Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

In praise of…Afrobeats

December 31, 2022

It has been a long time since I last wrote about music on this blog. There were references and mentions of it here and there but the last piece that I devoted entirely to music must have been…I don’t know. Actually I do. I wrote an entry about the glory that is zouglou. I also did a radio piece on the same music for the ever delightful Music Time In Africa (MTIA) program and I promise the wonderful editor of MTIA that I have a bag full of musical goodies that I am dying to share as soon as 2023 gets under way. 

And then there was a time that you did not get to see any live music. At all. Covid. Shows were called off, entire festivals were cancelled – sometimes even in mid-flow. My own visit to the endearing village of Yanfolila in April last year was cut short when Mali’s then government announced emergency measures, just as Oumou Sangaré was getting ready to prepare the second day of her Festival Internationale du Wassoulou (FIWA). As always, she was unfazed by the event but there’s no denying that Covid has had a devastating effect on the music scene worldwide and one that’s never been taken fully into account by governments discussing compensating entrepreneurs for losses made during the pandemic. 

These last few years there’s been no shortage of non-musical stuff to write about, even in Mali, the heart of music as I never tire of telling anyone who knows me. Armed gangs committing crimes under the guise of religion, political tumult in Bamako, a cascade of coups, and away from the Sahel we had the attack at Grand Bassam… The strongest riposte to that debilitating act of blind hatred came in the form of…music. Zouglou of course.

However, dear friends, it’s time to make another foray into the world of music, if only because I am going to be at the next Ségou’Art festival, which features a generous helping of music. A lot of that music will fall under the moniker ‘urban’, which I consider rather meaningless – but hey: the desire to label everything and anything under the sun is only human. 

Now, almost one decade ago I wrote something about computerised musical trash and I still stand by that – but not entirely. Watch me making something of a half U-turn (“Oh shut up already, you’re just turning left or right…!”) and telling you that I absolutely adore Davido, Wizzkid, Tekno, Asake and all the others. Yes, I love Afrobeats! 

Pic: Punch Nigeria

Yes, I know, some don’t like the term, some think that the association with the music the late giants Tony Allen and Fela Kuti invented (Afrobeat without the ‘s’) is linguistically way too close for comfort and they have something of a point. After all, there is a huge gap between the two, even when the two genres extract some of their rythms from the same very African roots. Afrobeat is instantly, explicitly and emphatically political; Afrobeats is none of these things. Afrobeat comes alive on stage; Afrobeats is first and foremost studio music that gets performed live. Afrobeat drags you onto the dance floor; Afrobeats makes you sit and coolly observe the scene. Both heavily feature women who,  thankfully, besides looking gorgeous also do things like handle dance routines, background choruses and in the case of some Afrobeats tunes take the lead singing. Progress!

So…why did I write a piece about electronically propelled music in one breath and sing the praises of electronically propelled music in another? Yes, ahem, right, I can explain (three words men usually utter before they become a hot mess of utterly unconvincing contradictions). Alright, there are ten years between the first breath and the second and this immediately qualifies me for entry in the Guinness book of World Records. So what made me change my mind? The better question is what does Afrobeats have that the rest of the similarly electronically propelled music genres do not? 

In one word: listenability. 

Most modern pop, and that’s what we’re talking about here, is instantly annoying because boring, unimaginative, formulaic, samey, blah. Afrobeats avoids that trap by being sweet, nice, and seriously – I mean seriously – smooth. And this to me is the exact reason why Afrobeats not only has gone global but has gone globally mainstream. In the past, artists from the continent managed that, like Miriam Makeba, who basically invented world music a good three decades before the term was dreamed up in a London pub. But Afrobeats is an entire genre of popular music, invented, refined and expanded in West Africa (mostly Nigeria and Ghana with a bit of the UK thrown in) and exported to every corner of the globe entirely under its own steam. 

Pic taken from YouTube

So when a cover band plays an (admittedly, atrociously bad) cover version of Davido’s love anthem If (they hardly sing about anything else by the way) in a posh Marrakesh Hotel, airlines put a channel up of pop music and stuff it with Afrobeats tunes; when bars and cafés across Europe put it in their algorithm-driven piped music programs and mainstream radio stations everywhere put it on without batting an eyelid…then you can truly say that this is a global music phenomenon. 

And there’s one more thing Afrobeats has done: it has finally (FINALLY!) removed those insane barriers between music from the French-colonised and English-colonised parts of the continent. Walk into a bar, restaurant, club in Abidjan, Bamako, Dakar…Afrobeats. That would have been unthinkable not even that long ago. A force uniting an entire continent and that force is music. Only in Africa. So there it is: I Love Afrobeats and here’s a playlist to get you going.

