It’s business, st*p*d!

November 29, 2022

James Carville’s house slogan (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) for Bill Clinton’s election campaign never gets old and can be applied in a lot of situations. For instance here, where I will be trying to explain, in ways less flippant than Carville’s great one-liner suggests, why the West’s obsession with ‘jihadism’ in the Sahel is mostly misguided.

There are still buses doing the long trip from the Malian capital Bamako to the major town of Gao in the country’s remote northeast. On that 1,200 kilometres long trip, they will go from a good tarred road into Ségou, to a fairly OK but still tarred road into Sévaré (where there have been several attacks against army bases) and then on to a road hardly worthy of the name past Douentza, Hombori and Gossi and finally into Gao. This report was made three years ago; there is nothing to suggest that the situation has improved.

But buses continue to run the full gauntlet into Gao. How is this possible, on long stretches of virtually non-existent road through areas that are infested with self-defence militias, self-styled jihadist groups and their splinters, khalifate-creating fanatics and bandits with their guns and their roadside bombs? (The category “bandits”, by the way, almost always overlaps all the others.)

Simple: the companies pay. Any business working in areas these gangs control does the same. What we are seeing here is the Sahelian variant of the protection racket. And it has been spreading, along with the armed turbulence that began when Algeria threw its armed ‘jihad’ gangster problem across the fence into Mali in the late 1990s and was then made ten times worse when France, the UK, the USA and NATO plunged Libya into the chaos from which it has never recovered. And even in Algeria it was not entirely over. What was the original business these original ‘jihadis’ were in? Banditry: smuggling contraband and kidnapping Westerners; this last they did safe in the knowledge that the governments of rich white countries pay to have their citizens released. Even the late Hissène Habré, the butcher of Chad, knew this.

Habré gained notoriety in the 1970s as a rebel leader and hostage taker. His hostages were West German and French, whose governments paid good money for the release of their citizens. That did not stop the United States and France from sponsoring Habré all the way to the Chadian presidency, a post he took by force of arms, flown in from the USA by way of Monrovia’s international airport, as former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker explained to me during an interview in Washington. In the eight years (1982 to 1990) that he manhandled his country, Habré arranged for the murder of 40,000 people and the torture of many more, crimes for which he was belatedly convicted in a Dakar court, in 2016. He died in a Dakar hospital, aged 79.

So, hostage taking is an old business, probably as old as running protection rackets. The former were at the origin of the self-styled ‘jihadist’ groups. The latter are – in tandem with theft, extortion, and artisanal gold extraction – at the core of these groups’ business today. Smuggling, meanwhile, has been an absolute constant throughout, from cigarettes to drugs.  One of the earlier leaders of these armed ‘jihad’ gangs, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was nicknamed Mr Marlboro and you get no extra points for guessing why that was. People smuggling, I understand, is an entirely different branch and has no inherent connection with the violent armed gangs who are busy shutting down the Sahel. Which stands to reason: people smugglers get paid to get people to a destination. They do not set out to kill people; even though they very often fail in their trips across the unforgiving Sahara desert the objective is to get people to their destination alive.

Today, nothing much has changed. Islamic State mines gold in Burkina Faso and Mali, it and other armed gangs set up roadblocks and extort money from the travelling public, raid buses if the companies running them have not paid enough or on time; they steal cattle – a deliberate and deeply destructive act – and still smuggle drugs and contraband.

Their methods for recruiting foot soldiers come straight out of the gangster rulebooks that were used in Liberia and Sierra Leone at the end of the last century: find young, marginalised men with little or no prospects, manipulate them with lies, false promises, ply them with drugs and then tell them what to do: rape, kill, burn, steal, pillage, loot, pilfer, extort. How did West Africa’s jungle soldiers, some as young as 7, refer to these activities? I will tell you because I asked them this question. And their answer was: they considered doing these things their job. The self-styled ‘jihadist’ gangs we see in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Chad, Cameroon and now also in Togo, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire operate in exactly the same way. These are at their very core criminal organisations, working towards the creation of what one general from Mauritania once memorably called “a Boulevard of Crime, from Tripoli to Abidjan…”

Vandalism in Timbuktu, 2013

But what about the religion then? Because none of what you have read so far sounds terribly religious. Correct: it does not sound religious because it isn’t. But there are most definitely religious zealots in the ranks of these violent criminal gangs and some, like the notorious Amadou Koufa in Central Mali may even be a bona fide religious warlord. This is logical: using Islam as a recruitment tool resonates with folks who are, in the majority, deeply religious. Often the only ‘education’ young kids can afford is going to the Koran school, where they learn to recite the entire Holy Book back to front and nothing else. They are often sent onto the streets of all the main cities to beg for money, to be delivered to their Koran teacher. Some education…

You see? This is the mechanism Taylor used, with a new twist. Allah does not give you food; you must work for it. And so, when I see this flag, I do not think “Jihadists” or “Islamist extremists”. I think: “Pirates.”

Source for this image: Lawfare.

Cast your mind back to those forest wars between 1989 and 2003. Two of the most notorious warlords, the late Foday Sankoh and the imprisoned war criminal Charles Taylor both went to training camps in the late Muamar Ghadaffi’s Libya to learn the strategies of revolutionary terror. But did they bring The Revolution to their countries, as the name of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone suggested and one of Taylor’s former female generals told me in person? No of course they did not. It was a pretext. Some may have believed in it, for sure. But for most it was…just a job. We’re only in it for the money. How did the boys call their looting sprees, anyone? Yes, you at the back? Correct! They called their looting sprees ‘Operation Pay Yourself.’

And so it is with the religious element we are dealing with here. Those kids that were smashing the shrines and the statues in Timbuktu would not be able to cite the Koran passages justifying their vandalism if their lives depended on it. Both sets of violent gangs share the same methods.

Barbarism. Islamic State executes Housseini Hamma Cissé, aka “DJ passant” because of his mobile musical services for the community that adored him. Murdered in cold blood, near Ménaka, November 28.

And these methods are? Gratuitous violence. Or have we forgotten that summarily executing people in the most gruesome ways did happen frequently in the forests and towns of West Africa, from the mass murders in a church in Monrovia, Liberia to the repeated carnage in Freetown, Sierra Leone; the vicious fights in Guéckédou, Guinea and the massacres in Duékoué, Côte d’Ivoire? The religious (in this case Islamic) element does not add another layer of horror to these acts. The horror is already there and it has the same purpose: terrorizing people into doing what the terrorisers want.

But remember also that the perpetrators operate mostly in armed gangs. These are not kingdoms or republics with large repressive systems at their disposal, capable of genocide or industrial scale mass murder, such as the Belgians committed in Congo, the Germans in Namibia, the British in South Africa and Kenya, the French in Niger, Cameroon and Algeria, the Italians in Ethiopia. Taylor and his goons ruled Liberia for six years; Sankoh never got the presidency of Sierra Leone. One criminal gang of terrorists with an overlay of religious fanaticism is holding sway in a shrinking part of northeastern Nigeria. Another is establishing an (undoubtedly short-lived) ‘khalifate’ in the remote northeast of Mali and they are only able to do this because the colonels mismanaging Mali from their suites in Bamako are not serious about defending the country; they prefer to take soldiers from a neighbouring country hostage or boring the United Nations to death with frivolous charges about France helping Al Qaeda. The Russian mercenaries of the Wagner PMC they have hired for an eye-watering amount of money to do the job they are supposed to be doing are singularly uninterested in taking on the armed gangs, who as a result do pretty much as they please. They fight Wagner – for the control of the artisanal gold mines. It’s business, st*p*d!

And where do they intend to take their business? What is the final destination of the Boulevard of Crime? To reiterate: the coast. Why? This I covered recently. Suffice to say that reaching the coast would obviously mean a colossal expansion of their business. The amount of loot to be had in, say, Abidjan dwarfs what can be stolen in Ansongo, Djibo and Tilaberi combined. And of course many West African coastal cities have direct air links with that well-known murky international hotbed of dodgy business, Dubaï.

