Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

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.

 

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Mali. Again (conclusion)

August 19, 2016

One can dream.

One can dream that one fine day Malians themselves will take charge of solving the issues that hobble their country. In no particular order:

A limited sense of shared history between the North, the Centre and the South, a problem that Mali’s education system reinforces and makes worse, as my good friend and colleague Intagrist El Ansari passionately argues in an interview Deutsche Welle broadcast early 2015 (sadly no longer available online). He said, among many other things that Malian education insists on teaching children that the history of their country derives from the various Mali Empires that descended through the ages from the 13th Century. ‘It’s far more complicated than that,’ my friend says, if only because it negates the fact that northern Mali, including Timbuktu was ruled by many different peoples, including the Tuareg, from the eighth century onwards. Intagrist does not want competing histories of Mali; he wants an integrated vision of his country’s history, which includes the parts the schools leave out. When he was speaking to students in Bamako with his ideas in early 2015 he found open and curious minds. This is hopeful, if only because this exchange was one among Malians themselves, free of foreign interference. A relief.

A corrupt and unaccountable polity, aided and abetted by a murderously cynical “international community”. Malians’ palpable disappointment with the current head of state, elected in 2013 with a comprehensive mandate, is only the latest manifestation of their ire. Malians want to see the lot of them gone. Tinkering with a broken system is no longer an option.

An army that has been weakened to the point that it is unable to assure Mali’s national territorial integrity, the result of the devastation wrought by the development agenda, which never considered national security an important issue. The proponents of this stance would, if it applied to their own countries, stand a significant chance of being put on trial for treason. Yet this was completely acceptable in respect of a West African sovereign state. This gross irresponsibility reinforced with truckloads of cheap aid money has, inevitably, led to the pathologies we are witnessing today in Mali’s armed forces: a decline in resources, a decline in morale, opaque recruitment and remuneration practices and as a sad but predictable end point an army that cannot be relied upon to do its job and had to stage an ill-fated coup just to make that point. ‘Democracy died!’ screamed the “international community”. Nope. It was being slowly strangled to death long before that coup happened and the same “international community” did nothing to stop it. For the depressing sequel: see the passage on Libya in my previous instalment.

The Saudi-sponsored Wahabist poison that has been steadily seeping into the society, thanks to the same shysters that attacked Ghadaffi and are keeping Saud, one of the most backward and repressive regimes on the face of the planet, close to their hearts and well-stocked with money and arms. Starving the money machine that fuels this aberration is the best way forward. This means weaning the West of its oil dependency. I have yet to come across a more compelling argument for going green.

***

Malians do not fall for the fallacy that foreigners can solve their problems. But an awful lot of them depend on foreigners for their salaries. In that sense, the development and intervention mafias that have successfully recolonized the country are well entrenched. But this scenario is unsustainable. Malians will, inevitably, reclaim their common history, get rid of the elites and their foreign partners that have failed them so catastrophically, restore their armed forces and reconnect with their own centuries-old proud military tradition. The clean-up will also involve pulling out the weeds from the Gulf that have been crawling like a malignant disease all over Mali’s intellectual landscape.

Will this result in a country island, alone and pure? Of course not. Mali will engage with the rest of world, this time though, it will be on her own terms, not the ones rolling out of printers in Washington, Paris, The Hague, London or Riyad.

One can dream. One must dream.

Here’s to Mali.

Veils and Guns – Part Two

February 4, 2016

A few more impressions and thoughts in the wake of the attack.

 

The armed gangs that emerged from the civil war in Algeria were pretty hardcore Islamic extremists, although even there it has been argued that some of the worst throat-slitting atrocities in the 1990s were actually army-led false flag operations designed to put the Armed Islamic Group (GIA in French) in a bad light. Be that as it may, the agenda appeared pretty clear. The anti-government groups were eventually ejected into the desert and resurfaced as cigarette smugglers and common criminals. You need to eat, right?

Muamar Ghadaffi, the slain Libyan leader, used Arab, Islam and African identities in his geopolitical poker games that gave luxury hotels and monuments to Bamako and Ouagadougou, wars to Chad, Liberia and Sierra Leone and hard-to-match political showmanship to the world. The armed groups in the Sahara/Sahel are equally adept at alternating. They can be Quran-wielding fanatics on Friday, people smugglers at the weekend, kidnappers on Monday, drug traffickers on Wednesday and rebel fighters on Thursday. Some will use Islam as a smokescreen to justify murder or hide their other activities; others may be sufficiently brainwashed to believe that shooting dead people having a drink on a terrace is the Good Fight for a Good Cause. The three terminally misguided young lads who attacked Ouagadougou on January 15 fall in this category, I would say. They went to pray in a nearby Sunni mosque before they tore their bloody trail through the city centre. The imam of the same mosque has condemned the attack in the strongest possible words. And we must take him at his word. This is West Africa, where words are heavy and mean serious things.