Have an excellent 2023 everyone! 

It’s business, st*p*d!

November 29, 2022

James Carville’s house slogan (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) for Bill Clinton’s election campaign never gets old and can be applied in a lot of situations. For instance here, where I will be trying to explain, in ways less flippant than Carville’s great one-liner suggests, why the West’s obsession with ‘jihadism’ in the Sahel is mostly misguided.

There are still buses doing the long trip from the Malian capital Bamako to the major town of Gao in the country’s remote northeast. On that 1,200 kilometres long trip, they will go from a good tarred road into Ségou, to a fairly OK but still tarred road into Sévaré (where there have been several attacks against army bases) and then on to a road hardly worthy of the name past Douentza, Hombori and Gossi and finally into Gao. This report was made three years ago; there is nothing to suggest that the situation has improved.

But buses continue to run the full gauntlet into Gao. How is this possible, on long stretches of virtually non-existent road through areas that are infested with self-defence militias, self-styled jihadist groups and their splinters, khalifate-creating fanatics and bandits with their guns and their roadside bombs? (The category “bandits”, by the way, almost always overlaps all the others.)

Simple: the companies pay. Any business working in areas these gangs control does the same. What we are seeing here is the Sahelian variant of the protection racket. And it has been spreading, along with the armed turbulence that began when Algeria threw its armed ‘jihad’ gangster problem across the fence into Mali in the late 1990s and was then made ten times worse when France, the UK, the USA and NATO plunged Libya into the chaos from which it has never recovered. And even in Algeria it was not entirely over. What was the original business these original ‘jihadis’ were in? Banditry: smuggling contraband and kidnapping Westerners; this last they did safe in the knowledge that the governments of rich white countries pay to have their citizens released. Even the late Hissène Habré, the butcher of Chad, knew this.

Habré gained notoriety in the 1970s as a rebel leader and hostage taker. His hostages were West German and French, whose governments paid good money for the release of their citizens. That did not stop the United States and France from sponsoring Habré all the way to the Chadian presidency, a post he took by force of arms, flown in from the USA by way of Monrovia’s international airport, as former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker explained to me during an interview in Washington. In the eight years (1982 to 1990) that he manhandled his country, Habré arranged for the murder of 40,000 people and the torture of many more, crimes for which he was belatedly convicted in a Dakar court, in 2016. He died in a Dakar hospital, aged 79.

So, hostage taking is an old business, probably as old as running protection rackets. The former were at the origin of the self-styled ‘jihadist’ groups. The latter are – in tandem with theft, extortion, and artisanal gold extraction – at the core of these groups’ business today. Smuggling, meanwhile, has been an absolute constant throughout, from cigarettes to drugs.  One of the earlier leaders of these armed ‘jihad’ gangs, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was nicknamed Mr Marlboro and you get no extra points for guessing why that was. People smuggling, I understand, is an entirely different branch and has no inherent connection with the violent armed gangs who are busy shutting down the Sahel. Which stands to reason: people smugglers get paid to get people to a destination. They do not set out to kill people; even though they very often fail in their trips across the unforgiving Sahara desert the objective is to get people to their destination alive.

Today, nothing much has changed. Islamic State mines gold in Burkina Faso and Mali, it and other armed gangs set up roadblocks and extort money from the travelling public, raid buses if the companies running them have not paid enough or on time; they steal cattle – a deliberate and deeply destructive act – and still smuggle drugs and contraband.

Their methods for recruiting foot soldiers come straight out of the gangster rulebooks that were used in Liberia and Sierra Leone at the end of the last century: find young, marginalised men with little or no prospects, manipulate them with lies, false promises, ply them with drugs and then tell them what to do: rape, kill, burn, steal, pillage, loot, pilfer, extort. How did West Africa’s jungle soldiers, some as young as 7, refer to these activities? I will tell you because I asked them this question. And their answer was: they considered doing these things their job. The self-styled ‘jihadist’ gangs we see in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Chad, Cameroon and now also in Togo, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire operate in exactly the same way. These are at their very core criminal organisations, working towards the creation of what one general from Mauritania once memorably called “a Boulevard of Crime, from Tripoli to Abidjan…”

Vandalism in Timbuktu, 2013

But what about the religion then? Because none of what you have read so far sounds terribly religious. Correct: it does not sound religious because it isn’t. But there are most definitely religious zealots in the ranks of these violent criminal gangs and some, like the notorious Amadou Koufa in Central Mali may even be a bona fide religious warlord. This is logical: using Islam as a recruitment tool resonates with folks who are, in the majority, deeply religious. Often the only ‘education’ young kids can afford is going to the Koran school, where they learn to recite the entire Holy Book back to front and nothing else. They are often sent onto the streets of all the main cities to beg for money, to be delivered to their Koran teacher. Some education…

You see? This is the mechanism Taylor used, with a new twist. Allah does not give you food; you must work for it. And so, when I see this flag, I do not think “Jihadists” or “Islamist extremists”. I think: “Pirates.”

