A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part three and conclusion)

April 17, 2014

There has been a lot of teeth gnashing in the “humanitarian community” about the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and especially how humanitarian operations got mixed up in military action. They made it appear as if this was a new phenomenon. It is not. Not al all, in fact. This was done extensively in Biafra.

That French Red Cross operation of which Kouchner was a part, was headed by a French colonel, Merle. And it was a well-known fact that humanitarian flights acted as a cover for the delivery of huge quantities of arms. Indeed: guns and ammo were flown into Uli in crates that ostensibly contained Red Cross babyfood and concentrated milk. Now: who knew what when? Did any of the Red Cross people know this and if so, why did no-one raise the alarm about these acts of blatant piracy?

For the public at large, the Markpress campaign about Biafra served to obfuscate this illegal and criminal involvement of France, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal and Spain in their deadly enterprise. Most of the people directly involved are gone and will never have their day in court, where they should have accounted for their part in this monstrosity.

But the real cynicism is this: you can get public opinion on your side by using faraway human suffering for your own objectives, whatever they are. Tony Blair, Nicholas Sarkozy and others have proved to be masters of this self-serving manipulation in the name of human tenderness. As was the case with Biafra, pretty much all of these open or hidden interventions (Sudan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Libya in 2011) were carried out in order to reduce human suffering. In point of fact, these self-proclaimed humanitarians have prolonged wars (or in the case of Libya exported chaos all the way to Mali), turned emergency aid into a commodity and have failed to contain violence and instead increased human suffering. ‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence,’ Napoleon is rumoured to have remarked. But at times, one wonders…

cover Péan

Biafra marked Bernard Kouchner’s career in three ways. First, it impressed upon him the need to get the media involved. ‘You have to make noise,’ he would later say. During his careers in NGOs, politics and in government (he was a minister of Health and Humanitarian Action in 1992 and 1993 and of Foreign Affairs in 2007 to 2010), he would never go to an event that could not be sufficiently “mediatised”. The media have been crucial to the success of the organisation he co-founded after the Biafra war: Médicins sans frontières.

Second, it impressed upon him the need to make the story simple: good guys against bad guys. Anything else and you would not be able to mobilise the support of the public – and its money. The Biafra story became the bad Nigerians bombing and starving good Biafran women and children to death. And three, it disabused him of the notion that there was anything wrong with conflating humanitarian and military missions, in fact: human suffering was the crowbar that he and others were to use to great effect to get the Americans, the French, the Dutch and a fistful of others to bomb the sh!t out of Serbia in 1999. Nobody cared. Serbs were bad people, the public had been told; they deserved to be bombed. And Mamadani wondered aloud and astonished: what did those Save Darfur activists clamour for? A military intervention!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote an epic novel about Biafra, warned about what she termed ‘the single story’ in a TED talk she did in October 2009. It is deeply ironic that the man who has spent a good part of his life creating single stories about Darfur, about ex-Yugoslavia and about Rwanda, started his career in that same Biafra war. I am afraid that we will have to live with the odious legacy of this man and others like him for a long time. Consider this my attempt to remove from public discourse and policy making their kind of simplistic and dangerous thinking and their – at times – malicious intent and – far more frequently – unforgivable incompetence.

A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part two)

April 16, 2014

Born to a doctor and a nurse, Bernard Kouchner went to the Lycée Turgot in Paris, where he befriended Alpha Condé, future president of Guinea. He studied medicine and specialised in gastroenterology at the Cochin hospital, also in Paris – in 1968. The hero was born that same year, when he was flown to Biafra, a first of three shifts, the last in November 1969. The Nigerian army was enforcing a blockade and it was de Gaulle in person, according to Pierre Péan, who authorised the French Red Cross to violate that blockade and fly drugs and doctors into Uli’s airstrip. Kouchner and his colleagues started receiving war victims as the front closed in. The adrenaline surged as operations went on around the clock. But most Biafrans died of hunger, because the state has been completely sealed off. Had it not been for the foreign arms, drugs, doctors, food and money, the war would have been over much earlier. That fact, however, had to be carefully covered up.

In his book La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République, the late François-Xavier Verschave, describes how a Geneva-based company called Markpress was hired to release huge amounts of propaganda on the public, designed to create the image that has proved so enduring: a small people under the jackboot of a bigger and meaner brother. The campaign employed a term which has since been abused in numerous other cases (Darfur, Kosovo) and in one case criminally prevented from being used, most notoriously by the US administration of Bill Clinton, when it was confronted with an event that bore all its hallmarks, in Rwanda. The term is, of course, ‘genocide’. Here is how Jacques Foccart describes the mechanism (translation from the French is by me and constitutes an improvement on an earlier version): ‘The journalists have discovered the great suffering of the Biafrans. It’s a good story. Public opinion gets worked up about it and wants something done. We evidently facilitate the transportation of the reporters and television equipment, by military airplane, to Libreville and from there trough the networks that fly into Biafra.’

