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WRAP-UP: 26 April 2021

Joshua and Hugh’s fortnightly highlight of news from around the world. Join us as we discuss:

- The intrigue of Samoa’s ongoing electoral drama.

- Mystery surrounding the death of Chad’s president in battle.

- TikTok’s multi billion-dollar lawsuit.

- The connection between Pakistani protests and French secularism.

Topic #1 - Samoa’s election (Joshua)

Josh: We’re going to go first to Samoa and to what some people have described as the most dramatic election in the Pacific in a century. First of all, the election could unseat the ruling party in Samoa, which has been in power for nearly 40 years. Second, the opposition party is run by a woman called Naomi Mata’afa, meaning Samoa could have its first-ever female Prime Minister.

But, there’s a massive catch. The election, which was held in April, resulted in a tie. And, it looks like opposition candidate Naomi Mata’afa may be prevented from becoming the country’s first female PM because of a gender quota law designed to increase the number of women in parliament!

Hugh: Wow, that is crazy!  I have so many questions -- but first of all, why has one party been in power for nearly 40 years?

Josh: The party that you’re referring to is the Human Rights Protection Party (or HRPP for short). They’ve been in power since 1982 largely because there hasn’t been an effective opposition party.  

That’s partially because the HRPP passed laws that prevent parties from gaining opposition status unless they have quite a few seats. As a result Tui-lepe Sai-lele, the leader of the HRPP has been Prime Minister for the last 23 years. That has effectively enabled the HRPP and its PM to do whatever they want.

For example, in 2009 the HRPP passed a law changing the side of the road that Samoan’s drive on, so that the government could import cheap cars from Japan. It also relocated the international dateline to make it more convenient to do business with Australia and Asia. And, in 2017, it even amended the constitution to declare Samoa a Christian state.

Hugh: So after 40 years, why has the HRPP lost support now?

Believe it or not -- it all links back to one particular law that was passed last year. That law changed the way the Samoan Supreme Court works and gave the government power to dismiss judges. A lot of people across Samoa saw the changes as an attack on the rule of law -- including members of the HRPP.

The Deputy PM, Naomi Mata'afa (who I mentioned just before), resigned from the HRPP -- and joined a protest party called FAST. She took a lot of government’s MP’s with her -- so literally overnight, Samoa had its first competitive opposition party in more than 10 years.

Hugh: I imagine that really changed the landscape of the recent election.

Josh: It did. FAST ran a really effective campaign. The election was held in early April and, in an extraordinary outcome, the HRPP and FAST each won 25 seats in the 51-seat parliament. That left it to an independent, who held the 51st seat, to decide who the winner was.

Hugh: And what did he decide?

Josh: Well, he announced just last week that he would join FAST, the opposition party. It looked like Samoa was about to have a change in government and its first female PM. But then, everything changed.

The very same day that the independent MP joined FAST, Samoa’s Head of State declared that he would be creating an extra seat in the parliament.

Hugh: Wait, why???

Josh: This is where the gender quota law comes in. Samoa has a law that says that women must make up at least 10% of MPs.  At the election, only 5 women were elected.

Time for some quick maths -- 5 female MP’s out of 51 seats falls just short of the 10% quota, coming in at 9.8%. To fix the situation, the Head of State decided he would create an extra seat in Parliament and award it to a woman.

Only problem is -- the woman he awarded it to was a member of the HRPP party, meaning both FAST and the HRPP had gained an extra seat. So both parties are now deadlocked again on 26 seats each!!!

Hugh: Woah.  How did FAST react to this?

Josh: They were understandably quite angry. They accused the Head of State - who was appointed by the HRPP -- of favouring his mates in the HRPP and trying to make it win government again.

FAST also point out the irony of the fact that a gender quota law that was designed to increase participation of women in politics, may be the very thing that prevents Samoa from getting its first female prime minister. As you heard in that audio clip, they’ve launched a constitutional challenge.

So the winner will be decided by the Supreme Court -- the very Court that the HRPP recently altered.

So stay tuned, because this story isn’t going away.

Topic #2 - Assassination of Chad President

Hugh: Well Joshua, when you think of national leaders going into battle, you probably think of medieval kings in shining armour riding on horseback, or perhaps someone like Napoleon commanding his army from a hilltop. But what if I told you that only a few days ago, a head of state was actually killed in combat, fighting in the heat of a modern-day battle?

* Audio from BBC - Chad's president Idriss Déby dies 'in clashes with rebels', army says*

So as you just heard, President Idriss Deby of the African nation of Chad recently lost his life fighting on the frontlines against the country’s main rebel group. And, as I’m sure you can appreciate, that’s big news.

Josh: For sure. It’s a really rare thing for a head of state to die in battle, right?

