Archive for the ‘Liberia’ Category

A farewell to Harper (end)

April 11, 2022

Harper port offers some hope that things might get marginally better but the rest of the town fills me with sadness. Yes, we knew this ten years ago: that the homes would almost certainly never be rebuilt because once you have finished that job someone might show up with a document telling you that the house you have just restored is not yours… Nobody wants to risk kissing goodbye to their house and the investments they have made. So nobody bothers and Harper’s decay is unstoppable as a result. Atrocious governance, corruption and war…each can take the blame for causing this decaying ruin. 

Another abandoned house. Covered in graffiti, smelling of human faeces. When inside, be alert. It is entirely possible an armed somebody arrives, who can make you regret you ever entered…

By the way, Harper is slowly but surely becoming an Ivorian town, with the electricity, the food and many other products all coming from across the border. You will hear quite a bit of French, too. This is because the 1989-2003 wars sent thousands of Marylanders into Côte d’Ivoire. Today, getting supplies in is so much easier from Tabou, San Pedro and even Abidjan than it is from Monrovia… Anyway, back to the story…

Recording Lawrence’s band. Pic: Martin Waalboer

Here we were, ten or so years ago, in a small community centre, with electricity provided by a loud generator outside, whose decibels had to be drowned in music. This was achieved by cranking up the volume of the band to maximum distortion. It was triply apt that the song the band was rehearsing was Bob Marley’s “War”. First, because we were in a place that had been destroyed by not one but three wars. Second, because we were able to witness first-hand a rare post-war performance by a band. I had seen only one before, in 1998: the Kailondo Band, playing in the Kailondo Hotel, a Monrovia Old Road establishment that had been set up with money whose provenance was unclear. The owner of the hotel was also the band lead singer and not a very good one. The band’s repertoire consisted of one song. One, which to the delight of the crowd had highly salacious lyrics. What was less delightful was that this one tune with no chord changes at all was repeated three or four dozen times between say 10pm and 4am. Every night. The one thing these two bands had in common was the atrocious sound quality. 

The third reason was that Lawrence, the lead singer and guitar player freely confessed to having helped himself to food during those wars, just like so many others. ‘I didn’t want to do it,’ he explained during a break in the rehearsal, ‘but you know what it’s like: your stomach is the Boss.’ He spoke these words as I was interviewing him under what could easily be the most monumental tree in all of Harper. It stood outside the community centre and was home to an astonishingly large number of bats. A common sight in Ségou, Freetown, Abidjan…

But today, there are no bats to be seen because the tree has fallen. Closer inspection reveals that it had been completely hollowed out. Nothing could have saved it. The building on whose roof the tree seems to have landed is the Community Hall, where we filmed and photographed and recorded Lawrence…

And that is somewhat symbolic for the state of Harper. As we walk away from the town’s centre looking for transport, someone in a tricycle taxi sees us and proceeds to make gun gestures,  pretending to shoot us. A madman (a zogo? Impossible to tell) hurls abuse whilst following us until he tires of his pointless game. We pass a palm wine place. It looks uninviting, with a few early guests listlessly hanging around a table. It’s all rather depressing.

Harper cannot be rescued, let alone restored to its former glory; it does not want any of those things. One could argue, as many have done, that the wars made visible the rot that was already present in a society that had been lying to itself about its origins and destination. Neglect is currently finishing the job those wars started. The Dream Called Harper is in the process of being buried under a thick layer of indifference…

What remains are the stories. There are so many of them and we only managed to capture a few. Stories about the businesswoman who ran a bar and a guest house, about another who lost all of her wares when the ship carrying them sank on the way from Monrovia; about all the other ships that perished along this coast; about the unforgettable Melita Gardner; about the ladies selling food and drinks and managing to survive just after the wars; about the aspiring activist/politician and the Ecobank branch he used to manage; about the old open air coffee place, the darkly mysterious tailor in his workshop, the American aid worker and his short-lived Beach Resort and Bar, the friendly policeman at Harper Port, the town historian Simulja Dweh Wernah at Hoffman Station, about radio enthusiast and now company spokesman Martin Nyeka, the folks and scenes at “NGO Hill”, the excellent food at the UNMIL Pakistani contingent (PakBatt, long gone of course), the Ivorian pro-Gbagbo refugees taking up the streets leading to the PakBatt barracks and playing their coupé-décalé and zouglou. And that’s just for starters. 