Source for this image: Lawfare.

Cast your mind back to those forest wars between 1989 and 2003. Two of the most notorious warlords, the late Foday Sankoh and the imprisoned war criminal Charles Taylor both went to training camps in the late Muamar Ghadaffi’s Libya to learn the strategies of revolutionary terror. But did they bring The Revolution to their countries, as the name of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone suggested and one of Taylor’s former female generals told me in person? No of course they did not. It was a pretext. Some may have believed in it, for sure. But for most it was…just a job. We’re only in it for the money. How did the boys call their looting sprees, anyone? Yes, you at the back? Correct! They called their looting sprees ‘Operation Pay Yourself.’

And so it is with the religious element we are dealing with here. Those kids that were smashing the shrines and the statues in Timbuktu would not be able to cite the Koran passages justifying their vandalism if their lives depended on it. Both sets of violent gangs share the same methods.

Barbarism. Islamic State executes Housseini Hamma Cissé, aka “DJ passant” because of his mobile musical services for the community that adored him. Murdered in cold blood, near Ménaka, November 28.

And these methods are? Gratuitous violence. Or have we forgotten that summarily executing people in the most gruesome ways did happen frequently in the forests and towns of West Africa, from the mass murders in a church in Monrovia, Liberia to the repeated carnage in Freetown, Sierra Leone; the vicious fights in Guéckédou, Guinea and the massacres in Duékoué, Côte d’Ivoire? The religious (in this case Islamic) element does not add another layer of horror to these acts. The horror is already there and it has the same purpose: terrorizing people into doing what the terrorisers want.

But remember also that the perpetrators operate mostly in armed gangs. These are not kingdoms or republics with large repressive systems at their disposal, capable of genocide or industrial scale mass murder, such as the Belgians committed in Congo, the Germans in Namibia, the British in South Africa and Kenya, the French in Niger, Cameroon and Algeria, the Italians in Ethiopia. Taylor and his goons ruled Liberia for six years; Sankoh never got the presidency of Sierra Leone. One criminal gang of terrorists with an overlay of religious fanaticism is holding sway in a shrinking part of northeastern Nigeria. Another is establishing an (undoubtedly short-lived) ‘khalifate’ in the remote northeast of Mali and they are only able to do this because the colonels mismanaging Mali from their suites in Bamako are not serious about defending the country; they prefer to take soldiers from a neighbouring country hostage or boring the United Nations to death with frivolous charges about France helping Al Qaeda. The Russian mercenaries of the Wagner PMC they have hired for an eye-watering amount of money to do the job they are supposed to be doing are singularly uninterested in taking on the armed gangs, who as a result do pretty much as they please. They fight Wagner – for the control of the artisanal gold mines. It’s business, st*p*d!

And where do they intend to take their business? What is the final destination of the Boulevard of Crime? To reiterate: the coast. Why? This I covered recently. Suffice to say that reaching the coast would obviously mean a colossal expansion of their business. The amount of loot to be had in, say, Abidjan dwarfs what can be stolen in Ansongo, Djibo and Tilaberi combined. And of course many West African coastal cities have direct air links with that well-known murky international hotbed of dodgy business, Dubaï.

An appropriately murky picture – by me – of a distinctly murky place.

Clearly, nobody outside these armed gangs wants this and there may finally be some concerted action under way to ensure this never happens: the Accra Initiative, a low-level network set up by five governments most directly concerned (Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire) geared towards intelligence sharing and joint military action and grassroots campaigns to take away the lure of the gangs. This kind of joined-up thinking, in tandem with the creation of real economic prospects for the young folks most likely to be lured by the Siren Call of armed violence may yield results in the near future. I certainly hope so. After a decade of destruction, this region desperately needs success against the ever-expanding destabilising influence of these criminal groups, after the ambiguity of Opération Barkhane, the stillborn efforts of the G5 Force Sahel and Operation Takuba and the utter disaster of Russia’s Wagner killers. Here’s hoping that they get it right this time. And here’s hoping that eventual foreign (dare I say…Western) backers understand three things: that it is chiefly about money, crime and turf and not about religion, that the initiative must be with those affected and their governments, and that throwing military kit and troops at the problem solves nothing. The alternative is grim: the shutdown of a space the size of Western Europe.

This time it’s worse

October 3, 2022

I don’t want to make this too long but here’s why I think we should be very very very concerned about what’s happening in Burkina Faso.

