Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The face mask: a status symbol

August 5, 2021

An upmarket riverside restaurant in Ségou. A collection of FourWheelDrives has been parked before the entrance. Inside, a party of clearly well-to-do individuals, dressed to the nines. It is lunchtime and they have come to this place to be very well fed and watered. And another thing they have in common: all wear face masks. Not while they are eating of course; the masks are then lowered to cover their chins. This fashion statement is marginally more ridiculous than the already quite ridiculous habit of shoving your spectacles up your crane when you don’t use them, instead of putting them safely away. As for the masks, only a few have stored them in their bags or inside pockets but they will appear again once lunch is over and they get back into their FourWheelDrives to wherever they are having their gathering.

Here’s another frequent phenomenon: a lone man or a lone woman, behind the wheel of their luxury vehicle. Nobody else is there but they drive around in a face mask. I will confess to having a good old laugh when I see this but it clearly points at a social phenomenon.

One more, then. In spite of all the problems and troubles and asymmetrical violence this country has been subjected to over the past nine years, there is one phenomenon that is inexplicably resilient: the workshop. This whole region is absolutely addicted to the workshop, invariably dedicated to subjects that are fashionable in the donor countries that supply the money for these occasions. We call this ‘development’.

Workshops, trainings, evaluations and assorted other gatherings of VIPs are typically held in an upmarket place in the capital (Bamako, Niamey, Ouagadougou) or any other major urban centre (Ségou, Sikasso, Bobo Dioulasso…) that is still accessible. The deteriorating security situation, something these gatherings are not designed to address, limits the available options. But there are still more than enough accessible urban centres with multiple star hotels, the natural habitat of workshops.

On one such occasion, it was lunchtime, a procession of ladies filed out of the conference room on their way to the tables, where the food had been lovingly and lavishly laid out. My lunch table was, rightly and correctly, relegated to the margins of the establishment. The participants all wore fine clothes, some had elaborate head dresses; quality mobile phones were on display and they all marched to the tables wearing face masks. Yes, every single one of the development-oriented (upper) middle class gentlewomen wore one, without exception. No doubt they proceeded to discuss the plight of the poor, over lunch. I was out of earshot and should, of course, have been out of sight, too.

Alright then, one more…

Recently, we had a Very Important Visitor in town. That fact that this was a Very Important Visitor was made obvious by a Gendarmerie pickup truck ordering everybody off the Boulevard 2000, a very wide and very smooth stretch of road that takes all dangerous traffic (including Very Important Visitors travelling at high speed) around Ségou, instead of through the city, where they have to negotiate a stretch of tar road that has been in an utterly horrendous condition for at least a decade and a half…but I digress, unlike the caravan of the Very Important Visitor.

After we all had been made to stop going about our business, an impressive number of vehicles careened past. I’d say a dozen and a half. FourWheelDrives, of course. Pickup trucks. Even the odd saloon car, obviously in excellent condition. If she brings along a caravan this long I wonder how many cars wil accompany the President if ever he decides to come over here. You may as well close business for the day…

The next day, I saw the same procession move away (slowly this time) from the Governor’s Office, located of course in a very leafy part of town, and it was here that I was able to notice the many lone men and the occasional woman sitting at the wheel of their vehicles. Only a few had someone to talk to during the drive and almost all of them wore…a face mask. I am sure the maskless will get a stern lecture before too long. The visitor, incidentally, was the Minister of Health. She had first paid her respects to the town’s bigwigs and religious leaders, had then paid a visit to the various health facilities, had been able to see for herself the deplorable condition they were in and naturally terminated the tour by promising to do something about it. I was told the same has been said numerous times about the decaying tarred surface of Ségou’s main thoroughfare…

So what is this social phenomenon you may wonder. The penny dropped when I witnessed the following scene in one of Bamako’s upmarket supermarket our affluent friends – and expats – frequent.

A classy lady had parked herself and her rapidly filling trolley in one of the aisles. Meanwhile, her underling, a girl in a dress that was intended to denote her inferior status, was being sent around the shop to get the required items. (In fairness, I will add here that this does not happen very frequently; most of the time the girl is left at home and Madame does her own shopping.) And there, as if to emphasize the different stations of life these two women occupied, I noticed that Her Ladyship was wearing a face mask; her servant was not.

