Posts Tagged ‘corruption’

Mali: the death of 1991

August 19, 2020

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) is gone. And Mali will be none the better for it. Parallels with the exact same event, in March 2012 will inevitably be drawn. Yes, some things are the same: working conditions and pay of the soldiers supposed to fight Mali’s asymmetrical wars were terrible – they still are. Corruption and poor morale permeated the Army in 2012; they still do.

Other things were also present in 2012 and have become considerably worse. Insecurity, previously mostly a problem of the North, has spread to the centre and is now threatening Bamako. Is it the jihadists? Well, that’s what the Islam-obsessed West wants to believe. But truth be told, jihad is either a poor disguise or an ideological fig leaf for mostly criminal activity, born out of a complete lack of any perspective, thanks to the now ousted government and the ones that preceded it. Will this coup make these things better? No, it will not.

Corruption stalked the land in 2012 and still does. The roads in Bamako have fallen apart during this last rainy season because they are not maintained. Why are they not maintained? Because the money that is supposed to go into this rather crucial repair work disappears. This country relies on donor money for just about everything and the fact that we are living with terrible roads, appalling electricity delivery, grotesquely bad drinking water services, dreadful education and dire health care is testimony to the fact that the donor money earmarked for this work never arrives where it should. We send the money and close our eyes. Will this coup make that problem go away? No, it will not.

So we have spreading insecurity, corruption and the absolute point blank refusal to deliver basic services to the population. Anything left, then? Oh yes, religion has risen, as I have argued in various places. The opposition movement that was clamouring for IBK’s departure has in imam Mahmoud Dicko the leader that fills the gargantuan hole where a government should be. And more than anything, that hole is moral. Will this coup address that moral deficit? No, to all intents and purposes the ones who organised this chain of events are very much part of the problem.

1991 ushered in an era of democracy, we are told. The popular uprising + coup that put an end to the repressive reign of General Moussa Traoré was most decidedly welcome. But democracy is not the same as ‘doing whatever the hell I want’…and that’s what we have seen Mali’s new elites do and that behaviour has been extensively copied.

At the heart of Mali’s problems lies the absence of moral leadership that should have come from Generation 1991, of which IBK was a part from the very beginning. But there are no ideals, no agenda, no moral leadership…just greed and money. Yesterday’s coup has laid to rest three decades of increasing moral bankruptcy. Will it invent some moral leadership? Posing the question is answering it.

IBK’s government was besieged by three different contesting groups. One, the M5 Movement, did not know what it wanted. I know this because I asked them: “OK, you want IBK gone. Fine. Then…what?” To which came this shocking answer: “Oh, we don’t know. It’s all in the hands of God.” Well sorry folks, but that just will not do for a country of 22 million souls, some of whom are looking at you for guidance.

The second, the Army, has solved whatever issues it had with the government by removing it. This was about pay and positions. The head of the Presidential Guard was fired on the eve of the coup and you can bet your last euro that he wasn’t too damn well pleased with that… He also has friends in Kati, from where this coup came, just like the one in 2012. The soldiers have no truck with a political opposition and religion is something between you and Allah.

However…imam Dicko and his entourage see things very differently. They are the only ones who actually have a plan for Mali, which is to turn it into a Sharia state. To be sure, this is an idea that appeals to conservative tendencies present among the majority. But I am not convinced that said majority fully support Dicko’s desired flight backwards into history, before the hated French colonisers were here with their lay republic and their laws and their institutions, none of which are relevant to Malians and their lived daily experience.

After all, Islam is imported, too. And the kind of Islam Dicko wishes to impose on 22 million Malians is not the kind of Islam they aspire to, no matter how conservative they are. Because people also like their music (live, if you please), their drinks (in the privacy of the drinking dens) and their sex (in the privacy of the backrooms behind the aforementioned dens), all of which will be illegal once Sharia law is introduced.

So now you see: none of these agendas run parallel. We had the government and its plan for self-enrichment and lip-service to development, the Army and its nefarious networks and interests, the clueless political opposition and a bunch of adroit political Islamist operators… And then we have the interests of the outside world. ECOWAS has already cut Mali off, like they did in 2012. “We don’t endorse coups,” has been their message to Mali, consistently. The African Union, European Union, UN and the rest of the ‘international community’ will engage in its favourite pastime, prolonged handwringing, and do very little if anything at all. The plethora of military missions will not now be augmented by yet another futile attempt (the European Operation Takuba) and the rest is likely to wind down sooner (Barkhane) or later (MINUSMA).

Post coup, Mali finds itself on its own, borders closed, isolated and alone. Friends will turn their backs until ‘constitutional order’ is restored. In some circles, France will continue to be blamed for everything, which conveniently ensures that the proponents of this noise do not have to reflect on their own responsibilities in all this.

