Posts Tagged ‘Liberia’

It’s business, st*p*d!

November 29, 2022

James Carville’s house slogan (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) for Bill Clinton’s election campaign never gets old and can be applied in a lot of situations. For instance here, where I will be trying to explain, in ways less flippant than Carville’s great one-liner suggests, why the West’s obsession with ‘jihadism’ in the Sahel is mostly misguided.

There are still buses doing the long trip from the Malian capital Bamako to the major town of Gao in the country’s remote northeast. On that 1,200 kilometres long trip, they will go from a good tarred road into Ségou, to a fairly OK but still tarred road into Sévaré (where there have been several attacks against army bases) and then on to a road hardly worthy of the name past Douentza, Hombori and Gossi and finally into Gao. This report was made three years ago; there is nothing to suggest that the situation has improved.

But buses continue to run the full gauntlet into Gao. How is this possible, on long stretches of virtually non-existent road through areas that are infested with self-defence militias, self-styled jihadist groups and their splinters, khalifate-creating fanatics and bandits with their guns and their roadside bombs? (The category “bandits”, by the way, almost always overlaps all the others.)

Simple: the companies pay. Any business working in areas these gangs control does the same. What we are seeing here is the Sahelian variant of the protection racket. And it has been spreading, along with the armed turbulence that began when Algeria threw its armed ‘jihad’ gangster problem across the fence into Mali in the late 1990s and was then made ten times worse when France, the UK, the USA and NATO plunged Libya into the chaos from which it has never recovered. And even in Algeria it was not entirely over. What was the original business these original ‘jihadis’ were in? Banditry: smuggling contraband and kidnapping Westerners; this last they did safe in the knowledge that the governments of rich white countries pay to have their citizens released. Even the late Hissène Habré, the butcher of Chad, knew this.

Habré gained notoriety in the 1970s as a rebel leader and hostage taker. His hostages were West German and French, whose governments paid good money for the release of their citizens. That did not stop the United States and France from sponsoring Habré all the way to the Chadian presidency, a post he took by force of arms, flown in from the USA by way of Monrovia’s international airport, as former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker explained to me during an interview in Washington. In the eight years (1982 to 1990) that he manhandled his country, Habré arranged for the murder of 40,000 people and the torture of many more, crimes for which he was belatedly convicted in a Dakar court, in 2016. He died in a Dakar hospital, aged 79.

So, hostage taking is an old business, probably as old as running protection rackets. The former were at the origin of the self-styled ‘jihadist’ groups. The latter are – in tandem with theft, extortion, and artisanal gold extraction – at the core of these groups’ business today. Smuggling, meanwhile, has been an absolute constant throughout, from cigarettes to drugs.  One of the earlier leaders of these armed ‘jihad’ gangs, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was nicknamed Mr Marlboro and you get no extra points for guessing why that was. People smuggling, I understand, is an entirely different branch and has no inherent connection with the violent armed gangs who are busy shutting down the Sahel. Which stands to reason: people smugglers get paid to get people to a destination. They do not set out to kill people; even though they very often fail in their trips across the unforgiving Sahara desert the objective is to get people to their destination alive.

Today, nothing much has changed. Islamic State mines gold in Burkina Faso and Mali, it and other armed gangs set up roadblocks and extort money from the travelling public, raid buses if the companies running them have not paid enough or on time; they steal cattle – a deliberate and deeply destructive act – and still smuggle drugs and contraband.

