The Façade – Part 5 and end

May 23, 2016
A slightlycloser look at thew Henro Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned.

A slightly closer look at the new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned. Photo taken from the conference room of the Grand Hotel.

 

I will forever be thrilled by arrival in Abidjan, a metropolis I have come to adore over the years. It’s fast, it’s dynamic and it’s getting bigger, better and busier. At least, on the outside: more roads, more shopping malls, more high-rise office blocks, more flyovers, more luxury boutiques and fancy restaurants. But none of this can hide the staggering difference in standards of living that blight this giant city. You get a good hard reminder of that once you arrive in Abidjan’s main bus station – Adjamé.

Or at least: what’s left of it. It is just after 11pm when we pull into a section of town that looks as if some shacks have been dumped there from a great height. Where are all the old-fashioned, loud but rather well-organised garages that used to line the road here?

Gone.

In its place, a sinister new order, of which I become dimly aware once out of the gate of the enclosure that is home to the hangar where the bus has been parked. The building must sit right on top of a sewer; the stench is everywhere. As I approach the gate, I am told not to talk to anyone, except taxi drivers. The latter announce themselves either seated behind the wheel of their – invariably orange-coloured – Toyotas or pointing at their vehicles. It has been raining and there is no paved road; the “street” in front of the badly lit hangar is muddy, wet and slippery. I get accosted by a tall man as my luggage disappears in the direction of one taxi. Big head, unkempt hair, needs money. I give him my small change, a move that I will come to regret a little later.

‘Don’t use too many words here,’ says the elderly driver, as he tells me to get into the car. Only the most basic of exchanges will suffice. Another man needs a ride. Urgent negotiations ensue as the atmosphere  turns a shade or two darker. My taximan wants to know if I object to someone joining us. Of course not. An elderly gentleman gets in the taxi and we advance, retreat, advance, retreat in a maze of other taxis, saloon cars, buses, lorries, parked haphazardly (or so it seems) in the increasingly menacing darkness. Apart from the engine, there is no noise outside.

The driver, whose name is Moussa, appears to know where he is going while I feel we continue to move ever deeper into this otherworldly labyrinth. A few lone lamps; little islands of light in the otherwise impenetrable darkness.

‘Have you got some small change?’ he suddenly asks.

Damn! No. That’s with the beggar boy at the hangar.

‘I’m afraid I just gave away my last pocket money,’ I answer back when out of nowhere a fierce looking young man appears, armed with a large piece of wood and a mad glint in his eye. He guards an improvised barrier and wants 100 francs. 15 cents. He brandishes his weapon.

Moussa rummages around in his dashboard compartment while I look at the man with the club. It’s as long as his calve and as thick as a grown man’s thigh. If he weren’t lolling about on his feet, as I begin to notice, he would be able to do some serious damage.

Moussa manages to find 100 francs and I pass it on to our self-appointed guard. He lifts the rudimentary wooden barrier and we’re out.

‘What if you don’t pay?’ Moussa doesn’t even bother to answer the question.

‘There’s many of them. They have come here since the government cleaned out another part of town. They all use drugs. They form gangs. And now that the authorities have destroyed the bus station they’re all over this place.’ I will find out later that this particular gang guards all the entrances and exits of this bizarre transport maze and apparently make enough to finance their drug habits.

Adjamé’s former bus terminus is, for now at least, the place where the people go that the government does not want you to see. The homeless. The insane. The drug users. The drug pushers. And that’s not even mentioning the lads they call les microbes, violent young criminals like their colleagues in the North of the country. They have established a reign of terror in Abobo, another one of Abidjan’s sprawling suburbs. How many of them have been active participants in Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict? Hard to tell but their existence is a major problem, primarily for Ivorians themselves. After all: visitors rarely see beyond the façade; they don’t go there.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

The pretty façade of Abidjan – that is the picture the current government would like you to retain. This is relatively easy when you get your visa electronically through a company run by one of the president’s business friends, get whisked around the town in a luxury car – I have seen stretch limousines cruise here, the ultimate sign of decadence and stupendous self-indulgence – and sleep in one of the luxury hotels dotted around town.