These stories, we hope, will eventually find their way into a book we would like to produce, as an incomplete record of this town and its incredible history. But another visit? Well, to paraphrase that old Leiber and Stoller song: I’m not ready for another disappointment…

Retrieved from April 2020. Unfortunately the piece accompanying this picture is badly written and riddled with mistakes. Let me pick out just two: contrary to what the piece claims the Doe regime received more US aid than any other Liberian government and secondly, the civil war in Liberia was – sadly and emphatically – not the first one to break out in the West African sub-region. 

A farewell to Harper (3)

April 2, 2022

Maryland Avenue, as you approach downtown Harper

And now it is March 2022 and Martin and myself are catching a bus from Pleebo into Harper. We’re feeling excited; after all, getting into Harper on a bus is already special but doing so on a scheduled service gliding over a tarred road while popular music blares from its many speakers is extra special, we cannot deny it. The bus is part of a larger consignment of public transport vehicles, a gift from India. The trip is uneventful, as is the unmarked terminus, at the spacious and pretty Tubman University Campus. The entrance into town feels familiar but as the walk progresses, from one old familiar spot to another, spirits start to sink. Especially when the optimism that still held as late as 2010, when the idea that somehow this gem of a town could still be rescued and maybe even restored, slowly gives way to despondency. 

Things have deteriorated. A lovely open air coffee place where you could have an excellent breakfast? Gone. The Ecobank branch with the off-and-on ATM, depending on the satellite connection? Turned into a house. The bank branch is now in Pleebo. The famous Tubman home, a landmark in downtown Harper owned by the nephew of the late president? Falling apart, but still inhabited by tenants, who pay their rent to the owner who lives…in Monrovia. 

To be fair, opposite that house is a new coffee place, run by an efficient young man who uses only the barest minimum number of words necessary to do his work. But this is one of the very few new developments in town. Our walk, first intended to be a festively nostalgic link-up with the Harper we knew, is getting progressively more disappointing. The seaside open air restaurant and bar? Replaced by a walled-in restaurant. The Masonic Temple, symbolically perched on a hill looking down on downtown Harper and on to Cape Palmas? Caving in. But the lighthouse, which was reported to have disappeared, has not moved. The light has, though. It is rumoured to have been carted off to Tabou, in Côte d’Ivoire, where it is working…

The compound next to the lighthouse used to house staff working for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL); we stayed there, too. And the main UNMIL building, pictured here, stands empty and unused; the mission folded in March 2018, after fifteen years. It can arguably be considered one of the UN’s relatively rare peacekeeping success stories. Nearby is the police station, opposite the regional administration building. In its large front yard a wrecked car sat for years on end. That car has finally been removed but the police station is now flanked by at least two vehicles (both foreign gifts, of course) that have clearly run their last mile – all tyres are flat. 

zogo headquarters?

Transport problems are ubiquitous for the police force. That is one reason they are unable to do anything about the latest menace to hit Harper and indeed the entire country. On the longish but always pleasant leisurely walk to the Cape and that lighthouse, we are accosted by an unknown busybody demanding what we are doing here. None of your business; this is a public road. He had emerged from the former seaside home of Liberia’s 19th president and was not the only rather unsavoury and mistrustful individual to hang around that building. The explanation for this unforeseen and unwanted unpleasantness was located just a few metres away and across the road. One of those ghostly buildings, destroyed by a rebel group had been adorned with fresh graffiti. 

I remember the old graffiti, left behind by the fighting gangs in the 1989 – 2003 wars. But this had nothing to do with those wars. The authors of these new slogans are unlikely to have any active recollection of these wars: too young or not even born. Yet they carry the same kind of rage, reeling against a system that does not work for them, a self-serving elite that does not listen to them, a future that holds no purpose for them. Excluded, they invent their own lifestyle, which revolves around drugs and crime. In many ways, they are the continuation of the notorious Small Boys Unit, the drugged-up fighting force Taylor had invented to terrorize the country with. But today, and as a sign of these times, there is just nihilism, no leader and not even a cause to pretend-advance. Just nothing. 

