Monday, January 30, 2012

It's A Small (Protest) World

There's an amusing story in The Guardian about the absurdist new tack that some political protesters are taking in Russia, and the police's equally-absurd reaction to them.

Activists in the Siberian city of Barnaul tried to get around opposition from local officials to pro-democracy/pro-reform political protests by recreating a political protest in miniature by setting up a collection of toy figurines – Lego men and the like – holding tiny political slogans on a streetside snowbank.  Some passersby were amused by the toy rally, the Barnaul police were not. The city's deputy police chief went so far as to say at a press conference, as reported by local media in Barnaul: “in our opinion, this is still an unsanctioned public event.” Police also reportedly jotted down the slogans carried by the Lego men and told the rally's human organizers that they would need to “rent” the pile of snow that served as a stage from the city.  A human spokeswoman for the toy rally said that they deliberately decided to stage an absurd protest to illustrate the ridiculousness of the official position against political rallies in Russia, it was nice then of the police in Barnaul to oblige them.

The Guardian reports that in December, the first political protest against the widespread belief that the December 4 parliamentary elections had been rigged in favor of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party drew nearly 2,000 people in Barnaul, a rather large number for a city of only 600,000 located in Siberia in the middle of winter.  Activists are planning another round of political rallies across Russia this Saturday to protest the upcoming presidential elections, which Putin is expected to win.  Officials in Moscow have granted a permit for humans to march this time, with organizers expecting 50,000 people to attend.
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

China's Ace In The Hole

What exactly is China doing with Kim Jong-nam?  That's the question asked in an interesting report from the UK's Telegraph newspaper.  It seems that the eldest son of former Dear Leader Kim Jong-il is being carefully watched by Chinese authorities.  Kim Jong-nam has lived in exile in China, splitting his time between Beijing and the former Portuguese colony of Macau, since publicly embarrassing the Kim regime after being caught trying to sneak into Japan on a fake passport, reportedly to go to Disneyland Tokyo.

But since his father's death and his youngest brother's elevation to supreme leader status, China has taken a very protective stance towards Kim Jong-nam, according to Japanese jouranlist Yoji Gomi, who has written a book about the exiled Kim, a man he calls a friend.  Kim Jong-nam has been reported as saying that his youngest brother Kim Jong-un is nothing more than a figurehead who is unready for the leadership position he has been thrust into.  Kim Jong-nam was also critical of the lavish lifestyle of the Kims and of their “military first” policy – where members of the military get dibs on North Korea's scarce resources, rather than the Communist Party's supposed policy of “people first”.  As for the Chinese monitoring, Gomi suggests that Kim Jong-nam could be a “political card” for China to play if the Kim regime falls apart.

This is an interesting theory for a few reasons.  According to Korean tradition, power should have gone to the eldest son, Kim Jong-nam; so skipping him in favor of the youngest son is in many ways a jarring move.  Then there's the fact many North Koreans didn't even know of the existence of Kim Jong-un until last year, when he was suddenly introduced as the designated successor.  By contrast, Kim Jong-il spent almost two decades by the side of his father, the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Sung-il, a move that established a clear line of succession.  It is unknown how much support then Kim Jong-un actually has among the military or the ruling cadres of the Korean Worker's Party (a.k.a. the Communists), so the idea that he could be ousted as the result of an internal power struggle isn't that far-fetched.

If North Korea were to fall apart, once the period of immediate chaos subsided, it could lead to a reunification of the two Koreas.  This is something China has always been wary about, and a major reason why they have but up with the craziness of the Kim regime for all of these years – China doesn't want to have Korea unified under the South, which would put an economically-strong, Western-looking country flush up against their border.  So, with this in mind, protecting Kim Jong-nam makes a certain amount of sense as a “political card” to use Gomi’s term.  If North Korea were to fall apart, China could offer Kim Jong-nam up as a “rightful” successor based on his first son credentials and his statements in support of the North Korean people against the excesses of the Kim regime and over-reliance on the North Korean military.  He could be put forward as someone who could “restore” the idea of the People's Republic of North Korea championed by the still-revered Kim Sung-il, and could thus keep South Korea from extending their influence up to the Chinese border.
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Gadhafi's Revenge

