Posts Tagged ‘Abidjan’

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.

The Façade – Part 2

May 17, 2016
Ébrié Lagoon and Pont Charles de Gaulle in front. To the left at the end of the bridge: Grand Hotel, where I took the previous picture. The white tower on the right is the newly refurbished and extremely expensive Hotel Ivoire.

Abidjan: Ébrié Lagoon and Pont de général De Gaulle (I kid you not) in front. To the far left: Grand Hotel, where I took the previous picture. The white tower on the right is part of the newly refurbished and extremely expensive Hotel Ivoire.

 

The next stop from the border on an increasingly impassable road is a nondescript town called Ouangolodougou, where we have a customs station. We are told to leave the bus and walk to a crossroads nearby. Regulars on this route have no qualms leaving most of their stuff behind, unsupervised. And sure enough, a mere ten minutes later the bus re-appears from behind the building where it had been parked and we all pile in again.

There is no way the entire contents of the holds could have been checked on whatever it was they were looking for.

‘Something has been arranged?’ I enquire innocently.

‘Sure.’

Common practice. Senegalese and Malian customs officers go through the contents of an incoming bus with a comb, taking all the sweet time in the world, because they are looking for things to steal. The Burkinabè, once again, less so but nothing has in my experience matched the seriousness, thoroughness and professionalism of the Senegalese drug police in Casamance, who check every outgoing bush taxi en route to Guinea Bissau meticulously. They look for drugs and do not lay a finger on your belongings.

Not so their colleagues in Côte d’Ivoire. Barely out of the ordinary customs station’s gate or the bus comes to a halt again. What on god’s green earth is it this time? Chaps in T-shirts (it is very hot) order the hold opened again and proceed to take luggage off the bus. Including, as I happen to see, my suitcase. By the time I am on my way to the scene, a package with cloth that I was requested by a neighbour to bring to a relative in Abidjan has been laid aside.

First of all, you do such a thing in the presence of the passenger. Had I not been seated on the same side as my luggage and decided to stay on board, that little package would have disappeared.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘Is this your luggage?’

‘Yes it is. What’s the problem?’

‘Have you declared this? Drug Police Officer asks me, pointing at the innocuous package.

He knows he’s bullshitting.

The whole bus knows he’s bullshitting.

I know he’s bullshitting.

Everybody knows he’s bullshitting.

The thing to do now is to ensure that he doesn’t lose face and I don’t lose my package to a taxpayer-funded thief.

‘That’s just a package that goes from one relative to another. Is there a problem with that? It’s a family thing.’ Safest route. Always invoke family; nothing is more sacred and held in more esteem than the extended family. Even religion doesn’t come close.

The prospect of easy loot is fading. Dozens of people are overhearing the conversation and the bus company’s luggage loader is nearby. He uses gentle persuasion.

‘Chef…’

Everybody knows that Drug Police Officer is the least and the last deserving of this title. But it is the correct and respectful term to use. He relents. Hilarity ensues when on entering the bus and out of earshot I declare that I have prevented a case of theft.

 

A little background to this madness in Part 3.

The Façade – Part 1

May 16, 2016

It has been a while, since my last rant. We’ll stay in Côte d’Ivoire; I have made a mini-series, based on my last trip there, which was rather eventful. Here goes. Let’s start with a picture.

Abidjan, Plateau. View from the Grand Hotel, completely refurbished.

Abidjan, Plateau. View from the Grand Hotel, completely refurbished.

‘Look there.’

‘Where?’

‘There. Behind the buidings. What do you see?’

We’re at the border, going into Côte d’Ivoire. I look behind the shacks that, as always, adorn the roadside at such places in this part of the world. Inside, the Ivorian immigration service is going about its usual business, which ostensibly is checking travel documents. That’s only part of the business. Until now, I have had little idea of the scale of their other business.

‘Cars,’ I reply to my Burkinabè interlocutor.

‘No – but look more closely. Notice anything unusual?’

Well after some 12 hours on the road from Ouagadougou and heaven knows how many still ahead to Abidjan it takes a while to adjust one’s eyes. But he helps me focus.

‘Yes, cars. But they’re all brand new!’

