Posts Tagged ‘France’

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.

Nine days in July, 1938

July 25, 2020

Part 4 and end – Lesbos and the shadow of Evian

The al-Assad family that has been ruling Syria since 1971 fits right in with a long list of venal and corrupt families who are prone to using extreme violence to keep their power and – more importantly – their business interests intact. From the Kim dynasty in North Korea through to the Obiangs in Equatorial Guinea, the now deposed Duvalier clan in Haiti, the Gnassingbes in Togo or the terrorism-spreading House of Saud, they all share one overriding characteristic, whch is that they consider the countries they rule as their private property, to be distributed and looted as they see fit. One of the most bewildering scenes of the last decade is the blind support lent to the Assad government by some deeply misguided – or bought – elements of the Left, who would do well to read this from an ideologically impeccable source.

I have been loath to use the term ‘Arab Spring’, as it is historically illiterate. The term ‘Spring’ refers to one episode in Eastern European history, which happened in Prague 1968 and was crushed under Soviet tanks. The term also suggests that the people rising up against autocratic and corrupt governments like that of Ben Ali in Tunisia (yes, another one of those clans) were following some kind of script. This is the same arrant nonsense that compelled a Dutch editor to ask me whether the popular uprising in Burkina Faso that chased Blaise Compaoré (and his clans, yes) from power in October 2014 was somehow inspired by the Arab Spring. No it wasn’t: it was inspired by the people being royally fed up with a corrupt dynasty, supported by France, that refused to leave the scene. And if there were any inspiration, it surely would be a similar uprising in neighbouring Mali, which had dethroned the military dictator Moussa Traore, in 1991. Or indeed, in Burkina Faso itself where the people had chased away an incompetent head of state…as early as 1966.

So, something similar started in Syria in 2011. One BBC reporter who covered those very early protests, commented that the Assad dictatorship was “very very well constructed” and that the people oppossing it were “very very brave”. As Assad’s extreme repression intensified and Syria descended into civil war, millions started leaving the country. Soon, the EU’s Evian Paradigm would hit the buffers.

Lesbos, Greece. Picture accompanying an article by Ingeborg Beugel, retrieved from De Groene Amsterdammer.

There is just one country between Syria and the outer limits of the European Union. And when Turkey held some three million Syrian refugees within its borders by 2014 something had to give. At least, that was clear to all, except for the Brusels bureaucrats, still busy preparing deals with murders and butchers south and east of the Mediterranean to Keep ‘Em There. ‘Nobody saw this coming,’ Polman cites Kati Piri, a Member of the European Parliament. Until the proverbial dam burst, in 2015.

One of the many points this book makes so eloquently is that the refugee issue is always described as humanitarian, an active denial of the local, regional and international politics causing the existence of refugees. This absolves distant rich actors of all responsibility: we just give a little money to create a safe space or a camp somewhere and then we publish nice pictures of grateful refugees eating the crumbs from our table. Another point the book makes very well concerns the rule regarding countries that are first port of call for arriving refugees: the rule, rigorously followed, says that those countries must process the arrivals. What this means in practice is the total absence of any European solidarity when it comes to receiving refugees. As the uniquely insensitive Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte puts it: well, you know, those countries that live next to refugee crises just have bad luck.

In short, the Keep ‘Em There dogma remains firmly in place once refugees have crossed an external EU border. When they came to Greece in ever larger numbers it was not the EU’s problem – nope: it was Greece’s. Next thing we know: this, the overcrowded camps where desperate people are stored, places my good friend and colleague Ingeborg Beugel, who reports on Camp Moria and other places always and consistently describes as The Horror Camps. Towards the end of the book, Polman takes us to Lesbos, and describes the scenes she finds there: bewildered refugees asking questions about where to go, volunteers blowing bubbles to amuse the refugee children, the masses of life vests on the beach, the utter squalor in the camps and the maddening bureaucratic blockades refugees face when they want to move on.

With one and only one exception, when the German Chancellor Angela Merkel finally deblocked the situation as the whole of southeastern Europe and the rest were slamming their borders shut. In a short-lived gesture that nearly ended her political life she allowed Syrian refugees through and into Germany. But the idea that the ‘burden’ (barely equivalent to the annual intake of a single Dutch amusement park, Polman drily notes) would be equally shared among fellow European member states proved illusory. The borders slammed shut again. And the next thing we saw was the infamous deal with Turkey, discussed in the last instalment…and real violence against refugees trying to land on Europe’s shores. So much for the much-vaunted European values of democracy and humanism. After all, death already is an accepted instrument, employed very effectively to Keep ‘Em Away. The migration route across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe is the deadliest in the world and may have claimed as many as  30,000 lives since the EU came into being in 1993.

