An open space

October 1, 2015

6 – Making Sense


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


Ouaga in a hurry

June 17, 2015

In Holland there is a saying, that, roughly – and badly – translated goes like this: ‘That one? Too funny. He’s got the laughs hanging off his arse.’ Or, as the case may be – and it is today – He is a She from Burkina Faso.

Roukiata Ouédraogo’s the name. Grew up in Burkina Faso, left for France, worked in fashion, theatre (combining both for a while) – and film. A while ago I had the great pleasure of seeing her in action, alone on stage at the French Institute (yes, they still have them) in Ouagadougou. The show is called Ouaga pressé, Ouaga in a hurry. First presented in 2012, this is a whirlwind tour – aka the life of a young woman growing up, going to school, getting about, dancing to lots of music and travelling (cue the inevitable and interminable negotiations between African women and any airline about the amount of excess luggage allowed).

Ouédraogo does not need many props, just a few suitcases, a box here and there. The lady is centre stage, in a red robe, draped around her generous physique, which she uses to great effect. After all, is her nickname not Petit Modèle…?

We follow her in the family home with the usual copious amounts of intrigue and backstabbing and then in Paris, where she visits the institution that to a lot of women is what the pub used to be for men: that extra living room when your own is getting too small. We are (of course!) in a salon de coiffure, or hairdressing saloon, where you can spend many hours immersed in gossip and self-indulgence. But then another visitor arrives, clearly not from Chateau Rouge, where – naturally – the saloon is located. Nope. This new client is white.

‘You lost here?’ the owner asks innocently.

Ah, no, the Frenchwoman wants something from the saloon. Which she gets, at a massively inflated price. We all have to live, right?

In another scene Roukiata takes us back to her school days when she manages to escape from home and her strict, education-obsessed father (there always have to be one, right?) and manages to get out on high heels and dressed to the nines, with a girlfriend, on a borrowed “moto”, those ubiquitous small Chinese motorbikes that convert most Burkinabè, gentle-spirited and quite relaxed most of the time, into instant kamikaze pilots.

En route, the two get stopped by the police who want to know who the owner is. Embarrassment follows plus a rather triumphant phonecall from one of the policemen, ready to convert the fine (made up and settled on the spot of course) into an order of two fine cold beers. The two make it to the great occasion on time: the school party.



On her way back, our young heroine needs a taxi, since Girlfriend has disappeared with a boyfriend and the “moto”. Not easy at this time of night. Taxis are scarce and crammed. One stops. With red robe undulating from one side to the other, Roukiata worms her way past the other passengers on the backseat.

‘Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me. Pardon.’

‘Keep your hands off Africa’s treasures!!’ (or words to that effect)

‘Pardon. Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me.’

Comedy gold.

But it’s not over yet. The driver has taken a liking to her and will bring her “a little black plastic bag”, which means: something to eat, wrapped in, indeed a small black plastic bag. She brushes him off but then has to face going back into the house…

Roukiata Ouédraogo is currently on tour in West Africa. Keep a lookout for Ouaga pressé. Definitely recommended.

Les Coxeurs

May 30, 2015

It must have been fifteen years ago, or thereabouts, when I first made contact with “les coxeurs”. Or more precisely: they made contact with me.

My taxi was approaching the sprawling bus station of Adjamé, the busy hub that connects Abidjan with other parts of the country. It being hot and humid, the windows were, of course, open. Perfect opportunity for a young guy to earn a few cents. He stood by the side of the road and spotted, hawk-eyed and unfailing, me and my luggage in the taxi. Made a beeline for the car and stuck his head as far in as possible.

First. And he is not going to let go. There are scores of young men – always young men – like him and the competition is merciless.

‘You’re going where’?

By this time you, the passenger, must have an answer prepared or have made good friends with the taxi driver so that you will find your bus station with a minimum of stress.

My destination was Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire’s slightly weird but extremely charming capital. And I knew the name of the company that was going to take me there. So the answer was simple: ‘Thank you very much. It’s all been arranged.’

Do not, under any circumstance, make the mistake of releasing any more information than that. Anything that goes beyond a simple, accurate but necessarily incomplete statement of fact is an open invitation for le coxeur to enter into a prolonged phase of negotiations, during which nothing you say will made the slightest blind bit of a difference because his only objective is to earn a few cents. From the conductor for bringing in a passenger. And from you because he will be carrying your luggage while still fending off the competition.

‘You’re going with them? No good. I know a better company.’

