An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 4 and conclusion.

September 13, 2021

Interrupted by a very severe malaria attack on this author and a missing laptop, hence the gap between Part 3 and this, the final installment. But here it is, at last.

I do not know how close the interpretation of Islam as espoused by the Taliban is to the majority of Afghans. In the case of Mali, though, I can safely say that while the majority of the country’s population is staunchly conservative, it cannot abide by Sharia Law. The cosmopolitan, spiritual, open, tolerant, flexible, family-run versions of Islam that prevail in West Africa are proving remarkably resilient under the sustained attacks from its poor, claustrophobic, rigid and backward cousin from the Middle East. The Gulf states plus the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continue to throw a lot of their money – paid for by the rich world’s petrol addiction – into the impoverishment of West African Islam but it remains to be seen whether the investment is paying off, especially seen against the background of diminishing revenues from an increasingly tainted commodity: oil.

Besides, the choices African individuals and families make are often informed by pragmatism. I caught an early glimpse of this three decades ago in Southern Africa, where parents sent their children to Catholic or protestant schools, not because they were staunch adherents to these religions but simply because these schools often offered the best education. This pragmatism surely persists to this day.

Similarly, the lavishly funded mosques and their attached associations provide services others do not. This does not mean that every West African – is turning into a Wahabist Muslim…there is, for instance, still a reassuringly small number of fully veiled women out on the streets. They use the service provided and keep thinking their own thoughts. After all, one of my colleagues stated with laser beam precision and clarity what it is we are dealing with: “Make no mistake. The Islamic variant coming from the Gulf constitutes a full frontal assault on our African culture and values.” Reducing women to fully covered quasi-inanimate objects runs counter to traditions that are much older and have deeper roots. In my own book on Guinea, I mentioned the destruction of sacred statutes and masks in Guinea Forestière, in the name of Islam fighting false idols. The vandalism in Timbuktu springs to mind again, described by one elder as his city being robbed of its soul. One would like to believe that after the forced departure of most of the illiterate vandals it may get some of its soul back. 

A neighbourhood bar

In short, then: popular support for this strictest of interpretations of the faith is not happening, even though people take their faith very seriously. But they also value their ancestral roots and culture, traditional music, and certainly like to be left alone to pursue their way of life in ways they see fit. And that includes enjoying their drinks and worshipping their families, the indestructible cornerstone of West African life. 

No Taliban-style force will show up in the capital the minute the French leave, which they will do before too long. No bearded “fool of god” (copyright: my Malian friends) will reside in Koulouba, the presidential Palace on Power Hill in Bamako, no matter how ardently Iyad ag Ghaly desires this – and I continue to suspect that he will remain an ardent apostle of the true Faith until a better deal comes along and he may change tack yet again…

The much more fundamental problem, as the human rights veteran and UN expert Alioune Tine argues following a recent visit to Mali, is the problem of an absent state. With no formally recognisable structures visible, however colonial-alien-superimposed they may be, the upshot is that in their absence others have moved into this void. And those filling the void have been, by and large, armed gangs whose behaviour is frequently as atrocious as that of the state representatives (read: the armed forces), they have come to replace. In the first six months of this year, the UN mission to Mali has recorded almost 600 human rights violations. All of the groups I have mentioned in this series are involved. That is a hell of a lot for the population to take. And it is the women like the ones I spoke with in Fana and Ségou, the elderly, the children, who are most at risk. It is, says Tine, so bad that this proliferation of horror could precipitate the end of Mali as a state-run unified unit. You can argue that in some areas this is already the case. Gao, as close to the Wild West as you are likely to get at this point, gets its supplies from Algeria taken across the desert by experienced drivers who have deals with the gangs of bandits reigning in and around town. The situation may be replicated in other places. 

And this is the real menace to Mali. Not a lightning takeover by an insurgent force but a slow and inexorable decline, leaving Bamako and maybe a few other key cities as islands of relative safety and stability in an ocean of chaos. Are there solutions? Yes, and the most obvious one is unpalatable: turning the country into a federation, which could in fact make this ungovernable and frequently ungoverned space of 1.2 million square kilometres governable again, at least up to an extent. This reduces the influence of Bamako, shorthand for the place where all the money goes and where all political and military power players and influencers converge. And once you’re in, the place is sweet. This is why even the soldiers running the show today are disinclined to let federation and the concomitant decline of Bamako happen. 

But circumstances may force the hand of whoever is in power. After all, as I am hearing so often: the problem is not the North or the Centre, or the militias, or the jihadists. The problem is Bamako. Solve that, and you solve the insurgency. If ever this happens it will not be pretty. But it may well save the country, as it re-emerges in a different form. 

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 3

August 22, 2021

So the parallels, superficial or less so, between Mali and Afghanistan, have a limited shelf life. This is illustrated very well by Lyammouri’s assessment, which I share, that we are not going to see gun-toting turbaned men at the presidential palace (called Koulouba) on the Colline de Pouvoir, along the road to the military base at Kati. In fact, Koulouba’s current occupant is the colonel from Kati who took power a year ago, Assimi Goïta. And he shows no signs of departing. Mali’s decadent political class – propped up by the West – that brought the country to its current lamentable state was not removed by a religious insurgency, as happened in Kabul this week; they were kicked out by a popular movement followed by a coup. And what the people now want most of all from this military-dominated government is a return to security. And this is where things get really complicated.

Because there is not one dominant Islamic insurgency. When discussing religious insurrectionism in Afghanistan, talks are generally restricted to one word: Taliban. (Whether this is fair or not I don’t know.) Mali is home to a dizzyingly large number of outfits with guns that often fight each other, like the Al-Qaeda and Islamic State franchises (JNIM and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) that have been at each others’ throats on and off for roughly two years. There are also any number of self-defined self-defence militias that attempt to secure their communities and then go out and attack other communities. Some of these attacks have been particularly bloody. We also have the old phenomenon of proxies. The Malian army has been working with them for decades and they have also been associated with Opération Barkhane in the border region with Niger and Bukina Faso, near the town of Ménaka.