Reports out of Libya on Tuesday are that loyalists to ousted (and deceased) leader Moammar Gadhafi have retaken control of the city of Bani Walid, defeating the local militia after a clash between the two forces.  Libya's acting defense minister told Western reporters that the National Transitional Council (NTC) was still “assessing” the situation in Bani Walid, and suggested that the fighting might simply be a skirmish between rival militias.  But USA Today quoted Mubarak al-Fatamni, the head of Bani Walid's local council as saying that the city had indeed fallen to pro-Gadhafi fighters and that he had fled to the city of Misrata.  Other reports said that the Gadhafi-era green flag was seen flying over buildings across Bani Walid.

Bani Walid was one of the last cities in Libya to fall to the Libyan rebellion that ousted Gadhafi, the city was also reportedly the hideout for Gadhafi's son, and supposed heir apparent, Saif al-Islam until his capture.  At the moment, it is unclear what is the goal of the pro-Gadhafi forces now holding Bani Walid; it is hard to imagine that there are enough people loyal to the old regime to drive the NTC from power at this point, not to mention the fact that Gadhafi is still dead and the son picked to be his successor is being held prisoner by the NTC ahead of a war crimes trial likely to take place in Libya.  But it is estimated that there are thousands of well-armed and well-trained members of the former regime still in Libya.  The raid on Bani Walid also shows the weakness of the NTC, which despite the word “national” is far from being a unifying government in Libya.  During the uprising against Gadhafi, militias sprung up in many Libyan towns, these militias are still jockeying for power in the new Libya, occasionally even openly fighting with each other.  In addition, a protest in Benghazi, the launching point of the Libyan revolt, spun out of control last week, with protesters sacking an office belonging to the NTC.  The protest was over the NTC's lack of transparency and a belief that the NTC is putting foreign interests ahead of those of average Libyans.  Bani Walid's al-Fatamni said that he had been warning Tripoli about the possibility of a loyalist attack for two months and had requested reinforcements, but none came before the attack. 
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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Russia To US: Let's Go To The Moon

According to Russian media last week, Vladimir Popovkin, the head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, is proposing that the United States and European Union join forces to build human colonies on the Moon.  Popovkin's vision would include a series of outposts in lunar orbit, along with human exploration of the Moon's surface and using deposits of ice at the lunar poles as a source of water.  Russia also has two unmanned missions of their own on the drawing board, set to fly before 2020.

Popovkin's comments are surprising for two reasons; first is that NASA seemed to be unaware of his desire to team up on a lunar mission.  “We believe Popovkin may be referring to the work of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) and its Global Exploration Roadmap,” NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington told in response to an inquiry about Popovkin's suggestion.  NASA went on to explain that the ISECG was more of a framework for ideas rather than setting down plans for man's conquest of the Moon.  The other reason why Popovkin's comments are so surprising is that just a few weeks ago Popovkin was all but accusing the United States of sabotaging Russia's Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars, which ended on January 15th with an inglorious crash into the Pacific Ocean.  According to Popovkin, the probe – which was suppose to land on the Martian moon Phobos, grab a sample of soil and return it to Earth – was vulnerable to “foreign influences”, building on speculation in some Russian media that Phobos-Grunt was blasted by a radio signal from an American radar installation either in Alaska or the Pacific (take your pick) that rendered it inoperative.  You would wonder then why Popovkin would want to team up with the country that he thinks ruined Roscosmos' most high-profile exploration mission since the end of the Soviet Union.

In other space news, another Russian scientist is out with a  bold claim of his own – that he has detected possible signs of life on Venus.  The second planet from the sun has long been ruled out of the search for life in the solar system because of surface temperatures that are hot enough to melt lead.  But now Leonid Ksanfomaliti of the Space Research Institute at Russia's Academy of Sciences contends that he has seen evidence of what he thinks could be life by reexamining a set of 30-year old photographs from a Soviet space probe that survived the hellish conditions on the surface of Venus long enough to snap a few photographs.   Ksanfomaliti identified structures within the photographs that resembled a disc, a black flap and even a scorpion.

