Archive for the ‘development’ Category

Abidjan miniatures 1

December 24, 2020

Yes I was supposed to have gone to other parts of the country no this did not happen because I seriously did my back in and was confined first to a bed then to my room then to the street because at some point you simply MUST MOVE in order to save your back and then finally I let myself loose (within limits) in this loveable city. In between bouts of seriously serious pain in a most inconvenient place (the lower back), here’s a few bits and pieces of what I saw, consider them maybe a bunch of very loosely related End-Of-Year Tropical sort of Christmas tales…

There’s this youngish rasta driving a taxi. He’s not very good at it so in his haste to get to a client he veers dangerously close to my legs and feet. I jump aside – and yes, give my back another unwanted jolt.

This kind of thing happens very frequently in a city with an endless supply of vehicles and a similarly endless supply of people driving them, forever in a hurry. So what do you do? The opposite of what your urban dwelling instincts tell you to. Instead of going full-blown “What the devil do YOU think you were doing???”… go the Abidjan way. Smile. Make a gesture to the effect that it’s not too bad. ‘C’est pas grave…’

Sure, it does not always work out; some traffic situations do get out of control and result in slanging matches, which is the precise moment you will discover that the good city dwellers of Abidjan have an absolutely endless reserve of highly effective invective and voices that can fill a stadium, unaided, and that they all act out as if there is a camera permanently trained on them. It’s not just the nondesctript achitecture and the endless sprawl in some parts of this city that remind you a little of the US of A…

But much more often, it goes like this. Here’s the sequel to my case.

Rasta driver pulls out of his temporary parking space and as he drives away he turns his head apologetically and mouths “Pardon”. What do you do? Simple: you smile again and stick up your thumb reassuringly: it’s alright…c’est pas grave… End of the scene. Nobody leaves in a huff; everyone departs with a tiny reassuring inside glow that everything just got ever so slightly better in the world. And this is of course most decidedly NOT how they do things in, say, Washington. Here though, it makes perfect sense: you just cannot function in a city this size with six million (give or take) people in it without a generous dose of human tolerance. And humour. Never forget it: Abidjan is officially the Capital of Laughter. If you can’t make a joke out of it then what’s the point?

Speaking of which: L’Afterwork, the satire radio show that knocked Radio France Internationale off its perch on prime time radio, is still running.

***

At the bank. These things always sort themselves out, don’t they?

Here we are, in a thoroughly modern, state-of-the-art banking building, with monitors beaming the bank’s adverts and a display of the many modern ways in which you can get in touch: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, website… Slick adverts for a 21st Century West African bank.

But there’s one small problem. The electronic counter, which normally tells you when it is your turn, is out of order. I only vaguely cotton on to this when I notice the crowd in the waiting area is moving in a particular way and the counter keeps displaying the same number: 2G. A guard has seen that I don’t quite get how it works without the counter and taps me gently on the shoulder. “You chair is there”, he gestures, pointing to my place in the queue,folks seated in neat rows on hard plastic chairs. Those chair, yes. This is where the last century still reigns very much supreme.

Here’s how it works in the old-fashioned way: you take your place next to the person who came in before you and when the teller calls “NEXT!” from behind her window, the first person, on the first and leftmost chair closest to said teller, gets up and goes to the counter that is free. Everybody else moves one seat. Oh and they do keep one seat free between themselves and the next person. Covid19. Social distancing. Washing hands on entering this building is mandatory. Very 2020…

But the old system still works. Now if only this very modern regional bank could make those chairs a little more comfortable……..

***

If you have been away from this city for any length of time, you will not recognise some areas. This is in Zone 4, not far from a Chinese-run hotel on December 7 Boulevard. Half a decade ago, the building on the left was the only tall-ish building on this crossroads. There was a very nice Lebanese-run coffee shop on the ground floor. That building has now been dwarfed, not only by the neighbour you see under construction here but by four more: the one you see in the background and two more towers that are going up across the street. The pace is frenetic and relentless. Is this just the visual manifestation of those spectacular growth figures Côte d’Ivoire produced until Corona hit? Is it money laundering via real estate? Or is it action that follows the dictum: invest in stone, not in money? I have been told that apartments are currently sold before they even get built…

So it’s probably all of the above and maybe more. Whatever the cause, the scale and the pace of these developments are truly breathtaking.

