Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Abidjan miniatures 3

December 26, 2020

Most of you know I have a lifelong subscription to technology trouble. One very recent Sunday, I was in very serious (as in: desperately urgent) need of a memory card for my recording device. Problem: it was Sunday. In Abidjan this means that most people are either in church or at home. The internet café that I use as a last resort when all else fails…closed. A nearby fancy looking geek shop was open…but had clean run out of cards. Another internet café, a surprise discovery…open but did not sell cards. “Go to the market,” came the advice of the young man behind the table who runs the place.

The offending non-functioning item

So off to market it is then. This one is hiding behind a few blocks of flats but it’s a big market alright and it’s buzzing, even on a Sunday. I wander from one busy lane where they sell cosmetics to another where there is fish and meat to another where there are textiles and yet another where there are fruits and vegetables. Yes, there’s order in this scene that only superficially looks like chaos. Suddenly, my eye falls on a shop front that says TECNO, after the Chinese cheap smartphone brand that has taken the African continent by storm. Have you got a card? Yes, we do…but only a tiny one. Can you fit it in the bigger one so it goes into my machine? This elicits the comment that I am using very old-fashioned stuff. Stop making me feel twice my age already…

Anyway, he meticulously fixes the tiny card item into the old-fashioned bigger one and I depart. Destination: my room and where my recording device awaits.

I take a right turn, on my way to what I think is the exit. But it’s the wrong turn. It leads to another corridor and here I am spotted by a congregation. This is easy, as I am the only non-African looking person in the entire area.

Six lads. Late teenagers, I would say and they immediately remind me of the club-wielding guy I saw at the Adjamé bus station a few years ago. They look like they are about to take up position, but the kind of across-the-path block they seem to have in mind is only half-heartedly executed. However, their rather sullenly expressionless “Hey….!” Followed by a monotonous “Le Blanc…” does not give the impression they intend to be friendly. And why should they? This is their turf and I have no business being here. One of the guys, short dreadlocks, simple T-shirt and trousers, the inevitable plastic flip-flops, is positively glaring at me in a pretty successful attempt to look menacing.

What’s their purpose here? Hard to tell. Vigilantes? Self-assigned market guards? Taking a break from the tedious task of assigning places for the many cars outside that need a parking space? Their eyes betray the use of recreational drugs. To the north of this area is a neighbourhood called Abobo, which has become a notorious hangout for young criminals Ivorians have decided to call ‘microbes’. These microbes have turned particular sections of Abobo into a series of No Go areas where even the toughest of taxi drivers will not venture after a certain hour. There are persistent allegations that these often very violent youths are politically protected by high-ranking politicians in the ruling party and have even been used as murderous vigilantes during the election violence in October and November that killed 87. If true, it would follow a familiar pattern but it is hard to distinguish between truth and hearsay. Could my Welcome Committee be related to the ‘microbes’? Whatever it is, they most definitely belong to the huge army of disenfranchised youths who have never figured on anyone’s lofty development agenda.

Back at the market I decide not to slow down and offer them a cheerful “Good afternoon – all going well?” My question goes unacknowleged but at least it works. The now entirely silent group leaves a passageway for yours truly and I leave the market following another right turn into a sand path, past one final throng of food stalls and hawkers, through an improvised corridor behind yet another apartment block under construction and finally onto the busy street where horns blare and music pours from oversized loudspeakers that people plonk on the floor – or dump on a lorry – when they want to sell something. It is almost as if I am emerging from another world… Maybe age is beginning to help: the elderly are generally left in peace here and I have noticed that folks are beginning to call me “Papa”. Which is almost as disconcerting as being half-confronted by a bunch of not-too-friendly youths. Almost.

***

This is of course all about the glaring gap between the rich and the poor, an issue that the government of president Alassane Ouattara, firmly wedded to the kind of unfettered free marketeerism promoted by his former boss, the International Monetary Fund, is singularly ill-equipped and unwilling to address. Instead, it has allowed the gap between the haves and the have-nots to grow dangerously large.

