I will forever be thrilled by arrival in Abidjan, a metropolis I have come to adore over the years. It’s fast, it’s dynamic and it’s getting bigger, better and busier. At least, on the outside: more roads, more shopping malls, more high-rise office blocks, more flyovers, more luxury boutiques and fancy restaurants. But none of this can hide the staggering difference in standards of living that blight this giant city. You get a good hard reminder of that once you arrive in Abidjan’s main bus station – Adjamé.
Or at least: what’s left of it. It is just after 11pm when we pull into a section of town that looks as if some shacks have been dumped there from a great height. Where are all the old-fashioned, loud but rather well-organised garages that used to line the road here?
In its place, a sinister new order, of which I become dimly aware once out of the gate of the enclosure that is home to the hangar where the bus has been parked. The building must sit right on top of a sewer; the stench is everywhere. As I approach the gate, I am told not to talk to anyone, except taxi drivers. The latter announce themselves either seated behind the wheel of their – invariably orange-coloured – Toyotas or pointing at their vehicles. It has been raining and there is no paved road; the “street” in front of the badly lit hangar is muddy, wet and slippery. I get accosted by a tall man as my luggage disappears in the direction of one taxi. Big head, unkempt hair, needs money. I give him my small change, a move that I will come to regret a little later.
‘Don’t use too many words here,’ says the elderly driver, as he tells me to get into the car. Only the most basic of exchanges will suffice. Another man needs a ride. Urgent negotiations ensue as the atmosphere turns a shade or two darker. My taximan wants to know if I object to someone joining us. Of course not. An elderly gentleman gets in the taxi and we advance, retreat, advance, retreat in a maze of other taxis, saloon cars, buses, lorries, parked haphazardly (or so it seems) in the increasingly menacing darkness. Apart from the engine, there is no noise outside.
The driver, whose name is Moussa, appears to know where he is going while I feel we continue to move ever deeper into this otherworldly labyrinth. A few lone lamps; little islands of light in the otherwise impenetrable darkness.
‘Have you got some small change?’ he suddenly asks.
Damn! No. That’s with the beggar boy at the hangar.
‘I’m afraid I just gave away my last pocket money,’ I answer back when out of nowhere a fierce looking young man appears, armed with a large piece of wood and a mad glint in his eye. He guards an improvised barrier and wants 100 francs. 15 cents. He brandishes his weapon.
Moussa rummages around in his dashboard compartment while I look at the man with the club. It’s as long as his calve and as thick as a grown man’s thigh. If he weren’t lolling about on his feet, as I begin to notice, he would be able to do some serious damage.
Moussa manages to find 100 francs and I pass it on to our self-appointed guard. He lifts the rudimentary wooden barrier and we’re out.
‘What if you don’t pay?’ Moussa doesn’t even bother to answer the question.
‘There’s many of them. They have come here since the government cleaned out another part of town. They all use drugs. They form gangs. And now that the authorities have destroyed the bus station they’re all over this place.’ I will find out later that this particular gang guards all the entrances and exits of this bizarre transport maze and apparently make enough to finance their drug habits.
Adjamé’s former bus terminus is, for now at least, the place where the people go that the government does not want you to see. The homeless. The insane. The drug users. The drug pushers. And that’s not even mentioning the lads they call les microbes, violent young criminals like their colleagues in the North of the country. They have established a reign of terror in Abobo, another one of Abidjan’s sprawling suburbs. How many of them have been active participants in Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict? Hard to tell but their existence is a major problem, primarily for Ivorians themselves. After all: visitors rarely see beyond the façade; they don’t go there.
The pretty façade of Abidjan – that is the picture the current government would like you to retain. This is relatively easy when you get your visa electronically through a company run by one of the president’s business friends, get whisked around the town in a luxury car – I have seen stretch limousines cruise here, the ultimate sign of decadence and stupendous self-indulgence – and sleep in one of the luxury hotels dotted around town.
The leading clan loves its glitz and its glamour. Last March, the Children for Africa Gala Dinner (for the charity of the same name run by Côte d’Ivoire’s First Lady) and the African CEO Forum were star-studded events with celebrities, high profile politicians, captains of industry, diplomats – all present in numbers. A few dead people on the beach, as occurred on March 13, will not change the mood: Chinese, Turkish and increasingly also American and British businesspeople are joining the Ivorians, the French and the Lebanese already there. They all share Abidjan’s absolute obsession with making money. But the powder kegs are there for all to see, of one bothers to look: the deprivation, the corruption, the failed (and some would argue not even attempted) national reconciliation, the failure to punish the criminals on the winning side for crimes committed during the 2010-2011 conflict, the blatant inequality. That façade can easily be smashed up again if these things are not addressed instead of being swept under a thick red carpet for the happy few.
There are many mad guys with giant clubs. There are at least two politicians (one in a jail in The Hague; another in Yamoussoukro and one step away from the presidency) with proven track records of turning random men with clubs into militias, decked out with better kit and something resembling an ideology. Sweeping mad men with clubs up from one place and dumping them in another, as current government policy seems to be, does not make them go away. In all likelihood, they get ever madder. And get bigger clubs.