Sunday, February 28, 2016



Image: Pat Utomi Facebook Page

When anxieties with the state of the economy rose, as Oil prices went South in 2015, I was struck by how we went from worry to panic and how many actions failed to recognize similar experience from our recent history and more than enough knowledge on what happened before and what was trending in the global environment. That such knowledge was untapped caused me to begin to rethink many things.

How does Nigeria always manage to lose institutional memory, and what is responsible for the Knowing-Doing gap that seems to prevent us from properly handling routine problems without generating crisis of earthshaking proportions.

Surely we do not need Harvard Business School Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I Sutton to see that there is a huge Knowing - Doing gap in the policy arena in Nigeria. Pfeffer and Sutton had in year 2000 wondered how come so many firms show significant gaps between what they know and what they actually do. You can see this applies to governments the moment you go to the many talk shops of Nigeria and from there cast a glance at the policy action arena.

When at one of these events recently someone reminded me of another one a few months before when it seemed a vow to defend the Naira was being taken. He reminded me that I had said pressure on the Naira, with a significant dollar earnings dip, was not the end of the world but that a floating “managed” exchange rate mechanism Bismark Rewane had talked about was appropriate response and also that in addition a clear game plan on how the financing from declining Oil receipts, could be bridged to tide over a temporary challenge by quick borrowing of dollars to shore up supply with other measures to block leakages could boost confidence. I suggested teams of people credible in economic and financial circles, head off to critical global capitals to show where we were going.

I was convinced that would have stimulated confidence in Nigeria at a time the gap between the nominal exchange rate and our purchasing power parity line was no more than six Naira, as Bismark Rewane pointed out. Had the teams out there telling the world about the new thrust of policy and growth potential in which decline in contribution of dollars from a sector contributing to a small portion of GDP was causing tightness, investment flows will make up for Foreign exchange supply lost, just as a little borrowing could bridge the financing gap and stave of currency speculations.

It seems to me that instead of focusing on a clear strategy of short, medium and long term perspective plan anchored diversification of the base of the economy and the tactics to hold off raiders of the currency by inspiring confidence based on plans for the future we slipped into this spurious discussion of symptom called devaluation of the Naira.

I never could understand why knowledge from 1983-85, in Nigeria, and the Asian financial crisis, failed to inform the passions spewing out or the subject from people with access to people who could better inform them. How about our national institutions that went through similar experiences with external shocks and managing access to Foreign Exchange in the before past. Why did they behave they had learnt nothing before.

One of the truly enduring explanations of how Nigeria went into de-industrialization from the 1980s, even before becoming fully industrialized is a comparison of Nominal exchange rate divergence from purchasing power parity.

A review will show that the regions of the world where nominal exchange rates and the Purchasing Power Parity line were a close fit had more growth and prosperity. Between Africa, Latin America and Asia in the 1980 and 1970s South East Asia was that zone.

What I found even more paradoxical was that those who favour state centrals to drive development and therefore should embrace some of the postulates of the South Korean Economist at Oxford Ja Joo Chang are signing off on the European Union ECOWAS Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). This is quite curious.

Lets hope enlightenment descends upon us all.


Friday, February 26, 2016

The Latest: Russia To Strike Syria Militants During Truce

FEBRUARY 26, 2016

President Barack Obama, center, followed by Secretary of State John Kerry, left, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, second from right, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, right, arrives to speak to media after a meeting of his National Security Council (NSC) at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016. The meeting focused on the global campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL as well as Syria and other regional issues.

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the conflict in Syria and the provisional cease-fire proposed by the U.S. and Russia that is to go into effect at midnight (all times local): 2:30 p.m. Russia's Vladimir Putin says his country will keep hitting "terrorist organizations" in Syria even as the U.S.-Russia-engineered truce goes into effect at midnight.

The Russian president reiterated at a meeting of top officials of the Federal Security Service on Friday that the cease-fire does not cover groups such as the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other factions.

The state news agency Tass quoted him as saying that the "decisive fight against them will certainly continue." Russia says the airstrikes that it began in Syria in late September are directed solely at terrorists, but critics claim Russia is also targeting other fighters who are battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Moscow ally.

2:20 p.m.

Syria's main umbrella of opposition and rebel groups says dozens of factions have agreed to abide by the cease-fire that is due to go into effect at midnight.

The alliance, known as High Negotiations Committee, said in a statement on Friday that 97 factions will abide by the truce. It added that it has formed a military committee to follow up on the truce.

Russia and the United States brokered the cease-fire, which does not include the Islamic State group or the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's branch in Syria.

The Syrian government said it will abide by the truce but will have the right to retaliate for any attacks. The opposition has demanded that Russia and Iran, President Bashar Assad's main backers, also abide by the truce.

1 p.m.

A top Turkish presidential aide says Ankara is concerned over Russian bombings and Syrian forces' ground operations ahead of a truce due to go into effect at midnight Friday.

Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters Friday that Turkey supports the cease-fire agreement in principle but is worried about the continued operations.

Kalin says the "fact that Russian bombings and attacks by (Syrian President Bashar) Assad's forces continued even last night, is leading to serious concerns on the future of the cease-fire."

Kalin also warned the refugee crisis that has hit Europe will escalate unless the Syrian government's ground operations are stopped.

12:50 p.m.

A top aide to Turkey's president says Saudi military aircraft that will join the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria have begun arriving at an air base in southern Turkey.

Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told reporters on Friday that the Saudi deployment to Incirlik air base has started. He did not provide details as to how many aircraft have arrived so far.

The Saudi deployment comes as a U.S. and Russia-engineered cease-fire is due to take effect at midnight on Friday. The truce agreement, however, does not cover the IS, Syria's al-Qaida branch known as the Nusra Front, or any other militia designated as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council.

12:40 p.m.

The Kremlin has denied allegations that Russia's air force bombed civilian positions east of Damascus on the eve of the ceasefire.

During a call with journalists, President Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied accusations made by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Russia launched airstrikes over the rebel-held town of Douma on Thursday evening.

Peskov says this wasn't "the first time this observation group has published unconfirmed information that isn't backed up by facts."

He added that Russia will continue its military operation in Syria against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaida's branch known as the Nusra Front and others on the U.N. Security Council's list.

11 a.m.

Syria's state media and an opposition monitoring group say government forces have captured several villages from Islamic State extremists in the northern province of Aleppo.

The SANA news agency says government troops on Friday took three villages near the town of Khanaser, which they recaptured from the IS group the previous day.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that two villages were taken by the government troops, saying they are working to open the only road linking the city of Aleppo with central and western Syria.

The fighting comes ahead of a cease-fire brokered by the U.S. and Russia, which is to go into effect at midnight. IS is not included in the cease-fire.

IS attacked the Khanaser area Monday, capturing the town only to lose it Thursday.

APNewsBreak: DOD Launches Aggressive Cyberwar Against IS

FEBRUARY 26, 2016

The National Security Administration (NSA) campus in Fort Meade, Md., where the US Cyber Command is located. U.S. officials tell The Associated Press that the military has launched a newly aggressive campaign of cyberattacks against Islamic State militants. It’s a targeted effort to erode the group’s abilities to use social media and the Internet to recruit fighters and inspire followers. Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with commanders at Fort Meade, Maryland, last month, prodding them to ramp up the anti-Islamic State fight on the cyber front.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military has launched a newly aggressive campaign of cyber-attacks against Islamic State militants, targeting the group's abilities to use social media and the Internet to recruit fighters and inspire followers, U.S. officials told The Associated Press.

The surge of computer-based military operations by U.S. Cyber Command began shortly after Defense Secretary Ash Carter prodded commanders at Fort Meade, Maryland, last month to ramp up the fight against the Islamic State group on the cyber front.

