Police in South Africa investigate suspected murder of Irish father-of-four

POLICE in South Africa have begun a murder investigation after an Irishman was found dead at his apartment.

John Curran had held a senior position for the Mellon Educate charity in Cape Town.

The father-of-four had previously worked as a school principal in Dublin, and was well-known in education circles on a national level in Ireland.

He was found dead yesterday morning at his apartment. It is understood that police were called after a colleague had gone to the apartment when Mr Curran hadn’t been seen in some time. His family has been informed.

South African investigators confirmed to Independent.ie that the incident is being treated as a murder.

“We can confirm that police arrived at the apartment block and found a body with stab wounds, to the body

“We have assigned a senior detective to the case and carried out a forensic investigation of the apartment and sampling.

“This is definitely being investigated as a case of murder,” Captain Ezra October of the Cape Town Central police department said.

The senior officer added that CCTV footage of the apartment complex where Mr Curran had been living would be reviewed.

His body was today formally identified by a colleague and the company he worked with are liaising with his family in Ireland, Cpt October said.

Mr Curran, aged in his 60s, was living in the apartment.

A post-mortem will be carried out on the deceased either tomorrow or on Monday, according to investigators.

In a statement the Department of Foreign Affairs said it is aware of the situation and is  “is providing consular assistance.”

The Irish Primary Principals Association has issued a lengthy statement on Mr Curran’s passing.

“It is with a profound sense of shock, sadness and disbelief that we acknowledge the sudden passing of John Curran, highly esteemed colleague and friend to all in IPPN, in South Africa today, 7th November.

“We are numbed and finding it very hard to process the information,” they said.

They added that he had been predeceased a son, who died in an accident accident in 2010, and is survived by his wife and three children. 

“Our hearts go out to his family, his very wide circle of friends, his colleagues and all who knew him,” it adds.

“A founding member of IPPN, John served on the IPPN Executive Committee (now the Board of Directors) from 2000 to 2007 and was PRO from 2005 to 2009. During his sixteen years as Principal of Good Shepherd NS, Churchtown, Dublin 14 until his early retirement in June 2005, John was involved in numerous projects with IPPN, including advocating in relation to principals’ workload, boards of management and school funding, as well as supporting fellow school leaders directly and in the development of services through his role on the Executive Committee.

A book of condolence was opened in the school foyer at 11am today.

“We are all indebted to him for all his work over many years, all of which was completely voluntary. On a personal level, we will greatly miss his wonderful sense of humour, his infectious laugh and his ability to lighten the most serious topic.

“John was so passionate about his recent work in South Africa, as Director of Education for Mellon Educate, a role he began in October 2016. He was tireless in empowering teachers and principals.”

Mr Curran was also  instrumental in bringing Irish teachers and principals to Africa as part of the Teachers’ Blitz projects in 2017 and 2018, to build schools, improve existing school infrastructure, and support school leaders’ professional development.

Speaking on RTÉ News at One, IPPN President David Ruddy said Mr Curran was a “visionary” and an “exceptional leader” with an “infectious smile” who was “very much loved.”

Mr Ruddy said that Mr Curran found his work in South Africa “very rewarding and equally very challenging.”

He then recited a famous quote by former South African leader Nelson Mandela – “education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world” – and said that Mr Curran “lived and embodied every piece of that statement.”

Mr Ruddy further said Mr Curran and his family had experienced great sorrow before when they lost their son Eoin in a sailing accident in New York.

Eoin Ruddy was just 30 at the time of the tragedy in July 2010. He was working for Google at the time of his death.

More to follow

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At Least 47 Die in Zimbabwe When Buses Collide

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Two long-distance buses in Zimbabwe have collided on a road after one of them tried to overtake two trucks, killing at least 47 people and injuring dozens more in a country with a reputation for poor roads and bad driving.

The two buses slammed into each other near Rusape, about 100 miles east of the capital, Harare, on Wednesday evening, said a police spokesman, Paul Nyathi. The death toll could rise because 80 people were admitted to the hospital, some with serious injuries.

One bus tried to pass two large trucks on a stretch of the road where overtaking is prohibited, causing the collision, the state broadcaster reported, citing Ellen Gwaradzimba, the provincial minister for Manicaland Province. Both buses were speeding, she said.

