Elections in Gondwana

September 7, 2019

Journeys by bus take long in this part of the world. Not just because of the hours wasted crossing borders – each border on average takes hours – but simply because of the distances. Bamako to Cotonou is doable but will take a few days, require visas for each country I traverse (three or four, depending on the route) and fingers crossed that the border crossings don’t take three or four hours each. (Travelling on smaller vehicles will also help.)

Invariably, during these long trips we are treated to video. Yes, these are modern buses (made in China, thank you very much) with airconditioning set to an ungodly 17-18 degrees Celsius or less and retractable television screens, usually two.

Yep, these are the ones. Pic from Africa Tours Trans Facebook page. Taken in Bamako, before the Independence Monument.

When the screens come down from the ceiling, expect to be treated to any of the following:

  1. Video clips by popular artists. These can range from excellent to appalling. But that’s alright, usually the music bounces along happily and the journey gets a little less boring.
  2. Concert clips by big names, ranging from Oumou Sangaré to Salif Keita and many many more, with a surprisingly large number of clips from the inimitable Afrikafestival in the Dutch village of Hertme, which has a YouTube channel. (I’m preparing a radio story about this festival, coming up shortly…)
  3. Long, meandering slow-moving films, in one of the many languages spoken here and usually revolving around some village intrigue or other. A lot of these come from Burkina Faso, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire or Guinea. You also have the Nollywood variety, faster-paced and in English, a language most passengers between Bamako, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Niamey, Dakar and Lomé do not understand, a fact that bothers precisely nobody.
  4. Other stuff. Thankfully, there has been a marked decline in the formerly ubiquitous US World Wrestling Federation (or whatever it’s called) with it fake stage “wrestling matches”, just as there has been an equally welcome decline in the formerly ubiquitous presence of the inexplicably popular Céline Dion on the buses stereo systems, which tend to come on as soon as a clip/film/other thing ends.

We now get Nigerian pop (confusingly called Afrobeats but otherwise very welcome with its laid-back flair), coupé-décalé (noisy and chaotic, a reflection of the place and time it comes from), plenty of classics and a lot of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety that gets mass-produced everywhere in the world with the added annoyance that people’s singing voices get mangled by some software that seems to be deliberately designed to piss off as many music lovers as possible…

And then, occasionally, there’s a surprise. On a recent trip I was treated to a film called Bienvenue au Gondwana.

This may ring a bell for some of you. If you listen to RFI (Radio France Internationale) in the morning on weekdays, which I do regularly, you are likely to come across the voice of Mamane, a humorist/satirist from Niger. This voice, I will readily admit, is an acquired taste. It does not work for me; on the contrary: I find his vocal mannerism hugely annoying. He is better on the stage where he has a bunch of pretty good routines.

His tales revolve around an African country he invented, Gondwana. It has been run since forever and will forever be run by a figure who is only known as Président-Fondateur. You don’t have to look very far for models – think Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his more-or-less benign autocracy in Côte d’Ivoire, or the rapacious reign of Zaïrean kleptocrat Mobutu or indeed the recently departed Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his fear-based rule. The Président-Fondateur is a combination of these elements – we get copious amounts of posters with his face on it plastered all over the capital and we get scenes with opposition members who have been locked up. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; like a Big Brother his presence hovers over the nation but his is also a disembodied presence. He communicates to his subjects through a television station that is required to relay his message verbatim. Such as the announcement of an election date.