on Voie Djibi, Angré, Abidjan

Take Voie Djibi, a big and busy thoroughfare lined with apartment blocks, hypermarkets and a large number of pretty flashy shops, restaurants and services. There are gaps in this façade. Here, look, take a look at the gigantic airconditioned Djibi Shopping Mall, hypermarket, jewellery store, expensive clothes store, hamburger place, and Father Christmas sits in the reception centre just behinbd security and hand gel dispenser (Covid19)… Yes, it’s December after all but the sight of this giant blow-up plastic figure in a landscape of imitation snow remains a disorienting sight. Outside, a stream of brand new FourWheelDrives wheel in and out of the big parking lot and blare their horns impatiently when one of the lower orders gets in their way. These could be any of the following: someone pushing a two-wheeled Nescafe coffee cart up and down the street, hoping to make a few bob selling coffee for CFA50 a cup – seven eurocents. A profusely sweating elderly man pushing a handcart laden with building matrials. A taxi driver who has parked his verhicle in front of an impatient 4WD while he is looking for change to give to a client. A communal taxi (called ‘woro-woro’ here) picking up or releasing passengers. Or the woman who I saw carrying a massive pile of plastic bags on her head. She was walking along the street, passing those buildings she will never enter. Her pace was brisk, as she was forever sidestepping parked or parking cars, avoiding the rubbish (usually put in a pretty neat pile; Abidjan is remarkably clean for a city this size) and only briefly stopping when a sister called her from across the street. In previous years, a few pilot schemes were launched in which plastic bottles, part of the hundreds of tonnes of plastic waste this city produces, would be handed in by people on the margins of society in exchange for a few pennies. One such collection point may well have been her destination. This army of people in the informal economy figures in no statistic and they may well live in the plastic-covered shacks that have sprung up in an open field just across from the Djibi Shopping Mall.

quickly captured scene from inside a taxi, between Angré and Attoban, Abidjan

The fact that the folks living inside these new apartment blocks you see on the left pay more rent per month than the vendors below make in a whole year constitutes nothing more and nothing less than an economic and social time bomb. To get an idea of what that means only requires a look across the northern borders, where the margins of the Sahel countries have already fallen prey to unscrupulous recruitment agents who only have violence to peddle. There is everything to suggest that the rich, complacent and self-centred ruling classes here on the coast have adopted the attitude that yes, this deluge will hit home as well but that this will, very fortunately, happen long after they have gone.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 20, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 2

 

So the airport is supposed to re-open shortly. (Yes, for once I indulge in the maddeningly annoying habit to start a sentence with the completely redundant ‘so’… so there.) Earlier this month, the Transport Ministers of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a virtual video meeting, where they proposed to resume domestic air travel by the end of this month. Mind you, domestic other travel has been going on in the most spectacular fashion, at least here in Mali (in Senegal, inter-urban travel was banned until this week). On the way into Ségou, a two-and-a-half hour journey, I counted at least two dozen buses heading in the opposite direction. I was made to understand that these are all packed to the rafters with passengers. They will not bother departing with a half-empty bus. One old carcass on wheels had been hastily parked and was expeditiously shedding its passengers as black smoke enveloped the area of its right-hand-side back tyre. I also noticed the smashed wreckages of at least half a dozen FourWheelDrives that had been driven at high speed into trees and ditches. The elites’ travel habits differ slightly from those of ordinary folks but at least they get to respect the 1.5 or two metre barrier as they drive themselves to death.

No such concerns for everybody else. On Monday, the only day Ségou springs back to something resembling life, the market in the centre of town was heaving with people. Women and their merchandise were packed like sardines in the many covered motor taxis that crisscross this town; they seat about 6, sometimes 8. Fare: 100 CFA franc, 0.15 euro, perhaps a little extra for your wares. No taximan in his right mind leaves with a half-empty vehicle. With petrol well over one euro a litre, to do so is economic madness. And the same goes for the famous green Sotrama buses in Bamako, and the hundreds of buses that ply those long routes from the capital to Kayes (600 kilometres), Sikasso (400), Ségou (nearby) or even Gao (900 kilometres) – this last destination on a no-longer-existing road where you risk getting hi-jacked, robbed or even blown up.

One bus after it hit an IED between Sévaré and Gao. Photo credit not known, picture retrieved from the site djeliba24.com

The risk of contracting the dreaded virus is subject to the pragmatically calculated risk assessment we discussed earlier: either you sell your stuff and live another week – or you don’t and then it will be game over very soon. And as we saw earlier, too: there are no underlying health problems really; in Mali those supposedly underlying health issues tend to kill you on their own, without any help from COVID-19.