But how deep does that fanatical Islam really go? Judging from my partner’s commentary on the fully veiled women…not very deep. Interestingly, the number of full veils diminished significantly in the wake of the attacks. This, to be perfectly honest, is to be welcomed: closed-up, walled-in Islam has no place in West Africa, which – by and large – is an open, tolerant, cosmopolitan and life-affirming part of the world.

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

Ouagadougou represents, in the final analysis, more fallout from the catastrophic Western intervention in Libya, the main protagonist of which was the clueless but very noisy Nicholas Sarkozy who is making another presidential bid, followed closely by the deeply disturbing and utterly cynical Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be the next president of the United States. The fallout of “Libya” is basically a gang war over turf on an absolutely gigantic scale, from the Mediterranean coast through the Libyan desert, throughout Mali and pushing ever further south. In this gang warfare, faith and business interests collide; blind ideological adherents works for calculating warlords like Iyad ag Ghali and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who has claimed the Ouagadougou attack.

Will it stop in Burkina Faso? Perhaps. There is a phrase you hear a lot here: ‘C’est mal nous connaître.’ The Burkinabè have a well-earned reputation for being workers and warriors in equal measure. There is a sense of belonging, of national unity, which is stronger here than in many of its neighbours and for that you can thank, once again, the revolutionary captain Thomas Sankara. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen. But if truth must be told, Burkina Faso’s people are pretty well equipped for the job.

The other thing you hear all the time in these parts is: C’est pas simple.’ And that’s true. Nothing is simple around here, a fact that is often lost on colleagues who come flying in looking for a Goodies vs Baddies story because that is what the editors want and that will sell papers and magazines and generate clicks on the website back home, even when it seriously violates realities on the ground. There is opportunity for deeper analysis, for instance on the ZAM website, which is currently running a series called No Hearts No Minds. In part, it explains that the War on Terror on the African continent is as doomed as the War on Drugs across the pond in Latin America. ZAM is here and I will be on it shortly.

https://www.zammagazine.com

Veils and Guns – Part One

January 29, 2016

Some impressions and thoughts in the wake of the attack.

 

We were approaching a taxi in my partner’s (she’s called R…. but we’ll keep it under wraps for the moment…) former place of residence, Bobo Dioulasso. A fully veiled woman grabbed the front seat just before we got there and proceeded to completely ignore us. This is considered very bad manners here and R was visibly annoyed.

Next thing we know, another woman gets into the taxi, filling the back seat. The new passenger and the silent ghost on the front seat clearly know each other (in spite of the veil) and they greet animatedly. Partner pokes me and hisses in my ear: ‘Don’t greet her.’ Me, being polite and all (this is something Africa teaches congenitally rude Westerners), had already done so and as a result Her annoyance deepened.

So what was the problem here? In one word: hypocrisy. ‘I know these women,’ She said afterwards. ‘They pretend not to converse with people who don’t belong to their circle but did you see them getting chatty?’ She did not want me to greet the new passenger, as this would expand the circle of hypocrisy started by the not-so-silent-after-all ghost on the front seat.

‘It’s annoying. Do you know that these holier-than-thou women all in black are the worst adulteresses? Don’t be surprised. I know them well! They’re the worst kind of hypocrites. You’ll find them in the nightclubs, wearing skimpy clothes. Next day, they play the pious little veiled housewife again. I know them! That’s why they disgust me.’

Corroboration, then, of my ironclad theory that religion – and most decidedly in the monotheistic variety – is organized hypocrisy. Tales abound from Old Cairo about horny repressed Arabs from the Gulf States enjoying the forbidden delights of that city, in the olden days. Closer to home, there were the tales of oh-so-pious Mauritanians coming to sample the delights of the black Africans in just-across-the-border Saint Louis in Senegal, the same Africans they would mercilessly discriminate against in their own country, preferably on the way from the mosque to the homestead where they kept their own women on a leash.

As the old Dutch joke used to be, before secularization: if you want to know who the crooks and the villains in your town are, check out the two front rows in the church on Sunday’s. Today, they mismanage formerly state-run privatized corporations… And I have reason to suspect that it’s not that different in the mosques.

Ouagadougou, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, in normal times. Photo: Martin Waalboer

Ouagadougou, Avenue Kwame Nkrumah, in normal times. Photo: Martin Waalboer

I was reminded of these tales in the aftermath of the deadly attack on 15 January that blew a hole in the Cappuccino restaurant (a place I rarely frequented) and sent smoke and flames up the Splendid Hotel  (where I occasionally would buy a copy of The Economist) until the three rampaging homicidal maniacs were stopped in their deadly tracks in the Taxi Brousse bar on the third corner of this busy crossroads of the Kwame Nkrumah Avenue. The area will need some time to recover and especially the owner of the Cappuccino who lost four family members as they were having dinner on their habitual table.