Is there a solution to all of this? There are hints in Polman’s book here and there, like Spain’s decision in 2005 to give residence permits to 600,000 migrants who had been in the country for longer than three years and without a criminal record, which led to hysterical reactions elsewhere on the old and ageing continent. The number is, of course, insignificant, as Polman keeps emphasizing. This is a major contribution of this book: wide-ranging and meticulously researched it provides perspective, facts and history instead of hysterics. It also has an extensive Glossary to explain the complicated and sometimes crass terminology being used regarding migration and the movement of refugees. It chronicles the shameful history of deliberate failure, since Evian.

But the biggest contribution of Nobody Wants Them is that it buries forever the myth that European politicians somehow buckle under populist pressure and develop their anti-migrant and anti-refugee policies. This is complete nonsense: Polman’s unearthing of the Evian Conference clearly demonstrates that this has been standard policy for almost nine decades. But the standard policy is untenable, living as we do in a world with obscene inequalities, with wars that are fought using arms that land huge profits in Europe (and indeed the US, Russia and China), which then closes its eyes for the consequences, with aid money that is used to ensure that the migration routes from poor nations becomes even more deadly than they already are…the list goes on.

The Evian Paradigm may be alive and well. It is also obsolete. Given the challenges ahead – including demographics, chronic instability and climate change – it is high time to do better. Much better.

 

Nine days in July, 1938

July 20, 2020

Part 2 – Jahnzon

It’s the end of March 2011. We (that is yours truly and photographer Martin Waalboer) are in the tiny Liberian hamlet of Jahnzon, close to the border with Côte d’Ivoire. What we are witnessing is an exodus across the Cavally River that separates the two countries here. But contrary to what you may think, the exodus is not away from very poor Liberia still recovering from 14 years of gang warfare. This is an exodus in the opposite direction: from relatively rich Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia. Jahnzon is the first stop and when we meet Chief Moses Zé Dié to pay our respects he is at his wits’ end. It is pouring with rain as it does so often here, and there is a dire shortage of accommodation.

“They have been coming in large numbers,” says the Chief. “I cannot refuse them; they are our cousins. But I have no more place to lodge them. All the houses are full. I tell you, I now feel like a refugee myself…”

The Ivorians were fleeing the town of Duékoué, just across the border, where a terrible massacre was taking place, committed in all probability by the rebel force that had begun its descent from the north of the country into the economic capital Abidjan. In all probability, because this crime has never been properly investigated. What the refugees coming into Jahnzon were saying that they had heard shooting and that was for them enough reason to grab a few belongings and rush across the border into the relative safety of Liberia.

At the UNHCR refugee camp in Bahn, not far from Jahnzon, Hortense Gba is telling me her story. Here’s hoping she is doing well, wherever she is. Pic: Martin Waalboer.

This was the final phase of a series of West African wars that had started six weeks after the Berlin Wall fell. Not even sixty kilometers from Jahnzon (as the crow flies) is the equally unassuming town of Buutuo, where on Christmas Eve 1989 a few bewildered inhabitants saw a group of about 150 men, armed to the teeth, cross the Cestos River from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia. When I went to Buutuo to collect their memories the good people of that town said that they were told that this group was heading for the capital Monrovia. “We told them: well, good luck with that…”. Months later, Charles Taylor and Prince Yormie Johnson, the two main gang leaders, had taken control of Monrovia, causing death and destruction wherever they went.

The wars careened through Sierra Leone and Guinea and eventually returned to Côte d’Ivoire, where the deadly sequence had originated. It would be, at least for now, the last roll of the deadly dice in this densely forested region. The violence caused hundreds of thousands of refugees who, for the most part, did exactly what the rich and powerful nations of the world wanted them to do: stay away from their affluent shores.

In her book, Polman details how that works out, especially in the post Cold War era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 the rich world’s policy was more emphatically than ever to “Keep ‘Em Out And Over There”. UN agencies like the refugee organisation UNHCR are being paid to carry out that brief. The old joke before the Wall came down, was that the Russians would surely be coming…one by one, as dissidents chased from their country. That was still manageable, and ideologically The Right Thing To Do.

