Veils and Guns – Part Two

February 4, 2016

A few more impressions and thoughts in the wake of the attack.

 

The armed gangs that emerged from the civil war in Algeria were pretty hardcore Islamic extremists, although even there it has been argued that some of the worst throat-slitting atrocities in the 1990s were actually army-led false flag operations designed to put the Armed Islamic Group (GIA in French) in a bad light. Be that as it may, the agenda appeared pretty clear. The anti-government groups were eventually ejected into the desert and resurfaced as cigarette smugglers and common criminals. You need to eat, right?

Muamar Ghadaffi, the slain Libyan leader, used Arab, Islam and African identities in his geopolitical poker games that gave luxury hotels and monuments to Bamako and Ouagadougou, wars to Chad, Liberia and Sierra Leone and hard-to-match political showmanship to the world. The armed groups in the Sahara/Sahel are equally adept at alternating. They can be Quran-wielding fanatics on Friday, people smugglers at the weekend, kidnappers on Monday, drug traffickers on Wednesday and rebel fighters on Thursday. Some will use Islam as a smokescreen to justify murder or hide their other activities; others may be sufficiently brainwashed to believe that shooting dead people having a drink on a terrace is the Good Fight for a Good Cause. The three terminally misguided young lads who attacked Ouagadougou on January 15 fall in this category, I would say. They went to pray in a nearby Sunni mosque before they tore their bloody trail through the city centre. The imam of the same mosque has condemned the attack in the strongest possible words. And we must take him at his word. This is West Africa, where words are heavy and mean serious things.

But how deep does that fanatical Islam really go? Judging from my partner’s commentary on the fully veiled women…not very deep. Interestingly, the number of full veils diminished significantly in the wake of the attacks. This, to be perfectly honest, is to be welcomed: closed-up, walled-in Islam has no place in West Africa, which – by and large – is an open, tolerant, cosmopolitan and life-affirming part of the world.

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

Ouagadougou represents, in the final analysis, more fallout from the catastrophic Western intervention in Libya, the main protagonist of which was the clueless but very noisy Nicholas Sarkozy who is making another presidential bid, followed closely by the deeply disturbing and utterly cynical Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be the next president of the United States. The fallout of “Libya” is basically a gang war over turf on an absolutely gigantic scale, from the Mediterranean coast through the Libyan desert, throughout Mali and pushing ever further south. In this gang warfare, faith and business interests collide; blind ideological adherents works for calculating warlords like Iyad ag Ghali and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has claimed the Ouagadougou attack.

Will it stop in Burkina Faso? Perhaps. There is a phrase you hear a lot here: ‘C’est mal nous connaître.’ The Burkinabè have a well-earned reputation for being workers and warriors in equal measure. There is a sense of belonging, of national unity, which is stronger here than in many of its neighbours and for that you can thank, once again, the revolutionary captain Thomas Sankara. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. But if truth must be told, Burkina Faso’s people are pretty well equipped for the job.

The other thing you hear all the time in these parts is: C’est pas simple.’ And that’s true. Nothing is simple around here, a fact that is often lost on colleagues who come flying in looking for a Goodies vs Baddies story because that is what the editors want and that will sell papers and magazines and generate clicks on the website back home, even when it seriously violates realities on the ground. There is opportunity for deeper analysis, for instance on the ZAM website, which is currently running a series called No Hearts No Minds. In part, it explains that the War on Terror on the African continent is as doomed as the War on Drugs across the pond in Latin America. ZAM is here and I will be on it shortly.

https://www.zammagazine.com

Veils and Guns – Part One

January 29, 2016

Some impressions and thoughts in the wake of the attack.

 

We were approaching a taxi in my partner’s (she’s called R…. but we’ll keep it under wraps for the moment…) former place of residence, Bobo Dioulasso. A fully veiled woman grabbed the front seat just before we got there and proceeded to completely ignore us. This is considered very bad manners here and R was visibly annoyed.

