Posts Tagged ‘Alpha Condé’

And then there were…

January 30, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Col Mamady Doumbouya, Conakry September 2021

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

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

We can make a few educated guesses, though. 

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

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

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

Col Assimi Goïta, Bamako August 2020 and May 2021

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

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

Robert Mugabe: compassionate, violent, retired

November 22, 2017

I never met ex-president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But there was one occasion, an extremely tragic one, when we came within touching distance of each other.

He had come to visit the school where I was working as an English teacher. To be sure, the entourage was impressive: helicopter, convoy, security everywhere. But he was humble and clearly touched, as he went from parent to parent, holding their hands, looking into their eyes, sharing their grief. The parents, poor farmers from villages close to the school, had lost many of their children just a few months earlier in Zimbabwe’s worst bus accident, on August 3, 1991. Some families had buried two, even three of their loved ones, young talent they had pinned their hopes on; young talent we had been teaching.

I was impressed with his humanity. After all, he must have known what they felt. Robert Mugabe lost his son while in a Rhodesian prison in the 1960s. The white minority regime at the time did not give him permission to attend the funeral. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Compassion. It is a side of Zimbabwe’s former president that is not frequently shed light on. It is a side he showed at Regina Coeli Secondary School and it was a side known to the late Heidi Holland, who wrote Dinner With Mugabe, based on her encounters and interviews with him, his family and associates. She recalled how he had stopped at her house. ‘He was supposed to catch a train and after dinner I drove him to the station, leaving my baby at home alone because there wasn’t time to bundle him into the car. I was driving very fast, being rather anxious. The next day he rang me from a public callbox, asking me whether my baby was alright.’

(Photo credit: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images). Montage, as I understand it, made by Zambia Observer

Manicaland, Zimbabwe’s breathtakingly beautiful eastern mountain province, looms large in the country’s liberation struggle from white minority rule. Mugabe transited Manicaland as he left Rhodesia for newly-independent Mozambique, with the help of Chief Rekayi Tangwena, a legendary local leader in a place not far from Regina Coeli. Once in Mozambique, he joined the group leading the struggle for Zimbabwe, which ended in 1980. Mutare, the provincial capital, is where he caught his train. And as I was teaching there, many were able to point towards the mountains and caves where they hid during the long, dangerous and bloody liberation struggle – the same places where some of the surviving children found refuge after the bus accident.

‘It was not him who joined the struggle,’ Holland told me looking back on Mugabe’s political career, ‘the struggle found him. If left to his own devices, he would have become a headmaster, very prim and proper. He cared about education.’ Indeed: stories about his early years in State House tell us that after work in office he would gather the house staff and run classes with them.

The struggle found him because in spite of his humble beginnings he was well-educated and well-travelled, having worked in Ghana where he met his first wife Sally Hayfron. She supported him all the way through: from his return to Rhodesia, his imprisonment of more than ten years, the armed struggle and then finally to their triumphant arrival at State House, when his party had beaten all the odds and won a resounding victory.

Mutare. My former shopping centre. Photo from Wikipedia.

‘Why do you put the picture of this guy on the wall? It’s never there.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Once the election is over I’ll remove it again. I just don’t want my house smashed up because his picture is not on our wall.’

Family scene in Mutare, early 1980s. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front deployed vigilante groups throughout the land whenever there was an election and punished anyone who did not demonstrate enough enthusiasm in support of the party and its leader. A few hundred kilometres to the southwest of Mutare, in Matabeleland, the army’s notorious North Korea-trained Five Brigade was on a coordinated killing spree that left up to 20,000 people dead. Their crime: being close to what was considered an armed uprising against the government. It was a confrontation that was fuelled by the deep personal rivalry between Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo, who had led another liberation movement with a different ideological orientation. There were South African machinations behind it, as the apartheid state was destabilising all of its neighbours, through proxies, terrorist attacks and in open warfare until their 1988 defeat at Cuito Canavale in Angola put an end to its army operations abroad.