After Oxfam

February 12, 2018

Jesus Hieronymous Christ, just when you think the tin ear could not possibly become tinnier you have Oxfam’s Chief Executive on hearing about the exploding sex scandals and the possibly resultant de-funding by the government saying that…

…Oxfam would “carry on delivering as best we can, because that’s what the people of Yemen, Syria, Congo and indeed Haiti need and deserve”.

Who on god’s green earth appointed you the adjudicator of that? Have you asked the people of Yemen, Syria and Congo? Yes, there is an enormous difference between helping people in deep distress as a result of war and natural disasters on the one hand – and “doing development” on the other. Emergency aid started in the 19C Crimea War, gave us Florence Nightingale, a budding humanitarian effort that went on to create the Red Cross and an eternal debate about emergency aid, neutrality (unattainable in my view) and politics.

The people in Yemen, Syria and Congo are in severe distress – in the case of Yemen as a result of barbaric action by a key client of UK-manufactured arms. Congo can equally be said to be somebody else’s proxy war, exacerbated by extremely complex local politics and the presence of vital minerals in the ground. Syria is arguably the same, minus the minerals as far as I can see.

But the point here is this: I have heard the very same rhetoric about needs and delivery in respect of what you may call “ordinary” development work. The planning of development overwhelmingly does not involve the people affected and I have even heard policy makers in those development bureaucracies arguing against giving their intended recipients a say. This is not doing development, sorry. This is, at the deepest level, a colonial mindset at work, which I once summarised like this: ‘the natives must first be studied and then improved’. Sure, all with the best of intentions but that only helps to remind me of Michael Maren’s The Road To Hell (a book you should read).

Only a few short days ago I mentioned on Facebook the idea of having tort legislation introduced in relation to designing development projects, with a reference to the criminally disruptive Structural Adjustment Programs. Abdourrahmane Sissako’s film Bamako depicts this in a Malian home court. Now, we hear that Haiti may be considering legal action against Oxfam. As pointed out, emergency aid happens on a different scale and with a different timeline but is ultimately guided by similar “principles” for lack of a better word. What both have in common is that the intended recipients, by and large, have no say in how the stuff that supposedly benefits them is delivered, no influence and no redress when things go horrendously wrong. Wasn’t Haiti the very same place where the UN was caught with its pants down (a deliberate turn of phrase) over the cholera epidemic it imported?

This is fundamental. It is this lack of fundamental accountability that leads to the excesses that have just been revealed – and numerous others. That is where the debate should go, because below the scandals and the sleaze lie far more fundamental issues, issues that the development industry, worth scores of billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of people, has so far stubbornly refused to address.

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

A few years ago I saw something strange. A boat. In the water. Ok, that’s normal but this was strange: it was a patrol boat of the Spanish Guardia Civil, flying a Spanish flag, in the Port of…no, not Barcelona or Malaga or Cordoba or Bilbao or any other seaport of that magnificent country. It was in the Port of Dakar.

What the devil is a Spanish police patrol boat doing in the territorial waters of Senegal? Turned out that it was just another manifestation of the intense and heroic efforts by the European Union and its member states to keep as many Africans out of their Fortress as possible. The same efforts that put Brussels in bed with autocrat-run Turkey and one of the nominal governments of Libya, destroyed thanks to the heroic efforts of no fewer than the three former administrations of France, the UK and the USA. Another part of this Fortress Europe strategy is the blackmailing of countries like Mali and Niger: we will give you aid if you stop your people from coming here. Niger’s people smugglers now must trace far more dangerous routes than before, thanks to government crackdowns, sponsored by the EU. Brussel’s aim is to ensure more people die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea than on their way to a southern European shore.

