Archive for the ‘West Africa’ Category

The 75 dollar racket

February 4, 2022

The former temporary Arrivals building at Robertsfield International Airport is now a Covid 19 test centre. Every arriving passenger is required to go through a test before being allowed onto the next stage in the gauntlet Liberia’s principal airport tends to throw at you, even though those responsible for said gauntlet are generally very relaxed and very nice about it. They also plan the procession well.

So once you have been let out of the aircraft, you are not directed to the brand new Arrivals building (now fully operational) but herded into that temporary terminal, which may once have been used exclusively by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. From the early 1990s to 2019 the “KLM building” served as the Arrivals terminal, while the government was constructing – from scratch – a brand new one. The original hall was comprehensively destroyed during the wars that laid waste to this place between Christmas Eve 1989 and the summer of 2003.

Now, once you’ve been herded in you find yourself in a room where there are nice people sitting behind glass panes asking you for your passport details. If they don’t find what they are looking for you will be directed to another nice person who will take those details. This keeps you and nice person busy for the next 10 minutes. You then go back to the first nice person behind the window pane where your picture will be taken, biometrically. Congratulations, you have now been registered into the Government Of Liberia Covid Response Action and you may proceed.

To the next room. (I still cannot quite fathom how the airport authorities once managed to cram so many rooms into this relatively modest building; the new Arrivals building literally dwarfs it. Anyway.) Here, you are made to stand in a line – you do quite a lot of that on arrival here – before an open counter where a very nice and pleasant young man will ask you to part with seventy-five dollars for the privilege of having a Covid 19 test taken.

That’s right. 75 bucks. This is a clear and present violation of an agreement reached in January last year by ECOWAS ministers, who told the world (see article 16 of the linked communiqué) that in their member states the cost of a Covid 19 test should not exceed 50 dollars. So, against the wishes of an organisation that counts this country among its member states, Liberia has decided to rip off the travelling public to the tune of 20 dollars. Yes, I paid about the same late 2020 back in Abidjan, an altogether more pleasant affair, but that was weeks before this price control measure was announced.

I am now led past the counters while cracking jokes about getting my money back with the pleasant smiling young man who’s just taken a chunk of my travel budget. A left turn and I reach the entrance of another room. Here, passengers are made to wait in a relatively short line before being sent into…yet another room. (I knew you knew.)

Welcome to the heart of this operation. The Covid 19 Testing Place.

Five not terribly discreet cubicles have been created here and I am requested to direct myself to number 5, where another nice young man, having taken possession of my passport, is preparing his swab, readying it for the short journey up my nose. Left and right. It’s getting routine by now but it remains unpleasant. After all, I had one similar to this taken prior to departure at the princely sum of 69 euros.

KER-CHING!!!!

I have clearly missed a trick here, which I tell the pleasant young man who is busy packing my swab into a small transparent tube whilst training his eyes and then one of his fingers (as soon as his hands are free) to a single five dollar note atop a small pile of scraps on his desk whilst pronouncing his desire to get rich too.

I pretend not to have taken the hint and prepare to leave when it dawns on me that a) he is still holding my passport b) five euros – I have no dollars – is a small price to pay for getting it back and c) this very pleasant team could in all probability and very easily change my test results and then demand a far heftier payment to have it changed back to what it was when I had mine done 35 hours earlier.

Getting the increasingly uncomfortable feeling that I’m being had, I proceed to yet another room a section of the same room opposite the heart of Operation Rip Off Passengers, to wait for my receipt and the result. From behind the counter, more very pleasant young men shout the names of their victims much in the same way the police at borders crossings in this region shout your name in order for you to have your processed passport back.

Oh yes, passport! Must not forget this.

Names get called, people saunter up to one of the counters and leave with their expensive trophies. They then form another short line (the last one!) before a table. Behind that table sits a unexpectedly earnest man who is concentrating very hard on doing vague things to your papers and receipts and then encircles the planet’s new magic word for 2022: “negative”. Have we really come to this…?

Welcome to president George Weah’s Liberia. Bring cash. Lots of it. You will need it. As does he. And his staff. Of whom there are many.

And then there were…

January 30, 2022

…not putting a number here. There may be further changes. But the current tally is three. 

Three neighbours in West Africa, three coups (four, if you count Mali’s double; five if you include the failed one in Niger), three military-led and/or military-dominated governments. Or, as our handwringing friends would put it: three democracies put in the bin. As you probably know, I for one am not so terribly upset by this supposed “loss”.

