Archive for the ‘West Africa’ Category

Orientations

March 22, 2019

This is a picture I took a few months ago in a Ségou hotel.

There’s a lot to see here.

The “motos” parked to the right are pretty much Mali’s standard urban mode of transport, topped (in Bamako at least) only by the ubiquitous green minibuses called “Sotrama”: relatively cheap and always packed. The buses have attracted an industry that now consists of drivers (of course), apprentices (for seat distribution and payment of fares) and an army of young men, some just boys, who dash dangerously across Bamako’s busy crossroads dodging cars, lorries, swarms of motos, cyclists and other Sotramas as they watch, eagle-eyed for potential passengers – and all this work for a tiny fee.

Move your regard from the motos to the door, and you will see two signs of the Castel beer brand. Castel is part of the empire of Pierre Castel, the 90-plus years old tipple tycoon, who runs his vast and mostly African empire from the company’s headquarters in Toulouse. Castel is part of a small but powerful bunch of (often family-based) French businesses that work in logistics (Bolloré), construction (Bouygues) mining (Orano) or sell mobile phone services like France Telecom, which owns the Orange brand. And that’s before we get to Total, the largest oil major on the continent.

Castel pretty much owns the Malian beer market, as it does in neighbouring Burkina Faso and much elsewhere in officially Francophone Africa. It has a real fight on his hands in large and relatively rich Côte d’Ivoire – with Heineken. Mali drinks beer in impressive quantities but this is often done at home. However, you can also find it in hotels, in those basic but friendly watering holes that are called “dépôt” and in many shops – even in most of the big supermarkets run by ostensibly pious Lebanese businessmen. Money talks and alcohol sells.

But things do grate at times. Look to the left of that door, across from the parked motos and you will find, gently sloping against a wooden cupboard, a prayer mat, an indispensable item in every Malian household. Of course, Islam forbids the use of alcohol but in real life you will find that the majority are definitely familiar with it. This is rarely a problem, since West Africa, which imported this religion from the Middle East gave it a uniquely tolerant, flexible and cosmopolitan swing. Mali is about 95% Muslim but – to give you just one other example – Malians resort to consulting a traditional seer at the least sign of trouble.

But there has been an intermittent culture war going on between the “flexible” and the “precise” interpretations of Islam,* which goes back centuries. It has been brought into sharp relief following an Arab oil money-fuelled construction wave that involved erecting scores of Wahabi mosques across the entire Sahel region and beyond. Wahabism is the state religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; its narrow-mindedness and its proselytising zeal are matched only by the televangelical priests from Texas who have been poisoning public debate in East and Southern Africa. Wahabist missionaries have been doing the same in West Africa.

*Dutch readers may recognise similar interpretation battles going on four centuries ago in the Lowlands’ Protestant Church between the “rekkelijken” and the “preciezen”

You’ll be hard pressed to find a Bamako street with no mosque

One of the most contentious issues in this public debate is about and around sexual orientation. Christian and Muslim fanatics have been hard at work to limit the societal space available to people who do not conform to their society’s mores, already conservative, since they prescribe that sex happens between and man and a woman and preferably with the objective to create offspring. Gays and lesbians and people who self-identify in still other ways have been threatened, harassed and beaten up in Uganda, Senegal, Cameroon and indeed Mali. Even murders have occurred. This is done in the name of religion and both USA and KSA-based ultra-conservative excruciatingly intolerant varieties have a lot to answer for in that respect. Sometimes the violence of intolerance is perpetrated in the name of what is referred to an “an authentic African culture”, which, in point of fact, used to have room aplenty for people who fell and/or felt outside the heterosexual norm – until colonial laws shut that space down. And, irony of ironies, sometimes violence is visited on gays and lesbians in the name of the anti-colonial (i.e. anti-Occidental) struggle. I have heard all three varieties.

Yes, this is a very muddled, very complex mix in which peoples’ personal lives clash with religion and its various interpretations, traditions new or invented, the colonial heritage and…the inheritors of that colonial heritage.

Have a look at the banner in that first picture. It’s hanging on the wall, left of the beer signs. It announces a workshop. One of the main sponsors is the Dutch government and the main content provider is the Rutgers Foundation, a well-respected organisation in The Netherlands, where it has done work in promoting knowledge about sex, and sexual and reproductive rights. The workshop is about how to integrate Complete Sexual Education into Mali’s school curriculums. (I’ll not go into Mali’s ongoing education crisis – that’s yet another story.) It has the endorsement of the Ministry of Education, which sends an envoy on a courtesy visit.

Complete Sexual Education. Pretty uncontroversial stuff, you’d say. After all, donor-organised workshops are a dime a dozen. No, far from it in fact.

As the workshop went on, I watched from the nearby hotel terrace and saw men coming out of the conference venue and spending inordinately long amounts of time on their prayer mats. With hindsight I get the impression that those long sessions with the Supreme Being served to perhaps purge something from the system. For a myriad of reasons, homosexuality is regarded extremely negatively in Mali and indeed in many other parts of the continent, and frequently connected with the presence of foul, decadent, white, colonial men – in fact, when visiting Cameroon I was told various times that the current crop of unaccountable leaders running the country into the ground were all gay: they had been groomed before independence by the French to ensure that an invisible gay cabal of Freemasons would hold the reigns forever. This rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

So, unwittingly, a well-meaning but culturally out of its depth Dutch NGO was fuelling something nobody was able to control before to long. Someone got wind of the Complete Sexual Education plan, it was then splashed all over the social media and then into the streets and the word was: “They” – it’s always “they” – have come to promote homosexuality. Never mind that your sexual orientation is something you are born with and cannot change; you can no more “promote” homosexuality among people than you can get a polar bear to eat mangoes.