But most of all, we have widespread and spreading banditry that can take the guise of any of these groups. It also happens that they throw away any and all pretence and just go after your stuff and your money. “Not a single road in and out of Gao is safe,” asserts a friend who lives there. And he cannot even properly describe the tit-for-tat killings going on there because he knows that some of these hired guns enjoy protection at the highest possible official level. And we just had the revelation of yet another scandal that implicates a private businessman and army personnel with the sale of arms to jihadist and/or self-defense units. Reports of hold-ups, break-ins, armed robberies and active gangs of highwaymen come in from all corners of the country. Mali is far less safe from folks with empty pockets, a propensity for crime – and, crucially, in possession of guns, mobile pones and motorbikes – than it was even three, four years ago.

If this is giving you vertigo, worry not. You are not the only one. Take a boat stroll on the calming waters of the eternal river.

Understand, then, that the simple “us” versus “them” scenario (“the single story”) that the media are so fond of and that is portrayed to be playing out in Afghanistan simply does not exist in Mali, which is why international media, by and large, igore this story. Too darn complicated.

The proliferation of armed groups – including those self-styled, self-professed and sometimes genuine jihadis – is the result of a collapsed state. State collapse did not happen overnight or in a blitz offensive by an insurrectionist army. It happened slowly, death by a thousand cuts, scandal after scandal after scandal. Bribes over here, reported by Malian journalists and blithely ignored by Mali’s so-called “partners” in development. (Thou shalt not speak ill of a donor darling.) The importation of unusable agriculture inputs with some well-connected traders getting rich and farmers left destitute and desperate. A drugs flight here. A deal with insurgents there. Kickbacks from lucrative negotiations for the release of Western hostages. Unvetted rebels like the one we met yesterday sent to diplomatic posts. And on and on it went. By the time, early 2012, that the MNLA made its ill-fated invasion and established its stillborn Azawad, the army had been demoralised to the point of immobility, the jihadists Algeria had tossed across its border ito Mali’s vast desert were already waiting in the wings as the state lay on its death bed. And yes, as always and everywhere, the poor and the vulnerable end up paying the highest price.

What is left of the state in Mali is kept in place by donor money and revenue from gold mines, all but one foreign-owned. It is kept safe principally by foreign troops that are on the way out. And in the meantime, it continues to rot from within. Nobody seems to care. The assault on the country by a bewildering array of armed groups continues and even though none of them will run this country (and certainly not under an Islamist extremist flag), the horror they visit on ordinary people continues unabated and goes unnoticed by the world at large. As if they do not even exist.

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 2

August 20, 2021

So, after foreign intervention and religious insurrectionism, there’s your third parallel between Afghanistan and Mali: a fatally weakened military. Both armies have been prone to demoralisation and bad practices, in spite of numerous and often intensive foreign interventions: training, drills, exercises, workshops…you name it.

The official website of the Malian Armed Forces

There is an excellent article in International Affairs (behind a paywall, unfortunately but you can at least read the abstract) on army “reforms” in Mali. They are supposed to take place and they could theoretically contribute towards returning the FAMa to their (historical) glory. In measured prose, the author lays out the non-dilemma: everyone knows the reforms are not working, everyone continues to pretend they do and in so doing they keep a lucrative and utterly pointless exercise up and running, while the situation remains as it is. To be fair, Mali’s army has a strong reputation among the population and is seen as a source of pride, which is why the military removal of the discredited political class hat presided over the demise of the FAMa was met with such widespread approval. However, the colonels now in charge must deliver on security and this has – so far – proved Mission Impossible, not in the last place because of this man.

From his latest video

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Iyad ag Ghaly, a colourful character with a chequered history that brought him in contact with the Libyan leader Gaddafi when the latter was busy financing rebellions across the continent. Ag Ghaly is said to have participated in some of the Great Libyan Leader’s armed incursions into neigbouring Chad. But he was also and already occupied with the struggle for an independent homeland for his people, the Tuaregs: Azawad. This brought him into contact with music and the mythical band Tinariwen, which aligned itself with the Tuareg cause, mostly through music. Ag Ghaly gave them money for musical instruments but he was never part of the band as some French media have suggested.

At this point, he was in Tripoli and led the life of the true rebel leader: drinking, dancing, clubbing, chasing girls. But that changed when after the Second Tuareg Rebellion in the 1990s (which ended with the famous foreign-sponsored Flame of Peace in Timbuktu, March 1996) he was integrated into Mali’s central government structures in Bamako and sent to the north of the country to help negotiate the liberation of Westerners taken hostage by ordinary criminals who would later re-emerge as…jihadists. Ag Ghaly knew most of these characters already.

It was at this point that he embarked on a slow but sure process of radicalisation, which was crowned by his encounters in Saudi Arabia (where he got a post as a diplomat) with the Pakistani zealots of Jamaat al-Tabligh. He returned from the Middle East a proper zealot and ready to…start another short-lived Tuareg rebellion. Opportunism is ag Ghaly’s middle name and it still remains to be seen whether the religious principles he has adopted are as resilient as his laser-precise instinct for survival.

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In sum, you have (and the list is not even exhaustive): religious radicalisation, the immensely complex and intricate Tuareg family and clan politics, Bamako politics, the Algerian secret service, the Algerian military, the criminally stupid operation that removed Gaddafi, more failed rebellions, money, alignment with former criminals from Algeria turning to jihad, the death or disappearance of some of these… and in all this the constant factor is ag Ghaly’s extremely adroit manoeuvring that made him, over time, the most prominent jihad chief in the country and the region. In the second decade of this century he became the nominal head of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Support Group for Islam and Muslims or JNIM), an Al Qaeda franchise that incorporates among others the MUJAO already mentioned and a hyper-active outfit called the Front for the Liberation of Macina, led by a fanatical priest from the centre of Mali, Amadou Koufa.

