Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

OK, I have read his book so you won’t have to…

August 5, 2020

Pic retrived from marketwatch.com

John Bolton is a self-important bore who takes some 450 pages (almost 600 with notes and references) to drone on and on about how he is always right. Between April 2018 and September 2019 he was the national security advisor for a man who also thinks he is always right, president Donald Trump. A clash would seem inevitable. There were a few of them, as there were near-calamitous diplomatic near-misses. In the hands of an able writer this would have made very juicy reading but in Bolton’s clunky, plodding policy wonk prose it becomes a drag. You’re wading through what are essentially rememorised notes.

So why write about this at all?

Well, in spite of the fact that he is and remains a warmongering self-aggrandising hawk who firmly believes in regime change for some and bombing any country that takes a different view of the world than the Great US of A, his inside account gives us the strongest arguments yet for ejecting the narcissistic toddler currently occupying the White House at the earliest opportunity.

Having said that, the two men do share an abhorrence of world order and the institutions or organisations working towards that goal, including the International Criminal Court, the United Nations and its affiliated organisations like the World Health Organisation. They don’t like the EU much either but then I’m currently none too happy about where it is going… (Incidentally, they also share a deep hostility for the Fourth Estate; Bolton’s disdain for the press is palpable throughout his book.)

What they prefer is US-led global anarchy, where they set the rules. However, Bolton is far more systematic about this, which makes him the most dangerous of the two. Bolton wants regime change in Iran (he is worryingly obsessed with it), reign in China and contain Russia. In that order. As an aside and contrary to what many seem to think, he considers Syria “a sideshow”. Which from an inside-the-Beltway perspective it most assuredly is, like Africa. Yes, all of it.

And what is Trump on about, when he does not ramble about anything and everything? Three things stand out: money, deals and image. Raise any policy issue and he is likely to ask, like the New York real estate hustler he has always been: how much does it cost and what’s in it for me? That is exactly the mentality he has brought into the Oval Office. It should surprise no-one but since Bolton is a stickler for detail it’s useful to have this on public record in the sharp and unforgiving tones it deserves.

Money is at the root of his endless questioning: why are we in (Korea, Germany, Poland, Africa, Afghanistan…) Korea should pay for US military presence. He confuses a percentage of a nation’s GDP spent on national defence with contributions to NATO. On and on it goes. Trump is about as childishly and predictably unpredictable as Bolton is boring.

When it comes to China and North Korea it’s all about making deals. The greatest deal in history. Wonderful deals. When the United States withdrew from the agreement that bound Iran to limit its nuclear activities, Trump justified withdrawal because it was “a terrible deal.” Worst deal ever. This is not a president in action; it’s a New York real estate hustler.

And looking good is paramount. Photo-opportunity with North Korea’s strongman Kim Jung Un on the border between the two Koreas? Brilliant! Especially when you can get your venal and conniving family in on the picture: the shadow government of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner that Bolton hints at should scare the bejezus out of anyone with an ounce of understanding about how to run a country. Inviting the Taliban to the White House for talks? Great photo opportunity! And relations with China hinge on Trump’s great “personal relationship” with president Xi Jingpin, especially when Trump tells him that putting Uighurs away in concentration camps is a very good idea. The only thing that’s really terrible about China is the US trade deficit, the mechanics of which he does not understand.

Pic retrieved from 9and10news.com

Sucking up to autocrats is a particular character trait of Trump’s. He’s perfectly fine in the company of the likes I already mentioned, plus president Erdoĝan of Turkey and of course Vladimir Putin, even though I never get the impression from this book that he is what some simple minds refer to as ‘a Kremlin asset’. Trump likes dictators and wants to be one, simples. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a democracy that has so far proved remarkably resilient in spite of his efforts. Bolton likes Putin because he’s articulate (unlike his boss), on top of things (unlike his boss), and secure in his own role on the global stage. But make no mistake: Russia remains the enemy.

Bolton’s descriptions of his numerous meetings with the president of the United States show a man with the attention span of half a goldfish. In one, on Afghanistan, Trump manages to jump from that country to CNN reporters (unsurprisingly, he is in favour of shooting or jailing journalists), getting out of Africa (again), NATO and money (again), Ukraine, troops in Poland, calling North Korea’s Kim “a psycho” (Bolton agrees), South Korea paying 5 billion dollars for US military bases, the 38 billion dollar trade deficit with South Korea, getting all American troops out of Europe and announcing he was going to call the Indian Prime Minister about Kashmir. Bolton does not supply a time-frame but given the average length of security/foreign policy meetings this typical Trumpian ‘rolling on’, as Bolton calls it, may have occurred within, say, 30 minutes. Every single meeting goes like this.