Never mind any of that. The stream soon swelled and the “scandal” became unstoppable.

And at the end of it all, the plan was put in a drawer and forgotten.

The end?

Not quite…

Enter: Mahmoud Dicko, the Wahab president of Mali’s High Islamic Council and one of the most influential men in the country. On the second Sunday of February he managed to shut down most of Bamako and get a 60,000-strong crowd in the nation’s largest stadium, named March 26, after the day when a peoples’ uprising and the decisive military coup removed the strongman Moussa Traoré from power in 1991. Powerful symbolism that.

March 26 was the day “democracy” was supposed to have come to Mali. In its wake, a plethora of NGOs, the whole alphabet soup, moved in following a slew of eager donors wanting to spend money. Lots of it. Here was Mali, a new donor darling, fresh from the clutches of dictatorship, ripe for the picking and a welcome target for what can only be described as another mission civilisatrice. Yes! I know! Practitioners from the field will howl and bark and scream at this notion but for the sake of clarity we need to be brutally honest here.

The development effort is the orphan of decolonisation and it has to be regarded in this fashion. The “locals” have done so from the Year Dot. To them, aid is another foreign busybody coming in to teach them something they probably already know, except this time they are not armed with Berthier guns but laptops and don’t arrive on horseback but in air-conditioned FourWheelDrives. For the recipients, these differences are mere details. And now these same people are at it again, this time “promoting homosexuality”.

So what happens in the stadium? Imam Mahmoud Dicko marshalls all this resistance and resentment and calls for a law banning homosexuality. That goes down pretty well, as do his denunciations of corruption, nepotism and the rampant lack of security in large parts of the country. The rhetoric is compelling: the Malian government and its decadent Western backers dabble in the “promotion” of deviant sexualities while the country burns.

Bingo. That was the easy part. 

Dicko’s Achilles’ Heel, however, is that he does not remember where he should draw the line. So he overplays his hand and demands the resignation of the Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga. Now he’s gone too far. The trick is no longer working: you can denounce a distant and decadent government in thrall to the West and its sexual peculiarities (as most Malians see it) but as a religious leader you don’t get to play politics. Because there’s another thing Malians know about their imams and their helpers: they are as venal and corrupt as the people supposed to govern them. Murders have happened over business deals gone wrong in mosques and not so long ago a close aide of one Bamako imam was apprehended for producing arms without a license. Maïga had the easiest of tasks replying to Dicko, calling the stadium rally “theatrical” and referring to Dicko as “a hybrid person,” someone who plays religion and politics at the same time. Dicko 1, Maïga 1. A draw.

So – it there a takeaway from all this?

I doubt it. Except, perhaps, the things we already know or should know. Namely, that nothing on this continent is ever easy and that every “simple” solution from a peace-keeping mission to a development program will inevitably crash on the hard rocks of the daily realities and old customs whose existence is all-too-frequently denied. And that resentment about the descendants of former colonial rule (and being white sufficiently qualifies you for that), together with conservatism on the one hand and a despairing lack of perspective on the other, together with the condescending attitudes of those flying in to “study the natives and then improve them” will result in the development effort being seen as a resource, or something that must be thwarted – or a mere background annoyance.

The only thing that works is: come over, you’re always welcome, be quiet, listen and listen well and only then decide if you have anything to add to the society that is not yours in the first place to conduct your social experiments in. Not rolling out your program is an entirely legitimate choice.

 

The circus came to town

August 21, 2018

We were crossing the river using what’s known here as The First Bridge and were looking at the water. What on earth was that, floating on the slow majestic flow of the Djoliba?

A portrait. On closer inspection it was a picture of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, or IBK, attached to two pinasses. Irresistible photo obviously.

‘Ah look! Boua dans l’eau!’ The image of Boua, the old one, an at times affectionate at times not-so-friendly term for the 73-years old Keïta, floating in the water had a few connotations that were probably unintended by the advertising agency that came up with the idea. The idea was to present IBK as the Messiah, hands and gaze tilted skywards. And so he appeared on thousands of billboards. Sure enough, this floating image should conjure up images of a Saviour walking on the water, even though the biblical connotation would probably be lost in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

But my friend and colleague saw the image as a re-election campaign coming to an ignominious end, with Mali’s president ending up many miles downstream, lost in the Delta as the water made its way to the Atlantic.

That clearly did not happen.

Mali’s 2018 election, and especially the excessive amounts of boredom it engendered, has prompted another question: what’s the use of this circus? And that’s what I’d like to probe in this piece.

Elections are an industry. The costly campaigns, the expensive election material, the expensive logistics of getting it in place in a country many times the size of France with major security issues and a crumbling infrastructure. Twenty-four candidates took to traversing the country, holding rallies, paying for ads, making videos. And then there was the security apparatus, necessary to create (a semblance of) order and at the end the – now mandatory – accusations of unfair play, invariably launched by the losing side. Boua did it when he lost in 2002 and 2007, his main challenger Soumaïla Cissé does it now. The two final contenders are both every inch a product of the same system that has brought Mali its current and particularly odious cocktail of political rot.

And then we haven’t even mentioned the many journalists (including yours truly) covering the circus, the many pundits and experts and hacks and wonks pontificating about What This Means to Mali, West Africa, the Planet and the Universe.

Elections like these also attract a most curious cottage industry, brought to you by the international donor community that has decided to fund this circus. We have voter education campaigns. NGO activity goes into overdrive. And we have observers. Everybody and his cat and canary flies in, takes up space in expensive hotels, occupies rooms in conference centres for meetingsworkshopsmoremeetingsandconferences. There is some benefit to certain sectors of the economy. After all, folks eat in (expensive) restaurants, they drink in (expensive) bars, may buy a few (cheap) souvenirs, that sort of thing. If you called them luxury tourists you would not be far off the mark.