Save Darfur

That sounds terribly familiar, does it not? It’s all there: embedded journalism. The great story. The humanitarian angle. Inflated figures and exaggerated facts. Public sympathy and emotion. The simplicity:  the good guys (Biafrans) against the bad guys (Nigerians). You’d see this play out over and over again. Take George Cloony in Darfur. As the great scholar Mahmood Mamdani said about that particular Markpress-style operation (and I paraphrase): We do not go out on the streets and protest against the devastation the USA has wrought in Iraq. But we can emote about Darfur because it has been presented to us as a just cause. ‘Iraq makes us uncomfortable. Darfur makes us feel good.’ Here is an article my then Radio Netherlands colleague Thijs Bouwknegt wrote about Mamdani’s remarks; unfortunately, my edit of Mamdani’s formidable speech in The Hague (April 2008) for the program Bridges With Africa has gone into outer cyberspace forever.

Bernard Kouchner understands this propaganda – because that’s what it is – perfectly and has used it throughout his career, turning Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo into a story about the good people (Bosnians or Albanians) against bad people (the Serbs), just as Darfur was criminally simplified (bad Arabs against good Africans) and Rwanda too (good Tutsis being slaughtered by bad Hutus). But there was yet another thing that started in Biafra and from which Kouchner was to take his cues. It was the modern-day conflation of two different operations: military and humanitarian.

 

To be continued

A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part one)

April 15, 2014

I have another long-ish read for you, which I have divided into three parts. Part one is today.

***

The writing of a small piece I recently did for ZAMChronicles, called “Simplicities”, coincided with me reading the unauthorised biography of one of the most iconic Frenchmen of the last couple of decades, Bernard Kouchner. The writer is Pierre Péan, a journalist who has courted controversy over his writings about Rwanda. He says that he has compelling evidence that it was Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, who on April 6 1994 shot down an aircraft that carried the then presidents of Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi. The event triggered the Rwandan genocide.

Like his friend Kagame, the ‘French doctor’ (Kouchner’s nickname) is unlikely to have been very happy about Péan’s 2009 book Le monde selon K. I found it on a table outside a bookstore in Abidjan’s Riviera neighbourhood. The book adds depth to the argument about simplistic writing about the African continent and why it is so pernicious and needs to end.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that Kouchner’s career started during the Biafran war (May 1967 to January 1970), when he worked for the Red Cross. The breakaway republic was said to be holding out valiantly against a cruel and merciless war machine mounted by the Nigerian federal government. That, at least, is the narrative. Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, governor of Biafra, decided to declare an independent state following prolonged political instability in the federal republic and terrible massacres of his people in the north of Nigeria. From that declaration onwards he held out, against the odds and against better judgement, for two and a half years. One million deaths later, his dream was shattered.

 

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

 

But there is a much more cynical side to the Biafra story and to find it we must go to Paris and Abidjan to meet the duo Jacques Foccart (Mister Africa of the French state) and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the father of the Ivorian nation.

The two men were agreed on one thing: Nigeria was too big. Foccart wrote that it would place the rest of the (mostly Francophone) region under ‘a worrying shadow’. But there was more. Nigeria had broken off diplomatic ties with Paris when it found out that the French were using a part of the Sahara Desert as a nuclear testing site. President Charles de Gaulle, Foccart’s boss, was swayed by the Anglophobe argument that having a big English-speaking nation in West Africa was detrimental to the beautiful French language. Yes, these irrational sentiments play a significant part. And then there was the matter of a French oil company, state-run, called Elf (now part of the Total company), which had major interests in Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville. Here was the thinking: a dismembered Nigeria would be less of a threat for the region, less prominent diplomatically and would offer less resistance to French oil business designs. After all, the oil was in Biafra.

So, when Ojukwu declared his independence, France was there to help. With what? Well what do you think? Arms, of course! And the best places to fly these from were Abidjan, Libreville in Gabon and territories still in Portuguese hands (São Tomé) or Spanish (the island of Fernando Po, now Bioko). The two Iberian nations were, at the time, fascist dictatorships. Small matter. An elaborate air bridge turned the improvised airstrip at the Biafran town of Uli into Africa’s busiest airport for the duration. Gun flights arrived en masse throughout 1967 and 68, providing Ojukwu with a good source of income. President de Gaulle, meanwhile, told Elf to pay royalties due to the Nigerian state directly into Ojukwu’s coffers, further swelling his war chest.  Notorious French mercenaries like Bob Denard were involved in the gun running, as were French secret operatives who had been at the losing end of their wars in Viet Nam, Algeria and Katanga, frequently using Abidjan as a convenient stopover. Into that scene wandered the French doctor.