Unlike in Mali, you will find not a shred of sympathy here for these murderous brutes. The friendliest term the people here use is “criminals”. Smockey, the nation’s premier rapper and one of the leaders of the Citizen Broom (Balai citoyen) movement that swept ex-president Blaise Compaoré from power said on his Facebook page ‘There are 18 million reservists here, ready to take them on.’ This is no exaggeration. (Incidentally, buy a copy of Songlines magazine this month and find my article on the Burkinabè rappers there. Plug ends here.)

The argument that there is some kind of an Islamist agenda propelling these kids towards their doom-laden missions (a propaganda picture shows the attackers as three boys barely in their twenties) does not fly here. You can sum up the consensus thusly: ‘Islam is a smokescreen they use for their criminal acts. They’re ordinary vulgar bandits.’ Is that the whole story?

Part two coming up shortly

Lines

December 30, 2015

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It was on the edge of the desert, the last settlement before the journey truly would begin. A sign in Hamid El Ghizlane read: Tombouctou 50 days. That’s history now: the camel routes have been replaced by aeroplanes and FourWheelDrives.

It was early 2015 in Hamid El Ghizlane and bitterly cold. With all my clothes on and buried under three thick blankets, still the bones would wake up freezing. Indeed: like six years previously, at a very similar festival near that other city, 50 days away, I had come woefully ill-prepared. Again.

But there was music. It sent lines across the vast open space between this Moroccan village and that city on the other side. Guitar lines. Bass lines. Vocal lines. Threads of melody, interspersed with hand claps, drums and percussion. We liked it so much that in the cold and pitch-dark night we threw off our jackets and danced.

And danced.

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There were guests. From Europe, from the neighbours, and from Tombouctou, no longer 50 days away. Three years ago, Tombouctou was battered by the twin force of an extended family feud and an empty-headed reading of the religion that has also thrown its lines across the sand. Islam. But instead of feasting their ears on the worshipping chants and marvel at the sight of the sacred tombs, vandals tore through the old culture of the city. It survived. The Festival of the Desert, which is now twinned with the one at Hamid El Ghizlane (or Taragalt, to give it its old name), is still looking for a home.

But still we listened, and we danced.

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I recorded a lot of it. A conversation with Ibrahim, one of the festival directors, spontaneous music outbursts, an interview with some lovely lads from the village, wanting to make it big. Génération Taragalte, they called themselves. They knew their music. They knew their heroes: Tinariwen, from another place in that large space of sand, rock and guitar strings, spinning musical lines thousands of miles long.

50 days. A split-second when a single chord transports you back to the other side of the desert where the Festival of the Desert spun its yarns of peace and understanding and love until some misguided fools shot holes in the fabric.

A group of women were busy putting it all back together in Hamid El Ghizlane/Taragalte. Zeinab and her friends were weaving a Carpet of Peace, made with fabrics brought in from Mali. They asked visitors to come with clothes they no longer wanted, so they could weave that also back into the Carpet before sending it across the Sahara. More lines. I recorded a lot, there, too.

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I lost some of it when my harddisk crashed, months later. Fortunately, we humans have another harddisk, equally faulty but capable of making connections, freely, randomly, dreaming up lines unexpectedly – mostly to ourselves.

And so we have come to the other end of 2015. It’s warm where I am right now. A mere 300 miles from here, 7 hours by bus, is my house. Burkina Faso, a new place, a new home, which I share with someone who is well on her way to becoming a star in her own right. But that’s another story.

Here’s to 2016 then. When more lines will be drawn, more connections made, more music will emerge, more perspectives will be challenged and more surprises will strike for which we, only human, are singularly ill-prepared.

Small matter. It’ll all make sense later.

Office. Ouaga.

Office. Home. Ouaga.

Happy 2016 to you all.

An open space

September 18, 2015

Part 2 – Insecurity

 

The bar is a few yards away from the one road that cuts through the centre of this small town. It is full of young men, with little to do but drink, talk (mostly very loudly) and go for a piss. Some have a little swagger and I later understand that this is probably because they were part of the Anti-Balaka militia that swept through this place in 2014, swept aside the Seleka rebels that had inflicted terrible pain on the local population one year previously. The Anti-Balaka chased away the Muslims, burnt their homes, their shops and their mosques, in revenge for the fact that some of them had worked with the foreign-backed Seleka, which also had Chadians and Sudanese among their ranks. But with the Muslims leaving, the commercial class was gone too. So the economy collapsed virtually overnight.