Their methods for recruiting foot soldiers come straight out of the gangster rulebooks that were used in Liberia and Sierra Leone at the end of the last century: find young, marginalised men with little or no prospects, manipulate them with lies, false promises, ply them with drugs and then tell them what to do: rape, kill, burn, steal, pillage, loot, pilfer, extort. How did West Africa’s jungle soldiers, some as young as 7, refer to these activities? I will tell you because I asked them this question. And their answer was: they considered doing these things their job. The self-styled ‘jihadist’ gangs we see in Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Libya, Chad, Cameroon and now also in Togo, Benin and Côte d’Ivoire operate in exactly the same way. These are at their very core criminal organisations, working towards the creation of what one general from Mauritania once memorably called “a Boulevard of Crime, from Tripoli to Abidjan…”

Vandalism in Timbuktu, 2013

But what about the religion then? Because none of what you have read so far sounds terribly religious. Correct: it does not sound religious because it isn’t. But there are most definitely religious zealots in the ranks of these violent criminal gangs and some, like the notorious Amadou Koufa in Central Mali may even be a bona fide religious warlord. This is logical: using Islam as a recruitment tool resonates with folks who are, in the majority, deeply religious. Often the only ‘education’ young kids can afford is going to the Koran school, where they learn to recite the entire Holy Book back to front and nothing else. They are often sent onto the streets of all the main cities to beg for money, to be delivered to their Koran teacher. Some education…

You see? This is the mechanism Taylor used, with a new twist. Allah does not give you food; you must work for it. And so, when I see this flag, I do not think “Jihadists” or “Islamist extremists”. I think: “Pirates.”

Source for this image: Lawfare.

Cast your mind back to those forest wars between 1989 and 2003. Two of the most notorious warlords, the late Foday Sankoh and the imprisoned war criminal Charles Taylor both went to training camps in the late Muamar Ghadaffi’s Libya to learn the strategies of revolutionary terror. But did they bring The Revolution to their countries, as the name of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone suggested and one of Taylor’s former female generals told me in person? No of course they did not. It was a pretext. Some may have believed in it, for sure. But for most it was…just a job. We’re only in it for the money. How did the boys call their looting sprees, anyone? Yes, you at the back? Correct! They called their looting sprees ‘Operation Pay Yourself.’

And so it is with the religious element we are dealing with here. Those kids that were smashing the shrines and the statues in Timbuktu would not be able to cite the Koran passages justifying their vandalism if their lives depended on it. Both sets of violent gangs share the same methods.

Barbarism. Islamic State executes Housseini Hamma Cissé, aka “DJ passant” because of his mobile musical services for the community that adored him. Murdered in cold blood, near Ménaka, November 28.

And these methods are? Gratuitous violence. Or have we forgotten that summarily executing people in the most gruesome ways did happen frequently in the forests and towns of West Africa, from the mass murders in a church in Monrovia, Liberia to the repeated carnage in Freetown, Sierra Leone; the vicious fights in Guéckédou, Guinea and the massacres in Duékoué, Côte d’Ivoire? The religious (in this case Islamic) element does not add another layer of horror to these acts. The horror is already there and it has the same purpose: terrorizing people into doing what the terrorisers want.

But remember also that the perpetrators operate mostly in armed gangs. These are not kingdoms or republics with large repressive systems at their disposal, capable of genocide or industrial scale mass murder, such as the Belgians committed in Congo, the Germans in Namibia, the British in South Africa and Kenya, the French in Niger, Cameroon and Algeria, the Italians in Ethiopia. Taylor and his goons ruled Liberia for six years; Sankoh never got the presidency of Sierra Leone. One criminal gang of terrorists with an overlay of religious fanaticism is holding sway in a shrinking part of northeastern Nigeria. Another is establishing an (undoubtedly short-lived) ‘khalifate’ in the remote northeast of Mali and they are only able to do this because the colonels mismanaging Mali from their suites in Bamako are not serious about defending the country; they prefer to take soldiers from a neighbouring country hostage or boring the United Nations to death with frivolous charges about France helping Al Qaeda. The Russian mercenaries of the Wagner PMC they have hired for an eye-watering amount of money to do the job they are supposed to be doing are singularly uninterested in taking on the armed gangs, who as a result do pretty much as they please. They fight Wagner – for the control of the artisanal gold mines. It’s business, st*p*d!

