Posts Tagged ‘Mali’

An Afghanistan scenario in Mali? Part 2

August 20, 2021

So, after foreign intervention and religious insurrectionism, there’s your third parallel between Afghanistan and Mali: a fatally weakened military. Both armies have been prone to demoralisation and bad practices, in spite of numerous and often intensive foreign interventions: training, drills, exercises, workshops…you name it.

The official website of the Malian Armed Forces

There is an excellent article in International Affairs (behind a paywall, unfortunately but you can at least read the abstract) on army “reforms” in Mali. They are supposed to take place and they could theoretically contribute towards returning the FAMa to their (historical) glory. In measured prose, the author lays out the non-dilemma: everyone knows the reforms are not working, everyone continues to pretend they do and in so doing they keep a lucrative and utterly pointless exercise up and running, while the situation remains as it is. To be fair, Mali’s army has a strong reputation among the population and is seen as a source of pride, which is why the military removal of the discredited political class hat presided over the demise of the FAMa was met with such widespread approval. However, the colonels now in charge must deliver on security and this has – so far – proved Mission Impossible, not in the last place because of this man.

From his latest video

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Iyad ag Ghaly, a colourful character with a chequered history that brought him in contact with the Libyan leader Gaddafi when the latter was busy financing rebellions across the continent. Ag Ghaly is said to have participated in some of the Great Libyan Leader’s armed incursions into neigbouring Chad. But he was also and already occupied with the struggle for an independent homeland for his people, the Tuaregs: Azawad. This brought him into contact with music and the mythical band Tinariwen, which aligned itself with the Tuareg cause, mostly through music. Ag Ghaly gave them money for musical instruments but he was never part of the band as some French media have suggested.

At this point, he was in Tripoli and led the life of the true rebel leader: drinking, dancing, clubbing, chasing girls. But that changed when after the Second Tuareg Rebellion in the 1990s (which ended with the famous foreign-sponsored Flame of Peace in Timbuktu, March 1996) he was integrated into Mali’s central government structures in Bamako and sent to the north of the country to help negotiate the liberation of Westerners taken hostage by ordinary criminals who would later re-emerge as…jihadists. Ag Ghaly knew most of these characters already.

It was at this point that he embarked on a slow but sure process of radicalisation, which was crowned by his encounters in Saudi Arabia (where he got a post as a diplomat) with the Pakistani zealots of Jamaat al-Tabligh. He returned from the Middle East a proper zealot and ready to…start another short-lived Tuareg rebellion. Opportunism is ag Ghaly’s middle name and it still remains to be seen whether the religious principles he has adopted are as resilient as his laser-precise instinct for survival.

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In sum, you have (and the list is not even exhaustive): religious radicalisation, the immensely complex and intricate Tuareg family and clan politics, Bamako politics, the Algerian secret service, the Algerian military, the criminally stupid operation that removed Gaddafi, more failed rebellions, money, alignment with former criminals from Algeria turning to jihad, the death or disappearance of some of these… and in all this the constant factor is ag Ghaly’s extremely adroit manoeuvring that made him, over time, the most prominent jihad chief in the country and the region. In the second decade of this century he became the nominal head of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Support Group for Islam and Muslims or JNIM), an Al Qaeda franchise that incorporates among others the MUJAO already mentioned and a hyper-active outfit called the Front for the Liberation of Macina, led by a fanatical priest from the centre of Mali, Amadou Koufa.

“Our time has come,” intones ag Ghaly in a video released six days before the Taliban victory. In his message he praises the bloody jihadist expansion in Mali and beyond, which has led to thousands of deaths and millions of refugees and internally displaced persons in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and neighbours. He adds that he cannot be stopped and demands the departure of France, a notion that goes down very well with some radical circles in Bamako. I have covered some of their demonstrations and talked to the organisers.

Like his friend and ideological ally imam Mahmoud Dicko, Iyad ag Ghaly opportunistically combines a relish for Islamic rule and a dislike for Western-style democracy and mixes this into a potent highly conservative ideological cocktail. But, as the researcher and analyst Rida Lyammouri of the Rabat-based Policy Center for the New South argues, none of the armed Islamist extremist groups out there in the vast savannas have the rear bases, the numbers, the capacity or the popularity to rule. This is why they do not lay siege to the capital but terrorise poor defenceless villagers. And they do so with utterly depressing frequency: 15 soldiers dead in Mali, 80 soldiers and civilians dead according to latest count on August 20 in Burkina Faso, 137 dead in Niger – month after month after month. Ordinary women and men, working their land, going to market, sent to an invisible moving frontline, and mostly trying to mind their own business and wanting to be left in peace.