And now I see it too. These Toyota saloon cars look as if they have come straight from the assembly line. A Mercedes too, although that one looks second-hand, but in very good nick. My elderly neighbour presses on. ‘How did they get the money for those cars?’ Asking the question equals answering it.

There is an open sore that has hobbled all contacts between Ivorian “corps habillés” (i.e. anyone in a uniform) and the travelling public, especially if they come from Burkina Faso. The former extort money from the latter. Borders are perfect money traps. You’re in Nowhereland. You have a destination and you don’t want to be sent back. The passengers know this. The uniforms know this. So: you pay. Only on the Ivorian side, to be clear. I have yet to hear a story about Burkinabè officers doing similar and I have crossed many borders into Burkina Faso. You can still thank a young chap by the name of Captain Thomas Sankara for that.

I make a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Say, everybody pays a thousand francs, or €1.52. Let’s say that there are 60 passengers in a bus, that’s 60,000 francs. Well over ninety euros. Multiply that by the number of buses passing through between Ouagadoudou and Abidjan (both directions), let’s be modest and say ten. That’s 600,000 francs. €914. Every. Single. Day.

Impressive, I thought – until I speak to one Burkinabè journeyman on the bus. He works in electricity and he tells me he is in great demand, constantly between Ouagadougou and Abidjan. I wonder why he bothers with the bus.

‘Did you have to pay?’

‘Sure. Everyone does. It’s their system.’

‘How much?’

‘Six thousand francs.’

What!??’

‘Yes. Six thousand. A lot of people pay five or even ten.’

He does not look terribly concerned; perhaps he has already calculated this into his cost/benefit analysis of the trip. But let’s multiply our €914 euros by a factor of three to five, just to keep our calculation on the conservative side. That amounts to anything between €2,700 and €4,500 these uniformed extortion artists rake in. Every. Single. Day. That is a truckload of money. Suddenly those brand new cars behind their offices started to make a lot more sense. And the scale of the problem becomes crystal clear.

The Economist newspaper once made a memorable journey on a beer truck through Cameroon and calculated the cost of roadside corruption to that country’s economy. I have not retained the exact figures and my current archive is a mess but the conclusion I remember is that it took a percentage point or two of GDP. It has also rendered transport through Côte d’Ivoire among the most expensive ventures in the world. This clearly is insane. It is also just the beginning of the problem, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Part 2 soon to come.

Shooting children

March 16, 2016

http://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/afrique/attaque-en-cote-d-ivoire/video-cote-d-ivoire-les-images-del-attaque-a-grand-bassam-filmees-parlavideosurveillance_1359599.html

This, from the press release of AQMI after the attack on Grand Bassam. Link here:

http://fr.alakhbar.info/11224-0-AQMI-revele-lidentite-des-auteurs-des-attaques-de-Grand-Bassam.html

Hamza El-Foulani, Abderrahmane El-Foulani and Abderrahmane El-Ansari ‘have respected the order given by their hierarchy in the task of identifying their targets….’

Identifying their targets. Posthumously, I will tell these tools who their identified targets were.

A distraught girl, maybe twelve years old, in bathing suit, face framed with long locks that she got on the cheap in a little coiffeur shop, running as fast as her legs could carry her, shouting ‘They are shooting everywhere’.

A little boy, maybe six or seven, running on slippers dashing through the street parallel to the beach, jumping a low wall into someone’s garden and not stopping to answer any questions.

A woman running a roadside stall, staring with disbelief at the mayhem unfolding before her.

Fathers shielding their children while looking for safety.

Kids, having their Sunday fun on the beach, as they have for generations at Grand Bassam.

These were your identified targets.

Words are not anough. Oh and in your zeal to punish a country for something you did not agree with you have also managed to eliminate the director of the Goethe Institute in Abidjan, a woman loved and respected by many for her commitment to the world of art in this part of the world.

Congratulations.

There will be more lowlife like El-Foulani, El-Foulani and El-Ansari aiming to ‘bring reprisals against France’. They do so by gallantly shooting into unarmed crowds, by terrifying children and their parents. Burning in hell is too gentle a fate for them.

But contempt and anger are surface emotions. We need truly intelligent intelligence and cooperation, in order to catch these vermin before they act. Human intelligence. Building alliances with the overwhelming majority of West Africans who are hard working and fundamentally decent people. Development aid has failed, spectacularly. That mould needs to be broken, urgently. Nobody is buying what you’re selling. You meet people here on their terms. Deviate from that and you’re toast.

