Posts Tagged ‘Bamako’

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 10, 2020

Part three – They know

 

Some years back, during one of those public debates broadcast by French world service radio (RFI) from time to time, I picked up a memorable one-liner from a member of the audience. The location was Lomé, and so he made a reference to the family that had been running his country, Togo, for half a century, primarily as a client state of France.

“When a member of our ruling elites falls ill, he or she takes the next plane to Paris, where hospital treatment is good and readily available. As a consequence, the state of the health care system in Togo is of no interest to them.”

This goes for many a nation. And so, these current headlines are in an odd way rather satisfying…

The late Robert Mugabe had a subscription to hospitals in Singapore, while his subjects died of preventable diseases in hospitals in Harare, Mutare, Bulawayo and Masvingo.

The rhetorically anti-imperialist first president of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré, died of heart failure in a Cleveland hospital.

Muhamandu Buhari, president of Nigeria regularly goes missing because of health scares. If you want to find him, you must go to London.

Paul Biya, the ailing president of Cameroon (in power since 1982) spends most of his time in or near a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland, a visitor to the country he is supposed to govern.

Depending on convenience and religious/ideological bent, you will find heads of state from the African continent occupying hospital beds in Moscow, Brussels, Riyadh, Beijing and sometimes in locations at either end of the continent: usually Rabat and Cape Town.

All this has now come to an end, thanks to Corona, because intercontinental flights have been suspended. Will this mean that the elites develop an interest in how hospitals in their own countries are run? This is not immediately evident. Just like terrorism, this virus is only an issue when they are directly affected. On the other end of the wealth spectrum, ordinary folks initially regarded Corona (which arrived mostly by plane) as a thing that affected “…them up there…nothing to do with us…”.

Not necessarily our problem….we just get on with our work…

But could this be changing?

There is a short-time perspective to this and a longer-term one.

Right now, there is an awareness among the authorities about the (usually poor) state of health care in the face of a looming menace. Whether said elites have developed a sense of their own responsibility in this regard remains to be seen. But they know. They know that things are not good. Years of neglect, devastating wars in some places, coupled with IMF-mandated austerity measures and the expectation that foreign NGOs would be there to pick up the slack have all played their part. Many large hospitals have developed a bad reputation, as places where you don’t go to get healed – but to die. Rural parts frequently lack even the basics.

There are also medical staff up and down this entire region with high levels of professionalism and a keen sense of public duty.  I have met many of them. It’s a fact that tends to be often forgotten, both here and in the global media. They know. They know better than anyone that they are working under extreme circumstances. They know there are not enough intensive care units, ventilators or even hospital beds available to deal with anything major.

And as a result, everybody and everything banks on prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Authorities ban large gatherings (well, some of them at least – I’ll come back to this later), close borders, enforce curfews and start campaigns to encourage social distancing (another headache as we have already seen and will see again later)

Live music, Mali’s pride and joy. Banned until further notice. But they’ll be back…

To date, prevention is working remarkably well. Mali has ample experience in this respect, as do Senegal, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. There are at present 87 confirmed cases in Mali, with 7 deaths and 22 recovered patients (according to statistics gathered at John Hopkins University Hospital in Washington), 59 confirmed cases according to the WHO. Here’s hoping it stays that way and that there will be no curve to flatten.

But inevitably there will come the longer-term question: will this outbreak be enough to start changing things around and concentrate elite minds towards creating decent basic services, to wit: water, electricity, health care, education, waste management? This, dear reader, is anybody’s guess. And that, in and of itself, is a deeply unsatisfying answer. But I have, at present, no other.

 

To be continued

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 8, 2020

Part two – How do you do social distancing when closeness brings you money?

 

March 26. I’m having a chat with a good friend and neighbour, who is part of a taxi business. We have just had the first of what is likely to be a long-ish series of very quiet nights. Immediately after the public confirmation of the first two cases of COVID-19, president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita announced a 9pm to 5am curfew.