“Our time has come,” intones ag Ghaly in a video released six days before the Taliban victory. In his message he praises the bloody jihadist expansion in Mali and beyond, which has led to thousands of deaths and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and neighbours. He adds that he cannot be stopped and demands the departure of France, a notion that goes down very well with some radical circles in Bamako. I have covered some of their demonstrations and talked to the organisers.

Like his friend and ideological ally imam Mahmoud Dicko, Iyad ag Ghaly opportunistically combines a relish for Islamic rule and a dislike for Western-style democracy and mixes this into a potent highly conservative ideological cocktail. But, as the researcher and analyst Rida Lyammouri of the Rabat-based Policy Center for the New South argues, none of the armed Islamist extremist groups out there in the vast savannas have the rear bases, the numbers, the capacity or the popularity to rule. This is why they do not lay siege to the capital but terrorise poor defenceless villagers. And they do so with utterly depressing frequency: 15 soldiers dead in Mali, 80 soldiers and civilians dead according to latest count on August 20 in Burkina Faso, 137 dead in Niger – month after month after month. Ordinary women and men, working their land, going to market, sent to an invisible moving frontline, and mostly trying to mind their own business and wanting to be left in peace.

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 1

August 19, 2021

The August 16 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has – supposedly – sent shockwaves through Mali. In fact, what was more on Malians’ mind was the first anniversary, the next day, of the coup d’état that ended a failed experiment in democracy that lasted a decade longer than America’s “longest war”.

Sure, in the many “grins” (pronounce this in French), the nighttime talking circles around cups of tea you see everywhere, the Taliban takeover will have come up for debate. But the subject will then have been followed by discussion about last year’s military takeover, the corrupt leftovers from the previous political era, the chances of Mali’s national soccer squad in the next African Championship…

We have been here before. When the “Arab Spring” happened (a historically illiterate moniker if ever there was one) we were told that “Africa” – yes, it’s always the ENTIRE continent – was waiting its turn, patiently, to have a stab at democracy, too. Never mind that popular movements against unpopular autocrats have been part of the political landscape since the 1960s and earlier, from South Africa to Burkina Faso (twice) by way of Zanzibar and…Mali, 1991.

So, Mali and Afghanistan, then. Are there no parallels between the two? Of course there are. But they need careful examination, rather than the hurried hackery of the easy comparison. Both countries have religious insurgencies on their hands, even though methods and status are widely different. The similarity is that Western powers have used the might of their military to blunder their way in and out of these situations, leaving some success in their wake and a lot of damage. The US Army, the French Opération Barkhane – both of which are in the process of being dismantled after 20 years and 8 years respectively – have been employed to tackle issues that were either non-existent or tagged on the original mission for good measure. In many parts of the receiving countries, they will largely be remembered for drone strikes on wedding parties.

The US invasion was the result of 9/11; the French invasion was the result of an armed jihadist outfit crossing a red line and threatening Bamako, the capital city. The US got its attacker in the end; the French chased away the menace. Both suffered mission creep and engaged in things they should have left to the people living there. The pretence that you can bomb a country into becoming a nation, for instance. Now, presidents Biden and Macron must paper over the multiple cracks left behind by their policy wonks with the kind of smooth rhetoric both are very good at.

The French and US operations tagged lots of partners along, from NATO to the EU to individual states including my country, The Netherlands and, of course, the bewildering alphabet soup of NGOs wanting a piece of the action. Their presence illustrated more than anything else the intimate links, pioneered by France in Biafra, between the civilising mission that NGOs have become to personify and brutal military action. Mali became the scene of MINUSMA, the UN multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission, one of the deadliest UN operations in the history of the organisation. MINUSMA has clear nation building pretenses, even though there is no peace to keep or enforce, nothing to stabilise and the dying is mainly done by African troops, in the best colonial traditions.

When it comes to pretenses, the other protagonists are pretty serious about one thing and here’s a second parallel between the two countries: the religious insurgents in Central Asia and the Sahel have as their goal to establish Sharia Law in the areas they control. Now that the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, their brutal rule from 1996 to 2001 is the obvious reference and the first signs do not look good. Jihadist vandalism in places like Bâmiân and Timbuktu leaves no illusions of how Islamic extremists treat the culture and traditions of the areas they occupy or colonise. Let alone the people…

The original attraction of jihadist rule is that it restores order. This happened, for instance, when one such group (called MUJAO, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) removed the thieving looting unruly rebels of the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA from the remote town of Gao in 2012. But the new Islamist order soon solidified into asphyxiating oppression – and the people of Gao took to the streets again. Any imposition of Sharia Law in Mali will prove deeply unpopular and I do not get the impression that the idea is universally shared in Afghanistan either.

Are they lurking on the other side? This is the Djoliba; it runs through Bamako and past Ségou, Timbuktu and Gao. In Ségou, they are said to be “just behind the river”. I never saw them. In Timbuktu and Gao they are hiding among the population. Mali’s sole artery has become a dangerous place, a haven for bandits instead of a prospering waterway.

Sure, Malians profess support for Sharia Law and applaud the Taliban takeover – on that most modern of communication vehicles: social media. Facebook messages are blindly copied and shared. None of this sharing makes you any the wiser about what a country run by the Taliban actually looks and feels like. The pro-Taliban position in the capitals around the Sahel is much better explained by a profound and widespread detestation of everything Western, in particular, France. Opération Barkhane is seen as an occupying force, although not necessarily by the people living in the North. They know, from experience, that the presence of foreign troops is some guarantee that Mali’s national army will behave itself.