It’s all a far cry from the start of the EU, a collaborative effort around (re)building industry and achieving food self-sufficiency. At roughly the same time the Geneva Convention on Refugees was adopted, a suitably clear and concise document. This was, of course, also the time of the Cold War. The refugees that made it into Western Europe came, mostly, from the “enemy” camp. Hungarians were welcome in 1956, when they fled the Soviet assault on their country; one of those refugee families would later produce a president – Nicholas Sarkozy. In “our own” camp, Portuguese conscientious objectors ran away from their country, run by a fascist dictatorship, because they did not want to fight Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné-Bissau. And there was a broadly-based welcome for people from Latin America on the run from US-installed military dictatorships. All in the 1970s.

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

It’s almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War. “We” won and now “we” are touting ourselves as the best society the world has ever seen. It follows, therefore, that Everybody Wants To Come Here and “we” must be selective about who “we” let in.

The only people being selective here are the “we” in this last paragraph. Selective of the facts. Speaking from the region I know a few things about, West Africa, the truth of the matter is that the vast, overriding, overwhelming majority of people…does not move. And if they do, they tend to go to other parts of the continent, or to China, the Gulf States…and yes, Europe. The picture of migration worldwide is decidedly mixed. However: the idea that Europe is some kind of a massive people magnet reminds me of that infamous French colonial drawing, where The Light (from Paris, of course) illuminated the entire Dark Continent – or at least the bits that had been visited by migrating French army boots. In short – it is an over-estimation of one’s worth and borders on the delusional. Seen from here, you don’t look all that great. And that’s before we even take a closer look at how you have been behaving to your own people of late.

This will not be a review, short of saying that what you see here is the cover of the most riveting piece of political reporting since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. It is also a damning indictment of how EU bigwigs treat the poorer members of their community – and how petty, vindictive and downright brutal they get when these members turn out to have ideas of their own. Fear and Loathing, indeed.

I visited Thessaloniki in 2012 for a world music trade fair called WOMEX. It was wonderful. But even then the austerity programs were kicking in and the people responded by staging the largest street demonstration I had seen since the epic 1981 marches against those US cruise missiles. A sea of red flags. Similar happened in austerity-hit Portugal. Varoufakis recounts in detail how the EU/IMF “rescue package” was part of a bailout plan to save…not Greece, but French and German banks that had taken irresponsible risks and found themselves overexposed. Politicians in EU member states sold another bailout of financially irresponsible banksters by inventing the story that this was all about…saving Greece. In short, they lied. Most mainstream media slavishly copied the lies without doing their job, something that happens with depressing frequency.

When the bailout did not work – and Varoufakis extensively explains why this is so – they did it again. And lied about it – again. The engine room of this elaborate deceit is a thing called the Eurogroup, a gathering of Europe’s finance ministers, accountable to no-one. Even though it is – sortalike – formalised in the Lisbon Treaty I would not hesitate to call the whole structure de facto illegal and a flagrant violation of the EU’s founding principles. The president of this informal group of financial terrorists was, between 2013 and January 2018, a Dutch politician by the name of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. He clashed frequently with Varoufakis, on the basis of politics disguised as policy. The Eurogroup consists of people who like to present themselves as technocrats but are in fact hard-headed ideologues, tightly moulded in the TINA frame (There Is No Alternative) of no debt relief, screw your people, cause misery, keep taking the poison and keep lying to your national electorates why “we” are strangling one of our member states to death. Read the book for the details, fascinating and shocking in equal measure.

But the point of it all is this.

Varoufakis argues, forcefully, that extreme austerity imposed by external financial terrorists causes widespread misery and pushes people over the edge. And then, society shifts towards political polarisation. The sea of red flags in Thessaloniki was one example of this but it can also take on more sinister tones. The counterpoint to resurgent socialism is the worrisome rise of fascism, not the cotton candy variety of lightweight intellectuals like the late Pim Fortuyn and the still very alive Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, not even the clownish two-trick pony Geert Wilders no, this is the violent, iron-clad boots variety of Golden Dawn, who have committed murder. The focal point of this resurgent extremism? You guessed it: migration. Increased hardship frequently goes hand in hand with blaming “foreigners” for problems they had no hand in creating.

