French destroyer Latouche-Treville
French destroyer Latouche-Treville
Nathalie Guibert

GULF OF GUINEA - In the dark of night, dozens of oil wells are spitting orange flames. They are the only things to be seen on this jet-black sea. This area south of Nigeria is one of the largest offshore oil fields in the world.

There are no lights on the deck of the Latouche-Treville either. The French frigate is silently patrolling the ocean. On this June night, in the deep waters off Port Harcourt, the battleship is patrolling a 200 square kilometers area. The area is rigged with traps: abandoned derricks, secondary platforms, primary platforms and pipelines binding them together like a spider web, over thousands of kilometers. On the navy maps, the wells of French oil company Total look like big coins.

The Latouche-Treville is engaged in “informal conversations” with the French companies in this area but the frigate wants to be able to patrol without having to report to anyone. It doesn’t answer the calls of foreigners asking for identification. “It’s the law of the jungle, here,” says the officer of the watch. The oilrigs are violating international laws by drawing a 20-kilometer (instead of the authorized 500-meter) security perimeter around their platforms, which is guarded by private military companies. “The guards are very nervous. Insecurity is very high,” says the officer.

In these warm waters where Africa’s wealth transits, ghosts are prowling: mercenaries in armored speedboats, navigating with their lights off; pirate boats with their identification devices turned off; illegal fishermen; oil, weapons, drugs and human traffickers. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), off the coast of West Africa, 966 seafarers were attacked by pirates in 2012 – over 200 of them were taken hostage. There have been 70 attacks since early 2013 in the Gulf.

On June 13, oil tanker MT Adour was attacked off the coast of Togo and taken to Nigerian waters. The assailants – a dozen men with Kalashnikovs – were not able to siphon the oil tanks, which were empty. They settled for the fuel the boat was using, but also took the captain hostage, along with his second in command. He was released as soon as the boat reached land, but his colleague was only freed on June 18, in Nigeria, while the Latouche-Treville was escorting the tanker.

The Gulf of Guinea is one of France’s defense priorities. The country has a constant operational presence in the Gulf of Guinea – the “Corymbe” mission. For the first time since early April, an anti-submarine frigate is at the forefront of this surveillance mission. When it was launched in 1990, Corymbe was only meant to provide punctual assistance to ground forces. But since 1996, the region has become increasingly dangerous and the French navy has been patrolling it full time, with the help of an Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft based in Dakar, Senegal.

Although the French ministry of defense wouldn’t present it this way: the frigate is in fact the fourth French base in Africa, along with Dakar, Libreville in Gabon and Djibouti. There are major French interests in the region to protect: there are as many as 1,500 companies and 90,000 French nationals in the western sub-Saharan area. Most of them are in the coastal cities of the Gulf of Guinea, says Mathieu Le Hunsec, author of a book on the French navy presence in Africa. This is where a quarter of France’s oil supply comes from.

The region’s ports also support bases for military operations in the Sahel. The port of Cotonou in Benin is where the uranium extracted by French nuclear giant Areva in Niger leaves from. The port of Douala, Cameroon, is where all the logistics of France’s military presence in the Central African Republic leave from. The port of Dakar in Senegal, is the support base for the French military operations in Mali.

Pirates, mafias, and rebel militias

Intelligence, military cooperation with neighboring countries... – the mission covers a very large maritime perimeter from Senegal to Congo. “Our goal is to keep the violence down to a level where it can be – more or less – kept under control. We don’t want to the situation to deteriorate without us being aware of it,” sums up Latouche-Treville Commander Xavier de Vericourt. In case of a crisis, it is the Corymbe frigate that will evacuate French nationals from the region. The Latouche-Treville also carries the equipment for a naval commando squad – the special forces of the French navy – that can be dropped off at sea if need be. Elections are a good indicator of the regional stability for the Corymbe staff. They are currently looking very closely at the situation in Nigeria and Cameroon.

Piracy, which is spreading all the way up to the Ivory Coast, is becoming more and more violent. The pirates have changed their methods: they have gone from being economic predators to taking hostages. A recent example is the June 4 attack against the Bourbon Arethuse, an offshore tug supply vessel. “The pirates were looking for expats,” says Commander Vericourt. There were two 20-meter long speedboats with a dozen of very organized armed men in “uniforms” on board – the assailants opened fire to take control of the ship. Luckily, the expats had had enough time to barricade themselves in a safe room.

The Nigerian sailors who didn’t have time to barricade themselves were left unharmed. With nothing to plunder, the pirates left, and found two other ships to attack: the C-Viking and the Miss-Kayla. The frigate located the two pirate speedboats 5 kilometers away, drifting with their lights off.

A “voluntary naval control” has been established in the Gulf of Guinea, led by the French navy in Brest, France. The Corymbe frigate advises the other French ships or the boats “of interest” if they signal their presence. The militarization of the area seems unavoidable. “If there are no controls or no presence in the area, people will take over the region,” says Commander Vericourt.

Since 2006, the U.S. naval forces has been involved in supporting local militaries, coast guards and mariners under its African Partnership Station initiative to improve maritime safety and security in Africa. The U.S. has provided patrol boats to every country in the region. France is undertaking similar actions in Equatorial Guinea where it has opened a naval academy. With the help of other partner countries such as Israel, China and Russia, the coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea are trying to build their own navy.

It’s only recently that these countries became aware of the necessity to do so. In February 2009, Equatorial Guinea’s presidential palace in its capital city Malabo, located off the coast of Cameroon on Bioko Island, was attacked from the sea. Other such attacks have targeted banks in Cameroon or supermarkets in Port-Gentil, Gabon as well. They were orchestrated by pirates, mafias and rebel militias.

Senegal, Liberia, Cape Verde, Guinea Conakry, Ivory Coast, Ghana… The Latouche-Treville has seen around 15 ports in the first four months of its mission.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!

🎲 BUT FIRST, A NEWS QUIZ!

What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]

⬇️  STARTER

Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli

🎭  5 CULTURE THINGS TO KNOW

• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.

🇷🇺  NAVALNY SAGA & PUTIN’S INTENTIONS


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine

🇨🇴  FROM HOSTAGE TO POTENTIAL HEAD OF STATE


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President

♀️ 😔  YOUNG WOMEN FACE THE BRUNT OF THE COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest

💡  BRIGHT IDEA


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.

#️⃣ TRENDING

“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.

😄📚 SMILE OF THE WEEK

Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA


London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.

👉   OTHERWISE ...

Dottoré! is a weekly column on Worldcrunch.com by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."

⏩  LOOKING AHEAD

• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days


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