Couple that with the astute observation of an old friend who is a regular visitor to Mali, when he remarked that it looked to him as if the face mask had become a status symbol and the insight became even clearer: that is precisely what it is. It may be the case – not very frequently though – that the face mask wearer signals the aspiration to belong to this exclusive top class club but in almost all instances the face mask says: “I belong to the elites. I’m wealthy. I’m connected. I’m in.” Hence the ubiquitous presence of face masks at summits of heads of state, meetings between important representatives of international bodies and ministers, UN representatives, international NGOs and businesses. Money not only talks these days; it wears a face mask too.

Ordinary people in the streets, in Bamako’s green Sotramas (those privately run public transport minibuses), in the markets, on their motorbikes, working on the land, in the downmarket shops and eateries…do not wear one. My conservative estimate is that 95 per cent never bother with a face mask. And yet these are places where space is in far shorter supply than in the upmarket abodes of the elites.

It has been said before: in Mali, Covid19 is an issue that virtually never invites itself in any discussion. Of course it is an issue – for people who travel by air and these are mostly the same people who are found in expensive cars, expensive homes or expensive workshops. Besides, in a country where you are far more likely to die of malaria, water-borne diseases, meningitis or the incredibly polluted air in the homestead or the city, Covid19 takes its place at the back of the queue. Of course, the initial responses were quick and adequate because people remembered the horrors in next door Guinea (and to a limited extent back home) of that other deadly virus, Ebola. But Covid19 is mainly an obsession for those who can afford to be obsessed – and buy the masks at 500 francs apiece, the price of a roadside meal.

A mask or a meal: now you understand the priorities.

(More on Covid in Mali? Read my Corona Chronicles, written last year.)

Abidjan miniatures 1

December 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Covid-19 and me and you

October 24, 2020

Well, yes, I promised I was going to shut up about it after my Corona Chronicles from Bamako but I do find myself currently (and hopefully temporarily) in a very strange part of the world. I am watching with bemusement supposedly competent governments thrashing about in the wake of what must be termed a very large but ultimately not very powerful pandemic (the official statistics report death rates of less than 1 per cent of those affected). Coming from West Africa, Europe has all the hallmarks of a continent that has gone quite mad.

Just one example. As I mentioned in my Chronicles, when Mali and its neighbours decided they had a problem, they acted swiftly, decisively and ruthlessly. Night curfews did not start at 10pm in bars with large numbers of people already present, they started earlier, even when it is well-known that when people decide to partake in the rich nightlife of West African cities they do so very late. As someone astutely observed: will the virus know that it can only come into a packed and crowded bar when last orders have been consumed? This literally makes zero sense. You are either open – or you are closed. There is no halfway house here. 

The debate about face masks is even more bizarre. Look, I loathe the bloody things and I think they are not only a nightmarish inconvenience to wear but also an environmental disaster waiting to happen given the widespread human habit of disposing of your stuff anywhere you please but for crying out loud… Message to the navel-gazing Westerners complaining about this: the wearing of a face mask is, for once in your life, not about you. It is about others. It is not about a dictatorial government turning you into a slave. If you think this is what dictatorship and slavery look like you clearly have led an extraordinarily sheltered and massively privileged life. 

I will leave the conspiracy theorists who believe it’s all a China/WHO/Bill Gates/George Soros/5G/Deep State/Democrat/liberal/leftist/UN/Agenda 21/NWO bid for world domination, to one side. While fascinating in the way slow motion car crashes are fascinating, they add nothing to any rational debate about what we are dealing with and what we should do about it. Arguing with people advancing such points is futile. You will waste your time and fail to sway any of the True Believers. Just ask for evidence for their claims. You will invariably find that they are unable to provide such. All this BS should have one destination only: the bin. 

An even more dangerous cult, which should also find its way to the rubbish dump post haste is neoliberalism, the real point of writing this. Covid-19 has done more to destroy the neo-liberal consensus that began with the Greed Is Good regimes of Ronald Reagan and the equally loathsome Margaret Thatcher than any amount of street demonstrations, bedecked in yellow jackets or not. However, the neoliberal consensus still holds sway throughout much of the world and what is happening before your eyes is not a conspiracy but evidence-based fact: protection for the rich and their companies and banks, hell to pay for everybody else. It is Brexit on steroids.

