A plea for accuracy – 5 and end

December 16, 2018

Here it is, then: the last instalment of my brief end-of-year reflection…

Yes, I can hear the objections, as in: what we are seeing today are all baby steps towards fascist rule. Let’s be clear about this: in the context of the ruin that was 1920s and 30s Europe, the rise of fascism was swift and ruthless. The defences were down and thus the disease could spread rapidly. While there are definitely signs of the disease present in today’s society, there are institutional and even personal defences in place to prevent it from taking over the body politic.

None of this means we should let down our democratic guard. But vigilance is helped enormously by proper analysis and this is in extremely short supply. Analysis is often replaced by emotion-charged muddled thinking, resulting in rants where institutional organisation (the separation of powers), civil society (media and trade unions) and the political process are mixed up and/or misrepresented; locate the opinion section in pretty much any edition of The Guardian for a sample. From this whirling maelstrom of confusion we are supposed to gain a sense of impending doom without being handed the tools to prevent it – but we get to acknowledge that we readers, like the author, are all on the (politically) correct side of history. Because Orange Man Bad. Or something.

These rants are symptomatic of Western society’s therapeutic tendencies. The comments under such articles frequently reinforce the belief that we’re seconds from Fascist End Times and Eternal Darkness is about to descend upon is, the next Hitler has arrived… Hyperbole has replaced clear-headed thinking. But this is not the 1930s and we are not in Germany or Italy. It is deeply depressing to have to point out this simple fact.

Fascism is not “a policy I disagree with”, neither is it “an elected leader who does not represent my preferences”. As long as those elected leaders can be removed – and there is zero evidence that this has become impossible – you may have elected leaders with unsavoury ideas and bad manners but you do not have a fascist in the house.  The idea that parliamentary democracy can be abolished overnight, Europe 1930s fashion, betrays a shocking lack of faith in well-established institutions: checks and balances, parliamentary control, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, strength of civil society, the lot.

Intellectual rigour is vital, especially when the open sewer known as social media leaks its effluvium every minute of the day and newspapers (supposedly of record) are all too frequently caught serving a false narrative. The Fourth Estate is most certainly in great need of some re-appraisal and must re-assess its position and especially its role as the broadcasting arm of some political party – or tendency. This has been a creeping and pernicious tendency. Remember Bush and Blair’s WMDs? A piece of utterly cynical fakery that ended the life of a British weapons expert with impeccable credentials, Dr David Kelly, by his own hand. Everyone went along for the dishonourable ride that ended up giving the world ISIS. And does anyone still think that removing Ghadaffi from power in Libya was the brilliant and necessary idea everyone told us it was? None of the main players in these pieces of disgusting geopolitical theatre has ever apologised, let alone been brought to justice. None of those players now crying “fascism” at every turn – and peddling the latest tale, this time tinged with bouts of hysterical Russophobia – have any lessons to teach us about morality or political integrity. Oh and just to be sure: neither does the other side. I am an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

It is useful to know who and what you are dealing with. To describe the enemy accurately makes tackling the problem easier. Resurgent groups that are recycling fascistic themes most decidedly are the enemy. They lie, they solve nothing and invariably end up making life miserable for everyone. But an attack with terminology that no longer has any meaning renders that struggle more difficult. ‘You keep using that word…’ If we stop mindlessly throwing it around, then I think this piece has served its purpose. An early and excellent 2019 to you all.

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A plea for accuracy – 4

December 15, 2018

So what about today, 73+ years after the end of World War Two? Today, we have populism, the Far Right and the alt-right, all of which use the themes we discussed. Real or perceived loss (usually regarding ill-defined vague fuzzy concepts like “our culture”, “our tradition” or “our identity”), the idea of some mythical resurrection and the Not Like Us parts are all represented in their rants. We certainly have the charlatans (Wilders and Baudet in the Netherlands, Johnson and Farage in the UK) and we have the charlatans who got themselves elected, among them the current head of state of the USA and a bit further afield the con artists who run The Philippines, Turkey and Brazil; you can argue that Poland and Hungary have joined this group of like-minded rogues.

They don’t like parliamentary democracy very much. Their preference lies – in ascending order – with:

1 – cheap propaganda (Take Back Control. Holland Is Our Country. In The Name Of The People. Make America Great Again.)

2 – referenda that offer simple Yes-No answers to complex questions (Brexit, migration, Ukraine’s accession to the EU)

3 – political theatre (from the fishing boats debacle on the River Thames prior to Brexit all the way to Turkey’s staged failed coup) and

4 – gratuitous violence (Duterte’s unlawful execution of supposed criminals comes to mind).

This works because people can still not be bothered to educate themselves in politics but are ready to go along with the ride, any ride – as long as it’s cheap and simple. This is, let there be no mistake, a dangerous cocktail and from history we know that none of this ends well. Ever.

***

However, we’re not three minutes away from Kristallnacht. There is no evidence of a concerted effort to get hold of the levers of the State through organised violence coming from one single Party. Some are dreaming of it, for sure, but it’s not happening. The reason, looking most especially at the countries in the West, is excessively simple: there aren’t enough people desperate enough to become incorporated in violent vigilante units. To be sure, life can be pretty bad for some but we are nowhere near the calamitous state Europe was in at the end of World War One. Quite the opposite: in spite of the Yellow Vest protests exploding all over France and perhaps elsewhere an honest report must highlight the simple fact that most of the folks living in the West are pretty damn well off. (Looking at The West from a West African perspective my own private take of those last four words is less charitable: they’re Spoilt Rotten.)

