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Forecast: Major internet outage in West and Central Africa, elections in Slovakia and Senegal, and Polish and Ukrainian government talks

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.

Millions of users in countries across west and central Africa were knocked off the internet last week after multiple undersea telecommunications cables failed. In this week’s Factal Forecast podcast, Senior Editors Jimmy Lovaas and Sophie Perryer discuss the timeline for repairs and the risk that the outages create for the spread of disinformation.

Listen now or download on your favorite platform. 

Week of March 22-29
A Look Ahead

Voters queue near a desert tent to cast their ballots. There are over a dozen in an orderly line. They are wearing a variety of clothing styles.
Senegalese voters line up in Grand Yoff in Dakar for the 2019 presidential election. (Photo: VOA / Seydina Aba Gueye)

March 22 – U.S. HUD secretary resigns  

What’s happened so far 
Fudge served as a congresswoman from Ohio for more than 12 years, and she also served as the chairperson of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was sworn in as the secretary of HUD in March 2021. Since then, the housing market has seen massive changes due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent shifts in the economy. In a statement, Biden credited Fudge with helping lower housing costs and increase supply.

The impact 
Fudge said she is leaving politics to spend time with her 92-year-old mother, but the move undercuts the White House’s plan to keep Biden’s cabinet and senior team in place through the election. Biden’s lack of cabinet turnover has been historic, matching the lowest rate of modern times. Fudge’s deputy, Adrianne Todman, will likely serve as acting secretary. That would make her the second acting secretary, alongside the Labor Department’s Julie Su, in Biden’s cabinet during what is shaping up to be a bruising election season.

March 23 – Slovakia presidential election  

Slovakia will hold the first round of its presidential elections Saturday with the second round slated for April 6 if no candidate wins a majority.

What’s happened so far 
Nearly a dozen candidates will partake in the election to succeed outgoing President Zuzana Čaputová, leaving the possibility of a runoff likely. Out of the candidates, former Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok and Parliamentary Speaker Robert Pellegrini are projected to advance to the runoff

The impact 
While the Slovakian presidency is largely a symbolic post, the office assumes significant sway at times of divided government, which Slovakia has operated under since Prime Minister Robert Fico’s election last year. While Čaputová’s presidency has acted as a bulwark against the hard pro-Russian tilt of the Fico government in the country sharing a border with southwestern Ukraine, the potential election of Pellegrini would mark a further pro-Russian tilt in Bratislava. On the other side is Korčok, who played a heavy role in overseeing significant Slovakian military aid to Ukraine in 2022 and whose election would surely continue the status quo of the presidency thwarting Fico’s pro-Russian policies when possible. 

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March 24 – Senegal elections  

Senegal will hold presidential elections Sunday following a failed attempt to delay the polls and widespread protests. 

What’s happened so far 
Initially set to take place in February, the vote was indefinitely postponed by President Macky Sall, who alleged corruption in the candidate approval process. He quickly backtracked on the decision following widespread uproar and deadly protests. Top opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was released from prison in the aftermath and has vowed to help his team win the election despite being barred from the ballot. The governing party’s candidate and former Premier Amadou Ba is considered most likely to win.

The impact 
The election comes as Senegal faces a tough economic situation, with more than 36 percent of people living in poverty and nearly a third of young people out of the workforce. The country, usually considered the most stable democracy in a coup-prone West Africa, has been plagued with tension since the attempt to delay the vote and the subsequent protests.

March 25 – Guatemalan leader to visit  White House  

Guatemala’s President Bernardo Arévalo is set to visit the White House on Monday and meet with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss migration.

What’s happened so far 
The reformist and anti-corruption Arévalo was sworn in as Guatemala’s president in January despite a delay triggered by legislative setbacks from Congress opponents. Harris was appointed by the Biden administration to address the recent spike in migration from Central American countries, which the White House has said is the main topic of discussion in the upcoming meeting, specifically aimed at tackling the root causes that drive migration in the region.

The impact 
With an upcoming presidential election in the United States, immigration has become a front page issue with Republicans seeking to use the spike in migration patterns against Biden, blaming the current administration’s reversal of former President Donald Trump’s migration policies. The Biden administration has criticized Republicans for not passing the bipartisan border bill, which would have strengthened funds for border agents and other immigration operations along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

March 26 – U.S. Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on abortion pill case  

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments on a case over how patients access mifepristone, a commonly used medication for abortion, Monday.  

What’s happened so far 
This will be the Supreme Court’s most significant revisit to the issue of abortion since 2022, when the court overturned Roe v. Wade and stripped away constitutional protections for abortions. The case, brought by a conservative medical group and backed by a U.S. district judge in Texas, argues that FDA decisions allowing mifepristone to be accessible through the mail violates a largely unenforced 19th century law known as the Comstock Act. Under current FDA policies, mifepristone pills can be prescribed online, mailed directly to patients and dispensed at pharmacies in states that allow access. 

