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Factal Forecast: Sierra Leone coup attempt fuels fear of crackdown, Israel ceasefire extended, and referendum on dispute between Guyana and Venezuela

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Welcome to Factal Forecast, a look at the week’s biggest stories from the editors at Factal.

We publish our forward-looking note each Thursday to help you get a jump-start on the week ahead.

At least 20 people were killed in Sierra Leone last weekend during an attack on a military armory and prison that the government has declared an attempted coup. In this week’s Factal Forecast podcast, Senior Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Sophie Perryer discuss the status of the nearly 2,000 prisoners that escaped and why the attack has raised concerns of a political crackdown. 

Listen now or download on your favorite platform. 

Week of December 1-8
A Look Ahead

Nov. 30 – COP28 begins  

World leaders descended on the United Arab Emirates for the annual two-week United Nations Climate Change Conference starting Thursday in Dubai.

What’s happened so far 
During the last two conferences, countries agreed to phase down the use of coal, while developed nations reached a deal to create a fund to compensate developing nations for the impacts of climate change. U.S. President Joe Biden is not expected to attend, but several U.S. administration officials, including Climate Envoy John Kerry, will be on hand. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are among the most prominent names committed to attending, while Pope Francis canceled his planned appearance due to health issues.

The impact  
Countries are expected to agree on goals to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, while contributions to the developing nations fund and a potential commitment to phase out fossil fuels will also be topics of discussion. The UAE plans to launch a voluntary pledge from oil and gas companies to reduce emissions, but a report by the BBC citing leaked briefing documents suggests the country also sees the conference as a chance to strike fossil fuel deals

Dec. 1 – China expands visa-free travel  

China will start trialing visa-free entry for citizens from Malaysia and five European countries starting Friday in an attempt to boost both business and tourism travel, which are still sluggish in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s happened so far
Beijing began lifting a slew of pandemic-era travel restrictions earlier this year, including ending strict quarantine requirements and resuming the issuing of visas to foreigners after years of tightly limiting outbound and inbound international travel. Incoming travelers are also no longer required to present a negative coronavirus test to enter. There have been recent attempts to simplify China’s typically drawn-out visa application process, which has long been a hurdle for potential travelers even before the pandemic. 

The impact 
The trial program will be in effect for a year, and eligible travelers will be able to enter China for 15 days without a visa, though it remains to be seen whether this will provide the boost in travel China is hoping for. Some concern has been raised over a recent uptick in respiratory illness in northern China, but because the outbreaks are not attributed to any unusual or novel pathogens or associated with unusual symptoms, the WHO has explicitly advised against any travel restrictions and does not recommend any specific measures for travelers to China.

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Dec. 2 – U.K. train strikes  

England’s rail workers will begin a seven-day strike on Saturday.

What’s happened so far 
The strike has been called by the train drivers union Aslef as part of a standing dispute with 14 train operators in England over pay, working conditions and job security. The Department for Transport has expressed concern over the economic impacts on businesses and hospitality that the industrial action might cause leading up to Christmas.

The impact 
The strike will take place every day between Saturday and Friday, except Dec. 4, with routes affected in different regions of the country for 24-hour periods. Nationwide train services are not expected to be impacted on any of the days. An overtime ban will also be introduced between Dec. 1 and 9, with drivers refusing to work extra hours during that period. 

Dec. 3 – Results for five India state assembly elections due  

On Sunday, India will declare the results of its state assembly elections in five states, setting the stage for the 2024 general election.

What’s happened so far 
Campaigns in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram and Telangana recently wrapped. Election watchers are focusing on the performance of two parties: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party. BJP controls the state government in Madhya Pradesh, while the Indian National Congress controls Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Voters in those three swing states are mostly farmers so the campaigns focused on agricultural issues. Climate change has led to high temperatures and unpredictable rainfall, creating massive crop failures.

The impact 
The performance of BJP and Congress in these elections will serve as a litmus test ahead of the all-important 2024 general election. BJP will still be the largest party in the upper house regardless of the outcome, but whatever happens will shape the campaign heading into the spring. If BJP wins, Modi could take that as a victory lap as polls suggest he will win a third term. If Congress wins, Modi will face a tougher election season.

Dec. 3 – Venezuela referendum over territorial dispute with Guyana  

On Sunday, Venezuelans will vote on a ballot measure over whether to claim sovereignty over the Essequibo region, comprising the western half of Guyana.