The leading clan loves its glitz and its glamour. Last March, the Children for Africa Gala Dinner (for the charity of the same name run by Côte d’Ivoire’s First Lady) and the African CEO Forum were star-studded events with celebrities, high profile politicians, captains of industry, diplomats – all present in numbers. A few dead people on the beach, as occurred on March 13, will not change the mood: Chinese, Turkish and increasingly also American and British businesspeople are joining the Ivorians, the French and the Lebanese already there. They all share Abidjan’s absolute obsession with making money. But the powder kegs are there for all to see, of one bothers to look: the deprivation, the corruption, the failed (and some would argue not even attempted) national reconciliation, the failure to punish the criminals on the winning side for crimes committed during the 2010-2011 conflict, the blatant inequality. That façade can easily be smashed up again if these things are not addressed instead of being swept under a thick red carpet for the happy few.

There are many mad guys with giant clubs. There are at least two politicians (one in a jail in The Hague; another in Yamoussoukro and one step away from the presidency) with proven track records of turning random men with clubs into militias, decked out with better kit and something resembling an ideology. Sweeping mad men with clubs up from one place and dumping them in another, as current government policy seems to be, does not make them go away. In all likelihood, they get ever madder. And get bigger clubs.

The Façade – Part 4

May 21, 2016
Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. The line you see on the left is the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country's second president, still active in politics.

Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. Accross the Lagoon on the left: the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country’s second president, still active in politics.

 

‘All phones off! All of them! Anyone who does not understand French? I will repeat it again. All phones off. You will be checked as we continue. No phone use until Bouaké. Does everybody understand? Phones off until Bouaké!!’ The gendarme walks down the aisle of the bus and wants to see all the phones.

The reason? I ask him.

Security. Or the lack thereof, rather. Bouaké is a mere 300 kilometres away, a trip that will take us seven hours because of the utterly pathetic state of the road. There are so many potholes it looks like the thing has been bombed. Perfect ambush territory and apparently there are still plenty of bandits about. A common practice is for accomplices on the bus to tell them where the rich pickings are; hence the phone ban. Only when you are in uniform can you loot with impunity in Côte d’Ivoire. But who are these bandits?

They are another part of the fallout of Côte d’Ivoire’s political turmoil. The military aftermath of the “post-electoral crisis” of 2010 – 2011 has been and continues to be utterly shambolic. A huge number of things that should have happened to Côte d’Ivoire’s fragmented, haphazardly composed and notoriously ill-disciplined military, has failed to materialise. The government, the United Nation’s inadequate mission (does it have any others these days?), international donors – all can take the blame for the fiasco.

What should have happened is this. Between 2002 and 2011 there were two armies in Côte d’Ivoire. There was a government army under the command of the then president Laurent Gbagbo and there was Soro’s Forces nouvelles (Fn) we discussed in the previous instalment. After the 2010 presidential contest that pitted the incumbent Gbagbo against candidate and eventual winner Alassane Ouattara, the Fn aligned itself with the latter for complicated personal and political reasons. This upset the military balance between the two (the whole story is infinitely more complex but that is for another time).

These were by no means the only armed groups around. There were pro-Gbagbo militias, the com’zones in the North had their private armies. Then you had the remains of a Gbagbo-supported gang (called MODEL) that invaded south-eastern Liberia to remove president Charles Taylor. There were also the traditional hunters (known as “dozos”) and a host of freelancers, mercenaries and “young volunteers” from Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, South Africa and heaven knows where else. The point is that all these groups and gangs and militias and mercenaries should have been properly disarmed. Following that, a national army, with a clear recruitment structure and hierarchy should have been established. This has not happened. Especially worrying is the fact that there remains a sizeable chunk of arms outside state control and there are of course people who know where to find them – and how to use them.

The bandits in the North could have been from any of the above categories but it stands to reason that they used to belong to Soro and the com’zones. (Soro and the Com’Zones – is there a band name in there somewhere? Anyway, moving on…)

Accounts of the numerous attacks against private vehicles, minibuses or indeed bigger ones like this bus we’re traveling on, have pointed at the military-style operations these criminals employ to get their loot. And that’s why the phones are off until Bouaké, testimony to the monumental failure of the government to sort out its military.

The region were are traversing is also becoming a fall-back position for new Malian self-declared jihadist forces. And mind you, at this time we were completely unaware bullets would be raining on a beach outside Abidjan just a few days later.

