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Snapshot of the Year: Security Across the Commonwealth in 2020


2020 is a year that will go down in infamy. The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused huge devastation, upending societies across the Commonwealth. Globally, approximately 1.8 million people have been killed by the virus directly and many more have died as a result of its secondary effects. There is not a field of security, be it military, human or environmental that has not been impacted by the virus. However, the myriad of security threats that existed prior to the advent of the virus have not disappeared, nor was it the only threat that emerged this year.

Over the course of the year the Commonwealth Security Group Weekly Update has highlighted important security issues from around the Commonwealth as well picking up on under-reported stories and examples of best practice in security. This Year in Snapshot looks back at the security challenges which have shaped the security paradigm in the Commonwealth this year and regularly featured in our Weekly Update.


1. The ongoing insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique.

Since late 2017 Mozambican security forces have been battling a limited Islamist insurgency in the country’s North Eastern province of Cabo Delgado. 2020 saw a sharp increase in extremist activity in Mozambique. In August, insurgents seized the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia, which security forces are still trying to reclaim. In November, 50 civilians were beheaded in a single brutal attack. More than 2000 people have been killed as a direct result of violent action, and more than 500,000 have been internally displaced with that number doubling throughout the course of 2020.

The main group identified to be orchestrating the insurgency are the jihadist organisation, and ISIS affiliated, Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammaa, who are motivated by Islamist extremism and economic grievance against the government in Maputo. As the insurgency has grown, it has received increased international attention. The Southern African Development Community will host a summit in January concerning the security situation in Mozambique and in October the European Union agreed to funnel aid to the country to tackle the root causes of the insurgency.

The insurgency is broadly localised to Cabo Delgado, although small incidents have been reported across the border into southern Tanzania. If the insurgency gains ever further control over the region, not only will that severely damage Mozambique’s ability to safely benefit from the vast gas fields just off the coast of Mocimboa da Praia, but it could create a launchpad for further jihadist activity in the southern and eastern African region.

2. Guyana’s disputed election.

A snap general election was held in Guyana on the 2nd of March. It was billed to be one of the most important elections in post-independence Guyanese history as the country has recently made significant oil discoveries. It has been estimated that Guyana is capable of producing 750,000 barrels per day within the next five years, the revenue from which would open huge possibilities for the country’s continuing development. After the election, the final region to declare its voting totals gave an irregularly large boost to the then ruling party, APNU-AFC, led by David Granger, allowing it to clinch victory from the main opposition party PPP/C. In light of this, many, including opposition leader Irfaan Ali, declared the result fraudulent. An injunction was passed four days later which delayed the announcement of the results until the matter had been investigated.

President Irfaan Ali

An intense period of legal contestation followed during which tensions flared around the country resulting in small outbursts of civil unrest. Brokered in part by CARICOM, Granger agreed to a recount, which was completed on the 8th of June. The recount found that Irfaan Ali had in fact received the most votes. Despite further legal challenges, the Court of Appeal declared on August the 2nd that the results of the recount would stand and Irfaan Ali would be elected president. In the wake of the election, many electoral officials are facing legal action for their role in alleged corruption. Guyana’s tumultuous 2020 election was a testament to the strength of its institutions, and so too those of the wider Caribbean region, which were able to deliver a fair electoral result in extremely challenging circumstances.

3. Locusts have been plaguing many Commonwealth countries in 2020.

2020 has seen many Commonwealth nations fall victim to unusually large locust swarms that have undermined food security. East African nations, in particular Kenya and Uganda, have been severely affected alongside India and Pakistan. In Kenya, the swarms have been the largest seen in seventy years. Some areas in India reported losing 33% of their total annual crop production.

Desert Locust

Desert locusts, one of the most common varieties, are able to consume two grams of food per locust per day. Swarms can consist of up to 10 billion of the insects and cover over two hundred kilometres in a day. An average sized swarm can consume the same amount of food eaten by 35000 humans in a day. Thus, when locust swarms arrive, they devastate agricultural economies and leave communities without enough to eat.

A series of cyclones saw increased rainfall in East Africa this year which provided a ready breeding ground for locusts and strong winds spread the insects around the region. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, forty-two million people in the region have been left in severe acute food insecurity. The crisis has been compounded by the effects of the pandemic which has slowed down food production in other areas and hampered efforts to combat locust plagues. This is one of the greatest humanitarian crises facing the world today. However, capacity in tracking and preventing locust swarms has been levelled up throughout the year in many countries, with some employing AI technology to predict and prevent swarms. Proof that emerging technology solutions can answer many of the world’s oldest security concerns.

4. Countries around the Commonwealth have been subject to an increased number of cyber attacks in 2020.

In a year where the pandemic has seen societies across the Commonwealth become increasingly reliant on information technology to work, socialise and stay entertained, we have also seen how vulnerable our digital systems are. In June, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia had been the victim of a series of massive “sophisticated” cyber-attacks that simultaneously struck “all levels of government” as well as businesses and essential services. Unfolding over several months, many believe that the scale and sophistication of these attacks point to state sponsorship. New Zealand saw its stock exchange closed for nearly a week in late August as a result of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack. New Zealand’s Central Bank warned that the attack could see 3% of profits in the banking and insurance centre wiped out. Nigeria’s Consumer Awareness and Financial Enlightenment Initiative has projected a US$6 trillion loss by 2030 to cybercrime within and outside Nigeria, a country which has seen an explosion of cybercrime during the pandemic.

