The Volcano

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

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

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

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

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

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

José, ahead of me, on the way up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spoiler alert: I did not die.

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

Ash Highway, José is speeding ahead of me

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

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

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

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

Quite.

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

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

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

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

Boots and brownshirts – conclusion

June 2, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Boots and brownshirts – part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last part tomorrow

Boots and brownshirts – part two

May 31, 2022

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

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

image retrieved from Hindustan News Hub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

Boots and brownshirts – part one

May 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

A farewell to Harper (end)

April 11, 2022

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

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

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

Recording Lawrence’s band. Pic: Martin Waalboer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A farewell to Harper (3)

April 2, 2022

Maryland Avenue, as you approach downtown Harper

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

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

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

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

zogo headquarters?

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

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

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

A small section of what will be a larger port

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

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

A farewell to Harper (2)

March 31, 2022

Downtown Harper, most of Cape Palmas and the port, picture made 12 years ago from a plane belonging to either Elysian Air or the UN

I visited Harper about half a dozen times between the start of the century and now. My friend and partner-in-excellent-reporting Martin Waalboer did as well and he has produced a highly evocative video that captures Harper’s rise and fall. It’s here, on his website and the production is entitled A Dream Called Harper.

A Dream Called Harper captures the grandeur that was so very clearly envisaged by the 19th Century town founders, and which was the deliberate target of the armed gangs that washed over this town three times. In 1990, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia looted Harper. In 1993-4 another armed gang, George Boley’s cruelly misnamed Liberian Peace Council burnt it and then in 2003, Ivorian-backed rebels of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia did some more looting and vandalising and killing and raping. A UN team visited the town in and found desolation and desperation. Even today, Harper does not feel half as lively as Pleebo, a thriving and bustling market town just 24 kilometres down the road.

From the extreme damage that was inflicted on this town, one can easily imagine, as a lot of townspeople do, that this vandalism was driven by pure hatred. How else can you explain the extensive looting and burning sprees of these homes? The rich classes in Harper and elsewhere are living in wealth and their privileged position must be materially destroyed.

It still remains surreal to try and understand what happened here and not be totally taken aback by the extreme intensity of the violence that was rained on Harper – and indeed all Liberians towns and cities. This is how one member of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described her feelings, when I spoke with her during the TRC hearing in Harper City Hall in the first decade of this century: ‘I don’t think we’re bad people. I believe we are good people but something has gone very wrong.’ Those empty ghost-like concrete carcasses that are scattered around old Harper Town offer eloquent testimonies of that sentiment. Part of the TRC’s work was to offer an explanation for the causes of Liberia’s descent into hell, which they did admirably. Their report is here.

Maryland Avenue with the old cinema rising above some old homes

How do you recover from this? The shortest and possibly most honest answer is: you don’t. But most will anyway because they must. Like Victor, a young lad barely out of his teens, one of the former child soldiers I spoke with. He did not want to discuss what he remembered of his own part in the war but was very keen to talk about his school plans. In the capital Monrovia, many miles away, a group of youngsters with similar pasts just told me the truth in the most succinct way possible: ‘We spoil.’ Liberian shorthand for: we destroyed and made a mess. They also told me that the leaders who enticed, cajoled, recruited, forced, lured or deceived them into participating had all lied to them.

Those on the receiving end also had to cope. Like our dear friend Melita Gardner, whose incredible life story merits a novel all its own. (Here is a short piece, in Dutch.) From being a highly active member of her church and community to becoming a widow and having to bring up a large family all by herself to getting caught up in the war and having to reunite her entire family in a refugee facility in Côte d’Ivoire to organising emergency aid to the victims of the fighting to becoming a Development Officer in Harper City Hall to…is there anything she hasn’t done? Harper residents told me that if there is one person who should have a monument in their honour, it should be her.

But even Melita had to make the move out of Harper, and into the United States, still the place of reference for so many Liberians. Few if any of the old inhabitants remain and those who arrive have little time for the storied streets and homes and houses. Or what’s left of them.

