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Sudan's Prime Minister in the transitional government Abdalla Hamdok addresses residents during his visit to the camps of El-Fashir in North Darfur, Sudan.
Doubts in Darfur as new PM promises peace
6 November 2019, 11:21 AM

Saleha Nour sits selling nuts in the market in El Fasher, Darfur and dismisses her new prime minister’s promise of a brighter new future with a wave of her hand.

She is talking on the eve of a visit by the premier – Abdalla Hamdok – who is coming to set out his plans to settle the near 17-year-old conflict in the west Sudanese region and repair the damage done by ousted president Omar al-Bashir.

But Nour has heard all the promises before and long given up hope of returning to the village she was forced to flee at the start of the fighting.

Violence may have subsided since the days when Bashir mobilized mostly Arab militia to crush an uprising by mostly non-Arab rebels, unleashing a wave of killings and mass displacement that Washington and others called genocide.

But it is still too dangerous for families to go back and for things to return to how they were, says Nour.

“When some … went (back) farming they got attacked at night in their houses and killed,” Nour says. She now lives in a camp outside El Fasher. Other families lost their cattle when their farms were seized in the first fighting, so whole livelihoods have gone.

Their plight underlines the challenge facing Hamdok as he and his transitional government try to settle the conflict and bring the northeastern African country out of decades of diplomatic and financial isolation that was exacerbated by sanctions imposed over Darfur.

The makeshift camps that housed hundreds of thousands at the height of the violence have grown walls and infrastructure and solidified into settlements, making it harder to persuade people to resume long-abandoned lives.

And the societal and ethnic divisions that fuelled the worst of the conflict are still there in the background.

“WE WILL MEET YOUR DEMANDS”

A day later, Hamdok draws a crowd of hundreds as he tours Zam Zam camp just outside El Fasher on Monday.

The soft-spoken civilian greets them with the words “freedom, peace and justice” – a slogan chanted by the crowds that took to the streets across Sudan in this year in mass rallies that eventually ousted Bashir.

“We will meet your demands. We will work together,” Hamdok tells the crowd.

He stays talking for most of the day but offers little in terms of concrete new proposals.

“Our conditions for a return are security, peace, education, health care,” 21-year Ahmed Ibrahim tells Reuters during the visit. He was 10 when his family fled.

Hamdok took office in August under a three-year power sharing deal with the military.

Since then the transitional government has asked the United Nations and the African Union to keep operating their joint peacekeeping mission in Darfur – a force that Bashir was trying to shut down.

Khartoum is also taking part in peace talks with rebels from Darfur and other borderlands.

But diplomats say the sides hare having to wrestle with a conflict that has changed and fractured.

Rebels have fallen out and splintered with some now fighting for cash in Libya. Arab tribes have been competing among themselves as water resources dwindle, fuelling conflicts between farmers and nomads. Banditry is rife.

And the militias that fought in the early days of the conflict have changed leaders and names and taken up new roles in Sudan’s shifting political landscape.

People in the camps say they are worried about former Arab militia – known as the Janjaweed – that they say joined the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the dominant force in Khartoum since Bashir’s ouster.

Hamdok is guarded by a troops of army special forces during his visit.

But the RSF is also present, driving around in heavily armed pickups. Its commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is part of the national transitional leadership.

“Every time we go back farming … Rapid support (fighters) came and kicked us out,” said Sadia Ibrahim, another displaced villager. “There are problems.”

Facebook
Facebook to widen access to encryption feature
6 November 2019, 10:40 AM

Facebook will outline on Wednesday an expanded test of encryption on its Messenger platform, moving ahead with a controversial plan for enhanced security that regulators and government officials warn will aid criminals.

Executives told Reuters they will also detail safety measures, including stepped-up advisories for recipients of unwanted content.

The moves, which will be more fully described by company executives at a Lisbon tech conference, follow complaints by top law enforcement officials in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia that Facebook’s intention to encrypt messaging on all its platforms would put child sex predators and pornographers beyond detection.

Facebook messaging privacy chief Jay Sullivan and other executives said the company, supported by civil rights groups and many technology experts, will continue to work toward the changeover, while more carefully scrutinizing the data that it does collect.

Sullivan plans to call attention to a little-publicized option for end-to-end encryption that already exists on Messenger, hoping that increased usage will give the company more data to craft additional safety measures before it makes private chats the default setting.

“This is a good test bed for us,” Sullivan said. “It’s part of the overarching direction.”

Around the same time as the talk on Wednesday, the company will post more on its pages for users about how Secret Conversations function. The feature has been available since 2016 but is not easily discoverable by users and takes extra clicks to activate.

The company is also considering banning the use of Messenger accounts not linked to regular Facebook profiles. The vast majority of Messenger accounts are associated with Facebook profiles, but a greater proportion of stand-alone accounts are used for crime and unwelcome communications, executives said.