Very few women are out on the street, where a tiny market takes care of basic necessities: some food, petrol smuggled from Cameroon, washing powder in small sachets, water and the ubiquitous mobile phone top-up service. It all makes for a decidedly tense atmosphere. One wrong look, one remark taken the wrong way and there will be violence. Brawls are frequent and there have been deaths in the recent past.

‘He’s been in the war, right?’ I ask a local man who is working as a driver for one of the NGOs here. ‘That’s right,’ he replies. The signs are unmistakable: there’s the swagger, in some more exaggerated than in others. Some still wear the tell-tale bandana around their heads. And then there are the eyes. Blazing eyes that manage to look determined and detached at the same time. Drugs, likely. But also the experience of having dished out and received violence. If there was a higher purpose to their fights it was determined by others. For themselves, the purpose was looting, as defined by the most telling name given to one of those sprees in West Africa: Operation Pay Yourself. Various informants told me that while the larger purposes of these last two gangs (and indeed, a few others have sprung up since) may have been different, the behaviour on the ground was the same.

Mosque and homes destroyed in Bocaranga. Picture by Femke Dekker.

Mosque and homes destroyed in Bocaranga. Picture by Femke Dekker.

‘Yes, they are still among us,’ said one of them, when I asked whether Anti-Balaka were still here. And the reason why they can afford their beers is simple: they steal. Theft is endemic in the areas where they are still in evidence. And if they don’t steal, they rob or they beg. Like Olivier, who had an entire story ready to relate to me on the short trip from Restaurant La Terrasse to the Hotel du Centre, back in Bangui. He said he was paid 250 CFA a day (less than half a euro) to look after parked cars. He said he was sleeping in a single room with many others (he didn’t say how many). He said – and then he took his bandana off – that a wall had fallen in that room because of the rains and a brick had hit him on the head. There was nothing to see. With eyes that asked for pity and were menacing in equal measure, Olivier got what he wanted, without telling me what had really happened to him, in spite of my repeated invitations. He knelt at my feet, for less than two euros. Which was the worst part of it all.

Rampant crime means insecurity, a topic that Making Sense of the Central African Republic deals with extensively. A people that has seen mostly predatory behaviour perpetrated by outsiders, a practice stretching back two centuries, finds solace and shelter in the invisible world. Last year, Catholic missions became refugee camps when another wave of violence hit. 

The churches are full to overflowing, accusations of witchcraft are widespread and very frequently deadly, new charismatic churches set up their business and are flourishing. Where no other authority is available except the one that is traditional and limited in scope and size (such as the village chiefs); where there is no discernible state presence (which is pretty much everywhere outside Bangui) people will find ways and practices that can act as anchors in their lives.

Broken bridge near the community of Koui. Pic: me.

Broken bridge near the community of Koui.
Pic: me.

The absence of the state is acutely felt. Even though its presence has often turned out to be an enormous nuisance, the state is, to all intents and purposes the entity that can do something most others can not: provide the basic services that communities need. Water. Education. Health care. Food assistance if necessary. Security. Decent roads. In the CAR, the state has consistently failed in all of these areas. The book argues – and I agree – that this is the malign imprint on society of the concessionary model that France introduced. More on that in the next installment.

An open space

September 15, 2015

Part 1 – Impressions

Along the Boganda Avenue, the main road in the rather run-down capital Bangui, slightly away from the busy traffic, stands a nondescript three-storey block. It is the Administrative Building, the principal physical manifestation of the government of the Central African Republic, CAR for short. The right half of the building is, well, not exactly missing but you can see right through it. There are no windows, parts of the inner walls are no longer there, the wood that used to be the window frames has ether disappeared or has taken on strange forms. Furniture is strewn everywhere.

This is what the government looks like in an open space in Central Africa, larger than France with anywhere between 4 and 5 million inhabitants. We do not know exactly; the last census was conducted in 2003 and yielded a figure of less than 4 million. Since then, two major crises have chased so many people from their homes, their villages and their neighbourhoods that it is impossible to tell who lives where in what numbers.

The CAR has hardly ever lived in the collective consciousness of the world, except perhaps for the time, now almost 40 years ago, when a former army officer who had fought for the French in Southeast Asia crowned himself Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa I at a ceremony in 1977 that may have cost as much as US$20m, the entire national budget for that year and then some.

And perhaps some may remember the civil wars that have traversed the country between 2003 and 2013, when any number of armed gangs (the latest incarnations were called Seleka and Anti-Balaka) terrorized the civilian population. In the last such display, which has not ended yet, the world’s mainstream media, using their habitual lazy journalistic shorthand, reduced the conflict to “Muslims” against “Christian”. As usual, it is more complicated than that. But how does one make sense of it all?

