Archive for the ‘Mali’ Category

Sidiki and Mamacita: a Malian love story from Hell

November 3, 2020

‘Oh, they knew for years that he was doing it. Everybody knew!’ 

“He”, in this account by a colleague of mine is Sidiki Diabaté, arguably Mali’s biggest musical star and export. He produces syrupy love songs, invariably accompanied by videos that feature large bungalows, swimming pools, big cars, expensive clothes – and jewellery that bedecks beautiful women. Mariam Sow, affectionately known as ‘Mamacita’, would not have been out of place in these videos. She was Sidiki’s girlfriend and it is her we should be mostly talking about. 

This story has nothing to do with sweet syrup or jewellery and that’s where the “doing it” part of the opening quote comes in. It began on September 14, when Mamacita put photos on her Tik Tok account, showing a body. The body was covered in wounds and bruises, as if someone had been using whips, fists and even sharp instruments to inflict pain and damage on the victim. Mamacita made it unequivocally clear that the body in the picture was hers and that the scars and bruises were the result of the actions of her boyfriend, with whom she had been living for as much as six years. She told a Senegalese television station that she had been held captive for months and that she had been hit with electric cables. Probably other things too. 

Let’s get the eternal question out of the way first: why stay? I can give you a number of reasons, and that’s speaking from experience. First, your abuser is not only an abuser. He or she also has qualities that attracted you to him/her in the first place. Your abuser is still capable of either turning on the charm or simply showing you why and how you fell for them in the first place. It is only when the balance flips decisively that you start thinking that this relationship may be unhealthy and you should be leaving. This is a long drawn-out process. 

The second reason is best summarised in that short English phrase: it is the hope that kills you. In short, you never lose hope that sometime, somehow – and preferably as a result of your benign interventions – your abuser will change and/or improve. It takes time and effort to be disabused of that notion. Which brings me to the third reason: normality. Abusive relationships tend to adopt a pattern: abuse – resistance – fights – make up – abuse – resistance – fights – make up and so on, ad nauseam. Gradually, you begin to regard this pattern as normal. It takes a blinding flash of insight on your part or (more often) external intervention to snap you out of this doom-laden reverie. Hence the efforts abusers put into isolating you, either by simply preventing you from getting out or by throwing an almighty tantrum if and when you do de-isolate. It is a highly pernicious game they play and Mamacita was, by all accounts, subjected to all of this. 

And to violence, at the hands of an entitled violent little brat, who counted the equally dysfunctional DJ Arafat from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire among his friends. He paid just under €11,000 for Arafat’s funeral, after the Ivorian icon rode himself to death last year, whilst doing ‘demonstrations’ with his beloved motorbike on a public bridge in Abidjan. In an ante-echo of Mamacita’s, the fate of the female journalist Arafat injured during his deadly antics was of no interest to his fans. 

Sidiki’s family has asked for forgiveness, and I think this includes his father Toumani (yes, that Toumani, arguably the best kora player the world has ever known). Even – and to my massive astonishment – Oumou Sangaré added her voice to those pleading for forgiveness, a plea she later retracted. Others have joined her.

Indeed, this may astound you. Large chunks of Mali’s music scene have migrated to Camp Sidiki, which decided from the moment that Mamacita broke her story to go as low as inhumanly possible to tarnish her name and save their hero. One commentator on social media summarised rather awkwardly that a minority painted Sidiki as the devil incarnate, while a rather larger portion went out of its way to paint Mamacita as manipulative. Highly suggestive below-the-belt remarks were directed at his now former girlfriend (like I said: no low is low enough for these people). Some went still further and claimed that she, a poor girl from Guinea with a troubled family history, was being used by feminists to destroy Mali’s top selling artist. In short, they wheel out the tired old conspiracy trope, to which activists like Fatou Harber (Tubuntu Woy on Facebook and her friends have only one reply: to hell with that nonsense. A demonstration on the streets of Bamako, late September, beautifully captured by the very talented photographer Ousmane Makaveli, featured placards that said among other things: “You beat a drum. Not your wife.” 

From the demonstration at the Place de l’Indépendance. Retrieved from afrik.com

Mamacita’s lawyers have recounted what their client has told them: Sidiki stands accused of (at the very least) sequestration and causing grievous bodily harm. Those syrupy love songs suddenly sound not just hypocritical but downright sinister. Meanwhile, Camp Sidiki elected it necessary to leak a sextape onto the internet, in which the girl from Guinea apparently was a participant. No, I have not seen it and I never will. 

Just under a fortnight after Mamacita released her images, Sidiki was finally arrested. And while African Muzik Magazine Awards (Afrimma) did the honourable thing and removed his nominations, musicians playing for other well-known Malian artists went on a demonstration in Paris, demanding his release. A Dutch radio maker, journalist and blogger, Alie de Vries, also a hugely committed fan of Malian music, had enough of the double standards and pulled the plug on her Music from Mali channel. You can read her comments on the events here. It is called “The fallen star” and written in Dutch. The damage to the carefully curated image of Mali’s musicians, frequently met with the starry-eyed gaze of Western adulation, could be considerable. 