Press waiting in a Bamako voting station for the EU Observer Mission leader to arrive. This part of town is also where some Big Shots come to vote – hence the top heavy security. Compare and contrast with another voting station, later. Pic by Attino Doumbia.

In spite of their patchy knowledge of the country, its history, its political mores and particularities, observers are increasingly becoming the arbiters of these elections, even though they carefully avoid any judgement concerning the result. (The UN, operating a very costly and underwhelmingly successful mission in Mali has refrained from making any comments, still stung by its Côte d’Ivoire experience when they were called in to certify the elections and promptly accused by the losing side of backing Fraud/France/Uncle Fred. So they have smartened up a bit.)

Increasingly acting like royalty, the observer folks from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the International Organisation of La Francophonie, Democracy Heaven, Free and Fair Paradise send a few handfuls of observers to the safe parts of the country. Their findings they then put into handy statements that get read out by that other ritualistic element, very much part of this circus: The Press Conference (see picture above). Strangely enough, this observer element appears to be entirely absent in what is in all probability the most epically corrupt political system in the world; I am of course referring to the United States.

OK, I’ll grant you this. There is one thing a West African and an American election do have in common: they are won or lost with money. In this neck of the woods, anything up to three euros will do the trick. If you’re a smart citizen, you take cash from all sides and still make your own decision.

Street where the losing candidate’s portrait adorned every lamppost…

You can send fifteen armies of observers into the country, this will not change. And hence you hear observers having conversations in their hotels, their bars, their restaurants, their lounges and wherever else about all sorts of things – except what they’re here for. Office gossip, the new car they’ve just bought, house prices in Generic Suburbia Somewhere, anything but the experience of having to watch weird elections in some place or other. This makes perfect sense. None of them know Mali, let alone understand it. And next week it’s Peru. Or Cambodia. Or Malawi. Like the swarms dispatched here by the aid industry, they have loyalty to the organisation that sends them, never to the countries that received them. Exceptions duly noted.

And what’s the popular response to all this? This:

This, you may believe it or not, was a polling station in one of Bamako’s most densely populated areas. In full view of this was an elaborate and very well attended wedding going on, a rather precise indication of peoples’ priorities. However, and this is absolutely crucial to understand: an elected head of state in countries thus “observed” derives a great deal of legitimacy from the statements by the likes of AU, ECOWAS, OIF and especially the EU, the world’s largest aid donor. Even if nobody shows up to actually give you that strangest of things…a popular mandate. This is a circus, conducted for the benefit of foreigners.

On a day in August, the Ministry of Territorial Administration (part of Mali’s bewildering election architecture, but that’s another story) declared Boua the definitive winner. When that pronouncement had been made, I found myself walking between the elegant ministerial complex known as the Cité administrative and a road system designed to decongest this part of the capital, which it sometimes manages to do. Speeding along a bridge came one of Bamako’s ubiquitous green minibuses, with music blaring from its loudspeakers. It was covered in campaign posters and playing one of those forgettable campaign songs, written for the occasion. A monotonous beat with a disembodied auto-tune non-voice (omnipresent and toe-curlingly awful) intoning endlessly ‘IBK…IBK…IBK…’. The initials of Boua. No-one was following the minibus. It sped in and out of sight on its own, ignored by all.

Well before the poll was over the posters were already fading from view. A roundabout in Kalaban Coura, Bamako, late July.

That lone minibus and this roundabout. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate the futility of it all. Much will be made of a 35% voter turnout. Democracy will be pronounced to have been consolidated. But in truth, the vast majority of Malians did not vote, realising the extent to which this entire circus is irrelevant to their lives. And this is happening in a country that gave the world a unique Magna Carta of its own, in the form of the 13thCentury Mandé Charter, or Kouroukan Fouga, an enumeration of the rights and duties of a citizen, part of the the world’s human intellectual heritage. Surely, with its millennium-old history, Mali can do better than maintaining an expensive political bubble based on a colonial model propped up by foreign money and symbolically re-constituted every five years in a ritual virtually nobody believes in?

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

A few years ago I saw something strange. A boat. In the water. Ok, that’s normal but this was strange: it was a patrol boat of the Spanish Guardia Civil, flying a Spanish flag, in the Port of…no, not Barcelona or Malaga or Cordoba or Bilbao or any other seaport of that magnificent country. It was in the Port of Dakar.

What the devil is a Spanish police patrol boat doing in the territorial waters of Senegal? Turned out that it was just another manifestation of the intense and heroic efforts by the European Union and its member states to keep as many Africans out of their Fortress as possible. The same efforts that put Brussels in bed with autocrat-run Turkey and one of the nominal governments of Libya, destroyed thanks to the heroic efforts of no fewer than the three former administrations of France, the UK and the USA. Another part of this Fortress Europe strategy is the blackmailing of countries like Mali and Niger: we will give you aid if you stop your people from coming here. Niger’s people smugglers now must trace far more dangerous routes than before, thanks to government crackdowns, sponsored by the EU. Brussel’s aim is to ensure more people die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea than on their way to a southern European shore.

It’s all a far cry from the start of the EU, a collaborative effort around (re)building industry and achieving food self-sufficiency. At roughly the same time the Geneva Convention on Refugees was adopted, a suitably clear and concise document. This was, of course, also the time of the Cold War. The refugees that made it into Western Europe came, mostly, from the “enemy” camp. Hungarians were welcome in 1956, when they fled the Soviet assault on their country; one of those refugee families would later produce a president – Nicholas Sarkozy. In “our own” camp, Portuguese conscientious objectors ran away from their country, run by a fascist dictatorship, because they did not want to fight Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné-Bissau. And there was a broadly-based welcome for people from Latin America on the run from US-installed military dictatorships. All in the 1970s.