When health workers get empty and meaningless gestures of nightly applause but no remuneration commensurate to their role in this crisis; when bankers are deemed more important than sewage workers; when shareholders and stockbrokers are considered of far more consequence than the mostly invisible people who ensure that your lights stay on, your water is clean, your internet keeps working and your roads are safe; when teachers are considered less important than some bozo gambling your future and mine away shifting billions around the world with the click of a mouse; when airlines are being kept aloft with billions of euros of taxpayers money that then goes to lease firms and moneymen…when you see all this happening in real time, you realise that you live in a system that is not worth saving. 

The banks’ Ponzi schemes that have been the bane of modern post-industrialist society will collapse once again. The Washington Consensus that brought destitution and war across Africa, Central and South America, Asia, South East Europe and the Middle East, has turned out to be fundamentally misguided, as the consequences are finally reaching the richest shores in the world. The criminals who dreamed it up should be persecuted, as the Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako showed in his film, Bamako

The end of the system, which we now know to be built on fraud, idle speculation and lies, will not come about through the swing to the populist right we are seeing in many parts of the world today. Xenophobia, racism and violence are not the answers to the systemic failure Covid-19 is revealing. The populist right of Le Pen, Wilders, Farage, Trump and the rest of the one trick con artists only serves to entrench neoliberalism even more. Like its kissing cousin, identity politics, it is a dangerous and ultimately pointless distraction. What will end the current systemic insanity is a radical swing towards real progressive politics, which has always been international in nature and always has the ideal of creating fair, equal and just societies in its DNA. You may want to call it socialism, which is fine by me. You can either have that, or you will have barbarism. 

Our choice. 

Nine days in July, 1938

July 25, 2020

Part 4 and end – Lesbos and the shadow of Evian

The al-Assad family that has been ruling Syria since 1971 fits right in with a long list of venal and corrupt families who are prone to using extreme violence to keep their power and – more importantly – their business interests intact. From the Kim dynasty in North Korea through to the Obiangs in Equatorial Guinea, the now deposed Duvalier clan in Haiti, the Gnassingbes in Togo or the terrorism-spreading House of Saud, they all share one overriding characteristic, whch is that they consider the countries they rule as their private property, to be distributed and looted as they see fit. One of the most bewildering scenes of the last decade is the blind support lent to the Assad government by some deeply misguided – or bought – elements of the Left, who would do well to read this from an ideologically impeccable source.

I have been loath to use the term ‘Arab Spring’, as it is historically illiterate. The term ‘Spring’ refers to one episode in Eastern European history, which happened in Prague 1968 and was crushed under Soviet tanks. The term also suggests that the people rising up against autocratic and corrupt governments like that of Ben Ali in Tunisia (yes, another one of those clans) were following some kind of script. This is the same arrant nonsense that compelled a Dutch editor to ask me whether the popular uprising in Burkina Faso that chased Blaise Compaoré (and his clans, yes) from power in October 2014 was somehow inspired by the Arab Spring. No it wasn’t: it was inspired by the people being royally fed up with a corrupt dynasty, supported by France, that refused to leave the scene. And if there were any inspiration, it surely would be a similar uprising in neighbouring Mali, which had dethroned the military dictator Moussa Traore, in 1991. Or indeed, in Burkina Faso itself where the people had chased away an incompetent head of state…as early as 1966.

So, something similar started in Syria in 2011. One BBC reporter who covered those very early protests, commented that the Assad dictatorship was “very very well constructed” and that the people oppossing it were “very very brave”. As Assad’s extreme repression intensified and Syria descended into civil war, millions started leaving the country. Soon, the EU’s Evian Paradigm would hit the buffers.

Lesbos, Greece. Picture accompanying an article by Ingeborg Beugel, retrieved from De Groene Amsterdammer.