Will justice be done? This is a hard question to answer, even today, when the political protection the Diabatés used to enjoy has been yanked away following the August 18 coup that removed president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his clans from power. (The Diabatés, father and son, were part of the campaign for the re-election of the deposed president.) The other problem is that, like everywhere else in the world, a prominent position means that you can literally get away with murder. I still have the article from an Angolan newspaper in which it is described how a high-ranking military officer escapes the law after he has drunk-driven a schoolgirl to her death on the Ilha de Luanda and makes it so that the journalists covering this scandal and the family sharing their grief with the newspaper are subjected to threats. We do not have many intrepid journalists wanting to pursue a story featuring the violent acts allegedly committed (yes, even here we must retain the principle of the presumption of innocence, however difficult) by one of Mali’s biggest selling artists. But we should not lose hope, as activists have argued. This case is so terrible that it could be a marker for change. 

office du tourisme, Mali

Indeed, impunity seems almost written into the DNA of the elites, of which Sidiki is most decidedly a part. It takes one visit to one of Bamako’s most exclusive discotheques to get a sample of that. The place, called Ibiza, is a horrid hell of bad taste, awful music played extremely loud, overpriced drinks and unpleasant people, where nauseating entitlement mingles with utter disdain for those lower in the pecking order, like the taxi driver who was beaten up for not getting out of the way quick enough as a luxury car was looking for a place to park. To the surprise of no one, the lowlifes who perpetrated this act were said to be Sidiki’s mates, cut from the same cloth of those who went out of their way to diminish Mamacita in every way they could, reducing her to nothing and the violence meted out to her as a non-event. Ibiza, also the scene of shootouts, is a showcase of the moral decrepitude of Mali’s elites that got so bad that people were willing to go out on the streets in their thousands to ask – and even die – for the departure of Bamako’s champaign class, and applauded when soldiers took them away.

Anyone who has ever lived through short or prolonged periods of abuse (psychological, physical, or both) knows that any and all abuse is a full negative and should have no place in the place you call your home. Justice must take its course. If Sidiki is found guilty he must go to jail. What this means for his career is irrelevant. To those still agonizing about his talent and worried about his future and asking for forgiveness I would direct these questions: where is Mamacita in all this? Does she not deserve compassion and justice? Should you not worry about her future? Or do you just continue to spit in her face, like so many in Mali’s musical community are currently doing? Will you help her get up and reconstruct her life? The answers to those questions will tell you a lot about yourself. 

Mali: the death of 1991

August 19, 2020

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) is gone. And Mali will be none the better for it. Parallels with the exact same event, in March 2012 will inevitably be drawn. Yes, some things are the same: working conditions and pay of the soldiers supposed to fight Mali’s asymmetrical wars were terrible – they still are. Corruption and poor morale permeated the Army in 2012; they still do.

Other things were also present in 2012 and have become considerably worse. Insecurity, previously mostly a problem of the North, has spread to the centre and is now threatening Bamako. Is it the jihadists? Well, that’s what the Islam-obsessed West wants to believe. But truth be told, jihad is either a poor disguise or an ideological fig leaf for mostly criminal activity, born out of a complete lack of any perspective, thanks to the now ousted government and the ones that preceded it. Will this coup make these things better? No, it will not.

Corruption stalked the land in 2012 and still does. The roads in Bamako have fallen apart during this last rainy season because they are not maintained. Why are they not maintained? Because the money that is supposed to go into this rather crucial repair work disappears. This country relies on donor money for just about everything and the fact that we are living with terrible roads, appalling electricity delivery, grotesquely bad drinking water services, dreadful education and dire health care is testimony to the fact that the donor money earmarked for this work never arrives where it should. We send the money and close our eyes. Will this coup make that problem go away? No, it will not.

So we have spreading insecurity, corruption and the absolute point blank refusal to deliver basic services to the population. Anything left, then? Oh yes, religion has risen, as I have argued in various places. The opposition movement that was clamouring for IBK’s departure has in imam Mahmoud Dicko the leader that fills the gargantuan hole where a government should be. And more than anything, that hole is moral. Will this coup address that moral deficit? No, to all intents and purposes the ones who organised this chain of events are very much part of the problem.

1991 ushered in an era of democracy, we are told. The popular uprising + coup that put an end to the repressive reign of General Moussa Traoré was most decidedly welcome. But democracy is not the same as ‘doing whatever the hell I want’…and that’s what we have seen Mali’s new elites do and that behaviour has been extensively copied.

At the heart of Mali’s problems lies the absence of moral leadership that should have come from Generation 1991, of which IBK was a part from the very beginning. But there are no ideals, no agenda, no moral leadership…just greed and money. Yesterday’s coup has laid to rest three decades of increasing moral bankruptcy. Will it invent some moral leadership? Posing the question is answering it.

IBK’s government was besieged by three different contesting groups. One, the M5 Movement, did not know what it wanted. I know this because I asked them: “OK, you want IBK gone. Fine. Then…what?” To which came this shocking answer: “Oh, we don’t know. It’s all in the hands of God.” Well sorry folks, but that just will not do for a country of 22 million souls, some of whom are looking at you for guidance.

The second, the Army, has solved whatever issues it had with the government by removing it. This was about pay and positions. The head of the Presidential Guard was fired on the eve of the coup and you can bet your last euro that he wasn’t too damn well pleased with that… He also has friends in Kati, from where this coup came, just like the one in 2012. The soldiers have no truck with a political opposition and religion is something between you and Allah.

However…imam Dicko and his entourage see things very differently. They are the only ones who actually have a plan for Mali, which is to turn it into a Sharia state. To be sure, this is an idea that appeals to conservative tendencies present among the majority. But I am not convinced that said majority fully support Dicko’s desired flight backwards into history, before the hated French colonisers were here with their lay republic and their laws and their institutions, none of which are relevant to Malians and their lived daily experience.

After all, Islam is imported, too. And the kind of Islam Dicko wishes to impose on 22 million Malians is not the kind of Islam they aspire to, no matter how conservative they are. Because people also like their music (live, if you please), their drinks (in the privacy of the drinking dens) and their sex (in the privacy of the backrooms behind the aforementioned dens), all of which will be illegal once Sharia law is introduced.

So now you see: none of these agendas run parallel. We had the government and its plan for self-enrichment and lip-service to development, the Army and its nefarious networks and interests, the clueless political opposition and a bunch of adroit political Islamist operators… And then we have the interests of the outside world. ECOWAS has already cut Mali off, like they did in 2012. “We don’t endorse coups,” has been their message to Mali, consistently. The African Union, European Union, UN and the rest of the ‘international community’ will engage in its favourite pastime, prolonged handwringing, and do very little if anything at all. The plethora of military missions will not now be augmented by yet another futile attempt (the European Operation Takuba) and the rest is likely to wind down sooner (Barkhane) or later (MINUSMA).

