Economist 3/27/15

  1. ON MARCH 28th Nigerians go to the polls in the most important contest that Africa’s most populous nation, and biggest economy, has held since its return to civilian rule in 1999. Nigeria has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies over the past 15 years.For the moment neither President Goodluck Jonathan, who has been in office since 2010, nor his main opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, fielded by the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), has a clear lead. Each commands about 42% of the vote.Worryingly, however, polling data is showing a low level of public confidence that the elections will be free and fair. Voting has, in the past, also tended to split somewhat along religious and ethnic lines. The predominantly Muslim north tends to support the opposition. The mainstay of support for Mr Jonathan’s PDP has generally been in the more prosperous south. The worry is that, whoever wins, there will be violence in one or other part of the country: a victory by Mr Buhari, a northern Muslim, could re-ignite the insurgency in the Niger delta, the country’s main oil-producing region.
  2. NEW human pathogens arise in two ways. They may evolve from old ones, or they may jump to humanity from other species. The second is the more common route. Infections that jump in this way are called zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses. Ebola is suspected of being bat-borne, though that has yet to be proved beyond doubt. Bats also look like the origin of MERS, a viral illness that appeared in 2012 in the Middle East, and SARS, another virus, which burst upon the world from southern China at the end of 2002. HIV, meanwhile, came from other primates. The pandemic version, HIV1, was once a chimpanzee virus. HIV2, largely restricted to west Africa, came from the sooty mangabey, a monkey.Zoonoses are particularly likely to develop when people and animals live in close proximity to each other. One reason southern China often spawns them (SARS was not unique; a lot of influenza begins there, too) is that the region has a plethora of small farms, in which many species of animal live in close quarters with each other and with human beings.
  3. ON MARCH 17th Myanmar’s central government and the National Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT)—an umbrella group representing 16 of the country’s ethnic armies—sat down for peace talks in Yangon, the country’s biggest city and commercial capital.Since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, the country’s numerous minority ethnic groups, which comprise more than 30% of the country’s population, have been battling the central government (and sometimes each other) pretty much constantly. At the heart of these conflicts are promises contained in the Panglong Agreement. Signed by Aung San, leader of the country’s independence movement (and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, a parliamentarian and longtime democracy activist), as well as Kachin, Chin and Shan representatives, the Agreement promised broad regional autonomy to the country’s ethnic minorities and said that a “separate Kachin State…is desirable”. The country’s government has delivered on neither promise. Some ethnic armies fund themselves through illegal activities (logging, drug production, gun running, “taxation” of locals), but they have their roots in these broken promise.But sticking points remain, mainly concerning the military (the central government wants ethnic armies folded into a single national army), control over natural resources and the amount of autonomy to be granted to ethnic-minority states.
  4. NYU Abu Dhabi started up in 2008. In 2014 it moved to a new campus on Saadiyat Island, which, in contrast to the rest of the emirate, is intended as a haven of culture and beauty.For now, most of Saadiyat Island is a building site, but NYU’s neighbours will soon be local outposts of the Guggenheim, the Louvre and the Sorbonne, housed in equally elegant buildings.The country’s ambitions may have been piqued by the extraordinary flourishing of culture in neighbouring Qatar, capped by I.M. Pei’s stunning Museum of Islamic Art. For the privilege of hosting NYU, Abu Dhabi has forked out an initial donation of $50m and paid for the campus. It also covers most students’ tuition and living costs. Some faculty are hired directly to the Abu Dhabi campus; some come from New York for stints of a few weeks to a few years. The money is good—up to twice as much as at home—and conditions are exceedingly comfortable.
  5. WARREN BUFFETT says he likes to buy companies that are easy to understand and are performing well. His latest deal, the $50 billion acquisition of Kraft Foods that was announced on March 25th, passes only one of those tests. Last year its revenues were stagnant and its volumes and profits fell. Its chief executive left in December. It generates 98.5% of its sales in the mature markets of America and Canada, where, the suspicion is, a new generation of healthier eaters no longer excited about Kraft products. It has been the subject of seven big mergers or spin-offs since 1980, including an unhappy spell under the ownership of Philip Morris, a tobacco firm, between 1988 and 2007.  In 2013 Berkshire Hathaway, Mr Buffett’s investment vehicle, teamed up with 3G to buy Heinz, another food company, with each taking 50%.Mr Buffett is not buying it alone, nor managing it. Instead he is working with 3G Capital, a buy-out firm with Brazilian roots.What 3G really excels at, though, is cost cutting, guided by the philosophy of “zero-based budgeting”: every dollar of expense must continually be questioned, from corporate jets to photocopying bills. 3G was behind the creation of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, that has industry-leading margins. Since 3G has run Heinz, its gross operating margins have risen by eight percentage points.

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