Next thing we know, another woman gets into the taxi, filling the back seat. The new passenger and the silent ghost on the front seat clearly know each other (in spite of the veil) and they greet animatedly. Partner pokes me and hisses in my ear: ‘Don’t greet her.’ Me, being polite and all (this is something Africa teaches congenitally rude Westerners), had already done so and as a result Her annoyance deepened.

So what was the problem here? In one word: hypocrisy. ‘I know these women,’ She said afterwards. ‘They pretend not to converse with people who don’t belong to their circle but did you see them getting chatty?’ She did not want me to greet the new passenger, as this would expand the circle of hypocrisy started by the not-so-silent-after-all ghost on the front seat.

‘It’s annoying. Do you know that these holier-than-thou women all in black are the worst adulteresses? Don’t be surprised. I know them well! They’re the worst kind of hypocrites. You’ll find them in the nightclubs, wearing skimpy clothes. Next day, they play the pious little veiled housewife again. I know them! That’s why they disgust me.’

Corroboration, then, of my ironclad theory that religion – and most decidedly in the monotheistic variety – is organized hypocrisy. Tales abound from Old Cairo about horny repressed Arabs from the Gulf States enjoying the forbidden delights of that city, in the olden days. Closer to home, there were the tales of oh-so-pious Mauritanians coming to sample the delights of the black Africans in just-across-the-border Saint Louis in Senegal, the same Africans they would mercilessly discriminate against in their own country, preferably on the way from the mosque to the homestead where they kept their own women on a leash.

As the old Dutch joke used to be, before secularization: if you want to know who the crooks and the villains in your town are, check out the two front rows in the church on Sunday’s. Today, they mismanage formerly state-run privatized corporations… And I have reason to suspect that it’s not that different in the mosques.

Ouagadougou, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, in normal times. Photo: Martin Waalboer

Ouagadougou, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, in normal times. Photo: Martin Waalboer

I was reminded of these tales in the aftermath of the deadly attack on 15 January that blew a hole in the Cappuccino restaurant (a place I rarely frequented) and sent smoke and flames up the Splendid Hotel  (where I occasionally would buy a copy of The Economist) until the three rampaging homicidal maniacs were stopped in their deadly tracks in the Taxi Brousse bar on the third corner of this busy crossroads of the Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. The area will need some time to recover and especially the owner of the Cappuccino who lost four family members as they were having dinner on their habitual table.

Unlike in Mali, you will find not a shred of sympathy here for these murderous brutes. The friendliest term the people here use is “criminals”. Smockey, the nation’s premier rapper and one of the leaders of the Citizen Broom (Balai citoyen) movement that swept ex-president Blaise Compaoré from power said on his Facebook page ‘There are 18 million reservists here, ready to take them on.’ This is no exaggeration. (Incidentally, buy a copy of Songlines magazine this month and find my article on the Burkinabè rappers there. Plug ends here.)

The argument that there is some kind of an Islamist agenda propelling these kids towards their doom-laden missions (a propaganda picture shows the attackers as three boys barely in their twenties) does not fly here. You can sum up the consensus thusly: ‘Islam is a smokescreen they use for their criminal acts. They’re ordinary vulgar bandits.’ Is that the whole story?

Part two coming up shortly

Lines

December 30, 2015

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It was on the edge of the desert, the last settlement before the journey truly would begin. A sign in Hamid El Ghizlane read: Tombouctou 50 days. That’s history now: the camel routes have been replaced by aeroplanes and FourWheelDrives.

It was early 2015 in Hamid El Ghizlane and bitterly cold. With all my clothes on and buried under three thick blankets, still the bones would wake up freezing. Indeed: like six years previously, at a very similar festival near that other city, 50 days away, I had come woefully ill-prepared. Again.

But there was music. It sent lines across the vast open space between this Moroccan village and that city on the other side. Guitar lines. Bass lines. Vocal lines. Threads of melody, interspersed with hand claps, drums and percussion. We liked it so much that in the cold and pitch-dark night we threw off our jackets and danced.

And danced.