U.S. officials confirmed that operations launched out of Fort Meade have focused on disrupting the group's online activities. The officials said the effort is getting under way as operators try a range of attacks to see what works and what doesn't. They declined to discuss details, other than to say that the attacks include efforts to prevent the group from distributing propaganda, videos, or other types of recruiting and messaging on social media sites such as Twitter, and across the Internet in general.

Other attacks could include attempts to stop insurgents from conducting financial or logistical transactions online. Several U.S. officials spoke about the cyber campaign on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly. Much of the effort is classified.

Carter mentioned the operations briefly Thursday, telling a House Appropriations subcommittee only that Cyber Command is beginning to conduct operations against the Islamic State group. He declined to say more in a public setting.

The more aggressive attacks come after months of pressure from Carter, who has been frustrated with the belief that the Pentagon — and particularly Cyber Command — was losing the war in the cyber domain.

Late last year Carter met with commanders, telling them they had 30 days to bring him options for how the military could use its cyberwarfare capabilities against the group's deadly insurgency across Iraq and Syria, and spreading to Libya and Afghanistan. Officials said he told commanders that beefing up cyberwarfare against Islamic State was a test for them, and that they should have both the capability and the will to wage the online war.

But the military cyber fight is limited by concerns within the intelligence agencies that blocking the group's Internet access could hurt intelligence gathering. Officials said Carter told commanders that he wanted creative options that would allow the U.S. to impact Islamic State without diminishing the indications or warnings intelligence officers can glean about what the group is doing.

On Jan. 27, Carter and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Fort Meade for an update. Officials familiar with Carter's meetings said the secretary was frustrated that as Cyber Command has grown and developed over the past several years, it was still focused on the cyberthreats from nations, such as Iran, Russia and China, rather than building a force to block the communications and propaganda campaigns of Internet-savvy insurgents.

"He was right to say they could be more forward leaning about what they could possibly do against ISIS," said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You could disrupt their support networks, their business networks, their propaganda and recruitment networks."

However, Lewis added, the U.S. needs to be careful about disrupting the Internet to insure that attacks don't also affect civilian networks or systems needed for critical infrastructure and other public necessities.

U.S. officials have long been stymied by militants' ability to use the Internet as a vehicle for inspiring so-called lone wolf attackers in Western nations, radicalized after reading propaganda easily available online.

"Why should they be able to communicate? Why should they be using the Internet?" Carter said during testimony before the defense appropriations subcommittee. "The Internet shouldn't be used for that purpose."

He added that the U.S. can conduct cyber operations under the legal authorities associated with the ongoing war against the Islamic State group. The U.S. has also struggled to defeat high-tech encryption techniques used by Islamic State and other groups to communicate. Experts have been working to find ways to defeat those programs.

Cyber Command is relatively new. Created in 2009, it did not begin operating until October 2010. Early on, its key focus was on defending military networks, which are probed and attacked millions of times a day. But defense leaders also argued at length over the emerging issues surrounding cyberwarfare and how it should be incorporated.

The Pentagon is building 133 cyber teams by 2018, including 27 that are designed for combat and will work with regional commands to support warfighting operations. There will be 68 teams assigned to defend Defense Department networks and systems, 13 that would respond to major cyberattacks against the U.S., and 25 support teams.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016



Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, pictured submitting his budget to the Senate chamber in Abuja, December 22, 2015, has promised that those responsible for padding the budget will be punished. SUNDAY AGHAEZE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Nigeria’s budget for 2016 has not had an easy ride since it was first proposed, amid great fanfare, by President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2015.

The West African giant is facing a number of economic challenges, including a slump in global oil prices and calls for its currency—the Nigerian naira—to be devalued to deal with falling foreign exchange revenues.

Buhari was elected partly on an anti-corruption ticket and has made tackling graft a key priority of his administration, with a number of high-profile arrests taking place during his tenure. Yet two months into 2016, Nigeria is yet to approve its fiscal plan for the year and the budget issue risks undermining the president’s battle against corruption.

Newsweek looks at how the budget went from a symbol of change to a laughing stock in five steps.

Step 1: Buhari’s Record Budget is Delivered

In December 2015, President Buhari announced his first budget since he was elected in March that year. And it was ambitious.

Buhari declared that a record 6.1 trillion naira ($30.6 billion) would be spent on the economy and infrastructure in 2016, a 20 percent increase on the previous year. Buhari said Nigeria’s deficit was expected to double to 2.2 trillion naira ($11 billion), but that this would be covered by raising 900 billion naira ($4.5 billion) in overseas funding on top of 984 billion naira ($4.9 billion) borrowed domestically.

The president’s budget also predicted that of expected revenues of 3.9 trillion naira ($19.6 billion), just 820 billion naira ($4.1 billion) would come from oil, despite petroleum exports constitutingalmost 92 percent of the total value of Nigerian exports. In a break with tradition, Buhari proudly delivered his budget to the National Assembly in December 22: the task was usually left to the finance minister under the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan.

Step 2: O Budget, Where Art Thou?

The first chinks in the shining armor of the budget began to show in early January, when hundreds of hard copies of the document went missing from the Nigerian Senate, the upper house of the National Assembly.

As well as causing national embarrassment, the unfortunate incident led to the Senate accusing one of Buhari’s aides of quietly withdrawing the budget in order to iron out discrepancies, with senators refusing to debate the budget until it was presented in its original, undoctored form.

The issue of the missing copies fell by the wayside when Buhari sent amendments to the budget on January 19, but the fiasco had hinted at more mayhem and mischief to come.

Step 3: A Well-Padded Budget

Following the sideshow of copies going missing, the budget really began to unravel in early February. An analysis by Nigerian news site Premium Times found a number of dubious allocations: these included a 3.8 billion naira ($19 million) allocation for the State House Medical Center, which treats just a few patients including the president and his family, while just 2.7 billion naira ($13.6 million) was allocated for the constructions of hospitals across the 180 million-strong country.

Furthermore, almost 5 billion naira ($25 million) was allocated for the office of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to spend on books—more than many of Nigeria’s state universities—while 22 billion naira ($111 million) was set aside to pay rent at the State House, occupied by Buhari, with spectators baffled about who the rent was going to.

Oluseun Onigbinde, co-founder of Nigerian transparency group BudgIT, said that the discrepancies in the budget—which also included 795 million naira ($4 million) set aside to update the website of one unnamed ministry—were “a disservice to the idea that this government has come to represent change.”

Step 4: Rats Sniffing Around the Budget

Now the fiasco was really getting into full swing. Nigerian Health Minister Isaac Adewole, speaking to the Senate Committee on Health on February 8, disowned his ministry from the controversial budget proposals. “This was not what we submitted. We’ll submit another one. We don’t want anything foreign to creep into that budget,” said Adewole.

The minister also disassociated himself from the massive State House Clinic budget, saying the president’s private clinic did not come under the health ministry and adding, “I hope it’s not the same rats that changed things in our budget that changed it [the State House Clinic allocation].”

All this talk of rats and a “budget mafia” of anonymous civil servants padding the financial plan has severely delayed the budget’s implementation. On February 9, the National Assembly postponed a vote on the budget from February 25 to an unspecified date in the future, with those in charge of the budget citing the need for more time to prepare a final and, hopefully, foolproof edition.

Step 5: Budget Chief Gets the Bullet

With two months of wrangling over the budget, it was perhaps inevitable that heads would roll. The Nigerian presidency announced on February 15 that Yahaya Gusau, the director general of Nigeria’s budget office, would be replaced with immediate effect by former banker Tijjani Abdullahi. No reason was given for Gusau’s abrupt departure, but it is hard to believe it is not linked to the comedic turn of events that have occurred over the past few months.

