BBC: New Protests in Hama after Syria’s Crackdown leaves hundreds dead

 

Tens of thousands of people have protested across Syria, days after the bloody crackdown on the city of Hama where the opposition had taken control. Video said to be of Damascus showed crowds in a central district chanting: “Hama, we are with you until death” and “[President] Bashar [al-Assad] leave”.

In a suburb of the city, at least four protesters were shot dead by security forces on Friday, reports say. In a broadcast from Hama, State TV said the city was under government control.  Hama residents and human rights groups accuse the army of killing more than 100 civilians in a bombardment of the city, a focus of the protests against Mr Assad’s rule.

As many as 2,000 people may have been killed by security forces since opponents of President Assad’s autocratic rule took to the streets in March. Protesters were inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Mr Assad has promised reforms, but blames the violence on “armed criminal gangs” backed by unspecified foreign powers. Access to events in Syria has been severely restricted for international journalists and it is rarely possible to verify accounts by witnesses and opposition activists.

Marching in the heat

Activists had called for more protests after prayers on Friday, with one web user posting a message saying: “God is with us, are you?” Video posted by activists purports to show protesters marching through the Midan district of the Syrian capital, close to the Old City. Clapping their hands, they chanted, “We don’t want you Bashar”.

In another district of the capital, Qadam, protesters carried a banner reading: “Bashar is slaughtering the people and the international community is silent.”  Security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas in several cities, activists said.  At least four people were reportedly killed in the Damascus suburb of Irbin, with a further 10 wounded.

Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, told AFP news agency that 30,000 people had marched in the city of Deir al-Zour despite extreme heat. Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused security forces of killing some 2,000 people since March. Residents of Hama, which has become a focal point of protests, told reporters that there had been more gunfire and shelling early on Friday.

Snipers and tanks have been firing on civilians and food and medicine supplies are running low, witnesses say. But the Syrian TV report showed pictures of armed men hiding behind cars and claimed the army had quelled a rebellion. The report showed deserted streets with flimsy barricades and piles of rubble. Later, the reporter went into buildings that appeared to have been destroyed in an explosion.

The UN Security Council issued a statement this week condemning the crackdown.  Russia, traditionally an ally of Syria, also joined the criticism, with President Dmitry Medvedev saying Mr Assad would “face a sad fate” unless he urgently carried out reforms and reconciled with the opposition.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says Mr Medvedev’s statement may give the government pause for thought, but there has been no change in the attitude on the ground.

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New Tibetian Prime Minister to Assume Dalai Lama’s Political Duties

Lobsang Sangay , a Harvard University academic, has been elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile andwill take on the political role previously played by the Dalai Lama. Lobsang Sangay won 55% of the votes cast by Tibetans around the world. He defeated two candidates for the role, Tenzin Tethong and Tashi Wangdi.

Mr Sangay must now assume the political functions of the Dalai Lama, who said in March he wanted to devolve this responsibility to an elected official. The Dalai Lama will retain his role as Tibetan spiritual leader.

‘Middle way’

The elections were held in March and the result announced on Wednesday in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based. “The Election Commission of the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has declared Dr Lobsang Sangay as the third kalon tripa,” Election Commissioner Jampal Thosang announced, using the Tibetan term for prime minister.

Almost 83,400 Tibetan exiles were eligible to vote and more than 49,000 ballots were cast, he said. Tenzin Tethong, a former representative of the Dalai Lama in the US, got 37.4% of the vote and Tashi Wangdi, a government-in-exile bureaucrat, received 6.4%.

The 42-year-old winner is an Indian-born legal expert who has never lived in Tibet. His father fled Tibet in 1959, the same year as the Dalai Lama. He says he will move to Dharamsala to serve as prime minister and that he supports the Dalai Lama’s stance on ties with China. “What His Holiness stands for is the ‘Middle Way’, which is genuine autonomy within China or within the framework of the Chinese constitution,” he told the BBC earlier this month.