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There were guests. From Europe, from the neighbours, and from Tombouctou, no longer 50 days away. Three years ago, Tombouctou was battered by the twin force of an extended family feud and an empty-headed reading of the religion that has also thrown its lines across the sand. Islam. But instead of feasting their ears on the worshipping chants and marvel at the sight of the sacred tombs, vandals tore through the old culture of the city. It survived. The Festival of the Desert, which is now twinned with the one at Hamid El Ghizlane (or Taragalt, to give it its old name), is still looking for a home.

But still we listened, and we danced.

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I recorded a lot of it. A conversation with Ibrahim, one of the festival directors, spontaneous music outbursts, an interview with some lovely lads from the village, wanting to make it big. Génération Taragalte, they called themselves. They knew their music. They knew their heroes: Tinariwen, from another place in that large space of sand, rock and guitar strings, spinning musical lines thousands of miles long.

50 days. A split-second when a single chord transports you back to the other side of the desert where the Festival of the Desert spun its yarns of peace and understanding and love until some misguided fools shot holes in the fabric.

A group of women were busy putting it all back together in Hamid El Ghizlane/Taragalte. Zeinab and her friends were weaving a Carpet of Peace, made with fabrics brought in from Mali. They asked visitors to come with clothes they no longer wanted, so they could weave that also back into the Carpet before sending it across the Sahara. More lines. I recorded a lot, there, too.

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I lost some of it when my harddisk crashed, months later. Fortunately, we humans have another harddisk, equally faulty but capable of making connections, freely, randomly, dreaming up lines unexpectedly – mostly to ourselves.

And so we have come to the other end of 2015. It’s warm where I am right now. A mere 300 miles from here, 7 hours by bus, is my house. Burkina Faso, a new place, a new home, which I share with someone who is well on her way to becoming a star in her own right. But that’s another story.

Here’s to 2016 then. When more lines will be drawn, more connections made, more music will emerge, more perspectives will be challenged and more surprises will strike for which we, only human, are singularly ill-prepared.

Small matter. It’ll all make sense later.

Office. Ouaga.

Office. Home. Ouaga.

Happy 2016 to you all.

An open space

October 1, 2015

6 – Making Sense

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So what, if anything, are we to make of this book? That is not an easy question to answer because it is not quite clear what lessons are there to draw. That we need more societal responsibility among the elites? That the elites need more backbone if they see their country go in the wrong direction? Far too easy to say when you are not directly involved. That we need better governance, or at the very least a state presence? That peace, development and all the other matters that render a country liveable will never be delivered from the outside? Absolutely. The point is that all these gaps are present in other parts of the world, too. Perhaps they have turned a shade more extreme in the CAR but they are not new.

Hence the great narratives that the writers and editors have wanted to weave around the story of the CAR. This materialise only partially. I liked the historical explanations for CAR’s current predicament, an element that is routinely overlooked when “Africa” is being reported. History matters greatly. The chapters on insecurity (and how this deeply felt notion of existential insecurity is intricately bound up with the way riches are accumulated) gave me interesting insights in a mindset that otherwise remains closed, especially in the case of the elites.

The failure of most if not all foreign interventions are all highlighted although I for one would have been much more severe with this last issue. When eleven peace-related missions have done nothing to lessen the mess the CAR finds itself in, then these missions should be put under the harshest light possible and mercilessly investigated, because they clearly do not do what it says on the label. And clearly, this does not only apply to the CAR. Mali is another place where an ill-considered, ill-conceived and dramatically misguided UN mission along the same lines is going very badly wrong.

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There is really only one issue I would like to take with the book. With the exception of one, all contributions are by writers from outside the CAR and they have been drawn from basically two fields: NGOs and academia. We have a political scientist and an anthropologist editing the volume. Contributions come from a professor in African Studies (granted, with a long career in journalism), from researchers and consultants and a student of political science. This pool could have been broader. This is of course not to argue that outsiders should have nothing to say about the CAR. That would be patently risible. But more balance would have been welcome. I remember a volume of essays, done a few years ago about a country blighted by this sinister combination: a gangster state, a resource curse (in this case oil), violence against the population on an industrial scale and very little countervailing power. The volume on Sudan, (Darfur and the Crisis of Governance in Sudan), published by the Prince Claus Foundation of the Netherlands in 2009 provided a rich knowledge base not in the least because many of the contributing authors were Sudanese.