“Let's boldly suggest that the objects' morphological features would allow us to say that they are living," Ksanfomaliti wrote in a scientific journal.  Lacking any other proof, or evidence of life from other probes that have studied Venus, NASA analysts suggest the items are just data artifacts in the images beamed back from Venus combined with an active imagination.
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Your Next War

In my latest piece over at The Mantle, I take a look at the ever more likely possibility of a conflict between the US and Iran (and maybe some others). Check out Stumbling Towards War: Iran Edition at The Mantle.
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Monday, January 23, 2012

Things Fall Apart: Afghan Editon

For the latest indicator of just how screwed up things in Afghanistan truly are, there's this report based on a study of migration patterns in and out of the country by the International Organization for Migration.  Last year more than 30,000 Afghanis sought asylum outside of Afghanistan, a jump of 25% from the year before, though the actual number of Afghans leaving the country though is likely much higher since human smuggling from Afghanistan and Pakistan has become a billion-dollar business. The numbers point to the reversal of a trend – following the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghanis flocked back to their homeland with the hope of starting a new life.  But, according to the IOM, the situation reversed in 2007, when the security situation began to deteriorate.  Fewer Afghans are now returning home, while the number trying to leave has increased each of the past four years.

The reason most cite is the rapidly deteriorating security situation within Afghanistan, a situation most only expect to get far worse once the United States and the rest of the coalition wraps up its peacekeeping mission in 2014.  Europe remains the top destination for Afghan migrants, though for Afghans without the resources to get all the way to Europe, Iran is a low-cost option – a person can be smuggled across the border for just a few hundred dollars.  Most who take this route hope to one day earn the funds to get on to Europe.  And Afghan familes that can't afford to bring everyone out are choosing to send their sons abroad, a situation that will likely only make conditions in Afghanistan worse as the young men who could be rebuilding the country go abroad.

The migrant situation should be another indication of how badly the US-led coalition has managed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the woeful ineptitude of Hamid Karzai's government.  Aside from its crushing levels of corruption, Karzai's government has failed in its most basic mission – providing security to the Afghan people.  There have been reports from around the country that in some cases the Afghan armed forces and police behave so poorly towards their own people that some villages actually prefer to be back under Taliban control.  And then there is the issue of Taliban infiltration into the Afghan Army.

There was another tragic example of this infiltration last Friday, when an Afghan Army soldier turned his weapon on the French troops instructing with his unit, killing four of the French soldiers and wounding 15 others.  The attack by their supposed allies has the French so enraged that they are threatening to end their participation in Afghanistan and bring their troops home.  “The French army is not in Afghanistan to be shot at by Afghan soldiers,” said France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.  This move would be a critical blow to the coalition, since the French are one of the few participating countries that is actually sending properly armed and trained troops into Afghanistan in the first place.

If Afghanistan is going to have any hope for the future, the trend of migration has to at least be stopped, if not reversed.  For that to happen, Afghans have to believe that their country actually has a future,  and that means that the US and coalition partners have to get serious about nation-building and in forcing the Karzai government to see itself as a servant to the people and not a wealth-extraction machine for the Karzai family.
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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Putin's Judo Tumble

When you think about it, it is amazing how the most mundane events can lead to a regime's downfall.  For example, the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, not to mention the start of World War I, came about when the car carrying Archduke Ferdinand made a wrong turn.  It's just as possible that one day the end of the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia will be traced to his mundane decision to attend a mixed martial arts event in Moscow last autumn.

That is part of the takeaway from this piece by the website Russiaprofile on Putin's reelection strategy ahead of March's presidential elections.  The article talks about the “Olympiysky Effect,” which refers to the MMA match in question.  Putin, whose love of martial arts is well-known, decided to talk to the winning Russian fighter in the ring following the end of the main event at Moscow's Olympiysky Arena.  Russia's state-run television dutifully covered the Boss speaking from the center of the ring, what no one expected were the cascade of boos that came down from the 20,000 in attendance.  In one fell swoop the mystique of Putin as the beloved alpha-male/man of the people had been shattered.  The Kremlin later tried to spin the boos, which went out live to a national audience, as being directed at the defeated American fighter Jeff Monson, who they said chose Putin's speech as the time to make his off-camera exit from the ring.  Web-savvy Russians responded by flooding Monson's Facebook page with messages of support and saying that no, the boos were in fact directed at Putin.