Whilst cyber-attacks and cybercrime remain a threat to global security, governments around the Commonwealth are investing huge sums of money in shoring up their cyber defences. The United Kingdom has pledged $16 Billion in increased defence spending with much of this earmarked for cyber and artificial intelligence. Australia has pledged to spend A$ 1.7 Billion on improving its cybersecurity in its 2020 Cyber Security Strategy. And through a partnership with the International Telecoms Union, the Bahamas are establishing a central organisation to improve their national cybersecurity.

5. Tensions sparked between in India and China in a border dispute that saw violence between the two nation’s armed forces erupt for the first time since 1962.

2020 has seen a series of skirmishes between the Peoples Liberation Army of China and the Indian Army, the first instances of armed conflict between the two since the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962. Disputes have been focused in Ladakh, Sikkim and the Galwan River Valley. Conflict broke out on June the 15th and 16th when forces engaged in a melee brawl which saw twenty Indian soldiers killed and an unknown number of Chinese casualties. Captives were allegedly taken and later released on both sides. On the 7th of September gun shots were exchanged between the two-armed forces, for the first time in 45 years. The region has seen a gradual evolution of tension. Chinese consolidation of disputed land taken from India during clashes decades ago, and the movement of significant numbers of Chinese troops to the region has caused concern in New Delhi, and a belief that measures need to be taken to answer the perceived growing threat. The immediate cause of the violence is believed to be Chinese anger towards road development on Indian soil, with Beijing fearful that India could use it as a resupply route in the event of conflict.

Many rounds of talks have taken place between the two nations at both military and diplomatic levels in which they agreed several times to solve the dispute peacefully. So far, the skirmishes have not generated conflict beyond their confines. Although India did ban its citizens from using 200 Chinese made apps, citing security concerns, trade between the two nations remains strong.

6. South Pacific Commonwealth nations have greatly expanded security ties with one another.

Security cooperation in the Pacific has taken on greater urgency in 2020 in the face of shared concerns. Driven by a commitment to a partnership of equals, and a spirit of collaboration, countries across the region are increasingly seeing the mutual benefits of deeper ties. The two largest countries in Oceania, Australia and New Zealand, have both recognised the security and prosperity of the Pacific Island nations as integral to achieving their own foreign policy objectives, driving forward their ‘Step-up’ and ‘Reset’ foreign policy programmes.

The ‘Step-up’ and the ‘Reset’ have seen a deepening of security ties with the Pacific Islands, in defence, humanitarian and civil contexts. As 2020 has unfolded, this process has accelerated.

Pacific Islands Region

For example, The Pacific Fusion Centre is to be established in Vanuatu, commencing operations in 2021. In partnership with Australian government, the centre will host experts sharing information and analysis on transnational security challenges such as illegal fishing, human and drug trafficking as well as disinformation. Moreover, Work to begin a multi-million-dollar programme of collaboration between the New Zealand and Fiji police forces to tackle transnational crime has started. The collaboration will centre around combatting transnational crime with a focus on preventing drug trafficking. The government of New Zealand will invest NZ$11 Million into the program over three years. New Zealand has also worked closely with Pacific Island governments to help combat Coronavirus. An initial support package costing NZ$50 million “helped the Pacific countries to prepare health systems, and helped address wider health, economic, governance and social challenges arising from the effects of the pandemic.” The greatest security threats that face the Pacific; maritime trafficking, environmental and health threats, are almost exclusively transborder issues.

7. Coronavirus has, of course, deeply impacted the security space throughout the Commonwealth.

The effects of the coronavirus and government responses to it have shaped the Commonwealth security paradigm. The myriad ways in which COVID-19 has affected the Commonwealth are too many to list here and readers will doubtless be aware of them. In light of this, it is perhaps better to share some examples of how Commonwealth countries have sought to overcome the challenges presented by the virus. Of course, this list is not exhaustive.

· The African Union has created the ‘African Medical Supplies Platform’, an online marketplace to facilitate the supply of crucial medical supplies to combat COVID-19, in a shining example of the benefits of international cooperation. The project was spearheaded by Zimbabwean philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa and increased access to COVID-19 treatments for millions of people in the African Commonwealth and beyond.

· New Zealand and Fiji had remarkably strong responses to the Pandemic, both implementing strong ‘lockdown’ style restrictions and heavily restricting foreign travel to their respective countries. New Zealand has seen 25 deaths from Coronavirus and Fiji only 2. Both countries are now able to operate with very low levels of restriction on daily life, except notably in foreign travel.

· Ghana pioneered the use of drones in partnership with the private sector to collect COVID-19 testing samples from remote locations in order that they could be studied to help inform policy and develop therapeutics.

· The United Kingdom’s University of Oxford and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca have developed what is likely to be the most worldwide effective Coronavirus vaccine. Whilst the vaccine does not provide quite as strong protection as its competitors, it is a much more viable product for mass rollout. This is because it does not need to be stored at extremely low temperatures. As a result, this vaccine will likely be able to reach a much greater number of people.

· African countries have seen far fewer casualties than many western analysts feared. The application of decades of public health knowledge in dealing with flare ups in transmissible diseases, as well as broadly active and youthful demographics are considered to have been contributing factors to their successes.


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