These scenes aside, most of his tome consists of endless accounts of the bureaucratic infighting Washinghton is notorious for, trips abroad, and preventing Trump causing major international mayhem…always and forever framed in the glowing terms of the national security advisor’s infinitely superior intellect. Which makes it even more of a drag to read. (I told you I read his book so you won’t have to.)

This is probably Bolton’s last shot. He is unlikely to be hired ever again after having hung out some of Washington’s dirty linen and I for one think that the world’s a safer place because of it. Whether or not he should have made his revelations about Trump abusing his office for personal gain available to Congress will remain up for debate, probably forever.

In sum, then, yes, the White House chaos is there and it’s Trump’s chaos. Bolton’s descriptions make it clear that however bad you thought it was, it’s actually worse. Take that together with his autocratic tendencies, his tantrums and his narcissism and it becomes clear that even though the alternative is not exactly palatable this Orange Squatter should be out on his ear, come November. Here’s hoping that president Biden leaves Africa as much alone as did his predecessor; we have enough trouble here without the US sticking its oar in.

White Saviours (part 1,753,535 and counting…)

December 22, 2014

Picture the scene. I am walking down the street as a young boy shoots out from between a few parked luxury cars. He looks at me, puts his thumb index and middle fingers together in a gesture that suggests eating and brings them to his mouth. To make sure that there is no equivocation.

He wants to eat. And he’s just found the perfect individual to pay for that: a lone white man walking down the street with a rucksack. The target is correct, has always been correct.

A couple of things happen here, in this little scene on a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. First, it confirms my worst fears about dependency syndrome. This country has been infested with denizens from the aid industry for decade after depressing decade. Not only has it achieved depressingly little, it has inculcated in many minds that wherever white people are around there is free money available and this in spite of the fact that the aid industry has gone truly global with India, Brazil, South Africa, Japan, China, The Middle East and Angola joining in.

The principal business of the aid industry is spending money without a great deal of reflection on purpose and usefulness. The fact that it has also spawned a gigantic Monitoring and Evaluation business merely serves to illustrate the point. What this boy did was making an extremely rapid appraisal of what purpose the presence of an unknown but white stranger could serve for him. It is dependency syndrome writ large.

And it was ever thus. Colonial times arrived in these savannas in the form of the French Army and was swiftly followed by cultural repression, forced labour, commercial agriculture and of course the civilizing mission. After Independence, it merely changed mantle, creating a combination that I consider in fact even more pernicious. Colonialism and its attendant misery was something you could fight. But what on earth do you do with a development industry that carries a similar civilizing mission, consisting of benign condescension and colossal amounts of free and fungible money? How the hell do you fight that?

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

Aid was one of the pillars under the just-deposed regime of Blaise Compaoré and his clan. Whites played no part in this country’s self-liberation even though I have already seen claims that aid was a factor, admittedly tiny though, in advancing the revolution in Burkina Faso. These claims should be dismissed as the preposterous cant that they are.

Back to that street scene because there is something else happening here. The cars that hid the boy from my view until he came out and claimed money for his stomach, were all locally purchased. And expensive: big 4WDs of the kind that I will most certainly never own. Cycling remains my preferred way of moving around Ouagadougou, in part because I can afford it. Would it ever occur to this boy that the Africans who drive these luxury cars are all, to a man and a woman, an order of magnitude richer than I am?

I cannot tell. Our exchange was over in seconds. Perhaps he has been told by the owners of these luxury cars that he can get stuffed. But let us, for the sake of the argument, say that this idea would never enter his head – and I think this is plausible. What does this tell us about the mindset of a nation that has been aid dependent for five depressing decades at the very least? It means that the poor, like this boy, have simply given up on getting a better life through their own endeavours or the actions of their fellow citizens. Saviours can only be White. I cannot think of anything more pernicious: a nominally sovereign nation lives by the notion that it’s only The Outside that can save it. The Outside gives money, you can attempt to go there and you will have to forget that it was the same Outside that kept a kleptocratic regime in its place for 27 years. It is utterly debilitating.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

Still, the revolution arrived late October this year and it was broadcast live, on radio. I hope it will go on to achieve other things, chief among them the realisation that there is dignity to be had from relying on your own resources, brains, energy, intellect, economic power…in short, the death of the idea that (White) Outsiders can solve your problems. Once again: no whites were involved in this revolution, if anything they have stood squarely in its way. And who knows, a couple of years down the road, following the installation of a government that serves the people rather than itself and a few connected local and international friends, I can tell that boy where to find the government agency that helps people like him, who have fallen through the cracks. And what bliss if I can do that while walking down a street free of logo-bedecked luxury vehicles on their way to donor meetings, workshops, training sessions and other talking shops. Burkina Faso would look so much healthier as a result.

Well yes, I know, the IMF, the world’s schoolmarm of budget discipline has already rolled into town with yet another soon-to-be-forgotten bureaucrat lecturing the transitional government. The rest will doubtlessly follow: the UN alphabet soup, EU, the Dutch, the Brits, the Swedes and so on and so forth. Can I just dream for half a day before I get thoroughly depressed again?