“Zogos” they are called and they have turned parts of Harper and many other places around Liberia (and of course its capital in particular) into no-go zones. They steal, break into cars or rob people on their way from store to home to market to wherever. They may even kill you for a few dollars. They stampeded their way into a church just outside Monrovia in January and killed 29 in their quest for money and loot. 

A small section of what will be a larger port

As things stand today, Harper port may well be the only economic activity set for an increase, as the hinterland starts producing more palm oil. This may generate new jobs at the port. After all, the only economically viable method of transport is by ship; while there is now a paved road all the way to Fish Town (130 kilometres away), the rest is the same sandy muddy nightmare it’s always been.  

But the chances that these boys in their ghostly hideaways will get their hands on any of these jobs is virtually nil. And then what? It is an uncomfortable question to ask; attempting to answer it can turn distressing really quickly.

A farewell to Harper (2)

March 31, 2022

Downtown Harper, most of Cape Palmas and the port, picture made 12 years ago from a plane belonging to either Elysian Air or the UN

I visited Harper about half a dozen times between the start of the century and now. My friend and partner-in-excellent-reporting Martin Waalboer did as well and he has produced a highly evocative video that captures Harper’s rise and fall. It’s here, on his website and the production is entitled A Dream Called Harper.

A Dream Called Harper captures the grandeur that was so very clearly envisaged by the 19th Century town founders, and which was the deliberate target of the armed gangs that washed over this town three times. In 1990, Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia looted Harper. In 1993-4 another armed gang, George Boley’s cruelly misnamed Liberian Peace Council burnt it and then in 2003, Ivorian-backed rebels of the Movement for Democracy in Liberia did some more looting and vandalising and killing and raping. A UN team visited the town in and found desolation and desperation. Even today, Harper does not feel half as lively as Pleebo, a thriving and bustling market town just 24 kilometres down the road.

From the extreme damage that was inflicted on this town, one can easily imagine, as a lot of townspeople do, that this vandalism was driven by pure hatred. How else can you explain the extensive looting and burning sprees of these homes? The rich classes in Harper and elsewhere are living in wealth and their privileged position must be materially destroyed.

It still remains surreal to try and understand what happened here and not be totally taken aback by the extreme intensity of the violence that was rained on Harper – and indeed all Liberians towns and cities. This is how one member of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described her feelings, when I spoke with her during the TRC hearing in Harper City Hall in the first decade of this century: ‘I don’t think we’re bad people. I believe we are good people but something has gone very wrong.’ Those empty ghost-like concrete carcasses that are scattered around old Harper Town offer eloquent testimonies of that sentiment. Part of the TRC’s work was to offer an explanation for the causes of Liberia’s descent into hell, which they did admirably. Their report is here.

Maryland Avenue with the old cinema rising above some old homes

How do you recover from this? The shortest and possibly most honest answer is: you don’t. But most will anyway because they must. Like Victor, a young lad barely out of his teens, one of the former child soldiers I spoke with. He did not want to discuss what he remembered of his own part in the war but was very keen to talk about his school plans. In the capital Monrovia, many miles away, a group of youngsters with similar pasts just told me the truth in the most succinct way possible: ‘We spoil.’ Liberian shorthand for: we destroyed and made a mess. They also told me that the leaders who enticed, cajoled, recruited, forced, lured or deceived them into participating had all lied to them.

Those on the receiving end also had to cope. Like our dear friend Melita Gardner, whose incredible life story merits a novel all its own. (Here is a short piece, in Dutch.) From being a highly active member of her church and community to becoming a widow and having to bring up a large family all by herself to getting caught up in the war and having to reunite her entire family in a refugee facility in Côte d’Ivoire to organising emergency aid to the victims of the fighting to becoming a Development Officer in Harper City Hall to…is there anything she hasn’t done? Harper residents told me that if there is one person who should have a monument in their honour, it should be her.

