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Global Business Reports Interview with MS Risk CEO, Liam Morrissey on mining industry security

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Could you give us a sense of MS Risk’ main regions of activity in Africa?

In the western Sahel we have been assisting client projects for 14 years. In East Africa we have been active in places like Ethiopia where we evacuated several mining clients during the turbulence in Tigray, for example. In southern Africa the security situation has been more benign and so our work in places like Namibia and Botswana has been along the lines of due diligence, helping clients set up new projects and to ensure that end-client security and crisis plans are proportionate and fit for purpose.       

Do you think the mining industry is showing greater awareness of the issue of security?

The growing focus on ESG is pushing companies to pay more attention to security due diligence. The days of deploying contractors to a new country and not asking their client about security arrangements are closing. More companies operating in the Sahel region are insisting that their clients demonstrate security and crisis response plans exist and work. For producing mines we see new procedures becoming commonplace on convoy management, route selection and use of charter flights to move most personnel.  This signals that many companies are trying to raise their game to meet the shifting challenges.

How is the war in the Sahel evolving and what does this mean for mining companies?

The war is expanding geographically and in intensity. We now see terrorist violence in the northern regions of Togo and Benin. Pressure remains in northern Ivory Coast and it must also be building on the Ghanaian northern frontier, even if it is not yet visible. The political instability in West Africa is stimulating the war because these countries are not positioned to combat the insurgency. Despite their courage, the Burkinabé soldiers and gendarmerie take terrible casualties. To operate in the Sahel today, mining companies need to factor the direct and indirect impacts of the conflict including targeted attacks, murder, kidnapping and ambush, and with that, to have a scalable enterprise security framework ready for mitigation in such an environment. The real danger is that some companies may still want to trade off the old business model of six years ago. This example permeates across the West African theatre and is to be avoided if safety of people and protection of asset value is to be achieved.      

 West Africa has seen multiple governments toppled by military interventions. Are the new leaders gaining legitimacy after these coups?

We have seen a succession of military interventions in the last three years, including some that failed.  It is discouraging that the current political climate seems to give signals that this is the way forward.  Regional bodies such as ECOWAS have appeared inconsistent in how they approach each case. International donors such as the US and EU have severely restricted aid to new military juntas. This leads to regimes looking elsewhere for new friends and it may give encouragement to militants.           

Could you unpack the link between artisanal miners and insurgents?

Organized crime bandits and terrorists influence illegal miners and use them as a funding stream. Recent studies suggest the value of illicit gold production is between US$1.5 billion – US$5 billion annually. If warlords and terrorists can tax a percentage then we realise just how valuable this activity is to driving instability.

MS Risk has successfully supported large-scale displacements of artisanal miners from client properties many times and in different countries. These are sensitive operations with safety, legal and ethical considerations. When done inappropriately, like we have seen some untrained security forces using heavy-handed tactics that resulted in fatalities. The tensions between locals and miners grow because artisanals will not blame the army, but the western mining companies that were being protected.

Do you have a final message?

Just like the frog that does not realize it will boil while sitting in a gradually-heating pot, so is the Sahel war becoming so normalized that people do not realize the seriousness of it and think they are immune to it. A lot of people are still not confronting the reality on the ground and, because of that, are not resourcing correctly. MS Risk can help them understand the real risks, tactically, operationally, and strategically.

Reprinted from GBR.

Najib Razak’s conviction: a political earthquake for Malaysia

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Malaysia has experienced in the last month an unprecedented political turmoil. On 23 August the Malaysian Federal Court confirmed a sentence of twelve years in prison for corruption for former Prime Minister Najib Razak.  The 69-year-old former president was found guilty of the misappropriation of 42 million ringgit (US$9.421 million) from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib, who ruled the country from April 2009 to May 2018, faces four other trials for the 1MDB scandal, the country’s largest corruption case that came to light in 2015 thanks to a journalistic investigation into the diversion of funds to the accounts of the then president and founder of the fund. Moreover, Malaysia’s Federal Court sentenced Rosmah Mansor, wife of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to 10 years in prison for taking bribes, just days after her husband was jailed for corruption.

Najib is Malaysia’s first former Prime Minister to be convicted and imprisoned. Having used up all legal avenues, a royal pardon is Najib’s only hope to get out of jail. Najib officially submitted his pardon request to King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, but the royal pardon is unlikely because Najib still faces trials on other charges. Without the royal pardon Najib would not be able to contest the next general elections scheduled for September 2023. This situation has created a political turmoil that could lead to the early call of general elections. In fact, Malaysia’s Election Commission (MEC) confirmed that its state offices are ready to hold the next general election as soon as the parliament is dissolved. The MEC informed that the election is expected to cost around RM1 billion (about US$224 million). The political campaign is already taking place on social media and political leaders are visiting different states of the country to give speeches at social gatherings. Now that the political situation is so uncertain, every political party is by default in campaign mode trying to fish for political points. Two factors have to be taken into account to analyse this political turmoil: the dominant political party and the rejuvenated opposition parties.