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.

 

Masks in a Church (part 1)

November 13, 2014

De Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is the temporary home to an exhibition of masks, statutes and other works of art. From Ivory Coast. 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. In two parts.

 

The intentions surely were beyond reproach: let’s make a presentation of “African” masks and familiarize the public with their aesthetic value, their creators and their authenticity. The event was sponsored by – among others – KPMG, an accountancy firm, the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts, the Prince Clause Foundation and two largish Dutch public broadcasters, TROS and AVRO, usually on the lighter side of entertainment. (Ironically, these two now occupy the building that was once home to Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the former Dutch international broadcaster.)

Do excellent intentions lead to excellent results? Not always. On the last day of my brief visit to The Netherlands in November I visited De Nieuwe Kerk, an austere Protestant church on Dam Square, in the heart of old Amsterdam. The church forms the backdrop for an exhibition that is entitled: Magical Africa.

That is a bit of an exaggeration. The country in question is not “Africa”, in fact it is, as the folder announces, Côte d’Ivoire, my next station. And then not even all of it: Côte d’Ivoire is the size of France and home to at least 64 languages. The subject matter of the exhibition, masks, statues and a few contemporary works of art, have been taken from four regions: the lagoon area around the largest city of Abidjan on the southern coast, the centre of the country where the second-largest city Bouaké and the capital Yamoussoukro are located, a portion of the Grand West where the Dan and the Wê live and the savannah area of the North, were the Senoufo live and were you find the town of Korhogo. That’s not “Africa”, that’s a few parts of Côte d’Ivoire. I can understand the PR value of the name but it annoys nevertheless.

Magical Africa

Even within that limited setting the differences proved to be astonishing. Compare the fear-inspiring masks that came from the forests that straddle Liberia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire to the more tranquil poses produced in the centre. The Baulé, who live in that part of the country have been a central presence in Ivorian politics and business for many decades, dominating the plantation economy and delivering the first two heads of state after independence. Aristocracy, if you like, which predates Independence. By contrast, the Dan and the Wê in the forest have been much more marginal to political life and, in fact, have had to live with numerous groups of newcomers, driven there by French colonialists and post-independent governments. It is a political configuration that is reflected, although in different ways, in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. To my (admittedly, still Marxist) mind, at least, material culture informs artistic expression here. It is tempting to call the forest masks “raw” and the central statues “refined” but that feeds into another issue that I will deal with later. Suffice for now that what is missing from the exhibition, as with so much Africa reporting, is context.

Well, there is some, in the anthropological sense of the word. We see words like “Dan”, Sénoufo”, “Baulé” and “Lobi” hung like neon signs over the various carefully assembled works of art and explanations are offered about their functions and their makers. Fair enough. But what does that do with the viewer? Not unreasonably, the viewer will associate a particular work of art with a particular people from a particular region. And will freeze those in time. Again, it stands to reason that this happens but anyone who has ever been to Côte d’Ivoire knows that, self-declared or ascribed origins apart, these monikers are essentially meaningless. There is probably not a single Ivorian alive who can claim to be a 100% pure and undiluted member of any “tribe”. The French word for this mixed state of affairs is brassage and it is a reality inside the borders and indeed across them.

“Tribe”, “origin” or indeed “Ivorianness” (or Ivoirité, as it was called) only becomes an issue when it is turned into a instrument in the hands of unscrupulous politicians on the prowl for cheap and easy vote winners. Toxification of the political debate is the inevitable result, as anyone witnessing the arrival of the Geert Wilders Dog & Pony Show in The Netherlands can testify. The same happened in Côte d’Ivoire in the 1990s. Suddenly people became the champions of the Wê, the Bété, the Baulé, or indeed The True Ivorians.

So my problem here is the essentialism: this is how the Sénoufo portray people during particular festivities or rites. This is how the People Around The Lagoon do things. Reality is a lot more fluid (what to think, for instance, of the Sénoufo who live in the Grand West, or the giant melting pot known as Abidjan?). It is of course a major challenge to point that out during an exhibition and the curators did find at least one credible way around that problem. More on that in the second and final part.

Arrival (not the ABBA album)

November 11, 2014

It is 4am. A lone plane descends towards the runway of Madrid’s Barajas International Airport. Origin: Dakar. It taxies to its slot. Doors open and some 150 bleary-eyed passengers walk into the corridor that leads to the main arrivals hall. But it will be a while before they get there.

At the end of the corridor they are held up by two little men, who have their little uniforms on and have been driving to the exit point with their little electric trolley. They proceed to check everyone’s passport with meticulous care. To be more precise: they proceed to check very much in particular the passports of the African passengers, including an elderly man dressed in a traditional boubou and a bonnet, clutching a single plastic bag. Clearly, this man constitutes a clear and present danger to the Continent of Europe, as is the lady who is trying to stay upright because she is tired, walking on high heels and increasingly annoyed.