The gendarme was a pleasant enough fellow and he told me, on arrival at Bouaké, that he wished the situation were better but all he could do was to prevent anything bad from happening, whilst being fully aware that he’d be the first to take a bullet for the passengers’ safety. I thanked him for his work. Bouaké itself was a good surprise: alive and in much better shape now than during our last visit, six years ago. The rest of the trip, from there to the capital Yamoussoukro and the economic hub Abidjan was a breeze. On a brand new six-lane road. With the phones on.

 

Last installment about Abidjan itself, coming soon.

The Façade – Part 3

May 18, 2016
Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul's Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

 

Between 2002 and 2011 the North of Côte d’Ivoire was the playground of a group that grandiosely called itself Forces nouvelles (Fn). Their political leader at the time was Guillaume Soro, a young and extremely wily political operator who in perfect tandem with his old brother friend and now enemy Charles Blé Goudé turned the country’s student union (known as FESCI) into a violent militia and went on to expand this model across the rest of the country.

When Fn ran the North it had a single business model: loot. Nobody made his own money doing something productive. The region was carved out into zones, over which presided military commanders. They became known as com’zones. When I visited the area in early 2010, with photographer Martin Waalboer, we got our first glimpse of the Fn when they, cap in hand, walked through the train we were travelling on, asking for money. The second impression was that of Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second city, largely lifeless, half boarded-up and in possession of a non-functioning economy. It did yield a ridiculously cheap rented car, though.

The third impression was that of arrogant indifference among the ground troops about the presence of two foreign journalists in their main fief, only matched by the indignant paranoia of their media chief who we finally got on the phone with the assistance of some local United Nations staff and who only wanted to know how long we had been there. Wise enough, we had decided not to do any work until the Fn chief of the media had barked a few orders down his mobile phone, whereupon our Fn media accreditation appeared pronto from a room at their Bouaké headquarters. Matters were, of course, not helped by the fact that we showed up shortly after another bout of violent rioting, which had rattled the leadership.

The fourth impression was that of fleecing. Anybody unlucky enough to have to live, work or travel in the areas the Fn controlled had their pockets picked. Sure enough, the chaps manning the roadblock on leaving Bouaké were in a good mood (and in stitches when, after passing the roadblock, we returned a few minutes later to tell them we had forgotten to buy petrol) – but pay them we did. As did everybody else. And the fifth impression was the desolate stagnation in which the entire region found itself, nowhere clearer than in another major town, Katiola, where the holes in the road were bigger than a regiment of SUVs and the public buildings appeared to be in varying states of decay. A strange state of affairs for a movement that claimed to have taken over this part of the country because it felt the “Northerners” had been systematically marginalised. If anything, the infrastructure that had been put in place in the first few decades of the country’s independence was decaying fast under their writ.

Between Blé Goudé and Soro, the latter has turned out (so far) the smartest operator. He is currently the president of the country’s Parliament while Blé Goudé, a key ally of former president Laurent Gbagbo, sits in a jail in Scheveningen awaiting the continuation of his trial at the International Criminal Court, for  alleged human rights abuses. Soro, meanwhile, could be heading for the highest post in the land, as early as 2020.

He is also the king of the next place we pass on our trip: Ferkessédougou. This town is doing rather nicely for itself thanks to the generous patronage from their illustrious son who has, according to reports, already had a conference centre set up with his name on it. No doubt he has helped himself to some nice real estate in the process. But at least in “Ferké” as the place is commonly known, there is some evidence of the reversal of the calamitous damage the Fn and its com’zones have caused in the region.

 

But what’s worse – they’re still around. Part 4 shortly.

 

The Façade – Part 2

May 17, 2016
Ébrié Lagoon and Pont Charles de Gaulle in front. To the left at the end of the bridge: Grand Hotel, where I took the previous picture. The white tower on the right is the newly refurbished and extremely expensive Hotel Ivoire.

Abidjan: Ébrié Lagoon and Pont de général De Gaulle (I kid you not) in front. To the far left: Grand Hotel, where I took the previous picture. The white tower on the right is part of the newly refurbished and extremely expensive Hotel Ivoire.