What’s happened so far 
Venezuela has claimed sovereignty over all lands west of Guyana’s Essequibo River since the territory was seized by the British Empire in 1841. Britain made a commitment to seek a possible compromise in 1966, shortly before granting independence to Guyana, but the Guyanese have since been firmly opposed. While the region makes up two-thirds of Guyana’s land, its population only numbers 300,000 of mostly Anglophone and Indigenous people scattered amongst dense jungles. Venezuela’s interest in retaking the land spiked in 2015 after Exxon discovered major offshore oil reserves. The region’s significant mineral and oil wealth contributed to Guyana’s world leading economic growth in 2022, while Venezuela’s economy has struggled to recover from a financial crisis since the late 2010s.

The impact 
The wording of the referendum asks Venezuelans whether the country should recognize an 1899 border agreement, which ruled in favor of the British, or the 1966 agreement, which favors Venezuela. Voters are expected to back the government of President Nicolás Maduro and embrace the 1966 agreement by a large margin. Venezuela has no immediate way of enforcing the referendum’s results, as the measure is non-binding, and the Guyanese have appealed to the International Court of Justice to intervene on their behalf. Nevertheless, the decision to hold the referendum is likely Maduro’s attempt to promote nationalism ahead of a strong electoral challenge in 2024.

Dec. 4 – China Evergrande debt restructuring hearing  

On Monday, China’s large property developer Evergrande will appear at the Hong Kong High Court for the final hearing on its possible liquidation. 

What’s happened so far 
The company, China’s second-largest in the sector, defaulted in late 2021, and has until Monday to produce a “concrete” debt restructuring plan in order to stave off possible liquidation after acquiring some $300 billion in debt, of which $20 billion is under offshore creditors. In late October, a Reuters exclusive announced that the company’s proposed plan was to give a 30 percent equity stake in two Hong Kong subsidiaries in exchange for offshore bonds and debts.

The impact 
China’s property market took a major hit from both a state pivot to slow the housing boom and the coronavirus lockdowns. Recently, Evergrande founder Hui Ka Yan was put under investigation for “criminal wrongdoing,” and shares remained off the market as it continued attempting a restructuring deal with its creditors. If the plan does not convince the Hong Kong court on Monday, the company will be ordered to liquidate all of its assets. The effect on the Chinese economy would be more than noticeable, with many unbuilt properties already bought up, and the possibility of other companies going bankrupt and banks lending less as a result. 

Dec. 5 – U.S. journalist pretrial detention expires in Russia  

The pre-trial detention of a Russian-American journalist accused of violating Russian “foreign agent” laws will end Tuesday.

What’s happened so far 
Alsu Kurmasheva, a Prague-based journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was detained in Kazan, Russia, in early-June and subsequently charged for failing to register as a foreign agent under Moscow’s laws. Her pre-trial detention was later extended through Dec. 5, though the date of her next court appearance is unknown. 

The impact 
Kurmasheva’s detention, along with the arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, underscore the spiraling risk to foreign reporters in Russia since Moscow’s full invasion of Ukraine and tightening of “foreign influence” laws. Gershkovich, who was arrested in late-March and charged with espionage, once again had his pre-trial detention extended this week through Jan. 30. Nearly all other American journalists have departed Russia at Washington’s urging. 

Dec. 6 – U.S.-Ukraine military-industrial conference 

American, Ukrainian and global defense industry representatives will meet in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to discuss further opportunities for cooperation and co-production between Ukrainian and Western governments and private companies.

What’s happened so far 
This conference follows a similar one in September that concluded with an agreement by both countries to commence co-production of defense material. Nearly two years of war has placed tremendous strain on Western nations, whose stockpiles of reserve munitions are dwindling, and Ukraine, who has begun implementing major industrial reforms in a bid to increase defense production. The United States is already in the middle of a plan that would increase artillery shell production sevenfold compared to its pre-war clip, and similar expansions in weapons industries have been seen in Europe already.

The impact 
Increasing military industry capacity could not only see an uptick in equipment sent to Kyiv but a modernization of NATO forces as they send aging reserve equipment to the country – such as when Poland received American Abrams tanks to replace T-72s they sent to Ukraine. Further inducting Ukraine into NATO’s highly interoperable and standardized defense ecosystem could serve as a practical step toward Kyiv’s eventual accession to the alliance.