This follows one week after public gatherings of over 50 were banned. This has meant the unthinkable: that quintessentially larger-than-life Bamako phenomenon, the Sunday Marriage, immortalised by Amadou & Mariam, can no longer take place. In addition, schools have been closed and now that the curfew is in full force the bars, restaurants and music clubs, already taking a hit from the less-than-50-only rule, will be closing entirely.

Another measure is the social distance rule for urban transport and this makes my friend’s life rather difficult.

“There’s already very few people out,” he says, “and with this rule I can only take two paying passengers at a time. It’s not worth it. Yesterday I drove around the city for five hours and collected – what… CFA7,500.” That’s 11 euros 43 cents, not enough to cover the petrol and the bribes.

“But,” he went on, “I will probably ride this out. How about the fellows on the Sotrama?” I had already noticed that those ubiquitous green minibuses – named after the long gone SOciété du TRAnsport du MAli – were becoming scarce. Not bad for road safety, as a good number of the (mostly) young men driving them are pretty reckless, if they’re not tired and overworked. A day starts as early as 5am and can go on until 10-11pm (when there is no curfew of course). Money must be given to the owner of the vehicle and what’s left gets divvied up between the driver and the parentikè (apprentice), who ushers the passengers in. Hang on, that’s after the traffic police and sometimes even les coxeurs have had their cut: the former a big slice, the latter a very small one, both paid on the spot.

Your Bamako transport at a glance: Chinese motorbikes (everywhere), private vehicle (increasing in number), taxis (always yellow) and your Sotrama neatly in the middle.

“So what happens,” I ask, “when the Sotrama must halve the number of passengers to respect the new social distance rule?”

“Oh, that’s simple. If you have some 20 passengers on board and they all pay 150 francs, say, you’ll get CFA3,000 for one ride.” And that’s not counting the numerous times people get on and off en route: whenever the apprentice bangs on the roof, the driver veers to the curb and stops. It is everybody’s job (yours and mine) to stay out of their way.

“Now they can only take ten…”

Cycling around the neighbourhood, I did see a few half-full Sotrama doing the rounds with drivers and apprentices looking even gloomier than they normally do. Of course: there’s zero money to be made from a half-full vehicle. And there’s definitely fewer of them on the streets.

In a country without any official safety net both your own money and the patience of the family you will now have to rely on run out pretty quickly. And then what? Your guess is as good as mine. But the longer this goes on, the harder it will get to grab that lowest rung of the ladder that is now disappearing out of sight as a thick Corona-mist hides it from view.

 

To be continued.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 6, 2020

Part one – hand gel.

 

We were late.

While most of the rest of the continent already had been affected, the number of cases in Mali remained stubbornly at zero.

But on March 25, finally, the news came: we have two suspected cases, more to follow. That same day, a run started on…no, not toilet paper, of course. Malians went after a much more useful product: alcohol-based hand gel. When I went out the next day I visited more than half a dozen chemists – one of the former French colonists’ leftovers is a chemist density to match that of Paris – with the following almost identical ritual.

Get off and park bicycle.

Move towards the now ubiquitous water reservoirs that had appeared out of nowhere in front of every chemist, bank, office block, supermarket, and wash hands.

Enter the premises.

Washing hands again, with that hand geld I was hoping to get my…er…hands on.

Being told, always with a smile, that no, sorry, we’ve run out. Désolé…

In one instance even being waved off, ever so friendly, before I asked…

All this in the baking heat because we have not only been officially admitted to Coronaland, we are also in the midst of the annual heatwave, which seems to be more extreme than ever before. It’s a bloody oven out there. 43 at least, cooling to mid-to-high twenties at night. And apart from the faintest of drizzles (normally known here as “the mango rains”) nothing happened.

Nope. Nothing happened.

Well, ok, I got one tiny plastic container with some hand gel like substance that looked suspiciously more like perfume than anything else but hey – if it does the job… In fairness, I must add that there were no frantic scenes of people in near-hysterics buying every toilet roll in sight and there was literally no sign of any panic buying. Just that gel, was all.