And where do they intend to take their business? What is the final destination of the Boulevard of Crime? To reiterate: the coast. Why? This I covered recently. Suffice to say that reaching the coast would obviously mean a colossal expansion of their business. The amount of loot to be had in, say, Abidjan dwarfs what can be stolen in Ansongo, Djibo and Tilaberi combined. And of course many West African coastal cities have direct air links with that well-known murky international hotbed of dodgy business, Dubaï.

An appropriately murky picture – by me – of a distinctly murky place.

Clearly, nobody outside these armed gangs wants this and there may finally be some concerted action under way to ensure this never happens: the Accra Initiative, a low-level network set up by five governments most directly concerned (Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire) geared towards intelligence sharing and joint military action and grassroots campaigns to take away the lure of the gangs. This kind of joined-up thinking, in tandem with the creation of real economic prospects for the young folks most likely to be lured by the Siren Call of armed violence may yield results in the near future. I certainly hope so. After a decade of destruction, this region desperately needs success against the ever-expanding destabilising influence of these criminal groups, after the ambiguity of Opération Barkhane, the stillborn efforts of the G5 Force Sahel and Operation Takuba and the utter disaster of Russia’s Wagner killers. Here’s hoping that they get it right this time. And here’s hoping that eventual foreign (dare I say…Western) backers understand three things: that it is chiefly about money, crime and turf and not about religion, that the initiative must be with those affected and their governments, and that throwing military kit and troops at the problem solves nothing. The alternative is grim: the shutdown of a space the size of Western Europe.

Boots and brownshirts – part two

May 31, 2022

The Ukraine that is currently being invaded and destroyed by the crop of Moscow gangsters that came into its own at the beginning of this century is a bit different from the one that was selling all those arms to Africa. The mafia that was removed in one of those colour-coded revolutions in 2014 was a factor, even though huge corruption problems remained, as expected. But the arms exports collapsed. In 2020, these were worth one-tenth of those a decade ago and the main recipient these days is China. By contrast, Russian arms sales to Africa have soared. 

Arms are one prime Eastern Bloc export; soldiers – or ‘instructors’ if you like – are another. Cast adrift by the seismic geopolitical shifts in their homelands three decades ago, they and their bosses were looking for a purpose, which they found by getting involved in wars abroad – not just the immediate neighbours like Georgia and later Ukraine but also further afield, starting with Syria. And then, in perfect tandem with Russia’s geopolitical designs, they descended on the African continent. 

image retrieved from Hindustan News Hub

What we have here is a replica of the old Soviet model: exporting arms and sending people that can teach the clients how to use them. The AK47 is the biggest selling weapon for a reason. It is cheap, easy to use and virtually indestructible. Countries as far apart as Mozambique and Mali still work with Soviet kit for the exact same reason. Today though, the Soviet model comes with a few modifications. First, the ‘instructors’ are performing other tasks. Second, they perform these tasks under the banner of an organisation that officially does not exist. Third, the non-existent company they work for employs a formidable geo-military propaganda machine. 

Wagner, the business started by Dmitri Utkin, a former intelligence operative with a fondness for the composer of the same name, does all of these things. The joke in security expert circles is that this officially non-existent company does not really need an address of its own because it already has one: Russia’s Ministry of Defence. Those in charge of Wagner and/or bankrolling it are close friends with the Russian president and capo di tutti capi, Vladimir Putin. 

Of course, Private Military Companies (I prefer the more succinct ‘mercenary outfit’) are nothing new in Africa. Arguably, the continent pioneered the model. Executive Outcomes, established in South Africa 1989 and consisting mostly of white veterans returning from Angola, is one of the oldest. 

