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.

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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!

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After Oxfam

February 12, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

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

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

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

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

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

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

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

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

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

But the point of it all is this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Robert Mugabe: compassionate, violent, retired

November 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mutare. My former shopping centre. Photo from Wikipedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whites on screens

October 1, 2017

On the major media networks the roles of Whites when it comes to Africa is pretty easily summed up. Experts and helpers. Journalists usually don themselves, à la the inexplicably Pullitzer Prize-crowned Jeffrey Gettleman, in the garb of The Expert of the land where they were parachuted, three days or three years ago. The (mercifully former) NYT Nairobi bureau chief has gone on to write his memoirs (of course), with “Africa” as a backdrop for his massively more important and exciting life. One reader was not terribly impressed… https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/08/25/beach-reads-jeffrey-gettlemans-love-africa/?utm_term=.506f3171fc5e

Whites as Helpers (doctors, nurses, relief coordinators) aka Saviours and as Experts; sometimes they are one and the same person. These categories cover pretty much all of the mainstream – especially Anglophone – coverage of ‘Whites on Screens – the Africa Edition’. Oh but there’s now a third category: the Travel Heroes – increasingly Travel Heroines – who traverse the continent piloting sturdy-looking motorcycles or heavy weather vehicles, and always the centre of undiluted African attraction and adoration.

Compare and contrast that with the tapestry of White Lifeforms offered by film directors from the African continent. Just a random fistful. Ready?

A washed-up hippy-like young man with dubious connections in the drugs trade, a small-time crook and womaniser who gets involved in a deal that nearly goes fatally wrong and needs the forceful actions of the locals to save his inconsiderate ass. Classically lovelorn, he kills himself on a motorbike on the Senegalese tourism coast. (Wulu, by Daouda Coulibaly, Mali)

A ruthless female CEO of an international resources company, who organises violence on a large scale in order to thwart the plans of a patriotic president to keep his country’s resources under his country’s control (African Thunderstorm, by Sylvestre Amoussou, Benin)

A journo and expert (yep, rolled into one), who has his own ideas about the representativity of the community he must depict for the umpteenth aid organisation propaganda gig he is filming – and forces a teenage girl who wants to appear in the video as the Pearl of the Ghetto to get rid of all that finery, put on some cheap jeans and a torn T-shirt and cover her face not with make-up but with dirt (N.G.O. Nothing Going On, by Arnold Aganze, Uganda)

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There’s more.

Two utterly hapless “advisers” to a Chinese company that is set to destroy a pristine forest and cause widespread pollution at the behest of a local boy come good who has transformed himself into a ruthless tycoon-cum-politician. All they do is sit, nod and smile, as they get paid for not having the faintest clue about what’s going on (Le Forêt de Niolo, by Adama Roamba, Burkina Faso)

A superficially respectable middle aged gentleman whose company is used as a cover and money tap for drugs transfers (Wulu, by Daouda Coulibaly, Mali)

A heavily accented European middle-aged businessman who uses a string of cynical one-liners that only help to accentuate the impression that he has absolutely no idea of the mores, the cultures, the politics and the business of the country where he works (African Thunderstorm, by Sylvestre Amoussou, Benin)

A young, idealistic millennial who falls in love with one of the local guys hanging around in a trendy bar who tells her that he is running an NGO. (These are organisations that cling like barnacles to the entire continent). She gets conned into organising support for the enterprising young man who will not use the money for the NGO – but for attending a trendy but expensive culture festival with his mates (N.G.O. Nothing Going On, by Arnold Aganze, Uganda)

No saviours here, nope. No experts. Mostly oafs, bullies, small-time criminals, big-time crooks, losers and adventurers, displaying varying levels of haplessness concerning the continent where they have landed or washed ashore. In sharp contrast to the experts, saviours and heroes (of all genders) that the mainstream media offer, these characters were all multidimensional, multi-layered. In short, they were…interesting!!