*

Early morning every Friday, a historical event is re-enacted in Ouagadougou. It takes places near the palace of one of Burkina Faso’s traditional leaders and it’s called Le Faux Départ de Moogho Naba. The ceremony is directly linked to an episode in the almost one millennium-old history of this Burkinabè dynasty. In essence it is the story of a family feud that threatened to become a bloody civil war, which was prevented by a ruse performed by the Queen Mother and the king’s council’s powers of persuasion. The current Moogho Naba still lives in this palace and he is the go-to person whenever there is a political crisis in Burkina Faso, which is often. When, on that Friday morning, the ceremony had ended with two deafening salvos from an ancient cannon I discussed the role of the traditional, king with a friend. He explained that he is revered throughout the vast plateau where the Mossi people have lived for many centuries. When I finally asked him what then the position was of the formally elected head of state as compared to the Moogho Naba, he replied with a dismissive: ‘Ah, him? He’s just a little boy’. 

Lt-Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, Ouagadougou January 2022

That little boy in question at the time was long-reigning head of state Blaise Compaoré, who had been duly elected and re-elected according to the international rulebook with nary a peep from the “international community”. No-one made any noise as he went about enriching himself and his venal clan, had the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo assassinated and was busy fomenting armed rebellions in (among others) Côte d’Ivoire and later Mali. His rap sheet would have been as long as your arm. 

In October 2014, just a few short years after I had this conversation, Blaise Compaoré was removed in a popular insurrection and an army coup, resembling a similar situation that had occurred in Mali, in 1991. 

Was democracy ushered in? Well, put it this way: democracy, supposedly meaning regular presidential, parliamentary, regional and/or local elections was already happening but the people were not feeling it. And when he attempted to use the supposedly democratic process to stay in power forever, people clearly had enough. Symbolically, the building housing the people’s elected representatives, was burnt. 

Generally speaking, countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and many others were/are ruled by internationally well-connected jet-setting elites who understand and speak the language of the donors and/or businesses that keep their bank accounts filled. (Almost nobody in Burkina Faso, Mali or for that matter Guinea has a bank account.) The rulers are mostly accountable to said donors and/or businesses, not to the people who have elected them. And as a result, the people have stopped bothering with elections.

Democracy is an excellent idea – on paper. But as long as it uses concepts and methods that are alien to the vast majority of the population it is supposed to serve and as long as it is perceived to be working for foreigners (donors, partners, former colonisers even) rather than the intended beneficiaries (i.e. the people) it will be regarded as irrelevant. There were home-grown systems of governance in place before they were replaced with French, British, Portuguese or Belgian varieties that don’t speak to peoples’ lives. As a result, the “loss of democracy” thus anchored in alien systems is decried in international circles  but applauded in the countries themselves. 

Col Mamady Doumbouya, Conakry September 2021

Yes, another colonel. We have had to learn a few new names lately. The colonels are young (late 30s, early 40s), well-trained in a variety of countries (France, Russia, United States, African nations) and most of them have had battlefield experience, especially those in Mali and Burkina Faso, which have been severely affected by the armed Islamist extremist menace. 

And they are popular. True, the pro-junta demonstrations in Bamako and other cities around Mali carried some rent-a-crowd elements but the spontaneous outbursts in Conakry, Ouagadougou and Bamako at the news of the removal of a sitting president could definitely not be staged. Perhaps it is not even the fact that these young men in battle fatigues look more appealing than the elderly or (in the case of former president Alpha Condé of Guinea) very old men in suits. Are we witnessing some kind of shift towards a new model of governance even though we presently have no idea how it will look? 

We can make a few educated guesses, though. 

Looking at the histories of these lands I am always struck by the centrality of the military, long before the coloniser came on the scene. The “carriers of the quivers” (aka the army) were the dominant class in traditional Mande society. The history of the Mossis in Burkina Faso is replete with stories of Warrior Kings – or, most famous of them all, Warrior Queen Yennega.

And when you consider peoples’ ordinary daily lives, two things immediately take centre stage. One is religion, be it this one or the Christian variety (Abidjan and Monrovia reverberate all weekend with hymns) or indeed the authentic varieties that are still in evidence in many places. And the other is the extended family, the organisational cornerstone of West African life. Two immovable anchors in peoples’ lives. 

So we have a large region where there is a home-grown and long-standing reverence for the military and where religion and family reign supreme. This may offend our liberal, progressive, Western sensibilities but this is irrelevant. We have had many instances where inserting these sensibilities in societies different to those in Europe or North America has not led to the desired results.

Col Assimi Goïta, Bamako August 2020 and May 2021

Exactly ten years ago I interviewed Senegalese superstar Youssou Ndour as he was putting the finer touches on his presidential bid, which never materialised. As I reflected on my interview with him for my own program at Radio Netherlands Worldwide (still dearly missed) I asked myself whether he was using the established (more or less) democratic model for a possible return to more traditional ways. Are the colonels doing this in real life? 

I bring this up because the adoration for the putchists is matched by a visceral disdain bordering on hatred for anything and everything Western, particularly French. Since the old model is so clearly based on the Western example and also so clearly fails to deliver development, fails to deliver the feeling that people have a stake in the running of their own country, fails to deliver decent economic prospects for all but a few chosen few and – most crucially – fails to deliver security, people are prepared to cast it aside. It is too early to tell but this might just be the start of a transition towards creating a system of governance that actually matters to people as they go about their daily lives. And as always, this change is a messy process. The countless memos, policy documents, think pieces and minutes that will be written about this in pristine air-conditioned rooms across Europe or North America will be irrelevant to this process. 

