TANZANIA – Video Report

A snapshot of presidential politics in Tanzania

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Death on the lake

The stricken MV Nyerere in Lake Victoria, Tanzania, 20 September 2018 (AFP)

A ferry disaster exposes infrastructure woes in Tanzania

The country’s president John Magufuli came to power in 2015 with a bold list of promises and he has enacted wide-scale reforms to government spending, gone on an anti-corruption drive and brought in free secondary education for all children.

He has also spent a good deal of time and money on infrastructure which is an area of government where he has experience.

He was nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ during his time as the Minister of Works and Transport for his direct style and his zeal for building roads. (It is a moniker that is now also being used to describe his increasingly autocratic style of populist government.)

While in the top job has focused on highway construction, oil pipeline projects and a new railway between the country’s huge Indian Ocean port at Dar es Salaam and the city of Morogoro, 200km inland.

However, the ferry sector has not been paid the same attention as the roads and the rails.

The disaster on Lake Victoria on 20 September is a terrible reminder of the safety problems with water transport in the country.

Rescue workers at the scene where a ferry overturned in Lake Victoria, Tanzania, 21 September 2018 (Reuters)

At the time of writing, at least 205 people had been confirmed dead after the MV Nyerere capsized. The overcrowded vessel, which was travelling between two of Tanzania’s islands on Lake Victoria, Bugorora and Ukara, was reported to have turned over when passengers raced to one side of the boat to get ready to disembark as it approached the dock.

The MV Nyerere lies upturned after capsizing on Lake Victoria, Tanzania, 20 September 2018 (Reuters)

President Magufuli has announced four days of mourning and said his government will cover the costs of the victims’ funerals.

He has also ordered the arrests of the management of Tanzania’s Electrical, Mechanical and Services Agency (TEMSA), which is responsible for ferry services. TEMSA admitted it did not know how many passengers were aboard.

However, the opposition are pointing the finger of blame for the disaster at Magufuli’s government, accusing it of “negligence”.

Two years ago the World Bank criticised the seaworthiness of the vessels plying the waters of Lake Victoria as a “poorly regulated private sector fleet”.

The problems are many: failures in the regulation of ferries – many of which are not maintained appropriately – and overcrowding while on board; then malfunctioning alarm systems, a lack of life-jackets and insufficient evacuation procedures when things do go wrong.

And even when a vessel is serviced regularly, (such as being fitted with new engines as the MV Nyerere was recently), if the ferry is subsequently burdened with dangerous overcrowding it makes the sleek new motors redundant.

Tanzania’s worst disaster was in May 1996, when an estimated 800 passengers drowned when a ferry capsized on its way from Buboka on the western coast of the lake to Mwanza in the south.

And it not just passengers on the inland ferries that have been at risk of sinking.

From 2009-2014 there were at least nine accidents on ocean-going boats operating out of Dar es Salaam port, with five of the incidents resulting in fatalities, according to the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association. The sinking of MV Skagi in 2012 and MV Spice Islander a year earlier saw more than 200 people lose their lives on vessels that were overcrowded.

Earlier in the summer, after a cabinet reshuffle, president Magufuli instructed the new minister of works, transport and communications Isack Kamwele to press on with new roads, railways and airports. It would be a gross oversight if a new focus was not also paid to the problematic (and, at times, fatally dangerous) ferry sector which is in urgent need of improvements – as demonstrated by the most recent tragedy on Lake Victoria.

GREECE – Video Report

A power cut knocks out electricity  and water services on the Greek island of Hydra

No electricity forced most restaurants and bars to close early as they were not able to provide working toilets; refrigerators and freezers malfunctioned; and candles in a public place posed a fire risk.

The payment situation was a problem: ATMs were not dispensing cash and some shops would not accept card payment.

WiFi networks in hotels and restaurants went down and people could not charge their phones, tablets or cameras. As well as not being able to have a cool shower for a respite from the 33C heat, air conditioning units were not working, leading to an uncomfortable night for many visitors.