‘Is that your destination? I know the company that can take you there.’

‘No, it’s not that way. The buses to [insert destination] are over here.’

‘You want to take that bus? No but that one has already left. Come with me.’

The repertoire is inexhaustible, while you, the passenger, are not. Anyway, I made it to the terminus of the UTB, l’Union des Transporteurs de Bouaké, one of the largest and best in Côte d’Ivoire and having left les coxeurs behind I could now mentally prepare for the fourteen, fifteen, sixteen road blocks ahead that were sure to make this otherwise pleasant 300 kilometre trip a sheer hell of exhaustion and harassment by what’s known as corps habillés. Uniforms. A lot harder to shake off.


Today, as the population grows and the supply of work does not keep pace, les coxeurs are everywhere. I saw them at work in Bamako, where they, hawk-eyed and alert, observe taxis coming in from a major intersection. Their targets have to wait for traffic lights before they can make their turn towards the station and then they must wait for the endless stream of mopeds to end. Meanwhile, the young men beeline their way to you, at considerable risk to themselves because traffic is fast and brakes are rarely applied, even less so for pedestrians, et alone young men, who are, as we should know by now, disposable. [links here]

Most of them are in their Twenties. Badly dressed, wearing very old slippers (not helping when you do this kind of work) and barely literate. But they are fast and strong: speed and muscle, it’s all you need in this business.

Young, poverty-afflicted men, never figure in any state plan for “development”. They do not exist in the policies of the development industry that has been blighting this continent for more than half a century. So, at a very early age these young men learn an indelible lesson: you’re on your own. Fend for yourself. Which they do, efficiently and if necessary, ruthlessly. Here, as shouters and haulers of passengers, there as petty criminals, elsewhere as the easily recruited (money!) security detail of some politician or religious leader, yet somewhere else as passengers on a bus, a lorry or a boat to a place that will bring work, or, ultimately, with guns and knives in the gangs of criminals that devastated parts of West Africa in the 1990s and are currently wreaking havoc in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere. The boundaries between these categories are thin. But the main actors all have the same thing in common: a relentless entrepreneurship, whether we like it or not. They never mattered to us; we do not matter to them.


At one of Bamako’s large roundabouts, the one that has the iconic Africa Tower in the middle, a bus was waiting to fill up. It took two hours. I know, because I was on it and we had left the station with barely ten passengers. Les coxeurs did their job; of course they do not limit themselves to bus stations, wherever there is a crowd waiting for transport – they’ll be there.


Fisticuffs broke out at the end of those hours. It was time to get paid. Driver and conductor were dishing out some notes. 500 francs. 80 cents. Unlikely to go to any of the young men individually. They will have to share. But lets be charitable and say that they were fighting over about 200 francs each, barely enough for a bowl of rice with nothing else. There may not be another opportunity today. Or maybe there will be. But you cannot be sure. You live another hour.


May 5, 2015

Thanks for your patience!

Travel, illness, a crashed computer and lots of other work have all contributed to this blog lying dormant for four months.

Time to revive it.


Mild. That’s the word I would like to use when describing Abderrahmane Sissako’s depiction of recent  events in Timbuktu. This is not the first time Sissako tackles a theme rooted in either a historical fact or current circumstance. “Bamako”, his 2006 production, staged a trial against the International Monetary Funds and the World Bank, the lead agencies of an aid industry that is the bane of this continent. As in “Timbuktu”, he affords himself acres of artistic licence, so what we get to see are his interpretations of fact and circumstance.

In early 2012, northern Mali was invaded, first by a Tuareg rebellion and then by jihadist gangs. It was, in brief, the fallout from the West’s catastrophically ill-conceived removal of its earlier friend and ally Muamar Ghadaffi, whose army had been home for many Tuaregs. Jihadists from Algeria and elsewhere saw the opportunity of a gaping security hole that was opening up in northern Mali and struck. They overran Timbuktu, the City of 333 Saints and destroyed buildings, graves and objects of world-wide cultural importance.

Timbuktu was hit especially hard in the way people’s lives were disrupted or destroyed. ‘We are losing our soul,’ as one old inhabitant put it. “Timbuktu”, the film, shows some of that, in particular the harsh stoning of an “adulterous” couple, the relentless beating of a female singer (played beautifully by Fatoumata Diawara) after she had been arrested for illegally performing music, the heartless abduction of a local girl by an English speaking jihadist fighter and the destruction of art.