An appropriately murky picture – by me – of a distinctly murky place.

Clearly, nobody outside these armed gangs wants this and there may finally be some concerted action under way to ensure this never happens: the Accra Initiative, a low-level network set up by five governments most directly concerned (Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire) geared towards intelligence sharing and joint military action and grassroots campaigns to take away the lure of the gangs. This kind of joined-up thinking, in tandem with the creation of real economic prospects for the young folks most likely to be lured by the Siren Call of armed violence may yield results in the near future. I certainly hope so. After a decade of destruction, this region desperately needs success against the ever-expanding destabilising influence of these criminal groups, after the ambiguity of Opération Barkhane, the stillborn efforts of the G5 Force Sahel and Operation Takuba and the utter disaster of Russia’s Wagner killers. Here’s hoping that they get it right this time. And here’s hoping that eventual foreign (dare I say…Western) backers understand three things: that it is chiefly about money, crime and turf and not about religion, that the initiative must be with those affected and their governments, and that throwing military kit and troops at the problem solves nothing. The alternative is grim: the shutdown of a space the size of Western Europe.

This time it’s worse

October 3, 2022

I don’t want to make this too long but here’s why I think we should be very very very concerned about what’s happening in Burkina Faso.

We thought we’d seen the last of them: armed men in uniform sitting in a television studio reading a one page declaration, which usually contains the following points:

1. We have deposed the government in the higher interest of the country

2. The government, parliament have been dissolved

3. Complaints about the regime/government: inept, corrupt, ineffective

4. Complaints about institutions being undermined, security targets not met

5. We promise to do better in the areas we just complained about

6. We promise not to stay in power forever

7. There will now begin a period of transition, which will last 12-24-36-won’t say months

8. The borders are closed and a curfew is in force until further notice

9. Done in (capital city name) on (date)

Music or innocuous film about mongoose, birds, insects, reindeers or unicorns

Africa carries the distinction of being home to the most countries of any continent and the most coups: well over one hundred at last count, although it must be said that these are only the ones that were successful. If we include all the attempts, including the ones that failed, the list would be almost twice as long. Burkina Faso tops that list with 15, the Central African Republic and Sudan are runners-up, clocking up 13 and 11 respectively.

What makes Burkina Faso also stand out is that on at least three occasions the coups came with popular movements against the government in place (this was certainly the case in 1966 and 2014 and arguably this time around), while in 2015 the people thwarted an attempted coup by former president Blaise Compaoré’s personal guards, known as the RSP – Régiment de sécurité présidentielle. I commented on this failed coup briefly here.

But what is it about this time?

Not the best pic from the net but it will do for now. The new leader of Burkina Faso. Pic: Sidwaya.info

On the last day of September shots rang out in one of Ouagadougou’s military camps. They have a bunch of them but the one in question is called Baba Sy and it’s close to the large interchange that connects the newish suburb of Ouaga 2000 with the rest of the city. Initially nobody had any idea what on earth was going on. People tend to get fairly weirdly blasé about uniformed men going around town shooting at things, people or each other, if it happens often enough.

This turned out to be a nasty dispute between factions of the MPSR…sorry, I should have included this in my original point-for-point television declaration rendition: the name of the new body now running the country. It can range from Committee To Save (insert name of country here) to People’s Salvation Council or National Commission for Development (aka “We wanted what they had and so we’ve just come in to grab it & we’ll be out of here sharpish, promise…”). The latest Burkinabè iteration is called Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration, which looks a bit odd because they seem to want to save and restore something at the same time but I digress.

So MPSR it is; the French acronym. Within the MPSR then, differences of opinion were emerging about what to do about the gangs of criminals that have taken possession of almost half the country, ruthlessly killing, raping, maiming, plundering, looting, stealing, burning and pillaging rural communities across the north, the east and also the south and the northwest of the country, rendering two million people homeless as a result. There is absolutely nothing good to say about these marauding gangs but they exist because they feed on feelings of profound marginalization that have bred resentment in vast areas across the Sahel region (and indeed elsewhere). They have laid out what one Mauritanian general once memorably called “A Boulevard of Crime” using Islam as an extremely thin cover. Many of the lads partaking in these criminal activities are illiterate and would not be able to tell you the passage in the Holy Qur’an authorizing what they are doing (hint: there aren’t any).

The aftermath of the Gaskindé attack. Pic: burkina24.com

This is the event that in all probability triggered the latest coup. A cowardly attack on a convoy, on its way to the besieged town of Djibo, in the northern Soum province. This happened at a village called Gaskindé and the road here is as poor as anywhere else. Eleven soldiers died, maybe more. The contents of the lorries, mostly food, was burnt. Can’t have people eating in the land you are terrorizing.

The attack happened eight months after Lt-Col Paul-Henri Sameogo Damiba had read out his paper on national television, following a grave incident at Inata, in the same province, that had left 57 people dead, 53 of them gendarmes. This was obviously not supposed to happen, so Damiba, who until 2011 was a member of the aforementioned RSP, now disbanded, chased the elected president away on January 23. Eight months and a week later Captain Ibrahim Traoré said the same things about Lt-Col Damiba that Damiba had said about the president he had deposed: inept, incapable to stem the insurgency, and so on. After Gaskindé, demonstrations erupted in various towns and cities around the country, demanding Damiba’s resignation. Fundamentally though, nothing has changed. The humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso is bad (perhaps even worse than in neighbouring Mali or Niger) and there’s no end in sight.

A screenshot of the latest alarming figures by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

And this is why the splitting of the MPSR is so troubling. First, there are factions within this particular part of the army, an army that at first declared to be on the side of Damiba but then changed its mind. The gun battles that had begun at 4h30 on Saturday continued throughout the weekend. Capt Traoré tried to consolidate and Lt-Col Damiba was organizing what can be termed a counter-offensive, with the streets of Ouagadougou as a décor. Shots continued to be fired as negotiations were taking place, very possibly involving religious leaders and very likely the one person the Burkinabè soldiers and politicians always turn to when they have created yet another problem they cannot solve: the Mogho Naba, proud inheritor of the royal Mossi dynasty that goes back more than a millennium.

The confusion threatened to go into a third day but then on Sunday news broke that somehow a deal had been reached and Capt Traoré was the new master of the land with the consent of the army top brass. Col Damiba has resigned but has also written up seven conditions that need to be fulfilled to guarantee he goes and stay away, including his personal safety. But by far the most worrying among those conditions is his written admission that the Burkina Faso Army is a hot mess. Army cohesion must be “reinforced,” he writes and those within the army that took his side in the confrontation with Capt Traoré should not be prosecuted. And that’s before we begin to talk about what other factions may exist within the army and how the old RSP, more than one thousand strong, fits into all of this – if at all.

Here’s the new man being driven around Ouagadougou amidst adulation. Still from a little vid recorded on a cellphone.

But if this lack of cohesion in the Army isn’t enough, we have predators hovering over the stricken country and its barely functioning army. They have failed to dislodge Islamist insurgents in northern Mozambique, they have failed to help Russian ally General Khalifa Haftar take the Libyan capital, they have failed to keep the gangster Omar al-Bashir in power in Sudan by helping to violently repress pro-democracy demonstrations. Apart from defending the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui from rebels led by a former president they have also failed to bring stability to that country. And in Mali – besides killing hundreds of civilians in the centre and the north and the east – they are failing to have any discernible impact, even when they are supposed to be paid at least ten million dollars a month for their murderous labour. In short, then, the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary outfit – because that’s who we’re talking about here – is a catastrophically bad business proposition. And yet it seems that under pressure from ill-informed or perhaps even downright malicious voices egged on by another one of Wagner’s social media propaganda offensives Capt Traoré may be prepared to take the plunge. Should he do so, he risks the very future of his country and he also forfeits forever the right to say or do anything in the name of the legendary Capt Thomas Sankara, whose memory he also seems to want to invoke.