The number of dead has overwhelmed Rusape, where the morgue can accommodate no more than 16 bodies, according to The Herald, a state-run newspaper.

Bus accidents are frequent in the southern African country. Bus crews try to make as many trips as possible each day in order to make more money, which effectively creates a financial incentive to speed.

The road where the accident took place was recently resurfaced as part of government efforts to repair collapsing road infrastructure.

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Sudan’s Journalists Face Continued Extortion and Censorship by National Security Agency

The day before Amnesty International released a statement calling on the government of Sudan to end harassment, intimidation and censorship of journalists following the arrests of at least 15 journalists since the beginning of the year, the head of the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS) Salah Goush accused Sudanese journalists, who recently met with western diplomats, of being spies.

Goush made the statement before parliament where he signed the code of conduct for journalists.

“They were called and interrogated to let them know that this [meeting with Western diplomats] is a project of spying,” said Goush to Sudan’s parliamentarians on Thursday Nov. 1. He then announced that the NISS was dropping all complaints against the journalists.

But Amnesty International said in its statement issued today, Nov. 2, that “the Sudanese government have this year been unrelenting in their quest to silence independent media by arresting and harassing journalists and censoring both print and broadcast media.”

“This just shows that Sudanese officials have not changed their ways- they still accuse journalists and activists of being spies and other trumped up accusations,” Jehanne Henry, a researcher on Sudan and South Sudan at Human Rights Watch, told IPS about Goush’s comments to parliament.

On Tuesday, a Reuters stringer in Khartoum and two other local journalists were questioned by the state security prosecutor about their earlier meetings with European Union diplomats and the United States’ ambassador to Sudan.

At the time they were told that they might face charges when the investigation is completed. Prior to Tuesday, five other journalists were also interrogated for meeting the same diplomats and the NISS stated that two more journalists were to be questioned on the same matter.

“What the NISS is doing to us is a form of extortion and it’s a terror act to stop freedom of the press. Journalists have the right to meet diplomats, government officials and opposition and anyone else and they can talk to about freedom of speech or anything else. Journalists are not spies,” Bahram Abdolmonim, one of the three journalists interrogated by the NISS on Tuesday, told IPS. He added “journalism is a message”.

Prior to Abdolmonim’s questioning three female and two male journalists were summoned to the NISS prosecutor’s office and where questioned for meeting with western diplomats and discussing freedom of speech.

These are not the only incidents of clampdown against journalists. On Oct. 16 five journalists were arrested in front of the Sudanese parliament for protesting against the barring of one of their colleagues from parliament.

“Since the beginning of 2018 the government of Sudan, through its security machinery, has been unrelenting in its crackdown on press freedom by attacking journalists and media organisations,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty international Deputy Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

Amnesty International also said that there was an increase in print censorship and that editors receive daily calls from NISS agents to question them about their editorial content. The editors have to then justify their storylines. NISS agents also show up at printing presses and either order editors to drop certain stories or confiscate entire print runs.

“Between May and October, the Al Jareeda newspaper was confiscated at least 13 times, Al Tayar was confiscated five times and Al Sayha four times. A host of other newspapers including Masadir, Al Ray Al Aam, Akhirlahza, Akhbar Al Watan, Al Midan, Al Garar and Al Mustuglia were each confiscated once or twice,” the statement said.

Broadcast media have also been subjected to censorship. Earlier last month, NISS suspended a talk show on Sudania24 TV after it hosted Mohamed Hamdan, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, formerly the Janjaweed troops, who are accused of committing atrocities in Darfur.

Across the country reporting is tightly restricted. Conflict zones like Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, are especially difficult to report from.

“The Sudanese authorities must stop this shameful assault on freedom of expression and let journalists do their jobs in peace. Journalism is not a crime,” said Jackson.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Sudan 174th out of 180 countries on its 2018 World Press Freedom Index, charging that the NISS “hounds journalists and censors the print media.”

Journalists in Sudan are often arrested and taken to court where they face complaints that range from lying to defamation.

Amnesty International called on the Sudanese government to revise the Press and Printed Materials Act of 2009.

“We work in fear in here, when I write something I’m not sure if I will end up going to jail or be interrogated by the NISS,” one journalist who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of their safety told IPS.