Covered in a fine layer of sweat and in great need of some bottled/canned liquid (orange juice, preferably) I finally arrived at the neighbourhood supermarket. And boy, are those sloping streets a pain in the neck with a merciless sun hammering you as you pedal along while taxis and the ubiquitous green Sotrama minibuses whizz past you while you try to remain steady and straight as you are forced into the thick layer of sand next to the tarred road…………

Lo and behold! The supermarket – water reservoir and soap parked outside and could you please wash your hands…? – sold more of the same sort-a-like hand gel thingies I had picked up earlier. But the next day they had found extra supplies from somewhere. In fact, it was a locally produced hand gel, which they proceeded to sell at the extortionate price of CFA8,000. That’s more than 12 euros. You will not find many Malians having so much money freely lying round somewhere. On the other hand, this is a nation of traders. And if you have the chance, do not ever let a good crisis go to waste… Now, do we need those face masks or not?

 

To be continued.

Drama down the road

February 28, 2020

Three weeks ago, Twitter alerted me to the fact that there had been an armed robbery down the road from my house. As usual, trying to find out where exactly this had occurred turned out to be slightly more complicated that I thought.

After all, you are in a city where giving directions goes something like this…:

‘Ok, you know the big road to the Second Bridge?’

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Alright. Now you arrive at the place where they are building this new office block. (Giving directions has to be flexible because Bamako never stops changing…) You know there’s a big hotel on the other side, right?’

‘Yes I do.’

‘Just continue beyond that point until you see a petrol station on your left.’

‘Shell or Total?’

‘Both actually. That’s where you turn left.’

‘Is that where the road goes down at an angle?’

‘That’s the one! Keep going until you see this brand new shop on your right hand side. It’s just after the garage of this bus company, of which the name escapes me now…’

‘Anyway, if I get lost, I’ll call you.’

Numerous calls later, you arrive at your destination, where your friend will be waiting for you, cool as a cucumber. Everyone is used to arriving late because of an unforeseen traffic jam (thanks to the city’s frequent accidents), getting lost, taxi drivers – notoriously bloody-minded – not listening to your directions, thinking there is a better way/shortcut that turns out to be a disaster….

 

Anyway. Back to the drama down the road. Was it the shop where I normally deposited my Orange Money credit, necessary to pay for the water, the electricity and my expensive internet connection?

No. I was told. Well in fact, something else had happened in front of that shop. Someone had been shot. It was not immediately clear whether this person had survived the attack but the shot had been fired by one of the robbers, who had fled the scene of their crime in different directions.

There had in fact been four robbers, it turned out, targeting an Orange Money depot not far from the one I use. They had been preceded by someone pretending to be a client who needed to take some 500 euros in cash. Was that available? It was. And that was enough to set the whole train in motion.

The two main tools these brigands use are literally everywhere: light motorbikes and mobile phones. Guns are relatively rare. However, since vigilante justice is not unknown in these parts the robbers made sure they were sufficiently armed to deter any counter-action. But there were a few neighbourhood youths willing to make sure these miscreants were going to regret the assault on this peaceful and law-abiding part of town. The shots that subsequently rang out came from the thieves taking aim at those in hot pursuit, using similar Chinese-build motorbikes. It must have been quite the scene: the Wild West comes to Bamako…

But the cup of indignation really overflowed when a few went down to see the police officers that are a feature of every busy intersection in the Malian capital. Their job is a combination of regulating traffic whenever necessary and pulling motorbikes, taxis and minibuses to the side in search of infractions, for which then a small settlement must be paid. There is fierce competition within the force over the most lucrative of these points. Those in good books with their bosses get the juiciest locations with the best turnover – and the boss is of course expected to get a cut.