But even Melita had to make the move out of Harper, and into the United States, still the place of reference for so many Liberians. Few if any of the old inhabitants remain and those who arrive have little time for the storied streets and homes and houses. Or what’s left of them.

Part 3 shortly

A farewell to Harper (in four parts)

March 30, 2022

Photo credit: Martin Waalboer

Downtown Harper, Liberia. This was the place where I stayed on my very first visit, more than 20 years ago. Then, as now, it’s called “Neufville House,” after the proprietor, DK Neufville. I met him in person during another visit but like many Harper burghers he now resides in the capital, Monrovia.

Back then, the house was already falling apart, because when war came to Harper in 1990 people had to flee and could no longer maintain their homes. The city’s inhabitants had just started moving back in when I first got here. Sure, the floors were creaking at Neufville House, of course there was no electricity, water came from the well in the front yard but everyone in the house was very welcoming and accommodating. Besides, I could already see many other homes that were in a far more advanced state of decay than my friendly guesthouse.

I will readily confess: the minute I set eyes on it, Harper fascinated me. How it could be that this small town in a remote southeastern corner of Liberia could be home to such a collection of magnificent and stately homes…

Who built this?

Harper sits next to Cape Palmas, a long finger of rock, high above the slow, mesmerising surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, Africa’s coast turns northeast and becomes a sweeping arc across neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire and into Ghana. An old lighthouse, no longer in use, marks the end of the rock.

Cape Palmas was settled by the Maryland Colonization Society (you read that right) in the 1830s. The region was named Maryland County, after the American southern state and its capital was named after a US Senator, Robert Goodloe Harper. Harper was a leading figure of a larger operation, the American Colonization Society (you read that right too), which established Liberia in 1822. Maryland joined Liberia in 1857 and its patrician class became a key force in the True Whig Party, which dominated Liberia for 133 years. Who built this? This ruling class did. They were free from the American slavery they had left behind, they were getting rich and they wanted to show off.

In downtown Harper

Not much is left of the old grandeur but you can certainly still see that this was intended to be an elegant and pretty place, built by the leading families in city and country: the Andersons, the Neufvilles, the Gardners, the Gibsons and most of all the Tubmans, including Harper’s most illustrious son, William Vacaranat Shadrach Tubman, who became Liberia’s 19th and longest-serving president. He ran the country as a benign autocrat from 1944 until his death in 1971. There was a direct line from him, through his parents and grandparents, to the slavery days in the United States: his grandparents’ passage to Liberia was paid for by their former owner, Emily Tubman, whose surname they adopted. His father had served in the Liberian army and his mother came directly from the state of Georgia, USA.

And yet, these “Americo-Liberians” (we’ll leave the complexities surrounding these and other terminologies to one side for the time being) went on to recreate these familiar southern states on African soil, including the stately homes, a dress code worthy of the upper classes – and people who would now serve them: the indigenous populations of Liberia. And even when it is eminently true that the story is a lot more multilayered and complex than presented here, the principle of the thing means that you can readily see that this was never going to end well.

William VS Tubman himself collected a fairly typical crop of Liberian professions: soldier, preacher, lawyer, politician. If there is one thing Liberians are extremely good at – and I do mean extremely good – it is eloquence. Look no further than three of these four professions to understand why this is a country where people are practically born with the gift of the gab.

President Tubman set about developing his country and his home town, Harper. The homes got even more grandiose than before. City roads were paved, electricity arrived, hospitals were built, decent schools opened, a city hall appeared, as did a museum and public library. ‘We had everything here,’ one resident would recall. And numerous were the older men and women who volunteered the word “Paradise” when asked to describe their town in the days before the wars. But it was outside appearance; Liberians call Tubman’s long reign “Growth Without Development”…

Part 2 shortly

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.

