Archive for March, 2011

Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo wins (2)

March 25, 2011

So you have the Mugabe model in full swing: war chest – propaganda – vigilantes – armed troops – foreign friends – assets to strip. Now, you can sit tight. Meanwhile, your country has become so incredibly polarised as to render it ungovernable. Suppose by some unforeseen miracle Gbagbo decides to up and leave and give Ouattara the seat of power. His vigilantes will still be out on the street; his army will not listen to the new incumbent; his patronage network will continue to sabotage the economy. In short: he wins.

The key is to make sure the money keeps running. No source is suspect; anything goes. We already mentioned oil-rich states of any shade and stripe, rogue or non-rogue. But there is more.

It should have surprised no-one when it was discovered that among the strong financial forces propping up Mugabe and his clan were British high street banks, even while the clan media were churning out shrill anti-British propaganda. “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again,” they droned. Anyone who has read Orwell’s Animal Farm (Zimbabwe is a carbon copy of that tale) will immediately recognise the ever-returning question of the ruling pigs: do you want Jones back? No – but Barclay’s Bank will certainly do…

Airbus for oilmen (Photo: Flickr)

Other example. While an unspeakably cruel civil war was raging in Angola and pitted the nominally socialist MPLA, in government, against the US and South Africa-supported UNITA rebels, the authorities in Luanda were happily doing business with oilmen…from Texas. There was (and still is) a direct air link between Luanda and Houston, owned by the Angolan state oil company Sonangol and operated by a US carrier. It’s known as the “Houston Express”, for oilmen from both countries.

Similarly, a famous French businessman (goes by the name of Vincent Bolloré) has big interests in Côte d’Ivoire. He is also a friend of Gbagbo’s arch enemy, president Nicholas Sarkozy of France and his former minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner. Small matter. Monsieur Bolloré is fundamentally not interested in who runs the country. He’s interested in making money, because that is his business. We may not like this, we may rail against it but business rarely takes clear political sides. It hedges. Business is not immoral , that is not its defining characteristic. It has, however, an essentially utilitarian ethic. Which is why corporations run their “corporate responsibility” programs out of the department where it belongs: public relations. If corporate responsibility makes them look good and is good for business, they’ll have it. If not – they won’t.

See if you can lay your hands on a biography written by the UK journalist Tom Bower, about a now forgotten but larger-than-life businessman. It is called ‘Tiny’ Rowland, the rebel tycoon’ and has at its centre the man who took an obscure little Anglo-Rhodesian firm, Lonrho and turned it into a short-lived multinational conglomerate with interests from Cape Town to Khartoum. Rowland could fly his private jet into Kenya, Malawi or Zambia and drive straight to the presidential palace for an audience. He would use the same private jet to fly rebels and government officials halfway around the continent to the negotiating table for peace in Mozambique – ultimately, of course, because the war was bad for his business. He turned tax evasion into an art form but at the same time wanted to be fêted as a truly loyal British citizen. He is probably best remembered for his epic fight with the Egyptian Businessman Mohamed Al Fayed, the father of Princess Diana’s boyfriend when she died in a Paris car crash, about ownership of Harrod’s department store.

Rowland would have felt right at home in Côte d’Ivoire today – on both sides.

Côte d’Ivoire is rich, has shedloads of assets to strip and enough rich foreign friends to supply the ruling clan with whatever it needs. Gbagbo wins, thanks to the Bollorés and the Angolas of this world. And he’ll be there for a while yet, the people be damned – quite literally, as it was reported last week that in Abidjan his fearless army lobbed a few mortars into a market in the Ouattara stronghold of Abobo, bravely killing up to 30 market women, who were of course armed to the teeth…with merchandise. Meanwhile, their gallant opposite counterparts in the West of the country have sent 100,000 terrified civilians across the border to the relative safety of…Liberia.

Would the other side be any better? On the evidence available to us now the answer must be: no. The armed groups up North have been asset-stripping that part of the country for years, to give you just one example. So in short, winning elections usually means that one rapacious clan is replaced by another. Which begs another question: why bother in the first place? Let’s leave that question for another time…


Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo wins (1)

March 25, 2011

Time to tackle this one.

We have seen this before.

A republic holds presidential elections. Someone wins – someone else loses. If the opposition candidate loses, he’ll shout “fraud” and “rigged” but will, most likely, cut his losses, move on and try again. That’s the Cellou Dalein Diallo approach. He lost last year’s contest in Guinea, declared he was unhappy with the outcome but would accept it. He is busy readying his party for the upcoming legislative elections because he intends to fight the winner, Alpha Condé, from Parliament. (Next week, I will (finally!) be travelling through his home area and catch the prevailing mood.)

