Posts Tagged ‘Angola’

Sidiki and Mamacita: a Malian love story from Hell

November 3, 2020

‘Oh, they knew for years that he was doing it. Everybody knew!’ 

“He”, in this account by a colleague of mine is Sidiki Diabaté, arguably Mali’s biggest musical star and export. He produces syrupy love songs, invariably accompanied by videos that feature large bungalows, swimming pools, big cars, expensive clothes – and jewellery that bedecks beautiful women. Mariam Sow, affectionately known as ‘Mamacita’, would not have been out of place in these videos. She was Sidiki’s girlfriend and it is her we should be mostly talking about. 

This story has nothing to do with sweet syrup or jewellery and that’s where the “doing it” part of the opening quote comes in. It began on September 14, when Mamacita put photos on her Tik Tok account, showing a body. The body was covered in wounds and bruises, as if someone had been using whips, fists and even sharp instruments to inflict pain and damage on the victim. Mamacita made it unequivocally clear that the body in the picture was hers and that the scars and bruises were the result of the actions of her boyfriend, with whom she had been living for as much as six years. She told a Senegalese television station that she had been held captive for months and that she had been hit with electric cables. Probably other things too. 

Let’s get the eternal question out of the way first: why stay? I can give you a number of reasons, and that’s speaking from experience. First, your abuser is not only an abuser. He or she also has qualities that attracted you to him/her in the first place. Your abuser is still capable of either turning on the charm or simply showing you why and how you fell for them in the first place. It is only when the balance flips decisively that you start thinking that this relationship may be unhealthy and you should be leaving. This is a long drawn-out process. 

The second reason is best summarised in that short English phrase: it is the hope that kills you. In short, you never lose hope that sometime, somehow – and preferably as a result of your benign interventions – your abuser will change and/or improve. It takes time and effort to be disabused of that notion. Which brings me to the third reason: normality. Abusive relationships tend to adopt a pattern: abuse – resistance – fights – make up – abuse – resistance – fights – make up and so on, ad nauseam. Gradually, you begin to regard this pattern as normal. It takes a blinding flash of insight on your part or (more often) external intervention to snap you out of this doom-laden reverie. Hence the efforts abusers put into isolating you, either by simply preventing you from getting out or by throwing an almighty tantrum if and when you do de-isolate. It is a highly pernicious game they play and Mamacita was, by all accounts, subjected to all of this. 

And to violence, at the hands of an entitled violent little brat, who counted the equally dysfunctional DJ Arafat from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire among his friends. He paid just under €11,000 for Arafat’s funeral, after the Ivorian icon rode himself to death last year, whilst doing ‘demonstrations’ with his beloved motorbike on a public bridge in Abidjan. In an ante-echo of Mamacita’s, the fate of the female journalist Arafat injured during his deadly antics was of no interest to his fans. 

Sidiki’s family has asked for forgiveness, and I think this includes his father Toumani (yes, that Toumani, arguably the best kora player the world has ever known). Even – and to my massive astonishment – Oumou Sangaré added her voice to those pleading for forgiveness, a plea she later retracted. Others have joined her.

Indeed, this may astound you. Large chunks of Mali’s music scene have migrated to Camp Sidiki, which decided from the moment that Mamacita broke her story to go as low as inhumanly possible to tarnish her name and save their hero. One commentator on social media summarised rather awkwardly that a minority painted Sidiki as the devil incarnate, while a rather larger portion went out of its way to paint Mamacita as manipulative. Highly suggestive below-the-belt remarks were directed at his now former girlfriend (like I said: no low is low enough for these people). Some went still further and claimed that she, a poor girl from Guinea with a troubled family history, was being used by feminists to destroy Mali’s top selling artist. In short, they wheel out the tired old conspiracy trope, to which activists like Fatou Harber (Tubuntu Woy on Facebook and her friends have only one reply: to hell with that nonsense. A demonstration on the streets of Bamako, late September, beautifully captured by the very talented photographer Ousmane Makaveli, featured placards that said among other things: “You beat a drum. Not your wife.” 