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That is the title and the subject of a collection of essays that has just been published by Zed Books, of London. The book is Making Sense of the Central African Republic; its editors are two scholars, Tatiana Carayannis and Louise Lombard. It fills a gap in the knowledge of the English speaking worlds about this unknown and little cared-for chunk of central Africa.

The longest chapter in the book is on the CAR’s history. It explains a lot – without justifying current behaviour, to which we will come later. But the present flows from the past and in order to understand why this country is the way it is, an understanding of history is essential.

Reading through it, you will appreciate the fact that for the past 200 years, if not longer, the area that is now known as the CAR has been the theatre of somebody else’s geopolitical designs. The slave raids of the Arab sultanates of the 19th Century, the French colonial project from the late 19th Century to the late 20th. And after independence, in 1960, the agendas of the neighbours, of which the CAR has six: Chad, Cameroon, The Republic of Congo, the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), South Sudan and Sudan. Reading through the book and travelling through the CAR, you realise that this is not a country, but an open space. It has a flag, a national anthem, a capital and a state, whose authority – as the joke goes – ends at the city limits of the capital and even within those limits it is not always assured. Its borders are fiction, which makes the meddling of others so easy.

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The flag is a powerful depiction of the contradictions that history has given this country. Horizontal white and blue and vertical red are the colours of the former (reluctant) colonizer, France. Horizontal yellow and green and vertical red are the colours of independent Africa. Some say that the colours individually also refer to the neighbours and if that were the case there is one conspicuous by its absence: Sudan. There is also a yellow star at the top left hand corner of the flag. It refers to the freedom and the emancipation of the Black people. Why then, are the Pan-African colours at the bottom half of the flag and the French colours at the top? The constant in all this is the red, superimposed on all the others: the blood of the martyrs. It continues to flow.

Arguably, the two most pernicious legacies that Arab slave hunts and French colonialism left behind are permanent insecurity and the concession system. The French decided to leave the exploitation of the country’s riches (timber, ivory and diamonds principally) to private companies, as the colonial state could not even be bothered to do that herself. The companies squeezed as much out of the country and its people as possible, which led to predictable scenes of extreme exploitation that jolted French public opinion into action in ways perhaps not seen since King Leopold’s excesses in the Congo. In 1910, the CAR became part of French Equatorial Africa, a collection of disparate countries including Gabon, the Republic of Congo and Chad. We will come back to the concession legacy later.

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Timbuktu

May 5, 2015

Thanks for your patience!

Travel, illness, a crashed computer and lots of other work have all contributed to this blog lying dormant for four months.

Time to revive it.

 

Mild. That’s the word I would like to use when describing Abderrahmane Sissako’s depiction of recent  events in Timbuktu. This is not the first time Sissako tackles a theme rooted in either a historical fact or current circumstance. “Bamako”, his 2006 production, staged a trial against the International Monetary Funds and the World Bank, the lead agencies of an aid industry that is the bane of this continent. As in “Timbuktu”, he affords himself acres of artistic licence, so what we get to see are his interpretations of fact and circumstance.

In early 2012, northern Mali was invaded, first by a Tuareg rebellion and then by jihadist gangs. It was, in brief, the fallout from the West’s catastrophically ill-conceived removal of its earlier friend and ally Muamar Ghadaffi, whose army had been home for many Tuaregs. Jihadists from Algeria and elsewhere saw the opportunity of a gaping security hole that was opening up in northern Mali and struck. They overran Timbuktu, the City of 333 Saints and destroyed buildings, graves and objects of world-wide cultural importance.

Timbuktu was hit especially hard in the way people’s lives were disrupted or destroyed. ‘We are losing our soul,’ as one old inhabitant put it. “Timbuktu”, the film, shows some of that, in particular the harsh stoning of an “adulterous” couple, the relentless beating of a female singer (played beautifully by Fatoumata Diawara) after she had been arrested for illegally performing music, the heartless abduction of a local girl by an English speaking jihadist fighter and the destruction of art.

Should “Timbuktu” have been a Western shill, as some writers have suggested, the jihadists would have been portrayed as unreconstructed monsters without any redeeming features. Instead, they are presented to us with their weaknesses and their pasts. The will to communicate and dialogue is emphasised throughout, especially by the city’s imam who seeks to reason with the jihadists every time they violate local custom. To me, the essence of “Timbuktu” runs counter to the instincts of the alleged leaders of Western nations, who have developed a vicious tendency to bomb everyone who disagrees with them.