It is hard to imagine that without this public puncturing of the Putin popularity balloon the massive street protests following the apparently fixed December parliamentary elections would have occurred, or even if they had, that they would have drawn the tens of thousands of protesters from across the demographic spectrum that they did, rather than just the few hundred leftist intellectuals such protests previously drew.  According to Russian polling firm VtiSOM, Putin is now the choice of just 48% of Russians in March's presidential elections.  If these numbers were to hold, that would mean Putin would likely have to face Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the Communist Party, and current number two candidate in a runoff election; quite a step down for a man whose popularity regularly measured in the 70%'s not too long ago.  

It is likely that, by hook or by crook, Putin will once again be Russia’s President, it is just as unlikely now, that Putin will spend the next twelve years in office filling out his constitutionally-approved two additional terms in office as was once the plan, and it all started with some booing one night in Moscow.
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Ethiopian Land Grab

Human Rights Watch is out with a damning report today accusing the Ethiopian government of forcing its own citizens off of their land so that the plots can then be leased to foreign farming interests.  According to Human Rights Watch, as reported by Reuters, nearly 70,000 Ethiopians have so far been driven from their land, though as many as 1.5 million could eventually be displaced.  The land is being leased to foreign corporations, primarily firms from China and states in the Persian Gulf, who then export the foodstuffs grown in Ethiopia.  So far the Ethiopian government has leased an area approximately the size of the nation of Belgium to foreign companies.

Not surprisingly, Ethiopian officials dispute the HRW report, saying that the relocations are in fact part of a national “villagisation” program aimed at moving people from sparsely-populated regions of marginal farmlands to establish villages in more fertile parts of the nation.  The Ethiopian government also defends the policy of leasing land to foreign farmers, saying that it is meant to be a kind of technology transfer arrangement, where Ethiopia can learn modern, more-efficient farming techniques.  Of course the mass relocation begs the question of why foreign firms would be willing to lease what Ethiopia is describing as “marginal” farmland in the first place.

Such lease agreements aren't unique to Ethiopia though, other African nations have been leasing large swaths of their own lands to foreign farming concerns, chiefly from China, which has been investing heavily in Africa in recent years.  While African nations were originally attracted to China's “no-strings-attached” approach to foreign investment – as opposed to investment from Western nations, which increasingly is tied to political reform and good-governance efforts – a slow change has been taking place.  Some African nations are growing unhappy with the Chinese approach, where they not only underwrite a major infrastructure project, but also import much of the labor from China as well – African governments say that this prevents the type of technology transfer that Ethiopia is touting from occurring.  One sign of this changing attitude came last year when challenger Michael Sata won Zambia's presidential election by running on an anti-China platform.
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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Trouble In Somaliland

Somaliland, the independent, though internationally-unrecognized, nation that broke away from Somalia in the early 1990s, has long tried to draw a distinction between itself and its much better-known neighbor to the south.  While Somalia seems to be in a perpetual state of conflict and anarchy, Somaliland has remained relatively quiet and prosperous since breaking away from Somalia, Somaliland even completed a rarity for Africa – a relatively peaceful transition of power between rival political groups at the ballot box.

But government actions last week threaten to undermine this carefully crafted image that Somaliland is trying to present to the world.  On Sunday, the government of Somaliland announced that they were shutting down the television network Horn Cable TV for allegedly airing “anti-government propaganda”.  To make matters worse, the government then arrested 13 journalists who were part of a protest in Hargeisa (Somaliland's capital) against the closure of Horn Cable TV, according to the National Union of Somali Journalists, in what they called “a blatant misuse of powers”.  The National Union of Somali Journalists contends that Horn Cable TV was shut down for reporting on a meeting by tribal elders who were pushing for increased autonomy from the Somaliland government.  For their part, the Somaliland government says that the journalists' protest was illegal and that one of the journalists struck a student with the butt of a handgun he was carrying, which prompted his arrest.