Will they ever learn…?

August 14, 2021

These are the pitfalls of writing a wrapup of an entire continent in a single piece…. From yesterday’s Guardian, no less…

…in which the Sahel, a region twice the size of Germany, France and Spain combined is reduced to a single paragraph, where hardly anything is accurate. Here it is.


“In the Sahel, the economic impact of the pandemic has further weakened administrations that were already struggling to find resources for security forces, and has aggravated tensions between communities that have helped Islamic extremists make inroads in recent years. Across the region, as elsewhere on the continent, trade routes have been blocked, investments abandoned, and the flow of the remittances from overseas workers and the diaspora on which millions depend for everything from school fees to food has been significantly reduced. Overseas aid is also likely to be reduced. Local and national elections have been postponed due to the virus, raising tensions and causing instability.”

Oh dear, this is looking grim. It is almost universally…er, how do I put this politely…massively exaggerated? Not as close to the truth as it hopes to be? Distorted? Yup. All of the above. Let’s have a look, then.

One: the violence. The impact of the pandemic in the areas where the fighting is happening is…nil. Sure, there has been more police repression in the cities as a result of Covid measures being introduced but villages do not get attacked because there is a pandemic but because the State is absent. To the best of my knowledge, none of the major cities have seen terorist attacks since 2016, I’d say, with the last major one on the coast. And these tensions predate the pandemic by half a decade or longer. Besides, it is becoming clearer that a lot of what the villagers suffer is the result of ordinary banditry, nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Jihadists are absolutely a factor and a presence and they have an uncanny aptitude to home in, laser-like, onto existing tensions and exploiting them. Of that, there is no doubt but the impact and influence of ‘the fools of god’, as they are known here, must not be exaggerated. And it must certainly not be reduced to the only story to be told about the Sahel, as far too many media do.

Two: trade. Sure, the trade routes may have been hampered because the borders have been closed but they were never blocked. The coastal countries that closed their borders to the landlocked Sahel made it clear that this would not affect vital supplies like food and medicine. This is why there was never an empty shelve in any shop or supermarket. To see that you must go to Brexit Britain. Trade may have been reduced in some areas as it was made difficult for traders to transport their wares in person. But they took to using tried and tested smuggling routes to get their stuff from one place to another.

Three: have elections been postponed? Not to my knowledge… Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea (not in the Sahel, I agree) held highly controversial elections last year. Niger elected a new president and in Bukina Faso we wil not have elections because none have been scheduled. The two exeptions are Chad and Mali. This is because there were two coups (Mali) and a (mind you: just re-elected!!!) president was killed in battle and then replaced by his son (Chad), another well-established tradition although sometimes the son is so deeply detested that the people put a stop to it, as they did in Senegal in 2012 and arguably in Mali last year.

Investments, remittances and aid have indeed been significantly reduced. But this is the effect of measures taken in countries that have been much worse affected by the pandemic than has the continent of Africa, exceptions duly noted. And here also we must be precise. The issue of remittances will have had the largest impact by a country mile. Family members sending money back home keep entire towns alive and thriving, from Louga in Senegal to Kayes in Mali and the many villages across this vast region.

As for investments, one should be told where these were supposed to go, so we can assess the impact. For instance, a lot of investment in Mali and Burkina Faso goes into mining, which tends to have a detrimental effect on the environment and the surrounding communities, while the employment it creates is negligible. And regarding aid… Suffice here to repeat, once again, that were it to stop today hardly anyone here would notice, with the exception of the well-heeled but tiny middle class this industry has spawned. You would see a few fewer FourWheelDrives out on the streets and the roads but I am sure people will quickly find better things to do with their time than sit in endless workshops that cost the earth and achieve nothing.

In a famous TED talk, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – and The Guardian worships the ground she walks on – warned against what she termed “the single story”, gross simplifications of complex places and peoples. Perhaps the Guardian could heed her advice and stop pontificating about an entire continent in pieces like these, just like we are currently being spared the dreadful spectre of writers poducing 300 to 700 page bricks about this continent. And to the best of my knowledge this is only done to “Africa”. Why is that? Someone produce a 700-word paper on that, please.

The face mask: a status symbol

August 5, 2021

An upmarket riverside restaurant in Ségou. A collection of FourWheelDrives has been parked before the entrance. Inside, a party of clearly well-to-do individuals, dressed to the nines. It is lunchtime and they have come to this place to be very well fed and watered. And another thing they have in common: all wear face masks. Not while they are eating of course; the masks are then lowered to cover their chins. This fashion statement is marginally more ridiculous than the already quite ridiculous habit of shoving your spectacles up your crane when you don’t use them, instead of putting them safely away. As for the masks, only a few have stored them in their bags or inside pockets but they will appear again once lunch is over and they get back into their FourWheelDrives to wherever they are having their gathering.