Unless, and only unless…the military finds itself ushered into a position of mediator between what is left of the State and the various insurgencies – and takes this role seriously, only then we just may get somewhere. But for now, we’re in an even greater mess than before.

Malians would be right to think: thanks for nothing, everyone.

Border crossings: same country, worlds apart

January 21, 2020

Dakar’s old Leopold Sedar Senghor airport was an indescribable mess with poor to non-existent information for the travelling public, even fewer facilities, swarms of mosquitoes and chairs that were clearly designed to cause maximum spinal damage to the largest number of passengers possible. It was upgraded earlier this century and the situation indoors improved markedly. It involved monitors with flight information you could actually read.

One thing remained firmly in place and that was the scene outside.

Upon putting your nose out the door you’d be accosted by an army of hustlers and touts, all wanting to put their hands on your money by selling you telephone cards you didn’t want, change money you didn’t need or offer discount prices for hotels you had no intention of staying in. By far the most persistent lot were the members of – arguably – West Africa’s most tenacious taxi racket.

Having attached his person to you with indissoluble glue, a tout would not let go until you were ‘safely’ deposited in one of the ubiquitous black-and-yellow French or Japanese contraptions waiting in a badly lit parking lot (many flights had and still have the inconvenient habit of arriving very late at night). Objective attained, the tout, the driver, the person overseeing the running order, the person manning the entry/exit of the parking lot and anybody else who thought it necessary to stick his oar in were going to discuss the amount for which they were going to fleece you. Of course, there was a way around the scam, which was to just keep walking away from the airport building, in spite of the ever more insistent utterances and gesticulations of the tout who was seeing his cash dispenser disappear, and post yourself OUTSIDE the airport gate at the next crossroad, where you could pick up taxis for the normal tariff. It would happen, on occasion, that a member of the aforementioned taxi mafia thus scorned would drive up and stalk you equally insistently but would eventually get the message after hearing for the eleventh time that you had no need for his vastly overpriced services. With the new airport, that’s all gone and, frankly, it’s not being missed.

The old airport. Now a strictly military zone.

These days, you arrive at a magnificent new facility, the Blaise Diagne International Airport. (There were rumours at one point that it would be named after Senegal’s third president who started the project, Abdoulaye Wade, but that did not happen.) Entry and exit are remarkably orderly. Immigration? Walk up to one of the squeaky clean counters, hand over your passport. You’ll be asked for your phone number, you then place your fingers on the EU-funded scanners (the officer will kindly help you if you don’t understand how it works) while looking into a small camera, your passport gets stamped and off you go to the luggage hall.

Outside, there a just a few taxis, which stands to reason because the thing has been built some 50 kilometres away from Dakar – and you only have to make it clear ONCE that you are taking the very reasonably priced airport bus for just under €10 and away they go. There are, would you believe it, working ATMs. I feel a pang of wistful longing for the rattling, coughing, wheezing conveyor belt that would spew out your luggage at the old airport, permanently indicating that it was five seconds from giving up the ghost for good – but this particular brand of nostalgia never lasts longer than, oh, three seconds. I am a heartless b*st*rd. Sue me.

The glittering new hall of Dakar’s new airport.

The new airport is an oasis of smooth efficiency. Even when it went massively over budget (bit like the Amsterdam North-South underground, which may be the most expensive piece of pipe ever laid in human history) it is well-ordered and, what’s more: it is smack in the right place, roughly the equal distance from Dakar, the seaside resort of Mbour and the railroad centre of Thiès. Moreover, it is an integrated part of a gigantic urban development area called Diamniadio, previously an unassuming hamlet where two trunk roads met. I hope to be able to delve into that at some point in the future. Here are some impressions, from behind a very dirty window. Public transport, hey…

Diamniadio, under construction

Diamniadio, with Senegal’s ‘Emergence’ logo prominently on the façade. 

Compare and contrast this with the two main border crossings with neighbouring Mali, located deep in deepest Senegal. They are Kidira (the northern crossing) and a hamlet somewhere behind Saraya (the southern crossing). Saraya is reached after a smooth ride from Senegal’s ‘capital of the East’, Tambacounda, using a brand new road all the way to the mining town of Kédougou, a good 200 kilometres south. This is followed by another stretch, shorter but in really poor nick and bordering on the catastrophic the closer you get to the border. Once across, things get marginally better. The road takes you straight to Kita, a mere hop from Bamako.

The road between Tambacounda and Kidira currently looks like this. Now, imagine nearly 200 kilometres of that… True, this is the rainy season but those potholes don’t go away when the rains stop. Nothing could be further from smooth efficiency here! When you travel by bus (as I frequently do) you will almost invariably end up at the border in the dead of night, thanks to the bus company’s time tables. This road takes you to the hub of Kayes, and from there it is another truly gruelling 600 kilometres to Bamako.