Why people move (my photo, taken at a market near Tenado, Burkina Faso)

It is this kind of extremism, fomented by bad policies emanating from disconnected “technocrats” that Varoufakis warns against. Fortress Brussels ignores this at its peril. But this is not about Brexit, that unilateral folly of very English self-sabotage. Brexit addresses none of these issues. It is an unwelcome and time-consuming inconvenience for the EU, it will be grotesquely damaging to what is left of the United Kingdom, and it is most likely to be temporary (at least until Scottish independence…).

No, this goes much deeper and concerns entrenched dogma that must be urgently challenged. The damage that the Washington Consensus did to the nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia has been incalculable and it would be a fine day to see the perpetrators of this crime held accountable in a court of law. Now that the Washington Consensus has moved to Brussels, the damage is being done to countries on Europe’s southern flank, the same region made to cope, on the cheap, with a mixture of refugees looking for safety and others looking for opportunities.

The only answer thus far has been to reinforce the Fortress. The Mediterranean has become increasingly militarised and the EU has extended its border operation southwards, as far as Senegal and Niger. Like the imposed austerity, this is an Extremely Dumb and Colossally Expensive Idea. Cheaper and more intelligent answers exist: debt rescheduling/forgiveness and providing stimuli to the economy in the case of near-bankrupt states; the re-instatement of the – sneakily abolished – 1951 Geneva Convention in the case of refugees; the creation of avenues for legal, circular migration for the “problem” of people moving to Europe. Once again, for the hard of hearing, people generally do not willingly exchange their place in the sun for a precarious existence in Europe’s cold, dark, grey, hostile and sometimes even murderous streets. For the vast majority of the people outside looking in, you don’t look all that great.

Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo, at the opening carnival of the – very aptly named – Festival Rendez-vous chez nous, Ouagadougou 2017. Pic: me.

Fortress Brussels has been rattled but not enough. There have been a few stabs at the bubble of self-delusion, hypocrisy and lies that surrounds the policies of austerity and the militarisation of the borders but it has not yet burst. However, burst it must. The betrayal of Europe’s foundational principles has been ugly, continuing down the same path leads to an outcome that is both ghastly and familiar. This is no exaggeration. As the ideological technocrats continue to do their destructive “work”, as chunks of societies splinter and become uncontrollable extremist fragments, as the narrative about people moving to Europe becomes ever more toxic, as identity politics takes the place of progressive discourse, as Fortress Brussels continues to push dumb and expensive ideas instead of the much cheaper and far more intelligent – and available! – alternatives, Europe risks, in all seriousness, a return to the situation the EU was constructed to prevent. By its own hand.

 

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?

Gone.

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.

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 (these are the fastest here and used for transporting people and merchandise for the weekly markets) pay up to one-fifth of that. Real maintenance has not happened for some ten years and it shows. A distance of, say, one hundred kilometres can easily take 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.

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.

White Saviours (part 1,753,535 and counting…)

December 22, 2014

Picture the scene. I am walking down the street as a young boy shoots out from between a few parked luxury cars. He looks at me, puts his thumb index and middle fingers together in a gesture that suggests eating and brings them to his mouth. To make sure that there is no equivocation.

He wants to eat. And he’s just found the perfect individual to pay for that: a lone white man walking down the street with a rucksack. The target is correct, has always been correct.

A couple of things happen here, in this little scene on a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. First, it confirms my worst fears about dependency syndrome. This country has been infested with denizens from the aid industry for decade after depressing decade. Not only has it achieved depressingly little, it has inculcated in many minds that wherever white people are around there is free money available and this in spite of the fact that the aid industry has gone truly global with India, Brazil, South Africa, Japan, China, The Middle East and Angola joining in.

The principal business of the aid industry is spending money without a great deal of reflection on purpose and usefulness. The fact that it has also spawned a gigantic Monitoring and Evaluation business merely serves to illustrate the point. What this boy did was making an extremely rapid appraisal of what purpose the presence of an unknown but white stranger could serve for him. It is dependency syndrome writ large.