Part 3 shortly

A farewell to Harper (in four parts)

March 30, 2022

Photo credit: Martin Waalboer

Downtown Harper, Liberia. This was the place where I stayed on my very first visit, more than 20 years ago. Then, as now, it’s called “Neufville House,” after the proprietor, DK Neufville. I met him in person during another visit but like many Harper burghers he now resides in the capital, Monrovia.

Back then, the house was already falling apart, because when war came to Harper in 1990 people had to flee and could no longer maintain their homes. The city’s inhabitants had just started moving back in when I first got here. Sure, the floors were creaking at Neufville House, of course there was no electricity, water came from the well in the front yard but everyone in the house was very welcoming and accommodating. Besides, I could already see many other homes that were in a far more advanced state of decay than my friendly guesthouse.

I will readily confess: the minute I set eyes on it, Harper fascinated me. How it could be that this small town in a remote southeastern corner of Liberia could be home to such a collection of magnificent and stately homes…

Who built this?

Harper sits next to Cape Palmas, a long finger of rock, high above the slow, mesmerising surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, Africa’s coast turns northeast and becomes a sweeping arc across neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire and into Ghana. An old lighthouse, no longer in use, marks the end of the rock.

Cape Palmas was settled by the Maryland Colonization Society (you read that right) in the 1830s. The region was named Maryland County, after the American southern state and its capital was named after a US Senator, Robert Goodloe Harper. Harper was a leading figure of a larger operation, the American Colonization Society (you read that right too), which established Liberia in 1822. Maryland joined Liberia in 1857 and its patrician class became a key force in the True Whig Party, which dominated Liberia for 133 years. Who built this? This ruling class did. They were free from the American slavery they had left behind, they were getting rich and they wanted to show off.

In downtown Harper

Not much is left of the old grandeur but you can certainly still see that this was intended to be an elegant and pretty place, built by the leading families in city and country: the Andersons, the Neufvilles, the Gardners, the Gibsons and most of all the Tubmans, including Harper’s most illustrious son, William Vacaranat Shadrach Tubman, who became Liberia’s 19th and longest-serving president. He ran the country as a benign autocrat from 1944 until his death in 1971. There was a direct line from him, through his parents and grandparents, to the slavery days in the United States: his grandparents’ passage to Liberia was paid for by their former owner, Emily Tubman, whose surname they adopted. His father had served in the Liberian army and his mother came directly from the state of Georgia, USA.

And yet, these “Americo-Liberians” (we’ll leave the complexities surrounding these and other terminologies to one side for the time being) went on to recreate these familiar southern states on African soil, including the stately homes, a dress code worthy of the upper classes – and people who would now serve them: the indigenous populations of Liberia. And even when it is eminently true that the story is a lot more multilayered and complex than presented here, the principle of the thing means that you can readily see that this was never going to end well.

William VS Tubman himself collected a fairly typical crop of Liberian professions: soldier, preacher, lawyer, politician. If there is one thing Liberians are extremely good at – and I do mean extremely good – it is eloquence. Look no further than three of these four professions to understand why this is a country where people are practically born with the gift of the gab.

President Tubman set about developing his country and his home town, Harper. The homes got even more grandiose than before. City roads were paved, electricity arrived, hospitals were built, decent schools opened, a city hall appeared, as did a museum and public library. ‘We had everything here,’ one resident would recall. And numerous were the older men and women who volunteered the word “Paradise” when asked to describe their town in the days before the wars. But it was outside appearance; Liberians call Tubman’s long reign “Growth Without Development”…

Part 2 shortly

Barriers and checkpoints

February 22, 2022

Anyone who has ever been traveling by road in West Africa knows this to be one of the greatest nuisances imaginable: the road block. They are, in general, useless and time consuming, hold up traffic, slow down the economy (as the Economist newspaper once famously calculated when describing the gauntlet run by a beer truck in Cameroon) and serve no other purpose than to line the pockets of the usually vastly underpaid uniformed staff manning them. (Yes, there are women there, too, and they tend to be just as bad.)

Liberia has its unfair share of these pests: a piece of rope across the road with some old plastic bags attached to it marks the spot where you are supposed to park your vehicle and wait for whatever comes next. In the quiet backwaters that are connected to one another by (at times) extremely bad roads these things take a little time.