First of all, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party to which Najib belongs and that has ruled the country for decades, has seen a dramatic decrease in its popularity for two reasons. Apart from the historic conviction of Najib, his current leader, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, will probably be also convicted of Criminal Breach of Trust (CBT), money laundering and corruption in the following months. Ahmad himself called for elections to be held in the country as soon as possible during a briefing in Kuala Lumpur, ideally before he gets convicted too. Calling an early election is also beneficial for the UMNO right now because of the better-than-expected economy and a fractured opposition. The UMNO also wants to use its success in the regional elections in Johor (March 2022), Melaka (November 2021), and Sabah (September 2020) before its popular support decreases even further.

This means that UMNO’s traditional leader (Najib) and its current leader (Ahmad) are both accused of corruption, and the party is in a very weak position at the moment, compared to its dominant position decades ago. Now there is a third person trying to get control of the UMNO party: Ismail Sabri. Sabri is waiting for Ahmad to be convicted in order to get control of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and start an immediate reorganization, regenerating UMNO’s branding into something acceptable to the Malay electorate. As it can be seen, the UMNO party is not at its best. To crown it all, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, member of the UMNO, has come under pressure from his party to call for early elections, even though the UMNO denies this ultimatum. This political uncertainty translates into a golden opportunity for opposition parties.

Opposition parties in Malaysia have experienced a fresh push with Najib’s conviction. After all, the images of Najib being physically escorted to Kajang Prison made many Malaysians realize that the rule of law had prevailed. Ahead of the next general elections (regardless of their date), opposition parties must create an attractive candidate line-up to confront the -weakened but still popular- UMNO. One of the main challenges for the opposition will be to gain the vote of young people, as most of them have been influenced through the education system to defend a Malay-centric state, something they see as more important than opposition-pledged reforms. One of the main opposition groups, the Pakatan Harapan coalition (consisting of centre-left and centre-right parties) has already started a series of large-scale political rallies across the country.

Last but not least, Najib’s jail sentence has showed that the judiciary has remained a strong institution during the conviction process of Najib. The judiciary has traditionally been seen submissive vis-à-vis the corrupt elites, who have routinely acted with impunity. Many members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) denounced that Najib had been subject of a politically motivated witch-hunt and had not received a fair trial. In this case, the judiciary managed to overcome political pressure, smear campaigns and mudslinging. The allegations of an unfair trial against Najib will likely become one of the main topics of the political campaign ahead of the general elections.

Unless there is a royal pardon, Najib’s conviction will be remembered in Malaysia’s history as a moment when corruption was not tolerated. Moreover, his conviction will also be remembered as an event that triggered political instability in the country. The most likely scenario in the next 12 months in Malaysia is thus a general election where a reformed UMNO party confronts a revised opposition.

ASEAN’S summit August 2022 – the beginning of a more cohesive organization?

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The members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in a summit held in Cambodia from 3rd-5th August 2022. Cambodia is the chair of ASEAN for 2022, which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. This summit, officially called the 55th Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN, was the first in-person meeting of the ASEAN since the start of the pandemic. This summit, marked by the tensions between China-US and the crisis in Myanmar, had three main takeaways.

First of all, ASEAN’s members during this summit were in a difficult situation due to the increase of tensions in the region. This summit coincided with the controversial visit to Taiwan of Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House of Representatives. This was an especially prickly topic for this summit, since tensions with China are a matter of difficult consensus among the ten nations that make up ASEAN, with countries very close to Beijing, such as Cambodia and Laos, and others that maintain a more distant relationship despite strong economic ties (Indonesia, the Philippines). On top of that, during this summit top diplomats of both China and the US were invited (China’s Wang Yi and USA’s Antony Blinken), causing an increase in tension inside the summit. Surprisingly, at the end of the summit ASEAN members agreed on a statement that pointed out the possibility that these “recent events in an area close to the region could destabilize it and eventually lead to a miscalculation, a serious confrontation, open conflicts and unpredictable consequences.” This joint statement is surprising because then years ago, when Cambodia was the chair of ASEAN, the country was more reluctant to interfere in China’s domestic and regional moves. Apart from the issue of the Taiwan crisis, country members used this summit as an opportunity to assert their claims once again on the South China Sea. “Fed-up” maritime ASEAN states like Indonesia and the Philippines asserted their own maritime claims using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a framework. To crown it all, at the end of this summit the final communique included these claims, arguing that these maritime disputes in the South China Sea have “eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace.” These statements thus prove that ASEAN leaders -regardless of their individual relations with China- have been able to reach a consensus on how to approach -or slightly confront- China, the most powerful country in Asia.