The impact 
After Roe v. Wade’s overturning, abortion is now almost completely banned in 14 states and limited depending on gestational age in 28 more. The upcoming decision could further limit options for abortion in the United States, especially for people who live in rural areas or face difficulties finding transportation.

March 28 – Poland-Ukraine government talks in Warsaw  

Government officials from Poland and Ukraine will meet in Warsaw on Thursday to discuss the ongoing farmers protests along their borders.

What’s happened so far 
Protests along the Polish-Ukrainian border have been taking place since November, with farmers demanding the Polish government reject the EU’s Green Deal and seal its eastern border against imports of cheaper Ukrainian agricultural products, which they claim create unfair competition. Talks between farmers and Polish government officials failed earlier this month, with no agreement reached.

The impact 
Last month, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk rejected a proposal to for earlier talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about the protests, saying this week’s were already on the calendar. Polish President Andrzej Duda has backed the farmers and called on the European Commission to resolve the impasse. He said he has pushed Tusk to consider several measures, including the closure of the border with Ukraine, but said military and humanitarian supplies would not be affected.

March 29 – Anniversary of WSJ reporter’s detention in Russia  

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s detainment in Russia for suspected espionage. 

What’s happened so far 
On March 29, 2023, Russian authorities detained Gershkovich in Yekaterinburg, citing espionage, a charge that carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years in Russia. Both the Wall Street Journal and the journalist vehemently deny the charge, and no evidence has been made public. In late February, officials rejected an appeal and extended Gershkovich’s pretrial detention until at least March 30.

The impact 
It is rarely the case that Russia acquits an individual suspected of espionage, and as newly reelected Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned to former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, the real hope for Gershkovich’s release is a prisoner exchange, alongside U.S. citizen Paul Whelan, both designated by the United States as “wrongfully detained”. There are several Russian nationals currently serving prison sentences in the United States, two on cybersecurity-related charges, who could be part of the prisoner exchange.

What Else Matters

Two people strapped to the interior of a plane look out the the open door towards a damaged city in a desert.
U.S. Air Force loadmasters watch as humanitarian aid for Gaza is airdropped on March 13. (Photo: United States Air Forces Central – Staff Sgt. Christian Sullivan)

Famine in Gaza 

A global initiative set up by UN agencies tasked with mapping food insecurity across the world released a report Monday saying that “famine is imminent” in Gaza, nearing a possible “major acceleration of deaths and malnutrition.” The report estimates that as many as 1.1 million people will experience catastrophic food shortages with restricted access to the northern Gaza Strip and many aid organizations suspending travel to north of the enclave due to security concerns. Although the United States attempted to bypass the near-total blockade by airdropping food into Gaza, some aid groups criticized the method as “symbolic,” with no plan for safe distribution.

Watch for: International criticism for the situation in Gaza is mounting, including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres renewing the call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in wake of the report, saying findings showed “an appalling indictment on the conditions on the ground for civilians.” Israel is also set to send a delegation to Washington, D.C. Concerns continue to linger over a possible Israeli invasion of the southern city of Rafah after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved plans Friday for a military offensive on the city, which houses approximately half of the Gaza population.

West Africa internet disruption 

Internet access was disrupted for eight countries in West and Central Africa on March 15 by an incident affecting undersea network cables, according to the internet tracker NetBlocks. The Ivory Coast, Liberia and Benin were most heavily affected, with disruption also reported in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Burkina Faso. West Africa communications provider MainOne said the outage was caused by a break in its subsea cable system, most likely as a result of seismic activity. Given the depth of the cable and distance from land, human intervention has been ruled out.

Watch for: Full restoration of connectivity is expected to take at least five weeks, according to Ghanaian authorities. MainOne said it has dispatched a vessel to the point of rupture, believed to be in the Atlantic Ocean between the Ivory Coast and Senegal. The region’s nascent digital economy will be impacted by the outage as businesses have limited access to basic services such as email and online banking. Network issues could lead to a rise in disinformation in the region, with the public unable to access verified and contemporaneous information.

Extended Outlook

What’s on our radar in the coming weeks…

March 22-29 

March 22

  • U.S. HUD secretary resigns

March 23

  • Slovakia presidential election

March 24

  • Senegal election

March 25 

  • Guatemalan leader visits White House

March 26

  • U.S. Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on abortion pill case

March 28

  • Poland-Ukraine government talks in Warsaw

March 29

  • One year since WSJ reporter Evan Gershkovich detained in Russia

March 30-April 5 

March 31

  • Easter
  • Turkey local elections
  • Brazilian debt relief program to expire

April 2

  • End of Senegalese president’s term

April 4

  • Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly

April 6-12 

April 6

  • Slovakia presidential runoff

April 8

  • Total solar eclipse

April 10

  • President Biden to host Japanese Prime Minister Kishida for state visit
  • South Korea legislative elections

April 11

  • 2024 Masters at Augusta National
  • Japanese Prime Minister Kishida to address U.S. Congress

April 13-19 

April 13

  • Songkran

April 15

  • Boston Marathon

April 17

  • Solomon Islands general election
  • Croatia parliamentary elections

April 19

  • India general elections begin

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