The spot closest to where the robbery had occurred…is one of those juicy locations. So imagine a few upset and perhaps rather excited youths and their motorbikes barrelling down on these cops and their cosy little business, with the request to send a few folks to the scene of the crime. You want what??? We’re traffic police, not our job, lads. Besides, you can see we’re busy.

Neighbours said that during the entire half hour that this drama lasted not a single representative of the numerous uniformed police forces, intervention brigades, special whatever had bothered to show up. A visitor to Bamako who is more used to the mean streets of Southern and Eastern Africa can be utterly amazed at the cavalier way in which security is handled here. Taxi windows never close, car doors remain unlocked, people leave their shops unattended…it indicates a certain kind of genius: how to throw millions of people together in a relatively small place and still manage to keep it more or less habitable on a human level.

Humanity is not in short supply. Money is.

Events like these serve as reminders that Bamako is not always this superficially relaxed and happy-go-lucky place. Orange Money depots have been targets of armed banditry before. The problem may well get worse. Citizens are used to the fact that those who are supposed to ensure their security in administration and military enforcement are either indifferent or also delinquent. Ordinary folks, in the main, remain outwardly as unconcerned about this state of affairs as that friend you’ve kept waiting for an hour. But when Malians start losing their legendary flexibility and tolerance in numbers, you will see those doors and windows close here as well. I certainly hope not to have to be there to witness it. There is a reason I prefer Bamako, Ouagadougou, Dakar and even Abidjan to the likes of Nairobi, Jo’burg or Harare…

For now the sounds you are still most likely to hear at night in this part of the world are drums, guitars and singing voices, rather than gunshots and screeching tyres. On further inquiry, apparently nobody died that drama-filled evening. I still cycle down that road every day, even late at night. Long may that continue, too. Just don’t bank on it.

The last light out or the first light in?

December 29, 2019

There’s a bunch of things I could not do this year.

One of those things is happening as we speak: I should have been at the second round of Guinea Bissau’s presidential elections.

But I’m not, for a highly familiar reason: ambition outstripped means.

As Boxer (remember him?) would tell himself: “I must work harder.” This 21st Century version grumbles to himself: “Yeah – and stop faffing about on social media all the time if you please…………….”.

In 2020 I shall become rich.

One can dream…

I report from a region that may be entering its most crucial decade since the majority of its constituent countries gained their political independence, some two generations ago (Liberia excepted; it got there earlier). The challenges are legion. The ambitions to deal with them not always in evidence. And the means, the resources…?

We’re not getting the full picture.

A friend who visited Bamako recently was surprised at the number of new vehicles on the streets. Sure enough, the vast majority of ordinary citizens still have the choice between their motorbikes, armies of sturdy vintage Mercedes taxis (painted yellow) and the ubiquitous battered green Sotrama minibuses. All share the ambition to defy the laws of gravity – all lack the means. So they stick to defying the rules of the road instead: biking around town – with or without an engine – is akin to being in possession of a permanent death wish. (I had a few escapes this year, including the moment when out of nowhere a two-wheeled missile appeared, rocketing through a red light, missing me by an inch and – of course – very annoyed that I had had the very bad idea of being in his way. A simple short courteous nod of the head from both sides diffused the situation.)

It’s the Bamako way.

A Bamako sunset.

But yes – those new vehicles. There’s a surprisingly large number of them. Which seems to suggest that in spite of the many problems besetting this country, wealth continues to be accumulated. Bamako today feels a bit like Luanda in the 1990s: a bubble where folks can continue whatever it is they are doing – living, working, partying – unperturbed by what’s going on a few hours’ drive away. And what is going on, is horrifying. 

Death is stalking the land and nowhere more so than in the border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Who are its agents? What we read is: ‘terrorists’. Or ‘bandits’. They call themselves ‘fighters for the True Faith, or similar.

They are almost always young men. And the greatest risk is that they will come to regard their exploits in the same way those young former fighters I interviewed years ago, in Liberia. They often said that after the war they considered themselves unemployed.