“If Tibetans are granted genuine autonomy then his Holiness the Dalai Lama said he is willing to accept Tibet as part of China.”  In a victory statement on Wednesday, he said he took comfort in the fact that the handover was taking place while the Dalai Lama “is healthy and available to watch over us”. “I urge every Tibetan and friend of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness to his rightful place,” he said.

Daunting task

An official told Reuters news agency that the Dalai Lama was “very happy” that people had taken “a very active part in the election process”.  The 76-year-old monk announced in March that he wanted an elected official to assume some of his responsibilities, saying that such a move was in the best interests of the Tibetan people.

Analysts say he aims to ensure that even if China’s government tries to select the next Dalai Lama, the Tibetans will have an elected leader they can look to who is outside China and beyond the Communist Party’s control.  The BBC’s Mark Dummett says Lobsang Sangay has the daunting task of trying to keep the issue of Tibet alive while the man who embodies the struggle for Tibetan rights gradually steps back from the limelight. He has been elected head of a government which no country recognises and will face in China an opponent which has shown no sign of wanting to compromise, our correspondent adds.

BBC: Hundreds Escape from Afghan Prison

More than 470 inmates at a prison in southern Afghanistan have escaped through a tunnel hundreds of metres long and dug from outside the jail.  Officials in the city of Kandahar said many of those who escaped from Sarposa jail were Taliban insurgents. The Kandahar provincial governor’s office said at least 12 had since been recaptured but gave no further details.

A spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the escape was a “disaster” which should never have happened. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said it had taken five months to build the 360m (1,180ft) tunnel to a cell within the political wing.

We had the support of skilled professionals – people who were trained engineers, who advised us on the digging” said Zabiullah Mujahid Taliban spokesman.  He said it was dug from a house north-east of the prison that was rented by “friends” of the Taliban, and had to bypass security checkpoints and the main Kandahar-Kabul road. About 100 of those who escaped were Taliban commanders, he added. Most of the others are thought to have been insurgents. The prison holds about 1,200 inmates.

Second jailbreak

A tunnel hundreds of metres long was dug from the south of the prison into the prison and 476 political prisoners escaped last night,” said prison director General Ghulam Dastageer Mayar.  One escapee told the BBC it had taken him about 30 minutes to walk the length of the tunnel. The escape took most of the night and vehicles were waiting at the exit point to take prisoners away.

Kandahar’s provincial authorities said a search operation was under way.  So far, only about a dozen of the prisoners have been recaptured. Police said they were looking for men without shoes – many escaped barefoot. The jailbreak is the second major escape from the prison in three years.

In June 2008 a suicide bomber blew open the Kandahar prison gates and destroyed a nearby checkpoint, freeing about 900 prisoners, many of them suspected insurgents. Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said some of the prisoners had been found.  After that, millions of pounds were spent upgrading the prison. The 2008 breakout was followed by a major upsurge in violence.

The BBC’s Quentin Sommerville in Kabul says the escape is a further setback for security in the area, and for the fight against the insurgency. “This is a blow,” Afghan presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said. “A prison break of this magnitude, of course, points to a vulnerability.”

The Afghan politician and former MP, Daoud Sultanzai, told the BBC that the escape exposed “the porousness of our security apparatus”. The prison is under Afghan control, but the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said it was ready to provide assistance if requested by Afghan officials.  Insurgents considered to be the most dangerous are likely to be held at a high-security facility outside the US Bagram air base, north of Kabul, rather than at the Sarposa prison, analysts say.

Our correspondent says the jailbreak will be felt most in the villages and orchards around Kandahar, where Nato and Afghan soldiers spent a long summer last year fighting the Taliban. Some of the men they captured are now free again, and with the fighting season about to start their enemy has just had its ranks replenished, he adds.

Nato forces are preparing for the long process of withdrawal. The first stage is the transfer of security powers to local forces from July, but Kandahar is not among the first tranche of provinces.

Yemen’s President Saleh to step down under Gulf Plan

Published in BBC.


President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has agreed to step down under a 30-day transition plan aimed at ending violent unrest over his 32-year rule.  Officials in the capital Sanaa confirmed the government had accepted the plan drawn up by Gulf Arab states. Mr Saleh will hand power to his vice-president one month after an agreement is signed with the opposition, in return for immunity from prosecution. 