Their arrival was covered by the 1951 Convention for the Protection of Refugees, a document that was produced during the early days of the new post World War II East – West confrontation and after much tedious negotiation. The main issue was that only truly real genuine refugees, those who had political reasons to leave their countries, had the right to be granted asylum – and the hope was of course that those numbers would remain manageably small; the unspoken assumption was that the people most likely to be covered by this new Convention would be refugees from the Communist Bloc . (Polman points out that when the Soviets overran Hungary in 1956 the main thrust of Europe’s refugee policy was to keep the numbers of the truly real genuine refugees they could admit as manageably small as possible.) True to form, the United States made a very crass distinction between those who deserved asylum and those who did not: the ones fortunate enough to flee autocratic and Communist Cuba were welcome to establish their exile communities in Miami, Florida; those unfortunate enough to come from Haiti, a country that – like Syria today – was run by a venal, violent and corrupt family were sent back: they came from a country that belonged to Our Side…

Yes, it is Antonio Guterres, head of the UNHCR, visiting Bahn at roughly the same time we were there, in the company of Margrethe Løj, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Liberia. Guterres, of course, went on to become the UN Sec Gen himself, Løj moved on to South Sudan. Pic: UNHCR.

Post Cold War, the distinction between deserving and undeserving refugees disappeared completely and the objective became even more firmly aligned with the Evian Paradigm: Keep ‘Em Over There. As long as refugees fleeing war in West Africa, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East stayed in their region, all was well as far as Europe was concerned. To that end, the rich nations pay the UNHCR for the job of setting up refugee camps everywhere on a shoestring budget. Polman devotes a few chilling pages to the great philosopher Hannah Ahrendt’s reflections on camps – places where people are herded into and then either destroyed, worked to death or stored; and always forgotten. Some of these camps become veritable cities where people stay for years, if not decades. It matters not; as long as the donors’ Keep ‘Em There agenda is served, preferably on the cheap, all is well.

And if need be, adds Polman, that agenda is militarily enforced. France invented the ‘humanist’ intervention in West Africa for geo-strategic reasons but in the era after the Cold War the military-humanist intervention made a huge comeback, in support of another novel idea: ‘reception in the region’. Among the innovations tried out in those days were the so-called safe enclaves, loosely guarded by United Nation troops recruited mostly from poor countries in ever larger numbers. In Southeast Europe, this led to the disaster of Srebrenica in 1995, overlooked by Dutch UN troops. Yes, Keep ‘Em there – in the ground if need be, or in the desert sands of the Sahara or on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. In the next installment I give a few examples of the lengths to which Europe is prepared to go to keep itself ‘safe’ from refugees and migrants, a distinction that has disappeared completely as a result of Europe’s efforts to undermine, fatally, that already wafer-thin wall of protection for refugees, made in 1951.

To be continued

Nine days in July, 1938

July 18, 2020

Part 1 – Evian

This is not “another book about migration”, as it has been rather dismissively called. This is, in fact, a book about the European anti-migration machine and how it has been fully operational for eighty-eight years. The copy I am reviewing here is the Dutch original, written (full disclosure) by my great colleague and friend Linda Polman. Title (my translation): Not Wanted Anywhere. Literally it reads: Nobody Wants Them (Niemand wil ze hebben, in Dutch).

To explain that title we must go the French resort of Evian, on Lake Geneva. Polman has put her research and investigation skills to use to take us to the origins of Europe’s hostility to the idea of receiving refugees. This alone makes it an extremely welcome addition to the Europe-wide clamour about migrants and refugees, which is almost entirely dominated by emotion, rarely informed by facts and completely devoid of any historical perspective. This book offers facts and history, in spades. And in fact, to my not inconsiderable shame, I will admit that I had never heard of this conference until I picked up this book.

For nine days in July 1938 a global mix of 32 delegations took some time off their leisure activities, abundantly available at this French lakeside luxury paradise, to discuss the question what to do with the growing problem of Jewish refugees from Germany, already in the asphyxiating grip of Nazism. To put it more precisely: the delegates discussed the question how to avoid doing anything about the growing Jewish refugee problem, by using phrases that will sound very familiar in 2020. The excuses ranged from “We’re full,” through to “We should not take in too many of them, as this will create tensions” all the way to declaring the vast majority of those desperately trying to get away from the repressive Nazi steamroller “unwanted elements”.