Buhari admitted on Tuesday that the saga had been “embarrassing and disappointing” and that those responsible for padding the budget would not be allowed to go unpunished. It remains to be seen, however, whether the president and his government’s anti-corruption pledge can recover from this damaging turn of events.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

How Apple Ended Up In the Government's encryption crosshairs


Apple CEO Tim Cook discusses the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus during the Apple event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. Apple has spent years setting itself up as the champion of individual privacy and security, a decision that’s landed it in the government’s crosshairs over an iPhone allegedly used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The high-profile case presents risks for Apple almost no matter what it does, and may spill over into the broader tech industry as well, potentially chilling cooperation with federal efforts to curb extremism.

SAN FRANCISCO (ASSOCIATED PRESS) — As the maker of trend-setting gadgets like the iPhone and iPad, Apple has changed the way people use technology in their daily lives. Now, after positioning itself as a champion of privacy, the tech giant has sparked a potentially momentous conflict with the federal government over encryption.

For months, Apple CEO Tim Cook has engaged in a sharp, public debate with government officials over his company's decision to shield the data of iPhone users with strong encryption — essentially locking up people's photos, text messages and other data so securely that even Apple can't get at it. Law-enforcement officials from FBI Director James Comey on down have complained that terrorists and criminals may use that encryption as a shield.

Then on Wednesday, Apple found itself in the government's crosshairs over an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino mass shooters. A federal magistrate ordered Apple to produce software that would help federal investigators hack into that phone — not by breaking the encryption directly, but by disabling other security measures that prevent attempts to guess the phone's passcode.

Apple has five days to challenge that order, setting the stage for a legal clash that experts say could change the relationship between tech companies and government authorities in the U.S. and around the world.

"This is really a deep question about the power of government to redesign products that we use," said Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who studies data security and privacy issues. Many leading tech companies — Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo — were conspicuously silent about the dispute on Wednesday, although some trade groups issued statements endorsing Apple's position. Google CEO Sundar Pichai also voiced support for Apple in a series of tweets late in the day. "Forcing companies to enable hacking could compromise users' privacy," Pichai wrote, adding that the case "could be a troubling precedent."

While tech companies have spoken against broad government surveillance in the past, the Obama administration has recently sought to enlist the tech industry's help in fighting terrorism. Several companies have recently heeded the administration's request for voluntary efforts aimed at countering terrorist postings on social media.

Civil liberties groups warned the fallout from the San Bernardino dispute could extend beyond Apple. "This is asking a company to build a digital defect, a design flaw, into their products," said Nuala O'Connor of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based group that has criticized government surveillance. In a statement, the center warned that other companies could face similar orders in the future.

Others said a government victory could encourage regimes in China and other countries to make similar requests for access to smartphone data. Apple sells millions of iPhones in China, which has become the company's second-largest market.

"This case is going to affect everyone's privacy and security around the world," said Lee Tien, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group in San Francisco. The case turns on an 18th-century law that the government has invoked to require private assistance with law enforcement efforts. Apple has also challenged a federal search warrant based on the same law in a Brooklyn drug case. Apple has complied with previous orders invoking that law — the All Writs Act of 1789 — although it has argued the circumstances were different.

While experts said the case will likely end up in appeals court, both sides seemed to be framing the debate for a public audience as much as for a judge. The federal request "is very strategic on their part, to be sure" said Robert Cattanach, a former Justice Department lawyer who handles cyber-security cases for the Dorsey & Whitney law firm. He said it appeared the government took pains to ask only for limited assistance in a mass-murder case that horrified the nation.

Apple's Cook, however, declared the demand would create what amounts to a "backdoor" in Apple's encryption software. "If the government can use the All Writs Act to make it easier to unlock your iPhone, it would have the power to reach into anyone's device to capture their data," he wrote in an open letter. Cook also pledged respect for law enforcement and outrage over the shootings.

Cook may have no choice but to mount a legal challenge, given his very public commitment to protecting customer data. He's made that position a part of Apple's marketing strategy, drawing a contrast with companies like Google and Facebook that sell advertising based on customers' online behavior.

Apple "can't be seen now as doing something that would make their products less safe," said Wendy Patrick, who lectures about business ethics at San Diego State University. "I think everyone saw this issue coming down the pike and Apple always knew it was going to push back when the moment came."

But in doing so, Apple risks alienating consumers who put a higher value on national security than privacy. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found 82 percent of U.S. adults deemed government surveillance of suspected terrorists to be acceptable. Apple's stance was already drawing fire Wednesday from GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and commentators on Fox News.

Only 40 percent of the Pew respondents said it's acceptable for the government to monitor U.S. citizens, however. The survey also found nearly three-fourths of U.S. adults consider it "very important" to be in control over who can retrieve personal information about them.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mystery Over Bloodied Body Found On Cash Cargo Plane Refuelling In Zimbabwe

Crew of Florida-owned cargo plane arrested and millions of rand destined for South Africa’s Reserve Bank impounded after Harare airport staff follow blood trails and find a body


Local newspaper reports said that the body was 'suspended' in the plane

A cargo plane carrying millions of South African rand has been grounded at Zimbabwe’s international airport after ground staff spotted blood dripping from it and discovered a man’s body.

The plane, owned by Florida-based Western Global Airlines, is understood to have been transporting large sums of cash from Munich in Germany via Belgium and Nigeria and was bound for the seaside town of Durban in South Africa when it stopped in Harare for refuelling.

The crew of the plane, which was hired by the South African Reserve Bank, allegedly tried to explain the blood to officials by saying it came from a mid air collision with a bird.

“The jet crew was questioned and they said they hit a bird in the air. But then a search was made and the body of an adult male fell out,” a source told African News Agency.

Zimbabwe’s state-owned Herald newspaper reported that the body was “suspended” in the plane.

A spokesman for the South African Reserve Bank suggested the body belonged to a “stowaway” and expressed the hope its money would be released soon.

But the mystery over events on board deepened as a source at Western Global told the Telegraph there would have been six people on the plane, four crew members and two couriers.

Local reports however suggested that only the four crew members had been arrested: two Americans, a Pakistani and a South African.

Pradeep Maharaj, Group Executive for the South African Reserve Bank'scurrency operations, would not confirm whether SARB employees were on the plane.

“The South African Reserve Bank is aware of an aircraft carrying a SARB consignment that stopped in Harare and was detained following the discovery of an unidentified body that is presumed to be a stowaway on the aircraft,” he said in a statement.

“The SARB is working with the relevant authorities to ensure that the cargo is released and transported to South Africa.”

David Chawota, chief executive of Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe, said the case had been handed over to the police. “The plane, which is owned by Western Global Airlines, has been grounded at Harare International Airport since Sunday,” he said. “The cargo in the plane belongs to the South African Reserve Bank."

He declined to give further details about the plane’s cargo, citing “security concerns”.

The plane is believed to have requested a “technical landing” in Harare after being denied the right to land in Mozambique.

"The matter was reported to the authorities at the airport and the plane was impounded while the body was taken to pathologists,” the Herald quoted an aviation source as saying.

Harare International Airport was previously the venue for another multinational drama when, on March 7 2004, British mercenary Simon Mann and 69 others were detained on the tarmac after their Boeing 727 was searched and found to be carrying £100,000 worth of weapons and equipment.

Mann and his colleagues were put on trial in Zimbabwe accused of plotting to stage a coup in Equatorial Guinea. He was later extradited to that country and jailed but was released under a presidential pardon in November 2009.

Western Global Airlines did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

Israel's Olmert becomes First Israeli PM To Go To Prison

FEBRUARY 15, 2015B

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert enters prison to begin his sentence, in the central Israeli town of Ramle, Israel, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016. Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert started serving a 19-month prison sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice on Monday, becoming the first Israeli premier to be imprisoned and capping a years-long legal saga that forced him to resign in 2006 amid the last serious round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert started serving a 19-month prison sentence for bribery and obstruction of justice on Monday, becoming the first Israeli premier to be imprisoned and capping a years-long legal saga that forced him to resign in 2009 amid the last serious round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Olmert walked into the Maasiyahu prison in central Israel hours after he released a video making a last-minute plea to Israelis meant to salvage his legacy. In the video, he appealed to the nation to remember his peace-making efforts as leader and denied any wrongdoing in the bribery conviction against him.