It does not really make much difference whether you take the slightly larger post at Kidira or the smaller (slightly less unpleasant) post after Saraya, the ritual is the same.

Everybody files out of the bus. Outside is a policeman who will collect identity cards, loose papers and even a passport or two from the 70-odd passengers on the bus. He takes his haul into a open space adjacent to a sparsely lit building – and disappears inside.

And then, for quite a while: nothing happens.

Then, the door opens. Out comes another policeman with a stack of identity cards. These are usually the first ones to go. Now you have to strain your ears because he will call out the names of the owners of these tiny documents. Once. Rarely twice. If you miss it, you’ll have to wait until the whole not terribly merry crowd has been called and reclaim your card.

Once your name has been called you saunter, walk or strut (in an unexaggerated manner if you please) to the officer holding your card. If you are NOT a national of the country you are now leaving, you will be taken indoors and made to pay. (The same applies for the control posts inside any country, frequently referred to as “petit boutiques” by the travellers.) And even though I am subjected to exactly the same mediaeval treatment, I don’t pay. To some, this is passport privilege and I would agree. To the travelling public at large, this is an egregious dereliction of duty by taxpayer-salaried officers who get away with this behaviour because hardly anyone is supervising them, even less reporting them. But it is happening. Raising a stink about it will empty your pockets even faster and you may end up in jail. These uniforms are lord and master here and they have ways to remind you of that simple basic fact.

Of course, this practice makes a complete mockery of the idea that we are somehow in a free travel zone, as declared every so often by the assembled heads of state when they meet. The gap between their air-conditioned rhetoric and the dusty realities on the ground is staggering.

If people could afford travelling like this, they would, at the drop of a hat. Would you believe it…I wrote this ten years ago!

This happens everywhere and if you think for a second that this is a uniquely West African phenomenon, think again. These are humiliation rituals and the argument always used is that ‘the other side’ (in this case: Mali) started stealing from travellers first. How on god’s green earth are you going to build a thriving commercial region of some 350 million people, let alone continent-wide unity if you turn every single border crossing into a bloody ordeal? And that’s before we get to the next stop: Customs. They will take their sweet time checking every single item on the bus if they haven’t been paid off by the chaps running the bus operation…

I can guarantee you that when you are travelling on a bus you will spend at least three hours at every single border crossing like this: waiting. This was during the day, on the Mali-Senegal border, whilst travelling into Senegal. Do not make the mistake of pointing your phone at either an official building (recognisable by the national flag) or an officer. You will get yourself into colossal amounts of trouble for nothing.

This is a picture I took a little while ago in the delightful city of Marrakech. In the cramped worldview of those to the right of the political spectrum, the name of this city has become synonymous with the supposed existence of a Treaty that Opens All European Borders.

No such Treaty exists. The Marrakech Compact is a non-binding agreement aimed at what the United Nations term ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’. Nothing about present-day migration is safe, orderly or regular and this is mainly because the European Union and individual European governments want it that way. There has never been a European Open Door policy; the entire EU policy is built around this central notion: keep as many of them out. As my colleague Linda Polman outlines in her meticulously researched book (review coming up shortly), European governments, like the EU, have standing policies designed to make life for migrants and refugee hell on earth.

Unlike the EU, which allows for free travel within its space and tries to keep everybody else away from the Eurotables that groan under the weight of affluence, West Africa must sort out its internal travel woes first. When the Marrakech Compact was voted in the United Nations General Assembly, all nations from the region voted in favour with the exception of two absentees, Guinea and Togo. More importantly, ECOWAS, the union of fifteen West African nations ranging from heavyweight Nigeria to minnows like Gambia, Benin and Togo and everything in between, has committed itself repeatedly to free travel in its huge five million square kilometre space, allowing its 350 million inhabitants the pleasure of moving from Dakar to Niamey and from Abuja to Conakry, hassle-free. On current evidence, and in spite of all the declarations about free travel and trade, these freedoms only exist if you are prepared to fork out ridiculous amounts of cash (when you own a transport business) and allow your pockets to be picked if you are a member of the travelling public. Not only is this grotesque, it also ensures that West African consumers pay far more for a piece of merchandise than is needed.

The Falémé River marks the border between Senegal and Mali

Sure, the view is great. Now, how about turning these bright visions and vistas into reality. Hello ECOWAS: this is 2020 calling…you’ve got work to do. Clean up the borders!!

The Façade – Part 1

May 16, 2016

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

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

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

‘Look there.’

‘Where?’

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

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

‘Cars,’ I reply to my Burkinabè interlocutor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did you have to pay?’

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

‘How much?’

‘Six thousand francs.’

What!??’

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

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

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

Part 2 soon to come.