Language matters a lot here. Sowing death and destructing, looting and pillaging was considered ‘work’; invading a defenceless village was equated to being on ‘a mission’ or ‘an operation’, in which the motto invariably was: Pay Yourself. I bring this up because I am hearing that the self-styled jihadists who are sowing death and destruction in three Sahel countries are getting paid for their ‘work’.

By whom?

That is what we all desperately would like to know.

Not in the clear…

A host of theories have been launched on that now fully discredited system of deliberate misinformation, formerly known as the social media. Some believe it is France. Others think the source of misery must be located around the Gulf. The truth, if I may be so bold, is most likely a lot closer to home. While there may well have been an inflow of money into these arenas – from European powers that paid for the release of their citizens taken hostage in the desert and likely also from the Gulf – it looks as if these armed groups are increasingly capable to survive without outside assistance. You must understand that we are dealing with a much scaled-down economy here. In a non-urban setting, people survive on very little and there are sources of income available that can more than adequately cover the basic needs of a relatively small armed gang. Including arms and ammunition.

Artisanal gold mines can be exploited.

Protection money can be arranged with transporters, traders and other businesspeople – or politicians and even army brass.

And in addition:

The travelling public can be robbed.

Cattle can be stolen and sold.

Shops can be raided and their contents sold.

Property looted and sold.

Homes broken into; possessions sold.

Taken together, that’s a cool amount of loot to be taken and monetized. And if, as the fear is now, these gangs move south, into the much richer coastal states, the amount of stuff to be grabbed increases dramatically.

Big coastal cities…are they really heading there? Yes, say some experts, and you’d better be prepared.

This, to me, has little if anything to do with the adherence to an ideology, or a religion. What we are looking at here is a series of criminal enterprises that was triggered into acceleration by a previous criminal enterprise: the France – UK – US – NATO–engineered toppling of the consummate opportunist and geo-political survivor from Libya, Moamar Khadaffi. Read well: this act was not at the origin of the problems in the Sahel – Wahabist meddling in the region, for instance, goes back at least 60 years as does the economic, political and social marginalisation of the people living there – but it did something crucial: it provided the catalyst.

And what is the answer to the ensuing mayhem? This is where the question of ambition and wherewithal comes into play again. The money does not go where it is needed  – as anecdotally evidenced by those vehicles I mentioned earlier – and as far as the protagonists are concerned, this is perfectly fine. Irresponsible politicking takes precedence over serious counter-action. Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire are only the latest examples of this but the very same can be said of the three Sahel states.

It resembles the mood in Monrovia when a certain Charles Taylor took 150 men across the border from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia at Buutuo on Christmas Eve 1989, and used the BBC Africa Service to announce to the world that his intention was to march onto the capital. Six months later he was there. Nobody was prepared. 25 years later, another threat, in the form of a disease, started in the remotest areas, far away from three capitals (Monrovia, Conakry, Freetown) and was not taken seriously in similar fashion until thousands were dead. Is history repeating itself, once again? Looks like it…

It’s begun. (Source: French ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Neither in the capitals nor in the capitals that support these capitals does there appear to be a sense of real urgency. Sure, there are the obligatory strong-worded declarations from the regional G5 Force Sahel. And there are similar declarations at UN meetings.

But doubling down on the military option has had limited and often questionable results. Twitter recently circulated imagery purporting to show dead ‘terrorists’. There were about a dozen bodies in the picture, taken in northern Burkina Faso. They were all young men, dressed in the same way you see young men dressed in many places across this region: simple (T) shirt, threadbare trousers, flip-flops. Were these the dreaded terrorists that the army had killed? I saw poor, marginalised (and now dead) youngsters who may have succumbed to the siren call of those selling the benefits of banditry with the snakeoil of religion.

Expensive foreign-owned drones will not persuade them to change their ways. Neither will expensive foreign-run operations like Barkhane. Nor will any of the plethora of hearts-and-minds programs. Seen in isolation, they are pointless. Seen in combination, they become an exercise in hypocrisy: you wish to change people’s minds by telling them to be nice? While bombing them to hell? That worked miracles in Afghanistan, did it not?