Original article published at IPS By Zeinab Mohammed Salih

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The ‘bank heist’ that sparked a parliamentary brawl

A spectacular $130m (£100m) “heist” at a bank in South Africa has provoked a furious political storm, revealing how deeply corruption is now entrenched in local government and beyond, and showing how hard it may be for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to root out the graft and mismanagement that flourished under his predecessor Jacob Zuma.

The losses at VBS are relatively small compared to some of the more outlandish corruption scandals already buffeting South Africa.

However, the story of the bank’s alleged looting and destruction involves such a wide cast of villains and victims that it has the makings of an era-defining outrage – the scam that stretched from impoverished rural villages all the way to the upper echelons of government, and which now explains the perilous fragility of a nation’s institutions.

“Corrupt and rotten to the core,” concluded Terry Motau, the lawyer appointed by the central bank to investigate VBS.

He called his explosive report “The Great Bank Heist.” And the political fall-out has been huge, drawing in the governing African National Congress (ANC) and the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

In parliament on Tuesday, the chief whip of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), John Steenhuisen, accused members EFF members of being “VBS looters”. EFF lawmakers reacted angrily, calling him a “white racist”. A brawl quickly followed.

So what is the scandal about?

For many years, VBS was a distinctly modest entity – a mutual bank, largely owned by its depositors, that helped rural communities, living on land owned by tribal chiefs, to secure mortgages or save for family funerals. Almost no-one outside the northern province of Limpopo had even heard of it.

But with staggering speed, VBS was allegedly transformed into a slush fund for corrupt politicians, local government leaders and their business cronies, by way of a breathtakingly elaborate and cynical pyramid scheme.

The bank’s owners are accused of bribing local officials in some of South Africa’s poorest and most dysfunctional municipalities – persuading them to divert, or to pretend to divert, their budgets into VBS’s coffers in return for cash and gifts. They deny the allegation.

This is how the #VBS scam worked. “The bank was effectively a Ponzi scheme to the benefit of certain related parties,” SCOF hears @TeamNews24 pic.twitter.com/gmqFHXydra

End of Twitter post by @gerbjan

“These people were stealing from their next-door neighbours – aunties, grannies. There is real anger about this. People want to see those people punished,” said David Lewis of Corruption Watch.

It was only once VBS was put under the control of South Africa’s central bank in August that investigators discovered the full extent of the alleged looting and political intrigue.

Who was behind the alleged corruption web?

A total of 53 individuals and businesses have since been implicated in the destruction of a bank that had, for years, proudly boasted of its disruptive credentials as a black-owned business seeking to support “radical economic transformation” in an industry it claimed was still dominated by white capital.

The “Heist” report lays most of the blame for VBS’s collapse on the bank’s leadership.

Its chairman, Tshifhiwa Matodzi is accused of masterminding the alleged looting, with the support of a team of highly qualified accountants and lawyers, and a dizzying network of apparently fraudulent shell companies and subcontractors.

But from the moment the authorities began to question VBS’s actions and its liquidity, the bank insisted that it did not do anything wrong and painted itself as a victim of racism.

“Our greatest sin… was running a successful black bank,” wrote Mr Matodzi in a furious open letter to the central bank earlier this year.

He said the bank’s dreams of “radical economic transformation” were falling victim to an elaborate conspiracy led by a white-dominated banking sector “which does not tolerate growing black banks and black excellence.”

South Africa is still wrestling with the economic legacies of the racial system of apartheid and with the merits of black-empowerment schemes designed to correct decades of discrimination.

However, VBS’s claims were swiftly condemned by a range of South Africans.

“There is nothing black about this. This is criminality,” said deputy finance minister Mondli Gungubele.

“The looters have been using that phrase – radical economic transformation – as a pretext for years,” said political analyst Prince Mashele dismissively.

How did the alleged scam work?

Every year South African municipalities lose, steal, or otherwise fail to account for about $2bn worth of public funds. A staggering sum. It is, surely, no coincidence that the municipalities which agreed to cooperate with VBS were among the poorest and most dysfunctional in the country.

The “Heist” report quotes an alleged WhatsApp conversation that reveals the way VBS allegedly dangled cash in front of municipal officials to buy their loyalty.