And it was ever thus. Colonial times arrived in these savannas in the form of the French Army and was swiftly followed by cultural repression, forced labour, commercial agriculture and of course the civilizing mission. After Independence, it merely changed mantle, creating a combination that I consider in fact even more pernicious. Colonialism and its attendant misery was something you could fight. But what on earth do you do with a development industry that carries a similar civilizing mission, consisting of benign condescension and colossal amounts of free and fungible money? How the hell do you fight that?

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

Aid was one of the pillars under the just-deposed regime of Blaise Compaoré and his clan. Whites played no part in this country’s self-liberation even though I have already seen claims that aid was a factor, admittedly tiny though, in advancing the revolution in Burkina Faso. These claims should be dismissed as the preposterous cant that they are.

Back to that street scene because there is something else happening here. The cars that hid the boy from my view until he came out and claimed money for his stomach, were all locally purchased. And expensive: big 4WDs of the kind that I will most certainly never own. Cycling remains my preferred way of moving around Ouagadougou, in part because I can afford it. Would it ever occur to this boy that the Africans who drive these luxury cars are all, to a man and a woman, an order of magnitude richer than I am?

I cannot tell. Our exchange was over in seconds. Perhaps he has been told by the owners of these luxury cars that he can get stuffed. But let us, for the sake of the argument, say that this idea would never enter his head – and I think this is plausible. What does this tell us about the mindset of a nation that has been aid dependent for five depressing decades at the very least? It means that the poor, like this boy, have simply given up on getting a better life through their own endeavours or the actions of their fellow citizens. Saviours can only be White. I cannot think of anything more pernicious: a nominally sovereign nation lives by the notion that it’s only The Outside that can save it. The Outside gives money, you can attempt to go there and you will have to forget that it was the same Outside that kept a kleptocratic regime in its place for 27 years. It is utterly debilitating.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

Still, the revolution arrived late October this year and it was broadcast live, on radio. I hope it will go on to achieve other things, chief among them the realisation that there is dignity to be had from relying on your own resources, brains, energy, intellect, economic power…in short, the death of the idea that (White) Outsiders can solve your problems. Once again: no whites were involved in this revolution, if anything they have stood squarely in its way. And who knows, a couple of years down the road, following the installation of a government that serves the people rather than itself and a few connected local and international friends, I can tell that boy where to find the government agency that helps people like him, who have fallen through the cracks. And what bliss if I can do that while walking down a street free of logo-bedecked luxury vehicles on their way to donor meetings, workshops, training sessions and other talking shops. Burkina Faso would look so much healthier as a result.

Well yes, I know, the IMF, the world’s schoolmarm of budget discipline has already rolled into town with yet another soon-to-be-forgotten bureaucrat lecturing the transitional government. The rest will doubtlessly follow: the UN alphabet soup, EU, the Dutch, the Brits, the Swedes and so on and so forth. Can I just dream for half a day before I get thoroughly depressed again?

NGO employee

March 19, 2014

NGOs, also known as non-governmental organizations (although the “non” part in NGO does not necessarily imply that state coffers are off-limits) attract a wide variety of individuals, some good, some bad, some nutcases and a lot in between with varying degrees of acceptable incompetence, especially in foreign countries. The same, incidentally applies to the UN, the difference being that this organization relies heavily on generous helpings from state coffers; its methods to recruit massively overpaid individuals with varying degrees of unacceptable incompetence should be the subject of a worldwide inquiry. It will also be the subject of another blog entry. Promise.

But back to our NGO employee. He was from an East African Nation but working in a West African One. A thoroughly pleasant individual to be around. Me and my colleague took a ride with him on an NGO truck back to the capital. I accept that this is against my principles; in mitigation I offer that (1) the nature of this trip was not journalistic and (2) the number of alternatives available was negligible.

During the long ride, the conversation turned a tad bizarre. For one, he has been living in this country for four years but every time we started to discuss the nation’s rather interesting politics and the name of a prominent mover and shaker came up, he would ask:

‘Who’s that?’

We were talking ministers here, prominent members of parliament, high up in the political hierarchy.

