Mali. Again (conclusion)

August 19, 2016

One can dream.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

One can dream. One must dream.

Here’s to Mali.

Mali. Again (part five of six)

August 13, 2016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Mali. Again (part four of six)

August 8, 2016

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

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

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


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

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

The result was a rout. 50 Malian soldiers dead.

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Mali. Again (part three of five)

August 1, 2016

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Compare and contrast with the output of Minusma…

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


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

Mali. Again (part two of five)

July 28, 2016

Well hello there and a very belated good morning to you too! Another luminary comes striding through the hall as we are all made to stand up. Monsieur le Ministre is two hours late but he can pontificate about the cardinal importance of this meeting without blinking an eye. Hats off for this audacious performance! Monsieur will be out of a job in a few months’ time; the next government reshuffle is already preparing itself while he delivers his instantly forgettable contribution. He finishes and hastily moves out of the building. Doubtlessly en route for another “cardinally important” meeting.

Next! It’s a representative of the United Nations Multinational Integrated Mission for the Stabilisation of Mali, better known by its French acronym, Minusma. It is currently the most dangerous UN mission in the world; up to one hundred Africans from Chad, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo have paid the ultimate price for the political careers of those who dreamed up the idea, scribbled the mission’s unattainable mandate on the back of an envelope and headed it into predictable failure. This, then, is the mission the Netherlands is contributing 400 lives to. Four have died, in two separate accidents. The Hague is very eager for a seat at the Big Table of the United Nations Security Council. It also hopes to secure a plum job or two for the failed politicians the Dutch electorate is expected to bin at the next elections.

But back to our sweaty hall. Our Minusma representative, a rotund American, will embark on his own cliché-laden speech – precisely what one comes to expect from an international career bureaucrat. Move over, Malian administrators, Blair and Barroso, this is heavy duty competition!

The ventilators groan some more…

‘…partner in development…many visits in different parts of Mali…national reconciliation…women’s associations…you have a very beautiful country…it is worth preserving…’ The rivulet murmurs inconsequentially for about ten minutes whereupon the owner of this impressive set of platitudes ups and leaves, a bodyguard in his wake. The latter looks the part, massive and square, attached to an earpiece and a wire.

No mention of Minusma’s long list of failures, from not stabilizing the country, to not supporting the disarmament of armed groups (if anything, they are proliferating), to failing to protect civilians or indeed its own personnel – and I notice in passing that the old wording of ‘support for the reestablishment of State authority throughout the country’ has been quietly dropped. It does not stop the parade of white UN marked 4WheelDrives parking in front of the upmarket Lebanese supermarket in Bamako’s leafy Badalabougou suburb, to secure the absolutely vital provisions that no ordinary Malian can pay for.

Here’s the new mandate in its backpedalling glory….

(to be continued)

Mali. Again (part one of five)

July 27, 2016

No, I have not been back to Mali and I regret that. The immediate occasion for writing this was the release of a deeply worrying report on Mali, by the International Crisis Group. More about that shortly. But there is also a distinct Dutch angle to this entry. The Netherlands currently deploy some 400 soldiers, police and civilians in Mali, under the torn umbrella of a UN operation. It is a deployment the Dutch government wants to prolong. This is, as you shall see, a very bad idea.


Let’s go to a packed hall in a mid-sized town away from Bamako, the Malian capital. You are about to witness, in very condensed form, everything that has gone wrong and continues to go wrong with the country and its international “partnerships”.

First, we are given a clear and unequivocal demonstration of the contempt in which we, ordinary citizens, are held by those who rule us. The main speakers do not arrive until well over an hour after the advertised time. They are the veteran administrators; armed with an inexhaustible supply of platitudes they proceed to bore us to death with their off-the-shelve discourse. Move over Tony Blair and Manuel Barroso: you have competition.

‘Culture is the key to achieve national reconciliation,’ intones one. Stop the press! On second thought, don’t bother. A minister has been appointed to take care of that, so all will be well…with national reconciliation, to avoid confusion. Culture is something ordinary Malians take seriously, when they are not busy trying to survive. For politicians it is a vehicle that helps them further their careers.

‘Our international partners are important to us.’ Except those we consider deeply beneath us; they can wait in a sweaty overcrowded hall until we can be bothered to show up. The really important ones, like the European Union, individual donor countries, the French, the UN agencies – those have representatives and we meet informally. We will, of course, never tell you what’s been discussed. Now shut up and listen to the praise-singers we’ve sent you. Culture!

