Malawi, traditionally dependent on Western aid donors, will look for “new friends” in countries such as China and Russia, newly-elected President Peter Mutharika said at his inauguration on Monday.
The ceremony at a stadium in the commercial capital Blantyre was boycotted by outgoing president Joyce Banda, who was soundly beaten by Mutharika in disputed elections held on May 20.
Mutharika, who takes power in one of the world’s poorest countries where 40% of the budget comes from aid, said the donor nations were “welcome to stay here”.
Foreign policy would be based on what is best for Malawi, he said.
“We will continue with traditional relationships, but we are now looking for new friends in emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia.”
Mutharika said he regretted Banda’s absence, saying she had “declined to come here and hand over power to me.
“I was looking forward to shaking her hand and burying the past. I have an olive branch in my hands.”
A spokesperson for Banda said: “She was not officially invited and her official presidential convoy was withdrawn early hours of Saturday as soon as it was announced that Peter Mutharika had won the presidency.
“It would have been difficult for the outgoing president to travel to Blantyre.”
Treason charges Mutharika takes over despite facing treason charges for attempting to conceal the death in office two years ago of his brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, in an alleged bid to prevent Banda – then vice-president -from assuming power.
Those charges are likely to be dropped as Malawian presidents have immunity from prosecution while in office, and there has been speculation that Mutharika might now try to turn the tables on Banda and have her charged with corruption.
Banda had alleged anomalies in the election and sought to have the vote nullified.
Legal attempts to force a recount failed and the electoral commission declared Mutharika winner with 36.4% of the votes cast against Banda’s 20.2%.
Banda on Saturday congratulated Mutharika on his victory.
Abdul Sesay used to carry an AK-47 in jailed Liberian warlord Charles Taylor’s notorious “Demon Forces” militia, which tortured, killed and raped its way through the country’s second civil war.
Now he sleeps rough, with no steady job and little chance of ever finding one, scraping together what money he can to buy the drugs that help him forget.
Sesay was one of thousands of children conscripted as fighters, ammunition carriers, cooks and sex slaves during two ruinous back-to-back civil wars which pulverised the west African state between 1989 and 2003 and killed 250 000 people.
Brutalised by conflict, the youngsters were both victims and perpetrators of the most sickening abuses, but as adults they find themselves fighting a new battle, against poverty and drug addiction.
Sesay says he was 15 when Taylor’s men came for him as he was heading for school in the northern county of Nimba.
“They abducted me on the street and bundled me into their car and later gave me a weapon to start fighting,” he told AFP.
He was placed among the ranks of the feared paramilitary anti-terrorist unit, commonly known as the “Demon Forces”, led by Taylor’s son Chuckie.
New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the brigade in 2006 of “torture, including various violent assaults, beating people to death, rape and burning civilians alive” from about 1997 through 2002.
Sesay, now 33, denies committing any rights abuses or killing anyone, saying his war involved supporting roles behind the frontline, but he admits regular drug abuse.
“It used to make me brave to keep carrying my weapon,” he says.
Now Sesay gets his money where he can, doing odd jobs and operating as a “car loader”, one of a legion of young men in central Monrovia who yell out destinations and load bags into the back of taxis.
“I am still taking drugs… I always hustle and save money to buy my drugs,” he says, scratching nervously at a baggy maroon T-shirt.
Skinned alive Like many former child soldiers, Sesay feels abandoned by a government he says left him with nothing after he handed in his weapon as part of a demobilsation process which disarmed 103 000 rebels and government militia in 2004.
In the years since the conflict ended sympathy has been in short supply for ex-child soldiers, many of whom committed the most depraved abuses, and thousands of young men and women remain traumatised and often jobless.
Two charities, Plan and Family Health International, interviewed 98 former child soldiers for a 2009 study which found that 90% showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and 65% had a major depressive disorder.
Three in five of the girls had suffered sexual violence and a fifth of girls and boys had attempted suicide.