 

To be continued

 

 

 

 

Masters of the game

April 5, 2014

A review of AfricaFrance, quand les dirigeants africains deviennent les maîtres du jeu by Antoine Glaser

Between France and Africa, who calls the shots?

France, assert the conspiracy theorists, who see a concerted, coordinated, well-orchestrated and successful effort on the part of the French to keep their former colonies (and a few others) well in line and on board. Reality, as always, is rather less clear-cut and a lot murkier. Antoine Glaser is very well placed to shed a light on a few corners of this large French-African village; for thirty years he edited La Lettre du Continent, the confidential repository of the inner workings of this large and complex web.

But who calls the shots? In his new book, AfricaFrance, quand les dirigeants africains deviennent les maîtres du jeu, Glaser asserts that the balance of power has shifted. Moreover, this is not even something new. It has always been the case that France needs Africa more than the reverse. For diplomatic assistance, i.e. votes in the United Nations. For some of its enterprises, like France Télécom, Bouygues and Bolloré (all manner of transport, agribusiness, infrastructure). And for its famous force de frappe; uranium from Niger fuelled France’s status as one of the few nuclear powers in the world; it still fuels France’s power stations that bring light to millions of French homes. The French firm Areva runs one of the biggest uranium extraction operations in the world in Niger.

So what has changed? Two things spring to mind as Glaser takes you from Côte d’Ivoire to Gabon to Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea and five others. First, France is no longer the only game in the village; there is healthy competition from the likes of China, North America, Brasil, India and Turkey. All have their designs on the continent and especially in a business sense they are giving the former colonial power a run for her money. Second, France now has to deal with a generation of African leaders who do not hesitate to use their leverage to get what they want. If France does not comply, they go elsewhere.

Cover Glaser AfricaFrance

And third, if you like, the nature of their personal relations has changed. There used to be an axis that essentially consisted of two people. On the French side: Jacques Foccart, the spider who weaved his elaborate web of personal relations over a long period, from before independence in the 1950s until his death in March 1997. On the African side: Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the aristocrat from Yamoussoukro in the heart of Côte d’Ivoire, a former minister and member of parliament in Paris and at the helm of the richest territory in former French West Africa from 1960 until his death in December 1993. They were on the phone daily. Friendship apart, they had a joint interest in keeping French dominance in the region in place; after all, Houphouët-Boigny is credited with the term that symbolises this symbiosis: La Françafrique.

They stopped at nothing to maintain French dominance in the region and this included tearing West Africa’s nascent superpower, Nigeria, apart. Glaser is adamant that the idea to support the secession movement that triggered West Africa’s bloodiest war came from the Ivorian president. Houphouët-Boigny and Foccart, with the permission of General De Gaulle, the French president at the time, set up an elaborate secret operation that circumvented the Nigerian blockade of what the federal government there considered a renegade state and sent arms and humanitarian aid to the beleaguered people of Biafra. They certainly prolonged the war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970, cost one million lives and traumatised countless more.

Biafra. The story, so movingly recorded in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel Half of a Yellow Sun, needs much closer study because it is at the origin of a highly pernicious modern-day confluence of cynical geopolitical designs and interventions touted as humanitarianism, with modern media (press, radio and most of all television) as the vehicle to get the “correct” message to the masses. Media consumers were made to think of the people of Biafra as helpless victims of a merciless war machine. Volunteers were flown in to help heal the wounded; they may or may not have been aware of the larger designs of which they were a part (including secret arms deliveries) but they certainly were aware of the power of the media. It is no coincidence that Biafra launched the career of a man whose unauthorised biography I am currently reading, one Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of what became Medicins sans frontières.

Bamako Airport, February 2013. The Antonov transport plane was shuttling between Dakar and Bamako at the height of the French operations in Mali.

Bamako Airport, February 2013. The Antonov transport plane was shuttling between Dakar and Bamako at the height of the French operations in Mali.

There is no chapter on Mali in Glaser’s book but twice he mentions current French president François Hollande’s exclamation on arrival in Bamako in February 2013, as his army is removing jihadists from the North of Mali: ‘Today is without any doubt the most important day of my political life.’ De Gaulle would not have dreamt of saying something like that. Times have indeed changed in some respects. The Gabonese president Ali Bongo, son of another departed pillar of La Françafrique, Omar Bongo Ondimba, prefers London as a place to do business, as does Alpha Condé, president of Guinea who spent most of life in exile – in Paris. And Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who re-conquered the presidency of Congo-Brazzaville after a vicious civil war that was fuelled on his side by French oil money, clearly is the Africa-French patron today. He calls the shots in Paris. A picture emerges of a French president who, when told by his African counterparts to jump, responds with: how high?