Requiring a link to Facebook would reduce the privacy protections of those Messenger users but give the company more information it could use to warn or block troublesome accounts or report suspected crimes to police.

The enhanced safety measures the company plans include sending reminders to users to report unwanted contacts and inviting recipients of unwanted content to send plain-text versions of the chats to Facebook to ban senders or potentially report them to police.

Facebook might also send more prompts to users reached by people with no shared friends or who have had many messages or friend requests rejected.

Facebook had previously said it wanted to ease user reporting of misconduct as it gradually moves toward more encryption, but it has given few details.

A WeWork logo is seen outside its offices in San Francisco, California.
WeWork still on life support, rivals say it must cut costs fast
6 November 2019, 6:25 AM

SoftBank may be rescuing WeWork with a $9.5 billion cash injection but most rivals say they believe the office space sharing company is still in critical condition.

They say for Manhattan-based WeWork to survive it will need to slash costs and balance sheet risk, and it will need to do that fast without scaring off customers.

In interviews, six rivals were mostly more sober than gleeful about WeWork’s fall to earth, which has seen estimates of its valuation drop from $47 billion or more in August to as little as $5.9 billion based on terms of the SoftBank lifeline. Hedge fund investor Bill Ackman warned last week it may be worth nothing.

The company was forced to abandon its plan for an initial public offering as investors questioned big losses, whether its business model was sustainable, and the way it was run by its cofounder Adam Neumann, who subsequently quit as chief executive.

Through its rescue, Japanese technology investment company SoftBank Group Corp is seeking to protect its previous investment of about $10 billion in WeWork, though many investors and analysts question whether it will ever be able to recoup that. Its stake will rise to 80 percent from 30 percent.

Rivals suggest many ways for WeWork to reduce losses, all painful.

They include closing or selling operations in some secondary or poorly performing places, as well as getting out of activities such as construction that are not essential to its main business. The competitors say WeWork should also stop discounting, mothball some of the floors of newly leased real estate, and seek new ways to partner with landlords and investors.

Big job cuts are a given.

But it is a long road to profitability.

“When I try to do the math with divestitures of non-core (businesses) and layoffs, those things alone are not buying them enough runway,” said Joshua White, managing director of MakeOffices, which has 16 office sharing sites across three US cities.

He said WeWork has to “switch from growth at all costs to profit at all costs,” but the long-term leases it has signed are a barrier. Getting out of those could mean large penalty payments.

“WeWork is in a very challenging situation,” said Charles Robinson, senior vice-president for U.S. operations at Servcorp, an Australia-based company with more than 160 sites across the globe. “They’re going to have to look at ways of getting some of those liabilities off their balance sheet without destroying their reputation.”

He added: “Best-case scenario – if they do fix it, the company will be valued at $4 billion.”

BLEEDING CASH

The company has added 114 new sites in the past four months, according to its website, and is planning on opening another 208 in the next few months, bringing its total to 850.

It already had $18 billion of long-term lease obligations at the end of June.

In response to questions from Reuters, a WeWork spokesperson said: “Our industry-leading core business continues to perform well, and our new executive leadership is focused on growing our global workspace platform while accelerating our path to profitability.”

WeWork’s new Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure told employees late last month after the SoftBank rescue announcement that there was “zero risk of the company going bankrupt.” He said WeWork would get back to basics, make profitability a priority, and review its markets to see if they made sense.

He said there would be an unspecified number of layoffs. In recent weeks, sources close to the company have talked about as many as 4,000 job cuts out of more than 12,500 employees it had at the end of June.

That will put WeWork in the extraordinary position of firing employees at a time when it is opening many new offices.

WeWork has been bleeding cash at a fast rate.

Sources familiar with the situation said it was set to run out of cash in November if it had not had the Softbank injection. It had $2.47 billion of cash on its books on June 30.

The cash burn rate may also be increasing in the short term. While a $185 million “consulting” fee being made to Neumann is being separately funded by SoftBank, WeWork will have to fund severance costs for those being laid off, and pay any additional advisers hired for the SoftBank deal.

It means that the $5 billion of debt and $1.5 billion of equity SoftBank is providing will also be quickly eaten through unless it slashes costs and boosts revenue. The other $3 billion from SoftBank was used to acquire shares from Neumann and other shareholders.

WeWork declined to comment on its cash burn rate.

It is also unclear if weeks of negative publicity has hurt revenue, whether in deterring new customers or unsettling existing tenants.

Longer term, WeWork could try to move to more of a franchising model, reducing the leasing liability problem, some rivals say, though potential returns are much lower. Another less risky model would be to focus more on management partnerships with landlords and manage space for a fee.

