Posts Tagged ‘crime’

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 changing city

June 6, 2013

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This is what is left of the fruit stall, the spring roll stall, the sandwich stall, the coffee stall and a whole lot of other outlets that were razed to the ground in February this year. This is now the corner of my street.

The razing to the ground was met with almost universal approval. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone disagreeing with this action. In fact you will hear one dissenting voice: mine. And my simple verdict after four months is this:

REMOVING THESE STALLS AND KIOSKS HAS BEEN AN ACT OF MONUMENTAL STUPIDITY.

Quite apart from the fact that the vendors on my street corner actually were in nobody’s way, paid taxes into the coffers of their local municipality – call that a kind of officially sanctioned protection racket if you will – they also brought another valuable quality to the street.

A modicum of security.

It was busy; too many people around to get to up all manner of mischief. Mischief there was but we know that in busy market places punishment can be harsh, public and immediate.

A colleague of mine was recently at the mythical Sandaga Market in downtown Dakar. ‘There’s nothing left,’ he reported, ‘it’s like a Sunday out there.’ So what has happened to everyone working there? Read on.

***

If you find that vendors are clogging up your streets, there are intelligent ways of going about regulating this – and stupid ways. Knocking them down is the stupid way. Monumentally so. I have no evidence that the intelligent way has been tried but this would involve…

One: building an alternative before you start knocking stuff down (and yes, you can do that with the World Bank money that was reportedly available for this operation)

Two: making a distinction between those who really are blocking roads, pavements et cetera – and those who aren’t

Three: engaging with the vendors to be affected and point out the alternatives and only then: move the recalcitrant elements out by force.

Like most local authorities the world over, they got it backwards.

And the upshot of this? Permanent unemployment for tens of thousand of people, more begging, less economic activity – or more economic activity but of the wrong kind. I cannot be the only one who is noticing a link between the authorities creating mass-unemployment and insecurity and the crime wave that is hitting my neighbourhood like never before. My own burglary to begin with. But I am far from being the only one. In practical day-to-day terms…

I am among an increasingly large group of professionals who walk around with all my valuables because I cannot leave them at home.

It is now a common occurrence that you get attacked by some youth on a scooter…within hours of you arriving here. In Yoff!

Add to this another ticking time bomb. The little boys who were – and are – being mercilessly exploited by so-called marabouts (condoned if not actively encouraged by the previous government), well, guess what? They grow up. They have no skills, have learned nothing and are already becoming noticeably more aggressive.

In short: street gangs in the making. This government made noises about banning child begging and then climbed down. I cannot prove this but it is my hunch that the president was leaned upon by folks high up the religious hierarchy to back off.

So I am joining a crowd that is not waiting for the next wave of excrement to hit the fan. A growing group that is expressing a desire to leave. Not necessarily the country – but this town?

Nope. Something is going dreadfully wrong here.