Hugh: Yeah, I did some research around that, and according to what I found, it’s been a hundred and fifty-one years since the leader of an internationally recognised country was killed in the heat of battle. So the last time this happened was in 1870, when the President of Paraguay died in the midst of combat, trying to kill a Brazilian General with his sword.

But in the case of President Deby, it’s alleged that during a visit to the northern frontline, where he began leading operations, he was killed by rebel gunfire. And that suggests that he was well well within the battle area when the incident took place.

Since 2016, Chad has been engaged in a conflict against a rebel group known as the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT. FACT has the goal of overthrowing the Chadian Government and has taken advantage of instability in Chad’s northern neighbour of Libya, using the war-torn country as a safe base of operations from which it can launch attacks into Chadian territory.

And in the last few weeks, FACT has been making significant gains. Indeed, all non-essential US embassy staff were just withdrawn from the country, because the FACT rebels are now quite close to taking the capital of N'Djamena. And really, the death of President Deby just speaks to the chaos of the situation...

Josh: Wow… Could you tell us more about who is replacing President Deby?

Hugh: For sure. So President Deby has actually been replaced by his son, Mahamat Idriss Deby Into, who is a four-star general in the Chadian military.

As President, Into will lead an eighteen-month-long military government alongside other generals. But the strange thing is, even though the latest incident only affected the President, the new military junta has dissolved the National Assembly and replaced the constitution with a transitional charter.

And at this moment, you might be wondering the same thing I wondered, which is whether something else might be going on. Several international commentators have raised questions about the political takeover, given that ex-President Deby died surrounded by soldiers on the frontlines and his death was announced by the military. Naturally, some are beginning to ask whether this was actually a coup d’etat.

Josh: Right… and where does that leave Chad?

Hugh: The event is going to have major implications to be sure. For one, ex-President Deby was a very authoritarian ruler. He had only just won his sixth election in a row when he was killed, although the vote had been boycotted by the opposition and was widely seen as illegitimate.

So with one authoritarian ruler simply having been replaced by an authoritarian military council, a lot of Chadians have expressed discontent about the political and democratic future of their country.

At a security level meanwhile, political upheaval on the home front is likely to make it more difficult for the Chadian military to resist the FACT’s advance on N'Djamena. So unless the military planned to assassinate Deby in order to stabilise the situation, it’s likely that his death has only made things worse.

Beyond that, ex-President Deby was a close ally of the United States and former colonial power France, so with his passing, Washington and Paris may have lost an important partner in a region that is crucial to the war on terror.

Topic #3 - Tik-Tok lawsuit

*Audio from news clips*

Josh: Chances are that, if you’ve got a mobile phone, you’re probably got TikTok. The video-sharing app is incredibly popular -- around 2.6 billion people have downloaded it since it was first launched in 2016, and up to 1 billion use it regularly.

But despite its success, the company may be facing one of its biggest ever legal challenges. And to give you an idea of how big this challenge is -- if it’s successful, TikTok may be forced to pay children across the UK and Europe tens of thousands of pounds each.

Hugh:  That is a lot of money!  Who’s suing TikTok, and why are they arguing the company owes money to kids across Europe?

Josh: The lawsuit is being brought by the former UK Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield. She is arguing TikTok has illegally harvested the data of young children. And what she is alleging is no ordinary privacy breach:

According to her, TikTok not only collects your date of birth, email address and profile pictures, like many other apps, but it also reportedly collects:

  • Your location;

  • All videos and voice recordings that are uploaded;

  • Information about your religious beliefs and sexual orientation;

  • Your complete browsing history;

  • And even your biometric data -- so your unique face shape.

If TikTok has done that -- it will have breached privacy laws in the UK and Europe that specifically apply to children.  That’s why it may need to compensate them.

And the number of children TikTok may have to pay is huge: the lawsuit is being brought on behalf of all children under the age of 13 in the UK, and all children under the age of 16 in the EU who have used TikTok since May 2018.

Now, it’s estimated that in the UK alone, there are over 3.5 million children who fit this description. -- so you can imagine the cost to TikTok if it has to pay each of them tens of thousands of pounds. The compensation claim will run into the billions.

Hugh: Sounds like they’re in a bit of trouble!  When will we know the outcome?

Josh: The legal system moves really slowly, so we’re not likely to hear the outcome for at least 3 years.  So, we’re all going to have to be patient.

But, if the past is anything to go by, TikTok could be on shaky ground: In Feb this year, it agreed to settle a similar lawsuit in the US for millions of dollars. What’s more, it was recently fined in South Korea for data breaches.

BUT, these aren’t the only issues facing TikTok. The app has also been caught up in escalating tensions between China and other countries. That’s because TikTok is owned by the Chinese company, Byte Dance, and there are concerns about ByteDance’s close links to the Chinese government.