The old administrators talk about “values”. Ah yes, those. What they are and what they mean should of course remain as vague as possible. The French language (all of this goes on in French), one begins to suspect, was invented for the purpose of dissimulation…

‘Who are we and where are we going?’

‘We are one great family.’

‘Peace and stability are important preconditions for development.’

‘We have always lived together in harmony.’

‘We don’t consider colour or religion.’

Have pity on those large ventilators hanging from the ceiling. They probably have fewer problems with the room temperature than with the sheer colossal amount of stiflingly hot air this august panel emits from behind the table.

(to be continued)


July 3, 2016

Brexit on 23 June follows a trend across Europe, supposedly in response to the existence of an overweening and undemocratic European Union. (Very briefly: I do believe the EU suffers from hubris, I do believe the EU is in great danger of becoming a corporatist neoliberal venture for which it was never intended and of which the euro is the symbol. But I also believe that in spite of the urgent need to fundamentally reform the European Union the world is infinitely better off with one than without one.)

I want to go somewhere else with this piece. The trend across Europe and elsewhere in the western world is the arrival/re-appearance of nationalist and anti-migration movements. This is echoed in another trend, happening across the globe from West Africa to Southeast Asia.

One day before Brexit, the wonderful Pakistanti Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri was murdered by self-styled Islamic radicals in Karachi. Earlier this year the world witnessed the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (or ISIS), an act of vandalism rivalled by the blowing up of the Bamiyan statutes by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the vandalism perpetrated on Timbuktu by self-declared jihadist invaders in 2012.

What do they all have in common? I would argue: the idea of purity. Or, to put it better: nostalgia for purity, the illusion of purity. It never existed but they want it back.

The rhetoric is interchangeable. Prior to the referendum that returned the tragic Brexit vote, British nationalists talked about reducing immigration, taking back control from a monstrous – and what’s more: foreign – bureaucracy and return to the green and pleasant self-ruled lands of old times. Without too much interference from outside and even fewer migrants thank you very much. Elsewhere in Europe, extremist politicians talk about sovereignty, the need to curb immigration and to stop the EU. ‘I want my country back,’ is their rallying cry.

Sufi music is abhorrent to the Taliban because it pollutes the otherwise pristine and sweet unspoilt sound of prayer. Monuments and tombstones and artefacts make the mind of the beholder stray from the correct path of a blemish free faith where no idolatry takes place.

It is the illusion of purity: an unspoilt people, an unspoilt faith, the pristine English village, the Khalifate. That dream of purity can only be fulfilled through destruction and vandalism. What is tainted and unclean must be removed. Whether it’s a monument, music or an institution like the European Union. Sacrifice is unavoidable, even if it means putting an entire economy or a future generation in jeopardy. Purity requires the use of a wrecking ball. Brexit and the blowing up of monuments are two sides of the same coin.


None of this is new. But it has become more virulent and more aggressive of late and moves to counter it have been shockingly inept. Why? I believe that this is in part because of the overwhelming victory of globalisation and its attendant ideology (neoliberalism) and in part because of the total collapse of the countervailing progressive movement.

The Thatcher/Reagan revolution informed by the unfettered free market ideology peddled by the likes of Milton Friedman has been successful beyond its wildest dreams. It has reversed virtually everything that an organised and united people’s force fought for during a century and a half. Unions everywhere, anti-colonial movements everywhere. Today, neoliberalism is continuing the business of taking us collectively back to the 19th century. States have been rolled back, utilities that provide life-saving basic services  (water for instance, health care) have been or are being privatised, structural adjustment programs have ravaged economies from Latin America to Asia via huge chunks of Africa – the list is long. The very welcome demise of the dictatorial and inept Soviet Union and its European satellite states in 1989 cemented the Thatcher/Reagan victory.

The progressive movement has struggled to find an answer to this free market steamroller. Instead, it has adopted most of the steamroller’s principles (the main one being that Greed Is Good) and has been looking for a visage, something to mask the fact that it may look progressive but is the exact opposite. The visage was already present in its ranks and was eagerly adopted as its faux progressive front. It’s called identity politics.

Starting with second wave feminism in the late 1960s it has since morphed into a multitude of movements that have their own navel and their own victimhood as their unique focal points. They have rendered the old and lofty principle of international solidarity obsolete. To mask this simple fact, Diversity was invented, which incorporates (and I use this word deliberately) an in-crowd of people who all look different but who mostly and basically think the same thoughts. Progressive it is not: this movement has attached itself eagerly to the globalisation agenda. And as I have argued earlier, it is precisely for this reason that it fails to counter resurgent European nationalists, religious extremists and the other purity seekers. 