The little men in their little uniforms with their little lights in their little hands and watching all the travel documents with their little spectacles on their little heads (as if these documents have not already been checked by the Embassy, the Airport Authorities in Dakar and the Airline) have identified four or five men who merit a little extra attention. As the rest of crowd disappears into the bowels of the gigantic arrivals terminal, they are questioned on the spot, a procedure that takes not a lot more than 20 minutes before they, too, are being released.

A pointless, annoying, irritating and counter-productive exercise, at the entrance of a country where I had gone to be part of the annual World Music Expo, an event that highlights some of the best international music from around the world and a focal point for artists, managers, agents, record labels, music distributors, journalists and radio makers. Imagine being one of those and being welcomed to this country by two uniformed jobsworths holding up the normal flow of human traffic into an airport? What image does that project?

EUAU

Seen at Dakar Biënnale. By Kiluanji Kia Henda.

I’ll tell you what image that projects. It projects the image of a tiny, frightened little continent that is rapidly losing its relevance in the greater scheme of things. Other parts of the world, Asia in front, are surging ahead and in order to keep up, economically and demographically stagnant Europe needs contributions from everywhere. The way not to achieve this is by treating all incoming visitors with a different skin tone as potential criminals.

The idea that this is being done to appease a virulent strain of political populism that looks for scapegoats is suspect. Xenophobia has been built into Europe’s border protection and immigration systems and it stretches all the way to the West African coast where I frequently see Spanish Coast Guard ships on patrol. But here’s the clue, my dear little frightened European continent…

Africans back winners. This is why Chinese, Turks, Brazilians, Indians and even North Americans are doing rather well here. They are turning away from Europe and are taking their business with them. Shopping in Paris? You must be joking when I can get the stuff relatively hassle-free in Istanbul, Dubai or Guangzhou. Having to fill in a boatload of forms just get a visa to some European hellhole or other? Get out of here. I’ll fly Kenya Airways to Beijing, Emirates to the Middle East and Turkish Airlines to pretty much everywhere.

This is the message to this little, frightened, xenophobic European continent, exemplified by those pathetic little passport-checking uniforms and their pathetic little electric trolley, with which they took off after they had done their pathetic little job. You are increasingly being seen as an irrelevance, an unimportant little place led by politicians without an ounce of vision, only frightened of people from the outside world and determined to keep as many of them out as possible. In short: you are, increasingly, being seen as a loser.

You haven’t got much time left, Europe. It’s shape up of ship out. And as things currently stand, it will be the latter and you will not be greatly missed by the rest of the world. Ask those passengers on that flight from Dakar.

An Ego Trip to Africa

September 13, 2014

Some glossy magazines are named after the first name of its editor. It is the same, frankly bizarre, mindset that compels people working in your local Starbucks franchise – people you have never seen and are unlikely ever to meet again – to put your name on the plastic mug containing stuff that vaguely resembles coffee. This disease is currently invading railway stations all over The Netherlands.

In the same country we have a glossy called Linda Its editor is, you guessed it, Linda. TV personality De Mol, as it happens. Linda shifts approximately 200,000 items every month, a frighteningly large number if you ask me. Now, for some reason Linda found it necessary to dedicate its September issue to…Africa. Perhaps it’s because it is getting colder in The Netherlands while South Africa is getting warmer and offers holiday packages. Cape Town (Food! Wine! Seals! Penguins! Jazz!) or Jo’burg (Giraffes! Sundowners! Soweto by bike! The Big Five!).

Linda Cover

As you can see, the cover sets the tone (Look at Me! With African Animals!). Inside, the need to shoehorn anything about “Africa” into the content is palpable. There is, for instance, a dialogue between a (surprise!) TV personality and a politician. Africa suddenly pops up out of nowhere as a place where, wait for it, there is massive unemployment and violence against women. Clearly not much else. Linda thus treats us to a series of interviews with rape victims in eastern Congo and another one about women from Africa (or African descent) living in The Netherlands, showing their jealousy-inducing curves. At least the editor had the good sense not to print the two series back-to-back.

The centrepiece of the Linda Safari Issue is an essay in which the term “we” is liberally thrown around, a device used to conceal the simple fact that, true to the mag’s formula, the author, Marcia Luyten, is mainly talking about herself. So, Africa is said to have ‘a romantic image’ (Food! Wine! Giraffes! Sundowners!) with a ‘raw backstory’ (Drugged Children! AK47s! Rebel armies! Hunger bellies! Super rich people!). And “we” are supposed to have a hunger for both although Luyten does mention the fact that “we” can no longer use such imagery without receiving a well-deserved clip around the ears, as KLM Royal Dutch found out not so long ago. The website Africaisacountry (which highlighted KLM’s gaffe) gets a mention, as does my former Radio Netherlands colleague Ikenna Azuike who runs a vlog called What’s Up Africa?. Both excel in lampooning the kind of tiresome clichés that “we” supposedly have this hunger for.