Some of this is already happening but far too much is conventional and hideoulsy outdated and unsuccessful. Like the manifestly monumentally stupid way of bombing the crap out of everyone you don’t like. Unfortunately, with Hillary in the White House by early next year we will have plenty more of that to look forward to. ‘We came. We saw. Plenty died.’ Cue heartless laughter…

And then of course, there must be attempts to find the fundamentals as to why ordinary young folk turn into homicidal maniacs in a region that has already seen the Biafra War, the civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, the border war in Guinea, the regional conflict in Casamance, the long crisis in Côte d’Ivoire and the implosion of the state in Mali. To name a few.

I made an attempt to do this myself, after the last act of mindless violence. Just scroll up and you’ll find it there. Maybe it still holds…

 

Les Coxeurs

May 30, 2015

It must have been fifteen years ago, or thereabouts, when I first made contact with “les coxeurs”. Or more precisely: they made contact with me.

My taxi was approaching the sprawling bus station of Adjamé, the busy hub that connects Abidjan with other parts of the country. It being hot and humid, the windows were, of course, open. Perfect opportunity for a young guy to earn a few cents. He stood by the side of the road and spotted, hawk-eyed and unfailing, me and my luggage in the taxi. Made a beeline for the car and stuck his head as far in as possible.

First. And he is not going to let go. There are scores of young men – always young men – like him and the competition is merciless.

‘You’re going where’?

By this time you, the passenger, must have an answer prepared or have made good friends with the taxi driver so that you will find your bus station with a minimum of stress.

My destination was Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire’s slightly weird but extremely charming capital. And I knew the name of the company that was going to take me there. So the answer was simple: ‘Thank you very much. It’s all been arranged.’

Do not, under any circumstance, make the mistake of releasing any more information than that. Anything that goes beyond a simple, accurate but necessarily incomplete statement of fact is an open invitation for le coxeur to enter into a prolonged phase of negotiations, during which nothing you say will made the slightest blind bit of a difference because his only objective is to earn a few cents. From the conductor for bringing in a passenger. And from you because he will be carrying your luggage while still fending off the competition.

‘You’re going with them? No good. I know a better company.’

‘Is that your destination? I know the company that can take you there.’

‘No, it’s not that way. The buses to [insert destination] are over here.’

‘You want to take that bus? No but that one has already left. Come with me.’

The repertoire is inexhaustible, while you, the passenger, are not. Anyway, I made it to the terminus of the UTB, l’Union des Transporteurs de Bouaké, one of the largest and best in Côte d’Ivoire and having left les coxeurs behind I could now mentally prepare for the fourteen, fifteen, sixteen road blocks ahead that were sure to make this otherwise pleasant 300 kilometre trip a sheer hell of exhaustion and harassment by what’s known as corps habillés. Uniforms. A lot harder to shake off.

*

Today, as the population grows and the supply of work does not keep pace, les coxeurs are everywhere. I saw them at work in Bamako, where they, hawk-eyed and alert, observe taxis coming in from a major intersection. Their targets have to wait for traffic lights before they can make their turn towards the station and then they must wait for the endless stream of mopeds to end. Meanwhile, the young men beeline their way to you, at considerable risk to themselves because traffic is fast and brakes are rarely applied, even less so for pedestrians, et alone young men, who are, as we should know by now, disposable. [links here]

Most of them are in their Twenties. Badly dressed, wearing very old slippers (not helping when you do this kind of work) and barely literate. But they are fast and strong: speed and muscle, it’s all you need in this business.

Young, poverty-afflicted men, never figure in any state plan for “development”. They do not exist in the policies of the development industry that has been blighting this continent for more than half a century. So, at a very early age these young men learn an indelible lesson: you’re on your own. Fend for yourself. Which they do, efficiently and if necessary, ruthlessly. Here, as shouters and haulers of passengers, there as petty criminals, elsewhere as the easily recruited (money!) security detail of some politician or religious leader, yet somewhere else as passengers on a bus, a lorry or a boat to a place that will bring work, or, ultimately, with guns and knives in the gangs of criminals that devastated parts of West Africa in the 1990s and are currently wreaking havoc in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere. The boundaries between these categories are thin. But the main actors all have the same thing in common: a relentless entrepreneurship, whether we like it or not. They never mattered to us; we do not matter to them.