Today, fascistic themes come from the boredom and nihilism of prolonged and seemingly endless affluence, not from existence-threatening destitution. Given this context, far-right claims should be childishly easy to counter because they are what they have always been: stuff and nonsense. Take, for instance the blatant falsehoods currently spread over the Marrakech compact, which does not enshrine migration in law but simply re-hashes in a non-binding fashion existing agreements.

But instead of dismissing this childish populist nonsense with the contempt it deserves, we start screaming our heads off and shouting “Fascist!” at people we disagree with of feel slighted by. These are signs, as I mentioned in a similarly intended post six years ago, of a deeply narcissistic society that’s is not in search of solutions or the truth – but in search of therapy. Calling these right-wing fantasists “fascists” makes the callers feel good about themselves and makes the fantasists thus addressed feel more important than they actually are. The fact that the call is historically inaccurate is what gave rise to this blog.

If, for instance, the United States were now run by a fascist government as is claimed by some, the Constitution would have been suspended, the Supreme Court subordinated, Congress made into a rubber stamp or done away with altogether, media made to broadcast the same Party-approved message, protesters locked up, tortured, killed or disappeared. To be sure, horrific policies are carried out against immigrants and the underprivileged (in a class sense, of course) but sadly this is not unique to the USA. The EU does exactly the same: not only has it written off roughly one-fifth of its population as being unworthy, uneducated, unemployable and thus of no use, it has also militarised its southern border into an anti-migrant fortification. This is dangerous. But we do not have the large-scale top-down state-organised brainwashing and violent repression that characterise a totalitarian fascist state. Only North Korea appears to copy the model successfully…in the name of a family dynasty that pretends to spread socialism.

Concluding remarks shortly.

A plea for accuracy – 3

December 10, 2018

Next installment of my brief end-of-year reflection…I have hesitated about this theme, writing and then re-writing bits of the entry that follows but I do feel it needs to be put out there. I had cut it up in smaller parts…four when I started – but for reasons of legibility (and because I keep re-working stuff) there are now five parts. I promise that’s where it will stay.

 

As the previous section suggests, Fascism is above all: organisation. There is no comprehensive fascist ideology but there are themes. Taken together, these themes produce a poisonous cocktail. In the 1920s and 30s, fascist leaders capitalised on the twin themes of national humiliation/demoralisation and national resurrection to capture their audiences. The Italian Benito Mussolini personally made the Odyssey from editor-in-chief of Avanti, the socialist party’s paper, to the leadership of the fascist party. An Austria-born amateur painter and World War One front soldier came back to a destroyed German Empire and wrote an overlong book about his struggle.

Both argued that The Nation must be made strong again. The way to do this is through organised coercive violence. The Party and its (visionary) Leader are there to bring this about for a deserving demoralised populace. And this is the third theme.

Filling the void

In both countries, the idea of The Nation got bound up with the demographic that historically was supposed to have owned that nation, hence the reference to that supposed organic unity of Ancient Rome, Blood and Soil in the German version. Indeed, this is about The People: that mythical, constructed, artificial – and above all pure – in-group. It is hardly surprising that fascism (certainly in the German variety) places great emphasis on the wholesome life outside the cities, in the natural idyll of the unspoilt natural countryside.

Once Nation, People, Party, Leader and State are declared to be the same, everybody else falls outside that frame. First the dissenters: the socialists, the communists, the anarchists, the writers, musicians – jazz was infamously declared to be “degenerate art” -, playwrights and other artists, the clergy who questioned the New Faith. They were the first inmates of the concentration camps. Then came everyone else considered “Not Like Us.” The Jews, but also the Roma, Asians, Africans, gays and lesbians…all were brutally attacked by party militias and physically destroyed by the repressive machinery of the Party-controlled State.

It should be clear, then, that the nature and organisation (and to a lesser extent the thematic underpinnings) of this self-perpetuating death machine made territorial expansion unavoidable. The machine needs constant feeding. The lands outside The Nation are full of people “Not Like Us,” therefore they can be subjugated and humiliated in our holy quest for more resources and Living Space.

Flight/Conquest

In Central Europe, the war began on September 1, 1939 with a classic piece of fake news. Hitler claimed that the Poles had attacked, and then he inserted this infamous little phrase: ‘Since 5h45, fire is being returned.’ In their conquests, the Germans could fall back on the “expertise” they had gathered during their colonial reign; some of the worst criminals who had participated in the destruction of the Herero and Nama peoples in Namibia effortlessly found their way to the German fascist party. The Italians crossed the Mediterranean and set foot on Libyan soil…after all, the Romans had been lord and master on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea – and most of Western Europe. In their attempt to imitate the ancient empire, Italian colonisers got their hands on Eritrea and Ethiopia. In 1937 they carried out an appalling atrocity, killing thousands of people in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, an infamy that is described in this book. 

***

To sum up then, we have three simple, self-centred navel-gazing themes to seduce a pauperised population and gain power, we have violence and terror-based dictatorship to consolidate that power once obtained and we have wars of conquest to gain more power and fresh resources. Never the question arises whether or not this “model” is sustainable. History teaches us that it isn’t. It eats itself.

Banning says, and I agree with him, that at heart there is no coherent ideology. Fascism fills a void and it fills it with raw, naked, undiluted, violent, cynical power, exercised by people who are often unable to excel anywhere else. The Italian and German fascist parties attracted criminals, misfits and failures who jumped on the fast train to power until it inevitably hit the buffers, leaving the two Great Leaders exposed as the charlatans they were. Both men and their short-lived projects came to violent ends.