However, the clean break with the past that has often been promised by incoming French presidents, fails to happen. This would mean getting rid of the various webs of opaque, unaccountable, dodgy and at times downright criminal relationships between the movers and shakers in France and Africa. Reading the book you get the impression of watching a film with an endless cast of shady characters that appear, then disappear (sometimes for good) or re-appear in another guise. What to think of the richissime businessman Jean-Yves Ollivier, recently breathlessly lionised by the usual suspects (BBC, Guardian, Independent et al) for his untold part in the liberation of the late Nelson Mandela and the creation of post-apartheid South Africa. Well, he has his cameo in Glaser’s book too: as the best friend of Denis Sassou-Nguesso and an ally of Jean-Pierre Bemba, currently at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of war crimes. Ollivier is also a friend of yet another one of those characters, Michel Roussin, formerly a big shot in the French secret service, then minister for development cooperation and a special advisor to big French businesses with interests in Africa. He has a handful of African presidents on speeddial.

It takes a bit of prior knowledge of the African/French village to appreciate the extent and the depth of these and other networks. They persist, unless countries just break off ties altogether, as post-genocide Rwanda did. But there is another constant here. While it is fascinating to read about all this intrigue, this real-life feuilleton, you must realise that this is a game of the 1%. The vast majority of Africans on whose life some of these games have impacted directly, have an idea of what is going on but no means to influence events. And that is the real travesty of La Françafrique, or Africa-France.

Hero

March 25, 2014

What do Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, Laurent Gbagbo and Thabo Mbeki have in common? Apart from the fact that all have been presidents (one still is and will be until he dies) and all have to a greater or lesser extent autocratic tendencies and three out of four have proved to be prone to violence. Well? Here it is: they all hate The West and the Evil People who populate it although some (Mbeki) are better at hiding it than others (his northern neighbour). And because they all hate that monstrous entity that spreads disease, pestilence, death, destruction and bad entertainment around the world wherever it puts its jackboot, they all have earned the adoring admiration of the magazine I used to write for and from time to time write about: New African, NA for short.

Once upon a time the magazine sailed a journalistic course with regards to Côte d’Ivoire but then I wrote a letter to the editor (never published) reminding him that since Laurent Gbagbo employed exactly the same anti Western rhetoric as its other heroes (if not similar repressive methods like Mugabe) they should support him to the hilt. I remain, until this very day, deeply disappointed that I have never been given credit for the swift change in editorial line that NA performed in order to chime with the magazine’s central narrative: The West is plotting in more than a thousand ways to keep the Black Man Down.

It did obediently reproduce a piece about the Ivorian crisis penned by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the contents of which came straight from the Public Relations Department of the Front Populaire Ivoirien, Gbagbo’s very own ZANU-PF. To this day, the FPI remains firmly convinced that its leader won the elections and that France’s former ADHD president Sarkozy put Ouattara on the throne with United Nations complicity. And that’s another thing that all these have in common with NA’s central narrative, which is a seductive mix of perpetual victimhood based on kernels of truth without any self-reflection. It produces a deeply disempowering political agenda.

The reason I am writing all this is that I have discovered that NA has added a new hero to its expanding Heroes’ Pantheon. His name? His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia! He ticks all the right boxes. Came to power in a coup in 1994 and has since developed the mindset that running his country, into the ground as it happens, is his inalienable birthright. He has turned the country into his private property and a police state. Also a haven for money laundering and arms smuggling. And sex tourism for middle-aged women from the UK, Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere. Business Is Booming.

Jammeh’s greatest claim to fame dates back to April 2000, when he ordered the army to open fire on unarmed schoolchildren on a demonstration, while exclaiming his most memorable quote: shoot the bastards. He had a few more executed in 2012 as his jails were facing a capacity problem. Now that’s what I call efficiency. He also supports at least one of the factions that is causing frequent havoc across the border in Senegal’s Casamance Province, effectively holding the government in Dakar hostage: if you allow too much Gambian dissidence on your territory, all hell will break loose in your beloved Casamance. So far, it has worked like a charm.

 

But why has His Excellency etc etc etc earned himself the adoring admiration of New African magazine? Because he hates The West and the Evil People in it. He has become worried about the fact that The West takes a disproportionately large part of Africa’s wealth. This Must Change. He advocates a program of redistribution that he may, one day, want to apply in his own country. Apparently, The Gambia is sitting on oil and His Excellency etc etc has discovered…the Gambian People. To whom the oil belongs. Interesting thought. He has made other striking revelations in the past, such as not needing doctors to cure AIDS; he can do that himself. (I seem to remember Thabo Mbeki had a rather tenuous relationship with the scientific explanation of the disorder…) His Excellency etc etc also likes to employ unregistered armies, like Charles Taylor, to further his objectives. As far as anyone can see he only has one, the same as Mugabe: staying in power until he dies. He has more things in common with the Dear Leader in Harare: he recently left The Commonwealth because it is colonialist and the two are also united in their intense homophobia. ‘Worse than pigs and dogs,’ in Mugabeland; ‘vermin’, in Jammehland.  Both were upstaged recently by Uganda’s gay-hating president Yoweri Museveni, whom NA dislikes intensely because he is deemed a “stooge of the West” but who knows, things may change…

