The Commonwealth Update

An authoritative, nation-by-nation review of events across the Commonwealth, with an update now published six times a year in an issue of The Round Table.

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From 2008, the review is being written by Oren Gruenbaum, the Commonwealth Update editor, and currently Senior Sub-Editor at The Guardian in the UK

In 2007, the review was written by Judith Soal, a journalist who has worked extensively in South Africa and is currently deputy night editor at The Guardian in the UK.

Until 2007 the review was written by Derek Ingram, who was the Founding Editor of Gemini News Service until 1993, and is the author of a number of books about the Commonwealth and is active in the CJA, CPU, CHRI and the RCS, as well as a member of the Moot.

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Commonwealth Update - Issue 439, July 2015

Oren Gruenbaum


Najib Feels The Heat

With the humidity reaching 94% in Kuala Lumpur, it was a torrid week for Malaysians. But the prime minister, Najib Razak, had more reason than most to feel hot under the collar after the influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad called for his resignation over allegations of corruption in the Wall Street Journal, and challenged him to open his bank accounts to inspection.

The escalating scandal saw police this week raid the head offices of the state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), launched by Najib, who is also finance minister, in 2009. He also chairs the advisory board of the huge company, which emerged out of the Terengganu Investment Authority, a sovereign wealth fund, and is concentrated in the energy and property sectors. 1MDB raised funds by issuing bonds, but these have been downgraded to junk status by rating agencies concerned by the company’s opaque dealings. It now owes $11bn, Reuters said.

The WSJ alleged in June that 2.6bn ringgit ($685m) was moved through government agencies, banks and companies linked to the debt-ridden strategic development company before ending up in Najib’s accounts.

Najib, 61, has denied any wrongdoing, saying ‘I am not a thief’, and claimed there was a political plot against him, Malay Mail Online reported. He wrote on his blog: ‘I would like to stress again that I have never taken 1MDB’s funds for personal use.’

Sarawak Report, a UK-based investigative news blog, has doggedly pursued the money trail from 1MDB, alleging that the funds were siphoned out of a joint venture with a Saudi firm, PetroSaudi, into which 1MDB invested $1bn in 2009. It claims the deal was initiated and managed by Jho Taek Low, a 33-year-old businessman. Low denied being more than an informal adviser to 1MDB, despite evidence to the contrary. MPs investigating 1MDB’s activities called on Low to explain his role.

The New York Times has reported that a $24m Manhattan apartment was bought by a shell company linked to Low in 2010 and sold on to Najib’s stepson, Riza Aziz. In the same year Low bought a mansion in Beverly Hills for $18m, which was also sold on to Aziz. The next year Low bought another apartment on Central Park for $30m. The WSJ also tied Low to 1MDB. Among the many lines of inquiry are the origins of $529m reportedly deposited between 2011 and 2013 into an account in Singapore controlled by Low.

The 33-year-old Low is known for his lavish lifestyle, travelling with a large entourage and spending tens of thousands of dollars a night partying with socialites such as Paris Hilton. (Sarawak Report was prevented from using pictures of Low over what it called a misuse of copyright law to conceal information, so replaced one of Low and Hilton with a photo of copulating giant tortoises.)

A photo published by Sarawak Report showed the main players on a huge yacht off the French Riviera (yours to rent for $500,000 a week): ‘Jho Low, the mastermind of the joint venture; Prince Turki, the owner of PetroSaudi; Prime Minister Najib Razak, the man in sole charge of 1MDB; his all-powerful wife Rosmah Mansor; Nor Ashman, the couple’s son; Tarek Obaid, the Director of PetroSaudi and Rosmah’s favoured daughter, Nooryana Najwa.’

The tangled web led to murder, the son of a banker alleges. Pascal Najadi’s father, Hussain, was gunned down in 2013 in Kuala Lumpur. Sarawak Report reported that the AmBank founder’s son believes his father was assassinated because of his concerns about high-level corruption. At their last meeting, Najadi said: ‘Dad then spoke about massive corruption … that they [people in power] had lost the plot in the sense that they recklessly and behind their own population’s backs raked in billions of ringgit from construction, oil and gas to defence and transportation.’

1MDB hit back on its website, asserting that its balance sheet was healthy and posting Najib’s ripostes: ‘[Mahathir’s] attacks in reality are not motivated by 1MDB—he is just using the company as an excuse to try and topple a serving prime minister. If 1MDB had never existed, [he] would find another reason.’