Mali’s army, FAMa, is an inheritor of a long and proud military tradition that has been thrown to the dogs during the democratic era, when successive presidents sought and succeeded to divide and corrupt it. This is not to say that there have not been excesses before; the ultra-violent suppression of the first Tuareg insurrection after Independence (1963-64) has left deep scars in the soul of a nascent nation, which have never received proper treatment. But the rapid decay in morale and resources – the direct cause for the 2012 and the 2020 coups – happened during the era of democracy, while the international donor community held its nose, looked the other way and praised the country to the heavens while pretending nothing was amiss as the rot set in.

part 2 tomorrow.

Will they ever learn…?

August 14, 2021

These are the pitfalls of writing a wrapup of an entire continent in a single piece…. From yesterday’s Guardian, no less…

…in which the Sahel, a region twice the size of Germany, France and Spain combined is reduced to a single paragraph, where hardly anything is accurate. Here it is.


“In the Sahel, the economic impact of the pandemic has further weakened administrations that were already struggling to find resources for security forces, and has aggravated tensions between communities that have helped Islamic extremists make inroads in recent years. Across the region, as elsewhere on the continent, trade routes have been blocked, investments abandoned, and the flow of the remittances from overseas workers and the diaspora on which millions depend for everything from school fees to food has been significantly reduced. Overseas aid is also likely to be reduced. Local and national elections have been postponed due to the virus, raising tensions and causing instability.”

Oh dear, this is looking grim. It is almost universally…er, how do I put this politely…massively exaggerated? Not as close to the truth as it hopes to be? Distorted? Yup. All of the above. Let’s have a look, then.

One: the violence. The impact of the pandemic in the areas where the fighting is happening is…nil. Sure, there has been more police repression in the cities as a result of Covid measures being introduced but villages do not get attacked because there is a pandemic but because the State is absent. To the best of my knowledge, none of the major cities have seen terorist attacks since 2016, I’d say, with the last major one on the coast. And these tensions predate the pandemic by half a decade or longer. Besides, it is becoming clearer that a lot of what the villagers suffer is the result of ordinary banditry, nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Jihadists are absolutely a factor and a presence and they have an uncanny aptitude to home in, laser-like, onto existing tensions and exploiting them. Of that, there is no doubt but the impact and influence of ‘the fools of god’, as they are known here, must not be exaggerated. And it must certainly not be reduced to the only story to be told about the Sahel, as far too many media do.

Two: trade. Sure, the trade routes may have been hampered because the borders have been closed but they were never blocked. The coastal countries that closed their borders to the landlocked Sahel made it clear that this would not affect vital supplies like food and medicine. This is why there was never an empty shelve in any shop or supermarket. To see that you must go to Brexit Britain. Trade may have been reduced in some areas as it was made difficult for traders to transport their wares in person. But they took to using tried and tested smuggling routes to get their stuff from one place to another.

Three: have elections been postponed? Not to my knowledge… Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea (not in the Sahel, I agree) held highly controversial elections last year. Niger elected a new president and in Bukina Faso we wil not have elections because none have been scheduled. The two exeptions are Chad and Mali. This is because there were two coups (Mali) and a (mind you: just re-elected!!!) president was killed in battle and then replaced by his son (Chad), another well-established tradition although sometimes the son is so deeply detested that the people put a stop to it, as they did in Senegal in 2012 and arguably in Mali last year.

Investments, remittances and aid have indeed been significantly reduced. But this is the effect of measures taken in countries that have been much worse affected by the pandemic than has the continent of Africa, exceptions duly noted. And here also we must be precise. The issue of remittances will have had the largest impact by a country mile. Family members sending money back home keep entire towns alive and thriving, from Louga in Senegal to Kayes in Mali and the many villages across this vast region.

As for investments, one should be told where these were supposed to go, so we can assess the impact. For instance, a lot of investment in Mali and Burkina Faso goes into mining, which tends to have a detrimental effect on the environment and the surrounding communities, while the employment it creates is negligible. And regarding aid… Suffice here to repeat, once again, that were it to stop today hardly anyone here would notice, with the exception of the well-heeled but tiny middle class this industry has spawned. You would see a few fewer FourWheelDrives out on the streets and the roads but I am sure people will quickly find better things to do with their time than sit in endless workshops that cost the earth and achieve nothing.

In a famous TED talk, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – and The Guardian worships the ground she walks on – warned against what she termed “the single story”, gross simplifications of complex places and peoples. Perhaps the Guardian could heed her advice and stop pontificating about an entire continent in pieces like these, just like we are currently being spared the dreadful spectre of writers poducing 300 to 700 page bricks about this continent. And to the best of my knowledge this is only done to “Africa”. Why is that? Someone produce a 700-word paper on that, please.

The face mask: a status symbol

August 5, 2021

An upmarket riverside restaurant in Ségou. A collection of FourWheelDrives has been parked before the entrance. Inside, a party of clearly well-to-do individuals, dressed to the nines. It is lunchtime and they have come to this place to be very well fed and watered. And another thing they have in common: all wear face masks. Not while they are eating of course; the masks are then lowered to cover their chins. This fashion statement is marginally more ridiculous than the already quite ridiculous habit of shoving your spectacles up your crane when you don’t use them, instead of putting them safely away. As for the masks, only a few have stored them in their bags or inside pockets but they will appear again once lunch is over and they get back into their FourWheelDrives to wherever they are having their gathering.

Here’s another frequent phenomenon: a lone man or a lone woman, behind the wheel of their luxury vehicle. Nobody else is there but they drive around in a face mask. I will confess to having a good old laugh when I see this but it clearly points at a social phenomenon.

One more, then. In spite of all the problems and troubles and asymmetrical violence this country has been subjected to over the past nine years, there is one phenomenon that is inexplicably resilient: the workshop. This whole region is absolutely addicted to the workshop, invariably dedicated to subjects that are fashionable in the donor countries that supply the money for these occasions. We call this ‘development’.