Someone in a uniform walks up. Gets close to the car. Peers in. Decides on the spot whether or not the passengers’ papers need checking. This decision is mostly determined by the question whether or not he knows the driver of the car and/or the person sitting in the front seat. If yes, the car gets waved through. If no, the decision is then informed by the extent to which the officer in question can be bothered to put in the extra work.

Like any force anywhere in the world, Liberia has its army of obnoxious time-consuming jobsworths and when you cover a long distance passing through dozens of these checkpoints you are likely to come across one or two. Almost always men, almost always bereft of even the most minuscule sense of humour and exuding an air that is supposed to make the traveller aware of the extreme gravity of his task. Unfortunately, that gravity is not matched by their rather lamentable station in life.

Yes, you may have dreamt of becoming Head of Immigration for the Republic at some point in your life but right now you have come out of a damp hovel somewhere in the sticks and are staring intently at a passport you don’t understand.

The passports, already checked and verified on arrival in the country, are returned in short order. Sometimes money changes hands between driver and uniform and this is to cement an already existing relationship or create a new one. Perfectly legitimate transactions, as these make progress possible. Our progress, that is, and the uniform’s pockets’ progress. The country’s…not so much.

Sometimes, however, the staged ponderousness gets the better of the officer. This happened on one occasion. As follows.

Driver slows down for the habitual rope-and-plastic across the road. Uniform saunters out. Bored face switches to studied gravitas when he spots the luggage: two white dudes sitting in the back of a car.

The question drops. ‘May we know who you are?’ Or something along those lines.

Sure. I am Bram and this is Martin. He’s the photographer; I’m the one doing the write-ups.

Not good enough. Without bothering to introduce himself he ups the game.

‘My superiors would like to have a word with you.’

Well that is perfectly fine. Out we go, passports in hand, getting ready for the usual scrutiny by two or more pairs of eyes. On one occasion, six pairs of eyes were needed to establish that we had arrived through the country’s sole international airport and that the relevant authorities of said airport had seen and stamped these passports. You will, incidentally, have a hard time getting into the country via that route without being seen by the authorities; when it comes to herding passengers from one predetermined slot to the next on their journey from plane to taxi or vice-versa, Liberians are hard to beat in terms of thoroughness. Anyway, back to our scene in the rainforest.

We descend from the car, walk up to a pair of rather ramshackle shops that pass for offices (clearly, the government does not consider providing a proper working environment for their staff a priority) and then…nothing. Where are the superiors? We should be in the shop to the right. The one to the left clearly has nothing to do with the proceedings and cares even less. We then notice that the shop to the right – is shut.

Our earnest officer gets smaller with every passing second at which point someone observes:

‘My maaaan (ubiquitous greeting) nobady here.’

We don’t feel the need to rub it in even further; his humiliation is already complete. But that’s being unfamiliar with Liberians. As we drive off, a barrage of invective ensues, clearly intended to still be within earshot…

‘Whaa the man wasting our time for!’ And further choice barbs for the hapless officer without superiors. He should not forget this episode in a hurry.

To be fair though, most of the time the checkpoints are cheerful affairs, manned by smiles in uniform who come up to the car with a heartfelt ‘How the morning/day?’, followed by a bit of banter, a few jokes and getting waved through. Depending on the country and who was/is running, roadblocks stretch from extremely tense and even deadly to these relaxed affairs. But the best roadblock on this trip had nothing to do with uniforms and everything with the state of the roads here…

One particular stretch in Grand Bassa is so impassable that the traffic has decided to create a bypass. All fine and good, except that this bypass runs right through somebody’s village. And so, one smart kid has decided to make the village and himself some money. His roadblock consists of a tree branch, solidly lodged into a cleft stick. No flimsy rope across the improvised and extremely muddy slippery road here, this is altogether sterner stuff.

As is the lad manning it. No way he is going to be deceived by our driver’s dog and pony show, pretending to be deaf and dumb, trying to wriggle through without paying.  Nope: you pay, or this branch here stays right where it is. For once, our intrepid front row team has to give in. Well done this lad! If you drive through our village, disturbing our peace and making our lives miserable, you will pay. Good modern thinking at work here, in a deep recess of Liberia’s forest.