Now fast-forward…

A plea for accuracy – 2

December 6, 2018

Here’s part Two, then…

 

In this ruinous context, two ideologies vied for supremacy, both initially against the capitalism that had been the main cause of this violent catastrophe. But while one – Socialism – preached the wholesale smashing of the system through solidarity of the working classes, the other veered in the opposite direction and became Fascism, a reference not to solidarity but the exact opposite: circumscribed unity and power, intended to exclude. Its symbol became the tightly-knit bundle, fascis, in Latin, the language of Ancient Rome.

What, if anything, can we say about Fascism, looking at its behaviour while it straddled the political landscape of two European countries? Banning explains.

First, Fascism rejects parliamentary democracy. Even though it may come to power in a more or less democratic context, the minute it arrives, democracy gets tossed in the bin. Which brings us to the second key feature.

Fascism is not merely dictatorial, it is profoundly totalitarian. The locus of power is The Party. The Party dominates life and has a symbol of its power: The Leader. Loyalty and obedience to both are non-negotiable. Fascist parties in Italy and Germany maintained their own militias to suppress dissent, used secret police to terrorise the population. They had no hesitation to bring swift and extreme violence to bear on anyone perceived a threat. All of these were highly visible early on, while the parties aspired to grab power for themselves.

A gathering storm

Third, and as an extension of that violent totalitarian practice, Fascism has one way and only one way to resolve the problems it is supposed to address. The twin problems in Europe at the time were mass unemployment and widespread pauperisation in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. The solution was, inevitably, War. Italy and Germany created industries that gobbled up the jobless and spewed out war machines that were subsequently used in the areas considered ripe for conquest. And of course, you could get rid of your excess youth (young men, essentially) by sending them away in huge numbers and hoping – or making sure – most of them never came back. The machine was unstoppable until the rest of the world assembled an even greater force and took them on.

Central to fascist organisation is the State, which in this model serves the Party. Only the State can enforce discipline on an entire population, unleash terror on a massive scale, assemble an army and organise the nation’s economy around the war effort. And only the State is large enough to roll out the totalitarian program across all spheres of life, as demanded. The State made workers, soldiers, politicians, educators, media workers, trade unionists, lawyers and judges, even scientists and the clergy bow to the will of the Party. Those who refused found themselves locked up in a police cell, a torture centre, a concentration camp or simply disappeared, never to be seen again.

But where should they bow? What the hell is the idea?

That’s for the next installment.

A plea for accuracy – 1

December 4, 2018

For an end-of-year reflection I am taking a short break from matters West African although it is not unrelated… I have hesitated about this theme, writing and then re-writing bits of the entry that follows but I do feel it needs to be put out there. It’s long, so I have cut it up in four smaller parts. Whenever you’re ready…

 

Here’s a word that is being bandied about with wild abandon. It reminds me of that film quote:

‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’ It’s my deepening irritation about the over-use of this word, misinformed by a complete lack of historical context. The word is: Fascism.

I have in my luggage a classic from my political science classes. The book is entitled “Contemporary Social Movements” (or Hedendaagse sociale bewegingen, to quote the original title) by the Dutch religious sociologist and pacifist Willem Banning. His descriptions of these social movements, both religious and secular, are succinct and to the point.

The first print run appeared as Europe was sliding towards what would become World War Two. An adapted version was published after 1945, and that is the one I have access to. Banning describes and evaluates the destructive movement, Fascism, as it rose and fell in Italy and Germany.

It’s instructive to go back to this, because we are bombarded with phrases that suggest the 1930s are back, World War Three is around the corner and the entire Western world is in the grip of an extreme right-wing wave that will lead straight to the resurrection of the gas chambers and the concentration camps. Well, are we? Let’s examine the Beast.

Fascism appeared as a political force after World War One (1914-1918), which was a giant European fight for global turf. European nations’ collective heads had crashed into various walls. Limits, more accurately. Limits to economic growth, limits to colonial expansion and limits to its rampant capitalism. As a result, Europeans lunged at each other’s throats for four years and at the end of it some 11 million people lie dead. Also dead: three empires: Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany. Another one, Russia, had a bloody revolution and two others (France and Great Britain) had fatally injured themselves and many of their subjects in Asia and Africa. The European void was both physical and spiritual. World War One buried the 19thCentury and its notions of societies moving inexorably forwards. The space left open was taken up by a new, confident and optimistic kid on the block – America (which, one century on, is in the process of being overtaken by China).

 

Part Two shortly.

 

 

The circus came to town

August 21, 2018

We were crossing the river using what’s known here as The First Bridge and were looking at the water. What on earth was that, floating on the slow majestic flow of the Djoliba?

A portrait. On closer inspection it was a picture of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, or IBK, attached to two pinasses. Irresistible photo obviously.

‘Ah look! Boua dans l’eau!’ The image of Boua, the old one, an at times affectionate at times not-so-friendly term for the 73-years old Keïta, floating in the water had a few connotations that were probably unintended by the advertising agency that came up with the idea. The idea was to present IBK as the Messiah, hands and gaze tilted skywards. And so he appeared on thousands of billboards. Sure enough, this floating image should conjure up images of a Saviour walking on the water, even though the biblical connotation would probably be lost in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

But my friend and colleague saw the image as a re-election campaign coming to an ignominious end, with Mali’s president ending up many miles downstream, lost in the Delta as the water made its way to the Atlantic.

That clearly did not happen.