Secondly, this summit of ASEAN was interesting to follow due to the elephant in the room: Myanmar. The situation could be summarized with the words of Prak Sokhonn, the Cambodian foreign minister and host of this year’s summit, when he said that “not even Superman can solve Myanmar’s problems”. The country has been excluded from ASEAN summits in the last months, and the relations between Myanmar and the rest of the ASEAN members have been harmed by Myanmar’s lack of effort to enforce the Five Point Consensus plan (agreed in April 2021). Moreover, Hun Sen acknowledged during the opening of the summit that the situation in Myanmar has worsened as a result of the execution of four activists opposed to the military junta that had “disappointed and disturbed” the ASEAN member countries. Likewise, these executions have been seen as an offense to the efforts of the 2022 ASEAN Chair (Cambodia) and the ASEAN Special Envoy on Myanmar. These four executions -the first since 1976 in the country- have set a precedent in the junta’s rule and have triggered a more united response from ASEAN. Inside ASEAN, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei pressed for harder measures against the military junta of Myanmar, which could potentially include the freezing all relations with the junta, the recognition of the National Unity Government, (formed by supporters of the ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi), and sanctions. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s Prime Minister, commented that ASEAN will be forced to reconsider the Five Point Consensus peace agreement if Myanmar’s current leaders continue their executions of prisoners. Myanmar is on notice while ASEAN considers its next move. Human Rights groups have asked ASEAN to rethink its approach and demand specific actions and timeframes to end violence in the country as soon as possible. Despite these criticisms, it could be said that ASEAN has shown an unprecedented unity and decision in the approach towards one of its member states.

Finally, ASEAN’s summit in Cambodia was especially relevant due to the presence of international diplomats like China’s Wang Yi; Russia’s Sergey Lavrov; USA’s Antony Blinken and the high representative of the Foreign Policy of the European Union, Josep Borrell. It could be said that this ASEAN summit was used by non-ASEAN leaders for two aims. The first one was that each non-ASEAN actor (China, Russia, Japan, US, EU or India) used this ASEAN summit to try promoting investment and development plans with ASEAN countries. Both China and the US promised ASEAN countries attractive partnerships and investment for development projects. Apart from this, these international actors used their time at the ASEAN summit for bilateral meetings. For example, Blinken (US) and Borrell (EU) held a bilateral meeting, where they discussed the importance of free and open maritime supply routes and supply chains in the region of South-East Asia, amongst other topics. Besides, the planned meeting between the Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Yoshimasa Hayashi, was suspended due to comments made by the G7 ministers on the situation in Taiwan, who expressed their concern about what they consider “threatening words” from China. Finally, East Timor, which has enjoyed observer status in ASEAN since 2002, has expressed its willingness to join as a full member of the organization in 2023, when Indonesia will take over the presidency of ASEAN. This international presence and the possibility that ASEAN will include a new member means that the organization is in good health, and that ASEAN members are considered influential actors to take into account in the international area.

ASEAN’s position, despite the current situation of regional and international turmoil, has surprisingly remained intact. What is more, ASEAN has shown during this 55th Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs a level of unity and decisiveness rarely seen before. The members of the group have shown unity in the face of adversity and have managed to work together and establish a common approach to challenges inside their organization (Myanmar) and outside (China). ASEAN will probably have to make difficult decisions in the following months, especially ahead of the next ASEAN meeting in November.

North Macedonia and Bulgaria’s European Dispute

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North Macedonia has been attempting to join the EU since 2004. Only in 2020 did North Macedonia’s government receive permission to enter into accession talks. However, these talks were made more complicated by a dispute between North Macedonia and their neighbour Bulgaria.

Bulgaria had been vetoing North Macedonia’s accession talks because of a feud about common cultural and language heritage. In 2020, Bulgaria offered a compromise and agreed to acknowledge Macedonian language and national identity if North Macedonia would recognise that both nations and languages have a common cultural heritage and historical roots. North Macedonia rejected this idea.

Although this may sound like a good deal, to many Macedonians, acknowledging a link between North Macedonia and Bulgaria has some threatening undertones. After World War II, Yugoslav Macedonia set about building a nation with its own identity. A way of doing this is by cutting ties with its neighbour who has a similar cultural identity and so the Cold War narrative laid out was to be anti-Bulgaria.