Though still internationally considered part of Somalia, several neighboring African nations, like Ethiopia, maintain quasi-official diplomatic relations with the Somaliland government.  Somaliland also issues its own currency and is trying to grow its tourism sector to boost the local economy.
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Friday, January 13, 2012

More Than Just Bad Apples

By now you've probably seen, or at least heard about, the video showing a team of US Marine snipers urinating on the bodies of several Taliban militants whom they had just killed.  Predictably, the Afghan government is outraged at the incident, so too is the leadership of the Pentagon, which has already identified two of the Marines from the video, and is promising to punish the entire team.  Thursday morning on CNN, their resident military analyst, retired Gen. Spider Marks, tried to chalk the incident up to the actions of a few bad apples; it seems like this will be the official line on the matter.

Unfortunately it's not true, the video cannot simply be dismissed as an act of misplaced bravado by a few rogue soldiers.  Rather it is a symptom of the kind of psychosis that comes along with the long-term occupation of a land and its people.  The United States is ten years into its Afghan mission.  We went to Afghanistan to avenge the barbaric acts of 9/11; we were indoctrinated to think that this land hosted individuals with no regard for human life, who would happily kill innocent men, women and children to further their own twisted view of religion.  Al-Qaeda became conflated with the Taliban, who in turn, became conflated with the Afghan people.  We can run all of the feel-good stories we want about American soldiers helping to open medical clinics or schools for girls in Afghanistan, but at home we continue to promote the idea that if we don't continue to fight “them” over there, terrorist acts will return to our shores, just look at some of the rhetoric from the presidential campaign that supports this very idea.  For our soldiers on the ground, they are told of the need to constantly be on guard, that any Afghani they meet could be one of “them”.

The surprise then shouldn't be that a group of US Marines decided to dehumanize a group of enemies they had killed, the surprise should be that this sort of thing doesn't happen more often since it is the natural progression of any long-term occupation – the trend, perhaps the psychological need, to dehumanize those you are occupying, since how could you control every facet of someone else's life, down to their very right to have life at all, if you consider them a human being equal to yourself?  The history of the 20th century offers ample evidence to support this idea.  Members of the Israeli political left and peace movements decry their nation's occupation of the Palestinian territories for this very reason, adding that Israeli soldiers' dehumanizing of the Palestinians also has a corrosive effect on Israeli society as well; one can also look at the occupations of various European nations during World War II, or Japan's brutal treatment of those in the regions of China they occupied; and, of course, there is also the entirety of Europe's Age of Colonization to consider as well.

Viewing the occupied as something less than human is a natural outgrowth of occupation as the Marine video reminds us.  It should also serve as a powerful example of why it is time for the United States to end its Afghanistan mission once and for all.
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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Russia's Space Paranoia

The Russian space program faced a massive and embarrassing setback at the end of 2011 when their centerpiece Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars got stuck in low Earth orbit shortly after launch, destined for a fiery re-entry into the atmosphere sometime later this month.  Now the head of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos' Vladimir Popovkin, says he knows what went wrong - “foreign forces” interfered with Phobos-Grunt, sabotaging its mission.  “I wouldn't like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can't be excluded,” Popovkin said.  His comments seem to echo an allegation made by a retired Russian general back in November, shortly after Phobos-Grunt ran into problems; he cast the blame on a high-power radar array operated by the US military in Alaska.

Popovkin told Russia's Izvestia newspaper that “some Russian [space]craft had suffered 'unexplained' malfunctions while flying over another side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation's tracking facilities.”  While meant to blame foreign powers, Popovkin's comment gets to the heart of what really seems to have doomed Phobos-Grunt (along with explaining several other recent Russian space program failures), rampant cost-cutting in the Russian space program.  During the heyday of Russian exploration during the 1960s, the Soviet Union maintained a network of ground tracking stations and specially-outfitted communication ships so that Russian space missions were in near-constant contact with Russian ground controllers.  Today that network is gone.  When something went wrong with Phobos-Grunt, Russian controllers could only attempt to talk to the probe in blocks of time just a few minutes long when it was orbiting directly over Russia; Russian controllers later borrowed the use of a few radio-telescopes around the world to better their chances of reaching Phobos-Grunt.