Aerial picture of Evian, retrieved from evian-tourisme.com

None of the nations present, including Canada, Australia, the United States or indeed a smattering of Latin American ones offered any sanctuary. But we should not lose sight of the fact that this was first and foremost Europe’s problem. And the response of Europe’s nations? Keeping all borders closed.

For the Jewish delegates, Evian was not the soothing pleasure trip from massage parlour to leisure boat. It was a horror show, as 32 delegations casually condemned countless Jews to a prolonged stay in Germany, which for many of them would end in a death camp. “Sorry. We’re full.”

The Nazis watched the spectacle with cruel irony. As the conference dragged on, their propaganda paper Völkische Beobachter would write a sneering comment along the lines of “We told you so” and continue, referring to the Jews, desperate to get out, with this deadly accurate assessment: “Nobody wants them.” Four months after the conference ended, an all-out attack on Jewish persons, houses of worship and businesses took place during the infamous night that would go into history under the name Kristallnacht. In the wake of this massacre that killed hundreds, the Netherlands reinforced its border controls.

Having set the scene, the book then takes us through the ‘Cold’ War (there were many parts of the world where that war was not cold at all) and into the era following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the many ways in which the Evian Paradigm, if you like, has continued to shape the policies of Europe, the European Union and its member states regarding migrants and refugees. More on that in the next installment.

Oh and what’s the Evian Paradigm? You can glean that from the many excuses the delegates used to keep their borders shut during those nine days in July 1938. Put bluntly, you can summarise it inone single phrase: Keep ‘Em Out And Keep ‘Em Over There. Without presenting a blow-by-blow account of the book, I will give examples of what that means in practice and in so doing also – and hopefully – provide enough ammunition for the argument that this book does indeed deserve an English translation.

Stay tuned.

 

What’s ailing Mali ?

July 14, 2020

You may have seen the images of Mali’s capital Bamako: the fires, the running battles and the extensive damage. It is an explosion that has been long in the making. Last Friday’s huge demonstration, the third of its kind against the government of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected in 2018 during an exercise the vast majority of Malians considered completely irrelevant to their lives, descended into violence that has yet to end and, according to hospitals in the Malian capital, resulted in 11 deaths so far.

Yes, it was long in the making because the causes are so well-known. Top of the list : a security crisis that began well before 2012 with the fallout from NATO’s disastrously criminal ouster of the Libyan leader Muamar Ghadaffi without having an exit plan, an act that pulled the trigger of what happened next.

For years Ghadaffi had been the very nice friend of European heads of state, especially since he stuffed his arsenals with well over one billion euros worth of arms, made in Europe. When Ghadaffi was deposed, the many Tuareg officers in his army departed with the contents of those arsenals and arrived in their native Mali early 2012, where they started an ill-fated rebellion that was soon overtaken by jihadist forces that Algeria had earlier thrown across its border into the vast desert space of Mali’s north. There was nothing to stop them; Mali’s army has to make do with kit that often dates back to the time when it was an ally of the former Soviet Union…

That security crisis is still with us and has mixed freely and unpredictably with organised crime, banditry and self-defense, rendering the north and the centre of the country both ungoverned and volatile. The numerous high-profile international interventions (France, United Nations, the regional G5 Sahel Force) notch up a success or two here and there but are in no position to put an end to the problem. The army is a demoralised mess and prone to human rights abuses, like most of the other actors in this drama.

The deeply detested Karim Keita (you guessed right: the president’s son) presided over the Parliamentary Defence Committee while he took an army plane to celebrate his birthday in a decadent Spanish resort, an event he has since downplayed. However, the images of a drinking and cavorting top official sticks in the craw of the many who don’t know if they can pay for their next meal. His extremely arrogant attitude (just follow his Twitter feeds) is emblematic of an elite that came to power nearly thirty years ago in the wake of a popular uprising against the repressive dictatorship of General Moussa Traoré but has presided over the descent of this country into corruption of both finances and morals. Keita Junior’s belated departure from the prestigious parliamentary post changes nothing.

The majority of Malians have no access to safe drinking water, health care that doesn’t kill you, quality education, reliable electricity, decent roads and working drainage systems. None of this bothers the clans in power, issued from that 1991 “revolution”, because they have their own water and electricity, they send their kids to school in Europe and when they fall ill there’s a flight to take them to a first class clinic in Rabat, Geneva or Paris. The system works for them – and nobody else.