Post coup, Mali finds itself on its own, borders closed, isolated and alone. Friends will turn their backs until ‘constitutional order’ is restored. In some circles, France will continue to be blamed for everything, which conveniently ensures that the proponents of this noise do not have to reflect on their own responsibilities in all this.

Unless, and only unless…the military finds itself ushered into a position of mediator between what is left of the State and the various insurgencies – and takes this role seriously, only then we just may get somewhere. But for now, we’re in an even greater mess than before.

Malians would be right to think: thanks for nothing, everyone.

What’s ailing Mali ?

July 14, 2020

You may have seen the images of Mali’s capital Bamako: the fires, the running battles and the extensive damage. It is an explosion that has been long in the making. Last Friday’s huge demonstration, the third of its kind against the government of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected in 2018 during an exercise the vast majority of Malians considered completely irrelevant to their lives, descended into violence that has yet to end and, according to hospitals in the Malian capital, resulted in 11 deaths so far.

Yes, it was long in the making because the causes are so well-known. Top of the list : a security crisis that began well before 2012 with the fallout from NATO’s disastrously criminal ouster of the Libyan leader Muamar Ghadaffi without having an exit plan, an act that pulled the trigger of what happened next.

For years Ghadaffi had been the very nice friend of European heads of state, especially since he stuffed his arsenals with well over one billion euros worth of arms, made in Europe. When Ghadaffi was deposed, the many Tuareg officers in his army departed with the contents of those arsenals and arrived in their native Mali early 2012, where they started an ill-fated rebellion that was soon overtaken by jihadist forces that Algeria had earlier thrown across its border into the vast desert space of Mali’s north. There was nothing to stop them; Mali’s army has to make do with kit that often dates back to the time when it was an ally of the former Soviet Union…

That security crisis is still with us and has mixed freely and unpredictably with organised crime, banditry and self-defense, rendering the north and the centre of the country both ungoverned and volatile. The numerous high-profile international interventions (France, United Nations, the regional G5 Sahel Force) notch up a success or two here and there but are in no position to put an end to the problem. The army is a demoralised mess and prone to human rights abuses, like most of the other actors in this drama.

The deeply detested Karim Keita (you guessed right: the president’s son) presided over the Parliamentary Defence Committee while he took an army plane to celebrate his birthday in a decadent Spanish resort, an event he has since downplayed. However, the images of a drinking and cavorting top official sticks in the craw of the many who don’t know if they can pay for their next meal. His extremely arrogant attitude (just follow his Twitter feeds) is emblematic of an elite that came to power nearly thirty years ago in the wake of a popular uprising against the repressive dictatorship of General Moussa Traoré but has presided over the descent of this country into corruption of both finances and morals. Keita Junior’s belated departure from the prestigious parliamentary post changes nothing.

The majority of Malians have no access to safe drinking water, health care that doesn’t kill you, quality education, reliable electricity, decent roads and working drainage systems. None of this bothers the clans in power, issued from that 1991 “revolution”, because they have their own water and electricity, they send their kids to school in Europe and when they fall ill there’s a flight to take them to a first class clinic in Rabat, Geneva or Paris. The system works for them – and nobody else.

‘They have failed and they have failed us,’ is a refrain you hear a lot when speaking with Malians about the parlous state of their government. But from the perspective of the elites and their – mostly foreign – supporters the system is working precisely as it should. International aid from banks and donor countries keeps them in power, as do the revenues from Mali’s gold mines that do not even improve the lives of those who live next to them.

In short, the idea that the current crop of leaders, essentially unchanged since 1991, will bring positive change in any of these areas has long since been abandoned. Hence the near-complete lack of interest in elections and the mass turn to Allah. Inevitable Islam – yes I wrote this six years ago and the trend has only intensified. It was only a matter of time before someone would appear on the scene who would personify the Islamic alternative to a morally bankrupt polity.

His name: imam Mahmoud Dicko and please take some time to read Bruce Whitehouse’s excellent profile of the man here. His movement, the rather blandly named Coordination des Mouvements, Asociations et Sympathisants (CMAS) is his still-discreet-but-soon-overt political vehicle. A former Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga, whose dismissal Dicko engineered called him “a hybrid”, a man of God playing politics.

But Dicko can marshall crowds tens of thousands strong, although he has been accused of paying the owners of Bamako’s ubiquitous Sotrama minibuses good money to ferry demonstrators into town, mirroring the practice of paying voters CFA2000 (just over three euros) for the promise to support such and such a politician. Whether or not these accusations have merit, the grievances are too numerous and too deep to dismiss these mass gatherings as simply rent-a-crowd.

Bamako, and if my sense of direction is anywhere near accurate, this is close to the Second Bridge, which demonstrators blocked off. Picture retrieved from the website of Anthropology professor Alain Bertho. Link here: https://berthoalain.com/

Last Friday’s was the third one. The pattern is always the same: mass open air prayer, long speeches denouncing the government, followed by nightfall and increasingly violent riots. This time, irate demonstrators attacked the building where the National Assembly (Mali’s parliament) exhibits its expensive futility and the national television ORTM, where the state broadcaster obediently broadcasts government propaganda. There was looting, fires were started, bridges across the Djoliba (Niger) River were blocked and then the embattled security forces took aim at the angry crowds with live ammunition. Deaths ensued.

This was inevitable, for it’s not just widespread anger and frustration. The many large and impoverished neighbourhoods in Bamako are filled with disenfranchised, disenchanted young men, permanently bored witless. I have written about them before. This is the demographic permanently left out of the high-flying development discourse, the group that finds out pretty early on in life that nobody has any time for them and that they’re on their own. When they hear about a big anti-government demonstration, they do not hear political complaints; they hear an invitation to pick a fight and loot businesses. In short, they copy the behavior of the clans that rule them – but in a more direct manner. It’s mainly because of them that Bamako, over the weekend and even today, resembles a battlefield.