Purity is the reaction globalisation has engendered. Races should not mix. People should not mix. Cultures should not mix. Musics should not mix. Countries should not mix and most certainly not be “overseen” by some supranational busybody. It is telling to see that extreme rightwing groups in the United States combine utter hatred for the United Nations (another international bogeyman) with a stunning lack of knowledge about the organisation. Donald Trump is their champion and, as if to illustrate my point, the other presidential candidate is a shell for corporate America with a ghastly track record as former Secretary of State. I live in a region that has to deal with the atrocious fallout of the criminally catastrophic decision to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi (someone they were previously more than happy to do business with), of which Hillary Clinton was an active and enthusiastic supporter.

Because of the Left’s astonishing incompetence in reviving the forces of solidarity that used to cut across all identity lines (race, sex, sexual orientation and everything else) both forces – globalisation and the purity movements – will continue to run amok and crash into each other. The have-nots have been divided by identity politics and will not stand together again. It is curiously ironic that the likes of Brexit are driven by another type of identity politics, a variety the faux progressives disapprove of: rural, working class or former working class and (dare we day it) mostly white, subject to a condescending sneering campaign by those in possession of the correct identity politics. This has backfired spectacularly.

Brexit is a tragic mistake. Purity, be it racial, ideological or religious is a dangerous illusion. The progressive movement is dead and its faux progressive identity politics driven replacement an abysmal failure. We need something new. Maybe it is already there, unable to stop the steamroller but at least attempting to slow it down. New bold citizen-led movements show a way forward, like the one that removed autocrat Blaise Compaoré, then resisted a coup attempt by his presidential guard, and a new one, aimed to get genetically manipulated cotton removed. All three in Burkina Faso. We could do with a lot more like these.

The Façade – Part 5 and end

May 23, 2016
A slightlycloser look at thew Henro Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned.

A slightly closer look at the new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned. Photo taken from the conference room of the Grand Hotel.


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.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

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.

The Façade – Part 4

May 21, 2016
Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. The line you see on the left is the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country's second president, still active in politics.

Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. Accross the Lagoon on the left: the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country’s second president, still active in politics.


‘All phones off! All of them! Anyone who does not understand French? I will repeat it again. All phones off. You will be checked as we continue. No phone use until Bouaké. Does everybody understand? Phones off until Bouaké!!’ The gendarme walks down the aisle of the bus and wants to see all the phones.

The reason? I ask him.

Security. Or the lack thereof, rather. Bouaké is a mere 300 kilometres away, a trip that will take us seven hours because of the utterly pathetic state of the road. There are so many potholes it looks like the thing has been bombed. Perfect ambush territory and apparently there are still plenty of bandits about. A common practice is for accomplices on the bus to tell them where the rich pickings are; hence the phone ban. Only when you are in uniform can you loot with impunity in Côte d’Ivoire. But who are these bandits?

They are another part of the fallout of Côte d’Ivoire’s political turmoil. The military aftermath of the “post-electoral crisis” of 2010 – 2011 has been and continues to be utterly shambolic. A huge number of things that should have happened to Côte d’Ivoire’s fragmented, haphazardly composed and notoriously ill-disciplined military, has failed to materialise. The government, the United Nation’s inadequate mission (does it have any others these days?), international donors – all can take the blame for the fiasco.

What should have happened is this. Between 2002 and 2011 there were two armies in Côte d’Ivoire. There was a government army under the command of the then president Laurent Gbagbo and there was Soro’s Forces nouvelles (Fn) we discussed in the previous instalment. After the 2010 presidential contest that pitted the incumbent Gbagbo against candidate and eventual winner Alassane Ouattara, the Fn aligned itself with the latter for complicated personal and political reasons. This upset the military balance between the two (the whole story is infinitely more complex but that is for another time).

These were by no means the only armed groups around. There were pro-Gbagbo militias, the com’zones in the North had their private armies. Then you had the remains of a Gbagbo-supported gang (called MODEL) that invaded south-eastern Liberia to remove president Charles Taylor. There were also the traditional hunters (known as “dozos”) and a host of freelancers, mercenaries and “young volunteers” from Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, South Africa and heaven knows where else. The point is that all these groups and gangs and militias and mercenaries should have been properly disarmed. Following that, a national army, with a clear recruitment structure and hierarchy should have been established. This has not happened. Especially worrying is the fact that there remains a sizeable chunk of arms outside state control and there are of course people who know where to find them – and how to use them.