However, the blackout made for a spookily dark town, with only the flicker of candles to be spotted in house windows here and there. The drop-out in power coincided with a full moon, which rose majestically over the dark, quiet harbour.

MEXICO ELECTION – “The PRI is not dead”

One small-town PRI MP tells this blog what his party needs to do after its historic defeat

As the car horns blared, loudspeakers boomed and thousands of people poured into the Zócalo main square in Mexico City on Sunday evening, Andrés Manuel López Obrador must have been pinching himself. He was president-elect, at the third time of asking, and there was unbridled joy in the plaza in front of him.

The mood in the camps of the defeated, establishment parties would have been funereal. There are high hopes for López Obrador, or AMLO, and there is no way of knowing yet if he will go down in history as a brilliant leader or another scorned and discarded president. What is certain is that he was carried to victory on the back of both direct support for him and millions of protest votes against the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

A street in the town of Jilotepec, north-west of Mexico City, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

25-year-old federal deputy Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, a PRI member of congress from the small town of Jilotepec, about 90 kilometres north-west of Mexico City, thinks though that there is a way back for his party. He admits that this is a “step backwards and a moment of reflection” for the PRI, which governed Mexico in an unbroken period of 71 years until 2000.

Meeting him at the town council offices, we are both offered sugary black coffee before heading to his office. He is young, smart and affable. “We need to remodel our party or we are finished,” he says. “The PRI is not dead. This is actually a good opportunity for us.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, in his office in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

It was remarkable that we were even talking about the PRI still being alive here. It should be in perfect health. Jilotepec is in Mexico State, the country’s most-populous entity, and this is the PRI heartland. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), was born in Atlacomulco, just up the road from Jilotepec. The current state governor, Alfredo del Mazo Maza (PRI), was born in the state capital, Toluca, and is the son and grandson of former PRI Mexico State governors. President Peña Nieto is del Mazo’s cousin. Given all this, Morena’s near-clean sweep of the lower house representatives in Mexico State (winning 42 out of 45 seats) is a stunning upset.

I asked Nogués Barrajas what went wrong for the PRI’s candidate for president, José Antonio Meade, who came third in the race for the top job. The MP lays the blame squarely at the incumbent’s door. Enrique Peña Nieto, the outgoing president, has had some of the lowest approval ratings for any Mexican leader in history, he has been caught up in corruption scandals, and – though he promised to get a handle on the violence – has presided over more than 109,000 murders during his six-year presidency.

Meade, a 49-year-old technocrat who served under PAN president Felipe Calderón as well as Peña Nieto, was an effective administrator but had limited experience when it came to winning elections, the MP told me.

The rejection of the PRI and the political class as a whole was a message that came through clearly from the electorate, I suggested. “We have to call time on distant politics; we need our councillors, MPs and senators to be more like citizens and less like politicians,” Nogués says. “We need to be more sensitive to the needs of the people and AMLO understood this. His MPs go to shops with the voters, they queue at the banks, they wait at the doctors’ surgery just like everybody else.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas in the main square in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

However, the young congressman lamented the tactics employed by AMLO’s party. “The people swallowed a lot of Morena propaganda. We had many excellent candidates – really good and experienced people – and now Jilotepec, for example, is going to have a mayor from Morena with absolutely no political know-how.”

But isn’t a change exactly what the people wanted? The PRI has had 77 years in power since 1929; surely that was long enough to show the people the party could govern in a trustworthy manner, I put to him.

“We have many doubts about an AMLO administration. When the expectations are so high, the disappointment hits you so much harder.”

Do you not think that despite worries over any possible disillusionment with AMLO the voters are simply tired of establishment parties and endless corruption scandals, the seemingly uncontrollable violence and the scarring inequalities, I asked him.

“Look, I congratulate Andrés Manuel. I like his personal style,” he says. “A change of parties is good for Mexican politics. I think Morena is here to stay as a political force. We now have a chance to demonstrate that the PRI can change – here in Jilotepec and throughout the nation.”

The Church of St Peter and St Paul in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As he drains the rest of his coffee, he appears more conciliatory.