At least 120 people have died during two months of protests. The US has welcomed the announcement; a statement from the White House urged all parties to “swiftly” implement a peaceful transfer of power.  Opposition leader Yassin Noman was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying he welcomed news of the handover but would not take part in a proposed national unity government.

The opposition have been insisting they will not accept immunity from prosecution for Mr Saleh and his family.  If Mr Saleh steps down as expected, he will join Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as the latest Arab leader to lose power because of a popular revolt this year.

The opposition say they welcome the initiative but seem reluctant to serve in a government with the ruling party. Opposition members have also been sceptical about any deal which would see President Saleh transfer power but not leave office immediately. The timing of the announcement by the president is surprising. Earlier in the day, he delivered a tough speech to members of the country’s army in which he accused the opposition of dragging Yemen into a civil war.

But on Friday Yemen saw some of the largest demonstrations so far as hundreds of thousands took to the streets in rival protests in support of both the opposition and the president. And on Saturday, opposition activists called for a general strike in the country. Tariq Shami, a spokesman for Yemen’s ruling party, told Reuters the party had informed the Gulf Cooperation Council “of their acceptance of the Gulf initiative in full”.

Washington has urged Mr Saleh to set about the transition immediately.  “The timing and form of this transition should be identified through dialogue,” state department spokesman Mark Toner said. Hundreds of thousands of people attended a rally in support of Mr Saleh in Sanaa on Friday but comparable numbers turned out for demonstrations against him in both the capital and the southern city of Taiz.  On Saturday, a general strike called by the opposition caused disruption in Taiz, the port city of Aden and other towns, although apparently it had little effect in the capital.

‘Loop-holes’

Yemen is the Arab world’s most impoverished nation and, even before the current protests, it was becoming increasingly chaotic, with both al-Qaeda and separatist challenges to the government’s authority. Mr Saleh suffered a major political reversal last month when a slew of ministers and ambassadors resigned in protest at the shooting of 45 people at a demonstration in Sanaa.

The president promised earlier not to renew his presidency in 2013 or hand over to his son. He has made – and broken – similar promises in the past.  Members of the opposition coalition say they are wary of loopholes that could keep Mr Saleh, a canny politician, in office. One opposition leader told Reuters that ending the protests would be a major sticking point.  The opposition, the unnamed leader added, did not fully control the hundreds of thousands of people, many of them youth activists, who have taken to the streets

Under the plan proposed by Saudi Arabia and five other states

  • Mr Saleh appoints an opposition leader to run an interim government tasked with preparing for presidential elections two months later
  • Mr Saleh, his family and his aides are given immunity from prosecution
  • Within a month of signing an agreement with the opposition, Mr Saleh quits and hands over to his Vice-President, Abdu Rabu Manur Hadi

Bahraini Woman Willing to Fast Unto Death if Family is Not Released

Zainab al-Khawaja
 A Bahraini woman who witnessed her father, a well-known human rights activist, being seized by masked soldiers, beaten unconscious and then taken into custody, has told the Guardian that she is willing to die on hunger strike unless he is released. Zainab al-Khawaja, 27, will today enter her fourth day without food in protest at the violent arrest and subsequent disappearance of the outspoken dissident Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, along with her husband and brother-in-law.

Zainab, who was brought up in exile in Denmark, is taking only water, and told the Guardian she is already feeling weak, with breast-feeding sapping her strength faster than she had expected. She says she will leave her 18-month-old child with family members if she dies.

Around a dozen masked and heavily armed soldiers, apparently from Bahrain‘s special forces, stormed her apartment in the capital, Manama, at 2am on Saturday. Her father had previously called for Bahrain’s king to face trial for murder, torture and corruption. The family’s attempts to find out from the police what has happened to the men have failed and they fear they are being tortured. Zainab, who started her fast on Monday, said she now dreams about her father’s fate.

