February 2012: The Month in Mines by Landmines in Africa

Despite the extra day afforded the month by the leap year, February exhibited a refreshingly small number of articles about landmines in Africa and several of the stories that were published had positive news.  Unfortunately, every silver lining has a touch of gray so some of the positive stories have worrying elements that need to be addressed.

The ongoing conflict in Somalia between Al Shabaab and the loosely allied forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the armies of Ethiopia and Kenya continues to be fought with landmines and improvised explosive devices.  Other conflicts in Sudan and Senegal have also resulted in landmine casualties.

On the positive side, new agreements have been signed to expedite mine clearance in Zimbabwe and Uganda with the assistance of international mine action organizations.  Innovations in mine clearance and victim assistance have helped to raise the profile of the landmine issue and the US government continued its commitment to funding humanitarian demining.

 

Guinea-Bissau

The month opened on the most positive of notes, confirmation from the Implementation Support Unit of the Mine Ban Treaty that Guinea-Bissau had completed its demining obligations.  Guinea-Bissau had received a short extension through January 1, 2012 to complete the final efforts, and now only 23 African countries are contaminated with anti-personnel landmines (Implementation Support Unit, pdf).

 

Uganda

In Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) planted landmines in the border areas with what is now South Sudan.  The Danish Demining Group, with Mine Wolf mechanical clearance machines on loan from Norwegian People’s Aid, is working in Northern Uganda to clear these mines.  The minefields in Northern Uganda represent the last known minefields in the country and the only obstacle to Uganda’s meeting its demining obligations, the deadline for which is August 1, 2012.  Unfortunately, the clearance activities may not be completed until November or December due to the delays in starting the process, so the mine action community will need to monitor the situation closely to ensure that Uganda does not fall into non-compliance with the Mine Ban Treaty, especially since Uganda has already received an extension to its clearance deadline (All Africa).

 

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is also facing an imminent deadline for its demining activities, a deadline that has been extended twice already.  In its second extension request, Zimbabwe noted that it had not received any international assistance for its mine action activities since 2000 (when the “war veterans” started seizing farms from white farmers and Zimbabwe’s status as a pariah state began).  In that request, Zimbabwe declared that it would need $100 million to complete the necessary demining activities, funding that could only be obtained if international sanctions were lifted.  Recently, the European Union lifted some of its sanctions allowing more aid to flow to Zimbabwe, including significant assistance from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) which will provide equipment and training to Zimbabwe’s Corps of Engineers who are responsible for demining in the country.

ICRC’s assistance is absolutely essential if Zimbabwe is to have any chance of meeting its demining deadline of January 1, 2013, but even with this assistance much work needs to be done. In the decade since Zimbabwe has been forced to conduct demining on its own, it has only cleared 250 square kilometers and there are another 600 to be cleared in less than a year; a heroic if not impossible task.  Like Uganda, the mine action community will need to monitor the progress of demining in Zimbabwe, especially if early elections are called for which are expected to be accompanied by violence (All Africa). 

 

Senegal

Senegal held presidential elections this month which have resulted in a run-off between current president, Abdoulaye Wade (in power since 2000 and running for re-election at the youthful age or 85), and the leading challenger, former prime minister Macky Sall.  During Wade’s campaign for a controversial third term – Senegal has a two-term limit for the presidency, but Wade was first elected before the term limits came into effect in 2001 – Wade offered a disarmament and demining plan for the long-running Casamance conflict which has flared up in recent months.  The Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) has rejected the plan as “cynical politicking.”

In a review of the Casamance conflict, IRIN News reported that 800 people have been killed or injured by landmines since 1988 and the government has virtually ceased demining activities, leaving them to NGOs, specifically mentioning Handicap International.  As such, the Wade demining plan seems insincere; if Wade’s administration was serious about demining the Casamance, the government would have been more active instead of absent.  In February the Senegalese army launched a new offensive to try and defeat the MFDC which has been steadily losing local support.  The offensive has been met with ambushes and the MFDC is known to use landmines as a tool in those ambushes so casualties are likely to rise during the period of the offensive (All Africa). 

 

Angola

As I’ve said before in these pages, Angola is the tortoise of mine action: slowly and steadily making progress towards becoming mine-free.  In Luvo district, more than a thousand pieces of unexploded and abandoned ordnance, including anti-personnel landmines were destroyed by the National Demining Institute (INAD) (All Africa).  In addition, 77 specialists from three different security services were trained in mine detection techniques by INAD increasing the mine detection capacity in 13 provinces (All Africa).

In addition to explosive ordnance disposal and mine clearance, Angola’s mine action efforts included victim assistance.  1,500 landmine victims from Bié province alone received physical rehabilitation services, vocational training and material assistance in 2011.  These victims represent only a small portion of the total population of landmine victims in Angola, but the range of services available in Bié is re-assuring (All Africa).

 

South Sudan

The current crisis between Sudan and South Sudan, in which South Sudan has suspended oil shipments to Sudan and Sudan is bombing suspected rebel bases in South Sudan appears to be headed towards war.  While both sides are participating in talks – with their near-total dependence on oil exports for revenues, Sudan and South Sudan need the oil to flow – neither appears willing to give additional concessions to the other.  South Sudan is currently building a new pipeline to Kenya (to be completed within a year) which would reduce its dependence on Sudan’s pipelines and Sudan wants to force the issue before the new pipeline is complete (Reuters).  Caught in the middle are the peoples of Sudan and South Sudan.