Last year, India permanently banned TikTok and 223 other Chinese apps. The government claimed TikTok was undermining the data and privacy of India’s citizens, and therefore weakening the country’s sovereignty and defence capabilities. They’re pretty extraordinary allegations.

And, of course, as I’m sure we all remember, Donald Trump had a pretty fraught relationship with TikTok too.

*Audio clip -Trump says he’ll ban Tik Tok*

Trump also claimed that TikTok may be passing users’ data to the Chinese Government, which TikTok, of course, denied.

Trump persisted though, and issued an executive order blocking downloads of the app. Ultimately, a US judge overturned those orders -- and while there’s been no signs that the current US government will block TikTok again, there are still a lot of questions around TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese government.

Some argue that China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 allows the Chinese government to force businesses to hand over data. Experts have also pointed to evidence that the app may be restricting and deleting material that Beijing doesn’t like.

And of course, as tensions bubble between China and the West, these sorts of questions about TikTok are probably going to continue surfacing.

Topic #4 - Pakistani protests over French religious laws

Hugh: So you might have heard a little bit about this in the news, Joshua, but recently, there has been some fairly major tension between France and the Islamic world.

You see, major protests have been ongoing across the Islamic world, particularly in Northern Africa and Pakistan, following what many have called an anti-Islamic crackdown in France. This comes as the French public continues to debate how to balance France’s secular and multicultural values against the backdrop of mounting inter-communal tensions and terrorist attacks in the country.

Josh: Wow… so is there anything specific that the Islamic world has been responding to?

Hugh: Yep, so there have been two main issues which have provoked the backlash. The first has been the ongoing debate around the depiction of the Islamic prophet Mohammad. Broadly speaking, France is a very secular society.

This means that it is entirely normal for French publications such as Charlie Hedbo to regularly create satirical cartoons which mock prominent religious figures such as Jesus and Mohammad. But when a French school teacher by the name of Samuel Paty recently showed one of these cartoons to his class as part of his lesson, he became the target of a fatal terrorist attack in retaliation for allegedly mocking the Islamic prophet Mohammad.

That event sparked a backlash across France, with many commentators demanding the reinvigoration of France’s secular-republican values, in order to challenge the so-called rise of Islamist values in France.

Josh: And what came next?

Hugh; Since that incident, French politicians have started rolling out new laws which they say defend France’s secularist values against religion. The most controversial of these initiatives has been a proposed law titled the ‘separatism bill’, which claims to restore secularism to the classroom and the public domain.

The law is controversial, however, because it forbids the wearing of Islamic face coverings for people under the age of 18, outlaws Islamic women from wearing coverings when accompanying their children on school excursions and forces charities and Islamic places of worship to essentially register themselves with the state.

Naturally, this has led to a lot of disagreement, with some calling the proposed law a necessary solution in the face of mounting religious extremism in the country, and others calling it a thinly-veiled attack on France’s Islamic minority.

Josh: Far out… Where has the backlash been the fiercest then?

Hugh: There’s certainly been a lot of backlash to the law in France, but arguably, the fiercest response has come from Pakistan of all places. For over a week there, an outlawed Islamist organisation known as Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan has mounted fierce protests, clashing with security officials, burning effigies of French President Emmanuel Macron, threatening French citizens and businesses and even taking some Pakistani police hostage.

The protesters were originally calling for a boycott of French exports and the formal expulsion of the French ambassador, although the Tehreek-e-Labbaik group is now calling for calm after the Pakistani Government agreed to call a parliamentary vote to expel the ambassador.

Similar protests have taken place elsewhere across Africa and the Middle East, although this is arguably the most successful example of an anti-French backlash succeeding in changing official state policy.

Josh: Wow… so where do we go from here?

Hugh: It’s hard to say. There’s no evidence that France is going to back down from these laws, and as Pakistan’s protests taper off, the situation might become a little bit calmer in the short run. But really, in the long term, the situation just speaks to the need for Western societies to continue to engage with the issue of respectfully integrating different cultural groups, because I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t have to end up like this for France and the Islamic world.

Josh: And that’s all for this Wrap-Up. It’s also the end of our current season on religion and politics.

We’re going to take a fortnight’s break, but then Gen, Emma, Hugh and myself will be back with a whole new season.

Hugh: That’s right – and our focus this time is going to be on climate change.

We’ve lined up some amazing guests who’ll be sharing their thoughts on some really important environmental issues – like the fight over Antarctica’s future, how our diet is changing the climate and why young people are taking governments to court.

Josh: You definitely don’t want to miss it, so hit subscribe and stay tuned for our first episode: out on May 11.

Hugh: And follow us, The Young Diplomats Society, on Facebook and Instagram for more great analysis and content.

Josh: We will see you in a fortnight! Bye.

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