*

At one of Bamako’s large roundabouts, the one that has the iconic Africa Tower in the middle, a bus was waiting to fill up. It took two hours. I know, because I was on it and we had left the station with barely ten passengers. Les coxeurs did their job; of course they do not limit themselves to bus stations, wherever there is a crowd waiting for transport – they’ll be there.

 

Fisticuffs broke out at the end of those hours. It was time to get paid. Driver and conductor were dishing out some notes. 500 francs. 80 cents. Unlikely to go to any of the young men individually. They will have to share. But lets be charitable and say that they were fighting over about 200 francs each, barely enough for a bowl of rice with nothing else. There may not be another opportunity today. Or maybe there will be. But you cannot be sure. You live another hour.

Masks in a church – 2

November 18, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks. On display until February 15 next year, so there is plenty of time for you to make up your own mind. This is my take on the event. Second and last part

The curators have found two ways around the essentialism described in the first part. One is the – once again – laudable effort to trace the names of the artists who made the masks and statutes. So we learn that there were at least two master artists among the Dan in the great western forest region: Sra and Tanpiémé, working in the 19th century. He great 20th century artist Pablo Picasso got his ideas for cubism from Africa, as we know. In fact, we can home in on the exact encounter that gave Picasso his idea. It was a mask from the Dan. It may even have been one made by either Sra or Tanpiémé. What we can say with certainty is that Picasso’s style would not have existed without the masters from Côte d’Ivoire. (I am not aware that Picasso ever acknowledged as much but perhaps someone can help me out here. Thanks in advance.)

Many of the original artists are not traceable, though, and the way around this has been to attribute a particular style to them and then announce that this work was made by a Master of… And thus we have the Master of Curves or the Master of Essankro, a place in the Baulé region of central Côte d’Ivoire. His mask adorns the flyer about the exhibition, which has not been a random choice. Because, as the Dutch art critic Bianca Stigter very perceptively writes in her review of the exhibition, the choice of objects appears to be informed by European artistic sensibilities. By any (European) standards, the works of art from the Baulé can be described as “refined”, very likely in keeping with the influential aristocracy that their region has produced. And that seems to be the case, Stigter notes, with a lot of the art on display. The curators keep pounding it into her head, she writes, that these are really works of the highest quality. Words like “elegant” abound. Indeed, she counters in her piece, the quality is undeniable but the point of reference still appears to be the great 20th Century masters, including Picasso…

And this is where a lecture of these pieces from an Ivorian point of view would have been very warmly welcomed. The country has no shortage of thinkers, arts critics, lecturers, historians and arts historians who would have shed a light on these works, much brighter than the Amsterdam autumn air that fell into the church on this November day.

Jems Koko Bi

From the exhibition folder: Diaspora, a work by Jems Robert Koko Bi

 

There was, however, another saviour: Jems Robert Koko Bi, a contemporary sculptor whose work provided a radically contemporary context to the other works of offer. His life (born in Côte d’Ivoire, lives in Germany) and his work liberate the exhibition from its frozen-in-time character and launch it straight into the now. His faces, carved from trees with a chainsaw and his piece “Diaspora” from 2013 transcend the whole “Dan”, “Lagoon”, “Lobi”, “Baulé” issues. They entirely cease to matter. Watching the short film about him, I could focus on the individual work by an individual artist with a contemporary – and cosmopolitan – life, even though the interview was done in English, with which he was uncomfortable. Stroke of luck or stroke of genius? In any case, including his work saved the exhibition from being solely about somewhere in “Magical Africa” and gave it meaning beyond its essentially ethnographic nature, in spite of the best intentions behind it.

 

A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part one)

April 15, 2014

I have another long-ish read for you, which I have divided into three parts. Part one is today.

***

The writing of a small piece I recently did for ZAMChronicles, called “Simplicities”, coincided with me reading the unauthorised biography of one of the most iconic Frenchmen of the last couple of decades, Bernard Kouchner. The writer is Pierre Péan, a journalist who has courted controversy over his writings about Rwanda. He says that he has compelling evidence that it was Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, who on April 6 1994 shot down an aircraft that carried the then presidents of Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi. The event triggered the Rwandan genocide.