In fairness, Luyten argues in favour of better analysis of the many political systems up and down the continent (not that this matters much to Linda’s readers) and she makes an honest attempt to explain the existence of the cliché’d imagery by linking it to Europe’s colonial past. But she then commits the grave error of stating as fact that development aid was driven by collective European shame about a colonial past. Nothing could be further from the truth. The development enterprise arose from an extremely simple practical question that was the result of worldwide decolonization: where in heaven’s name are we going to put all these agriculture experts, irrigation engineers, administrators, plantation owners and so on, for which the mother country has no use? This explains why the development enterprise resembles, at its core, the colonial enterprise. Both are born from the same notion: the Natives must first be studied and then improved. Luyten correctly tells her readers that the lifestyles of the old colonialists and the self-avowedly much more progressive development professionals closely resemble each other.

At the Dakar Biënnale, 2014

At the Dakar Biënnale, 2014

In essence, the Linda Safari Issue revolves around the intensely dynamic and interesting life and personality of the editor (and by extension: her readers), for whom Africa is a backdrop, a piece of décor for a photoshoot of a model or one of people who have just shot wild animals (Elephant! Zebra! Lion! Leopard!). Both equally outlandish. Linda regrets not being able to go to South Africa herself; she has to be content with a Dutch safari park. Small matter – she is still at the heart of it all.

And by now you will understand why, apart from the NGO-indicated Congolese rape victims and the owners of those mind-boggling curves, Africa has no voice in Linda’s Safari Issue. Photographers from, say, Lagos or Nairobi are absent; nor is there room for a story written by any of the past and present army of immensely talented writers, from Yvonne Vera in Zimbabwe to Véronique Tadjo in Côte d’Ivoire or Ken Bugul in Senegal. Neither did the idea arise of doing a spectacular shoot of one or two among the legion of singing talents, from the Malian jelis to South African jazz divas to pop stars and rap artists who mash things up from Addis Ababa to Abidjan. (Or indeed Rotterdam or Zwolle.) Shall we also mention fashion designers, tourist entrepreneurs, restaurant owners, airline pilots and logistics coordinators? Yes, all women, in case you were wondering. Literally, I can make a list a mile long. But then again, to paraphrase the line ZAM Magazine employs, this Safari Issue was not about Africa. Not at all. Not even close.

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

April 17, 2014

There has been a lot of teeth gnashing in the “humanitarian community” about the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and especially how humanitarian operations got mixed up in military action. They made it appear as if this was a new phenomenon. It is not. Not al all, in fact. This was done extensively in Biafra.

That French Red Cross operation of which Kouchner was a part, was headed by a French colonel, Merle. And it was a well-known fact that humanitarian flights acted as a cover for the delivery of huge quantities of arms. Indeed: guns and ammo were flown into Uli in crates that ostensibly contained Red Cross babyfood and concentrated milk. Now: who knew what when? Did any of the Red Cross people know this and if so, why did no-one raise the alarm about these acts of blatant piracy?

For the public at large, the Markpress campaign about Biafra served to obfuscate this illegal and criminal involvement of France, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal and Spain in their deadly enterprise. Most of the people directly involved are gone and will never have their day in court, where they should have accounted for their part in this monstrosity.

But the real cynicism is this: you can get public opinion on your side by using faraway human suffering for your own objectives, whatever they are. Tony Blair, Nicholas Sarkozy and others have proved to be masters of this self-serving manipulation in the name of human tenderness. As was the case with Biafra, pretty much all of these open or hidden interventions (Sudan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Libya in 2011) were carried out in order to reduce human suffering. In point of fact, these self-proclaimed humanitarians have prolonged wars (or in the case of Libya exported chaos all the way to Mali), turned emergency aid into a commodity and have failed to contain violence and instead increased human suffering. ‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence,’ Napoleon is rumoured to have remarked. But at times, one wonders…

cover Péan

Biafra marked Bernard Kouchner’s career in three ways. First, it impressed upon him the need to get the media involved. ‘You have to make noise,’ he would later say. During his careers in NGOs, politics and in government (he was a minister of Health and Humanitarian Action in 1992 and 1993 and of Foreign Affairs in 2007 to 2010), he would never go to an event that could not be sufficiently “mediatised”. The media have been crucial to the success of the organisation he co-founded after the Biafra war: Médicins sans frontières.