None of the actors present here has a workable solution. The president has offered the option of a Government of National Unity, which may or may not come about, as regional and international mediators fly in to put an end to the crisis. However, the international community is widely regarded as being in cahoots with this discredited regime. Besides, president Keita is very likely to hold on to power – whatever the scenario – until it is time to go in the manner approved by said international community: elections, which, once again, hardly anyone will bother to attend. Imam Dicko, if ever he declares his intention to run for the presidency and gets elected, is likely to turn the country into a state under de facto Islamic rule. The youths who now so enthusiastically follow him will not enjoy living in a land without music, videos, drinks and sex for very long…

And finally, there is doubt whether Mali can survive or whether it even exists as a unitary state. Parts of the north have been self-governing since 2012, a situation that angers many. Other parts of the north and the centre are steeped in anarchy and uncertainty, as criminals attack homes, businesses and buses and militias stalk the land while they murder, steal, rape and pillage. And that’s before we even get to talk about the regions that are supposed to be inalienably part of this vast land but where recent demonstrations have highlighted local grievances. In Kayes and Sikasso people took to the streets to protest against the terrible state of their roads and other basic services, even when their regions provide the gold (Kayes) and some of the food (Sikasso) that keeps Bamako on its feet. Another former Prime Minister, the relatively young and sharp-tongued Moussa Mara made this point in a public speech about two years ago when he said (and I paraphrase): everyone is looking at the north and the centre. Nobody is looking at places like Kayes and Sikasso where there is a groundswell of dissatisfaction at the lack of any tangible development.

The problem is not the north, or the centre, or any other region. The problem is Bamako and its aloof, self-serving elite. As the slow but probably unstoppable disintegration of Mali continues, the elite is currently being served notice. Is the situation insurrectional? I don’t think so: there’s widespread dissatisfaction but no revolutionary fervour. Could the army step in? Given the extremely unhappy memories of the last coup eight years ago this is unlikely. No: Mali will be very likely be muddling through, as it has done for quite a while now. Depressingly, there is at present little else on offer.

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 20, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 2

 

So the airport is supposed to re-open shortly. (Yes, for once I indulge in the maddeningly annoying habit to start a sentence with the completely redundant ‘so’… so there.) Earlier this month, the Transport Ministers of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a virtual video meeting, where they proposed to resume domestic air travel by the end of this month. Mind you, domestic other travel has been going on in the most spectacular fashion, at least here in Mali (in Senegal, inter-urban travel was banned until this week). On the way into Ségou, a two-and-a-half hour journey, I counted at least two dozen buses heading in the opposite direction. I was made to understand that these are all packed to the rafters with passengers. They will not bother departing with a half-empty bus. One old carcass on wheels had been hastily parked and was expeditiously shedding its passengers as black smoke enveloped the area of its right-hand-side back tyre. I also noticed the smashed wreckages of at least half a dozen FourWheelDrives that had been driven at high speed into trees and ditches. The elites’ travel habits differ slightly from those of ordinary folks but at least they get to respect the 1.5 or two metre barrier as they drive themselves to death.

No such concerns for everybody else. On Monday, the only day Ségou springs back to something resembling life, the market in the centre of town was heaving with people. Women and their merchandise were packed like sardines in the many covered motor taxis that crisscross this town; they seat about 6, sometimes 8. Fare: 100 CFA franc, 0.15 euro, perhaps a little extra for your wares. No taximan in his right mind leaves with a half-empty vehicle. With petrol well over one euro a litre, to do so is economic madness. And the same goes for the famous green Sotrama buses in Bamako, and the hundreds of buses that ply those long routes from the capital to Kayes (600 kilometres), Sikasso (400), Ségou (nearby) or even Gao (900 kilometres) – this last destination on a no-longer-existing road where you risk getting hi-jacked, robbed or even blown up.

One bus after it hit an IED between Sévaré and Gao. Photo credit not known, picture retrieved from the site djeliba24.com

The risk of contracting the dreaded virus is subject to the pragmatically calculated risk assessment we discussed earlier: either you sell your stuff and live another week – or you don’t and then it will be game over very soon. And as we saw earlier, too: there are no underlying health problems really; in Mali those supposedly underlying health issues tend to kill you on their own, without any help from COVID-19.

The ECOWAS ministers also discussed the issue of international and intercontinental travel. The idea is to gradually open the ECOWAS internal borders by July 15th at the latest. This means that the twin circus I described here will begin again: a smooth passage through the airport for the few, a rough, unfriendly and corrupt passage for everybody travelling by bus, this time augmented with Corona-related checks, which I predict to be user-friendly at the airports and add another layer of harrassment of the travelling public at the land borders, this time wearing white overcoats instead of uniforms.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita makes increasingly frequent television appearances, delivering speeches in complicated French nobody understands and designed to put across that famous line: I Feel Your Pain.

No You Bloody Don’t, is the riposte coming from meetings such as these.

Opposition rally in Ségou, June 19th. Pic: me.

A much bigger one happened on the same day, June 19th in Bamako. And as you can see, the virus fear has been completely overtaken, nay: overwhelmed, by rising public anger. About the education crisis – kids have not been to school for months because of a deep and bitter dispute between teachers unions and the govenment. About the all-pervasive corruption, large and small, with which people are absolutely fed up. And for some it is also about the recent parliamentary elections, another excercise in futility, which returned some to their seats and booted others away from their sinecures. In some circles the results are contested, while for most everyone else life goes on regardless. For those 99%, COVID-19 has been a most unwelcome distraction but one that has brought the existing cleavages in even sharper light than before. And that cleavage is where it has always been: between the haves and the have-nots. Foreign money often makes the difference.