 

The next stop from the border on an increasingly impassable road is a nondescript town called Ouangolodougou, where we have a customs station. We are told to leave the bus and walk to a crossroads nearby. Regulars on this route have no qualms leaving most of their stuff behind, unsupervised. And sure enough, a mere ten minutes later the bus re-appears from behind the building where it had been parked and we all pile in again.

There is no way the entire contents of the holds could have been checked on whatever it was they were looking for.

‘Something has been arranged?’ I enquire innocently.

‘Sure.’

Common practice. Senegalese and Malian customs officers go through the contents of an incoming bus with a comb, taking all the sweet time in the world, because they are looking for things to steal. The Burkinabè, once again, less so but nothing has in my experience matched the seriousness, thoroughness and professionalism of the Senegalese drug police in Casamance, who check every outgoing bush taxi en route to Guinea Bissau meticulously. They look for drugs and do not lay a finger on your belongings.

Not so their colleagues in Côte d’Ivoire. Barely out of the ordinary customs station’s gate or the bus comes to a halt again. What on god’s green earth is it this time? Chaps in T-shirts (it is very hot) order the hold opened again and proceed to take luggage off the bus. Including, as I happen to see, my suitcase. By the time I am on my way to the scene, a package with cloth that I was requested by a neighbour to bring to a relative in Abidjan has been laid aside.

First of all, you do such a thing in the presence of the passenger. Had I not been seated on the same side as my luggage and decided to stay on board, that little package would have disappeared.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘Is this your luggage?’

‘Yes it is. What’s the problem?’

‘Have you declared this? Drug Police Officer asks me, pointing at the innocuous package.

He knows he’s bullshitting.

The whole bus knows he’s bullshitting.

I know he’s bullshitting.

Everybody knows he’s bullshitting.

The thing to do now is to ensure that he doesn’t lose face and I don’t lose my package to a taxpayer-funded thief.

‘That’s just a package that goes from one relative to another. Is there a problem with that? It’s a family thing.’ Safest route. Always invoke family; nothing is more sacred and held in more esteem than the extended family. Even religion doesn’t come close.

The prospect of easy loot is fading. Dozens of people are overhearing the conversation and the bus company’s luggage loader is nearby. He uses gentle persuasion.

‘Chef…’

Everybody knows that Drug Police Officer is the least and the last deserving of this title. But it is the correct and respectful term to use. He relents. Hilarity ensues when on entering the bus and out of earshot I declare that I have prevented a case of theft.

 

A little background to this madness in Part 3.

The Façade – Part 1

May 16, 2016

It has been a while, since my last rant. We’ll stay in Côte d’Ivoire; I have made a mini-series, based on my last trip there, which was rather eventful. Here goes. Let’s start with a picture.

Abidjan, Plateau. View from the Grand Hotel, completely refurbished.

Abidjan, Plateau. View from the Grand Hotel, completely refurbished.

‘Look there.’

‘Where?’

‘There. Behind the buidings. What do you see?’

We’re at the border, going into Côte d’Ivoire. I look behind the shacks that, as always, adorn the roadside at such places in this part of the world. Inside, the Ivorian immigration service is going about its usual business, which ostensibly is checking travel documents. That’s only part of the business. Until now, I have had little idea of the scale of their other business.

‘Cars,’ I reply to my Burkinabè interlocutor.

‘No – but look more closely. Notice anything unusual?’

Well after some 12 hours on the road from Ouagadougou and heaven knows how many still ahead to Abidjan it takes a while to adjust one’s eyes. But he helps me focus.

‘Yes, cars. But they’re all brand new!’

And now I see it too. These Toyota saloon cars look as if they have come straight from the assembly line. A Mercedes too, although that one looks second-hand, but in very good nick. My elderly neighbour presses on. ‘How did they get the money for those cars?’ Asking the question equals answering it.

There is an open sore that has hobbled all contacts between Ivorian “corps habillés” (i.e. anyone in a uniform) and the travelling public, especially if they come from Burkina Faso. The former extort money from the latter. Borders are perfect money traps. You’re in Nowhereland. You have a destination and you don’t want to be sent back. The passengers know this. The uniforms know this. So: you pay. Only on the Ivorian side, to be clear. I have yet to hear a story about Burkinabè officers doing similar and I have crossed many borders into Burkina Faso. You can still thank a young chap by the name of Captain Thomas Sankara for that.