“The children formerly involved with the fighting forces are more aggressive and more severely affected … And we noticed that they are often blamed and stigmatised by other community members, which makes them become hostile and fight and abuse drugs,” the study said.
One young man described seeing his mother skinned alive when he was 15 while many of the girls described being taken as “bush wives” by rebels when they were as young as nine.
The Disarmament, Demobilisation, Rehabilitation and Reintegration programme (DDRR) offered $300 and training schemes to child soldiers in exchange for weapons.
But those who could not hand in a gun or ammunition were excluded, so children who had been recruited for domestic or sexual services received no help.
Michael Wilson, a social worker for Don Bosco Homes, a Catholic group which worked with child soldiers in Liberia, says many are now suffering severe trauma which manifests itself in aggression and sometimes drug-fuelled delusion.
“If you take a walk around the streets of Monrovia you will see one or two of them still portraying armed conflict, with died hair and a stick, running around,” he told AFP.
‘Saved by God’
Both the government and the main rebel groups denied the existence of child soldiers but various estimates put the total number between 15 000 and 38 000.
Augustine Tregbee fled to neighbouring Sierra Leone aged 15 as anti-Taylor guerillas pounded the coastal town of Robertsport with heavy artillery.
When he returned rebels had overrun the town, moved into local homes, taken villagers as their “wives” and made children carry equipment and weapons.
“I came back and found that my grandfather had been killed. There were no civilians here – the town was occupied by fighters,” he told AFP.
He was given a Soviet-era PKM machine gun, trained in guerrilla warfare and told he would be executed if he tried to escape.
“I saw lots of friends die in battle during an attack on Charles Taylor’s soldiers but I was saved by God,” he said.
Now 29, Tregbee is reticent to talk about how many combatants he killed but recalls vividly the 2003 siege of Monrovia, which resulted in the deaths of some 1 000 civilians in heavy shelling.
“I did not look people in the face to kill them while I was fighting. If I killed people, maybe it was through stray bullets. We did not target civilians in our unit,” Tregbee says.
Back in Robertsport he is now a fisherman whose dream of buying a boat looks unlikely to be realised with earnings of as little as $15 a month.
Tregbee along with his wife and two children rent one squalid room of a building with no windows, running water or electricity.
One bed takes up most of the space and puddles form on the hard floor when the roof gives way in the rainy season.
He says he looks to the future with optimism despite having no money, but his dark past is never far away.
“I still reflect on my days as a child fighter. Often I think about the moments of jogging with my friends, moving together,” he says.
A Sudanese judge on Thursday sentenced a heavily pregnant Christian woman to hang for apostasy, a ruling which Britain denounced as “barbaric” and left the United States “deeply disturbed”.
Born to a Muslim father, the woman was convicted under the Islamic Sharia law that has been in force in Sudan since 1983 and outlaws conversions on pain of death.
Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag (27) is married to a Christian and eight months pregnant, human rights activists say.
“We gave you three days to recant but you insist on not returning to Islam. I sentence you to be hanged,” Judge Abbas Mohammed Al-Khalifa told the woman, addressing her by her father’s Muslim name, Adraf Al-Hadi Mohammed Abdullah.
Khalifa also sentenced Ishag to 100 lashes for “adultery”. Under Sudan’s interpretation of Sharia, a Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim man and any such relationship is regarded as adulterous.
In Washington, the state department said the United States was “deeply disturbed” by the sentence and urged Sudan to protect freedom of religion.
Britain’s Minister for Africa, Mark Simmonds, said he was “truly appalled”.
“This barbaric sentence highlights the stark divide between the practices of the Sudanese courts and the country’s international human rights obligations,” he said in a statement.
Ishag, dressed in traditional Sudanese robes with her head covered, reacted without emotion when the verdict was read out at a court in the Khartoum district of Haj Yousef, where many Christians live.
Earlier in the hearing, an Islamic religious leader spoke with her in the caged dock for about 30 minutes, trying to convince her to change her mind.
But she calmly told the judge: “I am a Christian and I never committed apostasy.”
Sudan has an Islamist government but, other than floggings, extreme Sharia law punishments have been rare.