The talk then turned to a big bad awful monstrous entity that spreads disease, pestilence, death, destruction and bad entertainment around the world wherever it puts its jackboot. You guessed right: our NGO employee was a virulent critic of The West. Absolutely everything it did was evil. I neglected to ask him if this included paying his salary.

A memorable quote from the UK wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill mentions America as the country that can always be expected to do the right thing…after having exhausted all other options. Generally speaking, The West is shorthand for America, which is shorthand for the United States. (Nominally Francophone countries in Africa do not mention The West as the source of their predicaments but point the finger squarely at France.) Our NGO friend was, correctly, highly critical of US actions in Iraq where it fought an illegal war; Afghanistan, where it lost a war; Libya, where it helped trigger various wars… There is a long list of countries that have yet to recover from having experienced US involvement. The explanation, to me at least, lies in another dictum, this time Napoleonic: never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence.

You see, I strongly believe that most of The West, including my own country The Netherlands, is run by buffoons, clowns, jokers and idiots. I’m being charitable here, just like the American but Mexico-based writer Fred Reed, who takes an equally dim view of the people in Washington who run America’s wars around the world.

Not our NGO friend. He saw conspiracies. The West was doing this. The West was doing that. I remarked:

‘Most people in The West would not even be able to find the country where we are right now, on a map. So what is this “West”?’

‘It’s the entity that commits crimes around the world.’

‘Yes, I know that and agree. I marched against the Iraq war. Fat lot of good that did…’

‘It is a destructive force.’

‘Well, yes, and how many people actually know this?’

That hardly appeared to matter but by now it was becoming clear what the hub of The West was. America. So I said:

‘Well, you’ve been there. Half the people don’t even have a passport and have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the state next door. Let alone a foreign country.’

Further precision-targeting revealed that he meant the makers of an alleged “policy” inside the Washington Beltway. Which amounts to stumbling around in utter darkness until someone finds a light switch. And promptly turns it off again because the mess is too appalling to behold. Where the West bears collective guilt (which is what our NGO friend was implying) is in the fact that it keeps electing buffoons, clowns, jokers and idiots, who then appoint their like in the bureaucracies that manhandle the state machinery. I don’t know how to change that and neither do you.

Fear and self-loathing has been an ingrained feature of The West since the 1960s. It has grown in prominence. It’s easy because it does not require analysis. Naturally, it has seeped into the world of NGOs and equally naturally this mindset attracts the likes of our amiable East African friend. But what really shocked me was that he could spend four years living in a country on his own continent without bothering to get to know it any better.

An NGO Bubble. As a matter of fact, “shocking” is not the right word, “terrifying” is.

Heretical question

January 25, 2014

Last year, in case you missed it, the world was made aware of the existence of Mindy Budgor. Indeed: an earth-shattering event, made even more so by the hagiographic BBC coverage of her life achievement. Which was: taking a short-cut to becoming a warrior in an utterly unspoilt Maasai community somewhere in Kenya, the First Female!!!! I suggest the thinking among said Maasai was probably: ‘If we just give her what she wants, maybe she will then just go away and leave us in peace.’ Oh yes, she wrote a book. Warrior Princess. For those with strong nerves, here’s the interview.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23713202

Over the last two decades or so, we have been subjected to an endless parade of individuals using a fairly randomly chosen bit of Africa (preferably unspoilt but with mod cons), as a décor for the all-engulfing drama of their own extraordinary and massively important lives. So we had Angelina Jolie shutting down Namibia because she needed the nation as a backdrop for the singularly important event of her giving birth. We also had Madonna, although she skipped the entire birth giving thingy and just went to Malawi to get herself an orphan or two. She then decided to raise the entire country in the best way possible (her own, of course) but omitted to inform the government of her plans, which, bizarrely enough, failed to amuse president Joyce Banda. Oh and we had Christina Aguilera, last September, making ‘an emotional trip’ to…Rwanda; that’s a bit like visiting Auschwitz for a very private cleansing ceremony. The website Africaisacountry took that little ego-stroking gem apart here:

http://africasacountry.com/the-bullshitfiles-christina-aguilera-feeds-rwanda/

I came across one bona fide example last year. She was using the tourist-infested seaside resort of Abene, in the Casamance, as her very own African backdrop. She runs, among many things, a music festival that must unfold itself in exact accordance with her wishes, musicians be damned. One day she was upset because she had received lip from a few local women she was leading in development (naturally). They apparently did not agree with her methods. The village queen in question was of European extraction but unlike Budgor, the locals won’t be shod of her any time soon, it seems.