Still, as said at the beginning, this book is more than welcome as a contribution in its own right about a country few of us know a great deal about. The individual papers can be read on their own, as they tell a part of that largely untold story, fascinating, tragic and infuriating in equal measure.

Making Sense of the Central African Republic is published by Zed Books in London and costs £20 in the UK and an estimated €30 in the Eurozone.

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An open space

September 28, 2015

Part 5 – Somebody else’s wars

Three chapters in Making Sense of the Central African Republic deal with what you can call the tail end of the concessionary model, the ultimate consequence. It happens when others, whether or not invited to do so, start using your territory for fighting their wars.

In 2003, Jean-Pierre Bemba, a warlord from neighbouring DR Congo, and his Mouvement pour la Libération du Congo held swathes of northern DRC and adjacent parts of the CAR by crossing the Ubangui River and settling troops there, in part to prop up to soon-to-be-deposed president Ange-Félix Patassé. Bemba is currently on trial for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Committed, not in his native DR Congo (where his movement was the de facto government in the provinces it controlled) but in the CAR. Even international justice appears to use the country as a try-out territory… The interim government has created a Special Criminal Court for the CAR itself but there is no money to pay for it.

Bemba is by no means the only one to have used the CAR as a backstop for his wars. A recent report by the International Crisis Group mentions Baba Laddé, a Chadian rebel who launched a rebel war against president Idriss Déby Itno in 1998 and spent four years (from 2008 to 2012) in the CAR. When he left, he did not take all of his fighters with him. Where are they now?

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army is another one that used the CAR (the eastern portions this time) as a rear base, a refuge and a place to regroup until the country it finally inherited, South Sudan, got its ill-fated independence in 2011. And then there is this lot:

Since 2009, the originally Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army is in the CAR. Its leader Joseph Kony (the subject of an abjectly ill-guided campaign to somehow “grab him” in 2010) is reported to travel freely between northern DRC, eastern CAR and Sudan where his friends are; Khartoum keeps him alive and stocked with supplies. To complete this picture of somebody else’s war, it is not the CAR army that fights the LRA – it’s the Ugandan Armed Forces; teaming up with them are the US Special Forces, about 100 of them.

Seleka, the group that zapped across the CAR in the first three months of 2013, consisted in part of Sudanese and Chadian regular and irregular soldiers/rebels/freelancers and was certainly influenced by the foreign policy agendas of particularly Chad. The CAR is very much Chadian president Déby Itno’s backyard and since Chad is France’s lynchpin in its other operation (Barkhane, against terrorism in the Sahel), Déby can do what he pleases. It explains, in part, the great hostility towards parts of the Muslim population perceived to be either not from the CAR or collaborators of the hated Seleka.

And finally, one can argue that various international players use the country as a laboratory for their operations, whether they are geared towards a fictitious stabilisation, enforcing an unenforceable peace, maintaining a non-existent peace, or all or none of the above. It has, unsurprisingly, rendered people deeply suspicious of what exactly the motives of these foreigners are.

 

An open space

September 25, 2015

Part 4 – The Elites

Laurence D. Wohlers, a former US ambassador to the Central African Republic, spoke extensively with members of the CAR’s political elite, tiny and often related through family ties. They lay the blame for their country’s decline squarely at the feet of its leaders. This, Wohlers argues, is another heritage of France, in particular its highly centralised presidential system that was emblematic of the early days of the Fifth Republic. Incidentally, references to De Gaulle, whose coup ushered in the Fifth Republic, are frequently in evidence when you travel around the country.

The elites have benefited from a relatively short period of time when education was up to standard (this period ended 35 years ago) and have all been working in government. What is striking about the CAR’s economics is that even those economic activities (outside extraction or timber) that could conceivably be done by Central Africans, particularly commerce, are all in the hands of – mainly – outsiders: French, Portuguese, Lebanese and the now dwindling Muslim community from as far afield as Senegal. It is unclear why this should be the case. You see evidence here and there of local entrepreneurship and there does not appear to have been an ideology that actively discourages business from taking off, so this is a mystery.