On the road, between Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, one of the few remaining main routes still relatively safe.

I may have been slightly flippant earlier on but make no mistake about the gravity of the situation we are now in. A heavily wounded country, a dangerously divided army, both preyed on by the most violent, venal, cynical, ruthless mercenary outfit in existence backed by an out-of-control rogue state that is receiving a bloody nose in the country it invaded (Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression there has been aided and abetted by the same lawless Wagner freelancers since 2014) and seeking to increase its bloody footprint on a continent that has seen far more than its fair share of similar bloodstained operators in the past – from France, from Belgium, from the UK, from Portugal, from Germany…

If this looks like an exercise in handwringing, then you are partly correct. After all, the recipes are known: the full restoration of a professional army with a clear command-and-control structure that can then take on the armed self-styled jihadist gangs and remove them. The creation of economic opportunities in the zones affected by these gangs, so that people actually have an alternative and do not feel the need to get involved with fake religious zealots waving the flags of criminals. And none of this is happening.

It is extremely urgent to ensure that the Boulevard of Crime comes to an end. Burkina Faso must be made safe and so must its four coastal neighbours. Attacks have been recorded in three of them. If Burkina Faso goes, the roads are open to the fattest piles of loot in the region: the cities of Cotonou, Lomé, Accra and Abidjan and everything in between. Preventing this means reinforcing borders, smoking the armed gangs out of their hideaways in the cross-border wildlife reserves where they are lurking and massively increasing the existing joint efforts of Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire: intelligence sharing, military operations, law and order initiatives, campaigns of gentle persuasion telling the people living in the border areas that getting involved with self-appointed ‘jihadist’ gangsters is not a very good idea.

And please, foreign busybodies, doubtlessly itching to get involved: follow, don’t lead. All of these things are already happening and your previous engagements have so far been less than helpful, be they French, European or American. Wagner/Russia is an absolute disaster, we do not need to dwell on that and it may even be the case that things go so badly in Ukraine that they have to abandon their African land grab. But in order to succeed where you also failed before you must listen before you talk, study before you act and adapt instead of command. This is extremely hard for you to do but you must. You will also get rid of your colonial mindset in the process. Call it collateral advantage.

Good luck. We will all need it. Badly.

Rain!

August 7, 2022

In the Sahel, rain is typically preceded by a dust storm, like the one that met me one afternoon in August 2020, as I was walking through the fine town of Ségou, just a few hours from Bamako. One moment I saw it crossing the river Djoliba, on which the town lies; the next I was enveloped in it. It was pitch dark and it was mid-afternoon. Luckily, I knew where I was: a stone’s throw or two away from a friendly hotel called L’Auberge but it wasn’t until I arrived at its entrance (following a sandy road by pointing my phone light straight down to my feet) that I saw the light above the door. It took another 30 minutes for the rain to finally begin and then it hit – hard. Stay indoors when this happens.

The sand and dust wall approaches, Ségou

Similar a few years earlier on a long stretch of street from the Ouagadougou suburb of Pissy past Gounghin and the headquarters of the FESPACO film festival and into town. Here, a wall of dust and sand came barrelling towards me as I was riding a bicycle and the effect was not unlike one of those Northwest European seasonal storms when gusts of wind tug at your bike and try to floor you. Except that this one came with tiny bits of sand and dust that stung. This forced me to do something humiliating that in principle I never do on principle: get off my bike. The sandstorm was mercifully short-lived but the rain that followed was relentless in its fury.

In a matter on minutes, roads become rivers where cars struggle. You will be astonished at the colossal amounts of water and wonder where on earth it all comes from; surely not only the sky… This was certainly my experience on another bike ride around Ouagadougou. I had foolishly ignored the warnings of thick clouds overhead and soon enough found myself negotiating the disappearing tar surface of the road all Ouagalais call La Périferique. I was attempting, unsuccessfully, to stay away from the water that kept invading until it had converted the road into a shallow river. Riding a bike in one of Ouaga’s ultra heavy rainshowers with unpredictable water movement is not really the occasion to push your luck, so I ended up sheltering under one of the very few overpasses the city possesses and stayed there, like many other very sensible Ouagalais, until the incessant lightning and thunder had died down a little and it was sort of over…

Serious storm clouds over Ouagadougou and its airport with the prettiest control tower anywhere… (pic: Burkina24)

Intimidating lighting, some of the most spectacular light shows you will see anywhere and huge downpours, as if whatever resides up there has decided to personally pull out all the stops and open every single tap it can possibly find and then stands aside laughing manically as the poor folks below scramble for safety. And scramble they must because these rains can kill. Abidjan, for instance, frequently gets hit: it sits on a lagoon and has built up areas sitting literally on the shoreline; it also receives copious amounts of rain, which then struggles to find a safe way out. Deaths are regularly reported from around town.

How does rain become such a problem? Among the factors (and a lot of them are related) we can count a near perfect storm of urbanisation at breakneck speed and climate change. Most if not all towns and cities in West Africa (I will limit myself to this region) have been growing at a dizzying rate. Bamako, Mali’s capital and my home for a couple of years was deemed Africa’s and even the world’s fastest growing city at the beginning of the second decade of this century. A tiny settlement at the end of the 19th century, it became the administrative centre of what was then called French Soudan, while it was mostly limited to the north bank of the mighty Djoliba River.

Bamako’s first bridge was built only 65 years ago, thus linking the old town to the southern riverbank from where the city could spread. And spread it did. In 1990 Bamako had just shy of one million inhabitants; today it is close to four million. Such growth rates are beyond the administrative, logistical, infrastructural and service capacities of any city government. And it shows: roads are in very bad state and disintegrate almost visibly when it rains; electricity and water supply are patchy at best; traffic is anarchic and service levels low to non-existent. By contrast and as a predictable result, levels of self-reliance among the Bamakois are very high.

A rain-soaked street in Kalaban Coura, Bamako and yes that was once my bike…

Cities fill up because the countryside offers very little in the way of economic prospects. This is deliberate. Governments fear the city-based electorate and one way to keep the urban masses happy and prevent riots is by keeping food prices low. This is achieved by either not paying the farmers who still work the land enough for their produce or simply replacing locally produced food with cheap imports, which has the added advantage of keeping super rich and often corrupt traders happy; after all, they bankroll political parties and their candidates. What we have here is a vicious circle. Armed insurgencies and/or criminal enterprises that have been making their appearances since the early 1990s are nothing less or more than the bill being presented for these misguided and short-sighted policies. In the absence of viable rural economies (and indeed the absence of opportunities in cities), easily recruitable young men join these gangs and they will not go away any time soon.

This looks very much like the street in Angré, Cocody, Abidjan where I briefly rented an apartment eight years ago (pic captured from YouTube)

As if this isn’t bad enough you now must add further effects of climate change (rains are increasingly erratic and downpours have become noticeably more extreme), bad road design (usually without the sloping surface that should be mandatory here) and the city dwellers’ excruciatingly bad habits. Unfortunately, the concept of a common public space is not very alive here. You have your own home and direct surroundings, which you keep scrupulously spotless. And then you have the rest, which nobody gives a flying flip about. Hence stuff thrown from buses and cars, culverts converted into dumping grounds, drains full of masses of accursed plastic bags and every open space covered in rubbish. This leads to one thing: blockage and the near-certainty that when there is extreme rainfall people drown.

There’s almost certainly more but you get the idea. And so it is the same scene, repeated during every single rainy season every year, in Ouagadougou, in Bamako, Abidjan, Conakry, Banjul, the smaller urban centres throughout the West Africa region and, indeed, Dakar, where I am writing this and where I may have had a bit of a lucky escape.