We thought we’d seen the last of them: armed men in uniform sitting in a television studio reading a one page declaration, which usually contains the following points:

1. We have deposed the government in the higher interest of the country

2. The government, parliament have been dissolved

3. Complaints about the regime/government: inept, corrupt, ineffective

4. Complaints about institutions being undermined, security targets not met

5. We promise to do better in the areas we just complained about

6. We promise not to stay in power forever

7. There will now begin a period of transition, which will last 12-24-36-won’t say months

8. The borders are closed and a curfew is in force until further notice

9. Done in (capital city name) on (date)

Music or innocuous film about mongoose, birds, insects, reindeers or unicorns

Africa carries the distinction of being home to the most countries of any continent and the most coups: well over one hundred at last count, although it must be said that these are only the ones that were successful. If we include all the attempts, including the ones that failed, the list would be almost twice as long. Burkina Faso tops that list with 15, the Central African Republic and Sudan are runners-up, clocking up 13 and 11 respectively.

What makes Burkina Faso also stand out is that on at least three occasions the coups came with popular movements against the government in place (this was certainly the case in 1966 and 2014 and arguably this time around), while in 2015 the people thwarted an attempted coup by former president Blaise Compaoré’s personal guards, known as the RSP – Régiment de sécurité présidentielle. I commented on this failed coup briefly here.

But what is it about this time?

Not the best pic from the net but it will do for now. The new leader of Burkina Faso. Pic: Sidwaya.info

On the last day of September shots rang out in one of Ouagadougou’s military camps. They have a bunch of them but the one in question is called Baba Sy and it’s close to the large interchange that connects the newish suburb of Ouaga 2000 with the rest of the city. Initially nobody had any idea what on earth was going on. People tend to get fairly weirdly blasé about uniformed men going around town shooting at things, people or each other, if it happens often enough.

This turned out to be a nasty dispute between factions of the MPSR…sorry, I should have included this in my original point-for-point television declaration rendition: the name of the new body now running the country. It can range from Committee To Save (insert name of country here) to People’s Salvation Council or National Commission for Development (aka “We wanted what they had and so we’ve just come in to grab it & we’ll be out of here sharpish, promise…”). The latest Burkinabè iteration is called Mouvement patriotique pour la sauvegarde et la restauration, which looks a bit odd because they seem to want to save and restore something at the same time but I digress.

So MPSR it is; the French acronym. Within the MPSR then, differences of opinion were emerging about what to do about the gangs of criminals that have taken possession of almost half the country, ruthlessly killing, raping, maiming, plundering, looting, stealing, burning and pillaging rural communities across the north, the east and also the south and the northwest of the country, rendering two million people homeless as a result. There is absolutely nothing good to say about these marauding gangs but they exist because they feed on feelings of profound marginalization that have bred resentment in vast areas across the Sahel region (and indeed elsewhere). They have laid out what one Mauritanian general once memorably called “A Boulevard of Crime” using Islam as an extremely thin cover. Many of the lads partaking in these criminal activities are illiterate and would not be able to tell you the passage in the Holy Qur’an authorizing what they are doing (hint: there aren’t any).

The aftermath of the Gaskindé attack. Pic: burkina24.com

This is the event that in all probability triggered the latest coup. A cowardly attack on a convoy, on its way to the besieged town of Djibo, in the northern Soum province. This happened at a village called Gaskindé and the road here is as poor as anywhere else. Eleven soldiers died, maybe more. The contents of the lorries, mostly food, was burnt. Can’t have people eating in the land you are terrorizing.

The attack happened eight months after Lt-Col Paul-Henri Sameogo Damiba had read out his paper on national television, following a grave incident at Inata, in the same province, that had left 57 people dead, 53 of them gendarmes. This was obviously not supposed to happen, so Damiba, who until 2011 was a member of the aforementioned RSP, now disbanded, chased the elected president away on January 23. Eight months and a week later Captain Ibrahim Traoré said the same things about Lt-Col Damiba that Damiba had said about the president he had deposed: inept, incapable to stem the insurgency, and so on. After Gaskindé, demonstrations erupted in various towns and cities around the country, demanding Damiba’s resignation. Fundamentally though, nothing has changed. The humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso is bad (perhaps even worse than in neighbouring Mali or Niger) and there’s no end in sight.

A screenshot of the latest alarming figures by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

And this is why the splitting of the MPSR is so troubling. First, there are factions within this particular part of the army, an army that at first declared to be on the side of Damiba but then changed its mind. The gun battles that had begun at 4h30 on Saturday continued throughout the weekend. Capt Traoré tried to consolidate and Lt-Col Damiba was organizing what can be termed a counter-offensive, with the streets of Ouagadougou as a décor. Shots continued to be fired as negotiations were taking place, very possibly involving religious leaders and very likely the one person the Burkinabè soldiers and politicians always turn to when they have created yet another problem they cannot solve: the Mogho Naba, proud inheritor of the royal Mossi dynasty that goes back more than a millennium.

