WEEKENDER: Terrific news from Mozambique, Botswana, but horror continues in Nigeria and Sudan

Boko Haram take Chibok town as second Nigeria military helicopter crashes in a week. As succession battles hots up in Zimbabwe, ruling party purges.

EXPERTS had feared it could take 50 to 100 years  to clear the tens of thousands of deadly mines buried in Mozambique’s soil, but instead it took just over 20.

The result is that in the coming weeks, Mozambique, once one of the most heavily mined countries in the world will mark a historic milestone and proudly declare itself free of the deadly scourge.

In 1992 Mozambique emerged from 16 years of civil war, Mozambique had won the dubious distinction of being—along with Angola, Afghanistan, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Cambodia—one of the five most heavily mined nations on Earth.

Now sometime towards the end of this year or early in 2015, Mozambique will be the first of the five to be declared “impact-free,” US officials and observers say, an impressive record.

While exact figures of casualties are unknown, the National Demining Institute (NDI) recorded some 2,145 casualties up to 2001 without breaking the figure down between those injured and killed. In recent years the number of annual accidents has slipped to single digits.

About 182,000 landmines have been cleared since 1993, of which about 150,000 were safely removed by the HALO trust, the British NGO championed by the late Princess Diana.

Deadly legacy of war

The treacherous minefields were the deadly legacy not just of the internecine bloodshed which killed a million people in fighting between Frelimo liberation movement and Renamo rebels.

They were also lingering scars of long-forgotten conflicts such as the 1964-1975 war of independence with Portugal and hostilities along the border with then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

This rare success story in the dangerous world of de-mining has been achieved thanks to unparalleled cooperation between the government in Maputo, non-governmental organisations and international donors.

Demining experts talk of the deathly silence that hangs over remote minefields.

And of the resilience and courage of villagers who have carved paths through these fields of death by hurling huge boulders into them to act as a series of stepping-stones.

US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Todd Chapman, who first arrived in Maputo in 1993 as the embassy’s economic officer said; “Back in 1993, economic activity was greatly constrained because of the threat of mines out in the countryside,” he told AFP.

But as demining efforts began to have an effect “slowly but surely you saw areas of the country open up,” he said.

The US is the largest single donor to humanitarian demining programmes, spending some $2.3 billion across 90 countries since 1993—or 30% of the global total. Some $53 million has gone to Mozambique.

Washington has yet to sign the international Mine Ban Treaty, but this year it prohibited its forces from using the weapons except on the Korean peninsula.

Very odd anti-mining techniques

Mozambique has also benefited from some pioneering cutting-edge technology including sophisticated metal detectors that helped speed up the work.

Perhaps the oddest innovation though is the use of rats introduced to Mozambique by Belgian NGO Apopo in 2006.

The team of tiny critters is trained over nine months to detect TNT beneath the ground in return for a treat, and can scour in a matter of minutes an area that would take a human much longer to pick over.

Many countries still struggle with grim reminders of past conflicts, and Mozambique’s success can perhaps give hope to others.

Botswana court victory for gays

In further breakthrough news from southern Africa, a Botswana High Court Friday ordered the government to register and recognise the country’s first gay and lesbian lobby group, in a case testing the country’s strict anti-homosexuality laws.

A group of activists approached the court to rule on the matter after the Home Affairs ministry rejected an application to register the Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO).

In his verdict, judge Terrence Rannowane said, “refusal to register LEGABIBO was not reasonably justifiable under the constitution”.

He said government’s refusal to register the group had “violated the applicants’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly” under the country’s constitution.

Botswana is touted as one of Africa’s most democratic nations, yet homosexuality is outlawed under the penal code of 1965, and punishable by prison term of up to seven years.

LEGABIBO coordinator Caine Youngman hailed the court’s decision. Homosexuality is a crime in most African countries.

South Africa is the only country on the continent whose constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and recognises same-sex marriages.

Elsewhere on the continent, though, it was turmoil.

Zimbabwe purge

Zimbabwe’s ruling party has suspended two senior officials and expelled another as tensions over President Robert Mugabe’s succession intensify ahead of a key congress next month, media reported Friday.

The state-owned Herald newspaper said ZANU-PF politburo suspended spokesman Rugare Gumbo and lawmaker Enoch Porusingazi for five years, while war veterans’ leader Jabulani Sibanda was expelled.

ZANU-PF has been riven by factional feuding over the successor of 90-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980.

Gumbo and Porusingazi are seen as sympathising with Vice-President Joice Mujuru, accused by Mugabe’s wife Grace of plotting to topple the long-ruling president.