Near Bocaranga, northwestern CAR

Near Bocaranga, northwestern CAR

In asking the elites what they think went wrong, Wohlers uncovers some interesting issues. The elites insist that the past 200 years of CAR history, marked by slave hunts and colonialism, have destroyed traditional authority. This may be self-serving: in the villages this authority clearly still exists, which the political centre of the country then chooses to ignore. However, their second and very important point, and one that is constantly confirmed by people you speak to on the ground, is that there never was an issue between Muslims and Christians. The recent religious overlay of what was, fundamentally, a politico-economic problem (neglect in all spheres of life – be it health care, education, roads, water, you name it), is the result of what was perceived as Muslims joining that destructive armed gang that called itself Seleka. This triggered the response, when Muslim homes and shops (and even their mosques) were destroyed in a move that utterly devastated the local economies across the country. And even this is not universally the case. The “Muslim versus Christian” theme that international media have picked up is dreadfully simplistic at best, even when the pictures seem to suggest otherwise.

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Similarly, the elites dismiss the story angle of “ethnic” preference. It was simply not there, at the very least until the presidency of André Kolingba in the 1980s. He resorted to bringing his own people for self-protecting purposes and following that, things went quite badly wrong. The elites also regret the gradual decline of the state of governance, especially since the removal, by France, of Bokassa in the first of four violent takeovers. After Bokassa, they say, civil servants began to lose their sense of duty to the nation and things slowly started to rot, like that Administrative Building on Boganda Avenue, named after Barthélémy Boganda, perhaps the best president the CAR never had. He led the independence movement since 1946 but when Independence came in sight he was killed in a plane crash that remains suspect. Mistrust of the French among Central Africans has several historical sources; this is most definitely one of them.

But what about the role the elites themselves played in all this? Here, Wohlers is a little too cautious, perhaps also because self-assessment and self-criticism are things humans the world over are not terribly fond of. What we do find, though, is that the elites’ inability to stop the destruction of their country is in part due to their inability (or unwillingness) to set up what Wohlers calls “countervailing power”. This has everything to do with pragmatism. In a patronage system, fed by two predatory systems (commercial concessions and taxation), you know which side your bread is buttered. And even though elite competition has been fierce but largely shorn of violence, rocking the boat is not an option when you want to keep your privileges and your money. So, in order to survive regime change, you re-invent yourself. None of this benefited the country in any way.

An open space

September 22, 2015

Part 3 – Predation and neglect

Every village has one or several. A makeshift roadblock, usually a branch of a tree set across the road. They are manned by kids. Nearby, on the worst bits of the road, a few are digging up soil and filling up the parts that have been washed away in the rains, reinforcing them with other bits of wood. It’s an unequal fight and the road does not markedly improve but it gets the kids some income. NGO and UN cars can pass but all commercial transport needs to pay for the job being done. Lorries up to 1,000 CFA, about €1,50; motorcycles (that are the fastest here and used for transporting people – up to four at a time including the driver – and large amounts of merchandise for the weekly markets) pay up to one-fifth of that. Real maintenance has not happened for up to ten years and it shows. A distance up, say, one hundred kilometres takes up to five hours…

Pretty much all roads look like this. Pic: me.

Pretty much all roads here look like this. Pic: me.

Four chapters in Making Sense of the Central African Republic deal with the fall-out from the concessionary system that France introduced. In essence, the exploitation of a country’s natural resources (in the CAR those have been timber, ivory and diamonds, with uranium and oil waiting patiently in the wings) is farmed out to companies from beyond the country’s border; the companies pay that country’s elites for the privilege.

The book contains one chapter about the diamond business, a sector whose deeply exploitative nature has become law. With ordinary diggers working for head miners, who sell the crop of diamonds to collectors, who in turn take their gemstones to buying offices that furnish the capital to keep the entire operation going. The system has predation written into its DNA and the ones at the bottom are mercilessly exploited. Timber works along similar lines and this business highlights another way in which the state has hacked out its niche in this exploitation system: extreme taxation.