The three and a half minute video, released by his office and filmed at his home a day earlier, shows a weary-looking Olmert. He says it is a "painful and strange" time for him and his family and that he is paying a "heavy" price, but also adding that he has accepted the sentence because "no man is above the law."

"At this hour it is important for me to say again ... I reject outright all the corruption allegations against me," Olmert said in the footage. He said that in hindsight, the Israeli public might view the charges against him and the seven-year legal ordeal that enveloped him in a "balanced and critical way."

"I hope that then many will recognize that during my term as prime minister, honest and promising attempts were made to create an opening for hope and a better future of peace, happiness and well-being," he said.

Olmert, 70, was convicted in March 2014 in a wide-ranging case that accused him of accepting bribes to promote a controversial real-estate project in Jerusalem. The charges pertained to a period when he was mayor of Jerusalem and trade minister, years before he became prime minister in 2006, a point he reiterated in his video statement Monday.

He was initially sentenced to six years in the case, but Israel's Supreme Court later upheld a lesser charge, reducing the sentence to 18 months. That was extended by a month earlier this year for pressuring a confidant not to testify in multiple legal cases against him.

Olmert is also awaiting a ruling in an appeal in a separate case, in which he was sentenced to eight months in prison for unlawfully accepting money from a U.S. supporter. Israel has sent other senior officials to prison, including Moshe Katsav, who held the mostly ceremonial post of the country's president and who is now serving a seven-year prison term for rape.

But having the once popular Olmert behind bars was met with mixed emotions by many Israelis, who viewed the milestone as a proud moment for Israel's robust justice system but also a sorrowful one. "When you look at a person like this, who is the salt of the earth, who is so talented, who is so charming, who is so capable, the fact that he is going to prison is something sad," Dan Margalit, a columnist with the daily Israel Hayom and a former Olmert confidant, told Israeli Army Radio.

Olmert was forced to resign in early 2009 amid the corruption allegations, which undermined the last serious round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and cleared the way for hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu's rise to power.

Olmert led his government to the Annapolis peace conference in November 2007 — launching more than a year of ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians. Olmert has said he made unprecedented concessions to the Palestinians during those talks — including a near-total withdrawal from the West Bank and an offer to place Jerusalem's Old City under international control — and was close to reaching an agreement at the time of his resignation.

Despite his lengthy career as a public servant, former prison officials said Olmert would be treated like any other inmate, despite being held in a special wing for security reasons. Haim Glick, a former Israeli prison service official, told Israeli Channel 2 TV that Olmert would need to participate in roll call, be in his cell by 10 p.m. and have limited phone use.

"He will receive good treatment like the rest of the prisoners but not any better than them," he said.

This story has been corrected to show that Olmert was forced to resign in 2009, not 2006.

Friday, February 12, 2016

'I Am A Prisoner Of Conscience': Pro-Biafra Leader Tells AFP

FEBRUARY 12, 2016

Abuja: A pro-Biafra leader whose arrest sparked a wave of protests across Nigeria’s southeast has told AFP from jail he is a “prisoner of conscience” and vowed to realise his dream of an independent state.

The head of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group, Nnamdi Kanu, is accused by the state of “propagating a secessionist agenda” with the intention to “levy war against Nigeria”.

Kanu, who also runs the London-based Radio Biafra, is facing charges of treasonable felony, managing an unlawful society and illegally shipping radio equipment into the country.

He has been in custody since his arrest in October, despite being granted bail, and denied all charges.

His arrest and continued detention has made him a figurehead for his supporters, whose repeated marches in the southeast have increasingly led to clashes with the police.

“Biafra has come to stay,” Kanu told AFP in a text message via his brother, Prince Emmanuel Kanu, who met him on Thursday in Kuje prison on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

“They will kill us but by the end Biafra will come,” the 48-year-old added. “I am a prisoner of conscience and killing unarmed Biafran protesters is a crime against humanity.”

‘Third-class citizens’

A previous unilateral declaration of an independent Republic of Biafra in 1967 led to a brutal civil war that left more than one million dead in nearly three years of fighting.

Forced to surrender and chastened by war, dreams of a separate state for the ethnic Igbo group—the third largest in the country—waned.

But Kanu’s arrest and detention has galvanised support for the Biafra movement among young people who never knew the horrors of war and have little to lose in fighting for a better life.

Today the former regional power is impoverished, with dilapidated infrastructure and high unemployment fuelling resentment against the federal government.

“We have been failed in so many ways,” Kanu said, describing Igbos as “third class citizens”, echoing many in the region who say they are still being punished for the civil war.

Kanu, who has described Nigeria as a “zoo” which “has to come to an end”, was a relative unknown before his arrest.

But President Muhammadu Buhari, facing security threats from Boko Haram in the northeast and an uneasy peace in the oil-producing south, has said Kanu poses a threat to Nigeria’s fragile unity.

In December, a finger-wagging Buhari said Kanu committed “atrocities” against Nigeria, adding “there’s a treasonable felony against him and I hope the court will listen to the case”.

Police crackdown

Dressed in an outfit of pristine white and sporting a neat salt-and-pepper beard, Kanu last appeared in public at an Abuja court Tuesday, arriving in handcuffs and flanked by prison officers.

His lawyer spent the bulk of the afternoon fighting a state application to have some proceedings held behind closed doors.

“When people are refused access to the court, I ask myself are the defendants actually condemned before they are heard?” said Chuks Muoma, warning against a “secret trial.”

The prosecution alleges Kanu was running an armed group with ritual baptisms and young men conscripted as “Biafran soldiers”.

Kanu’s half-sister, Tonia Kanu, said the current response to the protests was only worsening the situation.

After the judge adjourned Kanu’s case until February 19, Tonia received reports that police had shot dead protesters in the southeast city of Aba.

A day later, police confirmed two protesters were killed, with 21 IPOB members arrested.

“People are being killed every day just because of peaceful protest. It’s too bad,” Tonia told AFP.

She flicked through her Facebook feed on her smart phone to show gory photos of dead protesters and a coffin covered with the Biafran flag—red, black and green with a yellow rising sun.

“The violence is to scare people, for them not to be serious,” she said. “But the more you kill them the more they multiply.”


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Parole Hearing Set For Robert Kennedy Killer Sirhan Sirhan


Sen. Robert F. Kennedy awaits medical assistance as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot. Sirhan Sirhan, who is serving a life sentence for the assassination of Sen. Kennedy, seeks freedom at his 15th parole hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. During his last parole hearing in 2011, Sirhan told officials of his regret but also said he could not remember the events of June 5, 1968. (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times via AP, File)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — For nearly 50 years, Sirhan Sirhan has been consistent: He says he doesn't remember fatally shooting Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in a crowded kitchen pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

The Jerusalem native, now 71, has given no inkling that he will change his version of events at his 15th parole hearing on Wednesday in San Diego. He is serving a life sentence that was commuted from death when the California Supreme Court briefly outlawed capital punishment in 1972.

During his previous parole hearing in 2011, Sirhan told officials about his regret but again said he could not remember the events of June 5, 1968. The parole board ruled that Sirhan hadn't shown sufficient remorse and didn't understand the enormity of the crime less than five years after the killing of President John F. Kennedy — the senator's older brother — and two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

His memory will be tested this time in front of Paul Schrade, 91, a Kennedy confidante who was one of five people injured in the shooting. Schrade will appear for the first time at a Sirhan parole hearing.