Masks in a church – 2

November 18, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. Second and last part

The curators have found two ways around the essentialism described in the first part. One is the – once again – laudable effort to trace the names of the artists who made the masks and statutes. So we learn that there were at least two master artists among the Dan in the great western forest region: Sra and Tanpiémé, working in the 19th century. He great 20th century artist Pablo Picasso got his ideas for cubism from Africa, as we know. In fact, we can home in on the exact encounter that gave Picasso his idea. It was a mask from the Dan. It may even have been one made by either Sra or Tanpiémé. What we can say with certainty is that Picasso’s style would not have existed without the masters from Côte d’Ivoire. (I am not aware that Picasso ever acknowledged as much but perhaps someone can help me out here. Thanks in advance.)

Many of the original artists are not traceable, though, and the way around this has been to attribute a particular style to them and then announce that this work was made by a Master of… And thus we have the Master of Curves or the Master of Essankro, a place in the Baulé region of central Côte d’Ivoire. His mask adorns the flyer about the exhibition, which has not been a random choice. Because, as the Dutch art critic Bianca Stigter very perceptively writes in her review of the exhibition, the choice of objects appears to be informed by European artistic sensibilities. By any (European) standards, the works of art from the Baulé can be described as “refined”, very likely in keeping with the influential aristocracy that their region has produced. And that seems to be the case, Stigter notes, with a lot of the art on display. The curators keep pounding it into her head, she writes, that these are really works of the highest quality. Words like “elegant” abound. Indeed, she counters in her piece, the quality is undeniable but the point of reference still appears to be the great 20th Century masters, including Picasso…

And this is where a lecture of these pieces from an Ivorian point of view would have been very warmly welcomed. The country has no shortage of thinkers, arts critics, lecturers, historians and arts historians who would have shed a light on these works, much brighter than the Amsterdam autumn air that fell into the church on this November day.

Jems Koko Bi

From the exhibition folder: Diaspora, a work by Jems Robert Koko Bi


There was, however, another saviour: Jems Robert Koko Bi, a contemporary sculptor whose work provided a radically contemporary context to the other works of offer. His life (born in Côte d’Ivoire, lives in Germany) and his work liberate the exhibition from its frozen-in-time character and launch it straight into the now. His faces, carved from trees with a chainsaw and his piece “Diaspora” from 2013 transcend the whole “Dan”, “Lagoon”, “Lobi”, “Baulé” issues. They entirely cease to matter. Watching the short film about him, I could focus on the individual work by an individual artist with a contemporary – and cosmopolitan – life, even though the interview was done in English, with which he was uncomfortable. Stroke of luck or stroke of genius? In any case, including his work saved the exhibition from being solely about somewhere in “Magical Africa” and gave it meaning beyond its essentially ethnographic nature, in spite of the best intentions behind it.


Masks in a Church (part 1)

November 13, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks, statutes and other works of art. From Ivory Coast. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. In two parts.


The intentions surely were beyond reproach: let’s make a presentation of “African” masks and familiarize the public with their aesthetic value, their creators and their authenticity. The event was sponsored by – among others – KPMG, an accountancy firm, the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, the Prince Clause Foundation and two largish Dutch public broadcasters, TROS and AVRO, usually on the lighter side of entertainment. (Ironically, these two now occupy the building that was once home to Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the former Dutch international broadcaster.)

Do excellent intentions lead to excellent results? Not always. On the last day of my brief visit to The Netherlands in November I visited De Nieuwe Kerk, an austere Protestant church on Dam Square, in the heart of old Amsterdam. The church forms the backdrop for an exhibition that is entitled: Magical Africa.

That is a bit of an exaggeration. The country in question is not “Africa”, in fact it is, as the folder announces, Côte d’Ivoire, my next station. And then not even all of it: Côte d’Ivoire is the size of France and home to at least 64 languages. The subject matter of the exhibition, masks, statues and a few contemporary works of art, have been taken from four regions: the lagoon area around the largest city of Abidjan on the southern coast, the centre of the country where the second-largest city Bouaké and the capital Yamoussoukro are located, a portion of the Grand West where the Dan and the Wê live and the savannah area of the North, were the Senoufo live and were you find the town of Korhogo. That’s not “Africa”, that’s a few parts of Côte d’Ivoire. I can understand the PR value of the name but it annoys nevertheless.

