to public transport and Democrat-dominated cities. For the world at large, there’s a big systemic problem looming if people continue to fight shy of public transport systems even after Covid vaccines make it safe again. Most of these systems depend on ticket revenue as well as public subsidy. When that revenue dries up the systems atrophy and we’re into a downward spiral of reduced service and under-use. And that accelerates if employers seek to cut office costs by encouraging people to work from home even post-Covid. So what’s next? A new age of hollowed-out city centres explored only by tourists on e-bikes? Maybe. It’s not too late to sign up for our Future of Cities summit today to find out.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

mRNA drugs and cancer
Pre-Covid, mRNA (aka messenger ribonucleic acid) was not a word in most people’s everyday vocabularies. But thanks to BioNTech and Moderna, the biotech companies behind two highly highly effective mRNA vaccines for the coronavirus, that’s changing. BioNTech did not start out to make vaccines for viral infections, however. Their initial aim was to create a new generation of personalised therapies for treating cancer. mRNA molecules encode instructions to the body’s cells, telling them to do things like create proteins or start chemical reactions. By developing specific mRNA molecules targeted at the genetic profile of a person’s cancer, scientists theorised that they could prompt the body to mount an immune response and kill off the mutated cancer cells. Early studies show that it appears to work: in 2017, BioNTech reported that they’d treated thirteen patients with malignant melanoma with a personalised mRNA therapy. All of them showed an immune response to the malignant cells.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Stranded Venezuelan oil
What happens to Venezuela’s vast oil reserves if demand for oil stops rising and prices stagnate or fall? They might have to stay underground. From an environmental point of view that is where they belong, but as things stand there is no Venezuelan economy without oil, which is why one thing President Maduro and his exiled challenger Juan Guaidó agree on is that it should be brought to the surface and burned. The FT has a good story on efforts by others to promote the alternative of reinventing the country to wean it off hydrocarbons. The race with Saudi is on. It’s just not being run with much conviction.

One more note to add to yesterday’s on Boris Johnson’s ten-point net zero plan: bringing forward by 10 years the deadline for ending sales of new petrol and diesel cars is gutsy, right and exciting. It will force manufacturers to adapt and that will bring down prices and clear the air.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Guns vs. aid
Staying with Johnson’s plans for the future (wait, did I just write that? Did something change in Downing Street?), he has promised an extra £4 billion a year for defence. At the same time a Times report that aid funding could be cut from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income hasn’t been refuted. The defence boost is a bid to head off stiff French competition to be America’s default military partner in Europe, and to compensate thereby for clout lost by leaving the EU. But taken together with the aid story, this presages a promotion of hard power over soft. This plays well to certain galleries but it’s a bad idea generally, not least because of cost. One of many lessons of Afghanistan is that hard power is, in every respect, unbelievably expensive.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Ella Hill