Time

April 4, 2021

Going to an ATM and getting some money is a matter of minutes, if you live in Amsterdam, London, Paris or Berlin. In Bamako, or Ouagadougou, or most other major cities in this region (perhaps Abidjan excepted) this operation can take as much as an hour.

Why? Because only a few local bank subsidiaries – a lot of them are still owned by the French – will accept your card. Your first job, therefore, is to locate a bank that will take your card. Found one? Good. Now, you will often find that the ATM is out of order, has no money, has been disconnected from the satellite-operated network because of an internet glitch or does not work because of a power cut. If this last is the case and you are in the pleasant and lucky possession of a home: go there and grab that beer before it gets warm because chances are that you will have no electricity at your place either.

In all the other cases: find an ATM that belongs to another bank. This machine may be located a cool two or three kilometres from where you are at present. You can cover the distance on foot (I have done this frequently), on a bike (I have been on quite a few of these suicide missions), by Sotrama or taxi. Whatever the case, you may arrive at your next ATM and find…that this one is not working either.

A simple day-to-day operation that should take no more than a few minutes eats up a sizeable chunk of your day in this manner. Time lost that you will never get back.

Now, this is for those of us who own bank cards, which makes us a tiny minority. Hardly anyone in this part of the world has such a thing. Their bank is the cash in their pocket (the economies here are cash-based and will be for a long time to come). And cash is always in short supply, and that includes small change. The amount of time lost searching for the correct amount of change is staggering. The time lost organising splitting up a massive 10,000 franc note (fifteen euros) equally so. Not always – but frequently.

So time gets lost all day, every day. Time gets lost when you are driving a taxi, Sotrama, lorry or tricycle and have to conduct lengthy negotiations about your bribe with a traffic police officer who has seen, found or invented an infraction that you must pay for. This means the proceeds from your current trip have just been partially or entirely lost. You will have to work harder, drive faster and somehow make up for lost money. And time.

Time gets lost when dealing with bureaucrats who sit solidly in that old tradition of what Shakespeare so eloquently calls “the insolence of office” and will make you wait…and wait….and wait…..and wait…….and probably eventually pay for a piece of paper that will give you the right to run a taxi, open a shop, operate a money service, have a beer garden, a restaurant, a concert venue and so on and so forth.

Time lost. Opportunities lost. Money lost. What a waste, while there is so little to waste to begin with.  

It seems to me that the people who can least afford to lose time because they need every minute of every day to make those two euros that will at least allow them a meal and some water and the mandatory cup of tea…that these are precisely the people who lose the most time dealing with what are, at the end of the day, terrible nuisances.

Now you may perhaps understand why in so many big cities across this continent everyone is almost permanently in such an almighty hurry. People are making up for the time they could not afford to lose, negotiating bad roads (time), monstrous traffic jams (more time), the aforementioned officers and the all-too-frequent bad manners of their fellow road users. Time lost idling involuntarily, time lost negotiating, arguing, searching, waiting…

In the rich part of the world we get upset when the train is ten minutes late – yes, me included. In the less fortunate parts of the planet we are always in a hurry, in order to survive another day.

Abidjan miniatures 2

December 25, 2020

Espace Diaspora. Slightly tucked away just off the main road through 7ième Tranche, one of Abidjan’s sprawling neighbourhoods. Tables and chairs outside, when it’s not raining. More tables and chairs in a low open building down below (like so much here in Abidjan, Espace Diaspora sits on a gentle slope; go a couple of hundred metres behind this place and you will find the truly steep slope of a large moat).

As you enter, the main attraction is to the left: a kitchen (called “Diaspo”), where the usual Ivorian delicacies are being prepared – roast chicken, roast fish, atiéké, alloco, deliciously spicy tomato-based relish, tasty fresh pepper, need I go on? Next to it is a large covered wooden veranda, with comfy chairs, settees and tables. The entire place breathes conviviality, a highly prized commodity here. Oh and there is of course a massive screen to show video clips and of course…football matches. English Premier League, if you please.

As a colleague of mine and me sit down around a few drinks, we chat. In English. This does not go unnoticed. An elderly gentleman who was chatting with friends on the next table approaches, and asks us how we are. In English. We thank him and have a little conversation. In English. Turns out that he is a nurse and has worked for many years, in South London. He’s come to Abidjan to see his family and his place. Nope, no plans to return for the time being. In fact, he thanks his lucky stars to be here, what with the UK beset by a raft of Biblical Plagues: Covid19, Brexit, a Tory government, and yes: an upsurge in increasingly in-your-face racism. We wish each other a good evening as he returns to his friends: elderly gentlemen all, and very likely having had similar stories to tell, from France… After all, it is Espace Diaspora, n’est-ce pas? This is what people build with the money thay have earned overseas.