These narratives still surface today with the burning down of the Bulgarian cultural centre in Bitola that was named after Ivan Mihajlov, a very controversial figure because of his anti-communist ideas and his fight for Bulgarian nationalism. Many see him as a Nazi and a fascist sympathiser, hence his unpopularity in North Macedonia. Thus, he set about eliminating left-wing Macedonians and any enemy of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria condemned the burning of the cultural centre and added a new roadblock to talks between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Bulgarian President Rumen Radev called it a provocation and ‘part of a long-standing anti-Bulgarian campaign in North Macedonia.’ If North Macedonia was to join the EU, they would need Sofia on their side.

However, external factors meant that it was desirable for the Balkan nation to join the EU. The war in Ukraine put fear into the minds of the unattached Balkan countries who feared that, like Ukraine, not having a link with the EU would make them an easy target for Russian expansion.

It became important for the integrity of Europe to improve relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia and finally, under President Kiril Petkov of Bulgaria and President Dimitar Kovečevski of North Macedonia these talks bore fruit. On 24 June 2022, under pressure from the EU, Bulgaria’s parliament approved lifting its veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks.

In order that these accession talks go ahead, North Macedonia must agree, and put into constitution, that Bulgarians are ‘on equal footing with other peoples.’ They must also sign bilateral protocol and effectively implement a 2017 treaty of friendship, good neighbourliness and cooperation between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, ending hate speech against Bulgarians in North Macedonia.

Ultimately, it was in the best interest for the Western Balkans, to allow North Macedonia and Albania to join the EU. For all involved it creates a security barrier against Russian incursions, it provides economic advantages and will allow these countries to prosper moving forward.

Colombia Elects its First Ever Leftist President

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On 19 June, Gustavo Petro was elected as the next president of Colombia, with 50.8% of the vote. His rival, Rodolfo Hernandez, gained 46.9%. A current senator and previous mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro was also a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement.

Petro’s victory marks the first time the country has seen a leftist president. His vice president will be Francia Márquez, a prize-winning defender of human rights, marking the first time that a black woman will occupy the post. Colombians opting for leftist Petro over populist Hernandez is the latest continuation of a region-wide trend, as in the last couple of years multiple South American countries have selected left wing leadership. In 2021, Chilean presidential elections saw Gabriel Boric being voted in, and Pedro Castillo was elected president of Peru. Silvana Amaya, an analyst at Control Risks consultancy in Bogota, describes Petro’s victory as “historic,”, elaborating that “Colombia has traditionally voted very conservative. This marks a big change, a move to a very different economic model.”

Luis Eduardo Celis, of Colombian thinktank the Peace and Reconciliation foundation, lists a number of the issues that Petro will need to address including “agrarian reform, an economy at the service of the people, a more equitable taxation, to get out of hunger, out of poverty, to put an end to all that violence.” Petro himself advocates that he will listen to “that silent majority of peasants, Indigenous people, women, youth.”

Petro is expected to take a new approach to historic domestic issues, such as Colombia’s problem with armed groups. Of particular importance will be managing the situation with former FARC dissidents and The ELN (National Liberation Army) – the two largest guerrilla groups in the country. Fighting between former FARC members and the ELN has caused significant numbers of civilian casualties over recent months. January saw 23 people killed in Arauca over one weekend. At least 66 people were killed in the region overall, and at least 1,200 people were displaced by the violence according to Colombia’s ombudsman’s office. The resurgence of violence from the FARC is thought to be in large part due to current president Ivan Duque’s disregard for conditions of the 2016 peace agreement, where the FARC agreed to disarm in exchange for being permitted to re-integrate into society without retribution. Though Petro has not provided specific details of his planned security policy, it seems likely that it will differ from Duque’s approach and hopefully see more success. An early indicator of this is that the ELN have now expressed that they are open to dialogue with Petro.

Petro proposes some revolutionary reforms to Colombia’s economy, pledging to reduce Colombia’s dependence on raw materials extraction, particularly oil. If he executes his plan to ban new contracts for oil exploration, Colombia would become the world’s biggest crude exporter (in terms of crude oil’s share of the country’s total exports) to take this step. He says that he would honour existing exploration and production contracts, in order to eventually replace oil revenues gradually with revenue from other sectors such as agriculture, manufactured goods, tourism, and clean energy. It would be a considerable amount to make up via other means since The Colombian Association of Petroleum and Gas estimated in May that banning new oil contracts could cost the government around $4.5 billion in tax revenue by 2026.

On international matters, it is likely that Petro’s election will lead to a renewed relationship with neighbouring Venezuela. He has advocated for reneging Duque’s policy of isolation, and opening dialogue with Nicolas Maduro. This approach is unlikely to be well received by the U.S. and other countries who support the opposition government led by Juan Guaido.