Rond Point Philippe, Ouest Foire, Yoff, Dakar

I set out this last Friday afternoon, during what I thought to be a break in the rain of sufficient length to allow me to get a very late breakfast and sort out one or two other things. It soon became apparent that I had miscalculated. Badly. As I walked along an already rain-soaked sandy road towards a place called Rond Point Philippe (a busy roundabout named after a popular pharmacy) the skies opened once again amidst an orchestral suite of lightning and thunder. I walked briskly down the remaining streets (one right, one left, one…oh no, the street’s become a lake…retrace steps, one right, another right, one left and onto the roundabout, which has a brand new bridge in the middle where I thought I was going to stay until the rain would let up.

No such luck.

I found my way blocked by a solid mass of water. I stayed put under a tiny overhang, just small enough to keep me less wet than I would have been otherwise, as I contemplated my next move. I quickly concluded, as one car waded past and caused a stern wave that almost spilled over the ramp where I was standing and into the shop behind me, that any next move would involve getting my feet wet. Beyond the bridge I spotted a Brioche d’Or, known for good coffee, and unpredictable levels of food quality and service. But how to get there?

I braved the rain and plunged into what had been a street, waded across and found that beyond the small collection of street stalls (now closed) where I had thought to find a strip of land high enough to get me across the street and to the bridge there was more water. Oh well. Caution to the, er, rain then.

From my table at the Brioche d’Or. Yes, I made it there.

Traffic was the least of my worries: it had come to a complete stop. I walked across to that bridge and waited, hoping for the now solid sheet of water coming down relentlessly to subside just a bit. Which it did.

The Brioche d’Or felt like a place under siege. Nowhere was really dry but that was fine because nobody was, including yours truly who did not have a dry stitch on his body by now… Being under siege from the elements brought fleeting solidarity among those who had managed to get under its protective roof. And Brioche had a life saver: coffee! And a half decent burger and very nice service. So we sat on this veranda-like place, waiting for it all to calm down…deep in conversation about how this was all the fault of the government because the roads were badly constructed and how we should know how to deal with these things by now because this happens every year and so on……..

The rain continued. The traffic stalled. Somewhere a siren (I presumed the fire brigade) wailed incessantly, clearly attached to a vehicle that was unable to move like the rest. Why this was the case I was about to find out. Because the rain eventually did let up and I could safely leave. I paid the waitress and walked from the low point where the Rond Point was located (no wonder it was now a lake) in the direction of my old street. Worse was to come.

First thing I found was that traffic on the bridge was blocked, because it was virtually impossible to go past this…

“There is no way through,” I was told by some folks coming from where I thought I was going. To my left, across the flooded exit road leading to the Rond Point I saw a procession of people gingerly negotiating a bit of pavement between the road and the parking lot of the Yoff Municipal Authority, also flooded. Water swirled around their feet. Oh well. Turn around, go there, keep your luggage dry (including a laptop I had weirdly deemed necessary to bring along and which had managed to keep miraculously dry inside its plastic shell) and hope for the best. Walking back, I noticed a bit of a riot.

Yes, a bunch of neighbourhood kids had turned their bit of flooded highway into a swimming pool and were having a grand old time splashing about in a watery dance they repeated every ten metres or so, pretending to bail out the water right in front of the vehicles that just stood there, engines switched off.

Time to be on my way. I joined the procession I just described and had a scare twice, when there was a clear surge in the water streaming across from the other side of the highway where the boys were swimming. Where did that come from? Cars that had decided to move after all? A stream spontaneously joining another stream somewhere? There’s no way you can tell where exactly all this water is coming from and where it is going except to the lowest point which is roughly where you are walking right now… Bits and chunks of ground had given way under the weight of the cascades and if this happens when you stand on one such spot you’re toast.

That’s where I walked too, gingerly…. I first negotiated the other side of the exit road you see here, to the right That’s where I took the pic of the splashing kids.

We all made it, and walked to wherever. Me to the seventh floor of a hotel on the big thoroughfare that was and remained blocked solid in both directions for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.

There’s no solution in sight, especially not when the causes are so complex. What can and probably should be done is make a real effort to change peoples’ behaviour, invest in more and better infrastructure and prevent people from dying because there are fewer deaths more terrible (I think) than drowning, like the one driver who got stuck in an underpass near Mermoz and did not live to tell the tale. And at the very end the best idea is probably to turn rural areas into economically viable zones so that people do not feel the need to migrate to these already overcrowded cities or even less to pick up an AK47 and start attacking them because the villages offers no prospects whatsoever.

The Volcano

June 22, 2022
That’s the one, with my lovely hotel Casa Alcindo in the foreground

Seeing the triangular cone looming over the island of Fogo, Cabo Verde on a simple postcard was already impressive. Seeing a bit of it (most was hiding under a thick layer of clouds) for the first time, I was awestruck. Here was this large thing rising from the sea, as I watched it from the ferry that had taken me across a fairly calm Atlantic Ocean from the capital Praia to this island. The point of getting here was walking up that mountain, incidentally the highest peak of all of West Africa. For some of you perhaps underwhelming but for a fellow who grew up in a country that is known the world over for being totally flat 2,829 metres is a lot. I did a bit of mountain walking in the south of Poland and the east of Zimbabwe…oh and I took a walk around the very active crater of Mount Bromo on Java, Indonesia. But that’s the point: it was walking, not climbing let alone mountaineering proper, for which I am totally unfit. My (admittedly totally irrational) fear of heights kicks in on the third floor of a building.

So was I here to prove some point or other? Nope; the idea did not even occur to me until I was well on my way to the top that fine morning of Sunday June 19 and well out of my flatland comfort zone. Mind you, a lot of West Africa (bar Guinea of course and impressive rock formations in Mali among others) is pretty flat, too, or gently undulating savannah.

Fogo is different. First of all, this is an active volcano. Records may have begun at some point in the 17th century and we have a fairly good idea of the bursts of activity this mountain gets into. One occurred between 1769 and 1857, when in the space of less than a century it erupted seven times. Then, for almost an entire century, nothing happened. Until 1951 and that’s the biggie the island remembers all too well, just like the one this century.

To all intents and purposes this volcano has been picking up speed of late, putting less and less time between the last eruption and the next. 44 years between 1951 and 1995 and only 19 between that one and the latest outbreak, which rumbled on in 2014 and 2015 and destroyed most of Chã das Caldeiras, where I am staying. José Doce, the guide who took me up the mountain, predicts there will be another one in two years’ time. So that’s just 10 years…

The village has been picking up where it was forced to leave off. New buildings have gone up, including the very welcoming Casa Alcindo. The nearby guesthouse that José runs was spared the destruction. “The lava just went around my place,” he says with a bit of mystery. I asked him if he had some kind of a deal with the volcano, since he had already told me about his prediction of the next eruption. He smiled.

José, ahead of me, on the way up

So how did I fare? Was this the half-imagined leisurely walk up the slopes of a bad-tempered fiery mountain? No, not really. The first bit was done at the brisk pace José set, which acquainted me with his style of guiding: gallop ahead (he is from here, knows the mountain inside out and has an excellent condition), then use the time I need to catch up – and sometimes a little more – texting and phoning and on we go.

The path turned into a field of ash that had been dumped at an angle, which meant we had to negotiate it using the well-known zigzag walking route, as we steadily went higher. Of course, your feet zigzagging through volcanic ash close to a ridge means that your job is to stay on the right side of that ridge. If you don’t you will roll a few hundred metres down – not quite to the village where you have come from but enough to sustain some pretty serious damage.

It was just before we got to a rock-strewn path (of sorts) that I realised that this was really very high and that this trek was going to be a trifle more challenging than I had originally thought. It began to interfere somewhat with the ability to appreciate the breathtakingly beautiful landscape around me. And below.