“He’s one of those who keeps the NHS alive and gets abuse on the streets for his troubles,” remarks my colleague. Only too true. On the rare occasion that my skin colour comes up as I walk down Abidjan’s very busy streets, it is meant as a way to identify me (they don’t know my name, after all) and to ask how I am. “Bonjour le blanc. C’est comment?” And you reply by saying “Oui, mon frère, ça va bien. Et la journée, ça se passe bien?” Maybe we have a little chat. Maybe we don’t. And then we go our separate ways.

Our Ivorian London friend is clearly in his element and why shouldn’t he be? His Espace Diaspora is a lovely little place, even though the slope on which it sits does nothing to accommodate my back, which it is escalating its protests as the evening progresses… Meanwhile, familiar noise never stops wafting in from the street, with taxi horns blaring, kids playing on a side street, people chatting, the women in “Diaspo” busy with their pots and pans, vendors advertising their wares or services…bliss.

Let us be very clear here. There exists a very nasty anti-foreigner undercurrent, especially in the southern part of this country. It becomes manifest during elections, when unscrupulous politicians (but I repeat myself) tap into this and foment communal violence. Plenty of unemployed youths around looking for a fast buck to earn by burning, smashing up, looting or stealing. A complex web of xenophobia, a tangled pre- and post-Independence geo-political heritage, political short-termism offers only a part of the explanation. But it does fit with what former president Henri Konan Bédié encouraged in the mid-1990s with his deranged ‘Ivoirité’. Subsequent governments have done little or nothing to counter the anti-northerner/foreigner rhetoric or have indeed escalated it. This can and does spill over into deadly violence during elections. Why this happens should be the subject of a long explanatory note and I know Ivorian colleagues who are attempting to decipher how exactly this works. But the point is that this is is not the norm, cannot be in a country where fully one-third of the population can trace their origins across the borders and where intermarriage is wholly unexceptional.

And one other distinction must be made: only on very rare occasions is this rhetoric and violence directed against Whites; controlled on-and-off xenophobia (for want of a better term) is almost always directed against fellow West Africans. Under normal (i.e. non-political) circumstances, this colossal metropolis of maybe six million is a remarkably relaxed place, where people do not go around telling people with a different skin tone to “}@(# off to your own country” or get told off for not speaking English in an English public house. Instead, here we get an English conversation in a country that speaks French everywhere and more than 60 languages that were already here before the French arrived.

So if you happen to be on the long thoroughfare through the Septième Tranche, have a beer with the lovely gentlemen at Espace Diaspora. Chances are that I will be there, too…

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.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 17, 2020

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

 

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

Think about that.

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

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

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

 

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

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 14, 2020

Part four – what on god’s green earth were they thinking…?

 

Conversation between two medical students overheard on a train in The Netherlands, many many years ago:

“So we’re off to Africa then, for our internship.”

“Yeah. It’s great, man! You get to cut into people.”

To my eternal shame, I was too shocked/too timid to interfere.

And here’s another conversation I overheard, this time not in a Dutch train but a taxi in the Guinean capital Conakry. It is the last week of the year 2003 and the whole West African region is still in shock following a horrific air crash, at Cotonou, Benin. The report on the Guinea-registered plane’s final moments, even when couched in technical aviation terms, is harrowing.

The doomed aircraft. Photo: Torben Guse, retrieved from the website oldjets.net

I vividly remember seeing this piece of junk parked at Conakry’s Gbessia International Airport and thinking: you will have to drag me kicking and screaming into that thing! On Christmas Day 2003 it crashed. What was the considered opinion of the taxi occupants in Conakry?

“It’s a conspiracy.”

“So it can’t possibly have anything to do with non-existent maintenance, untransparent ownership, a transport minister lying about its airworthiness, chaotic overbooking and catastrophically bad luggage loading at Cotonou?”

“No. Conspiracy.”

Alright, that’s settled then.

Two observations.

  1. There is ample historical evidence that the continent of Africa has been used as a testing ground for aspiring doctors and ruthless pharmaceutical companies. The only thing that would keep them in check, especially during colonial times, was their own moral compass – if one were present at all. 
  2. Africa has more than its fair share of conspiracy theories. For 26 years, it was the method of governance in Guinea – that taxi conversation sprung from the rich field of conspirational thinking it cultivated. The crimes of France, well-documented, give rise to the idea that the French are probably also the evil geniuses causing massacres in Mali. Or at the very least sponsor terrorism/jihadism. And outsiders bring diseases, which was, in all probability the thinking behind the attack on a medical convoy in deep Guinea, in the midst of the Ebola epidemic.

And now there’s COVID-19. Like all crises, it brings out the best in some and the worst in others, the latter often in the shape of an endless parade of yet more conspiracy theorists, who blame anyone and their canary for their own bumbling incompetence in the face of a major health crisis. The current occupant of the White House is a prime example.