“We gave her 300k [$21,500] and she cried… We said we will consult with you and will sort her out,” a middleman allegedly texted to the bank’s chairman, in reference to a local mayor who apparently felt she wasn’t getting a big enough “Christmas” present from VBS.

“Go ahead… but she must know the formula,” Mr Matodzi allegedly replied.

Mr Matodzi has denied the allegations against him, describing the report as “not balanced.”

South Africa’s banking regulators have since announced that the 14 municipalities that invested about $1.1bn in VBS are unlikely to receive a bail-out or compensation, leaving their struggling communities to bear the brunt of their leaders’ alleged corruption.

What has been the governing party’s response?

The African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the advent of democracy in 1994, has tried to distance itself from VBS’s troubles, condemning all those involved and ordering prompt disciplinary inquiries within the party.

But, as with so many other high-profile investigations, it is struggling to convince the public that its own reputation is not on trial in the VBS scandal.

“We all agree this never should have happened,” said the Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Zweli Mkhize, strongly condemning “the wanton fraud displayed in this saga”.

But the suspicion – fleshed out by recent newspaper reports – is that some of the money looted from VBS made its way into the ANC’s coffers.

“There is a toxic interplay between party and state. If the ANC doesn’t move quickly and really come down on these guys I think it will cost them hugely at elections,” said Corruption Watch’s David Lewis.

“The bloodsucking leeches and parasites that have fed off the savings of some of our country’s poorest citizens must be held accountable,” said DA MP Kevin Mileham.

Why is the EFF under fire?

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has gained a small, but growing following in South Africa by lashing out at the corruption of the Zuma era.

But in parliament recently, the party’s deputy leader suffered the humiliation of having his own anti-corruption catchphrase – so often spat out against former President Zuma – directed back at him.

“Pay back the money!” MPs from a range of parties shouted, gleefully, at the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu.

He has dismissed the allegations, saying at a press conference that it was “pure insanity” to claim he got money from VBS.

Mr Shivambu and his boss, EFF leader Julius Malema, both come from Limpopo province, where VBS operated.

Although neither man has been directly implicated in the “Heist,” Mr Shivambu’s brother Brian, who worked within the EFF, is named as the alleged recipient of about $1.1m for one year’s consultancy work.

Brian Shivambu has denied receiving any money from VBS.

The EFF has also denied any corruption, but questions remain about unconfirmed payments into its accounts. Many observers also wonder why, as VBS was sinking into trouble, the party went out of its way to defend the bank and to attack those involved in trying to regulate it.

Didn’t auditors pick up the problems?

A pattern has emerged in recent South African corruption scandals, and VBS is no exception.

When large, seemingly reputable organisations start to go rotten, they look to prestigious international companies – particularly auditors – to shore up their credibility and, on occasion, to provide direct help in covering up or facilitating their crimes.

The list of foreign companies that have been forced to apologize for wrongdoingin various scandals range from SAP, to McKinsey, KPMG and Bell Pottinger.

In this case, KPMG has once again hit the headlines after their lead auditor was condemned in the “Heist” report for accepting a lucrative fee but then failing to spot, or report, VBS’s looming liquidity crisis.

VBS “is corrupt and rotten to the core. Indeed, there is hardly a person in its employ in any position of authority who is not, in some way or other, complicit,” said the report, recommending that KPMG pay damages for its role.

KPMG has removed one partner implicated in the VBS scandal and has promised to cooperate with any investigations.

In a statement, the firm said it had “already taken many steps” to deal with the issue and it welcomes the “independent scrutiny” of the regulatory board for auditors.

Were there bigger fish?

Up to this point, VBS’s behaviour could be seen as a localised, provincial, containable scandal. But in truth, it wasn’t – or rather, the bank had ambitions far beyond Limpopo.

“The Heist” report spells out in great detail how VBS sought to tap into some of the biggest pots of public money in the country, and came alarmingly close to succeeding.

South Africa’s Public Investment Corporation (PIC) controls some $143bn in state pensions and other social funds.

The report shows how VBS allegedly bribed two senior PIC officials in order to gain access to loans that promptly vanished from the bank’s fraudulent books and were instead handed out in new bribes.