Today though the once mighty Russian space program is being hit by budget cuts and a loss of experience as older engineers retire, without younger ones to replace them.  The result, predictably, has been a series of mission failures during the past year.  Still, according to noted space analyst James Oberg, “the urge to shift blame seems strong.”    
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Tide Turning In Somalia?

An update now on the ongoing conflict in Somalia.  We have been following Kenya's mission against the militant al-Shabaab organization in southern Somalia – Kenya launched a large-scale military operation designed to capture al-Shabaab's base of operations after the terrorist group attempted to stage several kidnappings of foreign tourists in northern Kenya.  After the mission seemed to bog down, thanks in part to the arrival of the monsoon season and a strategic withdrawal by al-Shabaab, the Kenyans are reporting a number of successes.

According to a report in Bloomberg, the Kenyans claim to have killed as many as 60 al-Shabaab militants in an airstrike.  Other actions in the previous week killed another 25 al-Shabaab fighters, according to the Kenyans, who put their own losses at six soldiers killed and 22 wounded since their offensive, dubbed Operation Linda Nchi, began last year.  Along with the Kenyan military presence, or perhaps inspired by it, other nations in the region are increasing their cooperation in Somalia.  The intelligence agencies of Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia are now coordinating their efforts in Somalia and also at preventing reprisal terror attacks in their respective countries from al-Shabaab, the working group claims to have thwarted several attacks planned around the New Year holiday season.  While al-Shabaab has largely operated within Somalia, they did stage a high-profile suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, at a World Cup viewing party in 2010 that killed as many as 70 people; this attack was to protest Uganda's support of the African Union peacekeeping (or Amisom) mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, where Uganda currently supplies the bulk of the troops.

The three nations, along with the Amisom mission and some of Somalia's other neighbors like Djibouti, are also increasing their military cooperation.  Ethiopia is also reported to have conducted military operations in the past few weeks within Somalia as well.  All of this is making my prediction here that Somalia could turn into Africa's next Great War seem like more of a possibility.  Some on the Kenyan side are predicting that based on their recent successes, al-Shabaab could be near collapse.  While this may or may not be true, it is worth remembering that the last time a strong Islamic movement was defeated in Somalia – the Islamic Courts Union (or ICU) – a period of chaos followed as outside forces withdrew feeling like they had “won”, while the remnants of the ICU fought amongst themselves with the more militant al-Shabaab eventually emerging as the victor.  The lesson here should be that if the Kenyans are right and al-Shabaab is defeated, that the victors need to stay engaged with Somalia providing security and allowing for the development of a legitimate government, rather than calling it a day, going home and letting something even worse than al-Shabaab emerge from the chaos.
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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Youssou Throws His Hat Into The Ring

Famed Senegalese musician Youssou N'Dour made good on a promise that we reported on two months ago to become more involved in politics in his homeland by announcing that he would run for president of Senegal in elections scheduled for next month.  In November, N'Dour promised to end all “artistic commitments” after January 2 and “enter the political arena”, though the comment made it unclear what N'Dour would actually do in politics.

Now we know that he means to square off against Senegal's sitting president Abdoulaye Wade, who is seeking a third term in office.  The match-up is particularly interesting since Wade and N'Dour were once quite close, but fell out after Pres. Wade tried to pressure N'Dour to order a newspaper he owned to not run an embarrassing story about Wade's son.  N'Dour refused.  Anger in Senegal has been building against Wade for some time now, both over his attempt to change the laws to allow himself a third term in office and because of Senegal's ongoing economic stagnation and chronic shortages of electricity.  Power outages of a day or longer are common in the capital, Dakar; blackouts are so frequent that the national power company, Senelec, has earned the nickname “Darkness, Inc.”

But observers aren't sure that N'Dour's personal popularity will translate to a winning margin over Wade.  Despite a large pool of ill will towards Pres. Wade, he will face over a dozen challengers in February's vote.  It is unclear yet whether the opposition to Wade will coalesce around N'Dour, or whether it will remain fragmented allowing Wade to slip back in for a third term as president.
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