Second, it impressed upon him the need to make the story simple: good guys against bad guys. Anything else and you would not be able to mobilise the support of the public – and its money. The Biafra story became the bad Nigerians bombing and starving good Biafran women and children to death. And three, it disabused him of the notion that there was anything wrong with conflating humanitarian and military missions, in fact: human suffering was the crowbar that he and others were to use to great effect to get the Americans, the French, the Dutch and a fistful of others to bomb the sh!t out of Serbia in 1999. Nobody cared. Serbs were bad people, the public had been told; they deserved to be bombed. And Mamadani wondered aloud and astonished: what did those Save Darfur activists clamour for? A military intervention!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote an epic novel about Biafra, warned about what she termed ‘the single story’ in a TED talk she did in October 2009. It is deeply ironic that the man who has spent a good part of his life creating single stories about Darfur, about ex-Yugoslavia and about Rwanda, started his career in that same Biafra war. I am afraid that we will have to live with the odious legacy of this man and others like him for a long time. Consider this my attempt to remove from public discourse and policy making their kind of simplistic and dangerous thinking and their – at times – malicious intent and – far more frequently – unforgivable incompetence.

NGO employee

March 19, 2014

NGOs, also known as non-governmental organizations (although the “non” part in NGO does not necessarily imply that state coffers are off-limits) attract a wide variety of individuals, some good, some bad, some nutcases and a lot in between with varying degrees of acceptable incompetence, especially in foreign countries. The same, incidentally applies to the UN, the difference being that this organization relies heavily on generous helpings from state coffers; its methods to recruit massively overpaid individuals with varying degrees of unacceptable incompetence should be the subject of a worldwide inquiry. It will also be the subject of another blog entry. Promise.

But back to our NGO employee. He was from an East African Nation but working in a West African One. A thoroughly pleasant individual to be around. Me and my colleague took a ride with him on an NGO truck back to the capital. I accept that this is against my principles; in mitigation I offer that (1) the nature of this trip was not journalistic and (2) the number of alternatives available was negligible.

During the long ride, the conversation turned a tad bizarre. For one, he has been living in this country for four years but every time we started to discuss the nation’s rather interesting politics and the name of a prominent mover and shaker came up, he would ask:

‘Who’s that?’

We were talking ministers here, prominent members of parliament, high up in the political hierarchy.

The talk then turned to a big bad awful monstrous entity that spreads disease, pestilence, death, destruction and bad entertainment around the world wherever it puts its jackboot. You guessed right: our NGO employee was a virulent critic of The West. Absolutely everything it did was evil. I neglected to ask him if this included paying his salary.

A memorable quote from the UK wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill mentions America as the country that can always be expected to do the right thing…after having exhausted all other options. Generally speaking, The West is shorthand for America, which is shorthand for the United States. (Nominally Francophone countries in Africa do not mention The West as the source of their predicaments but point the finger squarely at France.) Our NGO friend was, correctly, highly critical of US actions in Iraq where it fought an illegal war; Afghanistan, where it lost a war; Libya, where it helped trigger various wars… There is a long list of countries that have yet to recover from having experienced US involvement. The explanation, to me at least, lies in another dictum, this time Napoleonic: never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence.

You see, I strongly believe that most of The West, including my own country The Netherlands, is run by buffoons, clowns, jokers and idiots. I’m being charitable here, just like the American but Mexico-based writer Fred Reed, who takes an equally dim view of the people in Washington who run America’s wars around the world.

Not our NGO friend. He saw conspiracies. The West was doing this. The West was doing that. I remarked:

‘Most people in The West would not even be able to find the country where we are right now, on a map. So what is this “West”?’

‘It’s the entity that commits crimes around the world.’

‘Yes, I know that and agree. I marched against the Iraq war. Fat lot of good that did…’

‘It is a destructive force.’

‘Well, yes, and how many people actually know this?’

That hardly appeared to matter but by now it was becoming clear what the hub of The West was. America. So I said:

‘Well, you’ve been there. Half the people don’t even have a passport and have absolutely no idea what’s going on in the state next door. Let alone a foreign country.’

Further precision-targeting revealed that he meant the makers of an alleged “policy” inside the Washington Beltway. Which amounts to stumbling around in utter darkness until someone finds a light switch. And promptly turns it off again because the mess is too appalling to behold. Where the West bears collective guilt (which is what our NGO friend was implying) is in the fact that it keeps electing buffoons, clowns, jokers and idiots, who then appoint their like in the bureaucracies that manhandle the state machinery. I don’t know how to change that and neither do you.

Fear and self-loathing has been an ingrained feature of The West since the 1960s. It has grown in prominence. It’s easy because it does not require analysis. Naturally, it has seeped into the world of NGOs and equally naturally this mindset attracts the likes of our amiable East African friend. But what really shocked me was that he could spend four years living in a country on his own continent without bothering to get to know it any better.

An NGO Bubble. As a matter of fact, “shocking” is not the right word, “terrifying” is.