Schrade, who declined in a brief interview to preview his planned remarks to the parole board, has steadfastly advanced the view that there was more than one gunman. Sirhan initially refused to appear at the parole hearing at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, where he has been held since 2013, said Laurie Dusek one of his attorneys. Memories of the 2011 hearing made him physically ill, but Sirhan relented after Dusek begged him to come and said Schrade would be there.

Sirhan, who skipped earlier parole hearings, sent word through his brother, Munir, that he would appear, but Dusek said she didn't know what he will say, if anything. "If you don't show, you've got nothing to gain," Dusek said she wrote to Sirhan.

Schrade, who was western regional director of the United Auto Workers Union when he was shot in the head, was labor chair of Kennedy's presidential campaign and was at the senator's side the night he was gunned down moments after delivering a victory speech in California's pivotal Democratic primary.

Schrade has devoted the second half of his life to preserving Kennedy's legacy and trying to unravel questions surrounding the assassination. He proposed the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools at the site of the former Ambassador Hotel and has a library named for him there.

Schrade, who has kept a low profile in recent years, "is a family friend of the Kennedy's, he's very much in touch with the senator's children," Dusek said. "He feels that justice has not been served."

Author Dan Moldea said Schrade was instrumental in arranging 14 hours of interviews with Sirhan for Moldea's 1995 book, "The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy," which concluded Sirhan acted alone. Moldea began his research believing there was more than one gunman.

"Paul is a great man of honorable intentions at all times, but Paul has grabbed at every thread of conspiracy in this case," Moldea said. "When I concluded that Sirhan did it and did it alone, basically Paul cut me out of his life."

Sirhan's lack of memory of the attack makes expressions of remorse and accepting responsibility difficult. In one of many emotional outbursts during his 1969 trial, he blurted out that he had committed the crime "with 20 years of malice aforethought."

That and his declaration when arrested, "I did it for my country," were his only relevant comments before he said he didn't remember shooting Kennedy. Last year, a federal judge in Los Angeles rejected arguments by Sirhan's lawyers that their client was not in position to fire the fatal shot and that a second shooter may have been responsible.

Some claim 13 shots were fired while Sirhan's gun held only eight bullets, and that the fatal shot appeared to come from behind Kennedy while Sirhan faced him.

Linda Deutsch, retired AP special correspondent, contributed to this report.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Special UN Event Mobilizes Action Towards Ending Female Genital Mutilation Within 15 years

Malian singer Inna Modja performs during a special event, Mobilizing to Achieve the Global Goals through the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by 2030. Having been subjected to FGM as a small girl, Ms. Modja advocates for the rights of women and girls. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

(UNITED NATIONS) -- 8 February 2016 – Marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), dozens of women, girls, experts, and United Nations officials gathered today at a special event at UN Headquarters to discuss ways of eliminating the harmful practice by 2030 and to celebrate the increased mobilization against it.

“I am proud to be among so many champions in the cause of eliminating female genital mutilation,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during his keynote address, highlighting that the event is also “a celebration of women's empowerment.”

FGM is a procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the genital organs of girls and women for non-medical reasons. It can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.

According to a new report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), girls 14 and younger represent 44 million of those who have been cut, with the highest prevalence of FGM among this age in Gambia at 56 per cent, Mauritania 54 per cent and Indonesia where around half of girls aged 11 and younger have undergone the practice.

For Malian singer Inna Modja, the pain of FGM as a teenager was both physical and emotional. Wiping tears off her cheeks, she told members of the audience that it affected her sense of identity and made her doubt what she could achieve.

“I lost my identity when I went through FGM – I didn't know who I was, I didn't know what was my place in society, I didn't know how strong I could be, because cutting me was telling me that I'm not good enough. So I had all these questions and music helped me to heal,” she explained.

Ms. Modja also shared that going through surgery to repair her mutilation helped a lot, because she felt she was doing something to get back what was taken away from her.

Today's event also featured the launch of a new international symbol on FGM which will serve as the banner going forward to show commitment to eliminating FGM by 2030. Last September, UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; for the first time, it includes a goal that explicitly names FGM as an instance of a “harmful practice” that should be eliminated to achieve gender equality and women's empowerment.

The UN also reports that over the last 10 years, budgeting for this issue increased by 600 per cent. Other achievements recent achievements include two more countries, Nigeria and the Gambia, passing legislation to ban FGM.

“Health workers in many countries are becoming more engaged as advocates and counsellors on FGM prevention in their communities. And young people themselves are serving as champions for FGM abandonment. We can see social change taking place at the community level,” said the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, in his remarks.

Since 2008, UNFPA and UNICEF have been leading the world's largest programme in 17 countries to end FGM within a generation. A central strategy of the programme is to support community-level activities to make individuals appreciate the benefits of not cutting their girls, to foster discussion, and generate sufficient collective support for entire communities to abandon the practice.

“This has resulted in more than 15,000 communities, representing around 12 million people, publicly declaring abandonment of FGM. But despite this progress, millions of girls are still at risk of being cut each year,” warned Dr. Osotimehin.

While in nearly all countries FGM is usually performed by traditional practitioners, UNICEF has found that more than half of girls in Indonesia underwent the procedure by a trained medical professional.

Addressing the challenges in her countries, the Minister of Women's Empowerment and Child Protection of Indonesia highlighted her Government's commitment to combatting FGM, but said it still has “a lot of homework to do.”

“In most cases, people aren't even aware of the existence of regulations on FGM,” said Yohana Yembise. “Moving forward the Government will continue to conduct programmes to raise awareness among the medical and health workers to stop practicing any forms of FGM procedures.”

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Syria Says Any Foreign Troops Would Return 'In Coffins'

FEBRUARY 6, 2016

Syrians gather at the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey, in Syria, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. Some thousands of Syrians have rushed toward the Turkish border, fleeing fierce Syrian government offensives and intense Russian airstrikes. Turkey has promised humanitarian help for the displaced civilians, including food and shelter, but it did not say whether it would let them cross into the country.

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's foreign minister warned Saturday that Saudi or other foreign troops entering his country would "return home in wooden coffins" and asserted that recent military advances put his government "on track" to end the five-year-old civil war.

Walid al-Moallem's comments capped a week that saw the collapse of the latest U.N-led Syria peace efforts and a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive near the city of Aleppo that sent thousands of residents fleeing toward Turkey.

A Turkish official said Saturday that as many as 35,000 Syrians had massed along the closed border. Suleyman Tapsiz, governor of the border province of Kilis, said Turkey would send aid to the displaced, but had no immediate plans to let them in. He said Turkey was prepared to open the gates in the event of an "extraordinary crisis."

The Norwegian Refugee Council said thousands of Syrians have arrived at seven of the main informal camps close to the Turkish border. The group said the camps were already at capacity before the latest influx, and that aid groups are working around the clock to deliver tents and essential items to the displaced.

In Amsterdam, EU foreign ministers held informal talks Saturday with their Turkish counterpart. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged Turkey to open its borders to the Syrians and said the EU is providing aid to Ankara exactly for such purposes. She said the displaced are "Syrians in need for international protection," and that this was the message delivered in the meeting.

Some of the refugees found shelter in Afrin, a Kurdish enclave to Aleppo's north controlled by a militia known as the YPG, said a Kurdish official, Idris Naasan. The militia hoped to prevent a humanitarian disaster and help those stuck at the border, he said.

The week had begun on a somewhat hopeful note, with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura declaring the launch of indirect talks between a Syrian government delegation and opposition representatives in Geneva.

However, he was forced to adjourn by mid-week, after the opposition said there was no point negotiating while pro-government troops backed by Russian airstrikes escalated attacks and gained ground north of Aleppo, once Syria's largest city. The offensive appeared aimed at encircling strongholds rebels have held in the city since 2012.