The bandits in the North could have been from any of the above categories but it stands to reason that they used to belong to Soro and the com’zones. (Soro and the Com’Zones – is there a band name in there somewhere? Anyway, moving on…)

Accounts of the numerous attacks against private vehicles, minibuses or indeed bigger ones like this bus we’re traveling on, have pointed at the military-style operations these criminals employ to get their loot. And that’s why the phones are off until Bouaké, testimony to the monumental failure of the government to sort out its military.

The region were are traversing is also becoming a fall-back position for new Malian self-declared jihadist forces. And mind you, at this time we were completely unaware bullets would be raining on a beach outside Abidjan just a few days later.

The gendarme was a pleasant enough fellow and he told me, on arrival at Bouaké, that he wished the situation were better but all he could do was to prevent anything bad from happening, whilst being fully aware that he’d be the first to take a bullet for the passengers’ safety. I thanked him for his work. Bouaké itself was a good surprise: alive and in much better shape now than during our last visit, six years ago. The rest of the trip, from there to the capital Yamoussoukro and the economic hub Abidjan was a breeze. On a brand new six-lane road. With the phones on.


Last installment about Abidjan itself, coming soon.

The Façade – Part 3

May 18, 2016
Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul's Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.


Between 2002 and 2011 the North of Côte d’Ivoire was the playground of a group that grandiosely called itself Forces nouvelles (Fn). Their political leader at the time was Guillaume Soro, a young and extremely wily political operator who in perfect tandem with his old brother friend and now enemy Charles Blé Goudé turned the country’s student union (known as FESCI) into a violent militia and went on to expand this model across the rest of the country.

When Fn ran the North it had a single business model: loot. Nobody made his own money doing something productive. The region was carved out into zones, over which presided military commanders. They became known as com’zones. When I visited the area in early 2010, with photographer Martin Waalboer, we got our first glimpse of the Fn when they, cap in hand, walked through the train we were travelling on, asking for money. The second impression was that of Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second city, largely lifeless, half boarded-up and in possession of a non-functioning economy. It did yield a ridiculously cheap rented car, though.

The third impression was that of arrogant indifference among the ground troops about the presence of two foreign journalists in their main fief, only matched by the indignant paranoia of their media chief who we finally got on the phone with the assistance of some local United Nations staff and who only wanted to know how long we had been there. Wise enough, we had decided not to do any work until the Fn chief of the media had barked a few orders down his mobile phone, whereupon our Fn media accreditation appeared pronto from a room at their Bouaké headquarters. Matters were, of course, not helped by the fact that we showed up shortly after another bout of violent rioting, which had rattled the leadership.

The fourth impression was that of fleecing. Anybody unlucky enough to have to live, work or travel in the areas the Fn controlled had their pockets picked. Sure enough, the chaps manning the roadblock on leaving Bouaké were in a good mood (and in stitches when, after passing the roadblock, we returned a few minutes later to tell them we had forgotten to buy petrol) – but pay them we did. As did everybody else. And the fifth impression was the desolate stagnation in which the entire region found itself, nowhere clearer than in another major town, Katiola, where the holes in the road were bigger than a regiment of SUVs and the public buildings appeared to be in varying states of decay. A strange state of affairs for a movement that claimed to have taken over this part of the country because it felt the “Northerners” had been systematically marginalised. If anything, the infrastructure that had been put in place in the first few decades of the country’s independence was decaying fast under their writ.

Between Blé Goudé and Soro, the latter has turned out (so far) the smartest operator. He is currently the president of the country’s Parliament while Blé Goudé, a key ally of former president Laurent Gbagbo, sits in a jail in Scheveningen awaiting the continuation of his trial at the International Criminal Court, for  alleged human rights abuses. Soro, meanwhile, could be heading for the highest post in the land, as early as 2020.

He is also the king of the next place we pass on our trip: Ferkessédougou. This town is doing rather nicely for itself thanks to the generous patronage from their illustrious son who has, according to reports, already had a conference centre set up with his name on it. No doubt he has helped himself to some nice real estate in the process. But at least in “Ferké” as the place is commonly known, there is some evidence of the reversal of the calamitous damage the Fn and its com’zones have caused in the region.


But what’s worse – they’re still around. Part 4 shortly.