Here’s another frequent phenomenon: a lone man or a lone woman, behind the wheel of their luxury vehicle. Nobody else is there but they drive around in a face mask. I will confess to having a good old laugh when I see this but it clearly points at a social phenomenon.

One more, then. In spite of all the problems and troubles and asymmetrical violence this country has been subjected to over the past nine years, there is one phenomenon that is inexplicably resilient: the workshop. This whole region is absolutely addicted to the workshop, invariably dedicated to subjects that are fashionable in the donor countries that supply the money for these occasions. We call this ‘development’.

Workshops, trainings, evaluations and assorted other gatherings of VIPs are typically held in an upmarket place in the capital (Bamako, Niamey, Ouagadougou) or any other major urban centre (Ségou, Sikasso, Bobo Dioulasso…) that is still accessible. The deteriorating security situation, something these gatherings are not designed to address, limits the available options. But there are still more than enough accessible urban centres with multiple star hotels, the natural habitat of workshops.

On one such occasion, it was lunchtime, a procession of ladies filed out of the conference room on their way to the tables, where the food had been lovingly and lavishly laid out. My lunch table was, rightly and correctly, relegated to the margins of the establishment. The participants all wore fine clothes, some had elaborate head dresses; quality mobile phones were on display and they all marched to the tables wearing face masks. Yes, every single one of the development-oriented (upper) middle class gentlewomen wore one, without exception. No doubt they proceeded to discuss the plight of the poor, over lunch. I was out of earshot and should, of course, have been out of sight, too.

Alright then, one more…

Recently, we had a Very Important Visitor in town. That fact that this was a Very Important Visitor was made obvious by a Gendarmerie pickup truck ordering everybody off the Boulevard 2000, a very wide and very smooth stretch of road that takes all dangerous traffic (including Very Important Visitors travelling at high speed) around Ségou, instead of through the city, where they have to negotiate a stretch of tar road that has been in an utterly horrendous condition for at least a decade and a half…but I digress, unlike the caravan of the Very Important Visitor.

After we all had been made to stop going about our business, an impressive number of vehicles careened past. I’d say a dozen and a half. FourWheelDrives, of course. Pickup trucks. Even the odd saloon car, obviously in excellent condition. If she brings along a caravan this long I wonder how many cars wil accompany the President if ever he decides to come over here. You may as well close business for the day…

The next day, I saw the same procession move away (slowly this time) from the Governor’s Office, located of course in a very leafy part of town, and it was here that I was able to notice the many lone men and the occasional woman sitting at the wheel of their vehicles. Only a few had someone to talk to during the drive and almost all of them wore…a face mask. I am sure the maskless will get a stern lecture before too long. The visitor, incidentally, was the Minister of Health. She had first paid her respects to the town’s bigwigs and religious leaders, had then paid a visit to the various health facilities, had been able to see for herself the deplorable condition they were in and naturally terminated the tour by promising to do something about it. I was told the same has been said numerous times about the decaying tarred surface of Ségou’s main thoroughfare…

So what is this social phenomenon you may wonder. The penny dropped when I witnessed the following scene in one of Bamako’s upmarket supermarket our affluent friends – and expats – frequent.

A classy lady had parked herself and her rapidly filling trolley in one of the aisles. Meanwhile, her underling, a girl in a dress that was intended to denote her inferior status, was being sent around the shop to get the required items. (In fairness, I will add here that this does not happen very frequently; most of the time the girl is left at home and Madame does her own shopping.) And there, as if to emphasize the different stations of life these two women occupied, I noticed that Her Ladyship was wearing a face mask; her servant was not.

Couple that with the astute observation of an old friend who is a regular visitor to Mali, when he remarked that it looked to him as if the face mask had become a status symbol and the insight became even clearer: that is precisely what it is. It may be the case – not very frequently though – that the face mask wearer signals the aspiration to belong to this exclusive top class club but in almost all instances the face mask says: “I belong to the elites. I’m wealthy. I’m connected. I’m in.” Hence the ubiquitous presence of face masks at summits of heads of state, meetings between important representatives of international bodies and ministers, UN representatives, international NGOs and businesses. Money not only talks these days; it wears a face mask too.