‘They have failed and they have failed us,’ is a refrain you hear a lot when speaking with Malians about the parlous state of their government. But from the perspective of the elites and their – mostly foreign – supporters the system is working precisely as it should. International aid from banks and donor countries keeps them in power, as do the revenues from Mali’s gold mines that do not even improve the lives of those who live next to them.

In short, the idea that the current crop of leaders, essentially unchanged since 1991, will bring positive change in any of these areas has long since been abandoned. Hence the near-complete lack of interest in elections and the mass turn to Allah. Inevitable Islam – yes I wrote this six years ago and the trend has only intensified. It was only a matter of time before someone would appear on the scene who would personify the Islamic alternative to a morally bankrupt polity.

His name: imam Mahmoud Dicko and please take some time to read Bruce Whitehouse’s excellent profile of the man here. His movement, the rather blandly named Coordination des Mouvements, Asociations et Sympathisants (CMAS) is his still-discreet-but-soon-overt political vehicle. A former Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga, whose dismissal Dicko engineered called him “a hybrid”, a man of God playing politics.

But Dicko can marshall crowds tens of thousands strong, although he has been accused of paying the owners of Bamako’s ubiquitous Sotrama minibuses good money to ferry demonstrators into town, mirroring the practice of paying voters CFA2000 (just over three euros) for the promise to support such and such a politician. Whether or not these accusations have merit, the grievances are too numerous and too deep to dismiss these mass gatherings as simply rent-a-crowd.

Bamako, and if my sense of direction is anywhere near accurate, this is close to the Second Bridge, which demonstrators blocked off. Picture retrieved from the website of Anthropology professor Alain Bertho. Link here: https://berthoalain.com/

Last Friday’s was the third one. The pattern is always the same: mass open air prayer, long speeches denouncing the government, followed by nightfall and increasingly violent riots. This time, irate demonstrators attacked the building where the National Assembly (Mali’s parliament) exhibits its expensive futility and the national television ORTM, where the state broadcaster obediently broadcasts government propaganda. There was looting, fires were started, bridges across the Djoliba (Niger) River were blocked and then the embattled security forces took aim at the angry crowds with live ammunition. Deaths ensued.

This was inevitable, for it’s not just widespread anger and frustration. The many large and impoverished neighbourhoods in Bamako are filled with disenfranchised, disenchanted young men, permanently bored witless. I have written about them before. This is the demographic permanently left out of the high-flying development discourse, the group that finds out pretty early on in life that nobody has any time for them and that they’re on their own. When they hear about a big anti-government demonstration, they do not hear political complaints; they hear an invitation to pick a fight and loot businesses. In short, they copy the behavior of the clans that rule them – but in a more direct manner. It’s mainly because of them that Bamako, over the weekend and even today, resembles a battlefield.

None of the actors present here has a workable solution. The president has offered the option of a Government of National Unity, which may or may not come about, as regional and international mediators fly in to put an end to the crisis. However, the international community is widely regarded as being in cahoots with this discredited regime. Besides, president Keita is very likely to hold on to power – whatever the scenario – until it is time to go in the manner approved by said international community: elections, which, once again, hardly anyone will bother to attend. Imam Dicko, if ever he declares his intention to run for the presidency and gets elected, is likely to turn the country into a state under de facto Islamic rule. The youths who now so enthusiastically follow him will not enjoy living in a land without music, videos, drinks and sex for very long…

And finally, there is doubt whether Mali can survive or whether it even exists as a unitary state. Parts of the north have been self-governing since 2012, a situation that angers many. Other parts of the north and the centre are steeped in anarchy and uncertainty, as criminals attack homes, businesses and buses and militias stalk the land while they murder, steal, rape and pillage. And that’s before we even get to talk about the regions that are supposed to be inalienably part of this vast land but where recent demonstrations have highlighted local grievances. In Kayes and Sikasso people took to the streets to protest against the terrible state of their roads and other basic services, even when their regions provide the gold (Kayes) and some of the food (Sikasso) that keeps Bamako on its feet. Another former Prime Minister, the relatively young and sharp-tongued Moussa Mara made this point in a public speech about two years ago when he said (and I paraphrase): everyone is looking at the north and the centre. Nobody is looking at places like Kayes and Sikasso where there is a groundswell of dissatisfaction at the lack of any tangible development.