So, dear reader, if you want to get a truly interesting picture of the kind of White Lifeforms that somehow manage to exist on the African continent, I suggest you turn to filmmakers from that continent. White Life in Africa is not terribly glamorous, it is rarely generous, it is very frequently ill-informed and it is mostly irrelevant. They do get things right on occasion, which is nice – but it’s not the rule.

And here’s some more shocking news. There are many many many many Experts, Helpers and Saviours actually existing on the African continent itself! This may astonish you if your media consumption consists of the likes of CNN, BBC, RT, even Al Jazeera or a major daily newspaper. But they exist, in the thousands. You hardly ever hear about them because they are, in most cases, not white. They were born there, they live there and they do their damnedest to make things work. Oh and they have no intention whatsoever to leave. How many, you ask? I’d say pretty much all of them. The Africans you see arriving in Europe on your television screens – if they make it at all – constitute a tiny tiny tiny tiny minority.

The story of this continent is long and old and the Whites you see on your screens are cameos in a tale that began long before they were here and will continue long after they have gone. (And before you ask: yes, that includes me.) It is high time attention concentrated on that epic home-grown African tale and that we collectively stop paying idiotic amounts of attention to the bit players in that tale.

 

New takeoff

October 1, 2017

Yes, it’s been more than a year. No, I can’t adequately explain why the long gap. True, there were times that I had no longer any idea what to do with this blog. A free-floating association of ideas about things that go on in the world and especially in that rather large West-African corner I know a few things about and consider my second home. Lack of time played its part, lack of inspiration sometimes and one simple fact of life that holds true for every single free-lancer everywhere: paid stuff goes before everything else. It’s that basic.

But anyway, without much fanfare or any further ado – here’s the re-take-off. And let me jump straight into a nice little thing: identity politics – or more precisely: why on earth are (most) Western media pretending that Whites have the answers to everything?

 

Mali. Again (conclusion)

August 19, 2016

One can dream.

One can dream that one fine day Malians themselves will take charge of solving the issues that hobble their country. In no particular order:

A limited sense of shared history between the North, the Centre and the South, a problem that Mali’s education system reinforces and makes worse, as my good friend and colleague Intagrist El Ansari passionately argues in an interview Deutsche Welle broadcast early 2015 (sadly no longer available online). He said, among many other things that Malian education insists on teaching children that the history of their country derives from the various Mali Empires that descended through the ages from the 13th Century. ‘It’s far more complicated than that,’ my friend says, if only because it negates the fact that northern Mali, including Timbuktu was ruled by many different peoples, including the Tuareg, from the eighth century onwards. Intagrist does not want competing histories of Mali; he wants an integrated vision of his country’s history, which includes the parts the schools leave out. When he was speaking to students in Bamako with his ideas in early 2015 he found open and curious minds. This is hopeful, if only because this exchange was one among Malians themselves, free of foreign interference. A relief.

A corrupt and unaccountable polity, aided and abetted by a murderously cynical “international community”. Malians’ palpable disappointment with the current head of state, elected in 2013 with a comprehensive mandate, is only the latest manifestation of their ire. Malians want to see the lot of them gone. Tinkering with a broken system is no longer an option.

An army that has been weakened to the point that it is unable to assure Mali’s national territorial integrity, the result of the devastation wrought by the development agenda, which never considered national security an important issue. The proponents of this stance would, if it applied to their own countries, stand a significant chance of being put on trial for treason. Yet this was completely acceptable in respect of a West African sovereign state. This gross irresponsibility reinforced with truckloads of cheap aid money has, inevitably, led to the pathologies we are witnessing today in Mali’s armed forces: a decline in resources, a decline in morale, opaque recruitment and remuneration practices and as a sad but predictable end point an army that cannot be relied upon to do its job and had to stage an ill-fated coup just to make that point. ‘Democracy died!’ screamed the “international community”. Nope. It was being slowly strangled to death long before that coup happened and the same “international community” did nothing to stop it. For the depressing sequel: see the passage on Libya in my previous instalment.