Heretical question

January 25, 2014

Last year, in case you missed it, the world was made aware of the existence of Mindy Budgor. Indeed: an earth-shattering event, made even more so by the hagiographic BBC coverage of her life achievement. Which was: taking a short-cut to becoming a warrior in an utterly unspoilt Maasai community somewhere in Kenya, the First Female!!!! I suggest the thinking among said Maasai was probably: ‘If we just give her what she wants, maybe she will then just go away and leave us in peace.’ Oh yes, she wrote a book. Warrior Princess. For those with strong nerves, here’s the interview.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-23713202

Over the last two decades or so, we have been subjected to an endless parade of individuals using a fairly randomly chosen bit of Africa (preferably unspoilt but with mod cons), as a décor for the all-engulfing drama of their own extraordinary and massively important lives. So we had Angelina Jolie shutting down Namibia because she needed the nation as a backdrop for the singularly important event of her giving birth. We also had Madonna, although she skipped the entire birth giving thingy and just went to Malawi to get herself an orphan or two. She then decided to raise the entire country in the best way possible (her own, of course) but omitted to inform the government of her plans, which, bizarrely enough, failed to amuse president Joyce Banda. Oh and we had Christina Aguilera, last September, making ‘an emotional trip’ to…Rwanda; that’s a bit like visiting Auschwitz for a very private cleansing ceremony. The website Africaisacountry took that little ego-stroking gem apart here:

http://africasacountry.com/the-bullshitfiles-christina-aguilera-feeds-rwanda/

I came across one bona fide example last year. She was using the tourist-infested seaside resort of Abene, in the Casamance, as her very own African backdrop. She runs, among many things, a music festival that must unfold itself in exact accordance with her wishes, musicians be damned. One day she was upset because she had received lip from a few local women she was leading in development (naturally). They apparently did not agree with her methods. The village queen in question was of European extraction but unlike Budgor, the locals won’t be shod of her any time soon, it seems.

From the exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. To my eternal shame, I admit not knowing who the artist is. Help is welcome.

Image from a large exhibition in Imagine, Ouagadougou, March 2013. One of my readers wrote in and said the work could possibly be by or have taken inspiration from the great Beninois artist Georges Adeagbo. Thanks, Judith! 

I am moved to relate all these tales because I have recently been trimming my archives. Among the papers I consigned to the dustbin were a few reviews of a book by a Dutch journalist, applauding the demise of the White Man in Africa. One review mentioned that the book related how in some parts of Africa (certainly not here in Dakar), lighter-skinned people were used in advertising because it sold the product better. Odd, that.

In another review of the Dutch journalist’s book, the celebration of ‘the White Man slipping from his pedestal’ in Africa also got a mention. Oddly enough, the reviewer went on to count the blessings of development cooperation, which historically has been rather intimately connected with the presence of said White Man. A while ago I wrote a little miniseries about the many problems associated with development.

http://www.rnw.nl/africa/article/let’s-talk-about-aid-final

You see, I do not consider the disappearance of the White Man from Africa a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But I find the barely concealed glee with which said disappearance is described by the (inevitably female) author a little disingenuous. In her own article, that went along with the promotion of her book “Goodbye Africa”, Marcia Luyten (the Dutch journalist in question) notes with relish that the white man ‘no longer plays a significant role,’ must ‘abandon his superiority’ and ‘arrogant paternalism’.

My guess is that journalists like her cannot help it. They have grown up in the wake of a movement that has spent the last fifty years smashing this perceived superiority of the (white) man over the head, having its remains hung drawn and quartered and burnt to cinders for good measure. Cheering at man’s individual or collective misfortune has, unfortunately, become one of its unbecoming hallmarks. Equally unfortunately, the same movement has come to dominate the discourse that has blighted the African landscape of ideas for the past half century: the discourse of development. The result? A depressing parade of cut-and-paste “Women and Development” projects, equally applied in the arch-conservative Christian-dominated regions of Southern Africa and in the stagnant matriarchies that are liberally sprinkled all over West Africa. No wonder our development friend in Abene had arguments; West African women as a rule do not take kindly to being told what to do.