The full extent of the PIC’s alleged involvement and exposure has yet to be revealed.

Meanwhile VBS went after South Africa’s giant railway utility, Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). And it is here that the process becomes explicitly linked to national politics, and to a furious power struggle between factions within the ANC.

VBS sought, the report alleges, about $70m in deposits from Prasa, and allegedly began smoothing the path with bribes to union officials and others.

But it seems there was one, crucial, factor which would determine the scheme’s success – the result of an ANC leadership battle, which VBS hoped would be won by Mr Zuma’s preferred candidate.

When, instead, Mr Ramaphosa won an election in December to lead the party and, later, the nation, the attempt to lure Prasa into VBS’s alleged scam apparently stalled.

How did the scandal come to light?

It was, curiously, a personal loan to the former president that first put VBS in the headlines back in 2016.

Mr Zuma, who has repeatedly denied corruption allegations, was still president at the time, and in need of money to reimburse the state for funds illegally spent on refurbishing his private Nkandla homestead.

VBS stepped out of the shadows with a $35,000 home loan.

That loan, it is alleged, was a turning point for VBS, signalling its willingness to be drawn into the ANC’s national power struggles – between Mr Zuma, and the man who would soon replace him, Mr Ramaphosa.

The report details how VBS money was allegedly paid to Mr Zuma’s own family foundation.

Perhaps significantly, the bank’s subsequent claim that it was trying to promote “radical economic transformation” was a phrase lifted straight from Mr Zuma’s own increasingly populist rhetoric, as he sought to prevent Mr Ramaphosa’s faction from gaining power.

Perhaps there are some silver linings to this sleazy tale.

For a while, it looked as though thousands of rural investors – who angrily besieged VBS branches in Limpopo fearing that the money they had saved for mortgages and funerals – would lose everything when the bank went into administration.

Instead, the authorities have stepped in, promising to guarantee individual savings of up to $7,000.

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More broadly, it is important to note that South Africa’s regulatory authorities did do their job.

They took control of VBS, investigated it, and are now likely to see their conclusions form the basis for a string of criminal trials against those allegedly involved in the looting.

Something similar happened at Prasa, where a courageous official refused to go along with alleged “political” plans to funnel cash into VBS.

So, the system still works. Up to a point. But it will require a sustained, collective effort, over many years to end corruption in South Africa.

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Freed Cameroon students returned to parents

Students kidnapped from a boarding school in Cameroon’s restive North-West region have been reunited with their parents amid joyful scenes.

The 78 boys and girls and three others were seized early on Monday in the region’s capital, Bamenda.

A driver was also freed, but the principal and a teacher are still being held.

The government and English-speaking separatists have accused each other of orchestrating the kidnapping.

After being released, the students were taken in army vehicles back to the Presbyterian Secondary School where their parents were waiting.

It was a very emotional scene as they tried to come to terms with what their children had been through, journalist Peter Tah told the BBC.

One of those who had been kidnapped, a 15-year-old girl, told the BBC that she had been treated well by the kidnappers.

Those held captive had been given fruit, food and warm water to wash with, she said.

She said she could tell they were separatist rebels, who are demanding an independent state of Ambazonia, by the way they looked and spoke.

But an Anglophone group, the Ambazonia International Policy Commission (AIPC), has denied that the separatists were behind the kidnapping.

The secessionist movement took up arms last year to demand independence for the North-West and South-West regions – the two English-speaking regions in a country where French is the most widely spoken official language.

How were the children freed?

According to the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, the students were abandoned in one of its buildings in the town of Bafut, about 24km (15 miles) from Bamenda.

“The release was done peacefully… by unidentified gunmen. They were brought into the church premises,” Rev Fonki Samuel, Presbyterian Church Moderator in Cameroon, told the BBC Focus on Africa programme.

“The first information we got from them [kidnappers] is their call and they were telling us they intended to release the children yesterday [Tuesday] morning… but unfortunately it rained so heavily that could not happen.

“So [on] the evening of yesterday, surprisingly and by God’s grace, the children were brought back to us.”

Rev Samuel told the BBC that 78 students, not 79 as earlier reported, had been released.

He also revealed that Sunday’s kidnapping was the second such case at the school in less than a week.