The Saudi-sponsored Wahabist poison that has been steadily seeping into the society, thanks to the same shysters that attacked Ghadaffi and are keeping Saud, one of the most backward and repressive regimes on the face of the planet, close to their hearts and well-stocked with money and arms. Starving the money machine that fuels this aberration is the best way forward. This means weaning the West of its oil dependency. I have yet to come across a more compelling argument for going green.

***

Malians do not fall for the fallacy that foreigners can solve their problems. But an awful lot of them depend on foreigners for their salaries. In that sense, the development and intervention mafias that have successfully recolonized the country are well entrenched. But this scenario is unsustainable. Malians will, inevitably, reclaim their common history, get rid of the elites and their foreign partners that have failed them so catastrophically, restore their armed forces and reconnect with their own centuries-old proud military tradition. The clean-up will also involve pulling out the weeds from the Gulf that have been crawling like a malignant disease all over Mali’s intellectual landscape.

Will this result in a country island, alone and pure? Of course not. Mali will engage with the rest of world, this time though, it will be on her own terms, not the ones rolling out of printers in Washington, Paris, The Hague, London or Riyad.

One can dream. One must dream.

Here’s to Mali.

Mali. Again (part five of six)

August 13, 2016

Minusma has neither the capacity nor the will to deal with the Malian quagmire. It’s had its mandate reinforced but it is not a full Chapter 7, which would enable the mission to actually enforce peace and govern the country, as one of its predecessors, UNOMOZ, did in Mozambique in the 1990s. This mandate was relatively successfully carried out; it led to more than 20 years of nearly uninterrupted peace – sadly, under pressure as I write this but that is the result of local dynamics, not UN failure.

Minusma operates in an excessively murky field that was never fully examined when the mission was conceived. And so it has been made to deal with – among others – the multiple agendas of the many local players, including a plethora of armed groups in forever shifting unstable alliances that change outlook, loyalty and ideology as and when it suits them. This, unfortunately, includes the Malian government.

To complicate matters further the mission must work with and accommodate the strategic objectives of one hyperactive foreign busybody (the United States) that pays only lip service to it, a foreign occupier (France) that doesn’t take them seriously and a huge parade of member states – including the Netherlands – that are in the game for their own reasons (turf, resources, money, international standing, international diplomacy, getting one of their own up the UN’s greasy pole, testing new tools…). In short: Minusma is walking through a minefield without a map.

This is just to give you an idea of what’s happening there almost daily:

 

http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2016/07/20/mali-17-soldats-tues-dans-une-attaque-revendiquee-par-deux-groupes_4972056_3212.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mali-violence-idUSKCN0ZZ11L

http://www.sidwaya.bf/m-12729-mali-nouveaux-combats-entre-groupes-armes-pres-de-kidal.html

http://thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2016/08/5-malian-soldiers-found-dead-in-river-niger/

 

So that’s where we are. Perhaps disaster could have been avoided but I am coming round to the opinion that the deconstruction of this fine country has come about, not necessarily by design, but certainly with the active participation of the “international community”. Each has played its culpable part.

1. A development community that dominated the discourse about Mali and looked the other way as the rot set in under the ill-fated second mandate of ATT, who was fêted (surprise, surprise…) in the Netherlands, four months before he was removed from power in a coup.

2. A pack of shysters, happy to do business with the slain Libyan leader Muamar Ghadaffi until he became an inconvenience and had to be removed. There was no follow-up plan (colour me astonished) and the mayhem that engulfed Mali and the West African region came about as a result of this criminal idiocy. I was certainly no fan of Ghadaffi but only a fool would fail to see that removing a head of state who, by hook or by crook, ensured a modicum of stability in the region, would open a Pandora’s Box. As duly happened.

Today, one of these crooks, Nicholas Sarkozy, is out of power and he is in too much trouble to be able to get back in. Another one, David Cameron, has just been hoisted on his own referendum petard. Unfortunately, the most dangerous of the three will sail into the White House in January, as the first female president of the United States. From where I sit, things will get a lot worse.