So NA went to The Gambia and did a MAC (Mutual Adoration Chat), went on to publish a few quotes on oil and a letter castigating someone who had the gall to criticise this hero of the fight against colonialism, slavery, exploitation, greed and racism, which as you know are the only relevant hallmarks of The West and its Evil People. I, for one, am pleased to see His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, curer of AIDS, swift dispatcher of school children, brave protagonist of proxy conflict, expert emptier of prisons and champion of the downtrodden included in NA’s Heroes’ Pantheon. Maybe he could accompany the editor on one of his frequent trips to a certain Heroes’ Acre in the Zimbabwean capital where some heroes are notable for their absence. Not that this should detain this new beautiful pair as they gushingly report from Paradise On Earth.

NGO employee

March 19, 2014

NGOs, also known as non-governmental organizations (although the “non” part in NGO does not necessarily imply that state coffers are off-limits) attract a wide variety of individuals, some good, some bad, some nutcases and a lot in between with varying degrees of acceptable incompetence, especially in foreign countries. The same, incidentally applies to the UN, the difference being that this organization relies heavily on generous helpings from state coffers; its methods to recruit massively overpaid individuals with varying degrees of unacceptable incompetence should be the subject of a worldwide inquiry. It will also be the subject of another blog entry. Promise.

But back to our NGO employee. He was from an East African Nation but working in a West African One. A thoroughly pleasant individual to be around. Me and my colleague took a ride with him on an NGO truck back to the capital. I accept that this is against my principles; in mitigation I offer that (1) the nature of this trip was not journalistic and (2) the number of alternatives available was negligible.

During the long ride, the conversation turned a tad bizarre. For one, he has been living in this country for four years but every time we started to discuss the nation’s rather interesting politics and the name of a prominent mover and shaker came up, he would ask:

‘Who’s that?’

We were talking ministers here, prominent members of parliament, high up in the political hierarchy.

The talk then turned to a big bad awful monstrous entity that spreads disease, pestilence, death, destruction and bad entertainment around the world wherever it puts its jackboot. You guessed right: our NGO employee was a virulent critic of The West. Absolutely everything it did was evil. I neglected to ask him if this included paying his salary.

A memorable quote from the UK wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill mentions America as the country that can always be expected to do the right thing…after having exhausted all other options. Generally speaking, The West is shorthand for America, which is shorthand for the United States. (Nominally Francophone countries in Africa do not mention The West as the source of their predicaments but point the finger squarely at France.) Our NGO friend was, correctly, highly critical of US actions in Iraq where it fought an illegal war; Afghanistan, where it lost a war; Libya, where it helped trigger various wars… There is a long list of countries that have yet to recover from having experienced US involvement. The explanation, to me at least, lies in another dictum, this time Napoleonic: never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence.

You see, I strongly believe that most of The West, including my own country The Netherlands, is run by buffoons, clowns, jokers and idiots. I’m being charitable here, just like the American but Mexico-based writer Fred Reed, who takes an equally dim view of the people in Washington who run America’s wars around the world.

Not our NGO friend. He saw conspiracies. The West was doing this. The West was doing that. I remarked:

‘Most people in The West would not even be able to find the country where we are right now, on a map. So what is this “West”?’

‘It’s the entity that commits crimes around the world.’

‘Yes, I know that and agree. I marched against the Iraq war. Fat lot of good that did…’

‘It is a destructive force.’

‘Well, yes, and how many people actually know this?’

That hardly appeared to matter but by now it was becoming clear what the hub of The West was. America. So I said:

‘Well, you’ve been there. Half the people don’t even have a passport and have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the state next door. Let alone a foreign country.’

Further precision-targeting revealed that he meant the makers of an alleged “policy” inside the Washington Beltway. Which amounts to stumbling around in utter darkness until someone finds a light switch. And promptly turns it off again because the mess is too appalling to behold. Where the West bears collective guilt (which is what our NGO friend was implying) is in the fact that it keeps electing buffoons, clowns, jokers and idiots, who then appoint their like in the bureaucracies that manhandle the state machinery. I don’t know how to change that and neither do you.

Fear and self-loathing has been an ingrained feature of The West since the 1960s. It has grown in prominence. It’s easy because it does not require analysis. Naturally, it has seeped into the world of NGOs and equally naturally this mindset attracts the likes of our amiable East African friend. But what really shocked me was that he could spend four years living in a country on his own continent without bothering to get to know it any better.

An NGO Bubble. As a matter of fact, “shocking” is not the right word, “terrifying” is.