In the earlier 31 October incident, 11 boys were taken and then released. It is unclear who the kidnappers were but the church paid a ransom of $4,000 (£3,000) to secure their release, he said.

The army had been deployed to try to find the children taken on Sunday.

Who was behind the kidnap?

Rev Samuel told the BBC he was not concerned about who was behind the kidnapping, only “overwhelmed and happy” that the schoolchildren had been freed.

He said “armed groups, gangsters and thieves” could be taking advantage of the insecurity in the region to seize people, and blame it on the government and separatists.

Cameroon’s authorities have blamed the kidnap on Anglophone separatist militias – who have called for schools in English-speaking regions to be closed.

There have been a spate of kidnappings in the Anglophone regions at other schools but this week’s incident involved the largest number abducted in a single incident, AP news agency reports.

It said that the separatists had set fire to at least 100 schools and taken them over as training grounds.

Why are English-speaking residents unhappy?

English-speakers in Cameroon have long complained that they face discrimination from Cameroon’s Francophone majority.

They say that they are excluded from top civil service jobs and that government documents are often only published in French, even though English is also an official language.

Cameroon – still divided along colonial lines

Read more: Cameroon timeline

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Madagascar’s three-way fight for top job

People in Madagascar are voting in a presidential election that sees the incumbent president battling against two of his predecessors.

There are 36 candidates in all to lead the Indian Ocean island, which in recent years has been hit by periods of political instability.

In May, the army threatened to take over amid huge street protests.

The main candidates promised to boost the economy in a country where 80% of the population live in poverty.

The front-runners have criss-crossed the nation to hold huge rallies.

President Hery Rajaonarimampianina and his two main rivals, former Presidents Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina, are all wealthy men, fuelling claims by civil society groups that they used their time in office to enrich themselves.

Something which they all deny.

But they are believed to have spent large amounts of money on their campaigns, as the electoral law sets a very high spending limit, reports BBC Monitoring.

There are more than nine million registered voters out of a population of nearly 25 million people.

In order to win in the first round of voting a candidate needs more than 50% of the votes cast. Otherwise the top two candidates go through to a second round on 19 December.

There have been reports of long queues of voters and the European Union observer team says that no anomalies have been detected so far, Reuters news agency says.

A history of instability

At the end of 2001, self-made millionaire Mr Ravalomanana won a disputed poll, which led to a seven-month crisis, with the defeated candidate Didier Ratsiraka refusing to step down.

In 2009, after weeks of protests, media mogul Mr Rajoelina, ousted Mr Ravalomanana in a power grab that was backed by the army.

This year, President Rajaonarimampianina faced protests over an electoral law that was said to favour him.

The issue sparked protests that quickly escalated to political paralysis which ended in a compromise after the military threatened a takeover.

A unity government took over to pave way for the elections.

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Cameroon child hostages released by kidnappers

All 78 children, abducted in the country’s Anglophone region, released but principal and a teacher are still being held.

    All 78 children and a driver kidnapped in west Cameroon were released on Wednesday, but the school principal and one teacher are still being held by the armed men, a priest conducting negotiations said.

    The group was abducted in Bamenda, a commercial hub of Cameroon’s restive English-speaking region, on Monday.

    “Praise God 78 children and the driver have been released. The principal and one teacher are still with the kidnappers. Let us keep praying,” Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, said. 

    He had earlier put the number of children taken at 79 but later said one of their numbers was, in fact, a teacher, who remained with the kidnappers.

    A video purportedly of the kidnapped children was released on social media by “Amba boys”, a reference to the state of Ambazonia that armed separatists are trying to establish in Cameroon’s northwest and southwest regions, The Associated Press news agency reported.

    In the video, the kidnappers force several students to give their names and the names of their parents. The children say they were kidnapped by the Amba boys, and they do not know where they are being held.

    Fonki and the Cameroonian military have accused anglophone separatists of carrying out the kidnappings, but a separatist spokesman denied involvement.

    In an inauguration speech following last month’s election to extend his 36-year rule, President Paul Biya told the separatists to lay down their arms or face the full force of the law, offering no concessions to them.

    Anglophone secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their protest against Biya’s French-speaking government and its perceived marginalisation of the English-speaking minority, although they had never kidnapped children before.