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

It’s almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War. “We” won and now “we” are touting ourselves as the best society the world has ever seen. It follows, therefore, that Everybody Wants To Come Here and “we” must be selective about who “we” let in.

The only people being selective here are the “we” in this last paragraph. Selective of the facts. Speaking from the region I know a few things about, West Africa, the truth of the matter is that the vast, overriding, overwhelming majority of people…does not move. And if they do, they tend to go to other parts of the continent, or to China, the Gulf States…and yes, Europe. The picture of migration worldwide is decidedly mixed. However: the idea that Europe is some kind of a massive people magnet reminds me of that infamous French colonial drawing, where The Light (from Paris, of course) illuminated the entire Dark Continent – or at least the bits that had been visited by migrating French army boots. In short – it is an over-estimation of one’s worth and borders on the delusional. Seen from here, you don’t look all that great. And that’s before we even take a closer look at how you have been behaving to your own people of late.

This will not be a review, short of saying that what you see here is the cover of the most riveting piece of political reporting since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. It is also a damning indictment of how EU bigwigs treat the poorer members of their community – and how petty, vindictive and downright brutal they get when these members turn out to have ideas of their own. Fear and Loathing, indeed.

I visited Thessaloniki in 2012 for a world music trade fair called WOMEX. It was wonderful. But even then the austerity programs were kicking in and the people responded by staging the largest street demonstration I had seen since the epic 1981 marches against those US cruise missiles. A sea of red flags. Similar happened in austerity-hit Portugal. Varoufakis recounts in detail how the EU/IMF “rescue package” was part of a bailout plan to save…not Greece, but French and German banks that had taken irresponsible risks and found themselves overexposed. Politicians in EU member states sold another bailout of financially irresponsible banksters by inventing the story that this was all about…saving Greece. In short, they lied. Most mainstream media slavishly copied the lies without doing their job, something that happens with depressing frequency.

When the bailout did not work – and Varoufakis extensively explains why this is so – they did it again. And lied about it – again. The engine room of this elaborate deceit is a thing called the Eurogroup, a gathering of Europe’s finance ministers, accountable to no-one. Even though it is – sortalike – formalised in the Lisbon Treaty I would not hesitate to call the whole structure de facto illegal and a flagrant violation of the EU’s founding principles. The president of this informal group of financial terrorists was, between 2013 and January 2018, a Dutch politician by the name of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. He clashed frequently with Varoufakis, on the basis of politics disguised as policy. The Eurogroup consists of people who like to present themselves as technocrats but are in fact hard-headed ideologues, tightly moulded in the TINA frame (There Is No Alternative) of no debt relief, screw your people, cause misery, keep taking the poison and keep lying to your national electorates why “we” are strangling one of our member states to death. Read the book for the details, fascinating and shocking in equal measure.

But the point of it all is this.

Varoufakis argues, forcefully, that extreme austerity imposed by external financial terrorists causes widespread misery and pushes people over the edge. And then, society shifts towards political polarisation. The sea of red flags in Thessaloniki was one example of this but it can also take on more sinister tones. The counterpoint to resurgent socialism is the worrisome rise of fascism, not the cotton candy variety of lightweight intellectuals like the late Pim Fortuyn and the still very alive Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, not even the clownish two-trick pony Geert Wilders no, this is the violent, iron-clad boots variety of Golden Dawn, who have committed murder. The focal point of this resurgent extremism? You guessed it: migration. Increased hardship frequently goes hand in hand with blaming “foreigners” for problems they had no hand in creating.

Why people move (my photo, taken at a market near Tenado, Burkina Faso)

It is this kind of extremism, fomented by bad policies emanating from disconnected “technocrats” that Varoufakis warns against. Fortress Brussels ignores this at its peril. But this is not about Brexit, that unilateral folly of very English self-sabotage. Brexit addresses none of these issues. It is an unwelcome and time-consuming inconvenience for the EU, it will be grotesquely damaging to what is left of the United Kingdom, and it is most likely to be temporary (at least until Scottish independence…).

No, this goes much deeper and concerns entrenched dogma that must be urgently challenged. The damage that the Washington Consensus did to the nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia has been incalculable and it would be a fine day to see the perpetrators of this crime held accountable in a court of law. Now that the Washington Consensus has moved to Brussels, the damage is being done to countries on Europe’s southern flank, the same region made to cope, on the cheap, with a mixture of refugees looking for safety and others looking for opportunities.

The only answer thus far has been to reinforce the Fortress. The Mediterranean has become increasingly militarised and the EU has extended its border operation southwards, as far as Senegal and Niger. Like the imposed austerity, this is an Extremely Dumb and Colossally Expensive Idea. Cheaper and more intelligent answers exist: debt rescheduling/forgiveness and providing stimuli to the economy in the case of near-bankrupt states; the re-instatement of the – sneakily abolished – 1951 Geneva Convention in the case of refugees; the creation of avenues for legal, circular migration for the “problem” of people moving to Europe. Once again, for the hard of hearing, people generally do not willingly exchange their place in the sun for a precarious existence in Europe’s cold, dark, grey, hostile and sometimes even murderous streets. For the vast majority of the people outside looking in, you don’t look all that great.

Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo, at the opening carnival of the – very aptly named – Festival Rendez-vous chez nous, Ouagadougou 2017. Pic: me.