Life under occupation

February 26, 2014

One of the many things I was told by people who had been living under the foreign occupation of their land between March 2012 and January 2013 was this little gem from Timbuktu, the city where the invaders smashed up statuettes, broke down the mythical door of the Sidi Yahia Mosque and destroyed holy shrines that had been a feature of the City of 333 Saints. Yes, as one imam testified, Timbuktu was losing its soul to a bunch of halfwits who had brought the poison of the unforgivably poor interpretation of the Koran from the theological wasteland known as Wahabbism into a richly cultured city they did not understand. And what do simpletons do with things they do not understand? They smash them up. What do simpletons do with people they don’t understand? They kill them. Or hack off their hands and feet.

But what they clearly did not break was the people’s spirit. I was told this tale by a young and adventurous chap from Timbuktu, who I met in Burkina Faso. ‘You know how they banned music and smoking and drinking and whatnot? Well we ordered drinks by the crate from Mopti. How it got to us? As it always did, by pirogue. Yes, the river. Did they ever find out? Pfff, of course not, they had no idea how to enter or exit the city. You have to remember they were all foreigners. They knew nothing. To us, it’s home. They only thing they knew about was how to stone people and to smash things up. And they used drugs. How do I know that? Because I saw it…’ His disdain was palpable. Just one little snippet of life during occupation. He finally had to flee and even though Mali’s problems are far from over, he’s probably back by now.

The hunt

February 8, 2014

‘Aaaarghhhhhh!’

There is nothing more annoying than waking up in the morning and having to go hunting for a missing item that is essential in creating one of life’s basic necessities. But here I was and there it was not. Nothing for it but put on shoes, presentable trousers, ditto shirt and hit the street.

8am This was going to be easy. The first shop just across the road has it. Always does. Except that it did not. Hm. Where next? Ha! I know a neat little supermarket down the road, turn right and

BEEP BEEP BEEP

No I don’t need a taxi, as you can very clearly see, you nut you.

8h15am Lovely supermarket. Really nice place. Neat rows. Well instead of wandering around admiring the neat rows full of stuff I don’t need (unlike some people, I do not treat supermarkets as art galleries or de facto museums), I’ll go and ask that very nice lady who is wearing a supermarket uniform. ‘Have you got…’

‘Sorry, no we haven’t seen that item here for…Asha how long haven’t we seen this for…?’ Anyway. Out the door and

BEEP BEEP BEEP

Hello? You don’t have to advertise services I am not interested in, you case you. Honesty obliges: the audio assault by taxi drivers from behind their wheels has diminished somewhat. It appears word has gotten around that the toubabs (those sun-challenged Europeans) don’t like being barked at while walking innocently along the street. I know many Dakarois share my massive irritation but are, as usual, way too polite to do anything about it.

Anyway. I am outside that very nice supermarket and it’s 8h25. Where next? Short of hitting downtown Dakar, which really is ridiculous considering how easy this thing was available only last month, there are two more places to go.

So off we go. On foot.

8h45 ‘Salaam aleikoum’

‘Maleikoum Salaam’

This is the small overstuffed but very friendly neighborhood super. Greetings are in order.

‘How is everything?’

‘We thank God.’

‘Do you have…’

Yes, he does. It’s right there on the shelf. Except that…it’s the wrong size. Quick. A plan, please. If I just walk from here to the Hypermarket (yes, we have those too), that’s a mere 20 more minutes – but wait a minute. Can I really be from home for so long without inviting unwelcome guests? Ever since a laundry list of stuff was taken from my flat last year I never leave without the essentials on my person. Turn back. Go home. Get bag. Load up all work-related items and I am on my rather less merry way to aforementioned Hypermarket.

9h25 Arrival. The guards by now know that no-one, and that means absolutely no-one comes between me and my gear and I rush to the shelf where much-needed item is surely waiting for me. It is. I thought. It’s not.

Wrong size.

So the plan goes into operation. I return to the neighbourhood super that I’d rather give my business to (9h50), grab two packets from the shelf and think: scissors. Scissors? Yes, scissors. Back home (10am). Open up packet. Grab scissors. Cut into the first paper and right-size it. Two hours and eight minutes later I finally have achieved the incredible.

Well, yes, I forgot putting the scissors in the picture.

Well, yes, I forgot putting the scissors in the picture.

Inexplicably, Yoff had run out of coffee filters size 4. The very next day I went back to the same little supermarket to get some cheese and of course, out of nowhere, they had re-appeared. Never mind. BEEP. No thanks. I’ll walk.

 

French alleged comedian Dieudonné messes with PC heads

January 30, 2014

The BBC, the world’s largest PC (politically correct) echo chamber, has a problem. It has to cover a phenomenon it clearly does not understand: someone from an “ethnic minority’ who makes rather ghastly anti-Semitic jokes. Name’s Dieudonné, he’s from France. The jokes are mediocre at best. Regretting that a Jewish journalist had missed the gas chambers? Oh dear. It’s like Feyenoord fans from Rotterdam, The Netherlands, imitating the sound of gas when playing against Ajax, a team from Amsterdam that has since forever been nicknamed “The Jews”. In poor taste? Absolutely. Dumb? Hey, we’re talking about football fans. Ban it? The height of stupidity. But that is what France’s embattled government of embattled president François Hollande has just done with Dieudonné’s routines.