Social media have exploded with folks babbling incoherently about Bill Gates controlling the WHO, the virus being the Chinese Communist Party’s avenue to world domination, chips being introduced surreptitiously into body parts we did not know we had, vaccines being surreptitiously introduced during routine medical checks by lizard people looking to control everyone and then there’s of course the inevitable dog-whistling misfit bringing up George Soros at every opportunity…

There is no room for nuance in these scenarios. And into this utter and complete mess wade these two:

Have you seen them? They are Camille Locht, research director at Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) and Jean-Paul Mira, head of Intensive Care at Paris’ Cochin hospital, where another famous French doctor once walked the corridors…

These two found it necessary to discuss, two weeks ago, on a mainstream French television network, the idea of using Africans as guinea pigs if ever a vaccine against COVID-19 were to be proposed. I find the actual discourse too crass to reproduce here but for those who can follow French, here’s a link.

What? The? Hell?

Which is what the internet thought. And predictably, it fed straight into the ballooning body of conspiracy theories and of course reinforcing old ones. But this is not about damage control through communication, as Inserm attempted to do.

This is about two individuals working in the medical profession, which is, let’s be clear, supposed to be governed by the highest ethical standards, blithely and openly discussing how you can dispatch living breathing human beings to some kind of rarefied abstract space where they become objects for experimentation – as was the case with those two medical students I overheard on that train. It was offensive, dehumanising, monumentally ill-judged and yes, of course: it was racist.

The upshot of all this is that you will have to work harder than ever to convince an already fundamentally skeptical population that there are perfectly good reasons to allow trials to be executed all over the world – including Africa.  There has, for instance, been an argument about the exclusion of Sub-Saharan Africa from the WHO’s Malaria Eradication Program in the 1960s and whether or not this set back anti-malaria efforts on the continent.

But before any experimentation happens, two criteria must be met. One is called informed consent, which means that whoever volunteers knows exactly what they are volunteering for. And second, all standard safeguards must be in place to protect volunteers against the consequences should anything go wrong, which is the exact opposite of what these two were proposing.  And as a result of their nonsense, rationality, already in the back of that Guinean taxi, takes another hit. Thank you for nothing, you &^#€!&% French dimwits.

The WHO website currently records 109 cases confirmed in Mali, with 9 deaths. Mali’s Ministry of Public Health notes 123 confirmed cases and 10 deaths; 26 patients have recovered.

Border crossings: same country, worlds apart

January 21, 2020

Dakar’s old Leopold Sedar Senghor airport was an indescribable mess with poor to non-existent information for the travelling public, even fewer facilities, swarms of mosquitoes and chairs that were clearly designed to cause maximum spinal damage to the largest number of passengers possible. It was upgraded earlier this century and the situation indoors improved markedly. It involved monitors with flight information you could actually read.

One thing remained firmly in place and that was the scene outside.

Upon putting your nose out the door you’d be accosted by an army of hustlers and touts, all wanting to put their hands on your money by selling you telephone cards you didn’t want, change money you didn’t need or offer discount prices for hotels you had no intention of staying in. By far the most persistent lot were the members of – arguably – West Africa’s most tenacious taxi racket.

Having attached his person to you with indissoluble glue, a tout would not let go until you were ‘safely’ deposited in one of the ubiquitous black-and-yellow French or Japanese contraptions waiting in a badly lit parking lot (many flights had and still have the inconvenient habit of arriving very late at night). Objective attained, the tout, the driver, the person overseeing the running order, the person manning the entry/exit of the parking lot and anybody else who thought it necessary to stick his oar in were going to discuss the amount for which they were going to fleece you. Of course, there was a way around the scam, which was to just keep walking away from the airport building, in spite of the ever more insistent utterances and gesticulations of the tout who was seeing his cash dispenser disappear, and post yourself OUTSIDE the airport gate at the next crossroad, where you could pick up taxis for the normal tariff. It would happen, on occasion, that a member of the aforementioned taxi mafia thus scorned would drive up and stalk you equally insistently but would eventually get the message after hearing for the eleventh time that you had no need for his vastly overpriced services. With the new airport, that’s all gone and, frankly, it’s not being missed.

The old airport. Now a strictly military zone.

These days, you arrive at a magnificent new facility, the Blaise Diagne International Airport. (There were rumours at one point that it would be named after Senegal’s third president who started the project, Abdoulaye Wade, but that did not happen.) Entry and exit are remarkably orderly. Immigration? Walk up to one of the squeaky clean counters, hand over your passport. You’ll be asked for your phone number, you then place your fingers on the EU-funded scanners (the officer will kindly help you if you don’t understand how it works) while looking into a small camera, your passport gets stamped and off you go to the luggage hall.