Fortress Brussels has been rattled but not enough. There have been a few stabs at the bubble of self-delusion, hypocrisy and lies that surrounds the policies of austerity and the militarisation of the borders but it has not yet burst. However, burst it must. The betrayal of Europe’s foundational principles has been ugly, continuing down the same path leads to an outcome that is both ghastly and familiar. This is no exaggeration. As the ideological technocrats continue to do their destructive “work”, as chunks of societies splinter and become uncontrollable extremist fragments, as the narrative about people moving to Europe becomes ever more toxic, as identity politics takes the place of progressive discourse, as Fortress Brussels continues to push dumb and expensive ideas instead of the much cheaper and far more intelligent – and available! – alternatives, Europe risks, in all seriousness, a return to the situation the EU was constructed to prevent. By its own hand.

 

Mali. Again (conclusion)

August 19, 2016

One can dream.

One can dream that one fine day Malians themselves will take charge of solving the issues that hobble their country. In no particular order:

A limited sense of shared history between the North, the Centre and the South, a problem that Mali’s education system reinforces and makes worse, as my good friend and colleague Intagrist El Ansari passionately argues in an interview Deutsche Welle broadcast early 2015 (sadly no longer available online). He said, among many other things that Malian education insists on teaching children that the history of their country derives from the various Mali Empires that descended through the ages from the 13th Century. ‘It’s far more complicated than that,’ my friend says, if only because it negates the fact that northern Mali, including Timbuktu was ruled by many different peoples, including the Tuareg, from the eighth century onwards. Intagrist does not want competing histories of Mali; he wants an integrated vision of his country’s history, which includes the parts the schools leave out. When he was speaking to students in Bamako with his ideas in early 2015 he found open and curious minds. This is hopeful, if only because this exchange was one among Malians themselves, free of foreign interference. A relief.

A corrupt and unaccountable polity, aided and abetted by a murderously cynical “international community”. Malians’ palpable disappointment with the current head of state, elected in 2013 with a comprehensive mandate, is only the latest manifestation of their ire. Malians want to see the lot of them gone. Tinkering with a broken system is no longer an option.

An army that has been weakened to the point that it is unable to assure Mali’s national territorial integrity, the result of the devastation wrought by the development agenda, which never considered national security an important issue. The proponents of this stance would, if it applied to their own countries, stand a significant chance of being put on trial for treason. Yet this was completely acceptable in respect of a West African sovereign state. This gross irresponsibility reinforced with truckloads of cheap aid money has, inevitably, led to the pathologies we are witnessing today in Mali’s armed forces: a decline in resources, a decline in morale, opaque recruitment and remuneration practices and as a sad but predictable end point an army that cannot be relied upon to do its job and had to stage an ill-fated coup just to make that point. ‘Democracy died!’ screamed the “international community”. Nope. It was being slowly strangled to death long before that coup happened and the same “international community” did nothing to stop it. For the depressing sequel: see the passage on Libya in my previous instalment.

The Saudi-sponsored Wahabist poison that has been steadily seeping into the society, thanks to the same shysters that attacked Ghadaffi and are keeping Saud, one of the most backward and repressive regimes on the face of the planet, close to their hearts and well-stocked with money and arms. Starving the money machine that fuels this aberration is the best way forward. This means weaning the West of its oil dependency. I have yet to come across a more compelling argument for going green.

***

Malians do not fall for the fallacy that foreigners can solve their problems. But an awful lot of them depend on foreigners for their salaries. In that sense, the development and intervention mafias that have successfully recolonized the country are well entrenched. But this scenario is unsustainable. Malians will, inevitably, reclaim their common history, get rid of the elites and their foreign partners that have failed them so catastrophically, restore their armed forces and reconnect with their own centuries-old proud military tradition. The clean-up will also involve pulling out the weeds from the Gulf that have been crawling like a malignant disease all over Mali’s intellectual landscape.

Will this result in a country island, alone and pure? Of course not. Mali will engage with the rest of world, this time though, it will be on her own terms, not the ones rolling out of printers in Washington, Paris, The Hague, London or Riyad.

One can dream. One must dream.

Here’s to Mali.

Mali. Again (part five of six)

August 13, 2016

Minusma has neither the capacity nor the will to deal with the Malian quagmire. It’s had its mandate reinforced but it is not a full Chapter 7, which would enable the mission to actually enforce peace and govern the country, as one of its predecessors, UNOMOZ, did in Mozambique in the 1990s. This mandate was relatively successfully carried out; it led to more than 20 years of nearly uninterrupted peace – sadly, under pressure as I write this but that is the result of local dynamics, not UN failure.

Minusma operates in an excessively murky field that was never fully examined when the mission was conceived. And so it has been made to deal with – among others – the multiple agendas of the many local players, including a plethora of armed groups in forever shifting unstable alliances that change outlook, loyalty and ideology as and when it suits them. This, unfortunately, includes the Malian government.

To complicate matters further the mission must work with and accommodate the strategic objectives of one hyperactive foreign busybody (the United States) that pays only lip service to it, a foreign occupier (France) that doesn’t take them seriously and a huge parade of member states – including the Netherlands – that are in the game for their own reasons (turf, resources, money, international standing, international diplomacy, getting one of their own up the UN’s greasy pole, testing new tools…). In short: Minusma is walking through a minefield without a map.

This is just to give you an idea of what’s happening there almost daily:

 

http://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2016/07/20/mali-17-soldats-tues-dans-une-attaque-revendiquee-par-deux-groupes_4972056_3212.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mali-violence-idUSKCN0ZZ11L

http://www.sidwaya.bf/m-12729-mali-nouveaux-combats-entre-groupes-armes-pres-de-kidal.html

http://thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2016/08/5-malian-soldiers-found-dead-in-river-niger/

 

So that’s where we are. Perhaps disaster could have been avoided but I am coming round to the opinion that the deconstruction of this fine country has come about, not necessarily by design, but certainly with the active participation of the “international community”. Each has played its culpable part.