Mali’s 2018 election, and especially the excessive amounts of boredom it engendered, has prompted another question: what’s the use of this circus? And that’s what I’d like to probe in this piece.

Elections are an industry. The costly campaigns, the expensive election material, the expensive logistics of getting it in place in a country many times the size of France with major security issues and a crumbling infrastructure. Twenty-four candidates took to traversing the country, holding rallies, paying for ads, making videos. And then there was the security apparatus, necessary to create (a semblance of) order and at the end the – now mandatory – accusations of unfair play, invariably launched by the losing side. Boua did it when he lost in 2002 and 2007, his main challenger Soumaïla Cissé does it now. The two final contenders are both every inch a product of the same system that has brought Mali its current and particularly odious cocktail of political rot.

And then we haven’t even mentioned the many journalists (including yours truly) covering the circus, the many pundits and experts and hacks and wonks pontificating about What This Means to Mali, West Africa, the Planet and the Universe.

Elections like these also attract a most curious cottage industry, brought to you by the international donor community that has decided to fund this circus. We have voter education campaigns. NGO activity goes into overdrive. And we have observers. Everybody and his cat and canary flies in, takes up space in expensive hotels, occupies rooms in conference centres for meetingsworkshopsmoremeetingsandconferences. There is some benefit to certain sectors of the economy. After all, folks eat in (expensive) restaurants, they drink in (expensive) bars, may buy a few (cheap) souvenirs, that sort of thing. If you called them luxury tourists you would not be far off the mark.

Press waiting in a Bamako voting station for the EU Observer Mission leader to arrive. This part of town is also where some Big Shots come to vote – hence the top heavy security. Compare and contrast with another voting station, later. Pic by Attino Doumbia.

In spite of their patchy knowledge of the country, its history, its political mores and particularities, observers are increasingly becoming the arbiters of these elections, even though they carefully avoid any judgement concerning the result. (The UN, operating a very costly and underwhelmingly successful mission in Mali has refrained from making any comments, still stung by its Côte d’Ivoire experience when they were called in to certify the elections and promptly accused by the losing side of backing Fraud/France/Uncle Fred. So they have smartened up a bit.)

Increasingly acting like royalty, the observer folks from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the International Organisation of La Francophonie, Democracy Heaven, Free and Fair Paradise send a few handfuls of observers to the safe parts of the country. Their findings they then put into handy statements that get read out by that other ritualistic element, very much part of this circus: The Press Conference (see picture above). Strangely enough, this observer element appears to be entirely absent in what is in all probability the most epically corrupt political system in the world; I am of course referring to the United States.

OK, I’ll grant you this. There is one thing a West African and an American election do have in common: they are won or lost with money. In this neck of the woods, anything up to three euros will do the trick. If you’re a smart citizen, you take cash from all sides and still make your own decision.

Street where the losing candidate’s portrait adorned every lamppost…

You can send fifteen armies of observers into the country, this will not change. And hence you hear observers having conversations in their hotels, their bars, their restaurants, their lounges and wherever else about all sorts of things – except what they’re here for. Office gossip, the new car they’ve just bought, house prices in Generic Suburbia Somewhere, anything but the experience of having to watch weird elections in some place or other. This makes perfect sense. None of them know Mali, let alone understand it. And next week it’s Peru. Or Cambodia. Or Malawi. Like the swarms dispatched here by the aid industry, they have loyalty to the organisation that sends them, never to the countries that received them. Exceptions duly noted.

And what’s the popular response to all this? This:

This, you may believe it or not, was a polling station in one of Bamako’s most densely populated areas. In full view of this was an elaborate and very well attended wedding going on, a rather precise indication of peoples’ priorities. However, and this is absolutely crucial to understand: an elected head of state in countries thus “observed” derives a great deal of legitimacy from the statements by the likes of AU, ECOWAS, OIF and especially the EU, the world’s largest aid donor. Even if nobody shows up to actually give you that strangest of things…a popular mandate. This is a circus, conducted for the benefit of foreigners.

On a day in August, the Ministry of Territorial Administration (part of Mali’s bewildering election architecture, but that’s another story) declared Boua the definitive winner. When that pronouncement had been made, I found myself walking between the elegant ministerial complex known as the Cité administrative and a road system designed to decongest this part of the capital, which it sometimes manages to do. Speeding along a bridge came one of Bamako’s ubiquitous green minibuses, with music blaring from its loudspeakers. It was covered in campaign posters and playing one of those forgettable campaign songs, written for the occasion. A monotonous beat with a disembodied auto-tune non-voice (omnipresent and toe-curlingly awful) intoning endlessly ‘IBK…IBK…IBK…’. The initials of Boua. No-one was following the minibus. It sped in and out of sight on its own, ignored by all.

Well before the poll was over the posters were already fading from view. A roundabout in Kalaban Coura, Bamako, late July.

That lone minibus and this roundabout. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate the futility of it all. Much will be made of a 35% voter turnout. Democracy will be pronounced to have been consolidated. But in truth, the vast majority of Malians did not vote, realising the extent to which this entire circus is irrelevant to their lives. And this is happening in a country that gave the world a unique Magna Carta of its own, in the form of the 13thCentury Mandé Charter, or Kouroukan Fouga, an enumeration of the rights and duties of a citizen, part of the the world’s human intellectual heritage. Surely, with its millennium-old history, Mali can do better than maintaining an expensive political bubble based on a colonial model propped up by foreign money and symbolically re-constituted every five years in a ritual virtually nobody believes in?