The jihadist leader, Abdelkrim, is seen dancing in secret – we are left to determine whether it is ballet or the much older traditional whirling of the Dervishes, imbued with the kind of mysticism he wants to expunge. When he is driven to a sand dune and walks behind it to light up, his driver tells him: ‘Don’t bother. Everybody knows you smoke.’ Some of his fighters are clearly more comfortable discussing European league football than the sharia principles they are supposed to ram down everybody’s throat. Not exactly your average portrayal of a hate-infused fundamentalist. Sissako maintains the human scale in his story.

from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

The film’s centrepiece revolves around a conflict between Amadou, a fisherman and Kidane, a herdsman whose favourite bull strays into Amadou’s nets. The fisherman kills the bull and Kidane, an otherwise tranquil man and loving husband, gets into a fight with Amadou and kills him. Accidentally or not, again we are not sure.

I will confess that I found the storyline that followed this scene rather confusing. First, it takes the Islamic Police no time at all to find and arrest Kidane. How were they so sure it was him? And then there is his confession and the verdict: compensate Amadou or die. Kidane has not got the wherewithal to do the former. I was left wondering what a traditional tribunal would have had to say. The sequence ends with a botched rescue of Kidane by his wife Satima and an unknown biker we have seen riding around a few times, an interesting “foreign” element if you like, just like the mad mystic woman from Haiti who somehow ended up here after having escaped the earthquake in her country and who challenges Abdelkrim’s gang with the recklessness of someone who knows she cannot be touched or harmed. It is in her lair that Abdelkrim performs his dance…

 

from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

“Timbuktu” is a work of art, beautifully filmed (perhaps even too beautifully if that is at all possible), with long stills that reminded me of my favourite film director, the late Andrej Tarkovski.

So here is one recurring criticism that can be put to pasture. There is this one here, for instance, a critique that provoked an explosion of discussions as it made the risible claim that Sissako had made a film to fit Western tastes for an “eternal Africa” where everyone is a fisherman or a herdsman, blissfully ignoring the fact that literally everybody in the film is using a mobile phone to communicate. Orientalism, or “othering” to use that ugly neologism, “Timbuktu” does none of these things.

Another criticism relates to Mauritania, where Sissako was born and where most of “Timbuktu” was filmed. Commentators have asked why Sissako has not dared to speak out against the persistent slavery practices there. Mauritania outlawed it in 1981 (the last country in the world to do so) and then took another 26 years to criminalise it. It is a good point and perhaps Sissako, said to be a cultural advisor to Mauritanian president Mohamed Old Abdel Aziz, will be compelled to make such a statement, in another film. At the same time, it strikes me as irrelevant. I do not recall any such calls when “Bamako” was released, partly of course because that film targeted the “correct” usual suspects – World Bank and IMF – and attacked them with a ferocity that makes “Timbuktu” a paragon of subtlety and, in my view at least, a better film.

from AlloCiné

from AlloCiné

That leaves France, where the film was mostly financed and where it has been very warmly welcomed (seven Césars, the French Oscars). France is part of that international community that first allowed Mali to slide into the abject mess that it is today because it was an excellent hole into which the hundreds of millions in aid money could be sunk. Mali was, therefore, immune from criticism. Then, in January 2013, France briefly became the heroic liberator that shot the jihadist gangs out of Timbuktu and then, unforgivably, botched its attempts at reuniting Mali at Kidal, a rebel stronghold until today. Today, France is regarded with utmost suspicion in Mali and all she has to blame for that is herself.

French critics have been praising “Timbuktu” to the heavens – and indeed, one of the critiques I mentioned earlier quotes a piece of astonishing silliness in Le Monde in which some hack maintains that “Timbuktu” is in fact a tribute…to France. In fact, the film steers clear of any overt political statement, which is perhaps why some have found it necessary to accuse Sissako of having made the film to whitewash France and/or Mauritania, both engaged in what is called the War On Terror. The point would have been legitimate, had he made a documentary, which he did not. But don’t take my word for it – go and see it for yourself.

 

Fighting the Void

January 14, 2015

In the aftermath of another unspeakable massacre in northeastern Nigeria, a earlier orgy of butchery at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan and a relatively small one in Paris last week the worldwide handwringing continues, in tandem with the gloating (in some isolated quarters) about these deaths. What they all had in common was that the victims – ordinary folk from towns and villages, schoolboys, journalists and artists – carried no arms. Their killers did.

In Paris, the murder of 17 people in three days by armed thugs was unusual; massacres of such magnitude are rare in Europe although they do occur from time to time, as they have in Scotland, Germany and Norway. But as the identity of the Paris killers emerged, the media wheeled out the same tired old predictable tropes as they went into their habitual overdrive. I consider 24-hours-a-day rolling news one of the worst mental afflictions that humankind these days has to endure. (Thanks, Ted Turner.) Another affliction is known as “Social Media”. Yes, I am a part of it but it is deplorable to see an ever-expanding tin foil hat crowd that used to have a corner in a London park, a megaphone and perhaps two minutes of the public’s attention now dispose of a worldwide forum, seven days a week, to throw raw sewage into any online discussion. Read the Al Jazeera commentaries and weep.