No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when your position, your job, your sinecure, your income… is essentially assured by financial, political, diplomatic and/or business support from outside the country. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when you can sail through an airport and the journey from your capital to another capital in the ECOWAS region takes less time than for a bus with 70 passengers to leave a congested city. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when forking out 500 euros for a return ticket to Dakar or Abidjan makes no dent in your budget while for 95 out of 100 of your compatriots this constitutes their entire budget for most of the year. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when once again your health problems will be sorted after a quick trip to Paris, London, Lisbon, Rabat or Johannesburg, while others die on their way to hospital in a taxi or a handcart.

Caveats, execptions, all duly noted and accepted but we are talking general trends here. And we are trying to come to terms with the fact that for most Malians – and I’d wager most everyone else in this 350 million strong region – COVID-19 has not made any difference to their lives, had it not been for the official measures that often killed their business. (And before I forget: the formidable food business woman who went missing from our beloved depot when the curfew hit …is back, with her new daughter strapped to her back.)

Is it helpful that these new demonstrations are organised by a Wahab imam, the former head of the influential High Islamic Council, who has none-too-subtle presidential ambitions, ambitions that, I’m sorry to say, go strangely missing from most if not all all international media coverage? No, it is probably not. What is abundantly clear, though, is that ADEMA, the party and its associated military and civilian politicians, who came to symbolise the beginning of the democracy wave in 1991, have had a heavy hand in shaping the decay and the corruption that have become the sad lamented hallmarks of this once (and so blindly) hallowed example of a functioning democracy. I have been blogging my own mea culpa in this respect more than once. 

Ségou, June 19th. pic: me.

So as we leave Corona behind, we can re-concentrate minds to the underlying isues that don’t kill you instantly but slowly: glaring inequality being the most prominent among them. One of the things I have finally been able to do is to start reading Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s study of how colonialism continues to shape the most uncivil administrations across the continent, the ones that are sustained with foreign money. It’s the turn of Malians to be angry with their particular variety of administrative indifference. Mamdani’s book is entitled Citizen and Subject and I want to return to this key issue soon. For even though the book focusses on countries far removed from the Francophone West African experience, it will have many things to say that resonate here, too. Stay tuned.

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 17, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 1

 

There was a great deal of grumbling almost three months ago. On March 20th, an Air France flight landed at the Bamako Senou Modibo Keita International Airport, released an unknown number of passengers into the night and took off again. This occurred after the Malian authorities had decided that because of the steady influx of COVID-19 problems from Europe the sensible thing to do was to close the airport. Were these new arrivals tested for the dreaded virus on arrival? Nobody knows.

And so teeth gnashed and fists clenched. Those dastardly arrogant French again! Grist to the mill of the army of (mostly online) conspiracy theorists, who see the hand of France behind every ill that befalls this nation, which conveniently provides them with an explanation for everything and absolves them of any and all responsibility for what transpires. No self-reflection is needed when everything is always someone elses’ fault. Like the mental toddlers who keep calling COVID-19 ‘The Wuhan Virus’ or keep blaming Obama for things that never happened on his watch. (Mind you: plenty happened on his watch, a lot of it very bad, but the catastrophic handling of a health crisis isn’t one of them…)

So what would these armchair warriors say when it emerged that a good number of the passengers on that Air France plane were actually members of the Malian elite, rushing to leave the seething Corona hotbed called France and seeking refuge in the safety of the extended family and having acquired the means to sustain themselves in what was, once again, becoming ‘their’ country? Again: nobody knows. We do know about elites, though…

*******

So, where are we now and how safe is it all? Perspective is in order here. As things stand, you are still far more likely to die in a road accident or get a deadly bite from a mosquito. This is not to diminish the seriousness of the situation but Malians are aware of two things simultaneously (yes, this is possible. It is called mental multitasking and you should try it, too, especially when you’re used to wearing tin foil hats. But I digress…)

First, while not anywhere near the calamitous levels registered in the Ferocious Five, five countries that are are – how coincidentally – ruled by far-right leaning ultra-nationalist megalomaniacs (USA, Brasil, Russia, India and the UK), Malians do realise that there is a problem. We have 1,890 confirmed cases, half of them have recovered; there are 107 deaths, as of today. The death rate, from what I understand, is not higher than at the same period last year. That should tell us something but we are still not taking this lightly here.

However, and you knew this was coming, the second point is that the measures taken by the authorities, while initially accepted as necessary, are being regarded as disproportionate the longer they go on. Yes, this is serious but we also die of malaria, diarrhea if we can’t afford going to the clinic, pneumonia, meningitis and cholera when they break out. Even birth is deadly! For both mother and child. In fact, according to the statistics from the Centres for Disease Control, the most dangerous thing you can do in Mali – is to get pregnant.

Think about that.

In short: you die, or you die, a point I made earlier. Death is not something you put away in a well-locked safe somewhere until it somehow gets out and springs a horrible surprise. Death sits at your table, while you eat.

So once again: while initially the preventative measures were welcomed, especially with the memory of Ebola still fresh, the longer it went on the more it was seen as unnecessary. Because there is now another thing that no longer can be ignored – and that is the colossal amounts of economic damage these measures have caused. Unlike Europe, there is no safety net here. When you have nothing, you go hungry, you go begging, or you die.

However, very similar to Europe, COVID-19 related measures are wide open to abuse. France’s police, already out of control, seems to think nothing of manhandling a 50-years-old nurse who was demonstrating for her rights. The Dutch government wants to rush a bill through Parliament that will turn the country into a de facto Stasi Police State. Guinea’s budding autocrat Alpha Condé is using the virus as a pretext to throw everyone in jail who disagrees with him. And we don’t have to cast our minds back very far to recall the atrocious – and indeed frequently deadly – behaviour of the police in Nairobi, Abidjan, Johannesburg or any other major centre. Folks in uniform on a power trip are dangerous, it does not matter where you find them.