The problem is not the north, or the centre, or any other region. The problem is Bamako and its aloof, self-serving elite. As the slow but probably unstoppable disintegration of Mali continues, the elite is currently being served notice. Is the situation insurrectional? I don’t think so: there’s widespread dissatisfaction but no revolutionary fervour. Could the army step in? Given the extremely unhappy memories of the last coup eight years ago this is unlikely. No: Mali will be very likely be muddling through, as it has done for quite a while now. Depressingly, there is at present little else on offer.

 

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 17, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 1

 

There was a great deal of grumbling almost three months ago. On March 20th, an Air France flight landed at the Bamako Senou Modibo Keita International Airport, released an unknown number of passengers into the night and took off again. This occurred after the Malian authorities had decided that because of the steady influx of COVID-19 problems from Europe the sensible thing to do was to close the airport. Were these new arrivals tested for the dreaded virus on arrival? Nobody knows.

And so teeth gnashed and fists clenched. Those dastardly arrogant French again! Grist to the mill of the army of (mostly online) conspiracy theorists, who see the hand of France behind every ill that befalls this nation, which conveniently provides them with an explanation for everything and absolves them of any and all responsibility for what transpires. No self-reflection is needed when everything is always someone elses’ fault. Like the mental toddlers who keep calling COVID-19 ‘The Wuhan Virus’ or keep blaming Obama for things that never happened on his watch. (Mind you: plenty happened on his watch, a lot of it very bad, but the catastrophic handling of a health crisis isn’t one of them…)

So what would these armchair warriors say when it emerged that a good number of the passengers on that Air France plane were actually members of the Malian elite, rushing to leave the seething Corona hotbed called France and seeking refuge in the safety of the extended family and having acquired the means to sustain themselves in what was, once again, becoming ‘their’ country? Again: nobody knows. We do know about elites, though…

*******

So, where are we now and how safe is it all? Perspective is in order here. As things stand, you are still far more likely to die in a road accident or get a deadly bite from a mosquito. This is not to diminish the seriousness of the situation but Malians are aware of two things simultaneously (yes, this is possible. It is called mental multitasking and you should try it, too, especially when you’re used to wearing tin foil hats. But I digress…)

First, while not anywhere near the calamitous levels registered in the Ferocious Five, five countries that are are – how coincidentally – ruled by far-right leaning ultra-nationalist megalomaniacs (USA, Brasil, Russia, India and the UK), Malians do realise that there is a problem. We have 1,890 confirmed cases, half of them have recovered; there are 107 deaths, as of today. The death rate, from what I understand, is not higher than at the same period last year. That should tell us something but we are still not taking this lightly here.

However, and you knew this was coming, the second point is that the measures taken by the authorities, while initially accepted as necessary, are being regarded as disproportionate the longer they go on. Yes, this is serious but we also die of malaria, diarrhea if we can’t afford going to the clinic, pneumonia, meningitis and cholera when they break out. Even birth is deadly! For both mother and child. In fact, according to the statistics from the Centres for Disease Control, the most dangerous thing you can do in Mali – is to get pregnant.

Think about that.

In short: you die, or you die, a point I made earlier. Death is not something you put away in a well-locked safe somewhere until it somehow gets out and springs a horrible surprise. Death sits at your table, while you eat.

So once again: while initially the preventative measures were welcomed, especially with the memory of Ebola still fresh, the longer it went on the more it was seen as unnecessary. Because there is now another thing that no longer can be ignored – and that is the colossal amounts of economic damage these measures have caused. Unlike Europe, there is no safety net here. When you have nothing, you go hungry, you go begging, or you die.

However, very similar to Europe, COVID-19 related measures are wide open to abuse. France’s police, already out of control, seems to think nothing of manhandling a 50-years-old nurse who was demonstrating for her rights. The Dutch government wants to rush a bill through Parliament that will turn the country into a de facto Stasi Police State. Guinea’s budding autocrat Alpha Condé is using the virus as a pretext to throw everyone in jail who disagrees with him. And we don’t have to cast our minds back very far to recall the atrocious – and indeed frequently deadly – behaviour of the police in Nairobi, Abidjan, Johannesburg or any other major centre. Folks in uniform on a power trip are dangerous, it does not matter where you find them.

 

The conclusion of this – sort of – conclusion will follow tomorrow.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

April 14, 2020

Part four – what on god’s green earth were they thinking…?

 

Conversation between two medical students overheard on a train in The Netherlands, many many years ago:

“So we’re off to Africa then, for our internship.”

“Yeah. It’s great, man! You get to cut into people.”