The battle for Mugabe’s succession escalated following the surprise nomination of Grace Mugabe to lead the powerful women’s wing, amid speculation that she could be aiming to take over from her husband when he steps down or dies.

After her nomination she began a campaign disparaging her opponents, accusing Mujuru of fomenting division in the party and plotting to topple Mugabe.

Mujuru and powerful Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa—who in the past controlled the secret police and military—are seen as the leading contenders to replace Mugabe.

More death, war in Nigeria

The political struggle in Nigeria, was more deadly.

Boko Haram has seized the town of Chibok in Borno state, northeast Nigeria, from where 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped more than six months ago, a local pastor and a senator told AFP on Friday.

“Chibok was taken by Boko Haram. They are in control,” said Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose daughter and niece are among the 219 teenagers still being held. 

Mark and the senator for southern Borno, Ali Ndume, said the militants attacked at about 4:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Thursday, destroying communications masts and forcing residents to flee. 

Ndume said that he had received calls from fleeing residents saying the town “was now under their (Boko Haram) control”. 

Boko Haram fighters stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on the evening of April 14 this year and forced students onto trucks in a mass abduction that caused global outrage.

Earlier Friday Nigeria said three servicemen were killed in a military helicopter crash in the restive northeast, while Boko Haram rebels raided two more towns and vigilantes and hunters clawed back a key militant stronghold.

The second crash in a week happened late on Thursday in Yola, the capital of Adamawa, which is one of three states that has been under emergency rule since May last year.

The military said the aircraft involved was a ground attack helicopter on an armed patrol.

“The crew of three was lost in the ill-fated accident,” a statement said, adding that an investigation will be carried out.

There was no immediate indication that the armed Islamist movement was responsible for the crash, though there has been an increase in Boko Haram activity in the state in recent weeks.

Boko Haram has reportedly taken over more than two-dozen towns in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, including the commercial hub of Mubi, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) from Yola.

Last week, the extremists, who have been waging a five-year insurgency to create a hardline Islamic state, renamed Mubi “Madinatul Islam” or “City of Islam” in Arabic, residents said.

Nigeria’s chief of army staff, Major General Kenneth Minimah, told a Senate defence committee on Thursday that the loss of territory was “painful” but promised that troops would recapture lost ground.

Locals and a government official said later that about 200 vigilantes and hunters armed with homemade guns, spears, clubs, bows and arrows, and machetes took back Mubi.

The hunters captured the Boko Haram-appointed emir, or leader, of Mubi after the attack, while militant fighters fled.

But instead of pulling back to other territory it is reported to control, locals said Boko Haram fighters invaded Hong, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south on the way towards Yola, and Gombi, to the northwest of Mubi.

In both Hong and Gombi, the militants were said to have razed the towns’ police stations.

The move towards Yola will raise concerns about safety in the city, where thousands of people have taken refuge to escape the violence.

Thursday’s chopper crash near a hall of residence at the Modibbo Adama University of Science and Technology caused panic among students, as weapons said to be on board apparently exploded.

A student said there was chaos as residents at the hostel tried to flee but were prevented by soldiers guarding the gates.

The university has been under military protection after a spate of Islamist attacks against schools in the region.

Sudan aircraft go bombing

In Sudan, military aircraft were not crashing but on the attack. Sudanese warplanes bombed South Sudan, wounding six civilians in areas bordering war zone regions where Khartoum is trying to crush rebel fighters, reports said Friday.

Sudan however rejected the claims of fresh bombing raids, which not only raises tensions between the former civil war foes, but also comes as Khartoum holds peace talks with rebels.

South Sudan army spokesman Philip Aguer told the independent Radio Tamazuj that bombs were dropped on Wednesday in the Maban district of Upper Nile state, which hosts over 125,000 refugees who fled from fighting in neighbouring Sudan’s Blue Nile state.

Sudanese army spokesman Colonel Al-Sawarmy Khaled denied the reports.

Earlier this month the presidents of Sudan and South Sudan agreed to restart work to demarcate their contested border, a dispute that boiled over into war between the countries in 2012.

South Sudan split from the north in 2011 following a peace agreement ending decades of civil war, and the two remain at odds over unresolved issues from the secession, including the frontier.

Both countries are also battling internal conflicts that spill over their borders.

Civil war broke out in South Sudan in December.

Sudan’s army has been fighting for more than a decade war in the western Darfur region, and for the past three years, rebellions in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Warplanes earlier this month reportedly also bombed South Sudan’s Western Bahr el-Ghazal region, which borders Darfur.

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