 

The conclusion of this – sort of – conclusion will follow tomorrow.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

May 24, 2020

Part seven – Le dépôt

 

This is a Malian institution and I happen to live near one of its finer specimens. Le dépôt can vary in appearance: from a dark den hidden behind a clump of trees to a fully-fledged garden with an on-site food service and tables and chairs. You go there to get your beers and before the Corona Curfew you could sit down at a rickety steel table and talk with fellow punters.

The dépôt is, basically, family. From arrival to finding a place to sit under the trees would take quite a while. Because you must greet everyone who is there. There’s the elderly man with a very loud voice who likes to insult everyone – all in good cheer, mind you. It is part of an old tradition that is designed to release possible tensions and ensure that good relations are maintained. It is, very emphatically, not to be taken seriously. A specific kind of humour, like a glue that holds society together and that is a necessity in a city that grew from barely one million to three times as much in the space of thirty years.

Tucked away in the back of the garden you would often find another elderly man (yes, we have quite a few of those…) who had somehow managed to wrench permission from the owner to park his motorbike inside the premises. A very special privilege. Mostly on his own, with the occasional friend dropping in (greetings, handshakes – now forbidden, how are you, how is the day, how is the family, how is your health all the way from the entrance to the back of the garden). He’d sit there, beer on the table, his face hovering over a collection of notebooks, until, fed up with whatever he‘d been doing, he got up and leave. The special privilege extended to his being allowed to start and profusely rev his bike until ready to go. With him, a perfunctory nod with the head and a few words would suffice. We’re all different, at the dépôt.

 

Will they be back, now the curfew has been lifted? Oh yes, they are already slowly trickling back in, elaborate greetings and all.

 

And many will insist of the whole ritual. If you forget to greet someone (how are you, how is work, how is the family, I hear your little daughter was ill how is she now, how is your own health…), be assured that you will be reminded of your egregious oversight on your next visit.

‘You don’t remember me?’

‘Why, of course I do, you’re always here.’

‘Well, yesterday, you forgot me. You know that’s very bad…very bad…’

‘Sabali (pardon me), mon frère, I must have been busy…’

‘Yes! You were busy greeting the other people – but not me…’

‘I will not do this again. What do I do now?’

‘Oh, nothing. It’s alright.’ (Just make sure you do not neglect me on the next occasion…)

And all is right with the world again. Discreetly send a beer his way; he will know who this is from…

 

Strangers are welcome here. Which is how I fit in. There are just a few requirements that you must meet: consumption is not optional, you must be on your best behaviour (this is a society that greatly values politeness in public places), and…you must pay for your consumptions. The very hardworking and highly accommodating staff are totally uncompromising when it comes to money. Beers arrive daily and tomorrow’s purchases are bought with today’s revenue.

This particular dépôt also has a habit of attracting musicians. There are live venues nearby and frequently you would find a maestro parked on one chair, his guitar on another, beer or something else in one hand, the other loosely draped around the back of the chair where “my wife”, i.e. the guitar, had been placed. No country on earth places a higher value on music, especially live. The lockdown has dealt a devastating blow to the live music scene from which I hope it can soon recover. On story has it that a maestro had left his guitar in on of the nearby music venues, thought better of it, recovered his guitar, returned home and discovered the next day that the place had been consumed by a fire. He was distraught for a full two weeks, only by the thought of what would have happened had he not followed his best intuition…

 

Not everyone is back yet, to the chagrin of the staff, who have been holding the fort for all of the six weeks the curfew lasted. You were allowed to pick up beers during the day but…round the back. It almost felt like a clandestine operation, performed with the two young men in their green overalls working there, whose faces spelt gloom whenever you asked them how business was going…

‘Just very slowly…’

‘Will you close when it goes on?’

‘No, the owner runs this place; we are not renting.’

That was obviously a concern. Your landlord does not care when your business goes down by 80%. There is another big worry, though: the woman who ran a roaring trade with her food service and who had given birth only days before the curfew hit. She hasn’t been back and no one seems to know where she is…

It still is eerily quiet in the depot, even when the clientele is slowly coming back in. One reason for this is simple: the television is off and stays off. There’s no football, English Premier League being the staple here. The televised roar of the crowds, now silent, would only be surpassed by the nearby mosque when calling for prayer. Drink and faith: there’s no hard and fast rule. I once watched in wonderment as an elderly man, who looked like he had come straight from prayer, sat down on a barstool savouring the beer he had just ordered. Malians overwhelmingly want to guard that live-and-let-live attitude.

 

‘Soumalemba….’

Now, once you hear this deep bronze voice coming from behind one of those rickety tables, freshly installed, you know that things are going back to normal. ‘Really cold,’ the words mean, and it is a little ritual greeting between me and a corpulent man with a beaming face, who has made this place his second home. Former driver, in or near retirement, and determined to have a good time of it – and he has just drifted back in, too.

Maybe the old depot from before the Corona Curfew, is on its way back after all. But we will not be complete until our friend, one of the few women who has managed to become part of this place, is back with her soup and meat business. And her new child strapped to her back.

 

We have, on this day, 1030 COVID-19 cases confirmed, 65 have succumbed, 597 have recovered. From the Ministry of Health.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 27, 2020

Part six – no distance (note: the term “social distancing” is patently preposterous, as it is entirely clear that the distance required to avoid catching The Virus is physical…)

pic: me.

A Bamako street corner. A very average Bamako street corner, with roadside vendors trying to make a few cents, taxis looking to gain the edge at the traffic light, the Sotrama boys running across the street looking for passengers, the impatient beeping and revving of cheap Chinese motorbikes forever in a hurry, pedestrians looking for a safe place to cross, corrupt traffic police and their sneering whistles, car horns blaring…. Once that red light goes green all that energy will be unleashed and there will be a tremendous roar as thick traffic races to the next light.