The confusion threatened to go into a third day but then on Sunday news broke that somehow a deal had been reached and Capt Traoré was the new master of the land with the consent of the army top brass. Col Damiba has resigned but has also written up seven conditions that need to be fulfilled to guarantee he goes and stay away, including his personal safety. But by far the most worrying among those conditions is his written admission that the Burkina Faso Army is a hot mess. Army cohesion must be “reinforced,” he writes and those within the army that took his side in the confrontation with Capt Traoré should not be prosecuted. And that’s before we begin to talk about what other factions may exist within the army and how the old RSP, more than one thousand strong, fits into all of this – if at all.

Here’s the new man being driven around Ouagadougou amidst adulation. Still from a little vid recorded on a cellphone.

But if this lack of cohesion in the Army isn’t enough, we have predators hovering over the stricken country and its barely functioning army. They have failed to dislodge Islamist insurgents in northern Mozambique, they have failed to help Russian ally General Khalifa Haftar take the Libyan capital, they have failed to keep the gangster Omar al-Bashir in power in Sudan by helping to violently repress pro-democracy demonstrations. Apart from defending the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui from rebels led by a former president they have also failed to bring stability to that country. And in Mali – besides killing hundreds of civilians in the centre and the north and the east – they are failing to have any discernible impact, even when they are supposed to be paid at least ten million dollars a month for their murderous labour. In short, then, the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary outfit – because that’s who we’re talking about here – is a catastrophically bad business proposition. And yet it seems that under pressure from ill-informed or perhaps even downright malicious voices egged on by another one of Wagner’s social media propaganda offensives Capt Traoré may be prepared to take the plunge. Should he do so, he risks the very future of his country and he also forfeits forever the right to say or do anything in the name of the legendary Capt Thomas Sankara, whose memory he also seems to want to invoke.

On the road, between Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, one of the few remaining main routes still relatively safe.

I may have been slightly flippant earlier on but make no mistake about the gravity of the situation we are now in. A heavily wounded country, a dangerously divided army, both preyed on by the most violent, venal, cynical, ruthless mercenary outfit in existence backed by an out-of-control rogue state that is receiving a bloody nose in the country it invaded (Ukraine, and Russia’s aggression there has been aided and abetted by the same lawless Wagner freelancers since 2014) and seeking to increase its bloody footprint on a continent that has seen far more than its fair share of similar bloodstained operators in the past – from France, from Belgium, from the UK, from Portugal, from Germany…

If this looks like an exercise in handwringing, then you are partly correct. After all, the recipes are known: the full restoration of a professional army with a clear command-and-control structure that can then take on the armed self-styled jihadist gangs and remove them. The creation of economic opportunities in the zones affected by these gangs, so that people actually have an alternative and do not feel the need to get involved with fake religious zealots waving the flags of criminals. And none of this is happening.

It is extremely urgent to ensure that the Boulevard of Crime comes to an end. Burkina Faso must be made safe and so must its four coastal neighbours. Attacks have been recorded in three of them. If Burkina Faso goes, the roads are open to the fattest piles of loot in the region: the cities of Cotonou, Lomé, Accra and Abidjan and everything in between. Preventing this means reinforcing borders, smoking the armed gangs out of their hideaways in the cross-border wildlife reserves where they are lurking and massively increasing the existing joint efforts of Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire: intelligence sharing, military operations, law and order initiatives, campaigns of gentle persuasion telling the people living in the border areas that getting involved with self-appointed ‘jihadist’ gangsters is not a very good idea.

And please, foreign busybodies, doubtlessly itching to get involved: follow, don’t lead. All of these things are already happening and your previous engagements have so far been less than helpful, be they French, European or American. Wagner/Russia is an absolute disaster, we do not need to dwell on that and it may even be the case that things go so badly in Ukraine that they have to abandon their African land grab. But in order to succeed where you also failed before you must listen before you talk, study before you act and adapt instead of command. This is extremely hard for you to do but you must. You will also get rid of your colonial mindset in the process. Call it collateral advantage.

Good luck. We will all need it. Badly.

Rain!

August 7, 2022

In the Sahel, rain is typically preceded by a dust storm, like the one that met me one afternoon in August 2020, as I was walking through the fine town of Ségou, just a few hours from Bamako. One moment I saw it crossing the river Djoliba, on which the town lies; the next I was enveloped in it. It was pitch dark and it was mid-afternoon. Luckily, I knew where I was: a stone’s throw or two away from a friendly hotel called L’Auberge but it wasn’t until I arrived at its entrance (following a sandy road by pointing my phone light straight down to my feet) that I saw the light above the door. It took another 30 minutes for the rain to finally begin and then it hit – hard. Stay indoors when this happens.