1. A development community that dominated the discourse about Mali and looked the other way as the rot set in under the ill-fated second mandate of ATT, who was fêted (surprise, surprise…) in the Netherlands, four months before he was removed from power in a coup.

2. A pack of shysters, happy to do business with the slain Libyan leader Muamar Ghadaffi until he became an inconvenience and had to be removed. There was no follow-up plan (colour me astonished) and the mayhem that engulfed Mali and the West African region came about as a result of this criminal idiocy. I was certainly no fan of Ghadaffi but only a fool would fail to see that removing a head of state who, by hook or by crook, ensured a modicum of stability in the region, would open a Pandora’s Box. As duly happened.

Today, one of these crooks, Nicholas Sarkozy, is out of power and he is in too much trouble to be able to get back in. Another one, David Cameron, has just been hoisted on his own referendum petard. Unfortunately, the most dangerous of the three will sail into the White House in January, as the first female president of the United States. From where I sit, things will get a lot worse.

3. An intervention community that restored a semblance of order (Serval) and then segued into a neo-colonial occupation force (Barkhane). Their presence feeds into resentment, already widespread, against French shenanigans in its (former) backyard. And Minusma? Well, this is the sixth UN peacekeeping mission I am familiar with and its performance is on a par with the doomed UNAVEM II and III missions to Angola, which oversaw the re-ignition of civil war twice, first in 1992 and then 1997. Similarly, Minusma does not inspire confidence among Malians but rather leads them to believe that it prolongs their country’s multi-faceted and multi-layered conflicts. The sooner this costly (well over $900m in 2015-16) failure is removed, the better.

 

Mali. Again (part four of six)

August 8, 2016

Yes, you noted that correctly. Inevitably, as a piece like this develops and new ideas come up, it gets longer. And I don’t want to bore you to tears with endless screeds, so I cut it up one more time. This one’s a bit longer than the others but the last two will be brief – again. Here goes: 

Now, let’s take a closer look at events in the place where the Dutch have their camp. Gao.

Not looking promising and there is little hope that the end is in sight. We are still not entirely clear what caused this particular outburst but previous experience tells me that Minusma will not have a clue. The military are often dilligently unearthing info they deem relevant – only to find it gathering dust in a civilian drawer. An age-old UN problem. In addition to that, those that are supposed to do the gathering should master five or six local languages; Dutch and English will not do. (But then the Dutch government does not tell its citizens why it is in Mali. I refer my Dutch readers to some of the observations made by Mali veteran Aart van der Heiden in that respect.)

***

Then there is Kidal, north of Gao, where the CMA (the Azawad independence movement’s umbrella) is in a precarious standoff with a pro-government militia called Gatia, after a series of deadly clashes in July. This was not the first time Kidal burst into flames.

In May 2014, Prime Minister, Moussa Mara made a tactically sound move to prove to the world that the Malian state was in charge of all its territory. This was, after all, the job that Minusma had come to do: help Mali in its effort to regain control of all the terrain inside its formal (be it colonial and deeply flawed) borders. The Malians had put General Alhaji ag Gamou in charge of the storm troops headed for Kidal;. Not a wise move: Gamou does not like Kidal and those who run it, which, as it happens, was the Tuareg independence movement MNLA at the time. Gamou decided to take them on, on behalf of himself (first and foremost) and Mara (second).

The result was a rout. 50 Malian soldiers dead.

Kidal sees frequent clashes between groups that hold differing allegiances and have different opinions about whether or not an independent Azawad is possible or even desirable. At the same time, there are tensions among family-based tendencies within the Touareg community (the Ifoghas are in charge of Kidal and Imghad like Gamou want to capture the town) and almost inevitably these outbursts are also manifestations of clashing business interests. Some of this can be traced back all the way to French colonial shenanigans last century.

***

Ah oui, les Français! Let’s talk about them for a bit.

When jihadists crossed the line at Konna in central Mali, French president François Hollande ordered Operation Serval. This was in January 2013. Serval was warmly welcomed and restored some semblance of order.

Its objectives were to: (1) secure Bamako and the French citizens living there and (2) ensure that nobody (in principle) departed from Mali with the intent to throw bombs and shoot people in France. It succeeded in the first objective; the jury is out on the second. Still – and this is the point: having secured Bamako and French passport holders, Serval should have been on the next plane home.

Instead, it was folded into the much larger Operation Barkhane, based in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, at the pleasure of François Hollande’s newfound friend, a ruthless autocrat by the name of Idriss Déby Itno, now in is fifth uncontested term as president of Chad. As is the case with the Dutch (and the Americans for that matter), we have some idea of what Barkhane is doing, but not much. Do we have to wait, Libya-style, until one of their aircraft comes down and they will have to explain (in part at least) what the hell they are doing in their former backyard? The answer is, unfortunately: yes. 

***

Malian suspicions the French troops are enormous. ‘Do you know that half of their so-called military are geologists?’ I hear this frequently. Can you blame them? No. Neither can you be at odds with Burkinabè when they tell you that French troop presence attracts terrorists and that they resent the implicit assumption that Burkinabè troops are unable to secure their own country.

In Mali, the French are, to all intents and purposes, the boss. When Air Algérie Flight AH5017 came down just inside Mali (close to the border with Burkina Faso) on 24 July 2014, French warplanes went looking for the aircraft, French ground troops secured the area; they then recovered the flight recorders and sent them to…Paris. A great way to make new friends.

Mali. Again (part three of five)

August 1, 2016

So, as we’re leaving that sweaty hall, what have we just learned? We have learned that protocol is vastly more important than content. And we have learned that emitting formulaic platitudes equals having something important to say.