However, as far back as 2010, 1MDB was dogged by criticism of a lack of transparency, with the opposition MP Tony Pua questioning whether 1MDB’s reported 425m ringgit ($112m) profit was down to a government sleight and calling for the accounts to be published.

Last December 1MDB failed to repay a 2bn ringgit loan, Malay Mail Online reported, as borrowings rose 15% on the year. Fears of a costly government bailout for 1MDB caused concern over Malaysia’s sovereign rating and the currency fell to a five-year low against the dollar. By July the ringgit was at its weakest for 16 years.

And as the scandal ignited internationally, one MP, Raja Kamarul Bahrin, was asking in March why 2.5bn ringgit had been transferred by 1MDB to the Cayman Islands: ‘While we were busy in Parliament last year debating enhancements to the fine and jail terms on money-laundering crimes, we got news that our own government was transferring state funds to the world capital for money laundering, Cayman Islands.’

The leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, Lim Kit Siang, called for a commission to investigate 1MDB: ‘We have the makings of the biggest financial scandal in the nation’s history … we may have the first resignation or removal of a prime minister in Malaysia because of a financial scandal.’

Mahathir has split the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the ruling party since Malaya’s independence in 1957, with the foreign minister, Anifah Aman, accusing Najib’s predecessor of being ‘irresponsible’ for ‘spreading lies and distortions’ and undermining his country, the Malaysia Chronicle reported, after Mahathir wrote an open letter to the NYT.

The 90-year-old Mahathir is not without his own critics. ‘He ran Malaysia like a demented despot,’ was the verdict of his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, over Mahathir’s pet causes. Some were grandiose (such as building a new administrative capital, unloved Putrajaya), some quixotic (such as creating a car industry from scratch, struggling Proton) but he also propounds paranoid and racist conspiracy theories, such as his belief that the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre had to be the work of the CIA and Mossad (‘The Arabs never seem to be able to plan or strategise … They are not disciplined people’).

And the former prime minister, as the NYT notes, has a record of turning on protegés: he sacked his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998 for ‘sodomy’ (Anwar is now in prison for the alleged offence) and he attacked his successor, Abdullah Badawi, for economic mismanagement in 2006, and helped put Najib in power.

Mahathir’s repeated criticisms over 1MDB have been greeted with a certain scepticism by those who say that the nexus of party politics and big business was just as murky during Mahathir’s 22 years in power.

‘Mahathir is being disingenuous,’ said Ibrahim Suffian, of the Merdeka Center. ‘What we are seeing today did not happen overnight. It’s been heading this way for decades.’

Rafizi Ramli, an opposition MP, said: ‘We have been talking about and highlighting 1MDB for the last five years, and although it slowly gained momentum as a national issue, things changed the moment Mahathir picked 1MDB as an issue to bring down Najib.

‘For the first time, a government scandal has reached the attention of both sides of the political divide … it’s a bipartisan issue.’

Ramli, founder of National Oversight and Whistleblowers (NOW), said the police decision to investigate the WSJ for revealing the information ‘will only lower the integrity of police and further shame the country’, Malysiakini reported.

Meanwhile, a survey by Merdeka found 69% of voters did not fully understand the 1MDB controversy. Some relief to Najib, but only 18% of voters were confident the government could handle the matter.

Few foreign commentators are either. The Financial Times concluded: ‘UMNO should change course before it steers Malaysia into dangerous waters. The party’s six decade-long rule appears to have inculcated in its leaders a sense that they are somehow both indispensable to and indivisible from the state.’

As if Najib did not have enough fronts on which to fight, a court overturned the acquittal of police over the murder of the Mongolian mistress of a former Najib aide in 2006. A blogger who reported alleged links between Najib and the case fled to Britain.

‘Najib has always denied any involvement in the crime, and there is no evidence to the contrary. But the case is a magnet for conspiracists. Some wonder whether Mr Najib’s political opponents encouraged the court to deliver a verdict that would return the case to the headlines,’ The Economist said.

The prospects are not looking good for the embattled Najib, who led UMNO to its worst election results ever in 2013. The Economist was warning in January that knives were out for the prime minister, remarking that it said much for his battered image that a bout of the E.coli stomach bug had helped his plummeting popularity.