And before that, we had individuals like the notorious French Bob Denard in Central Africa from the 1960s to the 90s, Indian-born Irishman Mike Hoare, Simon Mann and his Wonga Coup disaster. There are French, German, British and American outfits on the continent and activities are mostly centred on providing security and doing training missions, sub-contracted out by their governments. The US-based company DynCorp trained the Liberian army to some effect after the country’s ruinous 1989-2003 civil wars and was still vying for more lucrative contracts from the US government when it was gobbled up by another outfit, Amentum. Blackwater, another major American outfit (currently branded Academi) and its numerous offspring have acted as a logistics/security provider, army trainer, Praetorian Guard. Competition is cutthroat, as you can imagine. Some of their methods are also cutthroat. American mercenaries may have participated in combat in Somalia and the DR Congo. An Israeli outfit is said to have trained a notoriously violent army unit in Cameroon and we had UK freelancers fighting in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s and in Côte d’Ivoire the next decade.

Unsurprisingly, none of the five permanent members of the tragically mis-named United Nations Security Council has ever ratified the UN Convention against the recruitment, use, financing and training of mercenaries.

Wagner fits perfectly into this rogues’ gallery. Based on the template Blackwater and others provided, the Russian firm has taken things a few steps further. It combines four features: it is a business, it is directly and personally linked to the heart of power in Russia, it is consistently and emphatically involved in combat missions and it is a highly effective user of the internet as a weapon. In the countries where it operates, Wagner provides personal security for high-placed individuals, guards the assets it acquires in these countries and kills ordinary civilians. For this they get paid in cash or resources, on the African continent mainly in mining concessions, in other words the assets just mentioned. It is a good old colonial model. Unlike the competition, which tends to act as sub-contractors, Wagner gets paid in the countries where it operates.

Getting their hands on the client’s assets. Image retrieved from Deutsche Welle.

Politically, the majority of Wagner’s operatives – including its founder – hold (extreme) right-wing views, in line with their colleagues in the West and similar to those of the man in charge of Russia and his old pal Trump in the United States, who notoriously pardoned four Blackwater operatives convicted for atrocities they had committed in Iraq. Wagner’s financier and Putin confidante Yevgenyi Prigozhin runs troll factories like the Internet Research Agency and fills them with hyperactive peddlers of lies and deception on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Some of the highest profile posters live comfortably in Europe while proclaiming themselves ‘Panafricanist’. Following the Kremlin’s mental acrobatics, they also feel very comfortable around brownshirt political party hacks across Europe; they use the same rhetoric. Don’t tell them that, though, they get upset when you say so. Years ago, before any of this became systemic, I had a Gbagbo propagandist walk out of an interview in Abidjan. On hearing his increasingly strident ‘patriotic’ rhetoric, I told him he sounded exactly like Jean-Marie Le Pen…

To be continued

Barriers and checkpoints

February 22, 2022

Anyone who has ever been traveling by road in West Africa knows this to be one of the greatest nuisances imaginable: the road block. They are, in general, useless and time consuming, hold up traffic, slow down the economy (as the Economist newspaper once famously calculated when describing the gauntlet run by a beer truck in Cameroon) and serve no other purpose than to line the pockets of the usually vastly underpaid uniformed staff manning them. (Yes, there are women there, too, and they tend to be just as bad.)

Liberia has its unfair share of these pests: a piece of rope across the road with some old plastic bags attached to it marks the spot where you are supposed to park your vehicle and wait for whatever comes next. In the quiet backwaters that are connected to one another by (at times) extremely bad roads these things take a little time.

Someone in a uniform walks up. Gets close to the car. Peers in. Decides on the spot whether or not the passengers’ papers need checking. This decision is mostly determined by the question whether or not he knows the driver of the car and/or the person sitting in the front seat. If yes, the car gets waved through. If no, the decision is then informed by the extent to which the officer in question can be bothered to put in the extra work.

Like any force anywhere in the world, Liberia has its army of obnoxious time-consuming jobsworths and when you cover a long distance passing through dozens of these checkpoints you are likely to come across one or two. Almost always men, almost always bereft of even the most minuscule sense of humour and exuding an air that is supposed to make the traveller aware of the extreme gravity of his task. Unfortunately, that gravity is not matched by their rather lamentable station in life.