Mamane populates Gondwana with a merry cast of other characters and the inspiration for his radio talks usually comes from current affairs: some useless conference somewhere, talk of some head of state or other planning to rule for the rest of his life, a doctored election, a protest movement, sports events, you name it. (Yes, I sometimes do make it to the end of his mannered speeches…)

Gondwana virtually begged for cinematographic treatment and this happened a few years ago. I don’t think the finished product made it to many cinemas, which I think is a shame, having seen it now. I sat up as the bus rumbled along, hoping that we would not be interrupted by another corrupt control post and hoping that the apprentice, who runs the entertainment program, would not decide that he was bored halfway through and switch to another program. My prayers were heard; neither happened and I settled in for what was to be quite interesting and satisfying. Here’s the trailer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUCacy3ooQU

 

Gondwana: The Movie, shot in Abidjan, Yamoussoukro and Paris, is a series of stories cleverly woven into each other. A French (of course) politician/lobbyist/businessman sends one of the younger employees in his company to Gondwana, to be part of a very hollow ritual: the international observer mission to a national election. The elderly Frenchman will also be part of the delegation, not to observe, mind you, but to get his Gondwanean counterpart to buy the asparagus that are grown in his  constituency back home. There are other members in the delegation, including an earnest looking white woman – the European Union has an endless supply of them – and one black man who on arrival is separated from the rest of the delegation by two very rude policemen who simply do not believe that he is, also, an observer. Mamane gently inserts a good jab about internalised racism here.

Cut to another scene: the pointless ritual known as The Press Conference. The delegation has met the government and they have decided on what set of platitudes to deliver to the hacks in the hall. This time though, it does not go entirely according to plan, as a young activist stands up and delivers a speech denouncing the farce about to unfold. She manages to make her point before being hauled away by security and beguile the young Frenchman who starts to suspect that something rotten may be happening in the state of Gondwana. The elderly Frenchman wants nothing of it. After all, he’s not here to observe this circus, he’s here to sell asparagus.

Our young Frenchman finds his way to the underground protest movement, where we see cameo performances of two artists with a long reputation for their outspokenness: Senegalese rap master Awadi and reggae’s uncompromising Tiken Jah Fakoly. Then the protest concert is violently broken up by the police. Our Frenchman gets temporarily lost, manages to get himself rescued and on arrival back at the très très chic hotel where the delegation is being housed (of course) he is berated by the slightly sinister duo that was hired to not only lead the delegation quite voluntarily up the garden path but also pay and/or intimidate opposition politicians into going along with the game of the Président-Fondateur.

Oh and thank Heavens, or rather, Mamane: our Frenchyoungster and the extremely pretty activist do not fall in love; he clearly is besotted but she has her own love life, thank you very much.

Our young French would-be hero gets a little dressing-down from his minders. (Pic from the film review on the website 20minutes.fr)

Most of the characters remain fairly one-dimensional but together they give us Mamane’s mildly cynical view of how elections are run in a depressingly large number of countries; there is growing doubt, and in my mind correctly so, about the merits of the multi-party democracy formula that was essentially rammed down everybody’s throat when the Cold War ended and the West discovered the merits of “democracy” in its former colonies. Mali is an excellent example of this. The film also adds a few more examples of what I have previously called “white lifeforms” on the African continent. Because yes of course, the Frenchman gets to sell his blooming asparagus and of course the election-farce returns Président-Fondateur to power for another term. If you have a chance, go and watch it: a light-hearted look at a serious matter.

A tunnel with two dead ends

June 17, 2019

It’s only six-and-a-half years ago when Malian citizens came out in their numbers waving French flags and saluting the then president François Hollande during one of the few truly triumphant moments he must have felt in the course of his otherwise depressingly dreary presidency.

The occasion was of course the relatively quick and easy success of Opération Serval, principally designed to ensure that a jihadist fighting force that occupied Mali’s North and had just crossed a vital line at Konna, in the centre of Mali, never reached Bamako where it could abduct, kill and maim a potential of 7,000 French residents, take hold of the airport and send young men to France with ideas and plans to bomb cafes.

I am, to this day, absolutely convinced that Malians never figured in the president’s calculations.

Fast forward to 2019 and that feeling of adoration Malians felt towards the French has entirely evaporated. Earlier this year a 30-years-old French medic was killed in the border region between Mali and Burkina Faso; Facebook exploded with joy. “Good riddance” and “Allah be praised” were among the mildest reactions. What has changed?