I make a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Say, everybody pays a thousand francs, or €1.52. Let’s say that there are 60 passengers in a bus, that’s 60,000 francs. Well over ninety euros. Multiply that by the number of buses passing through between Ouagadoudou and Abidjan (both directions), let’s be modest and say ten. That’s 600,000 francs. €914. Every. Single. Day.

Impressive, I thought – until I speak to one Burkinabè journeyman on the bus. He works in electricity and he tells me he is in great demand, constantly between Ouagadougou and Abidjan. I wonder why he bothers with the bus.

‘Did you have to pay?’

‘Sure. Everyone does. It’s their system.’

‘How much?’

‘Six thousand francs.’

What!??’

‘Yes. Six thousand. A lot of people pay five or even ten.’

He does not look terribly concerned; perhaps he has already calculated this into his cost/benefit analysis of the trip. But let’s multiply our €914 euros by a factor of three to five, just to keep our calculation on the conservative side. That amounts to anything between €2,700 and €4,500 these uniformed extortion artists rake in. Every. Single. Day. That is a truckload of money. Suddenly those brand new cars behind their offices started to make a lot more sense. And the scale of the problem becomes crystal clear.

The Economist newspaper once made a memorable journey on a beer truck through Cameroon and calculated the cost of roadside corruption to that country’s economy. I have not retained the exact figures and my current archive is a mess but the conclusion I remember is that it took a percentage point or two of GDP. It has also rendered transport through Côte d’Ivoire among the most expensive ventures in the world. This clearly is insane. It is also just the beginning of the problem, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Part 2 soon to come.

Shooting children

March 16, 2016

http://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/attaque-en-cote-d-ivoire/video-cote-d-ivoire-les-images-del-attaque-a-grand-bassam-filmees-parlavideosurveillance_1359599.html

This, from the press release of AQMI after the attack on Grand Bassam. Link here:

http://fr.alakhbar.info/11224-0-AQMI-revele-lidentite-des-auteurs-des-attaques-de-Grand-Bassam.html

Hamza El-Foulani, Abderrahmane El-Foulani and Abderrahmane El-Ansari ‘have respected the order given by their hierarchy in the task of identifying their targets….’

Identifying their targets. Posthumously, I will tell these tools who their identified targets were.

A distraught girl, maybe twelve years old, in bathing suit, face framed with long locks that she got on the cheap in a little coiffeur shop, running as fast as her legs could carry her, shouting ‘They are shooting everywhere’.

A little boy, maybe six or seven, running on slippers dashing through the street parallel to the beach, jumping a low wall into someone’s garden and not stopping to answer any questions.

A woman running a roadside stall, staring with disbelief at the mayhem unfolding before her.

Fathers shielding their children while looking for safety.

Kids, having their Sunday fun on the beach, as they have for generations at Grand Bassam.

These were your identified targets.

Words are not anough. Oh and in your zeal to punish a country for something you did not agree with you have also managed to eliminate the director of the Goethe Institute in Abidjan, a woman loved and respected by many for her commitment to the world of art in this part of the world.

Congratulations.

There will be more lowlife like El-Foulani, El-Foulani and El-Ansari aiming to ‘bring reprisals against France’. They do so by gallantly shooting into unarmed crowds, by terrifying children and their parents. Burning in hell is too gentle a fate for them.

But contempt and anger are surface emotions. We need truly intelligent intelligence and cooperation, in order to catch these vermin before they act. Human intelligence. Building alliances with the overwhelming majority of West Africans who are hard working and fundamentally decent people. Development aid has failed, spectacularly. That mould needs to be broken, urgently. Nobody is buying what you’re selling. You meet people here on their terms. Deviate from that and you’re toast.

Some of this is already happening but far too much is conventional and hideoulsy outdated and unsuccessful. Like the manifestly monumentally stupid way of bombing the crap out of everyone you don’t like. Unfortunately, with Hillary in the White House by early next year we will have plenty more of that to look forward to. ‘We came. We saw. Plenty died.’ Cue heartless laughter…

And then of course, there must be attempts to find the fundamentals as to why ordinary young folk turn into homicidal maniacs in a region that has already seen the Biafra War, the civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, the border war in Guinea, the regional conflict in Casamance, the long crisis in Côte d’Ivoire and the implosion of the state in Mali. To name a few.

