Drama down the road

Three weeks ago, Twitter alerted me to the fact that there had been an armed robbery down the road from my house. As usual, trying to find out where exactly this had occurred turned out to be slightly more complicated that I thought.

After all, you are in a city where giving directions goes something like this…:

‘Ok, you know the big road to the Second Bridge?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Alright. Now you arrive at the place where they are building this new office block. (Giving directions has to be flexible because Bamako never stops changing…) You know there’s a big hotel on the other side, right?’

‘Yes I do.’

‘Just continue beyond that point until you see a petrol station on your left.’

‘Shell or Total?’

‘Both actually. That’s where you turn left.’

‘Is that where the road goes down at an angle?’

‘That’s the one! Keep going until you see this brand new shop on your right hand side. It’s just after the garage of this bus company, of which the name escapes me now…’

‘Anyway, if I get lost, I’ll call you.’

Numerous calls later, you arrive at your destination, where your friend will be waiting for you, cool as a cucumber. Everyone is used to arriving late because of an unforeseen traffic jam (thanks to the city’s frequent accidents), getting lost, taxi drivers – notoriously bloody-minded – not listening to your directions, thinking there is a better way/shortcut that turns out to be a disaster….

 

Anyway. Back to the drama down the road. Was it the shop where I normally deposited my Orange Money credit, necessary to pay for the water, the electricity and my expensive internet connection?

No. I was told. Well in fact, something else had happened in front of that shop. Someone had been shot. It was not immediately clear whether this person had survived the attack but the shot had been fired by one of the robbers, who had fled the scene of their crime in different directions.

There had in fact been four robbers, it turned out, targeting an Orange Money depot not far from the one I use. They had been preceded by someone pretending to be a client who needed to take some 500 euros in cash. Was that available? It was. And that was enough to set the whole train in motion.

The two main tools these brigands use are literally everywhere: light motorbikes and mobile phones. Guns are relatively rare. However, since vigilante justice is not unknown in these parts the robbers made sure they were sufficiently armed to deter any counter-action. But there were a few neighbourhood youths willing to make sure these miscreants were going to regret the assault on this peaceful and law-abiding part of town. The shots that subsequently rang out came from the thieves taking aim at those in hot pursuit, using similar Chinese-build motorbikes. It must have been quite the scene: the Wild West comes to Bamako…

But the cup of indignation really overflowed when a few went down to see the police officers that are a feature of every busy intersection in the Malian capital. Their job is a combination of regulating traffic whenever necessary and pulling motorbikes, taxis and minibuses to the side in search of infractions, for which then a small settlement must be paid. There is fierce competition within the force over the most lucrative of these points. Those in good books with their bosses get the juiciest locations with the best turnover – and the boss is of course expected to get a cut.

The spot closest to where the robbery had occurred…is one of those juicy locations. So imagine a few upset and perhaps rather excited youths and their motorbikes barrelling down on these cops and their cosy little business, with the request to send a few folks to the scene of the crime. You want what??? We’re traffic police, not our job, lads. Besides, you can see we’re busy.

Neighbours said that during the entire half hour that this drama lasted not a single representative of the numerous uniformed police forces, intervention brigades, special whatever had bothered to show up. A visitor to Bamako who is more used to the mean streets of Southern and Eastern Africa can be utterly amazed at the cavalier way in which security is handled here. Taxi windows never close, car doors remain unlocked, people leave their shops unattended…it indicates a certain kind of genius: how to throw millions of people together in a relatively small place and still manage to keep it more or less habitable on a human level.

Humanity is not in short supply. Money is.

Events like these serve as reminders that Bamako is not always this superficially relaxed and happy-go-lucky place. Orange Money depots have been targets of armed banditry before. The problem may well get worse. Citizens are used to the fact that those who are supposed to ensure their security in administration and military enforcement are either indifferent or also delinquent. Ordinary folks, in the main, remain outwardly as unconcerned about this state of affairs as that friend you’ve kept waiting for an hour. But when Malians start losing their legendary flexibility and tolerance in numbers, you will see those doors and windows close here as well. I certainly hope not to have to be there to witness it. There is a reason I prefer Bamako, Ouagadougou, Dakar and even Abidjan to the likes of Nairobi, Jo’burg or Harare…

For now the sounds you are still most likely to hear at night in this part of the world are drums, guitars and singing voices, rather than gunshots and screeching tyres. On further inquiry, apparently nobody died that drama-filled evening. I still cycle down that road every day, even late at night. Long may that continue, too. Just don’t bank on it.

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