3. An intervention community that restored a semblance of order (Serval) and then segued into a neo-colonial occupation force (Barkhane). Their presence feeds into resentment, already widespread, against French shenanigans in its (former) backyard. And Minusma? Well, this is the sixth UN peacekeeping mission I am familiar with and its performance is on a par with the doomed UNAVEM II and III missions to Angola, which oversaw the re-ignition of civil war twice, first in 1992 and then 1997. Similarly, Minusma does not inspire confidence among Malians but rather leads them to believe that it prolongs their country’s multi-faceted and multi-layered conflicts. The sooner this costly (well over $900m in 2015-16) failure is removed, the better.

 

Mali. Again (part four of six)

August 8, 2016

Yes, you noted that correctly. Inevitably, as a piece like this develops and new ideas come up, it gets longer. And I don’t want to bore you to tears with endless screeds, so I cut it up one more time. This one’s a bit longer than the others but the last two will be brief – again. Here goes: 

Now, let’s take a closer look at events in the place where the Dutch have their camp. Gao.

Not looking promising and there is little hope that the end is in sight. We are still not entirely clear what caused this particular outburst but previous experience tells me that Minusma will not have a clue. The military are often dilligently unearthing info they deem relevant – only to find it gathering dust in a civilian drawer. An age-old UN problem. In addition to that, those that are supposed to do the gathering should master five or six local languages; Dutch and English will not do. (But then the Dutch government does not tell its citizens why it is in Mali. I refer my Dutch readers to some of the observations made by Mali veteran Aart van der Heiden in that respect.)

***

Then there is Kidal, north of Gao, where the CMA (the Azawad independence movement’s umbrella) is in a precarious standoff with a pro-government militia called Gatia, after a series of deadly clashes in July. This was not the first time Kidal burst into flames.

In May 2014, Prime Minister, Moussa Mara made a tactically sound move to prove to the world that the Malian state was in charge of all its territory. This was, after all, the job that Minusma had come to do: help Mali in its effort to regain control of all the terrain inside its formal (be it colonial and deeply flawed) borders. The Malians had put General Alhaji ag Gamou in charge of the storm troops headed for Kidal;. Not a wise move: Gamou does not like Kidal and those who run it, which, as it happens, was the Tuareg independence movement MNLA at the time. Gamou decided to take them on, on behalf of himself (first and foremost) and Mara (second).

The result was a rout. 50 Malian soldiers dead.

Kidal sees frequent clashes between groups that hold differing allegiances and have different opinions about whether or not an independent Azawad is possible or even desirable. At the same time, there are tensions among family-based tendencies within the Touareg community (the Ifoghas are in charge of Kidal and Imghad like Gamou want to capture the town) and almost inevitably these outbursts are also manifestations of clashing business interests. Some of this can be traced back all the way to French colonial shenanigans last century.

***

Ah oui, les Français! Let’s talk about them for a bit.

When jihadists crossed the line at Konna in central Mali, French president François Hollande ordered Operation Serval. This was in January 2013. Serval was warmly welcomed and restored some semblance of order.

Its objectives were to: (1) secure Bamako and the French citizens living there and (2) ensure that nobody (in principle) departed from Mali with the intent to throw bombs and shoot people in France. It succeeded in the first objective; the jury is out on the second. Still – and this is the point: having secured Bamako and French passport holders, Serval should have been on the next plane home.

Instead, it was folded into the much larger Operation Barkhane, based in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, at the pleasure of François Hollande’s newfound friend, a ruthless autocrat by the name of Idriss Déby Itno, now in is fifth uncontested term as president of Chad. As is the case with the Dutch (and the Americans for that matter), we have some idea of what Barkhane is doing, but not much. Do we have to wait, Libya-style, until one of their aircraft comes down and they will have to explain (in part at least) what the hell they are doing in their former backyard? The answer is, unfortunately: yes. 