Just south of the border lies a refugee camp for Sudanese who have fled rebel activity.  The United Nations wants to move the camp because it has been subject to bombing from the Sudanese air force for allegedly providing a safe haven for rebels.  However, the roads around the camp are littered with ant-tank mines laid by various groups and the site of the new camp that the UN wants to build is currently contaminated with landmines leaving the refugees exposed and threatened from all fronts, especially as the additional threat of famine looms over the border region between the two states (All Africa).

South Sudan’s victim assistance infrastructure is very weak.  The ICRC is helping to develop the surgical capacity of Malakal Teaching Hospital which serves the mine-affected states of Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile.  In the last six months of 2011, hospital staff performed trauma operations on 235 people injured by weapons of various kinds, including landmines.  There are smaller, primary health-care clinics in the region, but Malakal is the only facility capable of providing surgical interventions. 

In Juba, the ICRC has established the Physical Rehabilitation Reference Centre which provides prosthetic and rehabilitation services to landmine victims and other persons with disabilities.  In 2011, 91 landmine victims received prosthetic limbs from the Centre.  Efforts are underway to create transportation linkages between the hospitals like Malakal and the Rehabilitation Centre in Juba (African Press Organization).

 

Somalia

Somalia remains the epicenter of landmine incidents on the continent as a result of the conflict involving Al Shabaab, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) supported by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the armies of Kenya and Ethiopia.  Al Shabaab uses guerrilla tactics, including landmines and improvised explosive devices to harass and injure the various forces arrayed against it.  So far, Al Shabaab has been driven from strongholds of Mogadishu and most recently Baidoa, but continues to inflict damage to lines of communication and supply and this month formally merged with Al Qaeda.  In an interesting and deeply ironic shift in tactics, Al Shabaab, despite claiming that the participation of women in Somalia’s parliament gave “women [an] undeserved role in the decision making process,” called on unmarried girls to fight alongside men and boys against the TFG.  Girls “could form formidable fighting units” and would be expected to conduct operations including planting landmines and suicide bombings (All Africa).

In Somalia and northeastern Kenya, several landmine blasts targeted TFG, Kenyan and Ethiopian troops.  Blasts occurred in Mogadishu (All Africa), Madera (in Kenya) (All Africa; All Africa), Beledweyn (All Africa), Baidoa (All Africa), Lower Jubba (All Africa), Madera again (All Africa) and a large blast at Mogadishu’s football stadium (All Africa).  Despite targeting soldiers and security forces, civilians bore the brunt of the injuries in all of these incidents and in the aftermath of each, the security forces engaged in crackdowns and mass arrests to try and round up the perpetrators.  Dozens of Somali citizens have been arrested, dozens have been killed and injured and the conflict appears to have no immediate end in sight.

 

United States

The Obama Administration released its proposed FY13 budget and as in previous years, the budget contains significant funding for mine action.  The Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement within the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs of the State Department has responsibility for most of the US’s mine action work and conventional weapons destruction.  A recent focus for this group has been the proliferation of shoulder-fired rockets (MANPADs) that Gaddhafi had stockpiled in Libya and which may or may not have been looted and transferred to various factions including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  In FY13, humanitarian mine action is part of a $531.7 million allocation for “anti-terrorism and non-proliferation” with a focus on mine clearance and weapons destruction.  Limited funding will be available for victim assistance needs (All Africa).

 

Global Innovations

Two mine action inventions were promoted in the month, one of which generated a lot of excitement and another which should have.  Massoud Hassani, an Afghan immigrant living in the Netherlands, created the “Mine Sweeper” which has been nominated for Design of the Year 2012 by the Design Museum in London.  The Mine Sweeper is “a landmine decommissioning device that takes its inspiration from a childhood toy.  Mine Sweeper is a wind-blown, bamboo-spiked ball that loses spikes with each landmine detonation.  A GPS built into the Mine Sweeper tracks the landmiens back to a website to help track a safe course.”  The Mine Sweeper was profiled at the Design Indaba 2012 conference and generated dozens of stories and raised awareness about landmines in Afghanistan and Angola. (Design Indaba).  However, I have not heard of any mine clearance organizations stepping forward to field test it so as a PR tool, the Sweeper has been fantastic, but as a true clearance device, the Sweeper has yet to be implemented. 

The other invention is a $50 above-knee prosthetic leg developed by Toronto scientist Jan Andrysek who has received a $100,000 grant from grand Challenges Canada to field test the limb in Colombia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua.  Should the field tests prove successful, Andrysek could access a further $1 million to make the prosthetic more widely available.  Comparable prosthetics can cost as much as $3,000 and are difficult to repair or replace without proper equipment (The Toronto Star).  This invention needs to be supported.  Cost-effective below knee prosthetics have been widely available from groups such as the Prosthetic Outreach Foundation and Jaipur Foot.  The American inventor Van Phillips, creator of the Cheetah leg used by paralympian Oscar Pistorius, has also been working on a $10 below-knee prosthesis (Smithsonian), but a cheap above-knee prosthesis would be a significant breakthrough for landmine victims.  So, as exciting and sexy as Mr. Hassani’s Mine Sweeper is, Andrysek’s LC Knee is the best invention of the month in mines.  Best of luck to him during the field tests.

 

Michael P. Moore, March 6, 2012.

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