From the exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. To my eternal shame, I admit not knowing who the artist is. Help is welcome.

Image from a large exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. One of my readers wrote in and said the work could possibly be by or have taken inspiration from the great Beninois artist Georges Adeagbo. Thanks, Judith! 

I am moved to relate all these tales because I have recently been trimming my archives. Among the papers I consigned to the dustbin were a few reviews of a book by a Dutch journalist, applauding the demise of the White Man in Africa. One review mentioned that the book related how in some parts of Africa (certainly not here in Dakar), lighter-skinned people were used in advertising because it sold the product better. Odd, that.

In another review of the Dutch journalist’s book, the celebration of ‘the White Man slipping from his pedestal’ in Africa also got a mention. Oddly enough, the reviewer went on to count the blessings of development cooperation, which historically has been rather intimately connected with the presence of said White Man. A while ago I wrote a little miniseries about the many problems associated with development.

http://www.rnw.nl/africa/article/let’s-talk-about-aid-final

You see, I do not consider the disappearance of the White Man from Africa a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But I find the barely concealed glee with which said disappearance is described by the (inevitably female) author a little disingenuous. In her own article, that went along with the promotion of her book “Goodbye Africa”, Marcia Luyten (the Dutch journalist in question) notes with relish that the white man ‘no longer plays a significant role,’ must ‘abandon his superiority’ and ‘arrogant paternalism’.

My guess is that journalists like her cannot help it. They have grown up in the wake of a movement that has spent the last fifty years smashing this perceived superiority of the (white) man over the head, having its remains hung drawn and quartered and burnt to cinders for good measure. Cheering at man’s individual or collective misfortune has, unfortunately, become one of its unbecoming hallmarks. Equally unfortunately, the same movement has come to dominate the discourse that has blighted the African landscape of ideas for the past half century: the discourse of development. The result? A depressing parade of cut-and-paste “Women and Development” projects, equally applied in the arch-conservative Christian-dominated regions of Southern Africa and in the stagnant matriarchies that are liberally sprinkled all over West Africa. No wonder our development friend in Abene had arguments; West African women as a rule do not take kindly to being told what to do.

Many moons ago I reviewed a book by the writer Lisa St Aubin de Teran, who was, in her own words, leading the village of Cabaceiros in Mozambique from poverty to a safer existence. Cool. She was extremely busy with a new tourism resort, schools and all the rest of what constitutes, according to Westerners, “development”. All this happened against the backdrop of – here we go again – an utterly unspoilt Africa where people play drums in the moonlight. A lot. The book came out at roughly the same time that former French president Nicholas Sarkozy made that imbecilic speech here in Dakar, declaring that Africans ‘had not entered history’. I concluded my review of the book by saying that Sarkozy got a volley of richly deserved flak for his stupidity. When, on the other hand, a rich white woman writes roughly the same, she shoots to the top of the bestsellers list. Superiority? Paternalism? I think Luyten was looking at the wrong sex. Or gender, if one is ideologically so inclined. But all this does prompt this extremely heretical question: what is it with (some) white women and their colonial fantasies?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Still, it was quite a relief to read that there was some room left for The White Man in Africa, minus arrogance, paternalism, superiority and I guess he’d better leave his testosterone at home too. On second thought, he’d better bring it along because because the first issue Luyten brings up is geopolitics, to be exact: the very real threat of jihadist fundamentalism. And lo and behold, Dutch white people (even men!) have heeded the call and taken the plunge…after the French who got there first. They will gallantly gather intelligence and do all manner of good and useful military things, in order to save the career of Bert Koenders, the former Dutch development minister (Labour), currently heading the UN Mission to Mali. He needs his succession of UN posts like a fish needs water; a goodly portion of the Dutch Labour Party views him in the same way as I imagined the Maasai considered Ms Budgor.