***

Malian suspicions the French troops are enormous. ‘Do you know that half of their so-called military are geologists?’ I hear this frequently. Can you blame them? No. Neither can you be at odds with Burkinabè when they tell you that French troop presence attracts terrorists and that they resent the implicit assumption that Burkinabè troops are unable to secure their own country.

In Mali, the French are, to all intents and purposes, the boss. When Air Algérie Flight AH5017 came down just inside Mali (close to the border with Burkina Faso) on 24 July 2014, French warplanes went looking for the aircraft, French ground troops secured the area; they then recovered the flight recorders and sent them to…Paris. A great way to make new friends.

Mali. Again (part three of five)

August 1, 2016

So, as we’re leaving that sweaty hall, what have we just learned? We have learned that protocol is vastly more important than content. And we have learned that emitting formulaic platitudes equals having something important to say.

Similar plagued many a jargon-laden talking session that the development community still insists on calling “workshop”. They were meeting and talking and kept meeting and talking some more, as the country started to fall apart around them. Journalists like myself were going along with the ride. Mali could not, should not, must not fail. Consider this another mea culpa, four years after I wrote the first one.

Today, in spite of another costly foreign intervention, Mali’s disintegration continues, to the surprise of nobody who has been paying attention. That is, everyone outside the development/diplomacy/intervention bubble. Those inside the bubble who are in the know (and they most certainly exist) know better than to speak out about it; it would be a career-ending move.

This is what’s going on. Read this important report about the latest developments…

https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/mali/central-mali-uprising-making

(This is a link to the English summary; the full report is in French and can be downloaded from the same site for free)

***

From the Burkina Faso side, the move south of hostilities comes as no surprise. After the atrocities visited on the centre of Ouagadougou on 15 January, everybody here knew that we had not seen the end of it. And indeed we haven’t. 

Burkinabè gendarmerie posts on the borders with Mali and Niger have been attacked in recent months, suggesting that the war in Mali continues to move south and continues to become regionalised. You can thank the foreign interventions for that, too, as has been argued, here. 

***

It is my fear that we are looking at an axis of crime and terrorism that involves three countries. Consider: the arrests, inside Mali, of two individuals believed to be associated with the 13 March attack on Grand Bassam, near Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire; some of you may remember that I was there when it happened. Consider: repeated assertions to the effect that the 4WheelDrive used in the Ouagadougou atrocity was spotted in Abidjan before the abomination perpetrated at Grand Bassam. Consider: the arrest of a Burkinabè jihadist sympathiser in Bamako – having him hanged in public was the mildest punishment the good people of Burkina Faso had in mind for this individual. Consider also: persistent uncertainty along the Burkina Faso-Mali border and persistent insecurity in Northern Côte d’Ivoire, where roadside robberies are frequent and where former rebels may be making common course with would-be jihadists and ordinary criminals. Add to this an immobile administration in Ouagadougou, a deeply unpopular government in Bamako and an intensely polarised Côte d’Ivoire and you are looking at a potential cocktail of epic proportions.

Compare and contrast with the output of Minusma…

A curious mix of impotence and insider information. News from a bubble, to which the Dutch government wants to keep contributing, in spite of face-palming experts and head-on-desk-banging specialists. Of course, the Dutch could be just a leetle beet more specific about what it is their special forces are actually doing out there – but on that score I advise you not to hold your breath. Like the mission itself, Dutch contributions to Minusma have virtually nothing at all to do with Mali.

***

I get the impression that the Dutch government is not particularly serious about informing its citizens what its personnel is doing in Mali. Neither is it particularly concerned about obtaining results. After all and in the same spirit, the Netherlands has been throwing development money at the Bamako elites for decades and the results have been, by and large, lamentably predictable. No, it’s the United Nations Security Council that matters and the prospect of a Dutch face around that Big Table, where missions like Minusma are conceived. Nobody there pays the ultimate price. That’s what African cannon fodder is for. The grandchildren of the old Tirailleurs Sénégalais today wear blue helmets.