Learning to appreciate Africa – in a Dakar school

April 29, 2018

Nine and a half years, just after I had moved into my Dakar Yoff Ouest Foire apartment under pretty dramatic circumstances, I went out to explore my new neighbourhood. A few hundred metres from my street, slightly tucked away by the side of the street but otherwise easy to find was this restaurant.

restaurant Figo

Figo. It would soon become my second living room, with two important differences: this one had WiFi and served food.

Atouman Diagne and Fatoumata Bathily, the couple running the restaurant, were working in similar establishments in Italy when they met. They made plans. Plans to start something similar back home: a smart place in an area where there was a shortage of smart places – Yoff Ouest Foire was just such a neighbourhood: upwardly mobile residents at night, office workers during the day. In one word: a market.

Resto Figo opened its doors not very long before I had arrived and I rapidly became first a client, then a regular, then a friend and finally – as we joked frequently – part of the furniture.

restaurant Figo

This and previous pic: Martin Waalboer. The loveliest people in the world. Fatoumata, Atouman and in the middle their eldest son, Aziz, who’s quite a bit bigger now and has a few siblings…

Atouman and Fatoumata have ideas that go way beyond serving lunch, pizzas and dibi, a local speciality that consists of a pile of roast meat with mustard and spices. One of these offshoots is a primary school, called Arcobaléno (Rainbow), which serves kids from this upwardly mobile neighbourhood. I once spent a delightful few hours there making an ass of myself as I was getting the kids to sing…er…Jingle Bells. In English. (At the school’s request, may I add in my defence.)

But on a more serious note, there was something bothering Fatoumata as she went about setting up and running the school and working out the educational program. Where was Africa?

The children, she told me, at the Arcobaléno, and indeed elsewhere, were of the opinion that there was nothing of any value to find in African history or culture. This was genuinely shocking but at the same time understandable when you are, say, five or six and grow up in a household that will without any doubt serve up generous portions of that uniquely Senegalese delicacy known as thieboudieun (literally: rice and fish) but where the television will be tuned to France24 for the news, Youssou N’Dour’s TFM or the absolutely execrable Paris-based TRACE Africa for entertainment and to TV5 in the morning for an endless parade of hugely irritating (but that’s just me), mostly American, French overdubbed cartoons, something a few Burkinabè friends are trying to remedy. 

What to do? Enter these two.

IMG_7258

You know, there are, to be sure, loads and loads and loads of mass-produced soaps from Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Burkina Faso and there is of course the colossal Nigerian film industry, which travels quite well – literally, as you can be sure to come across a Nigerian film once you get on one of the region’s many intercity buses.

But switch on a television set in a city across this continent and the lack of African characters will strike you. Television is, increasingly, people’s principal source of info and entertainment and it has an absolute dearth of material reflecting life on the continent and especially directed at children. This is the gap that the producers of Kady & Djudju are trying to fill. The idea is Fatoumata’s; an entire team works on the realisation of the characters, the clips and the series.

This is for kids, who are not used to seeing characters on their little screens at home who look like them. This is why these two are so important.

The first series was broadcast on national television, RTS. The videos dealt with a lot of practical things: waste, recycling, keeping safe on the streets… The one that got tongues wagging dealt with a subject Senegal has been busy sweeping under the carpet for years: organised child begging.

For the producers, this series of practical issues are important but they are also an entry point. Next step: showcasing, highlighting and getting young children to appreciate the richness of their own continent, its people, its history, its heroes and heroines (like this one I published recently) achievements, stories and why not – natural beauty.

Well, that’s precisely what they are doing – in their own school…and this event, which happened just a stone’s throw away from my old apartment gave me the chance to talk to you about this important and extremely necessary work. Here’s hoping I can continue to be of use.

And Figo? Well, judging from a visit only seven months ago I’d say: looking better than ever. It’s got a proper roofed terrace now and a small stage where people perform at times. The thieb is still there, as are the pizzas, the dibi and of course the bissap, West Africa’s perfect answer to thirst.

So here’s to you Atou and Fatima – and hope to see you all again soon!

After Oxfam

February 12, 2018

Jesus Hieronymous Christ, just when you think the tin ear could not possibly become tinnier you have Oxfam’s Chief Executive on hearing about the exploding sex scandals and the possibly resultant de-funding by the government saying that…

…Oxfam would “carry on delivering as best we can, because that’s what the people of Yemen, Syria, Congo and indeed Haiti need and deserve”.

Who on god’s green earth appointed you the adjudicator of that? Have you asked the people of Yemen, Syria and Congo? Yes, there is an enormous difference between helping people in deep distress as a result of war and natural disasters on the one hand – and “doing development” on the other. Emergency aid started in the 19C Crimea War, gave us Florence Nightingale, a budding humanitarian effort that went on to create the Red Cross and an eternal debate about emergency aid, neutrality (unattainable in my view) and politics.

The people in Yemen, Syria and Congo are in severe distress – in the case of Yemen as a result of barbaric action by a key client of UK-manufactured arms. Congo can equally be said to be somebody else’s proxy war, exacerbated by extremely complex local politics and the presence of vital minerals in the ground. Syria is arguably the same, minus the minerals as far as I can see.

But the point here is this: I have heard the very same rhetoric about needs and delivery in respect of what you may call “ordinary” development work. The planning of development overwhelmingly does not involve the people affected and I have even heard policy makers in those development bureaucracies arguing against giving their intended recipients a say. This is not doing development, sorry. This is, at the deepest level, a colonial mindset at work, which I once summarised like this: ‘the natives must first be studied and then improved’. Sure, all with the best of intentions but that only helps to remind me of Michael Maren’s The Road To Hell (a book you should read).