So the BBC sent a reporter to France to make politically correct sense of it all. The reporter sounded like someone who has spent life mostly in England’s progressive middle class bubble where there exists an unwritten hierarchy of victims. Women first, of course – but they were never discussed as a group during the broadcast. That would have made things dead easy, most especially with a female reporter. Broadcasting House would have spent half an hour going bad bad bad misogyny bad bad bad and that would have been it. Now she just said that the broadcast would contain uncomfortable language. Translation: she was leaving a well-established ideological comfort zone.

And so we share her amazement to find black people – Number Two in the progressive victim hierarchy – who like Dieudonné and are planing to vote for the party he supports, the National Front. She manages to slip in the word “detoxify” when mentioning Front leader Marine Le Pen’s efforts to sanitize the party but she clearly is struggling here. Had it been local whites, Broadcasting House would have spent half an our going bad bad bad racists bad bad bad and that would have been it.

Instead we heard the sound of exploding heads. Blacks voting Le Pen? How the hell was that possible? Blacks calling the Socialist Party a bunch of hypocrites? How the hell could they, we have always been such nice progressive people! Here’s a hint: Labour Parties in much of Europe have squandered a century of social democratic achievement and ditched it in favour of a rancid combination of unfettered free market politics with a political patronage system based on identity politics. They left a massive hole where they should have been, defending their ideological legacy when fascism resurfaced – which happened not, as our BBC reporter dutifully parrots, as a result of the economic crisis. Fascism started gaining ground when the economy was ticking along very nicely and most of Europe was spoiled rotten, a decade ago.

Of course, our reporter made her job a little easier by omission, a classic BBC hallmark. For Dieudonné’s anti-Semitism does not stand in a vacuum; it has a long proud tradition among two of the world’s largest PC echo chamber’s favorite victim groups: black minorities with icons like US community leaders Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan; and North Africans who have been misguided into believing that Islam propels them towards hating Jews. The reporter solved these issues…by not mentioning them, nor indeed the selfsame groups’ highly problematic attitudes towards gays and lesbians; way too frightening. So it was with palpable relief that she found herself back on familiar territory by homing in on anti-Semitism. You see, taken in isolation, anti-Semitism is of course a classic no-no and you don’t even have to mention Israel, a state with which the world’s largest PC echo chamber has a very troubled co-existence.

Further, Dieudonné’s anti-Semitism does not stand in a vacuum but in yet another tradition, equally proud and older than the ones I just mentioned: French. Together with the Netherlands, France was among the most diligent European nations in handing Jews to the Nazis and their gas chambers. It is one of the demons the country has never addressed, like its own bloody colonial past in places like Cameroon (where Dieudonné’s father is from) or its vicious war in Algeria, where Marine Le Pen’s father tortured anti-colonial fighters (who then went on to terrorize their own people in similar fashion). These are among the things that have made Dieudonné possible – but how can you explain all that when you are working with such pitiful, pathetic tools: identity politics instead of history and political correctness instead of a political education?

Finally, and as a matter of course, nowhere in the report was quoted that famous line (French, was it not?): ‘I disagree with everything you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ In that sense, the BBC was dead on-message.

Heretical question

January 25, 2014

Last year, in case you missed it, the world was made aware of the existence of Mindy Budgor. Indeed: an earth-shattering event, made even more so by the hagiographic BBC coverage of her life achievement. Which was: taking a short-cut to becoming a warrior in an utterly unspoilt Maasai community somewhere in Kenya, the First Female!!!! I suggest the thinking among said Maasai was probably: ‘If we just give her what she wants, maybe she will then just go away and leave us in peace.’ Oh yes, she wrote a book. Warrior Princess. For those with strong nerves, here’s the interview.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23713202

Over the last two decades or so, we have been subjected to an endless parade of individuals using a fairly randomly chosen bit of Africa (preferably unspoilt but with mod cons), as a décor for the all-engulfing drama of their own extraordinary and massively important lives. So we had Angelina Jolie shutting down Namibia because she needed the nation as a backdrop for the singularly important event of her giving birth. We also had Madonna, although she skipped the entire birth giving thingy and just went to Malawi to get herself an orphan or two. She then decided to raise the entire country in the best way possible (her own, of course) but omitted to inform the government of her plans, which, bizarrely enough, failed to amuse president Joyce Banda. Oh and we had Christina Aguilera, last September, making ‘an emotional trip’ to…Rwanda; that’s a bit like visiting Auschwitz for a very private cleansing ceremony. The website Africaisacountry took that little ego-stroking gem apart here:

http://africasacountry.com/the-bullshitfiles-christina-aguilera-feeds-rwanda/

I came across one bona fide example last year. She was using the tourist-infested seaside resort of Abene, in the Casamance, as her very own African backdrop. She runs, among many things, a music festival that must unfold itself in exact accordance with her wishes, musicians be damned. One day she was upset because she had received lip from a few local women she was leading in development (naturally). They apparently did not agree with her methods. The village queen in question was of European extraction but unlike Budgor, the locals won’t be shod of her any time soon, it seems.