The breakdown of the talks was followed by a warning from opposition backer Saudi Arabia that it is ready, in principle, to send ground troops to Syria, albeit in the context of the U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State extremists who control large areas of Syria and Iraq.

Russia's Defense Ministry meanwhile said it had "reasonable grounds" to suspect that Turkey, another opposition ally, is making intensive preparations for a military invasion of Syria. Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking during a visit to Senegal on Friday, dismissed the Russian claim as "laughable" and blamed Moscow for the deaths of civilians in Syria.

In his news conference Saturday, al-Moallem signaled a newfound confidence on the part of the Syrian government, boosted by growing Russian military support. This week alone, Russian warplanes hit close to 900 targets across Syria, including near Aleppo.

The foreign minister said recent territorial gains signal that the war is nearing its end. "I can say, from the achievements for our armed forces ... that we are now on track to end the conflict," he said. "Like it or not, our battlefield achievements indicate that we are headed toward the end of the crisis."

He called on rebel fighters to "come to their senses" and lay down their weapons. Asked about the possibility of Saudi ground troops entering Syria, he said logic would suggest this is unlikely, but that "with the crazy Saudi leadership nothing is far-fetched."

"Any ground intervention in Syria, without the consent of the Syrian government, will be considered an aggression that should be resisted by every Syrian citizen," he said. "I regret to say that they will return home in wooden coffins."

He repeated the line three times during the one-hour press conference, saying it applies to anyone who attacks Syria with ground troops. Iran, another military ally of Syria, ridiculed Saudi Arabia. The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, as saying he didn't think the Saudis were "brave enough" to send ground troops.

"They talk big," Jafari said. "But even if it happens, it won't be bad because they would be definitely defeated." Iran on Saturday held funerals for six soldiers, including a senior Guard commander, Gen. Mohsen Ghajarian, who were killed in northern Syria while fighting alongside government troops.

Iran has said it has dispatched military advisers to Syria, but denies sending combat troops. A number of Iranians have been killed in recent months, including several high-ranking commanders. The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, an ally of Iran and Syria, has also sent reinforcements to Syria.

The Syrian state news agency SANA reported Saturday that a member of Hezbollah's "war media" department, which films military battles for the group, was among those killed in fighting north of Aleppo.

The U.N. envoy, de Mistura, has said the Geneva talks should resume by Feb. 25, though it's unclear if the delegations will return. The opposition has accused the government of acting in bad faith by launching the Aleppo offensive in parallel to the start of the talks.

Al-Moallem said the Saudi-backed opposition never intended to negotiate seriously. "They did not come to have dialogue, they did not have such orders," he said. The main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, accused Russia of crimes against humanity because of the mass displacement of civilians from Aleppo. In a statement Saturday, the group called on the U.N. Security Council to denounce the Russian actions.

__ Laub reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam in Beirut, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Nigeria’s Economic Woes Take Their Toll On Israeli Builder


Nigeria's House of Representatives, Abuja

Housing & Construction Limited, the giant Israeli building company, has seen its share price lose more than a third of its value in the last six months as the economy of Nigeria reels in the face of plunging oil prices.

Housing & Construction, which is controlled by Shari Arison, the Carnival Cruise Lines heiress who also controls Bank Hapoalim, has been active in African countries for six decades, building big infrastructure projects, paving roads and constructing bridges.

But as the economy of Nigeria, which relies on oil, deteriorates, doubts are being raised about the $110 million the government owes the company - a debt that is equal to about a quarter of Housing & Construction’s shareholders equity. Moreover, projects worth $1.7 billion that the company is working on now, equal to about 40% of its order book, are threatened by delays or cancellations.

On Wednesday, the debt rating agency Maalot said it was retaining its A-plus rating for the company’s bonds but downgraded its outlook to Negative. It estimated that in 2015 the slowdown in Housing & Construction’s Nigerian operations slashed earnings before interest, taxes depreciation and amortization, or Ebitda, by 20%

Housing & Construction shares dropped another 5.9% on Wednesday to 5.17 shekels ($1.31).

Benny Delek, an analyst at Union Bank of Israel, is more sanguine. In a report issued Tuesday he said Nigeria was seeking emergency loans from the World Bank and other sources. “Therefore, risk of Housing & Construction’s Nigeria exposure isn’t as high as the market is seeing it. We still believe that in the end the problems in Nigeria will result in nothing more than a slowdown,” Delek said, noting that he was retaining a Buy recommendation in the stock.

Nigeria is planning to borrow as much as $5 billion to help fund a deficit due to the slump in global oil prices, which have also sent its naira currency into a tailspin. On Tuesday it asked the African Development Bank for a $1 billion loan to help fund an increased budget deficit.

Housing & Construction executives say the loans should enable Nigeria to return to normal economic activity and bring an end to a year of uncertainty. In the meantime, however, the company’s operations have shrunk since a change in government last April, when President Muhammadu Buhari took office.

Nevertheless, executives say they did not think that the existing orders backlog of $1.7 billion would be threatened by the financial crisis, but uncertainty could delay the timetables for some projects.

Another Israeli company that operates in Nigeria is Electra, which leads big projects in air conditioning and electricity and electro-mechanical systems in office buildings and commercial structure. But its exposure to Nigeria is much smaller than Housing & Construction’s. In the first nine months of 2015, Electra derived just 150 million of its 4 billion shekels of revenue from Africa and elsewhere overseas.

With reporting from Reuters.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

UI Health Physician Helps Treat Sickle Cell Disease In Nigeria


Damiano Rondelli (fourth from right), and Victor Gordeuk (thrid from left) visit Nigeria in October to meet with medical personnel, patients and their families.

A UIC physician is helping establish a bone marrow transplant center in Nigeria to treat sickle cell disease. 

The need there is far greater than in any other country, says Damiano Rondelli, director of the UI Health blood and bone marrow transplant program.

 Nigeria has about 91,000 sickle cell births a year — more than in any other of the 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are most affected. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo, at about 39,750 births, is No. 2. The total number of babies born with sickle cell in the 10 sub-Saharan nations is more than 242,000 — more than two-thirds of the 305,800 births worldwide. About 5 million Nigerians have sickle cell, compared with about 100,000 in the U.S.

 “The relevance of treating sickle cell disease in Nigeria is huge,” said Rondelli, chief of hematology/oncology at UI Health. He visited Nigeria in late October with Victor Gordeuk, director of the UIC Sickle Cell Program. They met with medical personnel, sickle cell patients and their families. The chief medical director of the University College Hospital of Ibadan, Temitope Alonge, “embraced with enthusiasm the vision that we brought, and is willing to support the project as well as finding funds,” Rondelli said. It could be one to two years before the center opens, he said. 

Rondelli has already helped set up bone marrow transplant units in Bangalore, India, and Kathmandu, Nepal, which treat several blood diseases, not just sickle cell. At UI Health, physicians have cured 12 adult patients of sickle cell disease using stem cell transplantation from healthy, tissue-matched siblings. 

The technique eliminates the need for chemotherapy to prepare the patient to receive the transplanted cells. The transplants were the first performed outside the National Institutes of Health campus in Maryland, where the procedure was developed. Doctors have known for some time that bone marrow transplantation can cure sickle cell. But few adults received transplants because high-dose chemo was needed to kill off the patients’ own blood-forming cells — and their entire immune system — to prevent rejection of the transplanted cells, leaving them open to infection. 

In the new procedure, patients receive immunosuppressive drugs just before the transplant, along with a very low dose of total body irradiation, a treatment much less harsh than chemo. Sickle cell disease is inherited. It primarily affects Africans and people of African descent, including about one in every 500 African Americans born in the U.S. The defect causes the oxygen-carrying red blood cells to be shaped like a crescent, or sickle.