The sand and dust wall approaches, Ségou

Similar a few years earlier on a long stretch of street from the Ouagadougou suburb of Pissy past Gounghin and the headquarters of the FESPACO film festival and into town. Here, a wall of dust and sand came barrelling towards me as I was riding a bicycle and the effect was not unlike one of those Northwest European seasonal storms when gusts of wind tug at your bike and try to floor you. Except that this one came with tiny bits of sand and dust that stung. This forced me to do something humiliating that in principle I never do on principle: get off my bike. The sandstorm was mercifully short-lived but the rain that followed was relentless in its fury.

In a matter on minutes, roads become rivers where cars struggle. You will be astonished at the colossal amounts of water and wonder where on earth it all comes from; surely not only the sky… This was certainly my experience on another bike ride around Ouagadougou. I had foolishly ignored the warnings of thick clouds overhead and soon enough found myself negotiating the disappearing tar surface of the road all Ouagalais call La Périferique. I was attempting, unsuccessfully, to stay away from the water that kept invading until it had converted the road into a shallow river. Riding a bike in one of Ouaga’s ultra heavy rainshowers with unpredictable water movement is not really the occasion to push your luck, so I ended up sheltering under one of the very few overpasses the city possesses and stayed there, like many other very sensible Ouagalais, until the incessant lightning and thunder had died down a little and it was sort of over…

Serious storm clouds over Ouagadougou and its airport with the prettiest control tower anywhere… (pic: Burkina24)

Intimidating lighting, some of the most spectacular light shows you will see anywhere and huge downpours, as if whatever resides up there has decided to personally pull out all the stops and open every single tap it can possibly find and then stands aside laughing manically as the poor folks below scramble for safety. And scramble they must because these rains can kill. Abidjan, for instance, frequently gets hit: it sits on a lagoon and has built up areas sitting literally on the shoreline; it also receives copious amounts of rain, which then struggles to find a safe way out. Deaths are regularly reported from around town.

How does rain become such a problem? Among the factors (and a lot of them are related) we can count a near perfect storm of urbanisation at breakneck speed and climate change. Most if not all towns and cities in West Africa (I will limit myself to this region) have been growing at a dizzying rate. Bamako, Mali’s capital and my home for a couple of years was deemed Africa’s and even the world’s fastest growing city at the beginning of the second decade of this century. A tiny settlement at the end of the 19th century, it became the administrative centre of what was then called French Soudan, while it was mostly limited to the north bank of the mighty Djoliba River.

Bamako’s first bridge was built only 65 years ago, thus linking the old town to the southern riverbank from where the city could spread. And spread it did. In 1990 Bamako had just shy of one million inhabitants; today it is close to four million. Such growth rates are beyond the administrative, logistical, infrastructural and service capacities of any city government. And it shows: roads are in very bad state and disintegrate almost visibly when it rains; electricity and water supply are patchy at best; traffic is anarchic and service levels low to non-existent. By contrast and as a predictable result, levels of self-reliance among the Bamakois are very high.

A rain-soaked street in Kalaban Coura, Bamako and yes that was once my bike…

Cities fill up because the countryside offers very little in the way of economic prospects. This is deliberate. Governments fear the city-based electorate and one way to keep the urban masses happy and prevent riots is by keeping food prices low. This is achieved by either not paying the farmers who still work the land enough for their produce or simply replacing locally produced food with cheap imports, which has the added advantage of keeping super rich and often corrupt traders happy; after all, they bankroll political parties and their candidates. What we have here is a vicious circle. Armed insurgencies and/or criminal enterprises that have been making their appearances since the early 1990s are nothing less or more than the bill being presented for these misguided and short-sighted policies. In the absence of viable rural economies (and indeed the absence of opportunities in cities), easily recruitable young men join these gangs and they will not go away any time soon.

This looks very much like the street in Angré, Cocody, Abidjan where I briefly rented an apartment eight years ago (pic captured from YouTube)

As if this isn’t bad enough you now must add further effects of climate change (rains are increasingly erratic and downpours have become noticeably more extreme), bad road design (usually without the sloping surface that should be mandatory here) and the city dwellers’ excruciatingly bad habits. Unfortunately, the concept of a common public space is not very alive here. You have your own home and direct surroundings, which you keep scrupulously spotless. And then you have the rest, which nobody gives a flying flip about. Hence stuff thrown from buses and cars, culverts converted into dumping grounds, drains full of masses of accursed plastic bags and every open space covered in rubbish. This leads to one thing: blockage and the near-certainty that when there is extreme rainfall people drown.