Magical Africa

Even within that limited setting the differences proved to be astonishing. Compare the fear-inspiring masks that came from the forests that straddle Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire to the more tranquil poses produced in the centre. The Baulé, who live in that part of the country have been a central presence in Ivorian politics and business for many decades, dominating the plantation economy and delivering the first two heads of state after independence. Aristocracy, if you like, which predates Independence. By contrast, the Dan and the Wê in the forest have been much more marginal to political life and, in fact, have had to live with numerous groups of newcomers, driven there by French colonialists and post-independent governments. It is a political configuration that is reflected, although in different ways, in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. To my (admittedly, still Marxist) mind, at least, material culture informs artistic expression here. It is tempting to call the forest masks “raw” and the central statues “refined” but that feeds into another issue that I will deal with later. Suffice for now that what is missing from the exhibition, as with so much Africa reporting, is context.

Well, there is some, in the anthropological sense of the word. We see words like “Dan”, Sénoufo”, “Baulé” and “Lobi” hung like neon signs over the various carefully assembled works of art and explanations are offered about their functions and their makers. Fair enough. But what does that do with the viewer? Not unreasonably, the viewer will associate a particular work of art with a particular people from a particular region. And will freeze those in time. Again, it stands to reason that this happens but anyone who has ever been to Côte d’Ivoire knows that, self-declared or ascribed origins apart, these monikers are essentially meaningless. There is probably not a single Ivorian alive who can claim to be a 100% pure and undiluted member of any “tribe”. The French word for this mixed state of affairs is brassage and it is a reality inside the borders and indeed across them.

“Tribe”, “origin” or indeed “Ivorianness” (or Ivoirité, as it was called) only becomes an issue when it is turned into a instrument in the hands of unscrupulous politicians on the prowl for cheap and easy vote winners. Toxification of the political debate is the inevitable result, as anyone witnessing the arrival of the Geert Wilders Dog & Pony Show in The Netherlands can testify. The same happened in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s. Suddenly people became the champions of the Wê, the Bété, the Baulé, or indeed The True Ivorians.

So my problem here is the essentialism: this is how the Sénoufo portray people during particular festivities or rites. This is how the People Around The Lagoon do things. Reality is a lot more fluid (what to think, for instance, of the Sénoufo who live in the Grand West, or the giant melting pot known as Abidjan?). It is of course a major challenge to point that out during an exhibition and the curators did find at least one credible way around that problem. More on that in the second and final part.


October 15, 2014

This happened about a month ago in Guinea: villagers killed eight people who came to tell them about the dangers of Ebola.

It has been the topic of conversation ever since. Words most frequently used include “brutal”, “savage” and “barbaric”. While these words may accurately describe the killings themselves, they bring us no closer to understanding why this happened. As usual, in the bulk of media reports on events in Africa, there is an essential element missing. History.

From the perspective of an inhabitant of Guinea Forestière, the past 125 years or so have been marked by a litany of highly disruptive events, almost all coming from the coast. The list looks like this, in no particular order:



Colonial conquest

Forced labour

Land occupation

Forced movement of people

Cultural vandalism on an industrial scale

More war

Masses of refugees from across the borders

Illegal rebel camps

Mass displacement

Environmental degradation…


…and, as the French say, j’en passe. By and large, pre and post-independence, men with arms have had a bad reputation here. Historically, they have been mostly seen to vandalise, to rob, to loot and take people away.

It may well be that we now have the first government in history, ever since the French established Conakry late 19th century, that at the very least has good intentions. But that does not negate the view from the forest, which is, based on painful experience, that pretty much everything that comes from the coast, the capital, the government, is disruptive and violent. A convoy of cars appearing out of nowhere usually spells trouble. People have memories. The village has a memory. The region has a memory. Most reporting ignores that.

Here is a thought, then. After all, there is one item missing from that list above and maybe the thinking of the people in that village, Womey, when they saw that convoy appear, was along these lines: well here’s one thing that we haven’t yet received from the coast, the capital, the government: pestilence. And sure enough, that’s what they’re here to give us.

It is critical to understand where these killings have come from. History be your guide so that true lessons may be learned – and, may I add, not in the ritual sense so beloved by the development establishment. An uplifting story from elsewhere in the region suggests that this is beginning to be the case.