If the incumbent loses, there are various scenarios. Some, as in Ghana, Mali and Zambia accept their loss and move on. But there are others who want to perform, what one may term, “a Mugabe” on their countries. There are variations to this plan of action but in essence it means: do absolutely everything to stay in power. After all, you will be safe in the knowledge that at the end of the day, no-one will stop you.

Laurent Gbagbo and his clan are currently in the business of “doing a Mugabe” on their country, Côte d’Ivoire. The parallels are striking. Like its counterpart in Zimbabwe, the Gbagbo clan

…Sits atop a large and well-organised political machine (Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Popular Front) – Front Populaire Ivoirien, even the names are the same), whose express purpose it is…not to contest elections but to win them

…Has considerable popular support but this may not be enough to win elections every single time. After all, political sands do shift from time to time. So the clan…

…Participates in elections but has absolutely no intention of accepting the results if they go against it

…Has a war chest of considerable size, in case things do not go the way of the clan. This war chest permits them to pay those who are keeping them in power (see below). The war chest is filled through looting – principally their own country – and donations from friendly rulers with track records they can relate to and preferably a lot of oil money (Angola, Venezuela, Libya)

…Resorts to asset stripping and seizing profitable economic activity if the war chest shows sings of distress (banks and cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire; diamonds and the 51% indigenous (read: clan) business ownership rule in Zimbabwe)

…Has three essential pillars in place that allows the clan to stay put if it has run out of sufficient political support: propaganda, intimidation and violent repression.

1. State-owned media become relentless propaganda machines. In Zimbabwe, the Herald newspaper and theZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) can be relied upon to obediently and dutifully copy the output emanating from the president’s office and/or the minister of information; in Côte d’Ivoire that role is played by the television signals and the website of RTI, Radiodiffusion et Télévision Ivoirienne). Invariably, some of the propaganda has xenophobic overtones: in Zimbabwe, the official fingers jab constantly at “The British” and occasionally Indians – in other words: everyone who does not look sufficiently African. In Côte d’Ivoire, the principal targets are the neighbours, mostly Burkinabé (portrayed as “mercenaries” or “rebels”) and sometimes the French. Pogroms are common.

Which brings us to number 2.

Green Bombers

2. Vigilante groups are turned loose on the streets. They have an unspoken but well-understood mandate to harass, brutalise and kill those who are perceived to be on the side of “the enemy” (Zimbabwe had its war veterans and its Green Bombers, young thugs trained (frequently against their will, by the way) to brutalise the people in special camps; Côte d’Ivoire relies on its Jeune Patriotes, led by Street general Charles Blé Goudé, who has recently enjoined the youths to join the army. This, incidentally, ties in very well with a mini-series I ran here, called “Relentless Trends”. It’s simply the latest version of how a society, any society, makes use of a surplus of young men that are idle and without a future: send them to war. And so, on to 3.

Jeune Patriote

3. The army (and if need be praetorian guards and other militias) are used to suppress any popular challenge to clan rule. These troops are there to kill. Unarmed civilians, real soldiers, it makes very little difference.


Anyone inside and outside the country who calls the clan on its behaviour will be called a stooge of the West, a spy, or member of a conspiracy at the behest of the former colonial power. This gives the vigilantes and repression forces the mandate to pursue and preferably kill the owners of the offending opinions. Some publicists who fancy themselves “intellectuals”, or worse, “journalists” are perfectly happy to justify extrajudicial killings and mass violence against unarmed civilians, as long as their right-on anti-imperialist credentials remain intact. Not infrequently they vent their considered opinions from the comfort and safety of homes located in these vile imperialist hellholes.

Alright, so what does all this have to do with the title of this piece? Simple – the method works. Would the other side be any better? Doubtful. More anon.


If you work for the State…you won’t get paid!

March 22, 2011

Time for a bit of rant.

An old friend used to run a public space embellishment agency. Was in deep trouble because he had done his work and was now waiting for payment: from the local authorities.

Senegal is replete with these stories. It’s what the president, sorry His Majesty, sorry The All-Seeing and All-Knowing One, has famously called “the informalisation” of everything. You see, this government does not like contracts and such like very much. Backroom arrangements are much more convenient.