From the demonstration at the Place de l’Indépendance. Retrieved from afrik.com

Mamacita’s lawyers have recounted what their client has told them: Sidiki stands accused of (at the very least) sequestration and causing grievous bodily harm. Those syrupy love songs suddenly sound not just hypocritical but downright sinister. Meanwhile, Camp Sidiki elected it necessary to leak a sextape onto the internet, in which the girl from Guinea apparently was a participant. No, I have not seen it and I never will. 

Just under a fortnight after Mamacita released her images, Sidiki was finally arrested. And while African Muzik Magazine Awards (Afrimma) did the honourable thing and removed his nominations, musicians playing for other well-known Malian artists went on a demonstration in Paris, demanding his release. A Dutch radio maker, journalist and blogger, Alie de Vries, also a hugely committed fan of Malian music, had enough of the double standards and pulled the plug on her Music from Mali channel. You can read her comments on the events here. It is called “The fallen star” and written in Dutch. The damage to the carefully curated image of Mali’s musicians, frequently met with the starry-eyed gaze of Western adulation, could be considerable. 

Will justice be done? This is a hard question to answer, even today, when the political protection the Diabatés used to enjoy has been yanked away following the August 18 coup that removed president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and his clans from power. (The Diabatés, father and son, were part of the campaign for the re-election of the deposed president.) The other problem is that, like everywhere else in the world, a prominent position means that you can literally get away with murder. I still have the article from an Angolan newspaper in which it is described how a high-ranking military officer escapes the law after he has drunk-driven a schoolgirl to her death on the Ilha de Luanda and makes it so that the journalists covering this scandal and the family sharing their grief with the newspaper are subjected to threats. We do not have many intrepid journalists wanting to pursue a story featuring the violent acts allegedly committed (yes, even here we must retain the principle of the presumption of innocence, however difficult) by one of Mali’s biggest selling artists. But we should not lose hope, as activists have argued. This case is so terrible that it could be a marker for change. 

office du tourisme, Mali

Indeed, impunity seems almost written into the DNA of the elites, of which Sidiki is most decidedly a part. It takes one visit to one of Bamako’s most exclusive discotheques to get a sample of that. The place, called Ibiza, is a horrid hell of bad taste, awful music played extremely loud, overpriced drinks and unpleasant people, where nauseating entitlement mingles with utter disdain for those lower in the pecking order, like the taxi driver who was beaten up for not getting out of the way quick enough as a luxury car was looking for a place to park. To the surprise of no one, the lowlifes who perpetrated this act were said to be Sidiki’s mates, cut from the same cloth of those who went out of their way to diminish Mamacita in every way they could, reducing her to nothing and the violence meted out to her as a non-event. Ibiza, also the scene of shootouts, is a showcase of the moral decrepitude of Mali’s elites that got so bad that people were willing to go out on the streets in their thousands to ask – and even die – for the departure of Bamako’s champaign class, and applauded when soldiers took them away.

Anyone who has ever lived through short or prolonged periods of abuse (psychological, physical, or both) knows that any and all abuse is a full negative and should have no place in the place you call your home. Justice must take its course. If Sidiki is found guilty he must go to jail. What this means for his career is irrelevant. To those still agonizing about his talent and worried about his future and asking for forgiveness I would direct these questions: where is Mamacita in all this? Does she not deserve compassion and justice? Should you not worry about her future? Or do you just continue to spit in her face, like so many in Mali’s musical community are currently doing? Will you help her get up and reconstruct her life? The answers to those questions will tell you a lot about yourself. 

Myth and betrayal in an asbestos town (part one)

September 10, 2020

About the documentary Lamentations of Judas, shot in Pomfret, South Africa.