“I am willing to go all the way,” she said. “Either they come out or I will not eat. I don’t care where it ends up.” Asked whether she was willing to die, she replied: “Yes. It is difficult with a child but I am willing to make that sacrifice. My daughter has great aunts and grandmothers who will look after her if anything happens to me … We have the feeling that sacrifices are necessary to bring changes to our country, but what is making it harder is the way the world is reacting. Still the US administration is standing with the dictator here.”

Her threat to take her own life came amid signs that the Bahraini regime is toughening its stance against pro-democracy activists. Yesterday was the funeral of the third protester to die in police custody this month. Chanting mourners in Manama pulled the burial cloth off Kareem Fakhrawi, a member of Wifaq, a leading Shia opposition group, to reveal a puncture wound to his neck, extensive bruising across his upper arms, sides and abdomen, and lesions around his lower leg and ankle.

Zainab is documenting her starvation on her Twitter account under the name angryarabiya. On the site she explains: “I love democracy & freedom. Therefore, I hate Arab dictators, and American neo-colonialism. Wanna know why Arabs are angry, I’ll tell u.” More than 8,000 people have signed up to follow her. Human Rights Watch yesterday called on Bahrain’s public prosecutor to investigate deaths in custody reported since 3 April, citing “signs of horrific abuse” on the body of Ali Isa Ibrahim Saqer, who died after turning himself in to the police, who had threatened to detain members of his family if he did not.

The authorities alleged he had tried to run a policeman over in a car during an anti-government protest. The interior ministry issued a statement published in Bahrain newspapers saying that he had “created chaos” in a detention centre “which led security forces to bring the situation under control”. The ministry attributed the death in custody of Zakariya Rashid Hassan, 40, arrested on charges of calling for the overthrow of the regime, to “sickle cell anaemia complications” despite his brother showing Human Rights Watch a photo he said he took during pre-burial cleansing which showed a wound on his right shoulder, a gash on his nose and blood that had issued from his ears and lips.

If those responsible are not stopped soon the number of dead in custody will exceed those killed during the protest,” the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights warned yesterday. A coalition of 19 Middle Eastern human rights organisations also condemned Bahrain’s latest crackdown and warned that Abdulhadi al-Khawaja “is at great risk of being subjected to additional torture and ill-treatment while being detained incommunicado”.

The government remains defiant in the face of allegations that they are violating human rights, and Khalid al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, posted on Twitter that al-Khawaja “is not a reformer … he called for the overthrow of the legitimate regime … he violently resisted the arrest and had to be subdued”. In an account of the raid posted on her website, Zainab al-Khawaja described how her father was “grabbed by the neck, dragged down a flight of stairs and then beaten unconscious in front of me”.

“He never raised his hand to resist them, and the only words he said were: ‘I can’t breathe,'” she wrote. “Even after he was unconscious, the masked men kept kicking and beating him while cursing and saying that they were going to kill him.”

She said the special forces also beat up her husband, Wafi Almajed, and her brother-in-law, Hussein Ahmed, but their focus was on her father, who they repeatedly called “the target” during the raid. She is also demanding the release of her uncle, Salah al-Khawaja, arrested three weeks ago.  Zainab said yesterday: “Before they arrested people you thought, yes, they may be tortured, but you will see them again. Now you can’t be sure.

She added that the spate of deaths in custody appears to be a deliberate government tactic to increase fear among dissidents. “The government seems to be proud of this because they are the ones announcing the deaths.”  “It’s outrageous and cruel that people are taken off to detention and the families hear nothing until the body shows up with signs of abuse,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to explain why this is happening, put a stop to it, and hold anyone responsible to account.”

Amnesty International estimates the government is holding more than 400 activists over protests that began on 14 February. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said the number is more than 600.

A Chilling account of the brutal clampdown in Bahrain

Published in The Guardian.

sanabis police

Since the Gulf soldiers came to Bahrain, life in the Shia villages and suburbs of the capital, Manama, has been non-stop intimidation, violence and threats. Even trying to move around in normal ways has become life-threatening. They are trying to beat down the opposition with a long campaign against us.