Similar plagued many a jargon-laden talking session that the development community still insists on calling “workshop”. They were meeting and talking and kept meeting and talking some more, as the country started to fall apart around them. Journalists like myself were going along with the ride. Mali could not, should not, must not fail. Consider this another mea culpa, four years after I wrote the first one.

Today, in spite of another costly foreign intervention, Mali’s disintegration continues, to the surprise of nobody who has been paying attention. That is, everyone outside the development/diplomacy/intervention bubble. Those inside the bubble who are in the know (and they most certainly exist) know better than to speak out about it; it would be a career-ending move.

This is what’s going on. Read this important report about the latest developments…

https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/mali/central-mali-uprising-making

(This is a link to the English summary; the full report is in French and can be downloaded from the same site for free)

***

From the Burkina Faso side, the move south of hostilities comes as no surprise. After the atrocities visited on the centre of Ouagadougou on 15 January, everybody here knew that we had not seen the end of it. And indeed we haven’t. 

Burkinabè gendarmerie posts on the borders with Mali and Niger have been attacked in recent months, suggesting that the war in Mali continues to move south and continues to become regionalised. You can thank the foreign interventions for that, too, as has been argued, here. 

***

It is my fear that we are looking at an axis of crime and terrorism that involves three countries. Consider: the arrests, inside Mali, of two individuals believed to be associated with the 13 March attack on Grand Bassam, near Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire; some of you may remember that I was there when it happened. Consider: repeated assertions to the effect that the 4WheelDrive used in the Ouagadougou atrocity was spotted in Abidjan before the abomination perpetrated at Grand Bassam. Consider: the arrest of a Burkinabè jihadist sympathiser in Bamako – having him hanged in public was the mildest punishment the good people of Burkina Faso had in mind for this individual. Consider also: persistent uncertainty along the Burkina Faso-Mali border and persistent insecurity in Northern Côte d’Ivoire, where roadside robberies are frequent and where former rebels may be making common course with would-be jihadists and ordinary criminals. Add to this an immobile administration in Ouagadougou, a deeply unpopular government in Bamako and an intensely polarised Côte d’Ivoire and you are looking at a potential cocktail of epic proportions.

Compare and contrast with the output of Minusma…

A curious mix of impotence and insider information. News from a bubble, to which the Dutch government wants to keep contributing, in spite of face-palming experts and head-on-desk-banging specialists. Of course, the Dutch could be just a leetle beet more specific about what it is their special forces are actually doing out there – but on that score I advise you not to hold your breath. Like the mission itself, Dutch contributions to Minusma have virtually nothing at all to do with Mali.

***

I get the impression that the Dutch government is not particularly serious about informing its citizens what its personnel is doing in Mali. Neither is it particularly concerned about obtaining results. After all and in the same spirit, the Netherlands has been throwing development money at the Bamako elites for decades and the results have been, by and large, lamentably predictable. No, it’s the United Nations Security Council that matters and the prospect of a Dutch face around that Big Table, where missions like Minusma are conceived. Nobody there pays the ultimate price. That’s what African cannon fodder is for. The grandchildren of the old Tirailleurs Sénégalais today wear blue helmets.

Mali. Again (part two of five)

July 28, 2016

Well hello there and a very belated good morning to you too! Another luminary comes striding through the hall as we are all made to stand up. Monsieur le Ministre is two hours late but he can pontificate about the cardinal importance of this meeting without blinking an eye. Hats off for this audacious performance! Monsieur will be out of a job in a few months’ time; the next government reshuffle is already preparing itself while he delivers his instantly forgettable contribution. He finishes and hastily moves out of the building. Doubtlessly en route for another “cardinally important” meeting.

Next! It’s a representative of the United Nations Multinational Integrated Mission for the Stabilisation of Mali, better known by its French acronym, Minusma. It is currently the most dangerous UN mission in the world; up to one hundred Africans from Chad, Guinea, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger and Togo have paid the ultimate price for the political careers of those who dreamed up the idea, scribbled the mission’s unattainable mandate on the back of an envelope and headed it into predictable failure. This, then, is the mission the Netherlands is contributing 400 lives to. Four have died, in two separate accidents. The Hague is very eager for a seat at the Big Table of the United Nations Security Council. It also hopes to secure a plum job or two for the failed politicians the Dutch electorate is expected to bin at the next elections.

But back to our sweaty hall. Our Minusma representative, a rotund American, will embark on his own cliché-laden speech – precisely what one comes to expect from an international career bureaucrat. Move over, Malian administrators, Blair and Barroso, this is heavy duty competition!

The ventilators groan some more…

‘…partner in development…many visits in different parts of Mali…national reconciliation…women’s associations…you have a very beautiful country…it is worth preserving…’ The rivulet murmurs inconsequentially for about ten minutes whereupon the owner of this impressive set of platitudes ups and leaves, a bodyguard in his wake. The latter looks the part, massive and square, attached to an earpiece and a wire.

No mention of Minusma’s long list of failures, from not stabilizing the country, to not supporting the disarmament of armed groups (if anything, they are proliferating), to failing to protect civilians or indeed its own personnel – and I notice in passing that the old wording of ‘support for the reestablishment of State authority throughout the country’ has been quietly dropped. It does not stop the parade of white UN marked 4WheelDrives parking in front of the upmarket Lebanese supermarket in Bamako’s leafy Badalabougou suburb, to secure the absolutely vital provisions that no ordinary Malian can pay for.

Here’s the new mandate in its backpedalling glory….

(to be continued)

Mali. Again (part one of five)

July 27, 2016

No, I have not been back to Mali and I regret that. The immediate occasion for writing this was the release of a deeply worrying report on Mali, by the International Crisis Group. More about that shortly. But there is also a distinct Dutch angle to this entry. The Netherlands currently deploy some 400 soldiers, police and civilians in Mali, under the torn umbrella of a UN operation. It is a deployment the Dutch government wants to prolong. This is, as you shall see, a very bad idea.