What Else Matters

Three women with head coverings and long robes walk past a blue tarp that separates a road with some broken bits of a building. Behind the tarp is a collapsed multi-story building flanked by a two-story building with some damage and a five-story building with significant damage.
Women are seen walking amid destruction in the Al-Nasr neighborhood of Gaza City on Oct. 7, 2023. (Photo: UNICEF / Mohammad Ajjou)

Gaza ceasefire 

After 45 days of Israeli strikes on the Gaza Strip, Palestinian militant rockets toward Israel and cross-border shelling along the Lebanon frontier, Israel and Hamas agreed on a ceasefire that officially came into effect on Nov. 24. The Qatar-mediated truce, aside from a four-day pause in the fighting, also saw both sides agreeing to the release of Israeli hostages from the Gaza Strip, the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons and an increase of humanitarian aid into Gaza, including the shipment of fuel. The ceasefire has since been extended twice, the latest of which is set to expire at 7 a.m. local time on Dec. 1. Although the truce has largely held, Israeli military activity in the occupied West Bank has continued, with hundreds of Palestinians arrested and multiple others killed in army raids.

Watch for: Both the White House and UN Chief António Guterres welcomed the ceasefire, with Guterres calling it a “glimpse of hope and humanity.” But, according to Palestinian reports, the ceasefire has largely been used as an opportunity to remove hundreds of bodies from the rubble as more than 7,000 people remain missing. Hamas has released more than 100 hostages, including foreign nationals, so far, but approximately 140 other captives remain in the Gaza Strip, and dozens of Palestinian prisoners are still eligible for release, according to the original list of 300 people approved as part of the ceasefire agreement. Hamas officials have likewise welcomed the truce extension and have called for “an end to the war,” while the Israeli military has remained adamant to resume its ground offensive following the ceasefire’s expiration in order to “remove” Hamas from the Palestinian territory.

Attacks on government facilities in Sierra Leone 

At least 20 people, including 13 soldiers loyal to the government, were killed in armed attacks on a military armory and prison in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown on Sunday. The government blamed the attack on “renegade” current and former military personnel and characterized the events as a failed attempted coup. In the immediate aftermath of the violence, Sierra Leone authorities declared a nationwide curfew to allow security forces to locate and arrest the assailants. While most orchestrators are now in custody, an investigation is ongoing and nighttime movement restrictions remain in force. 

Watch for: Hundreds of prisoners remain at large after breaking out of Pademba Road prison. At least 1,890 inmates were freed during the attacks and just 20 have been recaptured, according to the government. Sunday’s events are the culmination of a restive period in Sierra Leone’s politics, which dates back to June when President Julius Maada Bio was re-elected in a vote marred by violence and a lack of transparency. Last month, the government reached an agreement to work with the opposition to smooth over electoral irregularities. Such progress could be undermined if the opposition were found to be involved in the attempted coup, or if the government decides to crack down on any symptoms of dissent. 

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

Nov. 30-Dec. 8 

Nov. 30 

  • COP 28 in Dubai
  • Trial against Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu
  • Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis to debate California Gov. Gavin Newsom
  • Assembly elections in Telangana, India

Dec. 1

  • China expands visa-free travel

Dec. 2

  • U.K. train strikes

Dec. 3 

  • Venezuela referendum over Esequibo territorial dispute with Guyana
  • Results for five India state assembly elections due

Dec. 4

  • China Evergrande debt restructuring hearing

Dec. 5

  • U.S. journalist pretrial detention expires in Russia

Dec. 6

  • U.S., Ukraine host military industry conference

Dec. 7

  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit Athens, Greece
  • EU, China plan to hold summit

Dec. 8 

  • Hanukkah begins

Dec. 9-15 

Dec. 9 

  • By-elections in Harare, Zimbabwe

Dec. 10 

  • Egypt presidential election
  • Argentine presidential inauguration

Dec. 14

  • European Council meeting

Dec. 15

  • South Africa declares holiday to celebrate rugby win

Dec. 16-22

Dec. 17 

  • Chad constitutional referendum
  • Chile constitutional plebiscite
  • Serbia elections

Dec. 18 

  • Iraq provincial council elections

Dec. 20

  • Second round Madagascar presidential election
  • Taiwan elections televised candidates policy presentation
  • DR Congo presidential elections

Dec. 23-29 

Dec. 24 

  • Christmas Eve

Dec. 25

  • Christmas Day

Dec. 26

  • Kwanzaa begins

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Top photo: Climate activists held a demonstration to protest the negative effects of climate change during COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo: UN Climate Change / Flickr)

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