Workshops, trainings, evaluations and assorted other gatherings of VIPs are typically held in an upmarket place in the capital (Bamako, Niamey, Ouagadougou) or any other major urban centre (Ségou, Sikasso, Bobo Dioulasso…) that is still accessible. The deteriorating security situation, something these gatherings are not designed to address, limits the available options. But there are still more than enough accessible urban centres with multiple star hotels, the natural habitat of workshops.

On one such occasion, it was lunchtime, a procession of ladies filed out of the conference room on their way to the tables, where the food had been lovingly and lavishly laid out. My lunch table was, rightly and correctly, relegated to the margins of the establishment. The participants all wore fine clothes, some had elaborate head dresses; quality mobile phones were on display and they all marched to the tables wearing face masks. Yes, every single one of the development-oriented (upper) middle class gentlewomen wore one, without exception. No doubt they proceeded to discuss the plight of the poor, over lunch. I was out of earshot and should, of course, have been out of sight, too.

Alright then, one more…

Recently, we had a Very Important Visitor in town. That fact that this was a Very Important Visitor was made obvious by a Gendarmerie pickup truck ordering everybody off the Boulevard 2000, a very wide and very smooth stretch of road that takes all dangerous traffic (including Very Important Visitors travelling at high speed) around Ségou, instead of through the city, where they have to negotiate a stretch of tar road that has been in an utterly horrendous condition for at least a decade and a half…but I digress, unlike the caravan of the Very Important Visitor.

After we all had been made to stop going about our business, an impressive number of vehicles careened past. I’d say a dozen and a half. FourWheelDrives, of course. Pickup trucks. Even the odd saloon car, obviously in excellent condition. If she brings along a caravan this long I wonder how many cars wil accompany the President if ever he decides to come over here. You may as well close business for the day…

The next day, I saw the same procession move away (slowly this time) from the Governor’s Office, located of course in a very leafy part of town, and it was here that I was able to notice the many lone men and the occasional woman sitting at the wheel of their vehicles. Only a few had someone to talk to during the drive and almost all of them wore…a face mask. I am sure the maskless will get a stern lecture before too long. The visitor, incidentally, was the Minister of Health. She had first paid her respects to the town’s bigwigs and religious leaders, had then paid a visit to the various health facilities, had been able to see for herself the deplorable condition they were in and naturally terminated the tour by promising to do something about it. I was told the same has been said numerous times about the decaying tarred surface of Ségou’s main thoroughfare…

So what is this social phenomenon you may wonder. The penny dropped when I witnessed the following scene in one of Bamako’s upmarket supermarket our affluent friends – and expats – frequent.

A classy lady had parked herself and her rapidly filling trolley in one of the aisles. Meanwhile, her underling, a girl in a dress that was intended to denote her inferior status, was being sent around the shop to get the required items. (In fairness, I will add here that this does not happen very frequently; most of the time the girl is left at home and Madame does her own shopping.) And there, as if to emphasize the different stations of life these two women occupied, I noticed that Her Ladyship was wearing a face mask; her servant was not.

Couple that with the astute observation of an old friend who is a regular visitor to Mali, when he remarked that it looked to him as if the face mask had become a status symbol and the insight became even clearer: that is precisely what it is. It may be the case – not very frequently though – that the face mask wearer signals the aspiration to belong to this exclusive top class club but in almost all instances the face mask says: “I belong to the elites. I’m wealthy. I’m connected. I’m in.” Hence the ubiquitous presence of face masks at summits of heads of state, meetings between important representatives of international bodies and ministers, UN representatives, international NGOs and businesses. Money not only talks these days; it wears a face mask too.

Ordinary people in the streets, in Bamako’s green Sotramas (those privately run public transport minibuses), in the markets, on their motorbikes, working on the land, in the downmarket shops and eateries…do not wear one. My conservative estimate is that 95 per cent never bother with a face mask. And yet these are places where space is in far shorter supply than in the upmarket abodes of the elites.

It has been said before: in Mali, Covid19 is an issue that virtually never invites itself in any discussion. Of course it is an issue – for people who travel by air and these are mostly the same people who are found in expensive cars, expensive homes or expensive workshops. Besides, in a country where you are far more likely to die of malaria, water-borne diseases, meningitis or the incredibly polluted air in the homestead or the city, Covid19 takes its place at the back of the queue. Of course, the initial responses were quick and adequate because people remembered the horrors in next door Guinea (and to a limited extent back home) of that other deadly virus, Ebola. But Covid19 is mainly an obsession for those who can afford to be obsessed – and buy the masks at 500 francs apiece, the price of a roadside meal.

A mask or a meal: now you understand the priorities.

(More on Covid in Mali? Read my Corona Chronicles, written last year.)

Time

April 4, 2021

Going to an ATM and getting some money is a matter of minutes, if you live in Amsterdam, London, Paris or Berlin. In Bamako, or Ouagadougou, or most other major cities in this region (perhaps Abidjan excepted) this operation can take as much as an hour.

Why? Because only a few local bank subsidiaries – a lot of them are still owned by the French – will accept your card. Your first job, therefore, is to locate a bank that will take your card. Found one? Good. Now, you will often find that the ATM is out of order, has no money, has been disconnected from the satellite-operated network because of an internet glitch or does not work because of a power cut. If this last is the case and you are in the pleasant and lucky possession of a home: go there and grab that beer before it gets warm because chances are that you will have no electricity at your place either.

In all the other cases: find an ATM that belongs to another bank. This machine may be located a cool two or three kilometres from where you are at present. You can cover the distance on foot (I have done this frequently), on a bike (I have been on quite a few of these suicide missions), by Sotrama or taxi. Whatever the case, you may arrive at your next ATM and find…that this one is not working either.

A simple day-to-day operation that should take no more than a few minutes eats up a sizeable chunk of your day in this manner. Time lost that you will never get back.