The ECOWAS ministers also discussed the issue of international and intercontinental travel. The idea is to gradually open the ECOWAS internal borders by July 15th at the latest. This means that the twin circus I described here will begin again: a smooth passage through the airport for the few, a rough, unfriendly and corrupt passage for everybody travelling by bus, this time augmented with Corona-related checks, which I predict to be user-friendly at the airports and add another layer of harrassment of the travelling public at the land borders, this time wearing white overcoats instead of uniforms.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita makes increasingly frequent television appearances, delivering speeches in complicated French nobody understands and designed to put across that famous line: I Feel Your Pain.

No You Bloody Don’t, is the riposte coming from meetings such as these.

Opposition rally in Ségou, June 19th. Pic: me.

A much bigger one happened on the same day, June 19th in Bamako. And as you can see, the virus fear has been completely overtaken, nay: overwhelmed, by rising public anger. About the education crisis – kids have not been to school for months because of a deep and bitter dispute between teachers unions and the govenment. About the all-pervasive corruption, large and small, with which people are absolutely fed up. And for some it is also about the recent parliamentary elections, another excercise in futility, which returned some to their seats and booted others away from their sinecures. In some circles the results are contested, while for most everyone else life goes on regardless. For those 99%, COVID-19 has been a most unwelcome distraction but one that has brought the existing cleavages in even sharper light than before. And that cleavage is where it has always been: between the haves and the have-nots. Foreign money often makes the difference.

No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when your position, your job, your sinecure, your income… is essentially assured by financial, political, diplomatic and/or business support from outside the country. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when you can sail through an airport and the journey from your capital to another capital in the ECOWAS region takes less time than for a bus with 70 passengers to leave a congested city. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when forking out 500 euros for a return ticket to Dakar or Abidjan makes no dent in your budget while for 95 out of 100 of your compatriots this constitutes their entire budget for most of the year. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when once again your health problems will be sorted after a quick trip to Paris, London, Lisbon, Rabat or Johannesburg, while others die on their way to hospital in a taxi or a handcart.

Caveats, execptions, all duly noted and accepted but we are talking general trends here. And we are trying to come to terms with the fact that for most Malians – and I’d wager most everyone else in this 350 million strong region – COVID-19 has not made any difference to their lives, had it not been for the official measures that often killed their business. (And before I forget: the formidable food business woman who went missing from our beloved depot when the curfew hit …is back, with her new daughter strapped to her back.)

Is it helpful that these new demonstrations are organised by a Wahab imam, the former head of the influential High Islamic Council, who has none-too-subtle presidential ambitions, ambitions that, I’m sorry to say, go strangely missing from most if not all all international media coverage? No, it is probably not. What is abundantly clear, though, is that ADEMA, the party and its associated military and civilian politicians, who came to symbolise the beginning of the democracy wave in 1991, have had a heavy hand in shaping the decay and the corruption that have become the sad lamented hallmarks of this once (and so blindly) hallowed example of a functioning democracy. I have been blogging my own mea culpa in this respect more than once. 

Ségou, June 19th. pic: me.

So as we leave Corona behind, we can re-concentrate minds to the underlying isues that don’t kill you instantly but slowly: glaring inequality being the most prominent among them. One of the things I have finally been able to do is to start reading Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s study of how colonialism continues to shape the most uncivil administrations across the continent, the ones that are sustained with foreign money. It’s the turn of Malians to be angry with their particular variety of administrative indifference. Mamdani’s book is entitled Citizen and Subject and I want to return to this key issue soon. For even though the book focusses on countries far removed from the Francophone West African experience, it will have many things to say that resonate here, too. Stay tuned.

 

The Façade – Part 5 and end

May 23, 2016

A slightlycloser look at thew Henro Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned.

A slightly closer look at the new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned. Photo taken from the conference room of the Grand Hotel.

 

I will forever be thrilled by arrival in Abidjan, a metropolis I have come to adore over the years. It’s fast, it’s dynamic and it’s getting bigger, better and busier. At least, on the outside: more roads, more shopping malls, more high-rise office blocks, more flyovers, more luxury boutiques and fancy restaurants. But none of this can hide the staggering difference in standards of living that blight this giant city. You get a good hard reminder of that once you arrive in Abidjan’s main bus station – Adjamé.

Or at least: what’s left of it. It is just after 11pm when we pull into a section of town that looks as if some shacks have been dumped there from a great height. Where are all the old-fashioned, loud but rather well-organised garages that used to line the road here?

Gone.