I live in one of the villages near Manama. One night about 7.30pm, I parked in front of my father-in-law’s house and walked towards the door, when at least 50 armed and masked thugs – they were not in security forces uniform – appeared from one of the village lanes and told me to stop, pointing their shotguns at me. I ran away and they followed, but I managed to hide in one of the houses and they did not see me. I heard them talking to each other, saying: “Don’t worry, we will find him.” I was taking a look from the window and they stayed at the car park opposite the house I was hiding in, and they were smashing the windows of parked cars and wrecking and stealing from them. Some had Saudi accents; they are very different from Bahraini and easy to tell.

At 8pm most nights people go up on their roofs and chant Allahu Akbar [“God is greatest”] and the thugs start shooting randomly in the air and at the top of the roofs. That night the area was covered with tear-gas grenades and rubber bullets, while the roads around the house were deserted except for thugs. Later that night (I was unable to leave the house I was in), we heard a group of people, 100 or more, chanting: “Bahrain is free, Gulf Shield out.” I was watching from the rooftop when the riot police ran in from a main road and started shooting rubber bullets and tear-gas cartridges.

I hid inside the house while the demonstrators ran away from the shooting and in 30 minutes I saw riot police, with armed civilians among them, roaming around the lanes and roads by the house I was hiding in. They managed to catch two people, aged no more than 30, and were beating them up badly, swearing at them all the time and cursing the Shia clerics, saying: “Where is al-Khomeini now? Where is al-Sistani, you Shia dogs?” They took them away. I managed to take a photograph of the blood on the floor after the beating and there was so much. I am sure the man must have died.

They [the security forces] can tell the Shias from Sunnis because of the birth town shown on the ID cards, and also sometimes by the name. I get stopped and searched at many checkpoints and always asked the same questions: “Are you Shia? Were you at Lulu Square [the demonstrators’ name for the protest camp at Pearl roundabout that has since been demolished]?” And all kinds of other sectarian questions.

At the checkpoint by Bahrain Mall, which is the entrance to the village of Daih, the man in charge had a Saudi accent, but he was masked, in civilian clothes with an automatic rifle. My card was taken away with another officer to check my name against a list. They have pictures and names of all the people at Lulu and on the demonstrations and have posted them on Facebook with notices saying: “Bring these people to justice, they are guilty people.”

For two weeks after the attack on Lulu we kept seeing a military aircraft (a US-built F-16 type) every day at about 7.30pm, flying low over the villages, backing up the police helicopters which we see over our heads all day long in the villages. We hear shooting every day at 8pm and 10pm when the chanting starts on the rooftops. 

 The army and riot police have begun to destroy the Shia matams [mosques] in some villages, even those where there was no protest that day. They say they are looking for arms, but the only ones they’ve shown were obviously put there by them – they are government-issue weapons. The demolitions took place in broad daylight in the morning, with bulldozers.

In Karanh village at 4pm one day last week, demonstrators marched towards the entrance of the village on the main road, and they were faced with heavy firing from the riot police and masked armed civilians. They managed to get hold of three people whom they handcuffed, covered their faces with a canvas bag (like in Guantánamo) and started beating them up in a very brutal way. In the village of Daih we demonstrated at the front of the village, and as we reached the main road the riot police attacked us with tear gas and rubber bullets and shotguns…

In Sanabis, there was no sign of any protest, and as I was walking I was shocked to see riot police cars followed by unmarked cars entering the village fast and shooting randomly. They stopped near a school and about 100 armed riot police and masked armed civilians came out, roaming around the village shooting at anything that moved. They ran after a group of people who were walking by and they entered one of the houses after seeing someone running inside, and they arrested him and beat him.

Over the past week, three of my cousins have been arrested and they are all teachers, two women and one man, who is the headteacher of a school, along with 50 other full-time teachers. They have all been arrested in their classrooms for joining the strike and signing a petition to remove the education minister. Tanks were surrounding the school and riot police entered and arrested them.