 

The desolation of an abandoned mining camp that serves as the backdrop for a Passion Play with an all-African cast. The life stories of Angolan war veterans, who are the main actors in the Passion Play. The theme: betrayal. More precisely: the betrayal by one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, of Jesus Christ, about to be executed by the Romans who had colonised the Middle East, where the story takes place.

Alright, you have probably lost me there. Allow me to continue and it will all make sense towards the end.

Lamentations of Judas is the last documentary made by the Dutch filmmaker Boris Gerrets, who died in March this year. In a short interview in English the film’s producer, Eric Velthuis explains how he came across a snippet of information about the South African town of Pomfret, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, a stone’s throw away from the border with Botswana. And he was intrigued: had anyone ever heard of a group of soldiers from Angola who had fought for the Apartheid regime and had been left marooned in a dilapidated town next to an abandoned asbestos mine where Portuguese was the main spoken language?

Turns out, quite a few had. There had been stories in various South African newspapers, more about that later. But the idea that African soldiers would fight for a government that made Africans third class citizens in their own country was something that just did not compute in a rational mind.

So they went to Pomfret and were met with a wall of stony silence. Which, given the context, was entirely predictable.

Most of the men, especially the older men who will make their appearance in the film, later, were fighting for the liberation of their country, Angola, against the Portuguese colonial regime. The war had started in 1961 and most of these men were fighting for the Frente Nacional de Libertaçao de Angola (FNLA), led by the charismatic but notoriously intolerant Holden Roberto, traits he shared with all of Angola’s post-independence leaders.

The FNLA was mostly based in the north of the country and consisted for a large part of BaKongo, people who have lived there for centuries. Support came from many different sides but arrived through Zaïre, a country whose leader (Mobutu Sese Seko) was a Western asset in the ‘Cold’ War with the Soviet Union. This put the FNLA at loggerheads – and indeed in hot fighting battle – with another liberation movement, the MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertaçao de Angola), a nominally Marxist movement that was to form the first post-independence government in the capital, Luanda, led by the poet, president and ruthless killer Agostinho Neto. The MPLA received enthusiastic military support from Cuba and rather reluctant assistance from the Soviet Union. (Later, of course, another murderously charismatic individual by the name of Jonas Savimbi would break off his alliance with Holden Roberto, set up his own movement UNITA and become the prime asset of the United States in the deadliest proxy war between the two superpowers of the ‘Cold’ War, which would last until 2002, when Angolan troops killed Savimbi, thus ending 27 years of hostilities that may have killed one million Angolans.)

32 Battallion. Retrieved from za.pinterest.com

Still with me? This is real history, in which hundreds of Angolan men were caught up, ground down and spewed out into that old asbestos camp called Pomfret, and abandoned.

Here’s what happened next, back in those tumultuous 1970s.

The presidents of Zaïre and Angola made their peace, which resulted in Holden Roberto getting booted out of Mobutu’s country and his FNLA fighters left to their own devices (as you will see, this is a recurrent theme in the lives of these men). And in the meantime, two other things happened: a military coup in Portugal (Revolução dos Cravos) in 1974 put an end to one of the last fascist governments in Europe (the other was in next-door Spain) and the new soldier rulers immediately started to remedy the cause that had made them cease power in the first place: those idiotic colonial wars they were fighting on behalf of the government they had just overthrown, in East Timor, in Mozambique, in Guinea Bissau, in Cabo Verde and, indeed, in Angola.

And in the same year, the South African Army started arriving in Angola because the last thing they wanted was a majority black government in Luanda that was also – horror of horrors – avowedly Marxist in nature. And the South Africans came across some of those old FNLA fighters and adopted them. A Colonel by the name of Jan Breytenbach has been associated with forging them into what they would become: the most terrifying counter-insurgency force in the Southern African region, the 32 Battallion, nicknamed Os Terríveis, the Terrible Ones. “They never lost a single battle,” gushed one commenter under a short South African film about Pomfret that appeared on YouTube in January 2008.