The elites, who are in charge of the CAR’s polity, need to be paid for dishing out the concessionary privileges that those outsiders enjoy but those are, generally, one-off payments. Once these outsiders are in, they need to continue to pay because the elites need to maintain the lifestyle that they are accustomed to. Hence: taxation. Several writers in the book describe the state in the CAR as being “tax obsessed”. This stands to reason, as the number of outsiders who are willing to make use of concessions within the CAR is limited. They are also, quite frequently, of the dodgy variety. Local elites and outside exploiters are equally predatory in their pursuit of wealth. They richly deserve each other. There is of course a group that richly deserves better: the almost 5 million citizens of this country.

Market. Excellent peanut butter ons sale there, too. Pic: Femke Dekker.

Market. Excellent peanut butter on sale there, too. Pic: Femke Dekker.

The principle of subcontracting exploitation has since been expanded to include other spheres of life and now involves organisations that do not come to buy, sell, steal, extract or exploit, but to bring peace, health care, education, development. All matters that you can freely wash your hands off if you can get others to do those things for you, in exchange for a fee. Peacekeeping has been the remit of no fewer than eleven operations, put together by four different actors: the United Nations (currently running MINURCA), France (currently running Sangaris), the neighbours (who had four missions in the country) and the European Union. None of them work, as one chapter in Making Sense of the Central African Republic points out.

In the same spirit, the Ministry of Health is called Medicins Sans Frontières, which has an incredible 2,000 staff here. And since nobody can figure out which part of the country is still in an emergency situation and which part is ripe for “development”, there is the usual alphabet soup of NGOs working on both. And a lot of this work comes at a premium. Take this for an example.

In a rural town, an international groups is refurbishing a hospital. The handicap here is that this particular hospital, in a dreadful state after much neglect, some looting and a fire, is run by someone whose office is not located on the premises, but in the nearby bar. Whenever he gets wind of a foreign presence, he barrels in on his motor and begins looking for loot. For instance: building materials are required for the rehabilitation work and he is very willing to guard some of it. This will enable him to divert it to a much more important project: the construction of his own house. As long as he and too many of his ilk remain in place the citizens (in this case the patients) are hostages to predatory behaviour. And of course, what happens on a small scale here, balloons to the size of the nation elsewhere. All the necessary basic work to keep a nation going is thus parcelled out – and what cannot be parcelled out is left undone. Hence the state of the roads.

Interruption

September 19, 2015

While I was preparing my series on the Central African Republic, an act of treachery was perpetrated in the country that I, for now at least, consider my home.

Burkina Faso. Or, to be more precise: Ouagadougou. Because the writ of this merry band (1,300 all told) of ex-president Blaise Compaoré’s personal guards, who have committed this coup d’état, does not extend beyond the confines of the capital. And because they do not even control the city in any meaningful way, they have resorted to terrorising the population. It’s what they have done for almost three decades. As a result, Ouagadougou has fallen: from one of West Africa’s most pleasant cities to one of its most dangerous and unpredictable.

Well done, putchists!

The people, however, are unlikely to be deterred.

I follow things very closely, thanks to the legions of Burkinabè who have taken to Twitter, Facebook and other social media to show the world the extent of this treasonous assault on their legitimate democratic aspirations.

Yes, mistakes have been made during the Transition. Nobody disputes that. And the transitional authorities must take a good look at themselves and ask if they had not bitten off more than they could chew. They should have prepared the country for elections and leave everything else in the hands of the next elected government. But nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies the hi-jacking of the Transition by an armed gang of 1,300 that belongs on History’s garbage truck.

Their actions, last Thursday, have merely postponed their removal. But before they go, things could turn messy and ugly.

There is now mediation going on. The only matter that should be under discussion is their departure. The African Union yesterday gave them 96 hours. They are unlikely to heed that deadline. But there are other things afoot. Town after town is falling squarely in the hands of the people. A general strike of unlimited duration has already been announced. It is likely to be heeded.

These actions of the Burkinabè people need outside support. If an international  blockade is needed, it needs to be enforced. I’m looking at you, President Ouattara and company: your country, Côte d’Ivoire, is key in this respect. In spite of the rumours that political and business friends of ex-president Compaoré have given large sums of money to the gang that kids itself in charge, a concerted national and international action would probably suffice to smoke them out.