This is, of course, the stuff of politics. Take, for instance, the case of Bara Tall, a celebrated local entrepreneur who has been building roads and other infrastructure for the State – and is still waiting for his money. But instead of being pad for his troubles…he was put on trial for fraud.

Did he over-invoice? We don’t know. But his real crime was having a political partner who, over time, became the mortal enemy of the president (Google “chantiers de Thiès” for background). That’s why his life and business had to be destroyed; first by non-payment, then by a politically motivated court case. Like all ruling families past and present, the Borgias, the Blairs, the Mugabes and the Clintons – the Wades are ruthlessly efficient in that respect.

Unfortunately for them, Bara Tall is fighting back – and so far, he’s winning. Last week, a court ordered the state to pay him some of the money he is due.

And while on the topic – remember this one?

No, you don’t. Like most Senegalese, who have happily forgotten about it. But on March 9th this year I read a story about a young gifted kora player Noumoucounda Cissoko, who stunned the audience with his virtuosity on the opening night. Three months later, he’s still waiting for his money. He should have gone over to the Trade Fair Grounds, picked up one of those Apple G5 Desktop Computers doing sweet bugger all there – and hey presto!

You know, sometimes, just sometimes, one would wish that the usual “We have turned the page, let’s forget it” – or “Well, I am sure my money will come insh’allah” would make way for a little bit more, er, bite. I’m no fan of predatory lawyers US-style but Christ, in instances such as these, the only right response is of course: “Sue the ß@$+@Â∆$ till they bleed”.

It is all very well to say that this is not according to cultural mores. I prefer to live in a polite society and Senegal is a very polite society. But here is a fact: the shysters who organise this theft fest no longer live in this society. They orbit out there, in a gangland of their own making. They have forfeited the right to protection under Senegal’s politeness rules.

Balla Onivogui (1938 – 2011)

March 21, 2011

Balla Onivogui, trumpet player, composer, arranger and leader of one of the greatest bands from the Golden Age of Guinean music: Balla et ses Balladins. He passed away a week ago today.

Balla was a founder member of Guinea’s first post-independence band, L’ Orchestre Syli. Due to its size, Syli split in two and Balla found himself at the head of Jardin de Guinée, some 50 years ago.

Jardin de Guinée, very early 1960s

You can already hear what became his the trademark sound: gentle, lilting songs that had a knack of wandering slowly into your memory through your ears – and staying there, forever.

Here’s an example from later date:

Jardin de Guinée morphed into Balla et ses Balladins, among the top performers of the Guinean music scene. The band briefly had to change its name into Pivi et ses Balladins (after the second band leader), following a short-lived political conflict between Balla and a minister. Remember that all this glorious music was produced under strict state control and the slightest tiff with the government could end your career.

None of this affected the music.

The cover photo for their last album Objectif perfection

Their last album Objectif perfection was my very first encounter with that great Guinean sound of the 1960s and 70s. It was made at the very tail end of that era and they had every reason to call the album exactly that: it was perfect. No coincidence that Stern’s Africa used a good chunk of “Objectif…” on its luxury 2 CD set, which you should all acquire forthwith.

Here’s just one track from that perfect album…

So here’s to a fine musician and here’s to the remaining members of that dwindling musical fraternity from the golden age, some of whom I hope to see when I visit Conakry legendary La Paiotte, shortly.

The two great bandleaders, Balla Onivogui (l) and Pivi Moriba

Dakar, March 19 – a day at the demo

March 20, 2011

Couple of thousand people on the big Independence Square, downtown Dakar. Many speeches.

Photo: Seneweb News

‘Asalaam aleikoum Dakar!’


‘We want electricity!’ (and indeed, after a short break the power cuts are back with a vengeange)

‘The regime must go!’

Na dem! ‘He must Go!’

Comparisons with Tunis, Egypt even Libya.

Music. Mbalax – what else? Well, rap of course,  and very good rap by the way – from the likes of Kër gui (The House), an excellent new outfit from Dakar’s poor suburbs.

‘Libérez les otages!’ – reference to the fact that three people were arrested for planning a “coup d’état”, a factoid that was announced by the Minister of Justice the night before the demonstration – to general amusement, even more so when he revealed the details of the “coup” – consisting mostly of public disruptions in various parts of town. These happen anyway.

As far as “coups” are concerned, it may have come to the minister’s notice that we don’t do those in Senegal, although eleven years of your lot in power have pissed of a sufficient number of people to turn this from a complete impossibility into something that may have entered some heads. Carry on, minister.