The answer to this question is: too little. Back in 2013 there was an expectation that the French army with its superior firepower and sophisticated reconnaissance capabilities would put an end to this jihad nonsense in short order and that would be it.

Well, they didn’t. Instead, the Opération Serval has morphed into Opération Barkhane, which covers the entire Sahel Region, not just Mali and is headquartered in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. This is a country that has been ruled for almost thirty years with an iron fist by Idriss Déby Itno, installed by the French secret services and kept in power by Chad’s battle-hardened troops and on three occasions (2005, 2008 and 2019) by swift French military action.

Opération Barkhade has been joined by a UN stabilisation mission with the longest name (MINUSMA) and highest death toll in UN history and a regional anti-terrorist force called G5. Also count in the support and training (and perhaps even combat) missions by the European Union, the United States and heaven knows who else. So, as a Malian citizen you are seeing thousands upon thousands of foreign soldiers entering your country and for all you know they are simply overseeing a situation getting progressively worse. What are you going to make of it?

You are going to think that they might be here for different reasons. This, for instance, is a placard that was carried in one of the numerous anti-French demonstrations happening in the Malian capital and covered in the June 14 edition of the news site Bamada.net

No, there is no evidence for this, as usual. But the sentiment is real, it’s all-pervasive and it is due to the fact that what all these foreign missions actually DO has no visible relationship with what it says on the tin. Add to this the blunders committed by operatives of Opération Barkhane, which now get splashed across the pages of the digital media, and you can easily see that whatever goodwill French military operations had in Mali and beyond has gone, probably for good.

And there is more.

Not only is France now the object of undiluted hostility coming from many a Sahelian country (to the extent that demonstrations are allowed; in Chad the government stops demonstrations with a single SMS message sent to everyone who owns a cellphone) but the French presence is also the object of an entire raft of conspiracy theories, one even more outlandish than the other. Two of the most persistent are that French troops are looking for minerals in the North of Mali (one such story used French troops clearing landmine material in the Central African Republic as evidence) and that France is behind the most recent spate of horrific mass killings that have shocked the nations of Mali and Burkina Faso. One highly prolific twitter account delights in sharing links with stories about French misfortunes and misbehaviours, often using spin that freely crosses the border between information and fake news. A terribly ineffective way to get France out of Africa, if you ask me.

Not lacking in clarity. From Bamada.net

The reason for this wave of outright hostility, and more often than not coming from digital media savvy youth, is history. There is a huge shipload of stories about crimes committed by France, also covered on this blog, for instance its deliberate and destructive negligence in the Central African Republic and its disguised and downright criminal support for Biafra in Nigeria’s civil war. And, of course, who can forget Ivorian writer (now editor-in-chief of the country’s state newspaper Fraternité Matin) Vincent Konan’s deadly satirical Afro-sarcastic Chronicles, which I reviewed here?

There are other issues I have not covered, but which have been written about in books like La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République by the late François-Xavier Verschave. Indeed (if I may), my own book on Guinea deals with the French shenanigans in that country at length. So there is more than enough historical fuel for anger against the one former colonial power that seems unable to just pack its bags and go.

And present fuel, too.

One of the things that irks people from Dakar to Niamey is the arrogant attitude that seems to come from too many European individuals who stay in this part of the world. I saw a little example of that many years ago and I have no doubt that there are many more. (In nominally Francophone West Africa everyone who is white is automatically assumed to be French.) One by one, they may seem insignificant incidents but together they add up and too often you see a distinct lack of self-reflection on the part of white people ordering black people about as if it is 1949, not 2019. That definitely must stop.

And the other thing is…opacity. Nothing fuels rumour mongering more than lack of credible information about why you are here and what it is that you do. The many bland statements from French ministers do not fill the information gap. These days, every report about how Opération Barkhane “neutralised” 20 or 30 or 50 (supposed) jihadists is met with complete and utter derision and instructions to “get the H*ll out of my country”. It also renders any rational debate about why France is here and what it actually does, completely impossible.