In its place, a sinister new order, of which I become dimly aware once out of the gate of the enclosure that is home to the hangar where the bus has been parked. The building must sit right on top of a sewer; the stench is everywhere. As I approach the gate, I am told not to talk to anyone, except taxi drivers. The latter announce themselves either seated behind the wheel of their – invariably orange-coloured – Toyotas or pointing at their vehicles. It has been raining and there is no paved road; the “street” in front of the badly lit hangar is muddy, wet and slippery. I get accosted by a tall man as my luggage disappears in the direction of one taxi. Big head, unkempt hair, needs money. I give him my small change, a move that I will come to regret a little later.

‘Don’t use too many words here,’ says the elderly driver, as he tells me to get into the car. Only the most basic of exchanges will suffice. Another man needs a ride. Urgent negotiations ensue as the atmosphere  turns a shade or two darker. My taximan wants to know if I object to someone joining us. Of course not. An elderly gentleman gets in the taxi and we advance, retreat, advance, retreat in a maze of other taxis, saloon cars, buses, lorries, parked haphazardly (or so it seems) in the increasingly menacing darkness. Apart from the engine, there is no noise outside.

The driver, whose name is Moussa, appears to know where he is going while I feel we continue to move ever deeper into this otherworldly labyrinth. A few lone lamps; little islands of light in the otherwise impenetrable darkness.

‘Have you got some small change?’ he suddenly asks.

Damn! No. That’s with the beggar boy at the hangar.

‘I’m afraid I just gave away my last pocket money,’ I answer back when out of nowhere a fierce looking young man appears, armed with a large piece of wood and a mad glint in his eye. He guards an improvised barrier and wants 100 francs. 15 cents. He brandishes his weapon.

Moussa rummages around in his dashboard compartment while I look at the man with the club. It’s as long as his calve and as thick as a grown man’s thigh. If he weren’t lolling about on his feet, as I begin to notice, he would be able to do some serious damage.

Moussa manages to find 100 francs and I pass it on to our self-appointed guard. He lifts the rudimentary wooden barrier and we’re out.

‘What if you don’t pay?’ Moussa doesn’t even bother to answer the question.

‘There’s many of them. They have come here since the government cleaned out another part of town. They all use drugs. They form gangs. And now that the authorities have destroyed the bus station they’re all over this place.’ I will find out later that this particular gang guards all the entrances and exits of this bizarre transport maze and apparently make enough to finance their drug habits.

Adjamé’s former bus terminus is, for now at least, the place where the people go that the government does not want you to see. The homeless. The insane. The drug users. The drug pushers. And that’s not even mentioning the lads they call les microbes, violent young criminals like their colleagues in the North of the country. They have established a reign of terror in Abobo, another one of Abidjan’s sprawling suburbs. How many of them have been active participants in Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict? Hard to tell but their existence is a major problem, primarily for Ivorians themselves. After all: visitors rarely see beyond the façade; they don’t go there.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

The pretty façade of Abidjan – that is the picture the current government would like you to retain. This is relatively easy when you get your visa electronically through a company run by one of the president’s business friends, get whisked around the town in a luxury car – I have seen stretch limousines cruise here, the ultimate sign of decadence and stupendous self-indulgence – and sleep in one of the luxury hotels dotted around town.

The leading clan loves its glitz and its glamour. Last March, the Children for Africa Gala Dinner (for the charity of the same name run by Côte d’Ivoire’s First Lady) and the African CEO Forum were star-studded events with celebrities, high profile politicians, captains of industry, diplomats – all present in numbers. A few dead people on the beach, as occurred on March 13, will not change the mood: Chinese, Turkish and increasingly also American and British businesspeople are joining the Ivorians, the French and the Lebanese already there. They all share Abidjan’s absolute obsession with making money. But the powder kegs are there for all to see, of one bothers to look: the deprivation, the corruption, the failed (and some would argue not even attempted) national reconciliation, the failure to punish the criminals on the winning side for crimes committed during the 2010-2011 conflict, the blatant inequality. That façade can easily be smashed up again if these things are not addressed instead of being swept under a thick red carpet for the happy few.

There are many mad guys with giant clubs. There are at least two politicians (one in a jail in The Hague; another in Yamoussoukro and one step away from the presidency) with proven track records of turning random men with clubs into militias, decked out with better kit and something resembling an ideology. Sweeping mad men with clubs up from one place and dumping them in another, as current government policy seems to be, does not make them go away. In all likelihood, they get ever madder. And get bigger clubs.