There is just one country between Syria and the outer limits of the European Union. And when Turkey held some three million Syrian refugees within its borders by 2014 something had to give. At least, that was clear to all, except for the Brusels bureaucrats, still busy preparing deals with murders and butchers south and east of the Mediterranean to Keep ‘Em There. ‘Nobody saw this coming,’ Polman cites Kati Piri, a Member of the European Parliament. Until the proverbial dam burst, in 2015.

One of the many points this book makes so eloquently is that the refugee issue is always described as humanitarian, an active denial of the local, regional and international politics causing the existence of refugees. This absolves distant rich actors of all responsibility: we just give a little money to create a safe space or a camp somewhere and then we publish nice pictures of grateful refugees eating the crumbs from our table. Another point the book makes very well concerns the rule regarding countries that are first port of call for arriving refugees: the rule, rigorously followed, says that those countries must process the arrivals. What this means in practice is the total absence of any European solidarity when it comes to receiving refugees. As the uniquely insensitive Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte puts it: well, you know, those countries that live next to refugee crises just have bad luck.

In short, the Keep ‘Em There dogma remains firmly in place once refugees have crossed an external EU border. When they came to Greece in ever larger numbers it was not the EU’s problem – nope: it was Greece’s. Next thing we know: this, the overcrowded camps where desperate people are stored, places my good friend and colleague Ingeborg Beugel, who reports on Camp Moria and other places always and consistently describes as The Horror Camps. Towards the end of the book, Polman takes us to Lesbos, and describes the scenes she finds there: bewildered refugees asking questions about where to go, volunteers blowing bubbles to amuse the refugee children, the masses of life vests on the beach, the utter squalor in the camps and the maddening bureaucratic blockades refugees face when they want to move on.

With one and only one exception, when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally deblocked the situation as the whole of southeastern Europe and the rest were slamming their borders shut. In a short-lived gesture that nearly ended her political life she allowed Syrian refugees through and into Germany. But the idea that the ‘burden’ (barely equivalent to the annual intake of a single Dutch amusement park, Polman drily notes) would be equally shared among fellow European member states proved illusory. The borders slammed shut again. And the next thing we saw was the infamous deal with Turkey, discussed in the last instalment…and real violence against refugees trying to land on Europe’s shores. So much for the much-vaunted European values of democracy and humanism. After all, death already is an accepted instrument, employed very effectively to Keep ‘Em Away. The migration route across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe is the deadliest in the world and may have claimed as many as  30,000 lives since the EU came into being in 1993.

Is there a solution to all of this? There are hints in Polman’s book here and there, like Spain’s decision in 2005 to give residence permits to 600,000 migrants who had been in the country for longer than three years and without a criminal record, which led to hysterical reactions elsewhere on the old and ageing continent. The number is, of course, insignificant, as Polman keeps emphasizing. This is a major contribution of this book: wide-ranging and meticulously researched it provides perspective, facts and history instead of hysterics. It also has an extensive Glossary to explain the complicated and sometimes crass terminology being used regarding migration and the movement of refugees. It chronicles the shameful history of deliberate failure, since Evian.

But the biggest contribution of Nobody Wants Them is that it buries forever the myth that European politicians somehow buckle under populist pressure and develop their anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies. This is complete nonsense: Polman’s unearthing of the Evian Conference clearly demonstrates that this has been standard policy for almost nine decades. But the standard policy is untenable, living as we do in a world with obscene inequalities, with wars that are fought using arms that land huge profits in Europe (and indeed the US, Russia and China), which then closes its eyes for the consequences, with aid money that is used to ensure that the migration routes from poor nations becomes even more deadly than they already are…the list goes on.

The Evian Paradigm may be alive and well. It is also obsolete. Given the challenges ahead – including demographics, chronic instability and climate change – it is high time to do better. Much better.

 

Nine days in July, 1938

July 23, 2020

Part 3 – Brussels

“This country is run by gangsters.”

Bone dry assessment by a Nairobi-based journalist, as we were discussing president Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan, some nine years ago; me as a Radio Netherlands Worldwide editor, he as a regional correspondent. Bashir, the homicidal autocrat deposed by popular uprising a year ago and still wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for – among other things – mass murdering the people of Darfur Province, was of course an ideal partner for the execution of the EU’s policy of Keeping ‘Em Out. Sudan received a cool 200 million euros in 2016, to beef up its border security. The people hunting down refugees, notes Polman drily, were the same folks who had been hunting Darfuris. The former Janjaweed killers on horseback transformed themseves into the Rapid Support Force charged with border protection. EU oficials in Khartoum and Brussels, meanwhile, perfected the Art of Playing Innocence Personified.