Ordinary people in the streets, in Bamako’s green Sotramas (those privately run public transport minibuses), in the markets, on their motorbikes, working on the land, in the downmarket shops and eateries…do not wear one. My conservative estimate is that 95 per cent never bother with a face mask. And yet these are places where space is in far shorter supply than in the upmarket abodes of the elites.

It has been said before: in Mali, Covid19 is an issue that virtually never invites itself in any discussion. Of course it is an issue – for people who travel by air and these are mostly the same people who are found in expensive cars, expensive homes or expensive workshops. Besides, in a country where you are far more likely to die of malaria, water-borne diseases, meningitis or the incredibly polluted air in the homestead or the city, Covid19 takes its place at the back of the queue. Of course, the initial responses were quick and adequate because people remembered the horrors in next door Guinea (and to a limited extent back home) of that other deadly virus, Ebola. But Covid19 is mainly an obsession for those who can afford to be obsessed – and buy the masks at 500 francs apiece, the price of a roadside meal.

A mask or a meal: now you understand the priorities.

(More on Covid in Mali? Read my Corona Chronicles, written last year.)

Nine days in July, 1938

July 25, 2020

Part 4 and end – Lesbos and the shadow of Evian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Fortress Brussels

January 28, 2018

A few years ago I saw something strange. A boat. In the water. Ok, that’s normal but this was strange: it was a patrol boat of the Spanish Guardia Civil, flying a Spanish flag, in the Port of…no, not Barcelona or Malaga or Cordoba or Bilbao or any other seaport of that magnificent country. It was in the Port of Dakar.

What the devil is a Spanish police patrol boat doing in the territorial waters of Senegal? Turned out that it was just another manifestation of the intense and heroic efforts by the European Union and its member states to keep as many Africans out of their Fortress as possible. The same efforts that put Brussels in bed with autocrat-run Turkey and one of the nominal governments of Libya, destroyed thanks to the heroic efforts of no fewer than the three former administrations of France, the UK and the USA. Another part of this Fortress Europe strategy is the blackmailing of countries like Mali and Niger: we will give you aid if you stop your people from coming here. Niger’s people smugglers now must trace far more dangerous routes than before, thanks to government crackdowns, sponsored by the EU. Brussel’s aim is to ensure more people die on their way to the Mediterranean Sea than on their way to a southern European shore.

It’s all a far cry from the start of the EU, a collaborative effort around (re)building industry and achieving food self-sufficiency. At roughly the same time the Geneva Convention on Refugees was adopted, a suitably clear and concise document. This was, of course, also the time of the Cold War. The refugees that made it into Western Europe came, mostly, from the “enemy” camp. Hungarians were welcome in 1956, when they fled the Soviet assault on their country; one of those refugee families would later produce a president – Nicholas Sarkozy. In “our own” camp, Portuguese conscientious objectors ran away from their country, run by a fascist dictatorship, because they did not want to fight Portugal’s colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guiné-Bissau. And there was a broadly-based welcome for people from Latin America on the run from US-installed military dictatorships. All in the 1970s.

Ségou, on the river. Dreadful place, innit?

It’s almost 30 years since the end of the Cold War. “We” won and now “we” are touting ourselves as the best society the world has ever seen. It follows, therefore, that Everybody Wants To Come Here and “we” must be selective about who “we” let in.

The only people being selective here are the “we” in this last paragraph. Selective of the facts. Speaking from the region I know a few things about, West Africa, the truth of the matter is that the vast, overriding, overwhelming majority of people…does not move. And if they do, they tend to go to other parts of the continent, or to China, the Gulf States…and yes, Europe. The picture of migration worldwide is decidedly mixed. However: the idea that Europe is some kind of a massive people magnet reminds me of that infamous French colonial drawing, where The Light (from Paris, of course) illuminated the entire Dark Continent – or at least the bits that had been visited by migrating French army boots. In short – it is an over-estimation of one’s worth and borders on the delusional. Seen from here, you don’t look all that great. And that’s before we even take a closer look at how you have been behaving to your own people of late.

This will not be a review, short of saying that what you see here is the cover of the most riveting piece of political reporting since Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. It is also a damning indictment of how EU bigwigs treat the poorer members of their community – and how petty, vindictive and downright brutal they get when these members turn out to have ideas of their own. Fear and Loathing, indeed.

I visited Thessaloniki in 2012 for a world music trade fair called WOMEX. It was wonderful. But even then the austerity programs were kicking in and the people responded by staging the largest street demonstration I had seen since the epic 1981 marches against those US cruise missiles. A sea of red flags. Similar happened in austerity-hit Portugal. Varoufakis recounts in detail how the EU/IMF “rescue package” was part of a bailout plan to save…not Greece, but French and German banks that had taken irresponsible risks and found themselves overexposed. Politicians in EU member states sold another bailout of financially irresponsible banksters by inventing the story that this was all about…saving Greece. In short, they lied. Most mainstream media slavishly copied the lies without doing their job, something that happens with depressing frequency.