Outside, there a just a few taxis, which stands to reason because the thing has been built some 50 kilometres away from Dakar – and you only have to make it clear ONCE that you are taking the very reasonably priced airport bus for just under €10 and away they go. There are, would you believe it, working ATMs. I feel a pang of wistful longing for the rattling, coughing, wheezing conveyor belt that would spew out your luggage at the old airport, permanently indicating that it was five seconds from giving up the ghost for good – but this particular brand of nostalgia never lasts longer than, oh, three seconds. I am a heartless b*st*rd. Sue me.

The glittering new hall of Dakar’s new airport.

The new airport is an oasis of smooth efficiency. Even when it went massively over budget (bit like the Amsterdam North-South underground, which may be the most expensive piece of pipe ever laid in human history) it is well-ordered and, what’s more: it is smack in the right place, roughly the equal distance from Dakar, the seaside resort of Mbour and the railroad centre of Thiès. Moreover, it is an integrated part of a gigantic urban development area called Diamniadio, previously an unassuming hamlet where two trunk roads met. I hope to be able to delve into that at some point in the future. Here are some impressions, from behind a very dirty window. Public transport, hey…

Diamniadio, under construction

Diamniadio, with Senegal’s ‘Emergence’ logo prominently on the façade. 

Compare and contrast this with the two main border crossings with neighbouring Mali, located deep in deepest Senegal. They are Kidira (the northern crossing) and a hamlet somewhere behind Saraya (the southern crossing). Saraya is reached after a smooth ride from Senegal’s ‘capital of the East’, Tambacounda, using a brand new road all the way to the mining town of Kédougou, a good 200 kilometres south. This is followed by another stretch, shorter but in really poor nick and bordering on the catastrophic the closer you get to the border. Once across, things get marginally better. The road takes you straight to Kita, a mere hop from Bamako.

The road between Tambacounda and Kidira currently looks like this. Now, imagine nearly 200 kilometres of that… True, this is the rainy season but those potholes don’t go away when the rains stop. Nothing could be further from smooth efficiency here! When you travel by bus (as I frequently do) you will almost invariably end up at the border in the dead of night, thanks to the bus company’s time tables. This road takes you to the hub of Kayes, and from there it is another truly gruelling 600 kilometres to Bamako.

It does not really make much difference whether you take the slightly larger post at Kidira or the smaller (slightly less unpleasant) post after Saraya, the ritual is the same.

Everybody files out of the bus. Outside is a policeman who will collect identity cards, loose papers and even a passport or two from the 70-odd passengers on the bus. He takes his haul into a open space adjacent to a sparsely lit building – and disappears inside.

And then, for quite a while: nothing happens.

Then, the door opens. Out comes another policeman with a stack of identity cards. These are usually the first ones to go. Now you have to strain your ears because he will call out the names of the owners of these tiny documents. Once. Rarely twice. If you miss it, you’ll have to wait until the whole not terribly merry crowd has been called and reclaim your card.

Once your name has been called you saunter, walk or strut (in an unexaggerated manner if you please) to the officer holding your card. If you are NOT a national of the country you are now leaving, you will be taken indoors and made to pay. (The same applies for the control posts inside any country, frequently referred to as “petit boutiques” by the travellers.) And even though I am subjected to exactly the same mediaeval treatment, I don’t pay. To some, this is passport privilege and I would agree. To the travelling public at large, this is an egregious dereliction of duty by taxpayer-salaried officers who get away with this behaviour because hardly anyone is supervising them, even less reporting them. But it is happening. Raising a stink about it will empty your pockets even faster and you may end up in jail. These uniforms are lord and master here and they have ways to remind you of that simple basic fact.

Of course, this practice makes a complete mockery of the idea that we are somehow in a free travel zone, as declared every so often by the assembled heads of state when they meet. The gap between their air-conditioned rhetoric and the dusty realities on the ground is staggering.

If people could afford travelling like this, they would, at the drop of a hat. Would you believe it…I wrote this ten years ago!

This happens everywhere and if you think for a second that this is a uniquely West African phenomenon, think again. These are humiliation rituals and the argument always used is that ‘the other side’ (in this case: Mali) started stealing from travellers first. How on god’s green earth are you going to build a thriving commercial region of some 350 million people, let alone continent-wide unity if you turn every single border crossing into a bloody ordeal? And that’s before we get to the next stop: Customs. They will take their sweet time checking every single item on the bus if they haven’t been paid off by the chaps running the bus operation…

I can guarantee you that when you are travelling on a bus you will spend at least three hours at every single border crossing like this: waiting. This was during the day, on the Mali-Senegal border, whilst travelling into Senegal. Do not make the mistake of pointing your phone at either an official building (recognisable by the national flag) or an officer. You will get yourself into colossal amounts of trouble for nothing.

This is a picture I took a little while ago in the delightful city of Marrakech. In the cramped worldview of those to the right of the political spectrum, the name of this city has become synonymous with the supposed existence of a Treaty that Opens All European Borders.