It is, for instance, rather difficult to discuss France’s role on the continent with someone who is utterly convinced that France will collapse the day it pulls out (or preferably gets kicked out) of Africa when trade statistics put the contribution to French external commerce of the entire continent at 5% with none of the former colonies playing a major role: Nigeria, South Africa and Angola are France’s top three trading partners. Of course, a number of French companies would face difficulties if they withdrew (the logistics and media empire of Bolloré, oil major Total, the uranium company Orano, beverage king Castel and the infrastructure emperor Bouygues being obvious examples) but most if not all of them would survive.

Vessels off Las Palmas, not so long ago a major destination for migrants from West Africa and located on the nearest Europe-controlled Atlantic islands off the African coast.

What we have, in the end, are two sets of unhealthy fixations between the two: most French care about Africa in two ways: immigrants and terrorists and how to keep them out. One of France’s most prominent politicians, Marine le Pen, has successfully managed to conflate immigration and criminal behaviour to create a thoroughly racist and xenophobic political platform that threatens to engulf the nation’s body politic. The majority of people in the Sahel countries see absolutely no good coming from whatever France does and want to see the back of the former colonial power, pronto. These two viewpoints reinforce one another.

Any light at the end of this two-side dead end tunnel? For the time being: not really. Both viewpoints are informed by an obsessive tendency to divert attention away from issues that should be in clear focus: a lack of perspective for too many citizens, the marginalisation of too many citizens and the obscene inequalities both within individual countries (thanks to the destructive neo-liberal project that has captured all these nations) and between the northern and the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. These are things that need obsessive attention, so we can finally turn away from pointing fingers and constructing conspiracy theories – and start working towards solutions that have a better chance to succeed.

Here’s to the triumph of hope over experience, as fellow curmudgeon Oscar Wilde would say.

Orientations

March 22, 2019

This is a picture I took a few months ago in a Ségou hotel.

There’s a lot to see here.

The “motos” parked to the right are pretty much Mali’s standard urban mode of transport, topped (in Bamako at least) only by the ubiquitous green minibuses called “Sotrama”: relatively cheap and always packed. The buses have attracted an industry that now consists of drivers (of course), apprentices (for seat distribution and payment of fares) and an army of young men, some just boys, who dash dangerously across Bamako’s busy crossroads dodging cars, lorries, swarms of motos, cyclists and other Sotramas as they watch, eagle-eyed for potential passengers – and all this work for a tiny fee.

Move your regard from the motos to the door, and you will see two signs of the Castel beer brand. Castel is part of the empire of Pierre Castel, the 90-plus years old tipple tycoon, who runs his vast and mostly African empire from the company’s headquarters in Toulouse. Castel is part of a small but powerful bunch of (often family-based) French businesses that work in logistics (Bolloré), construction (Bouygues) mining (Orano) or sell mobile phone services like France Telecom, which owns the Orange brand. And that’s before we get to Total, the largest oil major on the continent.

Castel pretty much owns the Malian beer market, as it does in neighbouring Burkina Faso and much elsewhere in officially Francophone Africa. It has a real fight on his hands in large and relatively rich Côte d’Ivoire – with Heineken. Mali drinks beer in impressive quantities but this is often done at home. However, you can also find it in hotels, in those basic but friendly watering holes that are called “dépôt” and in many shops – even in most of the big supermarkets run by ostensibly pious Lebanese businessmen. Money talks and alcohol sells.

But things do grate at times. Look to the left of that door, across from the parked motos and you will find, gently sloping against a wooden cupboard, a prayer mat, an indispensable item in every Malian household. Of course, Islam forbids the use of alcohol but in real life you will find that the majority are definitely familiar with it. This is rarely a problem, since West Africa, which imported this religion from the Middle East gave it a uniquely tolerant, flexible and cosmopolitan swing. Mali is about 95% Muslim but – to give you just one other example – Malians resort to consulting a traditional seer at the least sign of trouble.