I made an attempt to do this myself, after the last act of mindless violence. Just scroll up and you’ll find it there. Maybe it still holds…

 

Veils and Guns – Part Two

February 4, 2016

A few more impressions and thoughts in the wake of the attack.

 

The armed gangs that emerged from the civil war in Algeria were pretty hardcore Islamic extremists, although even there it has been argued that some of the worst throat-slitting atrocities in the 1990s were actually army-led false flag operations designed to put the Armed Islamic Group (GIA in French) in a bad light. Be that as it may, the agenda appeared pretty clear. The anti-government groups were eventually ejected into the desert and resurfaced as cigarette smugglers and common criminals. You need to eat, right?

Muamar Ghadaffi, the slain Libyan leader, used Arab, Islam and African identities in his geopolitical poker games that gave luxury hotels and monuments to Bamako and Ouagadougou, wars to Chad, Liberia and Sierra Leone and hard-to-match political showmanship to the world. The armed groups in the Sahara/Sahel are equally adept at alternating. They can be Quran-wielding fanatics on Friday, people smugglers at the weekend, kidnappers on Monday, drug traffickers on Wednesday and rebel fighters on Thursday. Some will use Islam as a smokescreen to justify murder or hide their other activities; others may be sufficiently brainwashed to believe that shooting dead people having a drink on a terrace is the Good Fight for a Good Cause. The three terminally misguided young lads who attacked Ouagadougou on January 15 fall in this category, I would say. They went to pray in a nearby Sunni mosque before they tore their bloody trail through the city centre. The imam of the same mosque has condemned the attack in the strongest possible words. And we must take him at his word. This is West Africa, where words are heavy and mean serious things.

But how deep does that fanatical Islam really go? Judging from my partner’s commentary on the fully veiled women…not very deep. Interestingly, the number of full veils diminished significantly in the wake of the attacks. This, to be perfectly honest, is to be welcomed: closed-up, walled-in Islam has no place in West Africa, which – by and large – is an open, tolerant, cosmopolitan and life-affirming part of the world.

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

Ouagadougou represents, in the final analysis, more fallout from the catastrophic Western intervention in Libya, the main protagonist of which was the clueless but very noisy Nicholas Sarkozy who is making another presidential bid, followed closely by the deeply disturbing and utterly cynical Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be the next president of the United States. The fallout of “Libya” is basically a gang war over turf on an absolutely gigantic scale, from the Mediterranean coast through the Libyan desert, throughout Mali and pushing ever further south. In this gang warfare, faith and business interests collide; blind ideological adherents works for calculating warlords like Iyad ag Ghali and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has claimed the Ouagadougou attack.

Will it stop in Burkina Faso? Perhaps. There is a phrase you hear a lot here: ‘C’est mal nous connaître.’ The Burkinabè have a well-earned reputation for being workers and warriors in equal measure. There is a sense of belonging, of national unity, which is stronger here than in many of its neighbours and for that you can thank, once again, the revolutionary captain Thomas Sankara. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. But if truth must be told, Burkina Faso’s people are pretty well equipped for the job.

The other thing you hear all the time in these parts is: C’est pas simple.’ And that’s true. Nothing is simple around here, a fact that is often lost on colleagues who come flying in looking for a Goodies vs Baddies story because that is what the editors want and that will sell papers and magazines and generate clicks on the website back home, even when it seriously violates realities on the ground. There is opportunity for deeper analysis, for instance on the ZAM website, which is currently running a series called No Hearts No Minds. In part, it explains that the War on Terror on the African continent is as doomed as the War on Drugs across the pond in Latin America. ZAM is here and I will be on it shortly.

https://www.zammagazine.com

Veils and Guns – Part One

January 29, 2016

Some impressions and thoughts in the wake of the attack.

 

We were approaching a taxi in my partner’s (she’s called R…. but we’ll keep it under wraps for the moment…) former place of residence, Bobo Dioulasso. A fully veiled woman grabbed the front seat just before we got there and proceeded to completely ignore us. This is considered very bad manners here and R was visibly annoyed.