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    Madagascar votes in presidential elections in bid to end poverty

    President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is seeking a second term and faces strong challenge from two former presidents.

      Millions of voters in Madagascar queued in long lines early on Wednesday to cast their ballots in a presidential election, as the Indian Ocean island struggles to create jobs, fight poverty and end corruption.

      President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is seeking a second term in office and his two main challengers are former heads of state Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina.

      All three have crisscrossed the island in a hunt for votes and each has pledged to accelerate recovery for an economy the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts will grow at more than five percent this year, its highest rate in a decade.

      Civil society groups accuse the three wealthy frontrunners of enriching themselves in office, something each denies.

      The groups said a fisheries deal the incumbent signed with Chinese firms in September is opaque and will impoverish local fishermen.

      They also said Ravalomanana failed to tackle corruption during his time in office that ended in 2009, when he was forced out by protests led by Rajoelina in what international organisations like the African Union said was a coup.

      Conservation groups then accused Rajoelina, the man who overthrew him, of profiting from the plunder of natural resources.

      Praying for change

      As queues started forming on Wednesday morning in the capital, Antananarivo, voter Sahondramalala Nirisoa told Reuters news agency she had arrived early because she needed to get to work. 

      “I hope and I pray for a change,” she said. “That is why I came to vote.”

      According to a World Bank report, more than 80 percent of the population lives in poverty. 

      There are nearly 10 million registered voters in the country of 25 million people, data from the electoral commission showed.

      Few analysts expect an outright winner from the 36 total who are contesting.

      If the poll needs to go to a second round, it will involve only the two top candidates and take place on December 19.

      Since a peaceful election in 2013, investors and donor governments re-engaged following a four-year freeze that began after Rajoelina came to power.

      The events of 2009 prompted an exodus of foreign investors from a country that is one of the world’s poorest despite reserves of nickel, cobalt, gold, uranium and other minerals.

      The island was hit by a fresh political crisis in April sparked by a legal amendment by Rajaonarimampianina’s government that would have prevented Ravalomanana from standing for office.

      Rajaonarimampianina approved a new law removing that provision the following month, allowing Ravalomanana to register as a candidate.

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      All 78 child hostages released in Cameroon, two teachers held

      BAMENDA, CAMEROON (REUTERS) – All 78 children and a driver kidnapped in south-west Cameroon were released on Wednesday (Nov 7), but a principal and one teacher are still being held by the armed men that took them, a priest conducting negotiations said.

      “Praise God, 78 children and the driver have been released. The principal and one teacher are still with the kidnappers. Let us keep praying,” Mr Samuel Fonki, a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, said, two days after they were taken into the bush by armed men.

      He had earlier put the number of children taken at 79, but one of their number was in fact a teacher, who remains with the kidnappers.

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      A royal visit to a land of princes

      In our series of letters from African writers, Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene reflects on the Prince of Wales’ two visits to the West African state.

      When the heir to the British throne first came to Ghana, I was a reporter on the Daily Graphic newspaper and the conversation in the newsroom was whether Prince Charles could be described as handsome.

      This was in 1977 and the prince was a 29-year old unmarried man. All young unmarried rich men used to be described as dashing.

      I think those who said he was handsome were in the majority in the newsroom and for a long time a big poster of him came to adorn a wall behind the desk of one of the young women in the office.

      Forty-one years later, Prince Charles has visited Ghana again, with his second wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, and, according to a blurb from the British High Commission in Accra, some of the events on his itinerary form part of the celebrations of his 70th birthday.

      The couple have been busy doing what royals do, visiting sites, looking earnest and joining in with dancing groups.

      On Sunday, they were guests of the Asantehene, the monarch of the Ashanti, one of Ghana’s main ethnic groups, who laid on a special ceremony with so much gold on display that it led to some questioning why we would be asking for any kind of aid from anyone.

      There was a state banquet on Monday, where the couple danced to highlife music, the country’s well-known musical style.

      Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo had made an elaborate toast and decorated Prince Charles with the highest state honour. I wondered if there was a room somewhere in Buckingham Palace where these sashes and gongs are kept.

      It was on Monday, the fourth day of the visit, that we finally had a chance to hear the prince speak publicly, by which time some of us were beginning to think he had come to our country to be seen but not heard.