Such transformations would be difficult. “I think they’re a long way’s off earning the trust of landlords to become a licensee,” said John Arenas, CEO Of Serendipity Labs, which has coworking sites in 37 places in the United States.

Another big change suggested is that WeWork stop offering incentives to customers. That prospect does excite some rivals. “We’re jumping out of our seats right now,” said Jamie Hodari, the CEO of Industrious, with sites in 33 American markets.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives to review his previous testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Trump led by the House Intelligence.
US envoy says he knew of Ukraine quid pro quo
6 November 2019, 5:46 AM

US diplomat Gordon Sondland told a Ukrainian official his country would likely not get nearly $400 million in security aid unless they pursued investigations demanded by President Donald Trump, revising earlier testimony to the Trump impeachment inquiry.

Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, who initially testified in October to the Democratic-led congressional inquiry, offered new details to lawmakers on Monday after his memory was “refreshed.”

The details appeared to bolster the initial whistle-blower complaint that led to the investigation by three US House of Representatives committees. The testimony also corroborated other witnesses who said Trump sought to pressure the Ukrainians into conducting investigations that appeared to be aimed at helping his re-election campaign.

The impeachment inquiry is focused on a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open an investigation into former US Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Joe Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to run against Trump in the November 2020 election. Hunter Biden was on the board of Ukrainian energy company Burisma that had been investigated for corruption.

The White House said the Sondland transcript undermined the impeachment inquiry. White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham pointed to Sondland’s inability to say who ordered the aid to Ukraine be withheld and that he admitted he “presumed” there was a link between the demand for a statement from the Ukrainians and releasing the aid.

“No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong,” Grisham said in a statement.

Sondland sent a text message in September in which he said Trump insisted there was “no quid pro quos.”

In his new statement, Sondland said that by the beginning of September “in the absence of any credible explanation,” he concluded that the withheld aid was linked to Trump’s demand that Ukraine publicly acknowledge an investigation. Sondland has said he did not realize early on that the investigation was meant to target the Bidens.

“Resumption of US aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said he told a Ukrainian presidential adviser.

Much of the early parts of the investigation by the committees, which include Democratic and Republican lawmakers, were conducted behind closed doors, but now the inquiry is moving into a public phase.

Sondland submitted the supplemental testimony on Monday after testimony by other officials, including Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat at the embassy in Kiev.

‘THREE AMIGOS’

Trump has denied wrongdoing and accused Democrats of unfairly targeting him in hope of reversing his surprise victory in the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats accuse Trump of misusing taxpayer dollars destined for a vulnerable US ally for personal political gain. The security aid was approved by Congress to help Ukraine curb Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

If the House votes to approve articles of impeachment – formal charges – the Republican-controlled Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove the president from office.

Senate Republicans have so far shown little appetite for removing the president.

“If it were today, I don’t think there’s any question it would not lead to a removal,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the duration of any trial would depend on how long senators want to take.

Congressional Democrats also released testimony from Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special representative for Ukraine negotiations. Volker detailed what he described as the role of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as a conduit between Washington and Kiev.

Volker and Sondland, with Trump’s secretary of energy, Rick Perry, were known as the “three amigos,” responsible for Trump’s unofficial channel to Ukrainian government officials, witnesses testified.

Volker said his decision to resign on September 27 was because of the impeachment inquiry.

“I didn’t think I would be able to go to Ukraine or meet with Russians and be able to carry out those duties in that way anymore,” he said. He also said he wanted to provide testimony “with as much candor and integrity as I possibly could.”

Separately on Tuesday, House investigators released text messages from Taylor in which he expressed concerns to Volker that he was “struggling” with a decision to take the top Ukraine job because he was worried whether anyone could “succeed with the Giuliani-Biden issue swirling for the next 18 months.”

In another message on August 12, Taylor discussed a draft statement announcing that Ukraine was opening a “transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes.”

The next day, Volker said that Ukraine should insert into the proposed statement that the planned investigation would include issues “involving Burisma and the 2016 elections” – a reference to a discredited theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was behind the interference in the 2016 US election.

Trump wants whistleblower to be identified
3 November 2019, 8:59 PM

United States (US) President Donald Trump on Sunday said the name of the whistleblower whose concerns prompted an impeachment inquiry should be revealed because that individual had given false information.

Trump, without giving evidence, suggested the whistle blower could potentially be guilty of fraud.

“The whistleblower should be revealed because the whistle blower gave false information,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

Trump also took the opportunity to lash out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He said she “has lost her mind” and that “her district is going to hell.”

Trump’s comments came as the whistleblower offered to answer questions directly to Republicans on the intelligence committee leading the inquiry, one of his lawyers said on Sunday.

Mark Zaid said the action was taken to counter Republican efforts, led by Trump, to unmask the whistleblower, a member of the US intelligence community whose identity has not been released.

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