Many moons ago I reviewed a book by the writer Lisa St Aubin de Teran, who was, in her own words, leading the village of Cabaceiros in Mozambique from poverty to a safer existence. Cool. She was extremely busy with a new tourism resort, schools and all the rest of what constitutes, according to Westerners, “development”. All this happened against the backdrop of – here we go again – an utterly unspoilt Africa where people play drums in the moonlight. A lot. The book came out at roughly the same time that former French president Nicholas Sarkozy made that imbecilic speech here in Dakar, declaring that Africans ‘had not entered history’. I concluded my review of the book by saying that Sarkozy got a volley of richly deserved flak for his stupidity. When, on the other hand, a rich white woman writes roughly the same, she shoots to the top of the bestsellers list. Superiority? Paternalism? I think Luyten was looking at the wrong sex. Or gender, if one is ideologically so inclined. But all this does prompt this extremely heretical question: what is it with (some) white women and their colonial fantasies?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Still, it was quite a relief to read that there was some room left for The White Man in Africa, minus arrogance, paternalism, superiority and I guess he’d better leave his testosterone at home too. On second thought, he’d better bring it along because because the first issue Luyten brings up is geopolitics, to be exact: the very real threat of jihadist fundamentalism. And lo and behold, Dutch white people (even men!) have heeded the call and taken the plunge…after the French who got there first. They will gallantly gather intelligence and do all manner of good and useful military things, in order to save the career of Bert Koenders, the former Dutch development minister (Labour), currently heading the UN Mission to Mali. He needs his succession of UN posts like a fish needs water; a goodly portion of the Dutch Labour Party views him in the same way as I imagined the Maasai considered Ms Budgor.

Another area where the White Man (minus arrogance etc, you get the picture…) can be useful is Business – although he must take a leaf out of the book of his Chinese competitors and become rather ruthless and imbued with realpolitik. Bit strange, that.

But the third reason for white people to bother with Africa is the best: humanitarianism. Yes!!!! There is still space and scope for White Saviours! Provided, I assume, they are female. It’s a bit like sex tourism in The Gambia, Casamance and Kenya, I suppose. It’s all OK, as long as (white) women do it.

The culture of debate

March 19, 2013

Caught my eye in the newspaper this morning. ‘Program launched at Senegalese universities.’ The strapline gave the game away: ‘Promotion of the culture of debate among Senegalese youth.’

When you read a line like this, the association is immediate: some NGO or other? Correct! Does it contain the word training somewhere? It does – double bingo!

Law students at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, an institution in the deepest crisis since its establishment, where students go without tuition for months and have even resorted to the extreme act of setting themselves on fire to get their grievances heard, that university, plays host to a team of foreigners (yep – you got that one right too – someone needs a holiday…) that will teach…er…

…Respect For Diversity. Ah, no, not that kind of diversity, that’s for Westerners in their own countries who have been taught to swallow the new gospel hook line and sinker. No: the Senegalese students will be taught the kind of diversity that is no longer taught at universities in the West, and in fact the only diversity that really matters: Diversity Of Opinion.

Tolerance of other peoples’ views will be preached, says the woman who coordinates the program, plus the ability to listen to others and accepting the public verdict in the end. All in the name of good democracy and an Open Society.

Yes, this time it’s George Soros’ outfit teaching those poor hapless Senegalese students – who only last year helped rid the country of a megalomaniac with seriously autocratic tendencies – how to do democracy. Of course, Ms Hawa Ba who coordinates the program in Senegal needs a job, like everyone else working for the Oxfams, the Action Aids, the official aid bureaucracies, the UN bureaucracies and everybody else in this more than US$60bn industry. The pay is good and the perks are nice, for as long as they last. Very few things are as fickle as the priorities of the aid establishment.

But here’s the rub.

If there is one thing the Senegalese excel in, it’s talk. “Wakh rek,” only talk, is a frequent referral not only to the increasingly irrelevant political class but also to the fact that work gets a lot more talked about than actually done. In an extremely rich place like the Netherlands, this has become a national pastime but then the Dutch can afford it – up to a point. They will eventually find out that holding meetings and shifting boxes do not constitute an economy. But that’s their problem.

What we don’t need here is more people who know how to talk; the law students will learn that in college – if the professor can be bothered to show up. What we need are people who know how things are made and done. We need entrepreneurs, like Aissa Dione, people who create factories, as the Nigerian industrialist AlikoDangote is doing.

On the Autoroute, a few metres from my flat: we want to work at Dangote cement.

On the Autoroute, a few metres from my flat: we want to work at Dangote cement.

We need people who can work and ensure that homes stay dry during the next rainy season, people who can fix schools and universities so that they start fulfilling their educational promises, people who can fix the deeply dysfunctional water and electricity systems. And so on. We emphatically do not need any more administrators, bureaucrats or people who can organise workshops and training sessions.

Oh and we need the outdated colonial laws fixed – so that the people who make things happen and create jobs are not obstructed, blocked, harassed, frustrated and thwarted Every Single Step Of The Way.

And listening lessons? Coming from a US-based organisation I find that, well let’s keep this polite, a bit rich. The times I was in the dear old USA I have been awestruck by the depth of the love affair Americans have with their own voices. It’s a place where political debate mainly consists of two people standing with their backs to each other and shouting ‘You’re wrong!!!’ (or worse) at each other. Where the soundbite was invented. And you are coming over here to teach us….wakh rek.

Hey, Open Society, I have a job for you: pulling the other one.