‘Appalling and abhorrent’ “The fact that a woman has been sentenced to death for her religious choice, and to flogging for being married to a man of an allegedly different religion, is appalling and abhorrent,” said Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher, Manar Idriss.
If the death sentence is carried out, she will be the first person executed for apostasy under the 1991 penal code, said Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a British-based campaign group.
One of Ishag’s lawyers, Mohanad Mustafa, told AFP that they would take the case all the way to Sudan’s top Constitutional Court if necessary to get the verdict overturned.
The defence believes the criminal code prohibition against apostasy violates the constitution, he said.
After the hearing, about 50 people demonstrated against the death sentence.
“No to executing Meriam,” said one of their signs, while another proclaimed: “Religious rights are a constitutional right.”
A smaller group supporting the verdict also arrived but there was no violence.
“This is a decision of the law. Why are you gathered here?” one supporter asked, prompting an activist to retort: “Why do you want to execute Meriam? Why don’t you bring corruptors to the court?”
Sudan is perceived as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranked 174th by campaign group Transparency International.
About 100 people, mostly Ishag supporters, were in court to hear the sentence, which was also observed by Western diplomats.
In a joint statement ahead of Thursday’s ruling, the embassies of the United States, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands expressed “deep concern” over her case and urged “justice and compassion”.
She was convicted on Sunday, May 11 but given until Thursday to recant.
Amnesty said Ishag was raised as an Orthodox Christian, her mother’s religion, because her Muslim father was absent.
Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told AFP earlier that Sudan is not unique in its law against apostasy.
“In Saudi Arabia, in all the Muslim countries, it is not allowed at all for a Muslim to change his religion,” he said.
Hundreds of parents in Nigeria, many dressed in red, held a day of desperate protest on Thursday in the town where the kidnapping of scores of schoolgirls by Islamists has left families lurching from fury to despair.
The parents began their march outside the residence of a local chief in Chibok, the town in Borno state where suspected Boko Haram insurgents stormed into a school and abducted the girls at gunpoint over a fortnight ago.
The mothers and fathers – some wailing, some chanting angrily – marched towards the scene of the kidnapping, carrying placards reading “Find Our Daughters”, before holding a prayer ceremony at the school gates.
“We want our daughters back. We want the United Nations to come and assist in rescuing our daughters. Through this march, we want to tell the whole world that we need their help to secure the release of our daughters,” Enoch Mark, whose daughter and two nieces were abducted, told AFP.
One father drew a damning parallel with recent international efforts to find the missing Malaysia Airlines plane.
“Imagine 25 countries joining hands in a search for a missing aircraft in Malaysia whose passengers are presumed dead. Here we are talking of scores of living girls abducted by people known to have no mercy, but the government doesn’t seem to care much,” said a tearful Yakubu Maina.
The Borno government says 129 girls were taken and that 52 have since escaped.
But locals, including the principal at the targeted Government Girls Secondary School, say 230 students were taken and 187 are still missing.
The leader of Chibok’s elders forum, Pogu Bitrus, told AFP he had received information that the girls were trafficked into neighbouring Cameroon and Chad and sold as brides to insurgents for 2 000 naira ($12).
The report has not been confirmed.
“Death is preferable to this life of misery we have been living since their abduction,” said one mother at the protest, without giving his name. “We call on our government to sit up and rescue our girls.”
Criticism of government Anger at the government’s ineffectual response has fuelled protests across the country.
Police fired teargas to disperse a group of protesters on Thursday in central Lagos, local media reported, a day after hundreds rallied in the capital Abuja.
Speaking at a separate May Day rally in Abuja, the head of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Abdulwahed Omar, said: “Our hearts bleed and we pray for their safe release.
“The war on terrorism does not seem to be going well at the moment. We demand better initiatives and more commitment,” he told a crowd that included President Goodluck Jonathan, who has faced harsh criticism over the government’s response.
The mass kidnapping is one of the most shocking attacks in Boko Haram’s five-year extremist uprising, which has killed thousands across the north and centre of the country, including 1,500 people this year alone.