That traffic thinned out somewhat after the government announced the strict measures designed to keep COVID-19 manageable. But it’s already growing back to its previous volume – most certainly the motorbikes and their gravity-defying habits.

I recently went to visit a political analyst who explained to me the folly of going ahead with last Sunday’s second round of the legislative elections – more about that in a later post. Enthusiasm for these polls was at a bare minimum and the reason people gave for not going to the polling station was the obvious one: Corona. Rather bewilderingly, fear of the virus vanishes entirely in other places. On the way to the interview my taxi crawled through a densely crowded market, there was the usual sight of the people packed like sardines in the Sotrama minibuses…

I am also reliably informed that mosques fully fill up for Friday prayers. There are very prominent religious leaders in the country who are virtually untouchable and whose authority goes way beyond that of the secular government, again for reasons that are perfectly easy to grasp.

Rushing to market. Pic: me.

So actually, none of this is terribly bewildering. Buying groceries, moving around town and going to pray – especially in this time of Ramadan – are activities that are an order of magnitude higher on peoples’ priority lists than taking part in a pointless exercise in what passes for democracy but is, in point of fact, a complete irrelevance to the vast majority.

In crisis times such as these people have a very stark choice to make: if we stay at home we’ll have no business and no money and we will starve; if we go out and do our business on the streets we may risk contamination. You die – or you die.

That’s a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, if I am permitted a maritime image about 1,200 kilometres from the nearest coast.

Similarly, it is the ordinary folks that get into the crosshairs of the men and women in uniform. In some places street vendors are the target of sustained harassment. Here it is those who are breaking the (increasingly pointless) 9pm to 5am curfew, in place since March 26.

Not exactly locked in but close enough. Pic: me.

Increasingly pointless, indeed, because what’s the use of letting bars and music venues and restaurants – and the many street vendors they attract – go bankrupt because you want to avoid contamination while it is actually during the day that far more people run that very same risk? ‘The only folks happy with the curfew are the people in uniform,’ says the good friend and neighbour you have already met. ‘It’s business for them. The only good thing about it is that they leave people like me in peace when I am at work during the day because they now make their money at night…’ But for him, and many of his colleagues, the very lucrative night business cannot come back soon enough.

Enforcing the curfew now is the new sport in town that extends to the furthest nook and cranny of this vast city. Don’t think you can sneak about in your remote corner of Bamako because there will be patrols and you will be chased, beaten up and be made to pay a fine that goes straight into the pocket of the chap that’s just beaten you up.

Nobody knows how long this will go on. But everyone knows that this can not last for much longer. Requests for money multiply. Food stocks, such as there are, run out, as does the patience of people you rely on for survival. Remittances have ended because the places where your relatives are working, in Côte d’Ivoire, in France, in Canada, wherever, are all closed, too.

There is no full lockdown and it’s unlikely one will happen. And this half-half position keeps full desperation at bay for now, as Mali’s contamination rate creeps upward to 389 with 23 dead, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker. Does this justify the continued restrictions? That’s up to the government and it does not appear new announcement are forthcoming. So for now, we just muddle through.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 10, 2020

Part three – They know

 

Some years back, during one of those public debates broadcast by French world service radio (RFI) from time to time, I picked up a memorable one-liner from a member of the audience. The location was Lomé, and so he made a reference to the family that had been running his country, Togo, for half a century, primarily as a client state of France.

“When a member of our ruling elites falls ill, he or she takes the next plane to Paris, where hospital treatment is good and readily available. As a consequence, the state of the health care system in Togo is of no interest to them.”

This goes for many a nation. And so, these current headlines are in an odd way rather satisfying…

The late Robert Mugabe had a subscription to hospitals in Singapore, while his subjects died of preventable diseases in hospitals in Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and Masvingo.

The rhetorically anti-imperialist first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, died of heart failure in a Cleveland hospital.

Muhamandu Buhari, president of Nigeria regularly goes missing because of health scares. If you want to find him, you must go to London.

Paul Biya, the ailing president of Cameroon (in power since 1982) spends most of his time in or near a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, a visitor to the country he is supposed to govern.

Depending on convenience and religious/ideological bent, you will find heads of state from the African continent occupying hospital beds in Moscow, Brussels, Riyadh, Beijing and sometimes in locations at either end of the continent: usually Rabat and Cape Town.

All this has now come to an end, thanks to Corona, because intercontinental flights have been suspended. Will this mean that the elites develop an interest in how hospitals in their own countries are run? This is not immediately evident. Just like terrorism, this virus is only an issue when they are directly affected. On the other end of the wealth spectrum, ordinary folks initially regarded Corona (which arrived mostly by plane) as a thing that affected “…them up there…nothing to do with us…”.

Not necessarily our problem….we just get on with our work…

But could this be changing?

There is a short-time perspective to this and a longer-term one.

Right now, there is an awareness among the authorities about the (usually poor) state of health care in the face of a looming menace. Whether said elites have developed a sense of their own responsibility in this regard remains to be seen. But they know. They know that things are not good. Years of neglect, devastating wars in some places, coupled with IMF-mandated austerity measures and the expectation that foreign NGOs would be there to pick up the slack have all played their part. Many large hospitals have developed a bad reputation, as places where you don’t go to get healed – but to die. Rural parts frequently lack even the basics.

There are also medical staff up and down this entire region with high levels of professionalism and a keen sense of public duty.  I have met many of them. It’s a fact that tends to be often forgotten, both here and in the global media. They know. They know better than anyone that they are working under extreme circumstances. They know there are not enough intensive care units, ventilators or even hospital beds available to deal with anything major.

And as a result, everybody and everything banks on prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Authorities ban large gatherings (well, some of them at least – I’ll come back to this later), close borders, enforce curfews and start campaigns to encourage social distancing (another headache as we have already seen and will see again later)

Live music, Mali’s pride and joy. Banned until further notice. But they’ll be back…

To date, prevention is working remarkably well. Mali has ample experience in this respect, as do Senegal, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. There are at present 87 confirmed cases in Mali, with 7 deaths and 22 recovered patients (according to statistics gathered at John Hopkins University Hospital in Washington), 59 confirmed cases according to the WHO. Here’s hoping it stays that way and that there will be no curve to flatten.