Brussels has developed a habit of seeking out and partnering with extremely dodgy characters. Polman presents a whole raft of such deals in her book, including the one with Sudan, a depressing indication of the lengths to which Europe is prepared to go to ‘protect’ its white-as-snow innocent inhabitants from the – let’s not mince words here – darker-skinned hordes trying to scale the walls of Fortress Europe. If that takes making deals with homicidal maniacs, so be it. Gangsters? Brussels says: no problem. Mafia types who turn refugee centres into slave markets? Brussels says: why not?

The former Libyan leader Colonel Muamar Ghadaffi, deposed in a criminal enterprise undertaken by former French president Nicholas Sarkozy, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, former US president Barrack Obama and his former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, understood the xenophobic feelings of the European underbelly very well. When he was still bestest of friends with the British, the French and the Italians, Ghadaffi’s aid was solicited in the epic European struggle to Keep ‘Em There. Refugees or migrants…? That distinction had already been buried, as the Evian Paradigm took hold ever more firmly, while the end of the Cold War faded from view.

Threatening to let “millions of Africans” through so they could land on Europe’s wealthy shores, the Colonel was clearly angling for deals that would give him access to Brussel’s ever larger funds for outside border control, while he knew that a blind eye would be turned to the torture and killings that were routine in his detention camps. Whatever his forced departure from Libya has wrought, and all of it is chaos that has travelled across the Sahel and to the Atlantic shore, the basic European policy remains firmly in place: we make deals with whoever happens to run a particular portion of what remains of this vast North African country, even if that includes uniformed officials to whom people smugglers pay protection money.

These are some of the many practical examples Polman cites. They stem from something that sounds very friendly: the European Neighbourhood Policy. These are anti-migration deals made with governments to the south of the European Union, designed to keep as many migrants and refugees out as possible. As you know by now, these are small numbers. The vast majority of refugees are safely holed up in their camps and have nowhere to go, by design… This friendly neighbourhood policy, which I have on numerous occasions called by its proper name – blackmail – goes hand in hand with the equally friendly militarisation of EU border protection, spearheaded by the Frontex agency. This militarisation goes deep into the Sahel region and far out on the seas off Africa’s shores.

It is hard to find the most cynical deal of them all among the many you will find in this book, none of which register in the mind of your average EU citizen. But both the EU-facilitated slave markets in Libya and the EU deal with Turkey expose how migrants and refugees are considered objects, to which you can attach a price tag. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s erstwhile Prime Minister and later the country’s increasingly autocratic president, made it extremely explicit: Europe, how much are you prepared to pay me to Keep ‘Em Away? Three billion euros, say? Fortress Europe is an expensive folly but it remains the only game in town.

Brussels said: sure, yes, and thus ensured that Erdoğan had the leaders of the largest trading bloc in the world by the short and curlies. This grossly unedifying horse-trading led to the EU-Turkey deal of March 2016, a panick response to the events of 2015, the subject of the last part of this mini-series. Oh and the main architects of that infamous deal? The Dutch, acting in pecisely the same way as they did in the 1930s, when the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany went down on their knees at the border, to be let in, only to be told: Sorry, we’re full. The Evian Paradigm is alive and well.

Conclusion is next.

Nine days in July, 1938

July 20, 2020

Part 2 – Jahnzon

It’s the end of March 2011. We (that is yours truly and photographer Martin Waalboer) are in the tiny Liberian hamlet of Jahnzon, close to the border with Côte d’Ivoire. What we are witnessing is an exodus across the Cavally River that separates the two countries here. But contrary to what you may think, the exodus is not away from very poor Liberia still recovering from 14 years of gang warfare. This is an exodus in the opposite direction: from relatively rich Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia. Jahnzon is the first stop and when we meet Chief Moses Zé Dié to pay our respects he is at his wits’ end. It is pouring with rain as it does so often here, and there is a dire shortage of accommodation.