“AMLO has a great responsibility to carry out the promises has has made to the people but a bad president is bad for the country. If things don’t go well for him, Mexico as a country will hurt and feel the effects. Nobody wants that. I applaud him.”

MEXICO ELECTION – “I will not fail you”

A progressive landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

It was a spectacular night for the veteran left-winger, finally landing the top job after two previous presidential defeats. For the first time in 89 years, a party other than the centrist PRI or conservative PAN has control of the country, and it is a 64-year-old progressive at the helm.

López Obrador took a decisive 53% of the presidential vote, driving home his campaign polls advantage and leaving his two main rivals biting the dust. His party, Morena – which has only existed formally since 2014 – also played its part by winning five state governor races, the coup of the Mexico City mayoralty and heading for a major influx of MPs and senators in parliament.

A mother and daughter attend Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election night victory speech in Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As the realisation dawned on the Mexico City population on Sunday evening just what was happening – that the bubble of the established parties had truly been burst – thousands of AMLO supporters flooded the city’s central Zócalo square.

One of the main drivers behind AMLO’s overwhelming results has been the large numbers of protest votes, or votos de castigo, cast by millions of Mexicans fed up with corruption, violence and the gap between rich and poor and his supporters honked horns, flew flags and cheered in a combination of disbelief and hope as Latin America’s second-biggest economy toppled entrenched interests and establishment parties with a powerful, progressive left hook.

Crowds leave the Zócalo square in Mexico City after AMLO’s victory speech, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

MEXICO ELECTION – Rivals concede, AMLO on course

Victory is all but confirmed for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

There was to be no stopping him this time. After two defeats in presidential elections in 2006 and 2012, the exit polls released after voting ended made very ugly reading for  Ricardo Anaya, representing the leftist-rightist coalition and José Antonio Meade, standing for the governing party. Both of them have conceded and congratulated AMLO on his historic victory.

MEXICO ELECTION – Anger at lack of ballot papers

Anger among people who could not vote due to an insufficient number of ballot papers

Joel, 28, an engineer working in automation in the city of Houston in the United States, happened to be in Mexico renewing his visa and tried unsuccessfully to vote at the special polling station. He and his wife, Linda, 29, were incredulous that not enough ballot papers had been printed and that there had been no official guidance from the electoral authorities, meaning their six-hour wait in the queue to vote had been in vain.

Two unsuccessful voters show what number they were in the queue to vote / Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / ©rosscullen.co.uk

Blanca Góngora, a 55-year-old lawyer from the northern city of Monterrey, said she was “just angry – simply angry” that she had been turned away from voting. She had been hoping to cast her vote for the independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez, also know as El Bronco.

One couple from the state of Querétaro, 35-year-old Gilberto and 27-year-old Dani, were disconsolate at the thought of being turned away. For them, education was the most important issue in the election and it was “just horrible” that they were not going to be able to vote.

The special polling station where this blog reported from in the video above was located near the city’s main railway station, and lines streamed around the block, totalling many thousands of people, all from different states across Mexico, as you can see below, in what would ultimately be a futile attempt to vote.

As the news filtered through that the polling station was going to be closed because there were not enough ballot papers, the queue dispersed and the crowd divided – some left and simply gave up; others demanded answers as the mood soured.

MEXICO ELECTION – Voting under way

Mexicans are going to the polls in a general election

With the morning sun shining, voters at this polling station in the Juárez neighbourhood of central Mexico City formed an orderly queue. And while one man declined to speak to me after voting, two women hinted at their decision. They did not mention who they had voted for by name, but instead said “you know who”, which is becoming widespread code for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO.

MEXICO ELECTION – Third time lucky?

The probable victory of populism south of the border

Mexico presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Abrader presents his manifesto in Mexico City, November 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero

On Sunday 1 July, more than 80 million Mexicans go to the polls in a sweeping election, the biggest in the country’s history. There are 3,416 posts up for grabs, from local positions at state level, through MPs and senators, all the way up to the presidency itself.