Only a few short days ago I mentioned on Facebook the idea of having tort legislation introduced in relation to designing development projects, with a reference to the criminally disruptive Structural Adjustment Programs. Abdourrahmane Sissako’s film Bamako depicts this in a Malian home court. Now, we hear that Haiti may be considering legal action against Oxfam. As pointed out, emergency aid happens on a different scale and with a different timeline but is ultimately guided by similar “principles” for lack of a better word. What both have in common is that the intended recipients, by and large, have no say in how the stuff that supposedly benefits them is delivered, no influence and no redress when things go horrendously wrong. Wasn’t Haiti the very same place where the UN was caught with its pants down (a deliberate turn of phrase) over the cholera epidemic it imported?

This is fundamental. It is this lack of fundamental accountability that leads to the excesses that have just been revealed – and numerous others. That is where the debate should go, because below the scandals and the sleaze lie far more fundamental issues, issues that the development industry, worth scores of billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of people, has so far stubbornly refused to address.

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

A few years ago I saw something strange. A boat. In the water. Ok, that’s normal but this was strange: it was a patrol boat of the Spanish Guardia Civil, flying a Spanish flag, in the Port of…no, not Barcelona or Malaga or Cordoba or Bilbao or any other seaport of that magnificent country. It was in the Port of Dakar.

What the devil is a Spanish police patrol boat doing in the territorial waters of Senegal? Turned out that it was just another manifestation of the intense and heroic efforts by the European Union and its member states to keep as many Africans out of their Fortress as possible. The same efforts that put Brussels in bed with autocrat-run Turkey and one of the nominal governments of Libya, destroyed thanks to the heroic efforts of no fewer than the three former administrations of France, the UK and the USA. Another part of this Fortress Europe strategy is the blackmailing of countries like Mali and Niger: we will give you aid if you stop your people from coming here. Niger’s people smugglers now must trace far more dangerous routes than before, thanks to government crackdowns, sponsored by the EU. Brussel’s aim is to ensure more people die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea than on their way to a southern European shore.

It’s all a far cry from the start of the EU, a collaborative effort around (re)building industry and achieving food self-sufficiency. At roughly the same time the Geneva Convention on Refugees was adopted, a suitably clear and concise document. This was, of course, also the time of the Cold War. The refugees that made it into Western Europe came, mostly, from the “enemy” camp. Hungarians were welcome in 1956, when they fled the Soviet assault on their country; one of those refugee families would later produce a president – Nicholas Sarkozy. In “our own” camp, Portuguese conscientious objectors ran away from their country, run by a fascist dictatorship, because they did not want to fight Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné-Bissau. And there was a broadly-based welcome for people from Latin America on the run from US-installed military dictatorships. All in the 1970s.

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

It’s almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War. “We” won and now “we” are touting ourselves as the best society the world has ever seen. It follows, therefore, that Everybody Wants To Come Here and “we” must be selective about who “we” let in.

The only people being selective here are the “we” in this last paragraph. Selective of the facts. Speaking from the region I know a few things about, West Africa, the truth of the matter is that the vast, overriding, overwhelming majority of people…does not move. And if they do, they tend to go to other parts of the continent, or to China, the Gulf States…and yes, Europe. The picture of migration worldwide is decidedly mixed. However: the idea that Europe is some kind of a massive people magnet reminds me of that infamous French colonial drawing, where The Light (from Paris, of course) illuminated the entire Dark Continent – or at least the bits that had been visited by migrating French army boots. In short – it is an over-estimation of one’s worth and borders on the delusional. Seen from here, you don’t look all that great. And that’s before we even take a closer look at how you have been behaving to your own people of late.

This will not be a review, short of saying that what you see here is the cover of the most riveting piece of political reporting since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. It is also a damning indictment of how EU bigwigs treat the poorer members of their community – and how petty, vindictive and downright brutal they get when these members turn out to have ideas of their own. Fear and Loathing, indeed.

I visited Thessaloniki in 2012 for a world music trade fair called WOMEX. It was wonderful. But even then the austerity programs were kicking in and the people responded by staging the largest street demonstration I had seen since the epic 1981 marches against those US cruise missiles. A sea of red flags. Similar happened in austerity-hit Portugal. Varoufakis recounts in detail how the EU/IMF “rescue package” was part of a bailout plan to save…not Greece, but French and German banks that had taken irresponsible risks and found themselves overexposed. Politicians in EU member states sold another bailout of financially irresponsible banksters by inventing the story that this was all about…saving Greece. In short, they lied. Most mainstream media slavishly copied the lies without doing their job, something that happens with depressing frequency.

When the bailout did not work – and Varoufakis extensively explains why this is so – they did it again. And lied about it – again. The engine room of this elaborate deceit is a thing called the Eurogroup, a gathering of Europe’s finance ministers, accountable to no-one. Even though it is – sortalike – formalised in the Lisbon Treaty I would not hesitate to call the whole structure de facto illegal and a flagrant violation of the EU’s founding principles. The president of this informal group of financial terrorists was, between 2013 and January 2018, a Dutch politician by the name of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. He clashed frequently with Varoufakis, on the basis of politics disguised as policy. The Eurogroup consists of people who like to present themselves as technocrats but are in fact hard-headed ideologues, tightly moulded in the TINA frame (There Is No Alternative) of no debt relief, screw your people, cause misery, keep taking the poison and keep lying to your national electorates why “we” are strangling one of our member states to death. Read the book for the details, fascinating and shocking in equal measure.