      He, however, made up for his three days of silence. He gave a public lecture to a packed conference centre. It was on a subject that is close to his heart – the environment, and saving our planet.

      He spoke about climate change, the disappearing Lake Chad, plastic waste and the pollution of the world’s oceans.

      Steering clear of local politics

      He urged us in Ghana to play a leading role in the fight to save the environment. I kept waiting for him to mention “galamsey”, the Ghanaian word for illegal mining, which epitomizes our destruction of the environment.

      But he never did, and those who know about these things told me he would not want to say anything that would sound vaguely like getting involved in Ghanaian politics.

      Prince Charles then had a meeting at a very fancy night club, Sandbox, at the beach in Accra, discussing the world’s plastic crisis with environmental campaigners. The beach there is breathtakingly beautiful.

      Elizabeth Ohene:

      “Ghana is so full of royalty – every village has a full complement, every other person claims to be a prince or princess”

      I was one of the many hundreds invited to a special reception on Friday at the High Commissioner’s residence to celebrate the visit and mark the prince’s birthday.

      The crowd, according to the High Commission, consisted mostly of members of the British-Ghanaian Diaspora, members of the UK community in Ghana, and Ghanaians from all walks of life “who share a close connection with the UK”.

      I doubt I had ever seen so many uniformed, braided and medalled men under one roof. I wondered just how many uniformed men travelled with the prince.

      It set me thinking that when I lived in the UK, I always had great difficulty understanding the attitude the British people had towards their royal family. It was not always clear to me if the bowing, scraping and newspaper adoration were a true reflection of public sentiments.

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      I decided the difference was that Ghana is so full of royalty – every village has a full complement, every other person claims to be a prince or princess and new chiefs emerge all the time – that Ghanaians could hardly feel intimidated by the concept of royalty or a British prince, no matter how many rows of medals he had on his chest.

      The reception deserved to be described as special; the décor was beautiful, the music excellent, the finger foods were devoured enthusiastically, there was enough booze to keep the gathering in good humour, and there were fascinators to keep your eyes darting around.

      Prince Charles came, stayed in a cordoned area and a few people were allowed in to shake his hands. He did not utter a single public word throughout the entire evening.

      The state banquet on Monday night felt a little more relaxed, even though there were enough haute couture gowns to make any fashion editor feel at home.

      There was a fashion show that ended up with a display of some items by the renowned Ghanaian-British designer, Oswald Boateng, who, we discovered, had been one of the beneficiaries of the Prince’s Trust charity. He was given help setting up his first tailoring shop.

      Prince Charles: Key facts

      When he replied to the toast by our president, Prince Charles demonstrated he was an old hand at such matters, or maybe he was simply displaying that he has a thoroughly well-equipped and knowledgeable staff.

      Reference had been made to the fact that members of the prince’s family had been visiting these parts for a long time, starting with his grand-uncle Prince Edward, the Prince of Wales, back in 1925.

      Prince Charles got a big laugh from the audience when he recounted a story about his grand-uncle visiting the then Okyehene, the paramount chief of Akyem Abuakwa, in the east of Ghana.

      The story goes that the heavens opened and the Okyehene gave an umbrella to his visitor to be able to get back and, apparently, this umbrella was never returned.

      So, this Prince of Wales brought an umbrella for the current Okyehene to replace the one his grand-uncle took away 93 years ago. I suspect it was not just a funny story but there was some honour meant to be served.

      ‘The party ends when it ends’

      But who is to ever understand the arcane ways of how British royalty behaves and expects to be treated? The High Commission certainly kept up the protocols.

      The invitation to Friday’s reception stated it would start at 6pm and Carriages would be at 10.30pm. The invitation from our president’s office only said guests were to be seated by 8pm.

      Nothing about Carriages, which was probably just as well, because our First Lady Rebecca Akufo-Addo, Second Lady (as the wife of the vice-president is known) Samira Bawumia, former President Jerry Rawlings, his wife Nana Konadu and Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall danced late into the night.

      Proof, if any were needed that we don’t do carriages here. The party ends when it ends.

      The British royals had a taste of Ghana and have promised to be back sooner than the 41 years it has taken between the last visit and this one.

      More Letters from Africa

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