March 25, 2014

What do Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, Laurent Gbagbo and Thabo Mbeki have in common? Apart from the fact that all have been presidents (one still is and will be until he dies) and all have to a greater or lesser extent autocratic tendencies and three out of four have proved to be prone to violence. Well? Here it is: they all hate The West and the Evil People who populate it although some (Mbeki) are better at hiding it than others (his northern neighbour). And because they all hate that monstrous entity that spreads disease, pestilence, death, destruction and bad entertainment around the world wherever it puts its jackboot, they all have earned the adoring admiration of the magazine I used to write for and from time to time write about: New African, NA for short.

Once upon a time the magazine sailed a journalistic course with regards to Côte d’Ivoire but then I wrote a letter to the editor (never published) reminding him that since Laurent Gbagbo employed exactly the same anti Western rhetoric as its other heroes (if not similar repressive methods like Mugabe) they should support him to the hilt. I remain, until this very day, deeply disappointed that I have never been given credit for the swift change in editorial line that NA performed in order to chime with the magazine’s central narrative: The West is plotting in more than a thousand ways to keep the Black Man Down.

It did obediently reproduce a piece about the Ivorian crisis penned by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, the contents of which came straight from the Public Relations Department of the Front Populaire Ivoirien, Gbagbo’s very own ZANU-PF. To this day, the FPI remains firmly convinced that its leader won the elections and that France’s former ADHD president Sarkozy put Ouattara on the throne with United Nations complicity. And that’s another thing that all these have in common with NA’s central narrative, which is a seductive mix of perpetual victimhood based on kernels of truth without any self-reflection. It produces a deeply disempowering political agenda.

The reason I am writing all this is that I have discovered that NA has added a new hero to its expanding Heroes’ Pantheon. His name? His Excellency, Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia! He ticks all the right boxes. Came to power in a coup in 1994 and has since developed the mindset that running his country, into the ground as it happens, is his inalienable birthright. He has turned the country into his private property and a police state. Also a haven for money laundering and arms smuggling. And sex tourism for middle-aged women from the UK, Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere. Business Is Booming.

Jammeh’s greatest claim to fame dates back to April 2000, when he ordered the army to open fire on unarmed schoolchildren on a demonstration, while exclaiming his most memorable quote: shoot the bastards. He had a few more executed in 2012 as his jails were facing a capacity problem. Now that’s what I call efficiency. He also supports at least one of the factions that is causing frequent havoc across the border in Senegal’s Casamance Province, effectively holding the government in Dakar hostage: if you allow too much Gambian dissidence on your territory, all hell will break loose in your beloved Casamance. So far, it has worked like a charm.


But why has His Excellency etc etc etc earned himself the adoring admiration of New African magazine? Because he hates The West and the Evil People in it. He has become worried about the fact that The West takes a disproportionately large part of Africa’s wealth. This Must Change. He advocates a program of redistribution that he may, one day, want to apply in his own country. Apparently, The Gambia is sitting on oil and His Excellency etc etc has discovered…the Gambian People. To whom the oil belongs. Interesting thought. He has made other striking revelations in the past, such as not needing doctors to cure AIDS; he can do that himself. (I seem to remember Thabo Mbeki had a rather tenuous relationship with the scientific explanation of the disorder…) His Excellency etc etc also likes to employ unregistered armies, like Charles Taylor, to further his objectives. As far as anyone can see he only has one, the same as Mugabe: staying in power until he dies. He has more things in common with the Dear Leader in Harare: he recently left The Commonwealth because it is colonialist and the two are also united in their intense homophobia. ‘Worse than pigs and dogs,’ in Mugabeland; ‘vermin’, in Jammehland.  Both were upstaged recently by Uganda’s gay-hating president Yoweri Museveni, whom NA dislikes intensely because he is deemed a “stooge of the West” but who knows, things may change…

So NA went to The Gambia and did a MAC (Mutual Adoration Chat), went on to publish a few quotes on oil and a letter castigating someone who had the gall to criticise this hero of the fight against colonialism, slavery, exploitation, greed and racism, which as you know are the only relevant hallmarks of The West and its Evil People. I, for one, am pleased to see His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Doctor Jahya Abdel Aziz Jemus Junkug Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, curer of AIDS, swift dispatcher of school children, brave protagonist of proxy conflict, expert emptier of prisons and champion of the downtrodden included in NA’s Heroes’ Pantheon. Maybe he could accompany the editor on one of his frequent trips to a certain Heroes’ Acre in the Zimbabwean capital where some heroes are notable for their absence. Not that this should detain this new beautiful pair as they gushingly report from Paradise On Earth.