Like his friend Kagame, the ‘French doctor’ (Kouchner’s nickname) is unlikely to have been very happy about Péan’s 2009 book Le monde selon K. I found it on a table outside a bookstore in Abidjan’s Riviera neighbourhood. The book adds depth to the argument about simplistic writing about the African continent and why it is so pernicious and needs to end.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that Kouchner’s career started during the Biafran war (May 1967 to January 1970), when he worked for the Red Cross. The breakaway republic was said to be holding out valiantly against a cruel and merciless war machine mounted by the Nigerian federal government. That, at least, is the narrative. Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, governor of Biafra, decided to declare an independent state following prolonged political instability in the federal republic and terrible massacres of his people in the north of Nigeria. From that declaration onwards he held out, against the odds and against better judgement, for two and a half years. One million deaths later, his dream was shattered.

 

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

 

But there is a much more cynical side to the Biafra story and to find it we must go to Paris and Abidjan to meet the duo Jacques Foccart (Mister Africa of the French state) and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the father of the Ivorian nation.

The two men were agreed on one thing: Nigeria was too big. Foccart wrote that it would place the rest of the (mostly Francophone) region under ‘a worrying shadow’. But there was more. Nigeria had broken off diplomatic ties with Paris when it found out that the French were using a part of the Sahara Desert as a nuclear testing site. President Charles de Gaulle, Foccart’s boss, was swayed by the Anglophobe argument that having a big English-speaking nation in West Africa was detrimental to the beautiful French language. Yes, these irrational sentiments play a significant part. And then there was the matter of a French oil company, state-run, called Elf (now part of the Total company), which had major interests in Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville. Here was the thinking: a dismembered Nigeria would be less of a threat for the region, less prominent diplomatically and would offer less resistance to French oil business designs. After all, the oil was in Biafra.

So, when Ojukwu declared his independence, France was there to help. With what? Well what do you think? Arms, of course! And the best places to fly these from were Abidjan, Libreville in Gabon and territories still in Portuguese hands (São Tomé) or Spanish (the island of Fernando Po, now Bioko). The two Iberian nations were, at the time, fascist dictatorships. Small matter. An elaborate air bridge turned the improvised airstrip at the Biafran town of Uli into Africa’s busiest airport for the duration. Gun flights arrived en masse throughout 1967 and 68, providing Ojukwu with a good source of income. President de Gaulle, meanwhile, told Elf to pay royalties due to the Nigerian state directly into Ojukwu’s coffers, further swelling his war chest.  Notorious French mercenaries like Bob Denard were involved in the gun running, as were French secret operatives who had been at the losing end of their wars in Viet Nam, Algeria and Katanga, frequently using Abidjan as a convenient stopover. Into that scene wandered the French doctor.

 

To be continued

 

 

 

 

Politics on wheels

December 27, 2013

‘You know what the problem is here in Côte d’Ivoire? Alassane (Ouattara), the president. What’s his problem? He’s honest, that’s the problem. It’s bad for business! With the last guy (Laurent Gbagbo) things were good. We were enjoying ourselves: rackets here, rackets there, rackets everywhere. Everyone was stealing, money was rolling around, one million here, two million there… Good! Now there is nothing more to waste because Alassane has put everything under lock and key. He’s honest! No money anywhere!

Alassane, will he be re-elected? Of course, one hundred per cent. The last guy made such an incredible mess of things, you need one term to clean it all up and then we can go back to work. But right now, the money is not moving. What good is it when everyone is on the straight and narrow? No good at all! How can a society work if everyone’s honest?’

***

The ban on journalists quoting taxi driver is hereby officially lifted. Thanks to half an hour of impeccable stream-of-consciousness from one Guinean taxi driver, in Abidjan.

An African musical award ceremony and an American train wreck

January 6, 2013

The Kora Awards (aka “The Koras”) are a celebration of African popular music. They were set up in 1994 to become the African counterpoint to the American Grammy Awards, showcasing the abundance of musical talent present on the continent. Spotlighting good, great, interesting, new, exciting and relevant talents from the continent: what could be better than that? I’ve done a fair bit of that myself, reporting on Ghanaian-American wordsmith Blitz The Ambassador, Ivorian rappers Nash and Priss K, new Guinean star Sia Tolno, the Krar Collective and many more. A great pleasure meeting all those stars – new and old. Long may it continue.