There was certainly trouble in Matabeleland but the government’s response was of a cruelty that scarred the province forever and strained relations with Harare. The name given to the mass murders was “Gukurahundi”, which translates as “the first rains that wash away the dust and the dirt”. It would not be the last time that Mugabe’s government would refer to people as garbage to be removed. “Operation Cleanup” was supposed to rid Harare’s streets of prostitutes. “Murambatsvina” was an electoral operation that physically removed hundreds of thousands of people from their (often makeshift) dwellings, preventing them from voting in their constituencies and thus handing the party and its leader another victory. In rural Zimbabwe, self-appointed war veterans terrorised the people into what was termed “voting correctly”. During another election-related wave of violence (this time in 2008, a particularly brutal episode), schools, once the pride and joy of the country, were turned into torture centres. And yes, sometimes I wonder what happened to the classrooms where I worked all those years ago.

Months after the president had left Regina Coeli, my school, news emerged that a quarter of a million euros, spontaneously collected by the ordinary women and men of Zimbabwe to help the grieving parents overcome their loss, had gone missing. The ruling party had stolen it. The rot had set in early and nothing was done to stop it. In fact, when war veterans rampaged through the party’s headquarters in 1997, smashing the furniture and eating the food in its well-stocked canteen, the party mouthpiece The Herald screamed “Hooligans” from its front page. The war veterans had enough of starving to death in the rural areas while fat cats high up in the party hierarchy grew even fatter on the backs of other people’s labour. That, in fact, was the origin of the movement. It was hi-jacked by political opportunists like the late Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, who forced Mugabe into a terrible deal. Here’s Heidi Holland once more.

‘Dennis Norman, a former minister with whom Mugabe got on very well, was close to the negotiations. He describes how Mugabe attended with two other ministers and then was told by the war vets that he must attend by himself. And rather uncharacteristically, he (Mugabe) agreed to this.’ Alone, the war vets arm-twisted the president into a deal he probably knew the country could not afford. After all, he had just sent thousands of troops into the DR Congo to prop up his friend Joseph Kabila and now he was to hand over truckloads of Zimbabwe dollars to tens of thousands of former freedom fighters he and his cronies had neglected. All the deal did was to inflict more damage on Zimbabwe’s already faltering economy. The ill-conceived and even worse executed “land reform” policy of the early 2000s provided more blows. There are optimists who think that the basics are still there and the economy can be turned around but the task will be immense.

And so, in 2017, twenty years after war veterans exposed his political vulnerability, Robert Mugabe finally gets what he has wanted for two decades: an escape from party politics. It was the army that kept him in power, it was Zimbabwe’s highly coordinated military – intelligence – police – prisons complex, inherited from the illegal Rhodesian white minority regime, that ensured he won election after election. And now that he has rubbed them the wrong way, intentionally perhaps, they have dropped him in favour of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s equally violent enforcer and eternal Number Two. The head is gone, the system that he built, because and in spite of himself, remains in all its rotten glory. Mugabe may have smiled his wry smile, as he heard the traitorous and treacherous hypocrites in the Politbureau and Parliament rapturously applaud his departure.

The man who spent the last twenty years of his reign being a consummate political survivor, has thrown his last roll of the dice. He will retire, not to Kutama, the village where he spent part of his traumatic youth – he lost his elder brother there after an accident with agricultural poison – but in all likelihood to a carefully guarded mansion, maybe in the same leafy Gun Hill area in Harare where he kept his old friend, Mengistu Haile Mariam, a more prolific murderer than he ever was, for 26 years. An intensely private man with a complex and turbulent past, a messy love life and a deeply ambivalent attitude towards power and politics, will now have the time to ponder what he has done to his country, the excellent, the good, the bad, the terrible and for some, undoubtedly, the unforgiveable. ‘A shame that he had to leave through the backdoor,’ Guinean president Alpha Condé commented shortly after Mugabe’s last-minute resignation. True perhaps, but it was Mugabe who made it so, just as he did throughout his long years at the helm. He should have stuck to education.