As in, more than just a couple of hundred metres below me. That’s a lot of metres, as José barreled ahead once again, although his inquiries as to whether I was alright increased in frequency. We were now on this steep path, manoeuvering from one rock to another. I was holding on to these rocks as I walked, sort of, in order to ensure that whenever I did put a foot wrong I would not immediately plummet to my death: José was just answering another text message. A legendary Genesis tune popped into my head, Dance On A Volcano, the one that talks about blue and red crosses for your friends that didn’t make it through. It also contains the exhortation to not look back “whatever you do…”. It’s a fantastic piece of music that does little to steady the nerves when you are negotiating rocks on your way up to…

…another ledge. Looking down to the distance already covered and the receding village below was becoming a bit of a hair-raising business. Had I gone quite mad? Or was I being bold and determined? Whatever it was, José’s incessant texting was getting on my nerves but perhaps that’s why he did it in a bid to make me tell him to hurry up because by now I had just one goal in mind: to get to that bloody top up there. We were also above the clouds that were covering the ocean to the right of us. Indeed, the village had started to resemble something you see from an aeroplane. I promised myself that I was really going to admire the landscape once we had got, er, there

Which turned out not to be the summit proper. Right behind me (propped up against a rock and taking this pic) was a sheer rockface, still a good 300 metres or so above where I was. You need ropes and stuff to get there. I decided that this had been quite the climbing session for one day and that descending was now in order. Once the obvious exhilaration (Yes!!! I made it!!! Well, almost…) had cleared and I had managed to make myself a little comfortable as I looked at the ragged rocky landscape surrounding me while clouds started to move in – all pretty awe-inspiring stuff – the question was: OK,  we’re here now. What next?” We go down via the other side,” José announced casually.

Meanwhile another one of the locals who had passed me by on the way up as if he was strolling through a city park – a bit like the young French couple that had also overtaken us – ran down an ashy path back to his village. Not walked, ran. I supposed he’d be equally amazed at the ease with which women cycle around Ouagadougou with a huge bowl of freshly harvested strawberries on their heads and a child on their backs…

And then I looked over the ledge that marked the partition between two portions of this mountain and my heart skipped a beat. I was looking into a frighteningly deep hole. Smoke was rising from the bottom. So that’s where that smell was coming from! I had been imagining someone roasting a chicken for me but no… his was sulphur from the very source. Are we really going there?

“Follow me,” José said. And what followed was a surprisingly easy walk under that sheer rock that marked the volcano’s true summit, at least for now. I had no idea that these fire-breathing things were such complex geological compositions. But hey: I had more or less scrambled my way to the top and I was now going to beat a more dignified retreat, being well aware of the notion that when you put your foot wrong on the way down the risks are potentially even larger than on the way up.

Spoiler alert: I did not die.

We negotiated that ledge, got onto that easy path that was glued to the crater rim (only one small stretch of it had a railing made of metal to hold on to) and continued our descent past natural vents that José pointed out to me. Warm air streamed out of holes and crevices. “The volcano is respiring,” José assured me, as we left the heights behind where the clouds were swirling around the rocks. This is also the moment he told me that the next eruption would take place in 2024. “Remember, you heard it from me first.”

Ash Highway, José is speeding ahead of me

Then came a fun part: Ash Highway. No zig-zag walk this time, or negotiating ledges and all the rest, nope. Just plunge in and go down a vast black slope that has an angle of about 45 degrees. The ash will come up around your ankles and sometimes your lower calves but it will also facilitate your descent. It’s the quick way down and gets you covered in the kind of stuff volcanoes just love throwing out in huge quantities. Ash Highway ended near the crater that had been formed in the 2014 eruption and the closer I got to it the more I became aware of how blooming large this thing was. Certainly, it sits way below the summit on the floor of the oldest crater but it is massive and it just makes you realise how major that last eruption must have been seven and a half years ago.

The rest was relatively uneventful, as we walked (leisurely at last!) through this moon-like landscape, strewn with rocks. I was trying to imagine the extreme violence with which these must have been thrown out as the earth emptied its bowels over the villages in the caldera.

We got back to my lovely little place, José having done his routine trip (“Sometimes I go up and down three times a day…”) and me feeling quite humbled by the experience. Had I gotten rid of my fear of heights? Maybe I had just learned to deal with it slightly better. Although………

Back in the hotel, I heard from two other visitors that there was, in fact, a challenge that made the volcano look like that walk in the park. Turns out you can actually scale the outer crater rim and get to the second highest peak that is part of that rim, at a mere 2,692 metres. This includes 600 metres of almost vertical rockface. You have metal hooks and ropes to help you climb up. Once at the top you have a fairly conventional path all the way down to the road. “It’s really easy once you are there,” one of the visitors told me. “Of course, if you make one mistake you are dead.”

Quite.

Like the two I had seen walking up the volcano earlier this morning they had also been able to practice in their home country, Spain. Yes, you have serious mountains there, like this one here. Not fair.

José. Born here, working here as a guide. Runs a guest house too.

I’ll keep a safe distance from that outer rim, then. I am already pretty pleased with myself for having done the mountain and do not really have the ambition to push the envelope that much further. Or maybe…?

Naah. I’ll enjoy the pictures, including the ones I could not stop making, even when perched precariously (or so I thought) on a rocky outcrop. Because it is stunningly beautiful here.

Boots and brownshirts – conclusion

June 2, 2022

So is Ukraine a saintly country? No it is not. It was eye-wateringly corrupt in a way that makes it fit right in with those other well-known hotbeds of illicit financial practice – the former soviet Central Asian Republics, Russia itself, the United States or Nigeria. However, as of February 24 this year Moscow’s violent venal gangsters have made sure that Ukraine will be portrayed as the innocent victim, its inhabitants and the world at large rallying around it. To be sure: Ukraine is the victim of unprovoked aggression no matter the nonsense the propagandists are trying to sell you. But what happens with those who have been declare victims? Indeed: all their sins are whitewashed. This is what’s happening. 

In places like Eritrea, North Korea and indeed Russia itself there is no assessment of facts, no verification, just a constant spewing of mendacious sewage. Putin’s claim that he is “de-nazifying” Ukraine is on a par with the German claim that at 5h45 in the morning of September 1, 1939 they had started firing back into Poland, when in fact it was they who had invaded. It is on a par in terms of mendaciousness and criminal intent. 

Looking on a global scale there is a giant fascist hoover at work. It sucks in superficially disparate groups and movements and ideologies that want to take us all back. Back to the superstition and the quackery of the Middle Ages when it’s about public healthcare. Back to the inhumanity of slavery when it’s Dutch racists defending the hideously ugly invented ‘tradition’ of blackface in the first week of December every year. Back to a pure and pristine England that never existed and back to Empire with the Brexiteers. Back to the Soviet Empire with those that stand and applaud the destruction of Ukraine and the killing sprees in the CAR and Mali. Members of the Axis are nostalgic for the days of Apartheid, the good old colonial days when Africans knew their place. They can’t stand abortion either: women should give birth to fresh cannon fodder. 

It’s the Axis that runs through Marine le Pen, Brexit, Trump’s assault on the institutions of American democracy, Dutch small-time fascists like Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, violent Greek thugs that attack refugee camps, self-declared murderers in power like outgoing president Duterte of the Phillippines, or indeed self-declared so-called African Patriots who have no problem cosying up to the ultra rightwing Alternative für Deutschland party and – quelle surprise – the Kremlin, where 21st Century brownshirtism has found a strong power base backed by the Russian Orthodox Church. 

Axis rhetoric has also entered parts of Africa itself. You can see it in the messages of those who defend mass killings in Mali and the CAR…in the name of anti-colonialism. There are many arguments in favour of the departure of lingering vestiges of colonialism – particularly French – from the African continent, including the presence of troops, development aid and the dependency syndrome. I have often made this point. But the cheerleaders for pro-Russian “anti-colonialism” are cynically dishonest and the African continent already has its unfair share of cynical dishonesty: awful journalism, outright propaganda, half-truths and fake news. And as you have seen, it also has its unfair share of businesses making a killing in not one but two ways. We do not need more of this. No shadowy soldier or dodgy journalist will solve any problem or make anyone’s life any better. It is wishful thinking but I’ll say it anyway: the sooner these clowns and goons are gone, the better. 