 The misshapen cells deliver less oxygen to the body’s tissues, causing severe pain and, eventually, stroke or organ damage. 

Quest For Zika Vaccine Widens; Africa, Asia Deemed Vulnerable


CEO of Genekam Biotechnology, Sudhir Bhatia shows a test kit for the Zika virus at Genekam Biotechnology AG in Duisburg, Germany, February 2, 2016. Image: Ina Fassbender

The Zika virus could spread to Africa, Asia and southern Europe, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday, as major French drugmaker Sanofi SA and others joined the race to create a vaccine.

A day after Geneva-based WHO declared an international public health emergency due to Zika's association with the birth defect microcephaly in Brazil, the United Nations agency said it had launched a global response unit to fight the mosquito-borne virus that is spreading rapidly in Latin America.

Babies born with microcephaly have abnormally small heads and improperly developed brains.

"Most important, we need to set up surveillance sites in low- and middle-income countries so that we can detect any change in the reporting patterns of microcephaly at an early stage," Dr. Anthony Costello said in Geneva. Costello is WHO's director for maternal, child and adolescent health.

Twenty to 30 sites could be established worldwide, mainly in poor countries without robust health care systems.

The Pan American Health Organization said Zika was now spreading in 26 countries and territories in the Americas.

The virus was first identified in 1947 in rhesus monkeys in Uganda while scientists were studying yellow fever, according to the World Health Organization. It was identified in humans in 1952. Zika is spread by mosquitoes of the Aedes genus.

There is no vaccine or treatment for it.

Sanofi's announcement marked the most decisive commitment yet by a major vaccine producer to fight Zika. The company said its Sanofi Pasteur vaccines division would use its expertise in developing vaccines for similar viruses such as yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and dengue.

"Sanofi Pasteur is responding to the global call to action to develop a Zika vaccine given the disease's rapid spread and possible medical complications," said Nicholas Jackson, research head of Sanofi Pasteur, who is leading the Zika vaccine project.

The WHO called for urgent development of better tests to detect the virus in pregnant women and newborn babies.

The new global response unit will build on lessons learned from West Africa's Ebola crisis, Costello said. The WHO was criticized for a slow reaction to the Ebola epidemic, which killed more than 10,000 people.

"The reason it's a global concern," Costello said of Zika, "is that we are worried that this could also spread back to other areas of the world where the population may not be immune."

Costello said Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus "are present ... through Africa, parts of southern Europe and many parts of Asia, particularly South Asia." Africa and Asia have the world's highest birth rates.


WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said on Monday it was "strongly suspected but not yet scientifically proven" that Zika causes microcephaly.

Costello, a pediatrician, said WHO was drafting guidelines for pregnant women and mustering experts to work on a definition of microcephaly that would include a standardized measurement of baby heads.

"We believe the association is 'guilty until proven innocent,'" he said, referring to whether Zika causes microcephaly.

The WHO office for Southeast Asia, issued a statement urging countries in the region to "strengthen surveillance and take preventive measures against the Zika virus disease which is strongly suspected to have a causal relation with clusters of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities."

Small biotech companies and academic institutions have plans to develop a Zika vaccine, and GlaxoSmithKline PLC has said it is concluding feasibility studies to see if its vaccine technology was suitable. And on Tuesday other companies joined the effort.

U.S. drug developer NewLink Genetics Corp, which is also developing an Ebola vaccine with Merck, said it has started a project to develop Zika treatment options.

The University of South Australia said it was working on a Zika vaccine with Australian biotech Sementis Ltd.

Experts have said a Zika vaccine for widespread use is months if not years away.

An Australian state health service said two Australians were diagnosed with the virus after returning from the Caribbean, confirming the first cases of the virus in the country this year.

Officials said mosquitoes carrying the virus had been detected at Sydney International Airport, but they said it was unlikely the virus would establish local transmission given the lack of large numbers of the Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.

Brazil, which has 3,700 suspected cases of microcephaly that may be linked to Zika, is scheduled to host the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Thailand played down the threat posed by Zika, and its public health ministry said the country should not worry about the virus. Thailand has confirmed one case of it this year.

Neighboring Malaysia and Singapore have said they are at high risk for the spread of Zika if the virus turns up in those countries.

(Additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon in Paris, Ben Hirschler in London, Jane Wardell in Sydney, Amy Sawitta Lefevre in bangkok, Pedro Fonseca in Rio, Ankur Banerjee and Amrutha Penumudi in Bengaluru; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Uganda's Zika Forest, Birthplace Of The Zika Virus


A well worn sign is the only indication of the start of the Zika forest, Uganda's only preserve devoted entirely to science research.

Zika Forest, Uganda (CNN) -- The turnoff into the Zika Forest is easy to miss, just a small break in the tree line along the main road between Entebbe Airport and Uganda's capital, Kampala. A worn-out sign announcing its start only comes into view after a journey down a small dirt path.

The explosive spread of the Zika virus may have caught the world by surprise, but its namesake, the forest preserve near the edge of Lake Victoria, isn't a place to just stumble on to. The researchers who have been coming here for more than a half-century come with a purpose: to study viruses and the mosquitoes that carry them.

"Every year we come across new viruses," said Julius Lutwama, lead researcher at the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), which owns the forest. "In the last five years or so, almost each year we come across a new virus in this country."

Uganda sits in the middle of seven distinct biogeographic zones. To the east: the savannahs of Kenya and Tanzania. To the west: the Congo basin rainforest. And Lutwama credits that biodiversity for attracting the first scientists here in the 1930s.

The discovery

What began as a Rockefeller Foundation-funded yellow fever outpost in 1936 soon became a leading laboratory in the study of tropical diseases and later evolved into UVRI in 1977. At the center of all that research is the Zika Forest.

Researchers, realizing in the mid-1940s that different mosquitoes are active at different elevations, constructed a massive steel structure in the middle of the forest to conduct their yellow fever experiments. The lead in the project was a Scottish medical entomologist named Alexander Haddow.

"All of my bedtime stories revolved around my grandfather or my father's experiences growing up in East Africa. As a small child I learned about the Zika Forest, Zika virus and the tower that my grandfather built with funding from the WHO," said Andrew Haddow, Alexander's grandson, who is now a researcher working for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

He says he tried other careers, but the choice should have been clear from the beginning.

"I read all of his papers and the papers that came out of the lab," Andrew Haddow said. "We owe our basic understanding of many arboviruses and their associated mosquito and reservoir species to them."

It was in April of 1947, while studying yellow fever, that Alexander Haddow and colleague George Dick first identified Zika virus after a fever developed in a rhesus monkey placed on a wooden platform on his recently constructed tower. Blood samples revealed an unknown virus that, as protocol dictated, was named Zika after the forest in which it was first identified.

The Spread

They still use Haddow's tower today. Just before a recent sunset, a team from UVRI pulled up to the forest edge and unloaded two large Styrofoam coolers from the back of a pickup truck. Dry ice fog poured from the coolers' edges as they assembled the mosquito traps and headed into the forest toward Haddow's Tower.

Its sides are now rusted and a few of the wooden platforms where they now hang mosquito traps are in varying states of disrepair. Scientists say surrounding construction threatens to make this small preserve even smaller and the research they used to carry out weekly has tapered off. Just like the virus that bears its name, they say, little attention has been paid to Zika Forest.

When first identified, the virus was only proven to infect monkeys. Even in the subsequent decades, when a dozen or so isolated human cases began to emerge, the symptoms were mild and Zika was never seen as a threat in Uganda.

"It was never viewed with importance," said Lutwama. "No one is interested in making a vaccine for a virus that only causes mild symptoms."

Marilyn Parsons of the Center for Infectious Disease Research says it's also hard to distinguish Zika's symptoms from other similar arboviruses.