But I cannot possibly be alone in feeling astounded, astonished, gobsmacked to find that the Kora Awards have taken to inviting to their showcase evenings a guest of honour of…now, how shall I put this nicely…questionable artistic merit. For the Kora Awards 2012, held last month in a decidedly glamourous part of Abidjan (google “Hotel Ivoire” to get an idea), the organisers decided to invite a character with a planetarily recognised reputation as a human train wreck. Name? Chris Brown.

Who he? Glad you ask. Since 2005, he has been releasing, in increasing frequency, a series of forgettable r&b tunes (in and of itself an entirely forgettable genre) with titles such as Yo (Excuse me Miss), Beautiful People and Turn Up The Music.

The Koras have acquired form when it comes to this. Two years ago, they made the mistake of inviting another r&b artist, be it one with more discernible African roots. Name: Akon, son of renowned Senegalese percussion player Mor Thiam. He grew up in St. Louis (the one in the US) and has made a fortune recording the same tune about 38 times, each time with slightly different words. To his credit, he has an excellent stage presence and he really likes his country of origin. But Akon did not make it to the Awards either. Private jet supplied to fly him from Dakar to Ouagadougou while he was busy watching a wrestling match in the country’s biggest stadium. Er, by the way: he had already been paid, in full, according to the Senegalese press.

Alright, then. Back to Brown. His biggest and most enduring claim to fame has of course absolutely nothing to do with music. His name will be etched in history thanks to his encounter with a singularly annoying singing drone by the name of Rihanna. A few years ago she “sang” a grotesquely overproduced suicide-inducing dirge in her dead flat metallic “voice”, in which she endlessly repeated the word “ella” for no apparent reason. Since then, no-one has managed to delete her noise from public space.

What happens when two artistic non-entities, egos bloated to the size of Zeppelins, fed on the total absence of any reality check in their lives…what happens when these two meet? Something tediously predictable. In 2009 C&R had a verbal altercation in a car about an affair he allegedly was having, had had, was rekindling – whatever the heck it was. She hit him with her cellphone over the head and he retaliated disproportionally. He got jailed and vilified – richly deserved as far as I’m concerned. She should have gone to jail as well of course but she became, thanks to half a century of highly successful feminist bullying, a “victim” and a heroine for every girl under thirty. Don’t ask me why – it’s the law.

Anyway, back to the Kora Awards in Abidjan. What did our guest of honour desire in return for his uniquely particular contribution guaranteed to bring the tone of the award ceremony down to the level of MTV’s flagship series Jackass? Here goes: a private jet with only two pilots, as Monsieur claimed that four pilots would “interfere with his privacy”, two limos built in 2012, five state-of-the-art buses for his team. Oh and what the French so deliciously call “la bagatelle” of 1.14 million euros.

Astonishingly, the Kora organisers did NOT tell him to get lost. But Monsieur still could not be bothered to show up on time so, incredibly, the Awards Night was postponed by 24 hours, inconveniencing countless artists from across the continent, guests and of course, the organisers.

[Have a look at the Kora Awards site here]

Are these really the kind of guests to promote what the Kora Awards stand for? I submit: no. Brown et al are bellwethers par excellence for the brutal, ugly, relentless and irreversibly terminal decline of popular music in the English-speaking world. If the Kora Awards want to hold on to that old notion of highlighting African music talent (such as the excellent Chadian singer Mounira Mitchala, who won an award in Abidjan), it needs to return to quality and this will have a bearing on whom it invites to its Big Night.

Where I am writing this from, a very nice sea-terrace in Conakry, Guinea, I am currently treated to the latest crop of local popular music. Not all good, some awful, but quite a lot pretty damn excellent and none as humanly destructive as the noise emanating from the Kora Award main guest and his alleged girlfriend. By the way, both showed up in Abidjan together, so at least the fellow did not out-Akon Akon…

Lessons learnt, Kora Awards organisers? Next time, no more nonsensicalities from artists who have nothing of any value to contribute to the colossally rich African music scene? No more private jets, limos, insane amounts of money demands? Just the music, please. That will be more than enough. Let’s hope so.