What will change minds in the villages and towns across this vast land is the tangible reality that their inhabitants have a stake in their country. They currently do not. For some, guns now provide a temporary purpose in life, as they did in the wars of the 1990s. But what is the ultimate aim, beyond survival? I don’t think there is one. Some of their leaders might be dreaming of a caliphate, while they actually create a Boulevard of Crime – just like Charles Taylor rebranded the extreme looting spree he initiated as ‘The Revolution’.

He’s looking on. On Avenida Francisco Mendes, central Bissau, close to the Parliament building and the country’s most expensive hotel.

Yes, it’s all stuff and nonsense. But absent anything else, especially a legit economic activity that will provide people with the means to have an orderly existence, the gun will have to do. You counter this problem by turning the Sahel into a zone that has economic viability without crime. And you use smart human intelligence to find the gang leaders and put them away – preferably for good.

True revolutions were led by people like Amilcar Cabral, whose thoughts have as much relevance today as they did half a century ago. And as I sit in this dust-filled office mourning my absence from the country he founded, where today’s election will decide the difference between stagnation and (some) hope to progress, I can but reflect on the extent to which those who followed in the footsteps of the early firebrands have squandered what was given to them. Let’s be clear: that squandering often happened with the active assistance of external powers: the two sides on the ‘Cold’ War and/or the former colonial powers. But ultimately, the blame must be laid where it belongs: at home, at the feet of those who did the squandering.

What is happening in the Sahel today simply confirms the dictum that you reap what you sow. Even better, paraphrased: this is what you reap when you don’t sow. The message emerging from the mayhem in the Sahel is squarely directed at the political elites.

Shape Up or Ship Out.

This problem is far from over. Tackling it head-on means starting where the roots are. And since roots are local, they can be found in the red earth of this region. That’s where the search for a solution begins. If it is then found that there are local and/or foreign actors standing in the way – they must be told – and made – to leave.

Have an excellent (or at least a slightly less insane) 2020.

A tunnel with two dead ends

June 17, 2019

It’s only six-and-a-half years ago when Malian citizens came out in their numbers waving French flags and saluting the then president François Hollande during one of the few truly triumphant moments he must have felt in the course of his otherwise depressingly dreary presidency.

The occasion was of course the relatively quick and easy success of Opération Serval, principally designed to ensure that a jihadist fighting force that occupied Mali’s North and had just crossed a vital line at Konna, in the centre of Mali, never reached Bamako where it could abduct, kill and maim a potential of 7,000 French residents, take hold of the airport and send young men to France with ideas and plans to bomb cafes.

I am, to this day, absolutely convinced that Malians never figured in the president’s calculations.

Fast forward to 2019 and that feeling of adoration Malians felt towards the French has entirely evaporated. Earlier this year a 30-years-old French medic was killed in the border region between Mali and Burkina Faso; Facebook exploded with joy. “Good riddance” and “Allah be praised” were among the mildest reactions. What has changed?

The answer to this question is: too little. Back in 2013 there was an expectation that the French army with its superior firepower and sophisticated reconnaissance capabilities would put an end to this jihad nonsense in short order and that would be it.

Well, they didn’t. Instead, the Opération Serval has morphed into Opération Barkhane, which covers the entire Sahel Region, not just Mali and is headquartered in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. This is a country that has been ruled for almost thirty years with an iron fist by Idriss Déby Itno, installed by the French secret services and kept in power by Chad’s battle-hardened troops and on three occasions (2005, 2008 and 2019) by swift French military action.

Opération Barkhade has been joined by a UN stabilisation mission with the longest name (MINUSMA) and highest death toll in UN history and a regional anti-terrorist force called G5. Also count in the support and training (and perhaps even combat) missions by the European Union, the United States and heaven knows who else. So, as a Malian citizen you are seeing thousands upon thousands of foreign soldiers entering your country and for all you know they are simply overseeing a situation getting progressively worse. What are you going to make of it?