To my eternal shame, I was too shocked/too timid to interfere.

And here’s another conversation I overheard, this time not in a Dutch train but a taxi in the Guinean capital Conakry. It is the last week of the year 2003 and the whole West African region is still in shock following a horrific air crash, at Cotonou, Benin. The report on the Guinea-registered plane’s final moments, even when couched in technical aviation terms, is harrowing.

The doomed aircraft. Photo: Torben Guse, retrieved from the website oldjets.net

I vividly remember seeing this piece of junk parked at Conakry’s Gbessia International Airport and thinking: you will have to drag me kicking and screaming into that thing! On Christmas Day 2003 it crashed. What was the considered opinion of the taxi occupants in Conakry?

“It’s a conspiracy.”

“So it can’t possibly have anything to do with non-existent maintenance, untransparent ownership, a transport minister lying about its airworthiness, chaotic overbooking and catastrophically bad luggage loading at Cotonou?”

“No. Conspiracy.”

Alright, that’s settled then.

Two observations.

  1. There is ample historical evidence that the continent of Africa has been used as a testing ground for aspiring doctors and ruthless pharmaceutical companies. The only thing that would keep them in check, especially during colonial times, was their own moral compass – if one were present at all. 
  2. Africa has more than its fair share of conspiracy theories. For 26 years, it was the method of governance in Guinea – that taxi conversation sprung from the rich field of conspirational thinking it cultivated. The crimes of France, well-documented, give rise to the idea that the French are probably also the evil geniuses causing massacres in Mali. Or at the very least sponsor terrorism/jihadism. And outsiders bring diseases, which was, in all probability the thinking behind the attack on a medical convoy in deep Guinea, in the midst of the Ebola epidemic.

And now there’s COVID-19. Like all crises, it brings out the best in some and the worst in others, the latter often in the shape of an endless parade of yet more conspiracy theorists, who blame anyone and their canary for their own bumbling incompetence in the face of a major health crisis. The current occupant of the White House is a prime example.

Social media have exploded with folks babbling incoherently about Bill Gates controlling the WHO, the virus being the Chinese Communist Party’s avenue to world domination, chips being introduced surreptitiously into body parts we did not know we had, vaccines being surreptitiously introduced during routine medical checks by lizard people looking to control everyone and then there’s of course the inevitable dog-whistling misfit bringing up George Soros at every opportunity…

There is no room for nuance in these scenarios. And into this utter and complete mess wade these two:

Have you seen them? They are Camille Locht, research director at Inserm (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale) and Jean-Paul Mira, head of Intensive Care at Paris’ Cochin hospital, where another famous French doctor once walked the corridors…

These two found it necessary to discuss, two weeks ago, on a mainstream French television network, the idea of using Africans as guinea pigs if ever a vaccine against COVID-19 were to be proposed. I find the actual discourse too crass to reproduce here but for those who can follow French, here’s a link.

What? The? Hell?

Which is what the internet thought. And predictably, it fed straight into the ballooning body of conspiracy theories and of course reinforcing old ones. But this is not about damage control through communication, as Inserm attempted to do.

This is about two individuals working in the medical profession, which is, let’s be clear, supposed to be governed by the highest ethical standards, blithely and openly discussing how you can dispatch living breathing human beings to some kind of rarefied abstract space where they become objects for experimentation – as was the case with those two medical students I overheard on that train. It was offensive, dehumanising, monumentally ill-judged and yes, of course: it was racist.

The upshot of all this is that you will have to work harder than ever to convince an already fundamentally skeptical population that there are perfectly good reasons to allow trials to be executed all over the world – including Africa.  There has, for instance, been an argument about the exclusion of Sub-Saharan Africa from the WHO’s Malaria Eradication Program in the 1960s and whether or not this set back anti-malaria efforts on the continent.

But before any experimentation happens, two criteria must be met. One is called informed consent, which means that whoever volunteers knows exactly what they are volunteering for. And second, all standard safeguards must be in place to protect volunteers against the consequences should anything go wrong, which is the exact opposite of what these two were proposing.  And as a result of their nonsense, rationality, already in the back of that Guinean taxi, takes another hit. Thank you for nothing, you &^#€!&% French dimwits.

The WHO website currently records 109 cases confirmed in Mali, with 9 deaths. Mali’s Ministry of Public Health notes 123 confirmed cases and 10 deaths; 26 patients have recovered.

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.