Posts Tagged ‘George Orwell’

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.

Orwell’s Zimbabwe

October 7, 2012

The Africa Desk at Radio Netherlands recently had a report on the latest antics of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, focusing on his highly complicated love life. More about that here:  

It brought me back to school.

Two decades ago, I was teaching English language and literature in a secondary school in the Nyanga area, Northeast Zimbabwe. Proof, it is useful to recall, of president Robert Mugabe’s dedication to education. Among early Zimbabwe’s most enduring legacies will be millions of well-educated Zimbabweans, including my own former students. President Mugabe was, after all, a teacher himself. More on that here (go to the bottom of the page and listen to Part Two of my interview with the late Heidi Holland – the other parts are good as well…):

Two decades ago, I was living in my little corner of Northeast Zimbabwe and to my eternal shame not very well aware of the bloody backdrop to the new unity government that had just been been announced. The main order of the day, I felt, was decolonizing the literature curriculum. I kicked out boring 19th century rural English lit and introduced Chinua Achebe, Wilson Katiyo, Shimmer Chinodya and others. For students wanting to take a deeper literary plunge I could point to Zimbabwe’s greatest national treasure: Dambudzo Marechera. Not yet Yvonne Vera, that other great treasure; her first book came out one year after I had left.

Personal contacts in and outside the school gradually began to reveal a country where political intolerance was the order of the day. Hidden, mostly, between elections; palpable, in campaign time. When the ruling party came up for re-elections, talk in bars moved resolutely away from politics: even then it was unwise to proclaim one’s own dissidence in public. The armed dissident movement in the South and the West of the country had just been wiped off the face of the earth by North Korea-trained soldiers of the Five Brigade. At least according to government propaganda. In reality, there had been an almost completely concealed campaign of mass slaughter going on, which had killed 20,000 people. A fact that was only hit home when in 1999 the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission published its report called “Breaking the silence”.

I kept Orwell in class. Animal Farm: a dangerous choice.

After much discussion, I asked the students if they would want to write essays comparing the story in Orwell’s fable to events in their own country. Not without risk but they jumped at the opportunity – and the insights they offered were razor sharp. How about this? They mentioned…

The revolution that kicked out the former owners.

The short-lived but genuine euphoria: we’re free!

Ubiquitous use of the word “comrade”.

Dissent and infighting in the top ranks; dissidents being banished or coopted.

Sly propaganda to keep the populace in line. Frequent trick: asking, rhetorically, menacingly: do you want the former owner back?

Violent repression of those who disagree with the new rulers.

Writing certain undesirable elements out of history.

It was all there, in the writings of the students. And that was long before the “international community” suddenly discovered that there was a problem in the state of Zimbabwe.

Yes, this country’s history has followed an uncannily large number of the twists and turns from Orwell’s tale, including personality cults and replacing a universal anthem by a “proper” national anthem. It also added a few twists of its own, including the 1997 revolt of the revolution’s rank and file. Their anger was paid off and the “war vets” were co-opted into Zimbabwe’s infrastructure of political violence.

Another extra-Orwellian twist was the emergence of a group that could, perhaps, maybe, help liberation further along by kicking out the liberators. Predictably, Zimbabwe’s leaders wasted no time in painting Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change as stooges of the former owner. Do you want him back? President Mugabe’s ruling party election slogan was nothing more than a simple statement of fact: Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.

Indeed. No-one, except for a few deranged white supremacists, has been suggesting anything else. But the second wave of euphoria has been even shorter-lived than the previous one. Today, with Tsvangirai’s love life at least as untidy as that of the president, you could forgive my former students for turning to the last page of Animal Farm and concluding that, inevitably, would-be liberators bear an eerie resemblance to liberators-turned-leaders…