A delegation from the Senate in Abuja met with Jonathan on Wednesday to discuss the rescue operation, Senate spokesman Eyinnaya Abaribe told AFP on Thursday, but he declined to give details.
At only 33, Jason Njoku is already considered one of Africa’s most promising entrepreneurs thanks to an online film distribution service that has tapped high demand for Nigerian movies.
But the British-born Nigerian entrepreneur, whose firm iROKO has been compared to the US Internet movie and TV streaming giant Netflix, is cautious about reading too much into the accolade.
“On paper, I’m a millionaire, absolutely,” he told AFP at his office in Nigeria’s financial capital, Lagos.
“But it’s on paper. It’s not cash in the bank. I think we are not successful, we are not profitable, we have a long way to go.”
Njoku’s caution is understandable given his background.
Soon after he was born, his father left, leaving his mother struggling to make ends meet while Njoku grew up in southeast London. Yet he managed to become the first from his family to go to university.
With a chemistry degree from the University of Manchester under his belt, Njoku decided to set up his own business. But it was not all plain sailing.
“I graduated in 2005 and spent a good five-and-a-half years just failing in everything I tried,” he admitted.
Though Njoku was broke, unable to open a bank account and slept on friends’ sofas, his best friend and university flatmate Bastian Gotter was still persuaded to invest in his latest venture.
Cinema is big business That enterprise – iROKO Partners – was his 11th attempt at starting a company and born of the fact that cinema is increasingly big business in Nigeria.
Some 1 500 to 2 000 Nollywood films are made every year and many are wildly popular both at home and abroad.
Most films, including poor quality pirated copies, are sold for a dollar or two on DVD in markets or by hawkers at traffic junctions, making them difficult to come by for the legions of fans overseas.
Njoku bought a ticket for Nigeria, where he had previously only been on a few childhood visits, and set out to meet film producers in the hope of creating a slick, modern distribution network.
“Our idea was really simple: we just wanted to take Nollywood movies and put them online. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
With producers on board, the first step in 2010 was the creation of “Nollywoodlove”, a dedicated channel on the video-sharing site YouTube, followed a year later by the iROKOtv platform.
Gotter sank money he had made as a trader for British oil giant BP into the venture and a US-based investment fund also provided financial backing, Njoku said.
Today, iROKOtv gets nearly a million hits a month and almost 90% of the content – more than 5 000 films – is free, with revenue generated in part by online advertising.
There is also a subscription service, where users can download the latest releases for $7.99 (5.7 euros) a month.
Notwithstanding comparisons with Netflix and the company’s expansion beyond Lagos to Johannesburg, London and New York, Njoku believes they still have a way to go.
Profitability, he said, will only start to come in two or three years.
“I’m actually always wary not to celebrate success before you know what it actually is. And at the moment, we’re still growing, we’re still scrappy, we’re still scared,” he explained.
“And in as much as money is important, it’s not the yardstick that we should use to determine your life and your values and how you try to build a company…
“We’re basically still growing and investing for growth.”
Up to now, most users of the site have been in the diaspora – first and second-generation African families who want to stay in touch with their roots.
African online market But Njoku is eyeing the vast potential of the African online market for expansion and has tasked engineers to figure out the best way to compress films so quality is not lost on poor Internet lines.
Njoku and Gotter have also set up the music download site iroking.com, dubbed the “African Deezer”, featuring 35 000 tracks from Nigeria and other countries on the continent in MP3 format.
Another venture, “Sparks,” supports and finances young Nigerian start-ups.
What’s clear is that Njoku is not short of ideas or energy.
The self-confessed workaholic reckons he spends more than 100 hours a week in his office and is eager to share his experiences with young Nigerians, mindful that they will determine his future success.
“I think tenacity is one of the most important things because things are never going to go in the right way,” he said.
“So, if you can get knocked down five years in a row and still be excited, still be enthusiastic and still be in the fight… I think I’m fortunate to have been able to continue somehow.”