“They have been coming in large numbers,” says the Chief. “I cannot refuse them; they are our cousins. But I have no more place to lodge them. All the houses are full. I tell you, I now feel like a refugee myself…”

The Ivorians were fleeing the town of Duékoué, just across the border, where a terrible massacre was taking place, committed in all probability by the rebel force that had begun its descent from the north of the country into the economic capital Abidjan. In all probability, because this crime has never been properly investigated. What the refugees coming into Jahnzon were saying that they had heard shooting and that was for them enough reason to grab a few belongings and rush across the border into the relative safety of Liberia.

At the UNHCR refugee camp in Bahn, not far from Jahnzon, Hortense Gba is telling me her story. Here’s hoping she is doing well, wherever she is. Pic: Martin Waalboer.

This was the final phase of a series of West African wars that had started six weeks after the Berlin Wall fell. Not even sixty kilometers from Jahnzon (as the crow flies) is the equally unassuming town of Buutuo, where on Christmas Eve 1989 a few bewildered inhabitants saw a group of about 150 men, armed to the teeth, cross the Cestos River from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia. When I went to Buutuo to collect their memories the good people of that town said that they were told that this group was heading for the capital Monrovia. “We told them: well, good luck with that…”. Months later, Charles Taylor and Prince Yormie Johnson, the two main gang leaders, had taken control of Monrovia, causing death and destruction wherever they went.

The wars careened through Sierra Leone and Guinea and eventually returned to Côte d’Ivoire, where the deadly sequence had originated. It would be, at least for now, the last roll of the deadly dice in this densely forested region. The violence caused hundreds of thousands of refugees who, for the most part, did exactly what the rich and powerful nations of the world wanted them to do: stay away from their affluent shores.

In her book, Polman details how that works out, especially in the post Cold War era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 the rich world’s policy was more emphatically than ever to “Keep ‘Em Out And Over There”. UN agencies like the refugee organisation UNHCR are being paid to carry out that brief. The old joke before the Wall came down, was that the Russians would surely be coming…one by one, as dissidents chased from their country. That was still manageable, and ideologically The Right Thing To Do.

Their arrival was covered by the 1951 Convention for the Protection of Refugees, a document that was produced during the early days of the new post World War II East – West confrontation and after much tedious negotiation. The main issue was that only truly real genuine refugees, those who had political reasons to leave their countries, had the right to be granted asylum – and the hope was of course that those numbers would remain manageably small; the unspoken assumption was that the people most likely to be covered by this new Convention would be refugees from the Communist Bloc . (Polman points out that when the Soviets overran Hungary in 1956 the main thrust of Europe’s refugee policy was to keep the numbers of the truly real genuine refugees they could admit as manageably small as possible.) True to form, the United States made a very crass distinction between those who deserved asylum and those who did not: the ones fortunate enough to flee autocratic and Communist Cuba were welcome to establish their exile communities in Miami, Florida; those unfortunate enough to come from Haiti, a country that – like Syria today – was run by a venal, violent and corrupt family were sent back: they came from a country that belonged to Our Side…

Yes, it is Antonio Guterres, head of the UNHCR, visiting Bahn at roughly the same time we were there, in the company of Margrethe Løj, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Liberia. Guterres, of course, went on to become the UN Sec Gen himself, Løj moved on to South Sudan. Pic: UNHCR.

Post Cold War, the distinction between deserving and undeserving refugees disappeared completely and the objective became even more firmly aligned with the Evian Paradigm: Keep ‘Em Over There. As long as refugees fleeing war in West Africa, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East stayed in their region, all was well as far as Europe was concerned. To that end, the rich nations pay the UNHCR for the job of setting up refugee camps everywhere on a shoestring budget. Polman devotes a few chilling pages to the great philosopher Hannah Ahrendt’s reflections on camps – places where people are herded into and then either destroyed, worked to death or stored; and always forgotten. Some of these camps become veritable cities where people stay for years, if not decades. It matters not; as long as the donors’ Keep ‘Em There agenda is served, preferably on the cheap, all is well.