(Here’s a link to a Facebook page – photos from the demo taken by my good colleague Sheriff Bojang Jr.)

Senegal does demonstrations  – and then goes home. On March 19, people waved the national flag, politicians spouted, slogans poured. It was festive and good-natured. And all about the daily grind, made worse by the rapacious behaviour of the clan in power.

A few very minor skirmishes at the end – and then it was over.

‘Diërediëf Dakar!’ Thank you Dakar for coming!

Followed by the reassuring calls to prayer and the obedient march to the mosque. And then, the city centre was mostly quiet.

The one who has been nicknamed "Sa Majesté", among others

At the presidential palace, a short walk from the Square, the party in power was readying itself for its festivities. After all, this was March 19th, the day Abdoulaye Wade’s rule began, eleven years ago. More political noise – and mbalax, of course. But wandering about the centre, what struck me was the speed with which business retook its normal course. Guys walking around with phone cards, the coffee men plying their trade, taxis BEEP!ing, pickpockets working their routine…

I met a newspaper vendor, in a seriously foul mood because this whole demo business had cost him six hours of real business. ‘Didn’t care about it. I’m just glad I can get on with my work now. All those politicians talking, let me tell you – the minute they get power they will be the same. Ah – you’re 300 francs short. Never mind, come and see me when you are around next time…’

‘Bonjour Monsieur, give me a thousand francs…’ I wish I could solve everyone’s problems. Yes, hubris is my middle name…

...speaking of cash...

I walked out of the now almost deserted centre, along the seaside road called La Corniche, done up to the tune of billions of CFAFrancs, unaccounted for, by the Eldest Son of the Royal Family, now also the minister of electricity cuts and a huge number of things besides, including the new airport. At Soumbedioune, the only tunnel in the city, I saw dozens of minibuses emerging from below. And I heard the response coming from the people on the pavements, their balconies, the shops on the side of the road.

‘Boooooh!’ they said. They shouted and whistled. The buses were full of people coming back from a demo in another part of town.

‘Did you see that? They are given a few thousand francs to shout for Wade. They have no idea – they just get hired and now they are brought back home.’ If anything, the onlookers felt pity for the poor folk bussed in and out of Dakar like that. But they were scathing in their assessment of the regime that had hired the buses and their occupants in the first place.

And then I took a taxi and went home. Driver: ‘Me? Didn’t go anywhere near that thing. I was afraid for my vehicle. So where do you want to go – Yoff? That will be =some ridiculous amount=.’

‘Mon frère, seer na lol.’

You know the rest.

Conversation on the way home. ‘So you’re a correspondent? Looking for trouble, were you not? If you know Senegal just a little bit, you’ll be aware that we don’t do trouble here. It’s peaceful. We prefer it like that.’


the song from above

March 11, 2011

You know it’s morning when you hear this quick succession:



“Allahu Akhbar!

It’s the call for morning prayer, loudhailed across the roofs and alleys and nooks and balconies and sleeping heads of the city.

And they fly over it all in many different ways.

Some are painfully off-key; message being more important than the music. Some are clear and loud, intoning the call to prayer in one perfectly pitched phrase.

And one, not far from my home, turns the daily exercise into an operatic experience. With frills and dramatic vibrato and a slightly higher pitched crescendo towards the end. The singer understands that his celestial drama must be taken in moderation. So you do not hear him five times a day.

But when you do, it’s breathtaking. Rigoletto meets God.

Seriously….the end?

March 8, 2011

(repeat note: I don’t think any of my readers is in need of this but just in case of a sudden and inexplicable humour bypass: do not take anything in this or the last instalment of Yoff Tales personally….)

So – after all this relationship mayhem you read about in the last instalment, it is time for some good news.

According to our good L’Observateur Paris reporter Libasse Sarr, the unpleasant scenarios we discussed in the last episode can be avoided. But pay attention! Only in a few specific cases or places. Ready?


This is one you probably know about. Films have been made about this, books have been written too. It’s the favourably advertised “Young migrant man meets older Euro/American woman” scenario. We’ll call this The Gambia Paradigm. In its ideal form, this is a well-understood mutually approved business deal, except that now it does not happen on some golden palm-fringed beach near Banjul but in a bedroom in Bologna or Bradford or Berlin. He gets a bit of his life sorted out; she gets a bit of attention. If the participants are smart (and who says they aren’t?) the whole thing lasts between a couple of weeks and a few months, tops.