But there has been an intermittent culture war going on between the “flexible” and the “precise” interpretations of Islam,* which goes back centuries. It has been brought into sharp relief following an Arab oil money-fuelled construction wave that involved erecting scores of Wahabi mosques across the entire Sahel region and beyond. Wahabism is the state religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; its narrow-mindedness and its proselytising zeal are matched only by the televangelical priests from Texas who have been poisoning public debate in East and Southern Africa. Wahabist missionaries have been doing the same in West Africa.

*Dutch readers may recognise similar interpretation battles going on four centuries ago in the Lowlands’ Protestant Church between the “rekkelijken” and the “preciezen”

You’ll be hard pressed to find a Bamako street with no mosque

One of the most contentious issues in this public debate is about and around sexual orientation. Christian and Muslim fanatics have been hard at work to limit the societal space available to people who do not conform to their society’s mores, already conservative, since they prescribe that sex happens between and man and a woman and preferably with the objective to create offspring. Gays and lesbians and people who self-identify in still other ways have been threatened, harassed and beaten up in Uganda, Senegal, Cameroon and indeed Mali. Even murders have occurred. This is done in the name of religion and both USA and KSA-based ultra-conservative excruciatingly intolerant varieties have a lot to answer for in that respect. Sometimes the violence of intolerance is perpetrated in the name of what is referred to an “an authentic African culture”, which, in point of fact, used to have room aplenty for people who fell and/or felt outside the heterosexual norm – until colonial laws shut that space down. And, irony of ironies, sometimes violence is visited on gays and lesbians in the name of the anti-colonial (i.e. anti-Occidental) struggle. I have heard all three varieties.

Yes, this is a very muddled, very complex mix in which peoples’ personal lives clash with religion and its various interpretations, traditions new or invented, the colonial heritage and…the inheritors of that colonial heritage.

Have a look at the banner in that first picture. It’s hanging on the wall, left of the beer signs. It announces a workshop. One of the main sponsors is the Dutch government and the main content provider is the Rutgers Foundation, a well-respected organisation in The Netherlands, where it has done work in promoting knowledge about sex, and sexual and reproductive rights. The workshop is about how to integrate Complete Sexual Education into Mali’s school curriculums. (I’ll not go into Mali’s ongoing education crisis – that’s yet another story.) It has the endorsement of the Ministry of Education, which sends an envoy on a courtesy visit.

Complete Sexual Education. Pretty uncontroversial stuff, you’d say. After all, donor-organised workshops are a dime a dozen. No, far from it in fact.

As the workshop went on, I watched from the nearby hotel terrace and saw men coming out of the conference venue and spending inordinately long amounts of time on their prayer mats. With hindsight I get the impression that those long sessions with the Supreme Being served to perhaps purge something from the system. For a myriad of reasons, homosexuality is regarded extremely negatively in Mali and indeed in many other parts of the continent, and frequently connected with the presence of foul, decadent, white, colonial men – in fact, when visiting Cameroon I was told various times that the current crop of unaccountable leaders running the country into the ground were all gay: they had been groomed before independence by the French to ensure that an invisible gay cabal of Freemasons would hold the reigns forever. This rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

So, unwittingly, a well-meaning but culturally out of its depth Dutch NGO was fuelling something nobody was able to control before to long. Someone got wind of the Complete Sexual Education plan, it was then splashed all over the social media and then into the streets and the word was: “They” – it’s always “they” – have come to promote homosexuality. Never mind that your sexual orientation is something you are born with and cannot change; you can no more “promote” homosexuality among people than you can get a polar bear to eat mangoes.

Never mind any of that. The stream soon swelled and the “scandal” became unstoppable.

And at the end of it all, the plan was put in a drawer and forgotten.

The end?