Najib’s approval rating has been sliding from about 60% in 2013, down to 44% in July, Bloomberg reported. The anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International has urged Najib to relinquish his position as finance minister amid increasing concerns about the lack of public accountability.

Attempts to douse the ever-widening affair, such as using the Malaysian communications regulator to threaten people commenting online with jail under computer crime laws, are backfiring with comic results. Responding on social media failed to set many minds at rest, going by comments on the prime minister’s Facebook page.

And the Financial Times reported: ‘The hashtag 1MDBMovies went viral this week, spawning mock-ups of Mr Najib at the centre of film posters such as “Lord of the Ringgits”.’

What the opposition failed to do at the ballot box, allegations of corruption and UMNO in-fighting, with a leadership challenge rumoured, might achieve before long.


Human Rights on Death Row

The rise of Boko Haram, newest franchise of the Islamist militants Isis, has created a Manichean perspective of Nigeria: Muslim north versus the Christian south. This was underlined by the announcement that eight men and a woman had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in Kano: for these nine Nigerians, who all pleaded guilty, are Muslim and ironically face death for their very piety.

The BBC said the ‘blasphemy’ occurred at a mass meeting of the Tijaniyya sect, a Sufi order founded in the 18th century and now the most widespread in west Africa. As always, factions emerged and the sect splintered into smaller branches. The dominant faction follows Sheikh Ibrahim Niass, who emphasised a mystical, intuitive knowledge of spiritual truths. Sufi masters are often regarded as saints by believers and the unfortunate nine on death row were condemned for reportedly saying that Niass was greater than the prophet Muhammad.

To add to the concerns of human rights groups, the trial was conducted in secret after a mob burned down the sharia court in the Rijia Lemo district of the northern city when a Sufi preacher, Abdul Niass (it is not clear if he is related to his namesake) was supposed to appear on blasphemy charges. The mob, Nigerian Watch reported, then stormed the Kano state house and the emir’s palace.

‘There has been consensus among Muslims scholars that insulting the prophet carries a death sentence,’ Aminu Ibrahim Daurawa, head of Kano’s religious police, told the BBC Hausa service. ‘We quickly put them on trial to avoid bloodshed because people were very angry and trying to take law into their hands.’

Given the heightened emotions, it was predictable that the Kano state government was reported by the Nigerian Daily Post to have welcomed the death sentences—the first time capital punishment has been ordered by a sharia court for blasphemy since Islamic law began to replace civil and criminal law in the north in the late 1990s. Even other Sufi clerics, including Sheikh Ahmad Tijjani Niass, son of Ibrahim Niass, condemned the speech rather than the mob-led reaction.

This is perhaps more surprising because the Tijaniyya sect, like other Sufi orders, has a generally tolerant take on Islam. Unlike the puritanical Salafi interpretation of Islam (taken to its extreme by the 18th-century Saudi preacher Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab), the Sufi tradition largely rejects fanaticism, encourages debate and allows its followers to embrace poetry, dance, music and other arts. ‘Sufi gatherings inspire young people to engage in interfaith dialogue,’ the Eurasia Review says of Morocco.

The split between the Sufi and Salafi strands became pronounced through the 1960s as the Islamic fundamentalist Sheikh Abubakar Gumi rose in influence. He was critical of Sufism and Nigeria’s delicate balancing act between Christians and Muslims. ‘Nigeria’s Muslims, he once said, should never accept a non- Muslim ruler,’ the Independent noted.

In 1978, a Wahhabi reformist movement known as Izala was founded by Ismaila Idris and any semblance of Muslim unity in Nigeria ended. Though Izala leaders have distanced it from its offshoot, Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of the notorious militant group wreaking havoc across the region was a member of Izala until he broke away to form Jama’at Ahl us-Sunnah li’d-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad, now known as Boko Haram.

To underline how fractured Muslim identity is in Nigeria today, Izala’s followers have in turn been denounced as infidels—and possibly targeted—by Boko Haram. Last year after the militants assassinated Sheikh Adam Albani, a prominent Salafist cleric, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, warned the Izala chairman, Yahaya Jingir: ‘Shekau killed Albani of Zaria, tomorrow he will kill Jingir.’

The death sentence passed on the nine Sufis, therefore, should perhaps be seen as an episode in a continuing power struggle between very different conceptions of Islam in Nigeria.