But the point of it all is this.

Varoufakis argues, forcefully, that extreme austerity imposed by external financial terrorists causes widespread misery and pushes people over the edge. And then, society shifts towards political polarisation. The sea of red flags in Thessaloniki was one example of this but it can also take on more sinister tones. The counterpoint to resurgent socialism is the worrisome rise of fascism, not the cotton candy variety of lightweight intellectuals like the late Pim Fortuyn and the still very alive Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, not even the clownish two-trick pony Geert Wilders no, this is the violent, iron-clad boots variety of Golden Dawn, who have committed murder. The focal point of this resurgent extremism? You guessed it: migration. Increased hardship frequently goes hand in hand with blaming “foreigners” for problems they had no hand in creating.

Why people move (my photo, taken at a market near Tenado, Burkina Faso)

It is this kind of extremism, fomented by bad policies emanating from disconnected “technocrats” that Varoufakis warns against. Fortress Brussels ignores this at its peril. But this is not about Brexit, that unilateral folly of very English self-sabotage. Brexit addresses none of these issues. It is an unwelcome and time-consuming inconvenience for the EU, it will be grotesquely damaging to what is left of the United Kingdom, and it is most likely to be temporary (at least until Scottish independence…).

No, this goes much deeper and concerns entrenched dogma that must be urgently challenged. The damage that the Washington Consensus did to the nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia has been incalculable and it would be a fine day to see the perpetrators of this crime held accountable in a court of law. Now that the Washington Consensus has moved to Brussels, the damage is being done to countries on Europe’s southern flank, the same region made to cope, on the cheap, with a mixture of refugees looking for safety and others looking for opportunities.

The only answer thus far has been to reinforce the Fortress. The Mediterranean has become increasingly militarised and the EU has extended its border operation southwards, as far as Senegal and Niger. Like the imposed austerity, this is an Extremely Dumb and Colossally Expensive Idea. Cheaper and more intelligent answers exist: debt rescheduling/forgiveness and providing stimuli to the economy in the case of near-bankrupt states; the re-instatement of the – sneakily abolished – 1951 Geneva Convention in the case of refugees; the creation of avenues for legal, circular migration for the “problem” of people moving to Europe. Once again, for the hard of hearing, people generally do not willingly exchange their place in the sun for a precarious existence in Europe’s cold, dark, grey, hostile and sometimes even murderous streets. For the vast majority of the people outside looking in, you don’t look all that great.

Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo, at the opening carnival of the – very aptly named – Festival Rendez-vous chez nous, Ouagadougou 2017. Pic: me.

Fortress Brussels has been rattled but not enough. There have been a few stabs at the bubble of self-delusion, hypocrisy and lies that surrounds the policies of austerity and the militarisation of the borders but it has not yet burst. However, burst it must. The betrayal of Europe’s foundational principles has been ugly, continuing down the same path leads to an outcome that is both ghastly and familiar. This is no exaggeration. As the ideological technocrats continue to do their destructive “work”, as chunks of societies splinter and become uncontrollable extremist fragments, as the narrative about people moving to Europe becomes ever more toxic, as identity politics takes the place of progressive discourse, as Fortress Brussels continues to push dumb and expensive ideas instead of the much cheaper and far more intelligent – and available! – alternatives, Europe risks, in all seriousness, a return to the situation the EU was constructed to prevent. By its own hand.

 

Robert Mugabe: compassionate, violent, retired

November 22, 2017

I never met ex-president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But there was one occasion, an extremely tragic one, when we came within touching distance of each other.

He had come to visit the school where I was working as an English teacher. To be sure, the entourage was impressive: helicopter, convoy, security everywhere. But he was humble and clearly touched, as he went from parent to parent, holding their hands, looking into their eyes, sharing their grief. The parents, poor farmers from villages close to the school, had lost many of their children just a few months earlier in Zimbabwe’s worst bus accident, on August 3, 1991. Some families had buried two, even three of their loved ones, young talent they had pinned their hopes on; young talent we had been teaching.

I was impressed with his humanity. After all, he must have known what they felt. Robert Mugabe lost his son while in a Rhodesian prison in the 1960s. The white minority regime at the time did not give him permission to attend the funeral. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Compassion. It is a side of Zimbabwe’s former president that is not frequently shed light on. It is a side he showed at Regina Coeli Secondary School and it was a side known to the late Heidi Holland, who wrote Dinner With Mugabe, based on her encounters and interviews with him, his family and associates. She recalled how he had stopped at her house. ‘He was supposed to catch a train and after dinner I drove him to the station, leaving my baby at home alone because there wasn’t time to bundle him into the car. I was driving very fast, being rather anxious. The next day he rang me from a public callbox, asking me whether my baby was alright.’

(Photo credit: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images). Montage, as I understand it, made by Zambia Observer

Manicaland, Zimbabwe’s breathtakingly beautiful eastern mountain province, looms large in the country’s liberation struggle from white minority rule. Mugabe transited Manicaland as he left Rhodesia for newly-independent Mozambique, with the help of Chief Rekayi Tangwena, a legendary local leader in a place not far from Regina Coeli. Once in Mozambique, he joined the group leading the struggle for Zimbabwe, which ended in 1980. Mutare, the provincial capital, is where he caught his train. And as I was teaching there, many were able to point towards the mountains and caves where they hid during the long, dangerous and bloody liberation struggle – the same places where some of the surviving children found refuge after the bus accident.