Monrovia, Abidjan – or: how to manage an airport

March 28, 2010

The terminal building at Robertsfield International Airport was completely destroyed during Liberia’s civil war. Another structure, next to the main building (it may have served as the KLM terminal at one point when Royal Dutch were still flying there), was the only place in a somewhat useable state. With a few modifications, it has served as the main terminal building since the late 1990s.

All of Robertsfield International Airport (photo: Palomarfil on Flickr)

But, as I said, it is really small. So how do you channel an Airbus full of passengers (rich, used to having people at their beck and call, notoriously short-fused and always in a hurry to get the hell through all those obnoxious control and check points) from the entrance through to the departure lounge? The Liberian answer is simple and hugely effective: you slow them down.

First passport control at the entry gate of the terminal. Second passport control at the door, just before you enter the building proper. Third passport control at the airline’s Welcome Desk. Fourth passport control before Immigration; fifth by Immigration personnel. Sixth and seventh at the security gate. Take the passengers through one by one. Be nice, be friendly. It works miracles. No mutterings, quietly, slowly but efficiently, one hundred plus people were guided through the tiny space.

Outside Robertsfield terminal (photo: Windsorca 313 on Flickr)

If they ever complete a new one, they should keep this system in place.

On to Abidjan with a tiny bit of trepidation: 22 hours to spare and no visa. The lady at the Ivorian Embassy in Monrovia was hugely disinterested in the unusual problem of wanting a transit visa for less than 24 hours. Like almost all consular staff, she should take a leaf out of the service rendered at arrival in Abidjan. Praises can’t be high enough.

First: a swing past the medical controls and on to the transfer counter. There, we meet Ibrahim. He listens to our problem, blows away the inevitable interloper who adds only noise to the conversation and guides us on. Does the airport have sleeping facilities?

Of course it does.

Can we get or luggage?

Of course you can, just give me the luggage tags, get up to the first floor where there is Le Makoré – and I’ll be coming back with your luggage.

Restaurant Le Makoré, Abidjan airport (photo by me. Much better pic coming up shortly)

Off to Le Makoré. The waiter in chief also runs the rooms. There are six of them, they have a noise-free airco (for obvious reasons the windows cannot be opened), hot and cold running water, beds, table, chair – basic but adequate. It’s CFA35,000 (€53 for two) – a bargain anywhere in Abidjan, et alone the airport.

After room inspection, it’s back to the restaurant. Ibrahim returns with the luggage.

Next question: can we eat here?

Of course you can but be quick, kitchen will close in a few minutes. Round 9pm, we’re having a fine Ivorian chicken and rice dish, called “poulet kédjénou”.

Le Makoré, Abidjan Airport (photo: Martin Waalboer)

Ibrahim’s going home, his working day is done. We’re having a drink and head for bed. Thank you Abidjan Airport.

Abidjan Airport overnight facility (photo Martin Waalboer)

Ibrahim’s back the next day to help us in our exchanges with the Air Mali manager, whose idea of service it is to cancel a flight, tell no-one about it and then insist that passengers who really need to be home on the day they planned to be…buy another ticket with another airline. ‘You will be reimbursed after arrival’.

Pull the other one, mate.

It takes two hours of virtually incessant calls on Ibrahim’s cell phone (“Can you not pay for a new ticket?” No. “It’s very very difficult.” You screw up, you are duty-bound to get us on another flight. “I’m working on it.” Fine, let me know when you’re ready. “Can you come to the Kenya Airways check-in immediately?” We’re on our way). But early afternoon we’re on board KQ and after an eventless flight and an interesting landing (a bump and a slight swagger across the runway) we’re in Dakar, seven hours before schedule and ready for work. Ibrahim’s mighty pleased when we call him from Dakar. Mission accomplished.

As far as we’re concerned, Air Mali can cancel its flights any day. And just in case you’d miss it: you can never repeat enough that there definitely is room for this advert: “wanted – efficient, reliable, low-cost, no-frills carrier for West Africa. Profits guaranteed.”

(Back soon with more on Liberia, music (as promised) and a temporary goodbye…)