This is a crucial election for an embattled country. There are a number of major domestic and international issues at play, including (but not limited to):

+security – there were a record number of murders in 2017, making last year the bloodiest 12 months in Mexican history

+the country’s relationship with the Trump administration – all the candidates have rallied against the proposed border wall

+migration – Central American migrants often face discrimination, extortion and killings in Mexico long before they reach the US border

When it comes to the top job, there is only really one candidate on the pitch.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the runner-up in 2006 and 2012, has seen his big poll lead from early in the year become a truly enormous advantage as the election approaches. One poll on Wednesday, from the business newspaper El Financiero, puts him 32 points ahead of his nearest challenger. Even looking at the average surveys from multiple sources, he has at least a 20-point lead.

López Obrador, known across Mexico by his initials as AMLO, said on Wednesday that he hopes that this will be “his last campaign” after the two previous defeats in presidential elections. He ran in those campaigns for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution but this time he is on the ballot representing the party he founded in 2014, MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration). He is standing on a loosely-defined manifesto, speaking out against governmental corruption, calling for a possible amnesty for low-level criminals and urging caution over energy reforms that opened out the sector to private investment.

The business community likes these reforms and they are also pleased about a planned new airport for the capital – an idea that AMLO wants a second look at. There has been unease among business about the impending victory of a man they fear as populist, left-wing and statist.

However, there are the opposite worries among his supporters. The election coalition he has formed has seen MORENA tie up with the anti-abortion, conservative Social Encounter party – not a natural fit with AMLO supporters. Moreover, MORENA has outgrown its social activist and left-leaning stripes to become a catch-all party, with many defectors from the rightist National Action Party (PAN) and the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In fact, much of the swelling support for AMLO is not direct backing for him, but rather a protest voto de castigo from an electorate furious over corruption and violence.

The two other leading presidential candidates are trailing in the wake of the AMLO powerboat. Ricardo Anaya is lying second at the moment, and he is running for the strange coalition of PAN (conservative) and PRD (socialist). Behind him is José Antonio Meade, who is standing as the governing party candidate.

Anaya is young and polished but his campaign has been hamstrung by internal divisions in the PAN with former first lady Margarita Zavala quitting the party early on and going it alone as an independent candidate, though she has since withdrawn. And the coalition with unlikely bedfellows the PRD adds another fragility to Anaya’s position.

The outlook is even worse for José Antonio Meade. Handpicked by the outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto to represent the PRI, a deep dissatisfaction with the governing party, several government corruption scandals – added to Meade’s undeniable ties to the last two administrations (he served as finance secretary under both the PAN’S Felipe Calderon and current PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto) – leave him tarnished as a member of the disliked elite.

All of this paves the way for López Obrador to sweep the board on Sunday, with MORENA set to do well in the lower and upper house elections too. If he avoids a shocking upset and wins the top job at the third time of asking, it will be a fleeting moment of joy for AMLO. Overseeing his unwieldy coalition, sorting out a stumbling economy, trying to rectify a growing migrant crisis and working out how to deal with with a belligerent counterpart to the north will force him away from the woolly rhetoric and out into the open; for decades an opponent from the sidelines, he will now have to prove that he is indeed capable of doing the job he has coveted for so long.

This blog is in Mexico, covering the election from the capital, Mexico City

ICELAND – Video Report

Iceland: where volcanoes erupt underneath glaciers

It is the land of the world’s largest ice cap outside the two poles, sitting astride a massive ridge of underwater volcanoes, being pulled apart slowly by the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

An attempt to list Iceland’s geological wonders is no small endeavour. In addition to the features noted above, there are glaciers spilling down mountain ranges, mud pots gurgling with acid and fumaroles spitting sulphur over crimson rocks. Geysers fire scalding water high into the near-Arctic air, the biggest waterfalls in Europe churn over cliffs, there are hexagonal basalt columns and sea arches, flat-topped mountains standing like enormous cuboids, deserts, black-sand beaches and caverns.

Windswept and wet, unforgiving in its terrain and teetering in near-total darkness in the winter and near-endless light in the summer, Iceland is a unique, extreme place.

Look to your right for some Iceland photos on my Instagram – or click here.