There’s almost certainly more but you get the idea. And so it is the same scene, repeated during every single rainy season every year, in Ouagadougou, in Bamako, Abidjan, Conakry, Banjul, the smaller urban centres throughout the West Africa region and, indeed, Dakar, where I am writing this and where I may have had a bit of a lucky escape.

Rond Point Philippe, Ouest Foire, Yoff, Dakar

I set out this last Friday afternoon, during what I thought to be a break in the rain of sufficient length to allow me to get a very late breakfast and sort out one or two other things. It soon became apparent that I had miscalculated. Badly. As I walked along an already rain-soaked sandy road towards a place called Rond Point Philippe (a busy roundabout named after a popular pharmacy) the skies opened once again amidst an orchestral suite of lightning and thunder. I walked briskly down the remaining streets (one right, one left, one…oh no, the street’s become a lake…retrace steps, one right, another right, one left and onto the roundabout, which has a brand new bridge in the middle where I thought I was going to stay until the rain would let up.

No such luck.

I found my way blocked by a solid mass of water. I stayed put under a tiny overhang, just small enough to keep me less wet than I would have been otherwise, as I contemplated my next move. I quickly concluded, as one car waded past and caused a stern wave that almost spilled over the ramp where I was standing and into the shop behind me, that any next move would involve getting my feet wet. Beyond the bridge I spotted a Brioche d’Or, known for good coffee, and unpredictable levels of food quality and service. But how to get there?

I braved the rain and plunged into what had been a street, waded across and found that beyond the small collection of street stalls (now closed) where I had thought to find a strip of land high enough to get me across the street and to the bridge there was more water. Oh well. Caution to the, er, rain then.

From my table at the Brioche d’Or. Yes, I made it there.

Traffic was the least of my worries: it had come to a complete stop. I walked across to that bridge and waited, hoping for the now solid sheet of water coming down relentlessly to subside just a bit. Which it did.

The Brioche d’Or felt like a place under siege. Nowhere was really dry but that was fine because nobody was, including yours truly who did not have a dry stitch on his body by now… Being under siege from the elements brought fleeting solidarity among those who had managed to get under its protective roof. And Brioche had a life saver: coffee! And a half decent burger and very nice service. So we sat on this veranda-like place, waiting for it all to calm down…deep in conversation about how this was all the fault of the government because the roads were badly constructed and how we should know how to deal with these things by now because this happens every year and so on……..

The rain continued. The traffic stalled. Somewhere a siren (I presumed the fire brigade) wailed incessantly, clearly attached to a vehicle that was unable to move like the rest. Why this was the case I was about to find out. Because the rain eventually did let up and I could safely leave. I paid the waitress and walked from the low point where the Rond Point was located (no wonder it was now a lake) in the direction of my old street. Worse was to come.

First thing I found was that traffic on the bridge was blocked, because it was virtually impossible to go past this…

“There is no way through,” I was told by some folks coming from where I thought I was going. To my left, across the flooded exit road leading to the Rond Point I saw a procession of people gingerly negotiating a bit of pavement between the road and the parking lot of the Yoff Municipal Authority, also flooded. Water swirled around their feet. Oh well. Turn around, go there, keep your luggage dry (including a laptop I had weirdly deemed necessary to bring along and which had managed to keep miraculously dry inside its plastic shell) and hope for the best. Walking back, I noticed a bit of a riot.

Yes, a bunch of neighbourhood kids had turned their bit of flooded highway into a swimming pool and were having a grand old time splashing about in a watery dance they repeated every ten metres or so, pretending to bail out the water right in front of the vehicles that just stood there, engines switched off.

Time to be on my way. I joined the procession I just described and had a scare twice, when there was a clear surge in the water streaming across from the other side of the highway where the boys were swimming. Where did that come from? Cars that had decided to move after all? A stream spontaneously joining another stream somewhere? There’s no way you can tell where exactly all this water is coming from and where it is going except to the lowest point which is roughly where you are walking right now… Bits and chunks of ground had given way under the weight of the cascades and if this happens when you stand on one such spot you’re toast.

That’s where I walked too, gingerly…. I first negotiated the other side of the exit road you see here, to the right That’s where I took the pic of the splashing kids.

We all made it, and walked to wherever. Me to the seventh floor of a hotel on the big thoroughfare that was and remained blocked solid in both directions for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening.