1,300 troops against 17 million Burkinabè, minus the few who stand to gain by the death of the democratic dream, however flawed. But as Winston Churchill quipped: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones that have been tried. It is what the Burkinabè aspire to. A tiny group of fundamentally irrelevant politico-military hooligans will not stand in their way for very long.

An open space

September 18, 2015

Part 2 – Insecurity

 

The bar is a few yards away from the one road that cuts through the centre of this small town. It is full of young men, with little to do but drink, talk (mostly very loudly) and go for a piss. Some have a little swagger and I later understand that this is probably because they were part of the Anti-Balaka militia that swept through this place in 2014, swept aside the Seleka rebels that had inflicted terrible pain on the local population one year previously. The Anti-Balaka chased away the Muslims, burnt their homes, their shops and their mosques, in revenge for the fact that some of them had worked with the foreign-backed Seleka, which also had Chadians and Sudanese among their ranks. But with the Muslims leaving, the commercial class was gone too. So the economy collapsed virtually overnight.

Very few women are out on the street, where a tiny market takes care of basic necessities: some food, petrol smuggled from Cameroon, washing powder in small sachets, water and the ubiquitous mobile phone top-up service. It all makes for a decidedly tense atmosphere. One wrong look, one remark taken the wrong way and there will be violence. Brawls are frequent and there have been deaths in the recent past.

‘He’s been in the war, right?’ I ask a local man who is working as a driver for one of the NGOs here. ‘That’s right,’ he replies. The signs are unmistakable: there’s the swagger, in some more exaggerated than in others. Some still wear the tell-tale bandana around their heads. And then there are the eyes. Blazing eyes that manage to look determined and detached at the same time. Drugs, likely. But also the experience of having dished out and received violence. If there was a higher purpose to their fights it was determined by others. For themselves, the purpose was looting, as defined by the most telling name given to one of those sprees in West Africa: Operation Pay Yourself. Various informants told me that while the larger purposes of these last two gangs (and indeed, a few others have sprung up since) may have been different, the behaviour on the ground was the same.

Mosque and homes destroyed in Bocaranga. Picture by Femke Dekker.

Mosque and homes destroyed in Bocaranga. Picture by Femke Dekker.

‘Yes, they are still among us,’ said one of them, when I asked whether Anti-Balaka were still here. And the reason why they can afford their beers is simple: they steal. Theft is endemic in the areas where they are still in evidence. And if they don’t steal, they rob or they beg. Like Olivier, who had an entire story ready to relate to me on the short trip from Restaurant La Terrasse to the Hotel du Centre, back in Bangui. He said he was paid 250 CFA a day (less than half a euro) to look after parked cars. He said he was sleeping in a single room with many others (he didn’t say how many). He said – and then he took his bandana off – that a wall had fallen in that room because of the rains and a brick had hit him on the head. There was nothing to see. With eyes that asked for pity and were menacing in equal measure, Olivier got what he wanted, without telling me what had really happened to him, in spite of my repeated invitations. He knelt at my feet, for less than two euros. Which was the worst part of it all.

Rampant crime means insecurity, a topic that Making Sense of the Central African Republic deals with extensively. A people that has seen mostly predatory behaviour perpetrated by outsiders, a practice stretching back two centuries, finds solace and shelter in the invisible world. Last year, Catholic missions became refugee camps when another wave of violence hit. 

The churches are full to overflowing, accusations of witchcraft are widespread and very frequently deadly, new charismatic churches set up their business and are flourishing. Where no other authority is available except the one that is traditional and limited in scope and size (such as the village chiefs); where there is no discernible state presence (which is pretty much everywhere outside Bangui) people will find ways and practices that can act as anchors in their lives.

Broken bridge near the community of Koui. Pic: me.

Broken bridge near the community of Koui.
Pic: me.