No such Treaty exists. The Marrakech Compact is a non-binding agreement aimed at what the United Nations term ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’. Nothing about present-day migration is safe, orderly or regular and this is mainly because the European Union and individual European governments want it that way. There has never been a European Open Door policy; the entire EU policy is built around this central notion: keep as many of them out. As my colleague Linda Polman outlines in her meticulously researched book (review coming up shortly), European governments, like the EU, have standing policies designed to make life for migrants and refugee hell on earth.

Unlike the EU, which allows for free travel within its space and tries to keep everybody else away from the Eurotables that groan under the weight of affluence, West Africa must sort out its internal travel woes first. When the Marrakech Compact was voted in the United Nations General Assembly, all nations from the region voted in favour with the exception of two absentees, Guinea and Togo. More importantly, ECOWAS, the union of fifteen West African nations ranging from heavyweight Nigeria to minnows like Gambia, Benin and Togo and everything in between, has committed itself repeatedly to free travel in its huge five million square kilometre space, allowing its 350 million inhabitants the pleasure of moving from Dakar to Niamey and from Abuja to Conakry, hassle-free. On current evidence, and in spite of all the declarations about free travel and trade, these freedoms only exist if you are prepared to fork out ridiculous amounts of cash (when you own a transport business) and allow your pockets to be picked if you are a member of the travelling public. Not only is this grotesque, it also ensures that West African consumers pay far more for a piece of merchandise than is needed.

The Falémé River marks the border between Senegal and Mali

Sure, the view is great. Now, how about turning these bright visions and vistas into reality. Hello ECOWAS: this is 2020 calling…you’ve got work to do. Clean up the borders!!

The last light out or the first light in?

December 29, 2019

There’s a bunch of things I could not do this year.

One of those things is happening as we speak: I should have been at the second round of Guinea Bissau’s presidential elections.

But I’m not, for a highly familiar reason: ambition outstripped means.

As Boxer (remember him?) would tell himself: “I must work harder.” This 21st Century version grumbles to himself: “Yeah – and stop faffing about on social media all the time if you please…………….”.

In 2020 I shall become rich.

One can dream…

I report from a region that may be entering its most crucial decade since the majority of its constituent countries gained their political independence, some two generations ago (Liberia excepted; it got there earlier). The challenges are legion. The ambitions to deal with them not always in evidence. And the means, the resources…?

We’re not getting the full picture.

A friend who visited Bamako recently was surprised at the number of new vehicles on the streets. Sure enough, the vast majority of ordinary citizens still have the choice between their motorbikes, armies of sturdy vintage Mercedes taxis (painted yellow) and the ubiquitous battered green Sotrama minibuses. All share the ambition to defy the laws of gravity – all lack the means. So they stick to defying the rules of the road instead: biking around town – with or without an engine – is akin to being in possession of a permanent death wish. (I had a few escapes this year, including the moment when out of nowhere a two-wheeled missile appeared, rocketing through a red light, missing me by an inch and – of course – very annoyed that I had had the very bad idea of being in his way. A simple short courteous nod of the head from both sides diffused the situation.)

It’s the Bamako way.

A Bamako sunset.

But yes – those new vehicles. There’s a surprisingly large number of them. Which seems to suggest that in spite of the many problems besetting this country, wealth continues to be accumulated. Bamako today feels a bit like Luanda in the 1990s: a bubble where folks can continue whatever it is they are doing – living, working, partying – unperturbed by what’s going on a few hours’ drive away. And what is going on, is horrifying. 

Death is stalking the land and nowhere more so than in the border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Who are its agents? What we read is: ‘terrorists’. Or ‘bandits’. They call themselves ‘fighters for the True Faith, or similar.

They are almost always young men. And the greatest risk is that they will come to regard their exploits in the same way those young former fighters I interviewed years ago, in Liberia. They often said that after the war they considered themselves unemployed.

Language matters a lot here. Sowing death and destructing, looting and pillaging was considered ‘work’; invading a defenceless village was equated to being on ‘a mission’ or ‘an operation’, in which the motto invariably was: Pay Yourself. I bring this up because I am hearing that the self-styled jihadists who are sowing death and destruction in three Sahel countries are getting paid for their ‘work’.

By whom?

That is what we all desperately would like to know.

Not in the clear…

A host of theories have been launched on that now fully discredited system of deliberate misinformation, formerly known as the social media. Some believe it is France. Others think the source of misery must be located around the Gulf. The truth, if I may be so bold, is most likely a lot closer to home. While there may well have been an inflow of money into these arenas – from European powers that paid for the release of their citizens taken hostage in the desert and likely also from the Gulf – it looks as if these armed groups are increasingly capable to survive without outside assistance. You must understand that we are dealing with a much scaled-down economy here. In a non-urban setting, people survive on very little and there are sources of income available that can more than adequately cover the basic needs of a relatively small armed gang. Including arms and ammunition.

Artisanal gold mines can be exploited.

Protection money can be arranged with transporters, traders and other businesspeople – or politicians and even army brass.