Now, this is for those of us who own bank cards, which makes us a tiny minority. Hardly anyone in this part of the world has such a thing. Their bank is the cash in their pocket (the economies here are cash-based and will be for a long time to come). And cash is always in short supply, and that includes small change. The amount of time lost searching for the correct amount of change is staggering. The time lost organising splitting up a massive 10,000 franc note (fifteen euros) equally so. Not always – but frequently.

So time gets lost all day, every day. Time gets lost when you are driving a taxi, Sotrama, lorry or tricycle and have to conduct lengthy negotiations about your bribe with a traffic police officer who has seen, found or invented an infraction that you must pay for. This means the proceeds from your current trip have just been partially or entirely lost. You will have to work harder, drive faster and somehow make up for lost money. And time.

Time gets lost when dealing with bureaucrats who sit solidly in that old tradition of what Shakespeare so eloquently calls “the insolence of office” and will make you wait…and wait….and wait…..and wait…….and probably eventually pay for a piece of paper that will give you the right to run a taxi, open a shop, operate a money service, have a beer garden, a restaurant, a concert venue and so on and so forth.

Time lost. Opportunities lost. Money lost. What a waste, while there is so little to waste to begin with.  

It seems to me that the people who can least afford to lose time because they need every minute of every day to make those two euros that will at least allow them a meal and some water and the mandatory cup of tea…that these are precisely the people who lose the most time dealing with what are, at the end of the day, terrible nuisances.

Now you may perhaps understand why in so many big cities across this continent everyone is almost permanently in such an almighty hurry. People are making up for the time they could not afford to lose, negotiating bad roads (time), monstrous traffic jams (more time), the aforementioned officers and the all-too-frequent bad manners of their fellow road users. Time lost idling involuntarily, time lost negotiating, arguing, searching, waiting…

In the rich part of the world we get upset when the train is ten minutes late – yes, me included. In the less fortunate parts of the planet we are always in a hurry, in order to survive another day.

Could this be another turning point?

February 7, 2021

A few fairly random thoughts following the trip back into West Africa…

The most overwhelming feeling on return to Mali after some time on the Old Continent to the north of here is how normal it all is. Bamako is bustling, the traffic is the same controlled murderous anarchy I left behind half a year ago, radios in shops and cafés play the same autotune-riven stuff I once described in this old piece and remains the main staple of locally produced pop.

The only people bothering with – nominally mandatory – face masks are the rich, who sport it when they drive around in their expensive FourWheelDrives. Alone. “It has become a status symbol for the elites,” was one perceptive remark I heard from long-time Mali veteran Aart van der Heide, on returning from his last visit to the country, late last year. He is right.

Although not entirely absent, few among the ordinary folks wear them. The defining issue is not whether or not they make any sense; that is a debate to be had by those who can afford the luxury of wasting everybody’s time. The defining issue is cost. If you have a family of seven (say) and you have to furnish them daily with that standard white-and-blue stuff that pharmacists sell, you will be left with no money to buy food. Ordinary folk go to Bamako’s heaving markets and do so unprotected.

This was Amsterdam’s world-famous Schiphol Airport, early in the morning of a late January day. In normal times, this place would be featuring hordes or businesspeople hurrying to their planes, copies of their obligatory pink financial daily tucked under their arm. The chances of these scenes returning are fairly slim and that is a good thing. Which does of course mean that in future I shall have to be as good as my principles and take the train to Paris for my flight to Bamako. As it happens, the COVID19 measures prevented overland travel and this was an old ticket, only halfway used. I repent and shall not do it again. Incidentally, my in-flight experience reminded me again why I have not flown Air France for literally decades: the plane was absolutely packed with passengers, “like sheep” as one rightly complained, the food was bland and quite frankly awful, the service correct but perfunctory…

The first night back in Bamako was spent in a mental time capsule. I was thinking back to the time when I was observing the wealthy, smug, self-referential Amsterdam elites doing their shopping in an upmarket Economy market in the city centre, which is selling food at the eye-watering prices only they can afford. I was thinking about them whilst sitting behind a large beer (one euro) in one of Bamako’s culture centres and watching a large crowd of boys and girls dressed to the nines (clearly an evening out) but wearing plastic flip-flops and imitation luxury shoes that would probably fall apart on the way home. The music was the usual totally eclectic mix only they understand, veering from seriously traditional stuff featuring chant and percussion that effortlessly segued into Ivorian coupé-décalé (zouglou does not work here), reggae, then rap and back to classic Mandé music. All in the space of half an hour and thanks to the DJ who was egged on to make his musical mixes as fast and outrageous as possible. A brilliant time was had by all. Social distancing resembled that of the Air France plane.

The airline, through no fault of its own this time, lost my luggage for a day. Which meant, among many other inconveniences, a missing phone charger. The Amsterdam mindset immediately kicked in, as I asked around for a place where I could buy one. The Bamako mindset returned the question with direct clarity: you said it’s in your luggage, right? So, wait for it to come back and in the meantime… (hands over phone charger) use this one. I know of an artist living in Ségou, who probably owns every single type of charger that has ever been on the market and helped me out similarly when I needed a particular type to fire up a rechargeable bicycle lamp…

From Bamako to – indeed – Ségou, where I found similar scenes at the Centre Culturel Kôrè, pictured here, which had organized an evening of storytelling, an art form to which I really do want to devote more time… Now, because this event was part of the largely foreign-funded Festival Ségou’Art and we had members of the country’s elite attending, the wearing of face masks was mandatory and the checks at the door rigorous. It did not, for one single second, diminish the fun the mostly young audience were having watching the shows, launching comments, hooting and shouting and singing along if a song came up they knew. (Most of these were of the traditional village type with a contemporary twist.) When the show was announced over they immediately filed out of the Centre with astonishing discipline, something I have witnessed in other places, as well. Maybe something to emulate for the youth of The Netherlands, when they consider going on the rampage again because their hours out on the streets have been temporarily limited…

Truth be told, Malian youths went on a spree back in July, smashing and looting, but this had little to do with a slight inconvenience in their otherwise cosseted lives but because they had connected with a crowd that wanted to remove a government that was killing their future. This provocative juxtaposition is, of course, a deliberate exaggeration.