Boots and brownshirts – part three

June 1, 2022
A pro-Russia street demonstration in Bamako. Image retrieved from Deutsche Welle.

Having veered to the extreme right in terms of ideological orientation the current entourage of Putin (and the boss himself) consider themselves very much the heirs of the old Soviet Empire in geopolitical terms. During the “Cold”* War the Soviet Union had strongholds in places as diverse as Angola, Ethiopia, Guinea, Algeria, Mozambique, Egypt and Somalia, although some of these changed allegiances as the result of domestic political changes: the death of a despot, a coup, a war, the end of a war, an election. 

(*The War was of course anything but “Cold” in places like Angola, SE Asia and parts of Central America where the two superpowers – USA and USSR – were either directly involved or used proxies for their bloody turf wars. The people living there ended up paying the ultimate price for someone else’s hegemony.)

But Russia today is not the old Soviet Union. Gone is the rhetoric about international socialist solidarity, however thin that ideological veneer was in reality. This Russia does not only want influence and geopolitical turf; it also wants resources and money. Wagner exemplifies this more than anything. It consists of old Soviet intelligence and combat veterans, who, like their political bosses have had no problem shedding the old altruistic mask and donning the much more hard-nosed mug of the businessman. Wagner first emerged in Syria in 2011 and resurfaced in Ukraine three years later, where it cut its teeth in the Crimea and the Donbass Region, as their friends in Moscow were stirring up trouble there. Like all mercenary outfits, Wagner likes trouble; it thrives there. 

Dubbed in Sango, the most widely spoken language in the CAR, the film heaps praises on the exploits of a Russian fighter nicknamed “Tourist” who helps fight anti-government rebels. Image retreieved from Algérie 24H

In Libya, Wagner was among a plethora of private military outfits that came in after the forced removal of strongman Muamar Ghaddafi in 2011, an act spearheaded by France under former president Sarkozy, aided by the USA and the UK and the rest of the NATO gang. It was an act I have described on numerous occasions  as criminal. 

Wagner found itself on the wrong side of history when it backed the renegade general Khalifa Haftar, an old pal of Ghadaffi’s (he took part in the 1969 coup that brought the then colonel to power). In the following decades he was spotted taking part in Ghaddafi’s numerous efforts to annexe a slice of Chad before turning against his former boss and ally. Haftar staged various of efforts to remove his old pal until 2011 when he finally got lucky, thanks to Sarkozy’s and NATO’s criminal insanity that brought chaos to Libya and the entire northwest corner of the African continent. In April 2019, some 1,000 Wagner operatives joined Haftar in his bid to take Tripoli. It all went badly wrong and an unknown number of Wagner fighters got killed. It is here also that the first allegations of serious human rights abuses – gratuitous killings especially – surfaced. 

In Sudan, Wagner was involved in a brutal crackdown of street protests against the continued rule of the mass-murderer Omar al-Bashir. They cooperated with an ultraviolent militia called the Rapid Support Force, formerly known as the Janjaweed, gunmen on horseback who terrorised the people of Darfur during Bashir’s assault on that region. Scores of demonstrators were killed but in the end it was to no avail: Bashir was finally removed in April 2019. Wagner received gold and diamond concessions as payment. Bashir also promised to fulfil another ancient Russian imperialist dream: a warm water naval base. It was not to be. Entirely not incidentally, the same Rapid Support Force partners with the European Union in its quest to have as many refugees hunted down and killed before they reach Europe, as my good colleague Linda Polman reveals in her book on Europe’s century-old Keep ‘Em Out policy.

In Madagascar one year earlier, the company tried to influence an election but failed to get their candidate into the presidential palace. It then quickly shifted support to the eventual winner Andry Rajoelina and managed to retain a chrome mine it had got its hands on. But it was a close shave. 

Another Wagner-linked propaganda film, this time about the firm’s heroics in Mozambique (it did not quite go as depicted). Image retrieved from Euractiv.com

“Badly wrong.” This is the phrase you’ll come to associate most with Wagner. Such was the case, for instance, in Mozambique. In late 2019 Wagner were asked to help eliminate a noxious jihad-motivated insurgency in the northern Cabo Delgado province. Wagner sent a few hundred of its operatives but their performance was so ruinous, culturally insensitive and incompetent that the Mozambican government sent them home. An unknown number of them had to be flown out in coffins. A South African outfit showed up there, too, the Dyck Advisory Group. Both of them were indistinguishable in their callous disregard for the human rights of any civilian having the misfortune to get into their crosshairs. This is true of all their African operations: wherever private military outfits like Wagner and others show up, war crimes are committed and go unpunished. 

Arguably, the Central African Republic (or CAR) represents something of a success story for  Wagner. In 2018 they got in, thanks to personal contacts between president Faustin Archange Touadéra, Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrow and Putin himself. Having successfully battled off rebels lead by former president François Bozizé who wanted prevent Touadéra’s re-election in early 2021, the group has been lionized by the political elites, the only ones that are actually profiting from said protection. Touadéra himself had special military advisor, Valeri Zakharov. His successor as of late 2020 is reported to be the equally shady Vitali Perfilev. In praise of their exploits, the Russians produced “Tourist”, a Hollywood-style propaganda film that was shown in the capital Bangui’s main stadium. In December 2021 president Touadéra himself inaugurated a monument in honour of the Great White Mercenary. Here again allegations of very serious human rights abuses (torture and extrajudicial killings among them) have surfaced. There is still fighting going on in many different parts of the CAR. 

Like its competitors Wagner is never there to stop the fighting; it is there to profit from it. It got its hands on mining concessions and probably some aid money, prompting the likes of the European Union to turn off the tap. Three Russian journalists were found mysteriously killed in the CAR as they were attempting to find out what the heck their armed and dodgy compatriots were up to.

In praise of another Great White Mercenary. Image retrieved from Quora.

Wagner latest war theatre, Mali is set to resemble that of the CAR. Mali came into the picture after the August 2020 and May 2021 coups and a rupture with France, the old colonial power that still has difficulty understanding that former colonies make their own decisions, however calamitous these decisions may be. Make no mistake:  letting Wagner into the country is calamitous – and deadly. Late March this year troops of the national army and their new Russian mentors went on a killing spree and left 300 civilians dead in the central market town of Moura, a crime Prigozhin’s troll army tried to pin on the French. No independent inquiry will be possible. The UN did investigate and pointed at French military culpability when in the central town of Bounty 17 were killed by airstrikes on January 3 last year. In Moura, no UN team will be investigating what happened and file a report; in fact, they are actively prevented from doing their work. The authorities do not permit any reporting that challenges the narrative that the army is going from strength to strength and only kills ‘jihadists’. 

Last part tomorrow

Boots and brownshirts – part two

May 31, 2022

The Ukraine that is currently being invaded and destroyed by the crop of Moscow gangsters that came into its own at the beginning of this century is a bit different from the one that was selling all those arms to Africa. The mafia that was removed in one of those colour-coded revolutions in 2014 was a factor, even though huge corruption problems remained, as expected. But the arms exports collapsed. In 2020, these were worth one-tenth of those a decade ago and the main recipient these days is China. By contrast, Russian arms sales to Africa have soared. 

Arms are one prime Eastern Bloc export; soldiers – or ‘instructors’ if you like – are another. Cast adrift by the seismic geopolitical shifts in their homelands three decades ago, they and their bosses were looking for a purpose, which they found by getting involved in wars abroad – not just the immediate neighbours like Georgia and later Ukraine but also further afield, starting with Syria. And then, in perfect tandem with Russia’s geopolitical designs, they descended on the African continent. 

image retrieved from Hindustan News Hub

What we have here is a replica of the old Soviet model: exporting arms and sending people that can teach the clients how to use them. The AK47 is the biggest selling weapon for a reason. It is cheap, easy to use and virtually indestructible. Countries as far apart as Mozambique and Mali still work with Soviet kit for the exact same reason. Today though, the Soviet model comes with a few modifications. First, the ‘instructors’ are performing other tasks. Second, they perform these tasks under the banner of an organisation that officially does not exist. Third, the non-existent company they work for employs a formidable geo-military propaganda machine. 