Not quite…

Enter: Mahmoud Dicko, the Wahab president of Mali’s High Islamic Council and one of the most influential men in the country. On the second Sunday of February he managed to shut down most of Bamako and get a 60,000-strong crowd in the nation’s largest stadium, named March 26, after the day when a peoples’ uprising and the decisive military coup removed the strongman Moussa Traoré from power in 1991. Powerful symbolism that.

March 26 was the day “democracy” was supposed to have come to Mali. In its wake, a plethora of NGOs, the whole alphabet soup, moved in following a slew of eager donors wanting to spend money. Lots of it. Here was Mali, a new donor darling, fresh from the clutches of dictatorship, ripe for the picking and a welcome target for what can only be described as another mission civilisatrice. Yes! I know! Practitioners from the field will howl and bark and scream at this notion but for the sake of clarity we need to be brutally honest here.

The development effort is the orphan of decolonisation and it has to be regarded in this fashion. The “locals” have done so from the Year Dot. To them, aid is another foreign busybody coming in to teach them something they probably already know, except this time they are not armed with Berthier guns but laptops and don’t arrive on horseback but in air-conditioned FourWheelDrives. For the recipients, these differences are mere details. And now these same people are at it again, this time “promoting homosexuality”.

So what happens in the stadium? Imam Mahmoud Dicko marshalls all this resistance and resentment and calls for a law banning homosexuality. That goes down pretty well, as do his denunciations of corruption, nepotism and the rampant lack of security in large parts of the country. The rhetoric is compelling: the Malian government and its decadent Western backers dabble in the “promotion” of deviant sexualities while the country burns.

Bingo. That was the easy part. 

Dicko’s Achilles’ Heel, however, is that he does not remember where he should draw the line. So he overplays his hand and demands the resignation of the Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga. Now he’s gone too far. The trick is no longer working: you can denounce a distant and decadent government in thrall to the West and its sexual peculiarities (as most Malians see it) but as a religious leader you don’t get to play politics. Because there’s another thing Malians know about their imams and their helpers: they are as venal and corrupt as the people supposed to govern them. Murders have happened over business deals gone wrong in mosques and not so long ago a close aide of one Bamako imam was apprehended for producing arms without a license. Maïga had the easiest of tasks replying to Dicko, calling the stadium rally “theatrical” and referring to Dicko as “a hybrid person,” someone who plays religion and politics at the same time. Dicko 1, Maïga 1. A draw.

So – it there a takeaway from all this?

I doubt it. Except, perhaps, the things we already know or should know. Namely, that nothing on this continent is ever easy and that every “simple” solution from a peace-keeping mission to a development program will inevitably crash on the hard rocks of the daily realities and old customs whose existence is all-too-frequently denied. And that resentment about the descendants of former colonial rule (and being white sufficiently qualifies you for that), together with conservatism on the one hand and a despairing lack of perspective on the other, together with the condescending attitudes of those flying in to “study the natives and then improve them” will result in the development effort being seen as a resource, or something that must be thwarted – or a mere background annoyance.

The only thing that works is: come over, you’re always welcome, be quiet, listen and listen well and only then decide if you have anything to add to the society that is not yours in the first place to conduct your social experiments in. Not rolling out your program is an entirely legitimate choice.

 

A plea for accuracy – 5 and end

December 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A plea for accuracy – 4

December 15, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Concluding remarks shortly.

A plea for accuracy – 3

December 10, 2018

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

 

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

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

Filling the void

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

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

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

Flight/Conquest

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

***

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

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

Now fast-forward…

A plea for accuracy – 2

December 6, 2018

Here’s part Two, then…

 

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

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

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

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

A gathering storm

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

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

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

That’s for the next installment.

A plea for accuracy – 1

December 4, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Part Two shortly.

 

 

The circus came to town

August 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

That clearly did not happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning to appreciate Africa – in a Dakar school

April 29, 2018

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

restaurant Figo

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

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

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

restaurant Figo

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

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

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

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

What to do? Enter these two.

IMG_7258

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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