During an off concert I only heard about the day before…

From the silence of Covid-ridden Europe to the life-affirming noise of Africa, where public life no longer suffers the devastation brought about by government measures in response to the pandemic, with the exception of South Africa I will immediately add. It resembles, by and large, a continent going about its large and expanding business, from music to IT service, from selling food to transporting people in ever growing numbers – and everything else you wish to imagine. It’s all happening and resembles, coming from the weird shutdowns that continue to hobble economic life from Lisbon to Stockholm, a return to something more than just business as usual.

Of course, things are far from ideal. I already mentioned the ubiquitously appalling behaviour in urban traffic and we are still having to deal with every other ill under the sun, from the very true menace of armed militias to everyday petty corruption and a massively dysfunctional infrastructure. And yet, in spite of all this, it feels like a continent going places, while in Europe I cannot shed the impression that this is the end of the road. The European run has been impressive, just like the cost it has imposed on the rest of the world and it is high time to make space for others. What exact shape that will take is impossible to predict but you can take the end to excessive decadence like flying dozens of times each day to easily reachable destinations as a welcome sign of the times. We can do with a bunch of those planes over here, after all…

Abidjan miniatures 8 and end

December 31, 2020

Abidjan is probably the easiest place on earth to find a taxi. They beep at you incessantly the second you place yourself on the pavement, even when you just want to cross the street. They are, in fact, louder and more insistent than their colleagues in Dakar but somehow manage to be less annoying, mostly because in this city literally EVERYONE is making noise… So: taxi. Within seconds.

The driver fills his seat to overflowing and he has positioned his corpulent self like someone on an extended relaxing holiday. But he is most assuredly at work and does not miss a beat when manoeuvering his orange Toyota through the throng in this, the busiest part of the city. And in the meantime: he talks, virtually non-stop. “See this traffic jam?” Er, yes, I do. We are in it. A long procession of private vehicles, blue wôro-wôro, buses, taxis (including mine), vans, gbaka stands still and does not move. This may be a looong ride…

“You see? These people are not even leaving Yopougon. They’re on their way to the next maquis. Everything is here! You want beer, there’s beer. You want food, there is food. You see that bar over there?” He points to his right, across a pavement, lined with food stalls and busy like a bus station. “Yes, that one. Now! When that maquis on the other side closes…” he points to his left: amidst blocks of apartments I spot part of an open space packed with tables and chairs and I pick up the sound of a band that is clearly attempting to top L’Internat in the decibel production department. You only have ONE guess as to the music it plays

“Yes – that’s the place I mean,” my guide and driver continues. “Now. When that maquis closes everybody crosses the road to come here. You see the girls getting ready?” He was not only referring to the ones selling food. “This is the new Rue Princesse, you see? After they had knocked down the old one they all came over here.” Rue Princesse, for the uninitiated, is the busiest street in the area, where boys with money meet drinks meet food meet girls looking for a good time and some money (and maybe even the other way around)… hence the name. You may, by now, have reached the conclusion that the urge to turn life into one giant party is irrepressible here and you would be right.

After an interminable ride through Yopougon we emerge onto one of the three bridges that give access to the six-lane motorway that is part of the giant motorway system linking all constituent parts of this giant city. There’s always a bit of anarchy going on here, to put it mildly. My driver, forever slouched in his seat, belly protruding as we hurtle along, explains that there’s a lot of accidents happening on this stretch of road (in fact I saw an overturned gbaka minibus on the way in) because people don’t keep their distance.

Neither does he, as he alternates between one line of fast moving vehicles and another…

Angré. Oh dear…are you really going back there…?

“So Angré it is where you’re going, right? But there’s nothing there! No life!” The traffic starts thinning out as we get to our exit lane into Cocody, leading to the Boulevard that takes us to Angré. There’s still a bunch of cars about but nothing in the way that Yopougon was crowded. My driver is almost triumphant as he weaves his way in and out of smooth flowing traffic on the two-lane boulevard. “See? Told you! Nothing here! The bosses are sleeping!” It is just after 10pm and we are, indeed, entering a more affluent part of the city. “Now, in Yopougon, hm, you will see people out and about at midnight. One, two, three in the morning. Yes! And do you know why there are so many banks in Yopougon? Simple: when people are having a good time and the money runs out, there’s always one who will say: ah, let me just pop over to the bank and get some more money for our next beers…? You see? But here….”

But then some doubt creeps into his discourse. “Look, I am working really long hours to get some money and then I pass those maquis – every day of the week, and the same guys sit there at eleven pm, twelve midnight, three am…and they are supposed to work the next day? Of course not. And then the next day…I see them again! Where do they get all that money from? I don’t quite understand…” It is likely that the equally ubiquitous Western Union agencies have something to do with that seemingly endless flow of money…

And then he drops me off in far too quiet, empty and miserable Angré. And he almost feels sorry for me. “Look at you, I’m leaving you in this stone dead neck of the woods and look at me and where I am going: back to life, back to joy, back to good food and plenty drinks and gorgeous princesses…” Do I get the picture?

Yes. Certainly. I do. See you soon in this city, enjoyable and exasperating, full of life, noise, crime and grime but in possession of copious amounts of Never Say Die. I will be back.

An Excellent New Year to You All.

Abidjan miniatures 7

December 30, 2020

An evening in Yopougon

C’est mangrrrove. You know what that means? You know what a mangrove is, right? Where trees are growing in the water, right? But here in Côte d’Ivoire mangrrrove means: nice, lovely…”

Thanks for the language lesson, Roger, who says he is one of the neighbourhood youths that designs the dazzling street dances that have for the longest time been a part of the tradition at the place where I meet him: L’Internat, also known as the Zouglou Temple, where the ambiance is, indeed, mangrrrove.