And in addition:

The travelling public can be robbed.

Cattle can be stolen and sold.

Shops can be raided and their contents sold.

Property looted and sold.

Homes broken into; possessions sold.

Taken together, that’s a cool amount of loot to be taken and monetized. And if, as the fear is now, these gangs move south, into the much richer coastal states, the amount of stuff to be grabbed increases dramatically.

Big coastal cities…are they really heading there? Yes, say some experts, and you’d better be prepared.

This, to me, has little if anything to do with the adherence to an ideology, or a religion. What we are looking at here is a series of criminal enterprises that was triggered into acceleration by a previous criminal enterprise: the France – UK – US – NATO–engineered toppling of the consummate opportunist and geo-political survivor from Libya, Moamar Khadaffi. Read well: this act was not at the origin of the problems in the Sahel – Wahabist meddling in the region, for instance, goes back at least 60 years as does the economic, political and social marginalisation of the people living there – but it did something crucial: it provided the catalyst.

And what is the answer to the ensuing mayhem? This is where the question of ambition and wherewithal comes into play again. The money does not go where it is needed  – as anecdotally evidenced by those vehicles I mentioned earlier – and as far as the protagonists are concerned, this is perfectly fine. Irresponsible politicking takes precedence over serious counter-action. Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire are only the latest examples of this but the very same can be said of the three Sahel states.

It resembles the mood in Monrovia when a certain Charles Taylor took 150 men across the border from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia at Buutuo on Christmas Eve 1989, and used the BBC Africa Service to announce to the world that his intention was to march onto the capital. Six months later he was there. Nobody was prepared. 25 years later, another threat, in the form of a disease, started in the remotest areas, far away from three capitals (Monrovia, Conakry, Freetown) and was not taken seriously in similar fashion until thousands were dead. Is history repeating itself, once again? Looks like it…

It’s begun. (Source: French ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Neither in the capitals nor in the capitals that support these capitals does there appear to be a sense of real urgency. Sure, there are the obligatory strong-worded declarations from the regional G5 Force Sahel. And there are similar declarations at UN meetings.

But doubling down on the military option has had limited and often questionable results. Twitter recently circulated imagery purporting to show dead ‘terrorists’. There were about a dozen bodies in the picture, taken in northern Burkina Faso. They were all young men, dressed in the same way you see young men dressed in many places across this region: simple (T) shirt, threadbare trousers, flip-flops. Were these the dreaded terrorists that the army had killed? I saw poor, marginalised (and now dead) youngsters who may have succumbed to the siren call of those selling the benefits of banditry with the snakeoil of religion.

Expensive foreign-owned drones will not persuade them to change their ways. Neither will expensive foreign-run operations like Barkhane. Nor will any of the plethora of hearts-and-minds programs. Seen in isolation, they are pointless. Seen in combination, they become an exercise in hypocrisy: you wish to change people’s minds by telling them to be nice? While bombing them to hell? That worked miracles in Afghanistan, did it not?

What will change minds in the villages and towns across this vast land is the tangible reality that their inhabitants have a stake in their country. They currently do not. For some, guns now provide a temporary purpose in life, as they did in the wars of the 1990s. But what is the ultimate aim, beyond survival? I don’t think there is one. Some of their leaders might be dreaming of a caliphate, while they actually create a Boulevard of Crime – just like Charles Taylor rebranded the extreme looting spree he initiated as ‘The Revolution’.

He’s looking on. On Avenida Francisco Mendes, central Bissau, close to the Parliament building and the country’s most expensive hotel.

Yes, it’s all stuff and nonsense. But absent anything else, especially a legit economic activity that will provide people with the means to have an orderly existence, the gun will have to do. You counter this problem by turning the Sahel into a zone that has economic viability without crime. And you use smart human intelligence to find the gang leaders and put them away – preferably for good.

True revolutions were led by people like Amilcar Cabral, whose thoughts have as much relevance today as they did half a century ago. And as I sit in this dust-filled office mourning my absence from the country he founded, where today’s election will decide the difference between stagnation and (some) hope to progress, I can but reflect on the extent to which those who followed in the footsteps of the early firebrands have squandered what was given to them. Let’s be clear: that squandering often happened with the active assistance of external powers: the two sides on the ‘Cold’ War and/or the former colonial powers. But ultimately, the blame must be laid where it belongs: at home, at the feet of those who did the squandering.

What is happening in the Sahel today simply confirms the dictum that you reap what you sow. Even better, paraphrased: this is what you reap when you don’t sow. The message emerging from the mayhem in the Sahel is squarely directed at the political elites.

Shape Up or Ship Out.

This problem is far from over. Tackling it head-on means starting where the roots are. And since roots are local, they can be found in the red earth of this region. That’s where the search for a solution begins. If it is then found that there are local and/or foreign actors standing in the way – they must be told – and made – to leave.

Have an excellent (or at least a slightly less insane) 2020.