Every sane person on the planet knows that invoking Islam when burning innocent people in their own homes, sending a 10-years-old girl into a crowded market with bombs strapped to her little body, or indeed mowing people down in their place of work…that none of this implies that Islam endorses murder. Similarly, all are aware that full freedom of speech exists nowhere, a situation that I personally find deeply unsatisfactory. Censorship is alive and well, from religious restrictions in many parts of the world, via the plague of political correctness in much of the West and all the way through to states that have been in the business of shutting down free speech everywhere since forever. Charlie Hebdo has a history of at times pretty serious investigative journalism. Here’s a rundown of those who have tried, unsuccessfully, to shut it down and the list leaves out members of the French establishment who have been no friend of free speech. Freedom of expression will always be negotiated under ever shifting circumstances and conditions. Discussions about the existence, yes or no, of freedom of speech and its limits are part of these negotiations.

Street art, Dakar Biënnale "off", Biscuiterie de Medina, 2014

Street art, Dakar Biënnale “off”, Biscuiterie de Medina, 2014

But what about those killers? It took a Burkinabè newspaper editorial to cut through all the post-Paris-massacre teeth-gnashing and get straight to the point. There is no reason, Aujourd’hui (Today) argues, to run around in circles asking the same “Why did they do it???” over and over again because the answer will remain the same: a roaring, deafening silence. Referring to the Paris killers the paper said: ‘This type believes in nothing. They don’t believe in God. They don’t believe in the devil.’ This stance, I think, will allow us to move past the distractions (Free speech! False Flag! Religion!) and move into a much more action-oriented “How.” How does a society, any society, prevent this sort of thing from happening?

Short-term is practical. When empty-brained loons destroyed Timbuktu in 2012 and in January 2015 tore through Nigerian villages and shot an editorial team to pieces, the question was: where was the army? Where were the intelligence services? In the first case, the Malian army was fatally weakened by decades of policies, dictated by international donors on whose money the Malian state depends, which never took national security into account. Nigeria, in its turn, has no such excuse and neither do the likes of France. The claims that intelligence prevents similar outrages to occur more frequently may well be true but the fact that the Paris killers were known but not apprehended before they could come into action suggests, in the famous Napoleonic sense, incompetence verging on criminal negligence. Similar was reported about US Intelligence services prior to the September 11 attacks. This will not do. Effective armies and intelligent intelligence are crucial to a nation’s defence; actions that distract from keeping the public safe are borderline treasonous.

Long-term is the more difficult challenge. There are fundamental questions to be asked about the kind of society people want to live in. Are we happy in a society that consigns up to one-fifth of the population to irrelevance because they are considered too stupid or under-educated (Netherlands), or because they live in the wrong postal code (Paris) or because they live in a region that is considered politically irrelevant (Nigeria)? Because this creates tens of thousands of lives filled with resentful nothingness, a Void. And from there, people can easily be sucked into Another Void where nihilism rules and murder exists purely for its own sake, as Aujourd’hui asserts.

For some societies, it may already be too late to have proper protection against the products of The Void; it has been allowed to balloon to unsustainable proportions with extremism on the one side and populism on the other. All this has been made infinitely worse by a crop of leaders who have unleashed criminal and illegal wars because, wait for it, “God told me so”. With politicians like these, who needs enemies? The future of the leading nations of the West does not look good. At all.

Ouagadougou, October 2014. Pic: koulouba.com

Ouagadougou, October 2014. Pic: koulouba.com

So what can be done, then? Forgive me for banging an old drum here but this is where the Left has, unforgivably, dropped the ball. Left-wing politics, where one would traditionally look for answers to these serious redistribution issues has disappeared up its own politically correct arse. It has ditched its social democratic roots, embraced the free market and hung the label “progressive” on a political patronage system created around self-declared representatives of groups that had declared themselves, rightly or wrongly, historically deprived. Crucially, none of these claims were interrogated. You cannot ask hard questions when identity politics has all the answers. It is exactly the same trick employed by the defenders of the assassins of Paris, Nigeria and indeed the criminal, murderous loon Breivik in Norway. The Left, as I have argued before, can only be repaired by a return to basics but does it want to restore its long-lost credibility? The answer seems to be a resounding “No.” 