And if need be, adds Polman, that agenda is militarily enforced. France invented the ‘humanist’ intervention in West Africa for geo-strategic reasons but in the era after the Cold War the military-humanist intervention made a huge comeback, in support of another novel idea: ‘reception in the region’. Among the innovations tried out in those days were the so-called safe enclaves, loosely guarded by United Nation troops recruited mostly from poor countries in ever larger numbers. In Southeast Europe, this led to the disaster of Srebrenica in 1995, overlooked by Dutch UN troops. Yes, Keep ‘Em there – in the ground if need be, or in the desert sands of the Sahara or on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. In the next installment I give a few examples of the lengths to which Europe is prepared to go to keep itself ‘safe’ from refugees and migrants, a distinction that has disappeared completely as a result of Europe’s efforts to undermine, fatally, that already wafer-thin wall of protection for refugees, made in 1951.

To be continued

Nine days in July, 1938

July 18, 2020

Part 1 – Evian

This is not “another book about migration”, as it has been rather dismissively called. This is, in fact, a book about the European anti-migration machine and how it has been fully operational for eighty-eight years. The copy I am reviewing here is the Dutch original, written (full disclosure) by my great colleague and friend Linda Polman. Title (my translation): Not Wanted Anywhere. Literally it reads: Nobody Wants Them (Niemand wil ze hebben, in Dutch).

To explain that title we must go the French resort of Evian, on Lake Geneva. Polman has put her research and investigation skills to use to take us to the origins of Europe’s hostility to the idea of receiving refugees. This alone makes it an extremely welcome addition to the Europe-wide clamour about migrants and refugees, which is almost entirely dominated by emotion, rarely informed by facts and completely devoid of any historical perspective. This book offers facts and history, in spades. And in fact, to my not inconsiderable shame, I will admit that I had never heard of this conference until I picked up this book.

For nine days in July 1938 a global mix of 32 delegations took some time off their leisure activities, abundantly available at this French lakeside luxury paradise, to discuss the question what to do with the growing problem of Jewish refugees from Germany, already in the asphyxiating grip of Nazism. To put it more precisely: the delegates discussed the question how to avoid doing anything about the growing Jewish refugee problem, by using phrases that will sound very familiar in 2020. The excuses ranged from “We’re full,” through to “We should not take in too many of them, as this will create tensions” all the way to declaring the vast majority of those desperately trying to get away from the repressive Nazi steamroller “unwanted elements”.

Aerial picture of Evian, retrieved from evian-tourisme.com

None of the nations present, including Canada, Australia, the United States or indeed a smattering of Latin American ones offered any sanctuary. But we should not lose sight of the fact that this was first and foremost Europe’s problem. And the response of Europe’s nations? Keeping all borders closed.

For the Jewish delegates, Evian was not the soothing pleasure trip from massage parlour to leisure boat. It was a horror show, as 32 delegations casually condemned countless Jews to a prolonged stay in Germany, which for many of them would end in a death camp. “Sorry. We’re full.”

The Nazis watched the spectacle with cruel irony. As the conference dragged on, their propaganda paper Völkische Beobachter would write a sneering comment along the lines of “We told you so” and continue, referring to the Jews, desperate to get out, with this deadly accurate assessment: “Nobody wants them.” Four months after the conference ended, an all-out attack on Jewish persons, houses of worship and businesses took place during the infamous night that would go into history under the name Kristallnacht. In the wake of this massacre that killed hundreds, the Netherlands reinforced its border controls.

Having set the scene, the book then takes us through the ‘Cold’ War (there were many parts of the world where that war was not cold at all) and into the era following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the many ways in which the Evian Paradigm, if you like, has continued to shape the policies of Europe, the European Union and its member states regarding migrants and refugees. More on that in the next installment.

Oh and what’s the Evian Paradigm? You can glean that from the many excuses the delegates used to keep their borders shut during those nine days in July 1938. Put bluntly, you can summarise it inone single phrase: Keep ‘Em Out And Keep ‘Em Over There. Without presenting a blow-by-blow account of the book, I will give examples of what that means in practice and in so doing also – and hopefully – provide enough ammunition for the argument that this book does indeed deserve an English translation.

Stay tuned.