As they were taken to Nambia to fight against the liberation movement there, Angola descended into civil war. Savimbi turned UNITA into the anti-MPLA fighting force that the FNLA never was and president Neto’s government in Luanda ordered a purge (it was literally called A Limpeza, The Cleanup) of the more radical elements in the MPLA. The May 1977 mass killing may have cost up to 30 thousand people their lives. It followed a supposed failed coup and is, up to this day, not discussed inside Angola. It is also the subject of a book I reviewed four years ago.

That’s enough history for today. I will take you back to Pomfret and the film by way of Namibia and South Africa in the second part of this review, comning in a few days.

Mali. Again (part five of six)

August 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Socialist snobs

September 1, 2014

A new book uncovers a part of Angola’s yet to be written history

 

Every nation has some days in its calendar that stand out as occasions for festivities or remembrance. The Netherlands remember the dead of World War Two on May 4 and celebrate national liberation from Nazi occupation the next day. Guinea has at least two reasons to pay special attention to September 28: the prelude to independence in 1958 and a massacre in the capital’s largest stadium 51 years later. Some have gained global notoriety: July 4 in the United States; July 14 in France; August 6, when the first nuclear device in world history was detonated over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

But some countries go to extraordinary lengths to suppress any and all memory to what should be a national event, for good or ill. Angola is such a place and May 27, 1977 is the date its government wants forgotten. What happened on that day is the subject of a book by the former BBC correspondent in Angola, Lara Pawson.

All credit to the Angolan government’s success in suppressing information it does not like and memories it wants its subjects to forget: when Pawson arrived in Angola she had never heard of the vinte e sete de maio; it only lived on in the nation’s underground memory. She came across it when witnessing the suppression of a tiny anti-government demonstration. Most people, she was told, live in fear and in the words of one, ‘completely tranquil.’ According to her informants this can be traced back directly to what happened on May 27, 1977.

On that day, rebellious troops briefly took possession of the national radio station, staged a raid on the capital Luanda’s central prison and freed its inmates. There was an anti-government demonstration. The response was swift and brutal. The leaders of the uprising were hunted down and killed; the Sambizanga neighbourhood in Luanda, seen as a centre of the rebellious movement, was severely punished with the loss of many lives. The 9th Brigade, which had supported the uprising, was decimated. Cuban troops, who were in Angola to help the MPLA government against US and South African-backed invasions, were in the forefront. ‘We went on a demonstration and were met with Cuban bombs,’ was how one Sambizanga resident describes the May 27 events. How many died in the aftermath? Nobody knows but at the conservative end of the scale is “thousands” while others mention tens of thousands. But what was it and what was it all about? Pawson sets out to find answers to these questions.

In a London library she finds the official version of events, issued by the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, or MPLA but evidently not available in Angola itself. After all, the vinte e sete never happened, right? But the official MPLA document darkly mentioned “factionalism” as a menace to party unity and identified two men, popularly known as Nito Alves and Zé Van Dúnem as the ringleaders. Alves was the president of a popular football club, Progresso de Sambizanga. Football and politics have had a symbiotic relationship in Angola; during the anticolonial struggle involvement with the administration of football clubs served as a cover for political activity.

According to the MPLA Political Bureau, the Alves/Van Dúnem plot was percolating throughout party structures and it therefore had to be dealt with in the only way the party knew how: violent repression, which duly happened in the wake of May 27. The MPLA Politbureau renamed the factionalist movement and called it an attempted coup while dropping more dark hints, this time about foreign imperialist involvement, which made the bloody repression of Alves, Van Dúnem and their civil and military sympathisers all the more easy. In one chapter, Pawson recalls the story of one soldier who spent nights in his entirely darkened apartment while security forces loyal to the government (“all whites and mixed-race,” he says) went looking for him. The events were bloody. But what was it all about?