You are going to think that they might be here for different reasons. This, for instance, is a placard that was carried in one of the numerous anti-French demonstrations happening in the Malian capital and covered in the June 14 edition of the news site Bamada.net

No, there is no evidence for this, as usual. But the sentiment is real, it’s all-pervasive and it is due to the fact that what all these foreign missions actually DO has no visible relationship with what it says on the tin. Add to this the blunders committed by operatives of Opération Barkhane, which now get splashed across the pages of the digital media, and you can easily see that whatever goodwill French military operations had in Mali and beyond has gone, probably for good.

And there is more.

Not only is France now the object of undiluted hostility coming from many a Sahelian country (to the extent that demonstrations are allowed; in Chad the government stops demonstrations with a single SMS message sent to everyone who owns a cellphone) but the French presence is also the object of an entire raft of conspiracy theories, one even more outlandish than the other. Two of the most persistent are that French troops are looking for minerals in the North of Mali (one such story used French troops clearing landmine material in the Central African Republic as evidence) and that France is behind the most recent spate of horrific mass killings that have shocked the nations of Mali and Burkina Faso. One highly prolific twitter account delights in sharing links with stories about French misfortunes and misbehaviours, often using spin that freely crosses the border between information and fake news. A terribly ineffective way to get France out of Africa, if you ask me.

Not lacking in clarity. From Bamada.net

The reason for this wave of outright hostility, and more often than not coming from digital media savvy youth, is history. There is a huge shipload of stories about crimes committed by France, also covered on this blog, for instance its deliberate and destructive negligence in the Central African Republic and its disguised and downright criminal support for Biafra in Nigeria’s civil war. And, of course, who can forget Ivorian writer (now editor-in-chief of the country’s state newspaper Fraternité Matin) Vincent Konan’s deadly satirical Afro-sarcastic Chronicles, which I reviewed here?

There are other issues I have not covered, but which have been written about in books like La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République by the late François-Xavier Verschave. Indeed (if I may), my own book on Guinea deals with the French shenanigans in that country at length. So there is more than enough historical fuel for anger against the one former colonial power that seems unable to just pack its bags and go.

And present fuel, too.

One of the things that irks people from Dakar to Niamey is the arrogant attitude that seems to come from too many European individuals who stay in this part of the world. I saw a little example of that many years ago and I have no doubt that there are many more. (In nominally Francophone West Africa everyone who is white is automatically assumed to be French.) One by one, they may seem insignificant incidents but together they add up and too often you see a distinct lack of self-reflection on the part of white people ordering black people about as if it is 1949, not 2019. That definitely must stop.

And the other thing is…opacity. Nothing fuels rumour mongering more than lack of credible information about why you are here and what it is that you do. The many bland statements from French ministers do not fill the information gap. These days, every report about how Opération Barkhane “neutralised” 20 or 30 or 50 (supposed) jihadists is met with complete and utter derision and instructions to “get the H*ll out of my country”. It also renders any rational debate about why France is here and what it actually does, completely impossible.

It is, for instance, rather difficult to discuss France’s role on the continent with someone who is utterly convinced that France will collapse the day it pulls out (or preferably gets kicked out) of Africa when trade statistics put the contribution to French external commerce of the entire continent at 5% with none of the former colonies playing a major role: Nigeria, South Africa and Angola are France’s top three trading partners. Of course, a number of French companies would face difficulties if they withdrew (the logistics and media empire of Bolloré, oil major Total, the uranium company Orano, beverage king Castel and the infrastructure emperor Bouygues being obvious examples) but most if not all of them would survive.

Vessels off Las Palmas, not so long ago a major destination for migrants from West Africa and located on the nearest Europe-controlled Atlantic islands off the African coast.