"It was hard to quantify how much Zika infection there was and its impact, since its symptoms are quite similar to other viruses varied by the Aedes mosquitoes: dengue and chikungunya," said Parsons.

It's unclear just how long Zika has been around because some studies have found immunity in populations in Africa and Asia, perhaps due to the similarity to other viruses.

All of that changed in 2007, when the first large outbreak of Zika was reported on Yap Island in Micronesia, Haddow said. Chikungunya and West Nile followed similar courses. "West Nile circulated for at least 62 years before it emerged in New York City in 1999. The common theme of all of these viruses is that they were not widely studied and they all emerged after a long period of time to cause severe illness."

More troubling, many scientists believe the 2007 strain of Zika has mutated from the original virus found in Uganda, with increased virulence. Subsequent years saw the virus spread quickly through the Pacific islands before landing in South America and Brazil in 2015, where there's a suspected correlation to an increase in the birth defect microcephaly and other serious conditions.

'Preparing For The Next Zika Now'

Louis Mukwaya's office sits in a prime location on the UVRI campus in Entebbe. Just right of the main doors, it's a large space that somehow manages to have every surface filled with stacks of papers. He started at the institute in 1965, just a few years after Alexander Haddow would step down as its head. A picture of Haddow still hangs in his office. Next to it, a picture of Mukwaya with the younger Haddow from 2013 when he visited the research center his grandfather helped create.

"He was a very hardworking man," Mukwaya said of the elder Haddow, before turning his attention to the virus Haddow first identified all those years ago. "You know I keep reading on the Internet about Zika in Brazil and they keep using the word, 'emerging,' 'emerging' infection. We've known about it for a long time, but then even we don't know what will happen with the virus."

Mukwaya said the institute and others like it simply don't have the resources to properly study emerging viruses.

"We used to do routine collections once a week," said the renowned entomologist. "These days we don't get out nearly as much. Funding is poor, this is the problem."

Vaccine and drug development can take years, so basic research that lays the foundation is crucial, Parsons said. "This type of research could identify drug targets, vaccine antigen targets, and develop models for testing them," she added.

A climb to the top of the tower that Andrew Haddow's grandfather helped build more than a half-century ago reveals that the once remote research outpost now is entirely surrounded by Uganda's urban centers. Any new viruses discovered here will no longer be considered remote.

"The current Zika virus outbreak in South and Central America is another wake-up call that increased globalization and climate change will continue to lead to the emergence of viral pathogens," said Haddow. "We need to be preparing for the next Zika virus now."

Scientists' Path To Usable Zika Vaccine Strewn With Hurdles


The world is once again asking scientists and drugmakers to come up rapidly with a vaccine for a viral disease that, in the latest case, few people had heard of until a few weeks ago, and even fewer feared.

Making a shot to generate an immune response against Zika virus, which is sweeping through the Americas, shouldn’t be too hard in theory. However, producing a safe, effective and deliverable product to protect women and girls who are at risk is not easy in practice.

For a start, scientists around the world know even less about Zika than they did about the Ebola virus that caused an unprecedented epidemic in West Africa last year. Ebola, due to its deadly power, was the subject of bioterrorism research, giving at least a base for speeding up vaccine work. This time, the knowledge gap is more daunting.

There are just 30 mentions of Zika in patents, against 1,043 for Ebola and 2,551 for dengue fever, according to Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index. And there have been only 108 high-profile academic papers on Zika since 2001, against more than 4,000 on Ebola, as found in the Web of Science.

Still, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Butantan Institute in Brazil have started work on potential candidates for a Zika vaccine, and several biotech firms are in the race. They include NewLink Genetics, which helped develop the first successful Ebola vaccine with Merck & Co.

Importantly, there is now a “big gun” vaccine maker with skin in the game: Sanofi’s said on Tuesday it will launch a Zika vaccine program, a day after the World Health Organization declared the disease and its suspected links to birth defects an international health emergency.

Canadian researcher Gary Kobinger told Reuters he believes an experimental Zika shot might be able to be used on a limited emergency basis as soon as late 2016, although full regulatory approval will take years.

Ben Neuman, an expert on viruses at Britain’s University of Reading, says there are many hurdles ahead. “To be useful, a Zika vaccine would need to be effective and safe, but it’s difficult to do both,” he told Reuters. “It’s a balancing act.”

That’s because a good vaccine works by provoking the immune system into a strong response - but not enough to make a person sick - and there is no simple way to assess the right immune response for Zika, according to one drug company expert.

Zika infection is so mild in the vast majority of cases that its victims are unaware they are even infected, so this group of potential patients is unlikely to need or want immunization.

The crucial target group is women who may be pregnant, since the disease’s greatest suspected threat is the possible link to severe birth defects.

All of this makes developing and testing a vaccine highly complex, especially since pregnant women are often excluded from clinical trials until the safety of new drugs or vaccines is well-established in other population groups.

It also makes for an uncertain and potentially limited market for any Zika vaccine.

Assuming Sanofi or another company succeeds in developing one, the vaccine may be used only in teenage girls - protecting them before they are likely to become pregnant - in countries and regions where Zika-carrying mosquitoes thrive.

“It’s a public health good initiative, it’s not necessarily a commercial initiative,” said Berenberg Bank analyst Alistair Campbell. “Zika is something that has cropped up suddenly and may well dissipate, so there may not be a sustainable annual cohort of patients for vaccination.” Still, the WHO and other public health authorities will be relieved that one of the world’s top drugmakers has pledged to work on a vaccine.

GlaxoSmithKline is also investigating Zika and a spokeswoman reiterated on Tuesday it is concluding feasibility studies to see if its vaccine technology might be suitable.

Ultimately, developing vaccines is a question of priorities, as evidenced by a patchy pattern of protection against a range of mosquito-borne viruses over the past 80 years.

There was early success with the development in 1938 of the first vaccine against yellow fever, which belongs to the same virus family as Zika. More recently, drugmakers have successfully developed shots against Japanese encephalitis and dengue. The first dengue vaccine, from Sanofi, was approved in December - after 20 years’ work. Work on other mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile fever and chikungunya is still underway.

Funding Falls Short For Task Force To Fight Nigeria's Boko Haram


A signboard rests against a wall in a compound in Michika town, after the Nigerian military recaptured it from Boko Haram, in Adamawa state May 10, 2015. Image: Akintunde Akinleye

Funding for a multinational force to combat Boko Haram's deadly Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa remains well short of its target, an African Union official said on Tuesday.

So far donors, including Nigeria, Switzerland and France, have pledged about $250 million to fund the 8,700-strong regional force, the African Union's Peace and Security Council said after a meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss funding.

The talks followed the militia's latest attack, which killed at least 65 people in northeast Nigeria on Saturday.

The $250 million includes both previous pledges and those made during Monday's conference, said Orlando Bama, communications officer for the African Union's Peace and Security Council. He did not give further details.

That covers just over a third of the $700 million budget announced for the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) last year.

The task force -- to be made up of regional African militaries -- has yet to mobilise. Instead, national armies are tackling Boko Haram individually, but they often cannot follow the insurgency across the region's long, porous borders.

The region threatened by Boko Haram is one of the poorest in the world, and all the countries in the task force, barring Benin, are oil producers whose budgets have been battered by falling prices.

Boko Haram has killed thousands of people and driven more than 2 million people from their homes during its six-year insurgency.

Regional armies from Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon mounted an offensive against the insurgents last year that ousted them from many positions in northern Nigeria. The United States has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance.

But progress has been slow.

"The answer lies in there being political will and the capability to back the force," said Imad Mesdoua, at Africa Matters consultancy in London. "This has been a regular problem with multi-national task forces in Africa."

(Reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa and Edward McAllister in Dakar; writing by Edward McAllister; editing by Katharine Houreld)