Alright. What is zouglou and where is L’Internat?

Zouglou was born in the huge Abidjan suburb of Yopougon and L’Internat, located well inside Yopougon in the Niangon Sud part of this massive maze has been its principal podium ever since it opened in 2009. “Zouglou is music that allows you to have a good time but it’s also a way for people to express themselves.” That’s Cécilia Yao talking, a visitor I interviewed for a Voice of America report on this place and its music (starts at 25 minutes 30 seconds into this lovely program). She explains in a few words the absolute genius of zouglou: this is music that makes you dance and think at the same time. The rhythms are based on beats that come from around the country, as Yodé & Siro, two veteran zouglou artists and two true gentlemen explained to me the day after my evening in L’Internat. The instantly recognisable multi-layered singing, too: there’s a bit of the Centre in it, the West, even the North…and a detectable link to Congolese rhumba. Their point was this: even though zouglou was born in Yopougon, it is very much part of national Ivorian identity.

Most of you will know the biggest zouglou hit ever, Magic System’s Premier Gaou, which made it all the way to MTV in the 1990s. An apparently autobiographical account of a poor boy who is rejected by a girl, who then tries to rope him in again when he has become famous thanks to a hit song he’s written. Magic System are still huge and one of their offshoots is a music company, unsurprisingly called Gaou Productions. Other bands have also made sure that their names are not easily forgotten: Les Salopards, Les Garagistes, Les Patrons…

A whiteboard-like wall, next to the bar, gives you some of the biggest names who stood on the stage of this mythical place…

The thinking part of zouglou comes from the words, as another visitor to L’Internat, Olivier, explains. Like Cécilia (and yours truly) he comes a veeeery long way, from the Cocody neighbourhood of Angré, to see the bands and have a ton of drinks and fun with his friends. Mind you, this is only once a week on the Sunday and it tends to end pretty early because for many of the music lovers here, tomorrow is a working day. “Zouglou…it’s the  beautiful music and the words,” Olivier explains. “There’s good advice on how to behave, how to live…” In actual fact, many of the songs tell not-so-uplifting but truly hilarious stories about what has happened in the street, the neighbourhood, the antics of a veritable rogues’ gallery of small-time crooks and two-timing husbands and/or wives, brought to you (we cannot stress this enough) with a huge dollop of uniquely Ivorian humour. Abidjan is called the Capital of Laughter for a reason.

Seven years ago, during another visit here, there was one song that kept coming back: Je Roule Kdo (that’s ‘cadeau’ for you, and in this neck of the woods ‘cadeau’ means ‘for nothing’, or ‘free of charge’…). It told the story of two Frenchmen who were swindled out of a very large amount of money by a wily Yopougon taxi driver…so large was the sum that he could buy a car from the proceeds – hence the title. A party of very robustly built neighbourhood women was dancing to this tune, whilst pretending to be at the wheel. They had an absolute screamer of a good time, while I was having visions of their husbands, tied to the kitchen table back home…

Evening has fallen and as usual, the music cascading from the PA system has reached such ear-splitting levels that the sounds starts bouncing back from the buildings around the place. To give my ears some relief, I move to the adjacent parking lot, which is where I meet Roger and Olivier, and where I interview artistic director Patron Sylvanus, who explains how zouglou is also a great leveller, as it makes you forget, if only temporary, who is boss and who isn’t. Even when there are plenty of songs to remind the listener of exactly that…

Yodé (left) & Siro, after the interview

Like the latest Yodé & Siro tune, Président On Dit Quoi (the last three words here are, in Ivorian parlance, the universally used phrase to ask you how you are), where they take a few digs at the current government of president Alassane Ouattara. “It’s nice that there’s light everywhere now. Tarred roads everywhere. There’s even lights IN the tarred roads (a reference to the tiny lights that alert drivers they are about to stray into a lane for oncoming traffic…). Our country is becoming really beautiful. But president, why is it that we always hear that the money is working…but then we only see certain people eating well and oh, by the way, why is it you don’t care what happens to us when we fall ill? Ah yes, I forgot: you lot always go abroad for medical treatment…”

Yes, in spite of the banter and the jokes the lyrics can be pretty hard-hitting. Yodé & Siro did not really want to discuss their recent legal troubles with me, the result of their comments on the partisan actions of the nation’s State Prosecutor, which landed them a suspended prison sentence and a substantial fine but they were clearly undeterred: “Look, we have been lampooning presidents ever since we began. Just because there is a new government now does not mean we are going to change. It’s our job to tell leaders what they do right and what they do wrong…”

One famous episode recounts how, when Laurent Gbagbo became president, Yodé & Siro did a song that warned him: if you appoint thieves in your entourage, you will be called a thief. One day, they were called to the presidential palace, where they went with some trepidation. Gbagbo had lined up his entire cabinet of ministers, so the story goes, and then ordered the two artists to sing their song on the spot. When they had finished, the president told his ministers: “You see? It’s YOU they are singing about. YOU are the thieves…” This is unlikely to have changed the actual situation materially – corrupt bureaucrats have been a blight on this country for decades – but it does show you the extent to which zouglou is part of the Ivorian DNA. Président On Dit Quoi was on permanent rotation in the maquis, on the radio, in the markets, everywhere…

Photo credit: L’Internat Facebook page

But now, for me, the time has come to leave L’Internat. This is very sad but my left ear is ringing from the World War Three levels of the sound system. Ever since I caused a rather unfortunate sound accident in a self-op studio some nine years ago in Hilversum there’s a maximum to what that ear can tolerate. And yes, even more maddeningly, my back has started protesting yet again… (I don’t moan about it all the time but rest assured that it moans at me on an almost permanent basis…). So it is time for a taxi and the last instalment of these Abidjan stories…