The absence of the state is acutely felt. Even though its presence has often turned out to be an enormous nuisance, the state is, to all intents and purposes the entity that can do something most others can not: provide the basic services that communities need. Water. Education. Health care. Food assistance if necessary. Security. Decent roads. In the CAR, the state has consistently failed in all of these areas. The book argues – and I agree – that this is the malign imprint on society of the concessionary model that France introduced. More on that in the next installment.

An open space

September 15, 2015

Part 1 – Impressions

Along the Boganda Avenue, the main road in the rather run-down capital Bangui, slightly away from the busy traffic, stands a nondescript three-storey block. It is the Administrative Building, the principal physical manifestation of the government of the Central African Republic, CAR for short. The right half of the building is, well, not exactly missing but you can see right through it. There are no windows, parts of the inner walls are no longer there, the wood that used to be the window frames has ether disappeared or has taken on strange forms. Furniture is strewn everywhere.

This is what the government looks like in an open space in Central Africa, larger than France with anywhere between 4 and 5 million inhabitants. We do not know exactly; the last census was conducted in 2003 and yielded a figure of less than 4 million. Since then, two major crises have chased so many people from their homes, their villages and their neighbourhoods that it is impossible to tell who lives where in what numbers.

The CAR has hardly ever lived in the collective consciousness of the world, except perhaps for the time, now almost 40 years ago, when a former army officer who had fought for the French in Southeast Asia crowned himself Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa I at a ceremony in 1977 that may have cost as much as US$20m, the entire national budget for that year and then some.

And perhaps some may remember the civil wars that have traversed the country between 2003 and 2013, when any number of armed gangs (the latest incarnations were called Seleka and Anti-Balaka) terrorized the civilian population. In the last such display, which has not ended yet, the world’s mainstream media, using their habitual lazy journalistic shorthand, reduced the conflict to “Muslims” against “Christian”. As usual, it is more complicated than that. But how does one make sense of it all?

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That is the title and the subject of a collection of essays that has just been published by Zed Books, of London. The book is Making Sense of the Central African Republic; its editors are two scholars, Tatiana Carayannis and Louise Lombard. It fills a gap in the knowledge of the English speaking worlds about this unknown and little cared-for chunk of central Africa.

The longest chapter in the book is on the CAR’s history. It explains a lot – without justifying current behaviour, to which we will come later. But the present flows from the past and in order to understand why this country is the way it is, an understanding of history is essential.

Reading through it, you will appreciate the fact that for the past 200 years, if not longer, the area that is now known as the CAR has been the theatre of somebody else’s geopolitical designs. The slave raids of the Arab sultanates of the 19th Century, the French colonial project from the late 19th Century to the late 20th. And after independence, in 1960, the agendas of the neighbours, of which the CAR has six: Chad, Cameroon, The Republic of Congo, the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), South Sudan and Sudan. Reading through the book and travelling through the CAR, you realise that this is not a country, but an open space. It has a flag, a national anthem, a capital and a state, whose authority – as the joke goes – ends at the city limits of the capital and even within those limits it is not always assured. Its borders are fiction, which makes the meddling of others so easy.

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The flag is a powerful depiction of the contradictions that history has given this country. Horizontal white and blue and vertical red are the colours of the former (reluctant) colonizer, France. Horizontal yellow and green and vertical red are the colours of independent Africa. Some say that the colours individually also refer to the neighbours and if that were the case there is one conspicuous by its absence: Sudan. There is also a yellow star at the top left hand corner of the flag. It refers to the freedom and the emancipation of the Black people. Why then, are the Pan-African colours at the bottom half of the flag and the French colours at the top? The constant in all this is the red, superimposed on all the others: the blood of the martyrs. It continues to flow.

Arguably, the two most pernicious legacies that Arab slave hunts and French colonialism left behind are permanent insecurity and the concession system. The French decided to leave the exploitation of the country’s riches (timber, ivory and diamonds principally) to private companies, as the colonial state could not even be bothered to do that herself. The companies squeezed as much out of the country and its people as possible, which led to predictable scenes of extreme exploitation that jolted French public opinion into action in ways perhaps not seen since King Leopold’s excesses in the Congo. In 1910, the CAR became part of French Equatorial Africa, a collection of disparate countries including Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Chad. We will come back to the concession legacy later.

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