My young brother, 15, was coming back from school last Sunday, and the bus had been stopped at a checkpoint and the riot police entered. The officer had a Saudi accent and he asked the whole bus: “Which of you went to Lulu Square? You are Shia dogs, why is there no photo of King Hamad in the bus?”  He asked the other officers to check the books of random students to see if the photo of King Hamad was there (all school books have his photo) and they found a number of students who ripped or damaged the photo. They started to beat them up inside the bus and then arrested them and threatened the other students. “The bus will be searched every day and we had better see the king’s photo inside the bus tomorrow, otherwise you will not go home.”

The same day I drove by the same checkpoint just after my brother arrived home and saw four teenagers with their heads covered by bags lying on their stomachs at 2pm under the hot sun, with their shirts removed and getting random kicks by the officers. I went towards a backstreet and tried to take a video, but a police car spotted me and started shooting birdshot. I ran away inside the village and they came after me. I hid in one of the private compounds and saw riot police running, looking for me.

Later that day I managed to get home and it was confirmed that the arrested students returned home after they got beaten up. They refused to be photographed, as they were threatened by the police. Now they do not use the school bus, as they are afraid they will be stopped.

I went with my mother to the military hospital by Hamad Town for her regular check-up – she has cardiac problems. That hospital is the only one in Bahrain with specialist heart doctors. When I approached the main entrance, I and my mother were asked by Bahraini security for our IDs and medical cards. When they saw them, another masked officer approached the car with a Saudi accent and asked the officer: “Who is this? What’s going on?” The Bahraini whispered something to him and the Saudi officer shouted at me:“Are you Shia?” And he kicked the car and said: “Get out of here, dog.” I did not reply and turned the car around and went back home. My mother did not do her monthly check-up and we will have to go outside Bahrain for that.

In Salmaniya medical complex [which has been under military occupation for three weeks], a cousin of mine worked at the appointments centre. After his shift he left the hospital and police stopped him at the exit, checked his ID card and noticed his Shia name. They accused him of racism for not giving appointments to Sunnis and beat him up.

He asked his family to collect him because he was bleeding from his eyes and feeling dizzy. He did not get any medical treatment as it was impossible to reach any hospital without being questioned, especially when he is injured. He is still at home and does not go to work and it seems he lost an eye. Many doctors have been arrested for treating injured people. The opposition says that 720 people have been arrested since 15 March. Many have been beaten, four have died in detention and 210 are still missing. But who knows really how many?

They say that we are spies for Iran, but nobody here wants to be ruled from Iran. We are Shia, but we are also Arabs, not Persians. We do not want help from Iran. We want democracy in our own country.

Nigeria’s New Vote “Will Change Country”

Published in BBC

Preliminary parliamentary poll results revealing big losses for the ruling party show Nigeria “has changed”, an analyst has told the BBC.  “It tells a story to every politician: You can no longer take Nigerians for granted,” Victor Burubo said. High-profile PDP casualties include speaker of the lower house Dimeji Bankole and ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s daughter in the senate.

Despite some violence, observers said Saturday’s poll was well-conducted. The initial vote had to be postponed from 2 April after voting material failed to reach many areas. Previous elections since the return to civilian rule in 1999 have been marred by widespread fraud and intimidation.  Elections for the presidency and state governorships were also delayed and are now to be held on 16 and 26 April respectively.

With more than 70% of preliminary results announced at a state level, President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has suffered significant losses.  The party that has dominated politics since the military returned to barracks has so far taken 59 seats in the 109-member senate and 140 seats in the 360-member House of Representatives.

Correspondents say it is not clear whether the PDP will lose its absolute majority in both houses as voting in some 13-14% of parliamentary constituencies – where polling had begun on 2 April – has been delayed until 26 April.  The party has lost out to two newly formed parties, the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the south-west and to the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in parts of the north.

There was another embarrassing loss for the PDP in the northern state of Katsina where Maryam Yar’Adua, daughter of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, failed in her bid get into the House of Representatives. But Mr Burubo, who leads the National Ijaw Council in the southern oil-rich Niger Delta, said the PDP’s bad showing on a parliamentary level would not affect the presidential vote.  “I have a feeling that a good number of areas where the PDP has been beaten will still revert to the PDP candidates, Dr Goodluck Jonathan and his running mate Sambo because of who they are are – not just because of the party,” he told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.