When the bailout did not work – and Varoufakis extensively explains why this is so – they did it again. And lied about it – again. The engine room of this elaborate deceit is a thing called the Eurogroup, a gathering of Europe’s finance ministers, accountable to no-one. Even though it is – sortalike – formalised in the Lisbon Treaty I would not hesitate to call the whole structure de facto illegal and a flagrant violation of the EU’s founding principles. The president of this informal group of financial terrorists was, between 2013 and January 2018, a Dutch politician by the name of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who emerges as a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work. He clashed frequently with Varoufakis, on the basis of politics disguised as policy. The Eurogroup consists of people who like to present themselves as technocrats but are in fact hard-headed ideologues, tightly moulded in the TINA frame (There Is No Alternative) of no debt relief, screw your people, cause misery, keep taking the poison and keep lying to your national electorates why “we” are strangling one of our member states to death. Read the book for the details, fascinating and shocking in equal measure.

But the point of it all is this.

Varoufakis argues, forcefully, that extreme austerity imposed by external financial terrorists causes widespread misery and pushes people over the edge. And then, society shifts towards political polarisation. The sea of red flags in Thessaloniki was one example of this but it can also take on more sinister tones. The counterpoint to resurgent socialism is the worrisome rise of fascism, not the cotton candy variety of lightweight intellectuals like the late Pim Fortuyn and the still very alive Thierry Baudet in the Netherlands, not even the clownish two-trick pony Geert Wilders no, this is the violent, iron-clad boots variety of Golden Dawn, who have committed murder. The focal point of this resurgent extremism? You guessed it: migration. Increased hardship frequently goes hand in hand with blaming “foreigners” for problems they had no hand in creating.

Why people move (my photo, taken at a market near Tenado, Burkina Faso)

It is this kind of extremism, fomented by bad policies emanating from disconnected “technocrats” that Varoufakis warns against. Fortress Brussels ignores this at its peril. But this is not about Brexit, that unilateral folly of very English self-sabotage. Brexit addresses none of these issues. It is an unwelcome and time-consuming inconvenience for the EU, it will be grotesquely damaging to what is left of the United Kingdom, and it is most likely to be temporary (at least until Scottish independence…).

No, this goes much deeper and concerns entrenched dogma that must be urgently challenged. The damage that the Washington Consensus did to the nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia has been incalculable and it would be a fine day to see the perpetrators of this crime held accountable in a court of law. Now that the Washington Consensus has moved to Brussels, the damage is being done to countries on Europe’s southern flank, the same region made to cope, on the cheap, with a mixture of refugees looking for safety and others looking for opportunities.

The only answer thus far has been to reinforce the Fortress. The Mediterranean has become increasingly militarised and the EU has extended its border operation southwards, as far as Senegal and Niger. Like the imposed austerity, this is an Extremely Dumb and Colossally Expensive Idea. Cheaper and more intelligent answers exist: debt rescheduling/forgiveness and providing stimuli to the economy in the case of near-bankrupt states; the re-instatement of the – sneakily abolished – 1951 Geneva Convention in the case of refugees; the creation of avenues for legal, circular migration for the “problem” of people moving to Europe. Once again, for the hard of hearing, people generally do not willingly exchange their place in the sun for a precarious existence in Europe’s cold, dark, grey, hostile and sometimes even murderous streets. For the vast majority of the people outside looking in, you don’t look all that great.

Les Grandes Personnes de Boromo, at the opening carnival of the – very aptly named – Festival Rendez-vous chez nous, Ouagadougou 2017. Pic: me.

Fortress Brussels has been rattled but not enough. There have been a few stabs at the bubble of self-delusion, hypocrisy and lies that surrounds the policies of austerity and the militarisation of the borders but it has not yet burst. However, burst it must. The betrayal of Europe’s foundational principles has been ugly, continuing down the same path leads to an outcome that is both ghastly and familiar. This is no exaggeration. As the ideological technocrats continue to do their destructive “work”, as chunks of societies splinter and become uncontrollable extremist fragments, as the narrative about people moving to Europe becomes ever more toxic, as identity politics takes the place of progressive discourse, as Fortress Brussels continues to push dumb and expensive ideas instead of the much cheaper and far more intelligent – and available! – alternatives, Europe risks, in all seriousness, a return to the situation the EU was constructed to prevent. By its own hand.