Next thing we know, another woman gets into the taxi, filling the back seat. The new passenger and the silent ghost on the front seat clearly know each other (in spite of the veil) and they greet animatedly. Partner pokes me and hisses in my ear: ‘Don’t greet her.’ Me, being polite and all (this is something Africa teaches congenitally rude Westerners), had already done so and as a result Her annoyance deepened.

So what was the problem here? In one word: hypocrisy. ‘I know these women,’ She said afterwards. ‘They pretend not to converse with people who don’t belong to their circle but did you see them getting chatty?’ She did not want me to greet the new passenger, as this would expand the circle of hypocrisy started by the not-so-silent-after-all ghost on the front seat.

‘It’s annoying. Do you know that these holier-than-thou women all in black are the worst adulteresses? Don’t be surprised. I know them well! They’re the worst kind of hypocrites. You’ll find them in the nightclubs, wearing skimpy clothes. Next day, they play the pious little veiled housewife again. I know them! That’s why they disgust me.’

Corroboration, then, of my ironclad theory that religion – and most decidedly in the monotheistic variety – is organized hypocrisy. Tales abound from Old Cairo about horny repressed Arabs from the Gulf States enjoying the forbidden delights of that city, in the olden days. Closer to home, there were the tales of oh-so-pious Mauritanians coming to sample the delights of the black Africans in just-across-the-border Saint Louis in Senegal, the same Africans they would mercilessly discriminate against in their own country, preferably on the way from the mosque to the homestead where they kept their own women on a leash.

As the old Dutch joke used to be, before secularization: if you want to know who the crooks and the villains in your town are, check out the two front rows in the church on Sunday’s. Today, they mismanage formerly state-run privatized corporations… And I have reason to suspect that it’s not that different in the mosques.

Ouagadougou, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, in normal times. Photo: Martin Waalboer

Ouagadougou, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, in normal times. Photo: Martin Waalboer

I was reminded of these tales in the aftermath of the deadly attack on 15 January that blew a hole in the Cappuccino restaurant (a place I rarely frequented) and sent smoke and flames up the Splendid Hotel  (where I occasionally would buy a copy of The Economist) until the three rampaging homicidal maniacs were stopped in their deadly tracks in the Taxi Brousse bar on the third corner of this busy crossroads of the Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. The area will need some time to recover and especially the owner of the Cappuccino who lost four family members as they were having dinner on their habitual table.

Unlike in Mali, you will find not a shred of sympathy here for these murderous brutes. The friendliest term the people here use is “criminals”. Smockey, the nation’s premier rapper and one of the leaders of the Citizen Broom (Balai citoyen) movement that swept ex-president Blaise Compaoré from power said on his Facebook page ‘There are 18 million reservists here, ready to take them on.’ This is no exaggeration. (Incidentally, buy a copy of Songlines magazine this month and find my article on the Burkinabè rappers there. Plug ends here.)

The argument that there is some kind of an Islamist agenda propelling these kids towards their doom-laden missions (a propaganda picture shows the attackers as three boys barely in their twenties) does not fly here. You can sum up the consensus thusly: ‘Islam is a smokescreen they use for their criminal acts. They’re ordinary vulgar bandits.’ Is that the whole story?

Part two coming up shortly

Lines

December 30, 2015

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It was on the edge of the desert, the last settlement before the journey truly would begin. A sign in Hamid El Ghizlane read: Tombouctou 50 days. That’s history now: the camel routes have been replaced by aeroplanes and FourWheelDrives.

It was early 2015 in Hamid El Ghizlane and bitterly cold. With all my clothes on and buried under three thick blankets, still the bones would wake up freezing. Indeed: like six years previously, at a very similar festival near that other city, 50 days away, I had come woefully ill-prepared. Again.

But there was music. It sent lines across the vast open space between this Moroccan village and that city on the other side. Guitar lines. Bass lines. Vocal lines. Threads of melody, interspersed with hand claps, drums and percussion. We liked it so much that in the cold and pitch-dark night we threw off our jackets and danced.

And danced.

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There were guests. From Europe, from the neighbours, and from Tombouctou, no longer 50 days away. Three years ago, Tombouctou was battered by the twin force of an extended family feud and an empty-headed reading of the religion that has also thrown its lines across the sand. Islam. But instead of feasting their ears on the worshipping chants and marvel at the sight of the sacred tombs, vandals tore through the old culture of the city. It survived. The Festival of the Desert, which is now twinned with the one at Hamid El Ghizlane (or Taragalt, to give it its old name), is still looking for a home.