There’s no solution in sight, especially not when the causes are so complex. What can and probably should be done is make a real effort to change peoples’ behaviour, invest in more and better infrastructure and prevent people from dying because there are fewer deaths more terrible (I think) than drowning, like the one driver who got stuck in an underpass near Mermoz and did not live to tell the tale. And at the very end the best idea is probably to turn rural areas into economically viable zones so that people do not feel the need to migrate to these already overcrowded cities or even less to pick up an AK47 and start attacking them because the villages offers no prospects whatsoever.

The Code, the Jab and the Riots

November 23, 2021

The half-hearted response to the COVID19 pandemic in Europe, a continent that has not had to deal with such disasters for well over a century, continues to be something to behold. 

I mostly work in a part of the world that routinely deals with such phenomena and the response to the arrival of COVID19 in West Africa has been exactly what the European responses were not: swift, decisive, harsh and (mostly) effective. 

As a result it looks like (West) Africa may have been able to keep this particular pandemic mostly under control. We have tonnes of other sh!t to deal with on a regular basis so thank you for letting this particular nastiness pass our shores. (Incidentally, Robert Kaplan’s essay The Coming Anarchy has been wheeled out again, as an illustration of where the world is heading. The article continues to collapse under the weight of its bonkers hyperbole and in the light of the harsh but measured West African response to both COVID19 and Ebola it might be a good idea to bury Kaplan’s heated neo-colonial fantasy for good.)

West Africa did not face the large virus-related street riots like the ones that have been rocking several European countries including the Netherlands these last few days, with probably more on the way. You may not have noticed this but it’s worthwhile pointing out that the majority of those protesting and rioting against being ‘locked out of society’ because they refuse a jab and/or a code…are white. Incidentally, Rotterdam was the scene of race riots, five decades ago, pitting Dutch and Turkish workers against each other. Division was already doing its work and in the 1970s we witnessed the emergence of some pretty nasty extreme right wing political parties and movements. They have, essentially, never gone away and they stand to profit from the deep political confusion afflicting a worryingly large segment of Europe’s populations. 

More recently, we saw the emergence of social movements asserting the right of people of colour to be seen…as people. We saw movements in many parts of the worlds asserting the rights of people of colour not to be murdered or manhandled by police officers (from Black Lives Matter in the USA to EndSARS in Nigeria). We saw movements by people of colour for the right not to be treated as criminals for crossing a border with valid travel documents. We also saw a movement, specific to the Netherlands, in favour of the right not to be compared to some racist blackface caricature, an obnoxious habit a – fortunately dwindling – number of Dutch people still maintain around this time of the year

As Babah Tarawally, a perceptive column writer in a Dutch daily observes, the reality of being excluded from society is routine for people of colour in Europe. Exclusion becomes a problem now because it is starting to affect white people, who, on the whole, had little if anything to say about this exclusion, which was previously not available to them. 

Because let us be very clear here: there is a huge difference. Discrimination, exclusion, the two-tier society, exists for people of colour because of who and what they are and for this reason alone they have found themselves singled out for extra passport controls, having a knee planted on their necks , staring down the barrel of a gun or being compared to some stupid blackface caricature. The current looming two-tier society is the result of people making a conscious (one would hope) decision not to get a QR code or get themselves a COVID jab. In the latter case you choose to place yourself outside society. In the former case you already are excluded from society for traits you do not control. It is unbelievably depressing that this needs to be pointed out time and time again. 

The current European turmoil about The Code and The Jab is morbidly fascinating. Folks who never faced any difficulty in their lives because of inalienable traits they possessed find themselves inconvenienced as a result of some relatively feeble public health-related measures. They are screaming “Dictatorship!!” “Separation!!” and most of all “My Rights!!!!”…they are shouting for Democracy and Freedom when they were nowhere to be seen when these things were denied other people in their own country and in large parts of the rest of the world. 

The fact is this: for migrant workers, refugees, immigrants, exclusion has always been a massive hindrance. For the current crop of (again: predominantly white) complainers about The Jab and/or The Code, exclusion is a resource. 

Meanwhile, populist leaders whose barely disguised fascism becomes clearer with every passing day (even when I STILL hold the views I did in this column a few years ago) jump on the pro-COVID bandwagon by decrying public health measures, however weak and inconsistent, as Dictatorship or – in some insanely twisted irony – Apartheid, even Nazism. Some go so far as attaching Yellow Stars to their clothes with “unvaccinated” written on them, an act for which there cannot ever be enough contempt, especially when you realise how quickly these very same  populist leaders will start sending masses of people into deportation camps the minute they get into power because they campaign on an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-Other agenda. 

Do we see a pattern emerging here? I think we do. I will be heading back to my slightly less deranged part of the world, hopefully before various corners of Europe go back into lockdown, thanks to the same crowd that turned some towns and cities into virtual war zones in these past few days and weeks. 

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.