Yes, you may have dreamt of becoming Head of Immigration for the Republic at some point in your life but right now you have come out of a damp hovel somewhere in the sticks and are staring intently at a passport you don’t understand.

The passports, already checked and verified on arrival in the country, are returned in short order. Sometimes money changes hands between driver and uniform and this is to cement an already existing relationship or create a new one. Perfectly legitimate transactions, as these make progress possible. Our progress, that is, and the uniform’s pockets’ progress. The country’s…not so much.

Sometimes, however, the staged ponderousness gets the better of the officer. This happened on one occasion. As follows.

Driver slows down for the habitual rope-and-plastic across the road. Uniform saunters out. Bored face switches to studied gravitas when he spots the luggage: two white dudes sitting in the back of a car.

The question drops. ‘May we know who you are?’ Or something along those lines.

Sure. I am Bram and this is Martin. He’s the photographer; I’m the one doing the write-ups.

Not good enough. Without bothering to introduce himself he ups the game.

‘My superiors would like to have a word with you.’

Well that is perfectly fine. Out we go, passports in hand, getting ready for the usual scrutiny by two or more pairs of eyes. On one occasion, six pairs of eyes were needed to establish that we had arrived through the country’s sole international airport and that the relevant authorities of said airport had seen and stamped these passports. You will, incidentally, have a hard time getting into the country via that route without being seen by the authorities; when it comes to herding passengers from one predetermined slot to the next on their journey from plane to taxi or vice-versa, Liberians are hard to beat in terms of thoroughness. Anyway, back to our scene in the rainforest.

We descend from the car, walk up to a pair of rather ramshackle shops that pass for offices (clearly, the government does not consider providing a proper working environment for their staff a priority) and then…nothing. Where are the superiors? We should be in the shop to the right. The one to the left clearly has nothing to do with the proceedings and cares even less. We then notice that the shop to the right – is shut.

Our earnest officer gets smaller with every passing second at which point someone observes:

‘My maaaan (ubiquitous greeting) nobady here.’

We don’t feel the need to rub it in even further; his humiliation is already complete. But that’s being unfamiliar with Liberians. As we drive off, a barrage of invective ensues, clearly intended to still be within earshot…

‘Whaa the man wasting our time for!’ And further choice barbs for the hapless officer without superiors. He should not forget this episode in a hurry.

To be fair though, most of the time the checkpoints are cheerful affairs, manned by smiles in uniform who come up to the car with a heartfelt ‘How the morning/day?’, followed by a bit of banter, a few jokes and getting waved through. Depending on the country and who was/is running, roadblocks stretch from extremely tense and even deadly to these relaxed affairs. But the best roadblock on this trip had nothing to do with uniforms and everything with the state of the roads here…

One particular stretch in Grand Bassa is so impassable that the traffic has decided to create a bypass. All fine and good, except that this bypass runs right through somebody’s village. And so, one smart kid has decided to make the village and himself some money. His roadblock consists of a tree branch, solidly lodged into a cleft stick. No flimsy rope across the improvised and extremely muddy slippery road here, this is altogether sterner stuff.

As is the lad manning it. No way he is going to be deceived by our driver’s dog and pony show, pretending to be deaf and dumb, trying to wriggle through without paying.  Nope: you pay, or this branch here stays right where it is. For once, our intrepid front row team has to give in. Well done this lad! If you drive through our village, disturbing our peace and making our lives miserable, you will pay. Good modern thinking at work here, in a deep recess of Liberia’s forest.

The 75 dollar racket

February 4, 2022

The former temporary Arrivals building at Robertsfield International Airport is now a Covid 19 test centre. Every arriving passenger is required to go through a test before being allowed onto the next stage in the gauntlet Liberia’s principal airport tends to throw at you, even though those responsible for said gauntlet are generally very relaxed and very nice about it. They also plan the procession well.