‘It was not him who joined the struggle,’ Holland told me looking back on Mugabe’s political career, ‘the struggle found him. If left to his own devices, he would have become a headmaster, very prim and proper. He cared about education.’ Indeed: stories about his early years in State House tell us that after work in office he would gather the house staff and run classes with them.

The struggle found him because in spite of his humble beginnings he was well-educated and well-travelled, having worked in Ghana where he met his first wife Sally Hayfron. She supported him all the way through: from his return to Rhodesia, his imprisonment of more than ten years, the armed struggle and then finally to their triumphant arrival at State House, when his party had beaten all the odds and won a resounding victory.

Mutare. My former shopping centre. Photo from Wikipedia.

‘Why do you put the picture of this guy on the wall? It’s never there.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Once the election is over I’ll remove it again. I just don’t want my house smashed up because his picture is not on our wall.’

Family scene in Mutare, early 1980s. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front deployed vigilante groups throughout the land whenever there was an election and punished anyone who did not demonstrate enough enthusiasm in support of the party and its leader. A few hundred kilometres to the southwest of Mutare, in Matabeleland, the army’s notorious North Korea-trained Five Brigade was on a coordinated killing spree that left up to 20,000 people dead. Their crime: being close to what was considered an armed uprising against the government. It was a confrontation that was fuelled by the deep personal rivalry between Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo, who had led another liberation movement with a different ideological orientation. There were South African machinations behind it, as the apartheid state was destabilising all of its neighbours, through proxies, terrorist attacks and in open warfare until their 1988 defeat at Cuito Canavale in Angola put an end to its army operations abroad.

There was certainly trouble in Matabeleland but the government’s response was of a cruelty that scarred the province forever and strained relations with Harare. The name given to the mass murders was “Gukurahundi”, which translates as “the first rains that wash away the dust and the dirt”. It would not be the last time that Mugabe’s government would refer to people as garbage to be removed. “Operation Cleanup” was supposed to rid Harare’s streets of prostitutes. “Murambatsvina” was an electoral operation that physically removed hundreds of thousands of people from their (often makeshift) dwellings, preventing them from voting in their constituencies and thus handing the party and its leader another victory. In rural Zimbabwe, self-appointed war veterans terrorised the people into what was termed “voting correctly”. During another election-related wave of violence (this time in 2008, a particularly brutal episode), schools, once the pride and joy of the country, were turned into torture centres. And yes, sometimes I wonder what happened to the classrooms where I worked all those years ago.

Months after the president had left Regina Coeli, my school, news emerged that a quarter of a million euros, spontaneously collected by the ordinary women and men of Zimbabwe to help the grieving parents overcome their loss, had gone missing. The ruling party had stolen it. The rot had set in early and nothing was done to stop it. In fact, when war veterans rampaged through the party’s headquarters in 1997, smashing the furniture and eating the food in its well-stocked canteen, the party mouthpiece The Herald screamed “Hooligans” from its front page. The war veterans had enough of starving to death in the rural areas while fat cats high up in the party hierarchy grew even fatter on the backs of other people’s labour. That, in fact, was the origin of the movement. It was hi-jacked by political opportunists like the late Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, who forced Mugabe into a terrible deal. Here’s Heidi Holland once more.

‘Dennis Norman, a former minister with whom Mugabe got on very well, was close to the negotiations. He describes how Mugabe attended with two other ministers and then was told by the war vets that he must attend by himself. And rather uncharacteristically, he (Mugabe) agreed to this.’ Alone, the war vets arm-twisted the president into a deal he probably knew the country could not afford. After all, he had just sent thousands of troops into the DR Congo to prop up his friend Joseph Kabila and now he was to hand over truckloads of Zimbabwe dollars to tens of thousands of former freedom fighters he and his cronies had neglected. All the deal did was to inflict more damage on Zimbabwe’s already faltering economy. The ill-conceived and even worse executed “land reform” policy of the early 2000s provided more blows. There are optimists who think that the basics are still there and the economy can be turned around but the task will be immense.

And so, in 2017, twenty years after war veterans exposed his political vulnerability, Robert Mugabe finally gets what he has wanted for two decades: an escape from party politics. It was the army that kept him in power, it was Zimbabwe’s highly coordinated military – intelligence – police – prisons complex, inherited from the illegal Rhodesian white minority regime, that ensured he won election after election. And now that he has rubbed them the wrong way, intentionally perhaps, they have dropped him in favour of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s equally violent enforcer and eternal Number Two. The head is gone, the system that he built, because and in spite of himself, remains in all its rotten glory. Mugabe may have smiled his wry smile, as he heard the traitorous and treacherous hypocrites in the Politbureau and Parliament rapturously applaud his departure.

The man who spent the last twenty years of his reign being a consummate political survivor, has thrown his last roll of the dice. He will retire, not to Kutama, the village where he spent part of his traumatic youth – he lost his elder brother there after an accident with agricultural poison – but in all likelihood to a carefully guarded mansion, maybe in the same leafy Gun Hill area in Harare where he kept his old friend, Mengistu Haile Mariam, a more prolific murderer than he ever was, for 26 years. An intensely private man with a complex and turbulent past, a messy love life and a deeply ambivalent attitude towards power and politics, will now have the time to ponder what he has done to his country, the excellent, the good, the bad, the terrible and for some, undoubtedly, the unforgiveable. ‘A shame that he had to leave through the backdoor,’ Guinean president Alpha Condé commented shortly after Mugabe’s last-minute resignation. True perhaps, but it was Mugabe who made it so, just as he did throughout his long years at the helm. He should have stuck to education.