What we have, in the end, are two sets of unhealthy fixations between the two: most French care about Africa in two ways: immigrants and terrorists and how to keep them out. One of France’s most prominent politicians, Marine le Pen, has successfully managed to conflate immigration and criminal behaviour to create a thoroughly racist and xenophobic political platform that threatens to engulf the nation’s body politic. The majority of people in the Sahel countries see absolutely no good coming from whatever France does and want to see the back of the former colonial power, pronto. These two viewpoints reinforce one another.

Any light at the end of this two-side dead end tunnel? For the time being: not really. Both viewpoints are informed by an obsessive tendency to divert attention away from issues that should be in clear focus: a lack of perspective for too many citizens, the marginalisation of too many citizens and the obscene inequalities both within individual countries (thanks to the destructive neo-liberal project that has captured all these nations) and between the northern and the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. These are things that need obsessive attention, so we can finally turn away from pointing fingers and constructing conspiracy theories – and start working towards solutions that have a better chance to succeed.

Here’s to the triumph of hope over experience, as fellow curmudgeon Oscar Wilde would say.

Orientations

March 22, 2019

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

There’s a lot to see here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The end?

Not quite…

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

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

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

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

Bingo. That was the easy part. 

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

So – it there a takeaway from all this?

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

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

 

The circus came to town

August 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

That clearly did not happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Oxfam

February 12, 2018

Jesus Hieronymous Christ, just when you think the tin ear could not possibly become tinnier you have Oxfam’s Chief Executive on hearing about the exploding sex scandals and the possibly resultant de-funding by the government saying that…

…Oxfam would “carry on delivering as best we can, because that’s what the people of Yemen, Syria, Congo and indeed Haiti need and deserve”.

Who on god’s green earth appointed you the adjudicator of that? Have you asked the people of Yemen, Syria and Congo? Yes, there is an enormous difference between helping people in deep distress as a result of war and natural disasters on the one hand – and “doing development” on the other. Emergency aid started in the 19C Crimea War, gave us Florence Nightingale, a budding humanitarian effort that went on to create the Red Cross and an eternal debate about emergency aid, neutrality (unattainable in my view) and politics.

The people in Yemen, Syria and Congo are in severe distress – in the case of Yemen as a result of barbaric action by a key client of UK-manufactured arms. Congo can equally be said to be somebody else’s proxy war, exacerbated by extremely complex local politics and the presence of vital minerals in the ground. Syria is arguably the same, minus the minerals as far as I can see.

But the point here is this: I have heard the very same rhetoric about needs and delivery in respect of what you may call “ordinary” development work. The planning of development overwhelmingly does not involve the people affected and I have even heard policy makers in those development bureaucracies arguing against giving their intended recipients a say. This is not doing development, sorry. This is, at the deepest level, a colonial mindset at work, which I once summarised like this: ‘the natives must first be studied and then improved’. Sure, all with the best of intentions but that only helps to remind me of Michael Maren’s The Road To Hell (a book you should read).

Only a few short days ago I mentioned on Facebook the idea of having tort legislation introduced in relation to designing development projects, with a reference to the criminally disruptive Structural Adjustment Programs. Abdourrahmane Sissako’s film Bamako depicts this in a Malian home court. Now, we hear that Haiti may be considering legal action against Oxfam. As pointed out, emergency aid happens on a different scale and with a different timeline but is ultimately guided by similar “principles” for lack of a better word. What both have in common is that the intended recipients, by and large, have no say in how the stuff that supposedly benefits them is delivered, no influence and no redress when things go horrendously wrong. Wasn’t Haiti the very same place where the UN was caught with its pants down (a deliberate turn of phrase) over the cholera epidemic it imported?

This is fundamental. It is this lack of fundamental accountability that leads to the excesses that have just been revealed – and numerous others. That is where the debate should go, because below the scandals and the sleaze lie far more fundamental issues, issues that the development industry, worth scores of billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of people, has so far stubbornly refused to address.

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.