But still we listened, and we danced.

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I recorded a lot of it. A conversation with Ibrahim, one of the festival directors, spontaneous music outbursts, an interview with some lovely lads from the village, wanting to make it big. Génération Taragalte, they called themselves. They knew their music. They knew their heroes: Tinariwen, from another place in that large space of sand, rock and guitar strings, spinning musical lines thousands of miles long.

50 days. A split-second when a single chord transports you back to the other side of the desert where the Festival of the Desert spun its yarns of peace and understanding and love until some misguided fools shot holes in the fabric.

A group of women were busy putting it all back together in Hamid El Ghizlane/Taragalte. Zeinab and her friends were weaving a Carpet of Peace, made with fabrics brought in from Mali. They asked visitors to come with clothes they no longer wanted, so they could weave that also back into the Carpet before sending it across the Sahara. More lines. I recorded a lot, there, too.

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I lost some of it when my harddisk crashed, months later. Fortunately, we humans have another harddisk, equally faulty but capable of making connections, freely, randomly, dreaming up lines unexpectedly – mostly to ourselves.

And so we have come to the other end of 2015. It’s warm where I am right now. A mere 300 miles from here, 7 hours by bus, is my house. Burkina Faso, a new place, a new home, which I share with someone who is well on her way to becoming a star in her own right. But that’s another story.

Here’s to 2016 then. When more lines will be drawn, more connections made, more music will emerge, more perspectives will be challenged and more surprises will strike for which we, only human, are singularly ill-prepared.

Small matter. It’ll all make sense later.

Office. Ouaga.

Office. Home. Ouaga.

Happy 2016 to you all.

An open space

October 1, 2015

6 – Making Sense

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So what, if anything, are we to make of this book? That is not an easy question to answer because it is not quite clear what lessons are there to draw. That we need more societal responsibility among the elites? That the elites need more backbone if they see their country go in the wrong direction? Far too easy to say when you are not directly involved. That we need better governance, or at the very least a state presence? That peace, development and all the other matters that render a country liveable will never be delivered from the outside? Absolutely. The point is that all these gaps are present in other parts of the world, too. Perhaps they have turned a shade more extreme in the CAR but they are not new.

Hence the great narratives that the writers and editors have wanted to weave around the story of the CAR. This materialise only partially. I liked the historical explanations for CAR’s current predicament, an element that is routinely overlooked when “Africa” is being reported. History matters greatly. The chapters on insecurity (and how this deeply felt notion of existential insecurity is intricately bound up with the way riches are accumulated) gave me interesting insights in a mindset that otherwise remains closed, especially in the case of the elites.

The failure of most if not all foreign interventions are all highlighted although I for one would have been much more severe with this last issue. When eleven peace-related missions have done nothing to lessen the mess the CAR finds itself in, then these missions should be put under the harshest light possible and mercilessly investigated, because they clearly do not do what it says on the label. And clearly, this does not only apply to the CAR. Mali is another place where an ill-considered, ill-conceived and dramatically misguided UN mission along the same lines is going very badly wrong.

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There is really only one issue I would like to take with the book. With the exception of one, all contributions are by writers from outside the CAR and they have been drawn from basically two fields: NGOs and academia. We have a political scientist and an anthropologist editing the volume. Contributions come from a professor in African Studies (granted, with a long career in journalism), from researchers and consultants and a student of political science. This pool could have been broader. This is of course not to argue that outsiders should have nothing to say about the CAR. That would be patently risible. But more balance would have been welcome. I remember a volume of essays, done a few years ago about a country blighted by this sinister combination: a gangster state, a resource curse (in this case oil), violence against the population on an industrial scale and very little countervailing power. The volume on Sudan, (Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan), published by the Prince Claus Foundation of the Netherlands in 2009 provided a rich knowledge base not in the least because many of the contributing authors were Sudanese.

Still, as said at the beginning, this book is more than welcome as a contribution in its own right about a country few of us know a great deal about. The individual papers can be read on their own, as they tell a part of that largely untold story, fascinating, tragic and infuriating in equal measure.

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is published by Zed Books in London and costs £20 in the UK and an estimated €30 in the Eurozone.

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