Religion and politics are nothing if not fluid in Nigeria. Moshood Abiola, the first southerner to win a presidential election in 1993 (though it was annulled by General Babangida’s coup), was a Muslim. In south-west Nigeria, ‘Intermarriage is common—three of the region’s six state governors are Muslim men married to Christian women; the speaker of the Lagos state parliament is a Muslim married for the last 30 years to a Christian pastor.’

The sharia verdict was met with outrage in Nigeria and abroad. The Nigerian Guardian reported that the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Nigerian Humanist Movement had urged the president, Muhammadu Buhari, the Kano governor and the emir, ‘to do whatever you can to seek true justice, respecting and restoring the human rights of those accused, and to work to end the malicious and unjust use of “blasphemy” as a criminal prohibition anywhere in Nigeria’.

The sentence also reveals the yawning gap between some countries’ legal systems and the ideals supposedly adhered to as Commonwealth member states, as enshrined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration, the 1991 Harare Declaration and 2012 Commonwealth Charter.

According to Amnesty International, the number of people sentenced to death in Nigeria has risen fourfold: from 141 in 2013 to 659 in 2014, with 32 prisoners exonerated or pardoned. Some of them were juveniles when they committed their alleged crimes.

However, Nigerians might well point to other Commonwealth members that put their citizens on death row and similarly flout international law. More than half of Commonwealth member states still retain the death penalty, according to the The Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka also impose the death penalty for crimes committed by children.

Other Commonwealth members that imposed the death sentence in 2014 were Bangladesh, Barbados, Botswana, the Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Maldives, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Zambia (and Zimbabwe). Malaysia, Pakistan and Singapore actually carried out executions.

Although the global trend is towards abolition (with a 22% fall in the number of executions compared 2013), Pakistan ended a six-year moratorium on executing civilians after the Peshawar school massacre. Seven people were executed in a fortnight late last year and 231 people are on death row.

One of the most unfortunate is Mohammad Asghar, a 71-year-old man from Edinburgh suffering paranoid schizophrenia and also facing execution for blasphemy, Channel 4 News reported. But Asghar still has his life. As the campaign group Reprieve notes, more than 50 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered in Pakistan before their trial ended.

As the activist Peter Tatchell pointed out in the Huffington Post when he criticised the Commonwealth secretary general, Kamalesh Sharma, for his ‘hands-off attitude’ and ‘cautious approach’ to defending lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights: ‘Too many Commonwealth countries not only violate LGBT human rights. They also sanction state executions, censorship, torture, detention without trial and restrictions on free speech and the right to protest—as well as officially-endorsed discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religion or belief.

‘This has to change. Commonwealth countries have a duty to adhere to Commonwealth values and abide by the international human rights laws they have signed and pledged to uphold.’



FGM: Britain’s Barbaric Secret

New guidelines have been issued to doctors and other health professionals in Britain on how to care for women who have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).

The guidelines, drawn up by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, say doctors should be aware of the health complications of FGM, such as infections, complications in pregnancy and psychological trauma, and understand that the law requires health professionals to report to the police all cases of FGM in patients under 18 years of age.

Dr Naomi Low-Beer, lead author of the RCOG guidelines, said FGM—which has been inflicted on up to 170,000 women and girls in the UK, according to a parliamentary report—was ‘a violation of human rights and a form of child abuse for which there can be no justification’.

Meanwhile, the UK’s first web app designed to allow teenagers to learn about FGM anonymously, and get help if they are at risk, has been launched, the Guardian reported.

The free app, designed at Coventry University with the help of local schoolchildren, has privacy features to allow teenagers to get the facts about the practice and access helplines without being traced. Named ‘Petals’, the app can also be used as an educational tool.

More than 20,000 girls in Britain are estimated to be at risk of FGM. The app was launched ahead of the summer “cutting season”, when thousands of girls face undergoing FGM. It has been illegal in the UK for 30 years and taking a child abroad for the procedure has been banned since 2003, though there has yet to be a successful prosecution.

‘People keep it [FGM] a secret,’ said one girl who helped with the app. ‘By telling people, you might feel like you’re disowning your family.’

Speaking at the launch in London, Nicky Morgan, secretary of state for education and minister for women, said: “Until recently this harrowing practice too often remained in the shadows and kept a secret despite the unimaginable and lifelong suffering it can cause.

“We have a duty to stop this happening,” she added. “Cultural sensitivities can never be an excuse for FGM.”


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