Wagner, the business started by Dmitri Utkin, a former intelligence operative with a fondness for the composer of the same name, does all of these things. The joke in security expert circles is that this officially non-existent company does not really need an address of its own because it already has one: Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Those in charge of Wagner and/or bankrolling it are close friends with the Russian president and capo di tutti capi, Vladimir Putin. 

Of course, Private Military Companies (I prefer the more succinct ‘mercenary outfit’) are nothing new in Africa. Arguably, the continent pioneered the model. Executive Outcomes, established in South Africa 1989 and consisting mostly of white veterans returning from Angola, is one of the oldest. 

And before that, we had individuals like the notorious French Bob Denard in Central Africa from the 1960s to the 90s, Indian-born Irishman Mike Hoare, Simon Mann and his Wonga Coup disaster. There are French, German, British and American outfits on the continent and activities are mostly centred on providing security and doing training missions, sub-contracted out by their governments. The US-based company DynCorp trained the Liberian army to some effect after the country’s ruinous 1989-2003 civil wars and was still vying for more lucrative contracts from the US government when it was gobbled up by another outfit, Amentum. Blackwater, another major American outfit (currently branded Academi) and its numerous offspring have acted as a logistics/security provider, army trainer, Praetorian Guard. Competition is cutthroat, as you can imagine. Some of their methods are also cutthroat. American mercenaries may have participated in combat in Somalia and the DR Congo. An Israeli outfit is said to have trained a notoriously violent army unit in Cameroon and we had UK freelancers fighting in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s and in Côte d’Ivoire the next decade.

Unsurprisingly, none of the five permanent members of the tragically mis-named United Nations Security Council has ever ratified the UN Convention against the recruitment, use, financing and training of mercenaries.

Wagner fits perfectly into this rogues’ gallery. Based on the template Blackwater and others provided, the Russian firm has taken things a few steps further. It combines four features: it is a business, it is directly and personally linked to the heart of power in Russia, it is consistently and emphatically involved in combat missions and it is a highly effective user of the internet as a weapon. In the countries where it operates, Wagner provides personal security for high-placed individuals, guards the assets it acquires in these countries and kills ordinary civilians. For this they get paid in cash or resources, on the African continent mainly in mining concessions, in other words the assets just mentioned. It is a good old colonial model. Unlike the competition, which tends to act as sub-contractors, Wagner gets paid in the countries where it operates.

Getting their hands on the client’s assets. Image retrieved from Deutsche Welle.

Politically, the majority of Wagner’s operatives – including its founder – hold (extreme) right-wing views, in line with their colleagues in the West and similar to those of the man in charge of Russia and his old pal Trump in the United States, who notoriously pardoned four Blackwater operatives convicted for atrocities they had committed in Iraq. Wagner’s financier and Putin confidante Yevgenyi Prigozhin runs troll factories like the Internet Research Agency and fills them with hyperactive peddlers of lies and deception on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some of the highest profile posters live comfortably in Europe while proclaiming themselves ‘Panafricanist’. Following the Kremlin’s mental acrobatics, they also feel very comfortable around brownshirt political party hacks across Europe; they use the same rhetoric. Don’t tell them that, though, they get upset when you say so. Years ago, before any of this became systemic, I had a Gbagbo propagandist walk out of an interview in Abidjan. On hearing his increasingly strident ‘patriotic’ rhetoric, I told him he sounded exactly like Jean-Marie Le Pen…

To be continued

Boots and brownshirts – part one

May 30, 2022

Ukraine dominates the news to such an extent that it has asphyxiated most other manmade tragedies. But the Russia-Ukraine story has tentacles on the African continent, so I have attempted to gather some thoughts, experiences, reports and ideas. 

Four burly men enter a smallish aeroplane, brand Antonov. The machine clearly has seen better days. On entering the cockpit, one of the giants turns towards the passengers. Blocking the door in its entirety with his huge frame, he goes: “Fasten seatbelts. No smoking. Have a nice flight.” The accent was heavily Slavic. I remember thinking “With these guys on board we may just have doubled our original weight…”. 

Plane, pilots and passengers ended up negotiating one of West Africa’s ferocious rainstorms. Everything about the plane was shaking and since there was rust visible in places where my layman’s brain thought it should not be I resolved to turn to any religion should we land safely, which we did. I promptly forgot about my promise. Sorry about that.

The pilots were Ukrainans. They still fly planes across the African continent, carrying everything and everyone, from UN personnel to diamond smugglers and arms dealers. 

After the demise of the old Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine, formerly a reluctant part of that old empire, went through a period of economic transformation engineered by the same Washington-based institutions that managed to destroy the livelihood of millions in Latin America, Asia and Africa, chiefly through the IMF-World Bank so-called Washington Consensus. But in contrast to its giant neighbour to the East, Ukraine managed to retain a fairly diversified economic base and did not come to rely so heavily on the export of one or two commodities. 

Volga-Avia_Antonov_An-24
In Soviet times, Antonov planes were produced in the Ukrainian capital Kiyiv

This breakneck speed restructuring, literally called ‘shock therapy’ and championed by the likes of the celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs, had one most discernible result. It was not the economic liberalisation that was promised. On the contrary. ‘Shock therapy’ ensured that huge chunks of profitable business activity fell into the hands of gangsters, often (not always but often) the same gangsters that had been running the one party state. The same happened on a very modest but equally ruinous scale in, for instance, Guinea, as you can read in my book (page 139 to 147 if you have a copy…).

One of the products both Russia and Ukraine are enthusiastic exporters of, is arms. Half of Africa’s weaponry now comes from Russia. In Ukraine, exporting deadly equipment was particularly strong during the years 2005-2010, when almost one-fifth of mostly small arms stockpiled there went to those hotbeds of human rights abuse like Sudan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, the DR Congo and Nigeria. Sub-Saharan Africa bought 11% of its arms from Ukraine in those years, according to SIPRI, the world’s most authoritative source on this subject. Rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and ammunition. Cheap light weapons from the former Eastern Bloc have been a curse on the continent for decades and a lot of these were supplied by Ukraine-based criminal syndicates that used Soviet-era planes to transport these arms and, sometimes, the men using them to places like diamond-rich Angola and Sierra Leone. That old rusty Antonov that flew me into Liberia all those years ago may well have been manufactured in the production facility in the Ukranaian capital Kiyiv. 

To be continued

A farewell to Harper (end)

April 11, 2022

Harper port offers some hope that things might get marginally better but the rest of the town fills me with sadness. Yes, we knew this ten years ago: that the homes would almost certainly never be rebuilt because once you have finished that job someone might show up with a document telling you that the house you have just restored is not yours… Nobody wants to risk kissing goodbye to their house and the investments they have made. So nobody bothers and Harper’s decay is unstoppable as a result. Atrocious governance, corruption and war…each can take the blame for causing this decaying ruin. 

Another abandoned house. Covered in graffiti, smelling of human faeces. When inside, be alert. It is entirely possible an armed somebody arrives, who can make you regret you ever entered…

By the way, Harper is slowly but surely becoming an Ivorian town, with the electricity, the food and many other products all coming from across the border. You will hear quite a bit of French, too. This is because the 1989-2003 wars sent thousands of Marylanders into Côte d’Ivoire. Today, getting supplies in is so much easier from Tabou, San Pedro and even Abidjan than it is from Monrovia… Anyway, back to the story…

Recording Lawrence’s band. Pic: Martin Waalboer

Here we were, ten or so years ago, in a small community centre, with electricity provided by a loud generator outside, whose decibels had to be drowned in music. This was achieved by cranking up the volume of the band to maximum distortion. It was triply apt that the song the band was rehearsing was Bob Marley’s “War”. First, because we were in a place that had been destroyed by not one but three wars. Second, because we were able to witness first-hand a rare post-war performance by a band. I had seen only one before, in 1998: the Kailondo Band, playing in the Kailondo Hotel, a Monrovia Old Road establishment that had been set up with money whose provenance was unclear. The owner of the hotel was also the band lead singer and not a very good one. The band’s repertoire consisted of one song. One, which to the delight of the crowd had highly salacious lyrics. What was less delightful was that this one tune with no chord changes at all was repeated three or four dozen times between say 10pm and 4am. Every night. The one thing these two bands had in common was the atrocious sound quality. 

