NIGERIA

Spaghetti smugglers of the Sahara

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THE shifting sands of the Sahara have long been crossed by trade and smuggling routes. Traffickers send people and drugs north over the desert. But they have a problem: what to put in the empty trucks going back? The answer—pasta. Some informed sources reckon that, apart from people, by weight pasta is probably the most smuggled product to cross the desert. Drug trafficking and gunrunning may earn fatter margins. But many smugglers diversify their load by pushing penne. In part the trade is fuelled by subsidies in places such as Algeria, which spends about $28bn a year keeping down the price of food and energy. In Libya, which still subsidises food prices, even if somewhat erratically because of the civil war, 500g of pasta can be bought for 15-25 American cents. The same bag of pasta

Why Africa’s poor pay high prices

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“WE FEEL so hungry,” says Agatha Khasiala, a Kenyan housekeeper, grumbling about the price of meat and fish. She has recently moved in with her daughter because “the cost of everything is very high”. The data back her up. The World Bank publishes rough estimates of price levels in different countries, showing how far a dollar would stretch if converted into local currency. On this measure, Kenya is more expensive than Poland. This is surprising. The cost of living is generally higher in richer places, a phenomenon best explained by the economists Bela Balassa and Paul Samuelson. They distinguished between goods that can be traded internationally and many services, like hairdressing, that cannot. In rich countries, manufacturing is highly productive, allowing firms to pay high wages and

Ahead of a farcical election, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi goes after the press

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ABDEL-FATTAH AL-SISI, Egypt’s president, could not ask for a better mouthpiece than Khairy Ramadan, a talk-show host. When activists started a Twitter campaign to mock the president, Mr Ramadan proposed banning the social network. And like Mr Sisi he calls the revolution of 2011, when the previous strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown, a foreign plot. But during his show on February 18th, Mr Ramadan talked of a police colonel who earns 4,600 pounds ($261) per month. To supplement his income, the colonel’s wife sought work as a cleaner. Mr Ramadan, who confessed to having a “soft spot” for the notoriously brutal cops, wondered why they were paid so little. He can now ask them directly. Apparently seen as disrespectful, on March 3rd he was arrested. Later this month Egyptians will go

Gay-rights activists take to the air in Tunisia

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BOUHDID BELHEDI is not easily intimidated. The campaigner for LGBT rights has been assaulted by Islamic extremists outside his house in Tunis and beaten by a mob as a policeman watched. Since helping to launch Shams Rad, an online radio station catering to LGBT people, he has received thousands of online threats and insults. The station, which began broadcasting out of Tunisia in December, is the first of its kind in the Arab world. It is on six days a week and reaches 10,000 people in 15 countries, according to Shams, the Tunisian group behind the effort. The Dutch embassy provides funding. The aim is to create a space to talk about LGBT issues that is not “dominated by imams”, says Mounir Baatour of Shams. The challenge is staying within the law. Anal sex is punishable by up to three

Africans want to sell donkey skins. Western charities want to stop them

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But not this one BARINGO county, in Kenya’s Rift Valley, is a hard place. Water is short in the dusty bush, so businesses tend not to thrive. But one industry is booming. At the edge of Mogotio, a town of roadside shops, hundreds of donkeys graze along the road. They are waiting to be sold for slaughter at the local abattoir. Next to a lorry, a woman in a shimmering dress says she has brought 100 donkeys from Moyale, two days’ drive north. She expects to make several thousand dollars from the sale. Across Africa, donkeys are used as beasts of labour. Most Kenyans turn up their noses at the idea of eating them. But Chinese entrepreneurs have opened a new market. In China donkey skins are used to make a gelatine, called ejiao, that is used as traditional medicine. The meat is also a delic

How to save Botswana’s sparkling reputation

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Khama, a cool and collected authoritarian WHEN Ian Khama steps down at the end of the month, after ten years as president, he will leave his country looking perky. Mr Khama has been lavished with praise as he makes a series of farewell sorties around the country. At a recent gathering of farmers, he was “gifted with 35 cattle, a bull, two sheep and goats, a horse, and shares worth 25,000 pula [$2,628] at Tlou Energy”, a coal-development company, according to the pro-government Daily News. The statistics paint a pretty picture, too. In its annual report card on African governments, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation regularly ranks Botswana near the top. At independence in 1966 it was one of the world’s poorest places, with “only 7km of tarred road and a capital, Gaborone, that amounted to little

Saudi Arabia’s use of soft power in Iraq is making Iran nervous

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IT ALMOST feels like old times. Before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Gulf Arabs partied on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river in southern Iraq. Many owned villas in the fields around Basra and took Iraqi wives. Now, after a break of three decades, they are back. Saudi Arabia is putting the finishing touches on a consulate in Basra’s Sheraton hotel, where Iraqi crooners sing love songs and waiters dance. Last month a dozen Saudi poets travelled to Basra for a literary festival. Air links between Saudi Arabia and Iraq have also resumed, with 140 flights each month. Several state-owned businesses, including SABIC, the Saudi petrochemical giant, are registering offices in Baghdad. At a conference in Kuwait last month, the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, pledged $1bn in lo

A chat with Zimbabwe’s new president

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“THE land resettlement was a huge success in terms of our people, 367,000 of our people, back in possession of the land,” says President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the expropriation of most of Zimbabwe’s white-owned farmland since 2000—a move that wrecked the economy and pushed millions into poverty. Was it fair that bigwigs of his ruling Zanu-PF party took several farms each? “No, no, it is one farm, one person,” he says. “I have 404 hectares and I paid for the equipment myself.” Mr Mnangagwa admits, however, that Zimbabwe “became almost a country without friends” under Robert Mugabe, who was ejected in a coup last year. Now “Zimbabwe is open for business,” says Mr Mnangagwa, speaking in his home in Borrowdale, the poshest suburb of Harare, the capital. Stockily built, with watchful hooded ey

As Morocco’s economy slows, the jobless are getting restive

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FOR over a year, fishermen, miners and jobless graduates in northern Morocco have demanded more help from the government. To be fair, the government is acutely aware of the need to create more jobs. Even as the protests rage, workers are putting the finishing touches on Marchica, the first of seven eco-resorts planned for the northern coast under the king’s ten-year plan to increase tourism. “We can’t just build hospitals and schools,” says Sami Bouhmidi, one of Marchica’s managers. “We need to lay the foundations for investment and regeneration.” Morocco’s development has been impressive. A growing manufacturing sector, investment by European and Chinese firms, and stronger links with sub-Saharan Africa have boosted the economy. Since 2000 GDP per person has increased by 70% in real te

Increasing debt in many African countries is a cause for worry

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“A FOOL’S bargain.” That is how Idriss Déby, Chad’s president, now describes the state oil company’s decision to borrow $1.4bn from Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss commodities trader, in 2014. The loan was to be repaid with future sales of crude, then trading above $100 a barrel. But two years later, as the price dived, debt payments were swallowing 85% of Chad’s dwindling oil revenue. For weeks schools have been closed and hospitals paralysed, as workers strike against austerity. On February 21st, after fractious talks, Chad and Glencore agreed to restructure the deal. Chad’s woes recall an earlier era, when African economies groaned beneath unpayable debts. By the mid-1990s much of the continent was frozen out of the global financial system. The solution, reached in 2005, was for rich countr