Pawson book cover

The official MPLA version falls apart as the book progresses but it becomes clear that there is not a single explanation for what happened on and after May 27, 1977. Certainly, it was about the direction the ruling MPLA should take and most accounts take the view that Alves and his people were getting exasperated by the increasingly bourgeois line the party was taking. They were far more radical. But other issues got in the way too. There may have been personal scores to settle, some may have wanted to really overthrow the government of president Agostinho Neto but what most definitely also played its part was the explosive issue of race and class.

During the four centuries that the Portuguese ran Angola (first the coast and then the interior) a complex racial hierarchy had evolved with whites at the top, three mixed race categories in the middle and blacks at the bottom. These categories all too often coincided with the station of life people occupied: blacks were almost universally poor and excluded from lots of economic activity while whites served as anything from administrators to taxi drivers. For centuries, mixed race people were working as pombeiros, whose job it was to sate the Portuguese unstoppable appetite for black slaves from Angola’s vast interior. Four hundred years of Portuguese rule had resulted in a country where the races mixed with each other but also had this toxic hierarchy to adhere to.

And this also permeated the anticolonial revolution. It was almost exclusively led by white and mixed-race intellectual Marxists who excelled in revolutionary rhetoric but could not help but look down on their fellow black Angolans. Socialist snobs would be the best way to describe them. Even the rebellious movement could not escape it, as Pawson discovers when she interviews the brother of Zé Van Dúnem, one of the slain rebel leaders. ‘We should really minimise the role of Nito (Alves,bp),’ the brother says. After all, he was not of the same pedigree. Elsewhere he is described as pé descalça, someone who goes barefoot. And he was black.

And racist – against whites, insists a Portuguese man. He was also caught up in the vinte e sete events but refuses to talk to Pawson about the events and instead gives her his books. He thinks the Neto presidency was a disaster but that Alves would probably have been even worse, because he hated whites and mixed-race people. This is of course unverifiable, but there are hints throughout the book that an Alves presidency (if that was indeed what he was after) would have been every bit as intolerant as the one that eventually replaced Neto’s and has been in place ever since. José Eduardo dos Santos has overseen the transition of the Marxist elite at the helm of the MPLA into the venal elite that runs the country today. What has remained is the political asphyxiation of anyone and everyone that disagrees with the professed party line.

The simple fact that this book exists is good in and of itself. It challenges the government-mandated silence over the subject and indeed the official MPLA account of the events, even if precious few in Angola will probably have heard of it. We now have some idea of what happened there and then. What we are less sure about is the why. Was it a coup, a demonstration, a violent uprising, an intra-party rebellion or all of these? Was ideology the issue, or race, or personal feuding or all of these? How much foreign meddling was involved: Soviet, Cuban, South African, American?

In the Name of the People is a welcome first attempt at a comprehensive understanding of May 27, 1977 and required reading for all those who are interested in modern Angolan – or indeed, dare I say it – African – history. Here’s hoping that more will follow. Having said that, there are a few things that grate about the book. Indeed, the Angolan stories Pawson tells are rich material, fascinating, harrowing and moving. And she tells them well. But I was far less charmed by her musings from her London sitting room or personal ruminations when visiting dramatic places like the Mulemba cemetery where some of the victims of the vinte e sete have been buried in a mass grave or an entirely superfluous tale about a dog, mad or sick, humping its mother. More rigorous editing would have cut these passages.

And then there is of course the inevitable slew of anti-male comments endemic in too many books written by female journalists. British foreign journalism previously was “male-dominated”, which we know we must translate as “inherently evil”. There is also the passage where she feigns incomprehension at a “white British male” (the terminology is a dead giveaway) describing himself as “an ordinary worker”. Yes, in the highly charged Angolan racial context he obviously connected with the elite but that does not qualify Pawson to question the man’s self-description just because she comes from a society that has not had a single positive thing to say about “white males” for the past half century or so. Stuff like this has no place in a serious work of journalism, especially when the subject matter is so rich and so complex.