Scandinavia! Yes, Libasse Sarr took me by surprise with this glowing reference to that seething hotbed of social-democratic and faintly authoritarian complacency with shrinking populations and (apparently) a serious man-shortage. (Said shortage, of course, being the entirely predictable result of feminism liberating men from the drudgery of marriage.) Now, if Modou decides to land here to unselfishly help out, he must contend with 1) immigration law 2) marriage law 3) Viking women and 4) a growing bunch of populist politicians who prefer their countries small, white and irrelevant. My hat’s off to him and his friends; I couldn’t hack it in a similarly hostile environment. Sarr dutifully reports that – bar a few notable exceptions – African women won’t go to these freezing hellholes if you paid them.


Not without risks but enjoyable, especially if you like roller-coasters. First requirement is easy: leave Europe and get over here. Involvement with someone from these shores is an almost certainty. Chances you will be used as an ATM are considerable but if you’re only moderately smart, like me, you can weed out the gold-diggers of either sex. I can also guarantee you that, on and off the romantic scene, you WILL fall for the one scam you never expected and there always is one. Damage limitation, though, is almost always up to you.

And here comes the best bit (cue violins). There is a good chance you will hit the real jackpot: (cue more violins…) a loving and mutually fulfilling relationship (cue army of violins). Stranger things have happened.

But, and this is for the fellows, keep this is mind if you know what’s good for you: remember the memo. She is the Boss. Even when there isn’t a law in place that Says So. Trust me on this.


Seriously…..the sequel….

March 6, 2011

(note: I don’t think any of my readers is in need of this but just in case someone suddenly and inexplicably develops a sense of humour bypass, this is for you: do not take anything in these next two instalments of Yoff Tales personally….)

Remember this? That was a bit of comic relief from the Humanities. This being a branch of academe that tends to take itself rather seriously, I was disappointed at the lack of vitriol directed at me.

Maybe they don’t read my blog. Their loss.

Anyway, here is a sequel to that view from the Ivory Tower. It’s a piece from L’Observateur (a newspaper here, owned by international superstar and local media tycoon Youssou N’dour) about mixed marriages – again: in Europe.

Libasse Sarr writes from Paris and reports that African migrants of either sex tend to consider marriage with a European to be (his/her words) “the jackpot”. In answer to that famous Tina Turner song What’s luuurve got to do with it, the answer appears to be, rather disconsolately:

bugger all. Oh dear.

It gets interesting when the writer starts to differentiate between the sexes and unlike those in the Humanities, he’s got the memo: She’s the Boss (broad brush stroke, exceptions duly noted but we’re talking about the rule here). Men have known this since the advent of time and have consistently acted accordingly, mostly by staying out of Her way. This has worked very well. Consider this classic scenario: he gets out of the house early every day, earns the family income, does as he told when in the house and has the good grace to leave the planet five to seven years before she does, so she can enjoy his money in peace.

Now – our good friend and reporter Libasse Sarr has noticed something unremarkable: women migrating to Europe from this neck of the woods have the same memo. So what happens is this: they marry a “toubab” (a term, sometimes affectionate, sometimes mildly derogatory; it means “European”), they get what they need from the arrangement (money, papers, child, whatever) and then string him up. The law is their friend and they know it. In short: jackpot. “Toubab” in question has learnt an expensive lesson and some of them actually share their stories so that others may learn too…not holding my breath personally…

So far there is nothing devastatingly new. But it gets really interesting when we turn our attention to the men who go to Europe from here. Let’s call them Modou-Modou, like Libasse Sarr does. Modou arrives in Europe and thinks he may be able to arrange papers and so forth with a female “toubab”. Jeebus…he now has to deal with two laws that are his mortal enemies: European immigration law and European marriage law.

Good luck with that.

Nobody told him that the memo that obtains at home does not change when he enters another continent. Class, what is the bedrock of West African society? That’s right: it is the extended family. And the extended family (now pay attention class) is a highly complicated organism that HE heads nominally…but SHE runs in practice. These are, de facto, matriarchies. Modou will soon find out that Europe’s no different.

So he gets himself acquainted with a female “toubab” and six months later She kicks his philandering ass out on the streets (de-facto matriarchies worldwide tend to produce rather unreliable men). What follows is usually awful. Memorable quote from a Zambian colleague who visited Amsterdam for a conference, after some observation: “Don’t want to live here – too many broken black men on the streets…”

But don’t get depressed. There is some excellent news in the next instalment!