Where to look, then, to fill that Void? Some claim to have found the answer, parading with knives and guns and beheading people under a black-and-white flag. These are the lost pirates, rebels without a cause, the nothing-believers, as Aujourd’hui calls them. Very frankly, they are a distraction. Where we are heading, I predict, is back – or forward! – to classic class warfare. For a picture of what that entails look no further than the burnt-out buildings I am seeing when cycling through the Burkinabè capital, Ouagadougou. These carefully selected targets all belonged to the ruling class. In different places and in different ways, History is already busy repeating itself and dear reader, do not, for a single second, believe that you will be safe.

Inevitable Islam

June 14, 2014

Bamako. It’s 3:30am and someone has been singing verses from the Koran non-stop for well over an hour. Not very loud but very persistent. He must be keeping hundreds awake at this hour but clearly no-one is going to tell him to be quiet.

Every afternoon the reception area in the court of the Maison de la Presse in Conakry turns into a miniature mosque. When I witnessed it for the first time I will freely admit to feeling upset. More precisely: my secular, social democratic and most of all my journalistic sensibilities were upset: why bring evidence-free religion into a building that supposedly celebrates evidence-based reporting? I was told that it was not a problem.

Dakar. The city centre goes into shutdown. Large groups of people, chain of 99 prayer beads in hand, stroll through the narrow streets and settle in any place where there is still space. The Plateau becomes one large open air prayer session for the duration of the Friday afternoon prayer, the most important one of the week.

What is going on ?

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

The rise of Islam in this part of the continent is neither extraordinary nor inexplicable. After Independence, formerly French territories like Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Niger were run by political elites that singularly failed their people. No better place to go to than, once again, that epic novel by Ahmadou Kourouma, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, a novel I want to see on every Global Top Ten Must Read list. As Kouroumah shows, the political elites combined the rhetoric of modern nationalism and democracy with styles of leadership that had roots in local traditions. But the people at large did not see a clever hybrid or a government by the people for the people. They saw kleptocrats who served themselves and their families and in-laws, their friends, and the interests of the former colonial power, especially France. Everybody else came dead last.

Meanwhile, in came another belief, carried along by a large group of mostly Western individuals. In tandem with sections of that already discredited political elite, this imported gospel was called:

Development.

Nobody was really sure what in Heaven’s name this meant, not least because the high priests (at first) and high priestesses (later and in larger numbers) kept changing the definition every other year. First, development was to come through big, state-coordinated plans. Then culture had to be promoted and women too – not at all a contradiction in most of West Africa. Then the state had to be dismantled and decentralised while corruption had to be fought and good governance promoted. For a while, building infrastructure would bring development but then environmental degradation had to be halted. And security had to be promoted, in countries where the army had taken over power (often with widespread popular approval) but then had been allowed to turn into undisciplined racketeering machines. Exceptions duly noted.

And the people? The saw armies of Four Wheel Drives come and go, bedecked with an increasingly bewildering array of logos and labels. And they stayed poor.

Bamako, Tour d'Afrique, from taxi

Bamako, Tour d’Afrique, from taxi

I am writing this from Mali, a country that has had more than its unfair share of these multiplying and often contradictory development fads rammed down its throat. The development faith gained its disproportionate influence because of the money that was attached to it, which the elites, correctly, identified as another resource to be exploited. And the fads it brought along across the decades were always, always, always the result of development in donor countries.

As a result, Mali is the prefect example of a development state where development rhetoric was on everyone’s lips. A country where foreign-organised workshops, notoriously, passed for news items on state television. But the rhetoric is losing all of its relevance. Fast. ‘I live less than an hour away from Bamako and my village has no electricity, no safe drinking water and not even one decent primary school. ‘ It is these and other statements (including the absolutely dismal performance of the education sector in spite of  Millennium Goals rhetoric) that should compel all of us to come clean and give the development experiment in Mali and elsewhere its proper name.

An abject, catastrophic failure.

New mosque. Under  construction but already in use. Ouagadougou.

New mosque. Under construction but already in use. Ouagadougou.

The people, still poor, have already done so. They are turning elsewhere, to another imported religion but one that arguably has older and deeper roots. Islam does not promise material gain through “development”. In fact, it does not promise development at all. Neither does it change priorities every two years. Islam has a number of immutable basic tenets that, like the five calls to prayer, can act as anchors in peoples’ lives. It also has a good number of very practical rules that people can live by; solidarity is one of them, no matter how modest one’s means. In short, if offers an outlook on life that is a much closer to the majority’s lived experience than any kind of rhetoric emanating from air-conditioned offices and cars. The people do not own aircons; they own cheap ventilators.

The Sufi tradition predominates here and revulsion at the vandal hordes that invaded northern Mali and the ugly killing sprees by Boko Haram is virtually universal. This is not the kind of Islam that compels people to go and fight in Syria or Iraq, with a few exceptions here and there. What it does do, is offer refuge. The political elites have failed, the security details steal and everyone sees the Development Gospel for the scam it is.