From the exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. To my eternal shame, I admit not knowing who the artist is. Help is welcome.

Image from a large exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. One of my readers wrote in and said the work could possibly be by or have taken inspiration from the great Beninois artist Georges Adeagbo. Thanks, Judith! 

I am moved to relate all these tales because I have recently been trimming my archives. Among the papers I consigned to the dustbin were a few reviews of a book by a Dutch journalist, applauding the demise of the White Man in Africa. One review mentioned that the book related how in some parts of Africa (certainly not here in Dakar), lighter-skinned people were used in advertising because it sold the product better. Odd, that.

In another review of the Dutch journalist’s book, the celebration of ‘the White Man slipping from his pedestal’ in Africa also got a mention. Oddly enough, the reviewer went on to count the blessings of development cooperation, which historically has been rather intimately connected with the presence of said White Man. A while ago I wrote a little miniseries about the many problems associated with development.

http://www.rnw.nl/africa/article/let’s-talk-about-aid-final

You see, I do not consider the disappearance of the White Man from Africa a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But I find the barely concealed glee with which said disappearance is described by the (inevitably female) author a little disingenuous. In her own article, that went along with the promotion of her book “Goodbye Africa”, Marcia Luyten (the Dutch journalist in question) notes with relish that the white man ‘no longer plays a significant role,’ must ‘abandon his superiority’ and ‘arrogant paternalism’.

My guess is that journalists like her cannot help it. They have grown up in the wake of a movement that has spent the last fifty years smashing this perceived superiority of the (white) man over the head, having its remains hung drawn and quartered and burnt to cinders for good measure. Cheering at man’s individual or collective misfortune has, unfortunately, become one of its unbecoming hallmarks. Equally unfortunately, the same movement has come to dominate the discourse that has blighted the African landscape of ideas for the past half century: the discourse of development. The result? A depressing parade of cut-and-paste “Women and Development” projects, equally applied in the arch-conservative Christian-dominated regions of Southern Africa and in the stagnant matriarchies that are liberally sprinkled all over West Africa. No wonder our development friend in Abene had arguments; West African women as a rule do not take kindly to being told what to do.

Many moons ago I reviewed a book by the writer Lisa St Aubin de Teran, who was, in her own words, leading the village of Cabaceiros in Mozambique from poverty to a safer existence. Cool. She was extremely busy with a new tourism resort, schools and all the rest of what constitutes, according to Westerners, “development”. All this happened against the backdrop of – here we go again – an utterly unspoilt Africa where people play drums in the moonlight. A lot. The book came out at roughly the same time that former French president Nicholas Sarkozy made that imbecilic speech here in Dakar, declaring that Africans ‘had not entered history’. I concluded my review of the book by saying that Sarkozy got a volley of richly deserved flak for his stupidity. When, on the other hand, a rich white woman writes roughly the same, she shoots to the top of the bestsellers list. Superiority? Paternalism? I think Luyten was looking at the wrong sex. Or gender, if one is ideologically so inclined. But all this does prompt this extremely heretical question: what is it with (some) white women and their colonial fantasies?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Still, it was quite a relief to read that there was some room left for The White Man in Africa, minus arrogance, paternalism, superiority and I guess he’d better leave his testosterone at home too. On second thought, he’d better bring it along because because the first issue Luyten brings up is geopolitics, to be exact: the very real threat of jihadist fundamentalism. And lo and behold, Dutch white people (even men!) have heeded the call and taken the plunge…after the French who got there first. They will gallantly gather intelligence and do all manner of good and useful military things, in order to save the career of Bert Koenders, the former Dutch development minister (Labour), currently heading the UN Mission to Mali. He needs his succession of UN posts like a fish needs water; a goodly portion of the Dutch Labour Party views him in the same way as I imagined the Maasai considered Ms Budgor.

Another area where the White Man (minus arrogance etc, you get the picture…) can be useful is Business – although he must take a leaf out of the book of his Chinese competitors and become rather ruthless and imbued with realpolitik. Bit strange, that.

But the third reason for white people to bother with Africa is the best: humanitarianism. Yes!!!! There is still space and scope for White Saviours! Provided, I assume, they are female. It’s a bit like sex tourism in The Gambia, Casamance and Kenya, I suppose. It’s all OK, as long as (white) women do it.


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