Should “Timbuktu” have been a Western shill, as some writers have suggested, the jihadists would have been portrayed as unreconstructed monsters without any redeeming features. Instead, they are presented to us with their weaknesses and their pasts. The will to communicate and dialogue is emphasised throughout, especially by the city’s imam who seeks to reason with the jihadists every time they violate local custom. To me, the essence of “Timbuktu” runs counter to the instincts of the alleged leaders of Western nations, who have developed a vicious tendency to bomb everyone who disagrees with them.

The jihadist leader, Abdelkrim, is seen dancing in secret – we are left to determine whether it is ballet or the much older traditional whirling of the Dervishes, imbued with the kind of mysticism he wants to expunge. When he is driven to a sand dune and walks behind it to light up, his driver tells him: ‘Don’t bother. Everybody knows you smoke.’ Some of his fighters are clearly more comfortable discussing European league football than the sharia principles they are supposed to ram down everybody’s throat. Not exactly your average portrayal of a hate-infused fundamentalist. Sissako maintains the human scale in his story.

from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

The film’s centrepiece revolves around a conflict between Amadou, a fisherman and Kidane, a herdsman whose favourite bull strays into Amadou’s nets. The fisherman kills the bull and Kidane, an otherwise tranquil man and loving husband, gets into a fight with Amadou and kills him. Accidentally or not, again we are not sure.

I will confess that I found the storyline that followed this scene rather confusing. First, it takes the Islamic Police no time at all to find and arrest Kidane. How were they so sure it was him? And then there is his confession and the verdict: compensate Amadou or die. Kidane has not got the wherewithal to do the former. I was left wondering what a traditional tribunal would have had to say. The sequence ends with a botched rescue of Kidane by his wife Satima and an unknown biker we have seen riding around a few times, an interesting “foreign” element if you like, just like the mad mystic woman from Haiti who somehow ended up here after having escaped the earthquake in her country and who challenges Abdelkrim’s gang with the recklessness of someone who knows she cannot be touched or harmed. It is in her lair that Abdelkrim performs his dance…


from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

“Timbuktu” is a work of art, beautifully filmed (perhaps even too beautifully if that is at all possible), with long stills that reminded me of my favourite film director, the late Andrej Tarkovski.

So here is one recurring criticism that can be put to pasture. There is this one here, for instance, a critique that provoked an explosion of discussions as it made the risible claim that Sissako had made a film to fit Western tastes for an “eternal Africa” where everyone is a fisherman or a herdsman, blissfully ignoring the fact that literally everybody in the film is using a mobile phone to communicate. Orientalism, or “othering” to use that ugly neologism, “Timbuktu” does none of these things.

Another criticism relates to Mauritania, where Sissako was born and where most of “Timbuktu” was filmed. Commentators have asked why Sissako has not dared to speak out against the persistent slavery practices there. Mauritania outlawed it in 1981 (the last country in the world to do so) and then took another 26 years to criminalise it. It is a good point and perhaps Sissako, said to be a cultural advisor to Mauritanian president Mohamed Old Abdel Aziz, will be compelled to make such a statement, in another film. At the same time, it strikes me as irrelevant. I do not recall any such calls when “Bamako” was released, partly of course because that film targeted the “correct” usual suspects – World Bank and IMF – and attacked them with a ferocity that makes “Timbuktu” a paragon of subtlety and, in my view at least, a better film.

from AlloCiné

from AlloCiné

That leaves France, where the film was mostly financed and where it has been very warmly welcomed (seven Césars, the French Oscars). France is part of that international community that first allowed Mali to slide into the abject mess that it is today because it was an excellent hole into which the hundreds of millions in aid money could be sunk. Mali was, therefore, immune from criticism. Then, in January 2013, France briefly became the heroic liberator that shot the jihadist gangs out of Timbuktu and then, unforgivably, botched its attempts at reuniting Mali at Kidal, a rebel stronghold until today. Today, France is regarded with utmost suspicion in Mali and all she has to blame for that is herself.

French critics have been praising “Timbuktu” to the heavens – and indeed, one of the critiques I mentioned earlier quotes a piece of astonishing silliness in Le Monde in which some hack maintains that “Timbuktu” is in fact a tribute…to France. In fact, the film steers clear of any overt political statement, which is perhaps why some have found it necessary to accuse Sissako of having made the film to whitewash France and/or Mauritania, both engaged in what is called the War On Terror. The point would have been legitimate, had he made a documentary, which he did not. But don’t take my word for it – go and see it for yourself.



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