The Taylor verdict: victory for justice?

April 26, 2012

Right. Can we just step away from the euphoria for a little while? Charles Taylor has been declared “guilty” for having aided and abetted murder, rape, the use of child soldiers, pillage and other offenses.

That’s good, no? This is an important day for international justice, you say? I’m not so convinced. Not because I don’t want to see Charles Taylor tried and convicted for what he did. I do, but not in this manner.

Let’s talk a little history here. Having shot his way to power and secured an election trough massive voter intimidation (“He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him”) in 1997, Charles Taylor unleashed a reign of terror and dreadful incompetence, from which his country will take decades to recover.

This happened in Liberia. Charles Taylor was not on trial for any of that.

Special Court

The Special Court for Sierra Leone has now established that he aided and abetted, and in some cases was involved in the planning of a large number of human rights abuses in neighbouring Sierra Leone.  The prosecution has spent inordinate amounts of time, effort and money to establish evidence leading to the guilty verdict. In Liberia, his (and indeed other warlords’) atrocities are a matter of public record.

But once again, Charles Taylor is not on trial for what he did to his own country. And this is where the story gets messy.

Of course, principally, Charles Taylor brought disaster upon himself. His ultra violent and catastrophically inept government invited the inevitable next invasion. With the help of the neighbours, principally Guinea and at the very least the tacit approval of the USA and the UK (both of which had meanwhile adopted “anyone but Taylor” policies), two rebel movements forced him out in August 2003.


And now it gets even messier. A former Pentagon lawyer called David Crane managed to get himself appointed the chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). He indicted Taylor for the crimes for which he has now been found guilty. There was one problem though: no neighbouring state was going to hand him over to the SCSL. Not Ghana, which he visited as head of state. Not Nigeria, where he was given asylum. It took a clearly stage-managed “escape” and “re-arrest” to get him into the hands of the SCSL, conveniently just in time for then president Olusegun Obasanjo’s state visit to then president George W. Bush.


So, here are the unanswered questions. One. Why was the chief prosecutor in such a hurry to have Taylor indicted? Two. Could he not have waited until the Liberians themselves had given the sign that they were ready for their man to be put on trial?

True, a war crimes tribunal is controversial in Liberia but Liberians have now been forever deprived of what we may call closure. That obviously was of no concern to Crane. Neither, by the way, are 157 dead Guineans. In an infamous 2010 report Crane and his colleague Alan White whitewashed Captain Moussa Dadis Camara and his junta’s role in the stadium massacre that took place in Conakry on September 28, 2009. So forgive me for reaching for a bucket when I hear this man intone before a BBC camera that ‘this is an important day for the people of West Africa.’

So what have we got here in the end? A US and UK-funded Court that neatly fitted the geo-strategic policies of these two countries. A torturous road to a guilty verdict that leaves millions of his victims out in the rain. A smug looking international community that can claim its first scalp “since Nuremberg” as the activists never tire of telling us. Well if Milosevich had not died he would have been the first one and I can still hear the assessment of a Serbian foreign ministry official ringing in my ears when he said that Milosevich’s delivery to The Hague was not so much an ethical issue as “a matter of foreign trade”.

Taylor’s case had less to do with ethics and a lot more with making sure he was kept out of the West African region. The correct objective – achieved in the wrong manner.

This is a quest for justice that’s gotten lost in a maze of foreign policy interests, personal career opportunism and the fact that the paymasters of this court would not have accepted another result.

Conspiracy? I certainly don’t think so. But a victory for international justice? Sorry, not to me.