***

Let’s go to a packed hall in a mid-sized town away from Bamako, the Malian capital. You are about to witness, in very condensed form, everything that has gone wrong and continues to go wrong with the country and its international “partnerships”.

First, we are given a clear and unequivocal demonstration of the contempt in which we, ordinary citizens, are held by those who rule us. The main speakers do not arrive until well over an hour after the advertised time. They are the veteran administrators; armed with an inexhaustible supply of platitudes they proceed to bore us to death with their off-the-shelve discourse. Move over Tony Blair and Manuel Barroso: you have competition.

‘Culture is the key to achieve national reconciliation,’ intones one. Stop the press! On second thought, don’t bother. A minister has been appointed to take care of that, so all will be well…with national reconciliation, to avoid confusion. Culture is something ordinary Malians take seriously, when they are not busy trying to survive. For politicians it is a vehicle that helps them further their careers.

‘Our international partners are important to us.’ Except those we consider deeply beneath us; they can wait in a sweaty overcrowded hall until we can be bothered to show up. The really important ones, like the European Union, individual donor countries, the French, the UN agencies – those have representatives and we meet informally. We will, of course, never tell you what’s been discussed. Now shut up and listen to the praise-singers we’ve sent you. Culture!

The old administrators talk about “values”. Ah yes, those. What they are and what they mean should of course remain as vague as possible. The French language (all of this goes on in French), one begins to suspect, was invented for the purpose of dissimulation…

‘Who are we and where are we going?’

‘We are one great family.’

‘Peace and stability are important preconditions for development.’

‘We have always lived together in harmony.’

‘We don’t consider colour or religion.’

Have pity on those large ventilators hanging from the ceiling. They probably have fewer problems with the room temperature than with the sheer colossal amount of stiflingly hot air this august panel emits from behind the table.

(to be continued)

The Façade – Part 4

May 21, 2016
Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. The line you see on the left is the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country's second president, still active in politics.

Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. Accross the Lagoon on the left: the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country’s second president, still active in politics.

 

‘All phones off! All of them! Anyone who does not understand French? I will repeat it again. All phones off. You will be checked as we continue. No phone use until Bouaké. Does everybody understand? Phones off until Bouaké!!’ The gendarme walks down the aisle of the bus and wants to see all the phones.

The reason? I ask him.

Security. Or the lack thereof, rather. Bouaké is a mere 300 kilometres away, a trip that will take us seven hours because of the utterly pathetic state of the road. There are so many potholes it looks like the thing has been bombed. Perfect ambush territory and apparently there are still plenty of bandits about. A common practice is for accomplices on the bus to tell them where the rich pickings are; hence the phone ban. Only when you are in uniform can you loot with impunity in Côte d’Ivoire. But who are these bandits?

They are another part of the fallout of Côte d’Ivoire’s political turmoil. The military aftermath of the “post-electoral crisis” of 2010 – 2011 has been and continues to be utterly shambolic. A huge number of things that should have happened to Côte d’Ivoire’s fragmented, haphazardly composed and notoriously ill-disciplined military, has failed to materialise. The government, the United Nation’s inadequate mission (does it have any others these days?), international donors – all can take the blame for the fiasco.

What should have happened is this. Between 2002 and 2011 there were two armies in Côte d’Ivoire. There was a government army under the command of the then president Laurent Gbagbo and there was Soro’s Forces nouvelles (Fn) we discussed in the previous instalment. After the 2010 presidential contest that pitted the incumbent Gbagbo against candidate and eventual winner Alassane Ouattara, the Fn aligned itself with the latter for complicated personal and political reasons. This upset the military balance between the two (the whole story is infinitely more complex but that is for another time).

These were by no means the only armed groups around. There were pro-Gbagbo militias, the com’zones in the North had their private armies. Then you had the remains of a Gbagbo-supported gang (called MODEL) that invaded south-eastern Liberia to remove president Charles Taylor. There were also the traditional hunters (known as “dozos”) and a host of freelancers, mercenaries and “young volunteers” from Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, South Africa and heaven knows where else. The point is that all these groups and gangs and militias and mercenaries should have been properly disarmed. Following that, a national army, with a clear recruitment structure and hierarchy should have been established. This has not happened. Especially worrying is the fact that there remains a sizeable chunk of arms outside state control and there are of course people who know where to find them – and how to use them.

The bandits in the North could have been from any of the above categories but it stands to reason that they used to belong to Soro and the com’zones. (Soro and the Com’Zones – is there a band name in there somewhere? Anyway, moving on…)

Accounts of the numerous attacks against private vehicles, minibuses or indeed bigger ones like this bus we’re traveling on, have pointed at the military-style operations these criminals employ to get their loot. And that’s why the phones are off until Bouaké, testimony to the monumental failure of the government to sort out its military.

The region were are traversing is also becoming a fall-back position for new Malian self-declared jihadist forces. And mind you, at this time we were completely unaware bullets would be raining on a beach outside Abidjan just a few days later.

The gendarme was a pleasant enough fellow and he told me, on arrival at Bouaké, that he wished the situation were better but all he could do was to prevent anything bad from happening, whilst being fully aware that he’d be the first to take a bullet for the passengers’ safety. I thanked him for his work. Bouaké itself was a good surprise: alive and in much better shape now than during our last visit, six years ago. The rest of the trip, from there to the capital Yamoussoukro and the economic hub Abidjan was a breeze. On a brand new six-lane road. With the phones on.

 

Last installment about Abidjan itself, coming soon.