Another area where the White Man (minus arrogance etc, you get the picture…) can be useful is Business – although he must take a leaf out of the book of his Chinese competitors and become rather ruthless and imbued with realpolitik. Bit strange, that.

But the third reason for white people to bother with Africa is the best: humanitarianism. Yes!!!! There is still space and scope for White Saviours! Provided, I assume, they are female. It’s a bit like sex tourism in The Gambia, Casamance and Kenya, I suppose. It’s all OK, as long as (white) women do it.

The culture of debate

March 19, 2013

Caught my eye in the newspaper this morning. ‘Program launched at Senegalese universities.’ The strapline gave the game away: ‘Promotion of the culture of debate among Senegalese youth.’

When you read a line like this, the association is immediate: some NGO or other? Correct! Does it contain the word training somewhere? It does – double bingo!

Law students at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, an institution in the deepest crisis since its establishment, where students go without tuition for months and have even resorted to the extreme act of setting themselves on fire to get their grievances heard, that university, plays host to a team of foreigners (yep – you got that one right too – someone needs a holiday…) that will teach…er…

…Respect For Diversity. Ah, no, not that kind of diversity, that’s for Westerners in their own countries who have been taught to swallow the new gospel hook line and sinker. No: the Senegalese students will be taught the kind of diversity that is no longer taught at universities in the West, and in fact the only diversity that really matters: Diversity Of Opinion.

Tolerance of other peoples’ views will be preached, says the woman who coordinates the program, plus the ability to listen to others and accepting the public verdict in the end. All in the name of good democracy and an Open Society.

Yes, this time it’s George Soros’ outfit teaching those poor hapless Senegalese students – who only last year helped rid the country of a megalomaniac with seriously autocratic tendencies – how to do democracy. Of course, Ms Hawa Ba who coordinates the program in Senegal needs a job, like everyone else working for the Oxfams, the Action Aids, the official aid bureaucracies, the UN bureaucracies and everybody else in this more than US$60bn industry. The pay is good and the perks are nice, for as long as they last. Very few things are as fickle as the priorities of the aid establishment.

But here’s the rub.

If there is one thing the Senegalese excel in, it’s talk. “Wakh rek,” only talk, is a frequent referral not only to the increasingly irrelevant political class but also to the fact that work gets a lot more talked about than actually done. In an extremely rich place like the Netherlands, this has become a national pastime but then the Dutch can afford it – up to a point. They will eventually find out that holding meetings and shifting boxes do not constitute an economy. But that’s their problem.

What we don’t need here is more people who know how to talk; the law students will learn that in college – if the professor can be bothered to show up. What we need are people who know how things are made and done. We need entrepreneurs, like Aissa Dione, people who create factories, as the Nigerian industrialist AlikoDangote is doing.

On the Autoroute, a few metres from my flat: we want to work at Dangote cement.

On the Autoroute, a few metres from my flat: we want to work at Dangote cement.

We need people who can work and ensure that homes stay dry during the next rainy season, people who can fix schools and universities so that they start fulfilling their educational promises, people who can fix the deeply dysfunctional water and electricity systems. And so on. We emphatically do not need any more administrators, bureaucrats or people who can organise workshops and training sessions.

Oh and we need the outdated colonial laws fixed – so that the people who make things happen and create jobs are not obstructed, blocked, harassed, frustrated and thwarted Every Single Step Of The Way.

And listening lessons? Coming from a US-based organisation I find that, well let’s keep this polite, a bit rich. The times I was in the dear old USA I have been awestruck by the depth of the love affair Americans have with their own voices. It’s a place where political debate mainly consists of two people standing with their backs to each other and shouting ‘You’re wrong!!!’ (or worse) at each other. Where the soundbite was invented. And you are coming over here to teach us….wakh rek.

Hey, Open Society, I have a job for you: pulling the other one.