 

A regional Corona song

April 25, 2020

Normal programming resumes shortly. But this one’s good, too.

 

The African continent has many Avoid Corona messages about keeping your distance, washing your hands, coughing into your elbow and more in general not to behave like a complete dick. All set to music – of course.

This one does the same but also calls on all of us to pull together and create a society that’s built around the notion of solidarity, rather than the obsolete Me First model. It’s also a real joint effort, with singers and musicians and producers from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire.

Here’s the link

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 15, 2020

Part five – “Hey, Coronavirus! Go back to your country!”

 

“Is Corona a white disease?”

It was a question a Senegalese newspaper asked when it was found that most if not all people who had brought the disease into the West African nation were Europeans. Or had been in close proximity to Europeans. “Is France coronising Africa…” was a clever pun made in Dakar, when the March 4 headline of the Rewmi (Nation) newspaper announced that “another Frenchman” had been found to be contaminated.

The foreign origin of the virus gave rise to this blog piece I wrote, which was subsequently translated into my native Dutch and went on to cause a bit of a stir, especially among people with reading comprehension issues. No, of course I was not advocating “ethnic profiling” white people; if you actually read the end of the piece you will immediately dismiss that idea. It is arrant nonsense.

Meanwhile, I am happy to report that when out and about on my long trips through the vast sprawling Malian capital I have not once been addressed as “the white man who carries Corona”. The virus is seen as a problem that we all must overcome. To be sure, behaviour does not always match rhetoric and I will be writing about this again shortly but it is refreshing to see that, so far, the kind of xenophobic nonsense that the virus appears to have spawned elsewhere has not taken hold here. People were, are and remain their usual polite selves. It’s a cultural thing. After all, when you, as a country, have been around for a thousand years you may have picked up a few things along the way…

Meanwhile, there was a neat little bit of actual ethnic profiling happening in The Netherlands and I am wondering whether this upset the same people who were so terribly terribly shocked by their erroneous interpretation of my piece. It concerns this gem. Commentary and translation provided through that link.

The song – if you want to grace the plodding sequence with such a name – suggests that we should stop eating food that’s prepared by what the singer terms “stinky Chinese”; if you do not eat Chinese food you don’t have to be afraid. Of the virus, apparently. Chinese people were accosted on Dutch streets with “Hey, Coronavirus”. But hey – that’s banter, right. It’s fun-ny….

As the late and forever and always great Ian Dury would say in a heavy Cockney accent: no it ain’. It is crass and offensive and serves no purpose. It does not even inform; it just paints a bad and grotesquely inaccurate picture of one particular demographic.

Like the virus itself, this kind of behaviour spreads rapidly. There are reports from Abidjan where Chinese workers have been similarly aggravated. There is a growing scandal about the treatment of Africans in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, who have been moved from their homes and hotel rooms, ostensibly in an attempt to keep the spread of the virus in check. This became so bad that it took concerted action by African governments to put a stop to it.

The pandemic has given the usual suspects an opportunity to mount their hobby horse and hammer home their familiarly depressing mantra that “the borders must be closed”. It has given others to opportunity to get onto their White Saviour high hobby horse. We need none of this. Stop pointing fingers at others. The problem is you. And me.

Corona may well have exposed the limits of unchecked globalisation. But instead of giving us the impetus to draw up the bridges, retreat in our bunkers and forget about the world outside, it hopefully gives us the opportunity to build something new, something better and more equitable. A society that starts understanding the value of everything, not just its price. A society that cares for the marginalised, the vulnerable, the frail, the ones cast adrift without their knowledge or consent. A society that stops pretending to care about these groups by throwing them crumbs from the table. A society that recognises that bulldozing away Nature and not giving Her the chance to regenerate is a society on its way to oblivion.

If this whole episode can teach us one thing, this should be it. It should mark the end of the catastrophically misguided “Free market- Free for all – Greed is good – Me first” Thatcher/Reagan revolution that set this train in motion, which is hitting the buffers as we speak.

Here endeth today’s sermon. And for heaven’s sake: do not start playing John Lennon’s Imagine. I can’t stand that piece of sanctimonious piffle that lulls you to sleep instead of making you bloody angry.

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.