The third reason was that Lawrence, the lead singer and guitar player freely confessed to having helped himself to food during those wars, just like so many others. ‘I didn’t want to do it,’ he explained during a break in the rehearsal, ‘but you know what it’s like: your stomach is the Boss.’ He spoke these words as I was interviewing him under what could easily be the most monumental tree in all of Harper. It stood outside the community centre and was home to an astonishingly large number of bats. A common sight in Ségou, Freetown, Abidjan…

But today, there are no bats to be seen because the tree has fallen. Closer inspection reveals that it had been completely hollowed out. Nothing could have saved it. The building on whose roof the tree seems to have landed is the Community Hall, where we filmed and photographed and recorded Lawrence…

And that is somewhat symbolic for the state of Harper. As we walk away from the town’s centre looking for transport, someone in a tricycle taxi sees us and proceeds to make gun gestures,  pretending to shoot us. A madman (a zogo? Impossible to tell) hurls abuse whilst following us until he tires of his pointless game. We pass a palm wine place. It looks uninviting, with a few early guests listlessly hanging around a table. It’s all rather depressing.

Harper cannot be rescued, let alone restored to its former glory; it does not want any of those things. One could argue, as many have done, that the wars made visible the rot that was already present in a society that had been lying to itself about its origins and destination. Neglect is currently finishing the job those wars started. The Dream Called Harper is in the process of being buried under a thick layer of indifference…

What remains are the stories. There are so many of them and we only managed to capture a few. Stories about the businesswoman who ran a bar and a guest house, about another who lost all of her wares when the ship carrying them sank on the way from Monrovia; about all the other ships that perished along this coast; about the unforgettable Melita Gardner; about the ladies selling food and drinks and managing to survive just after the wars; about the aspiring activist/politician and the Ecobank branch he used to manage; about the old open air coffee place, the darkly mysterious tailor in his workshop, the American aid worker and his short-lived Beach Resort and Bar, the friendly policeman at Harper Port, the town historian Simulja Dweh Wernah at Hoffman Station, about radio enthusiast and now company spokesman Martin Nyeka, the folks and scenes at “NGO Hill”, the excellent food at the UNMIL Pakistani contingent (PakBatt, long gone of course), the Ivorian pro-Gbagbo refugees taking up the streets leading to the PakBatt barracks and playing their coupé-décalé and zouglou. And that’s just for starters. 

These stories, we hope, will eventually find their way into a book we would like to produce, as an incomplete record of this town and its incredible history. But another visit? Well, to paraphrase that old Leiber and Stoller song: I’m not ready for another disappointment…

Retrieved from Africanistpress.com April 2020. Unfortunately the piece accompanying this picture is badly written and riddled with mistakes. Let me pick out just two: contrary to what the piece claims the Doe regime received more US aid than any other Liberian government and secondly, the civil war in Liberia was – sadly and emphatically – not the first one to break out in the West African sub-region. 

A farewell to Harper (3)

April 2, 2022

Maryland Avenue, as you approach downtown Harper

And now it is March 2022 and Martin and myself are catching a bus from Pleebo into Harper. We’re feeling excited; after all, getting into Harper on a bus is already special but doing so on a scheduled service gliding over a tarred road while popular music blares from its many speakers is extra special, we cannot deny it. The bus is part of a larger consignment of public transport vehicles, a gift from India. The trip is uneventful, as is the unmarked terminus, at the spacious and pretty Tubman University Campus. The entrance into town feels familiar but as the walk progresses, from one old familiar spot to another, spirits start to sink. Especially when the optimism that still held as late as 2010, when the idea that somehow this gem of a town could still be rescued and maybe even restored, slowly gives way to despondency. 

Things have deteriorated. A lovely open air coffee place where you could have an excellent breakfast? Gone. The Ecobank branch with the off-and-on ATM, depending on the satellite connection? Turned into a house. The bank branch is now in Pleebo. The famous Tubman home, a landmark in downtown Harper owned by the nephew of the late president? Falling apart, but still inhabited by tenants, who pay their rent to the owner who lives…in Monrovia. 

To be fair, opposite that house is a new coffee place, run by an efficient young man who uses only the barest minimum number of words necessary to do his work. But this is one of the very few new developments in town. Our walk, first intended to be a festively nostalgic link-up with the Harper we knew, is getting progressively more disappointing. The seaside open air restaurant and bar? Replaced by a walled-in restaurant. The Masonic Temple, symbolically perched on a hill looking down on downtown Harper and on to Cape Palmas? Caving in. But the lighthouse, which was reported to have disappeared, has not moved. The light has, though. It is rumoured to have been carted off to Tabou, in Côte d’Ivoire, where it is working…

The compound next to the lighthouse used to house staff working for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL); we stayed there, too. And the main UNMIL building, pictured here, stands empty and unused; the mission folded in March 2018, after fifteen years. It can arguably be considered one of the UN’s relatively rare peacekeeping success stories. Nearby is the police station, opposite the regional administration building. In its large front yard a wrecked car sat for years on end. That car has finally been removed but the police station is now flanked by at least two vehicles (both foreign gifts, of course) that have clearly run their last mile – all tyres are flat. 

zogo headquarters?

Transport problems are ubiquitous for the police force. That is one reason they are unable to do anything about the latest menace to hit Harper and indeed the entire country. On the longish but always pleasant leisurely walk to the Cape and that lighthouse, we are accosted by an unknown busybody demanding what we are doing here. None of your business; this is a public road. He had emerged from the former seaside home of Liberia’s 19th president and was not the only rather unsavoury and mistrustful individual to hang around that building. The explanation for this unforeseen and unwanted unpleasantness was located just a few metres away and across the road. One of those ghostly buildings, destroyed by a rebel group had been adorned with fresh graffiti. 

I remember the old graffiti, left behind by the fighting gangs in the 1989 – 2003 wars. But this had nothing to do with those wars. The authors of these new slogans are unlikely to have any active recollection of these wars: too young or not even born. Yet they carry the same kind of rage, reeling against a system that does not work for them, a self-serving elite that does not listen to them, a future that holds no purpose for them. Excluded, they invent their own lifestyle, which revolves around drugs and crime. In many ways, they are the continuation of the notorious Small Boys Unit, the drugged-up fighting force Taylor had invented to terrorize the country with. But today, and as a sign of these times, there is just nihilism, no leader and not even a cause to pretend-advance. Just nothing. 

“Zogos” they are called and they have turned parts of Harper and many other places around Liberia (and of course its capital in particular) into no-go zones. They steal, break into cars or rob people on their way from store to home to market to wherever. They may even kill you for a few dollars. They stampeded their way into a church just outside Monrovia in January and killed 29 in their quest for money and loot. 

A small section of what will be a larger port

As things stand today, Harper port may well be the only economic activity set for an increase, as the hinterland starts producing more palm oil. This may generate new jobs at the port. After all, the only economically viable method of transport is by ship; while there is now a paved road all the way to Fish Town (130 kilometres away), the rest is the same sandy muddy nightmare it’s always been.  

But the chances that these boys in their ghostly hideaways will get their hands on any of these jobs is virtually nil. And then what? It is an uncomfortable question to ask; attempting to answer it can turn distressing really quickly.