So once you have been let out of the aircraft, you are not directed to the brand new Arrivals building (now fully operational) but herded into that temporary terminal, which may once have been used exclusively by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. From the early 1990s to 2019 the “KLM building” served as the Arrivals terminal, while the government was constructing – from scratch – a brand new one. The original hall was comprehensively destroyed during the wars that laid waste to this place between Christmas Eve 1989 and the summer of 2003.

Now, once you’ve been herded in you find yourself in a room where there are nice people sitting behind glass panes asking you for your passport details. If they don’t find what they are looking for you will be directed to another nice person who will take those details. This keeps you and nice person busy for the next 10 minutes. You then go back to the first nice person behind the window pane where your picture will be taken, biometrically. Congratulations, you have now been registered into the Government Of Liberia Covid Response Action and you may proceed.

To the next room. (I still cannot quite fathom how the airport authorities once managed to cram so many rooms into this relatively modest building; the new Arrivals building literally dwarfs it. Anyway.) Here, you are made to stand in a line – you do quite a lot of that on arrival here – before an open counter where a very nice and pleasant young man will ask you to part with seventy-five dollars for the privilege of having a Covid 19 test taken.

That’s right. 75 bucks. This is a clear and present violation of an agreement reached in January last year by ECOWAS ministers, who told the world (see article 16 of the linked communiqué) that in their member states the cost of a Covid 19 test should not exceed 50 dollars. So, against the wishes of an organisation that counts this country among its member states, Liberia has decided to rip off the travelling public to the tune of 20 dollars. Yes, I paid about the same late 2020 back in Abidjan, an altogether more pleasant affair, but that was weeks before this price control measure was announced.

I am now led past the counters while cracking jokes about getting my money back with the pleasant smiling young man who’s just taken a chunk of my travel budget. A left turn and I reach the entrance of another room. Here, passengers are made to wait in a relatively short line before being sent into…yet another room. (I knew you knew.)

Welcome to the heart of this operation. The Covid 19 Testing Place.

Five not terribly discreet cubicles have been created here and I am requested to direct myself to number 5, where another nice young man, having taken possession of my passport, is preparing his swab, readying it for the short journey up my nose. Left and right. It’s getting routine by now but it remains unpleasant. After all, I had one similar to this taken prior to departure at the princely sum of 69 euros.

KER-CHING!!!!

I have clearly missed a trick here, which I tell the pleasant young man who is busy packing my swab into a small transparent tube whilst training his eyes and then one of his fingers (as soon as his hands are free) to a single five dollar note atop a small pile of scraps on his desk whilst pronouncing his desire to get rich too.

I pretend not to have taken the hint and prepare to leave when it dawns on me that a) he is still holding my passport b) five euros – I have no dollars – is a small price to pay for getting it back and c) this very pleasant team could in all probability and very easily change my test results and then demand a far heftier payment to have it changed back to what it was when I had mine done 35 hours earlier.

Getting the increasingly uncomfortable feeling that I’m being had, I proceed to yet another room a section of the same room opposite the heart of Operation Rip Off Passengers, to wait for my receipt and the result. From behind the counter, more very pleasant young men shout the names of their victims much in the same way the police at borders crossings in this region shout your name in order for you to have your processed passport back.

Oh yes, passport! Must not forget this.

Names get called, people saunter up to one of the counters and leave with their expensive trophies. They then form another short line (the last one!) before a table. Behind that table sits a unexpectedly earnest man who is concentrating very hard on doing vague things to your papers and receipts and then encircles the planet’s new magic word for 2022: “negative”. Have we really come to this…?

Welcome to president George Weah’s Liberia. Bring cash. Lots of it. You will need it. As does he. And his staff. Of whom there are many.

Nine days in July, 1938

July 20, 2020

Part 2 – Jahnzon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued

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.