But inevitably there will come the longer-term question: will this outbreak be enough to start changing things around and concentrate elite minds towards creating decent basic services, to wit: water, electricity, health care, education, waste management? This, dear reader, is anybody’s guess. And that, in and of itself, is a deeply unsatisfying answer. But I have, at present, no other.

 

To be continued

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 8, 2020

Part two – How do you do social distancing when closeness brings you money?

 

March 26. I’m having a chat with a good friend and neighbour, who is part of a taxi business. We have just had the first of what is likely to be a long-ish series of very quiet nights. Immediately after the public confirmation of the first two cases of COVID-19, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced a 9pm to 5am curfew.

This follows one week after public gatherings of over 50 were banned. This has meant the unthinkable: that quintessentially larger-than-life Bamako phenomenon, the Sunday Marriage, immortalised by Amadou & Mariam, can no longer take place. In addition, schools have been closed and now that the curfew is in full force the bars, restaurants and music clubs, already taking a hit from the less-than-50-only rule, will be closing entirely.

Another measure is the social distance rule for urban transport and this makes my friend’s life rather difficult.

“There’s already very few people out,” he says, “and with this rule I can only take two paying passengers at a time. It’s not worth it. Yesterday I drove around the city for five hours and collected – what… CFA7,500.” That’s 11 euros 43 cents, not enough to cover the petrol and the bribes.

“But,” he went on, “I will probably ride this out. How about the fellows on the Sotrama?” I had already noticed that those ubiquitous green minibuses – named after the long gone SOciété du TRAnsport du MAli – were becoming scarce. Not bad for road safety, as a good number of the (mostly) young men driving them are pretty reckless, if they’re not tired and overworked. A day starts as early as 5am and can go on until 10-11pm (when there is no curfew of course). Money must be given to the owner of the vehicle and what’s left gets divvied up between the driver and the parentikè (apprentice), who ushers the passengers in. Hang on, that’s after the traffic police and sometimes even les coxeurs have had their cut: the former a big slice, the latter a very small one, both paid on the spot.

Your Bamako transport at a glance: Chinese motorbikes (everywhere), private vehicle (increasing in number), taxis (always yellow) and your Sotrama neatly in the middle.

“So what happens,” I ask, “when the Sotrama must halve the number of passengers to respect the new social distance rule?”

“Oh, that’s simple. If you have some 20 passengers on board and they all pay 150 francs, say, you’ll get CFA3,000 for one ride.” And that’s not counting the numerous times people get on and off en route: whenever the apprentice bangs on the roof, the driver veers to the curb and stops. It is everybody’s job (yours and mine) to stay out of their way.

“Now they can only take ten…”

Cycling around the neighbourhood, I did see a few half-full Sotrama doing the rounds with drivers and apprentices looking even gloomier than they normally do. Of course: there’s zero money to be made from a half-full vehicle. And there’s definitely fewer of them on the streets.

In a country without any official safety net both your own money and the patience of the family you will now have to rely on run out pretty quickly. And then what? Your guess is as good as mine. But the longer this goes on, the harder it will get to grab that lowest rung of the ladder that is now disappearing out of sight as a thick Corona-mist hides it from view.

 

To be continued.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 6, 2020

Part one – hand gel.

 

We were late.

While most of the rest of the continent already had been affected, the number of cases in Mali remained stubbornly at zero.

But on March 25, finally, the news came: we have two suspected cases, more to follow. That same day, a run started on…no, not toilet paper, of course. Malians went after a much more useful product: alcohol-based hand gel. When I went out the next day I visited more than half a dozen chemists – one of the former French colonists’ leftovers is a chemist density to match that of Paris – with the following almost identical ritual.

Get off and park bicycle.

Move towards the now ubiquitous water reservoirs that had appeared out of nowhere in front of every chemist, bank, office block, supermarket, and wash hands.

Enter the premises.

Washing hands again, with that hand geld I was hoping to get my…er…hands on.

Being told, always with a smile, that no, sorry, we’ve run out. Désolé…

In one instance even being waved off, ever so friendly, before I asked…

All this in the baking heat because we have not only been officially admitted to Coronaland, we are also in the midst of the annual heatwave, which seems to be more extreme than ever before. It’s a bloody oven out there. 43 at least, cooling to mid-to-high twenties at night. And apart from the faintest of drizzles (normally known here as “the mango rains”) nothing happened.

Nope. Nothing happened.

Well, ok, I got one tiny plastic container with some hand gel like substance that looked suspiciously more like perfume than anything else but hey – if it does the job… In fairness, I must add that there were no frantic scenes of people in near-hysterics buying every toilet roll in sight and there was literally no sign of any panic buying. Just that gel, was all.

Covered in a fine layer of sweat and in great need of some bottled/canned liquid (orange juice, preferably) I finally arrived at the neighbourhood supermarket. And boy, are those sloping streets a pain in the neck with a merciless sun hammering you as you pedal along while taxis and the ubiquitous green Sotrama minibuses whizz past you while you try to remain steady and straight as you are forced into the thick layer of sand next to the tarred road…………

Lo and behold! The supermarket – water reservoir and soap parked outside and could you please wash your hands…? – sold more of the same sort-a-like hand gel thingies I had picked up earlier. But the next day they had found extra supplies from somewhere. In fact, it was a locally produced hand gel, which they proceeded to sell at the extortionate price of CFA8,000. That’s more than 12 euros. You will not find many Malians having so much money freely lying round somewhere. On the other hand, this is a nation of traders. And if you have the chance, do not ever let a good crisis go to waste… Now, do we need those face masks or not?

 

To be continued.