Posts Tagged ‘Monrovia’

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.

A new Liberian police officer

June 2, 2011

We (that is photographer Martin Waalboer and me had found a new Monrovia taxi driver. Nicolas. Tall-ish figure, forever clad in simple jeans and t-shirt. Exuberant character – if he agreed with what you said he’d show you a broad and slightly mischievous grin, and shout from behind the wheel: ‘I love this man!!!’ If confronted with a problem, he’d be on his feet and swaying about, like a merry-go-round slightly out of kilter, looking askance at the person or the thing that has caused him this problem. An extremely likeable loose canon – that’s the best way to describe him.

Nicolas was swaying about when confronted by a police officer. We had just been to the Freeport of Monrovia and were coming from the northern part of Monrovia into the centre. The two are separated by the Montserrado River and the bridge that spans this river has been immortalised by the late Chris Hondros’ picture of the fighter jumping up as he made his way across.

So, coming off that bridge, we were stopped. Traffic police. Would Nicolas be able to produce his driver’s and taxi license, the latter as proof that he had paid his taxes? Pay! Your! Taxes! It is the main mantra of this government. Help Mama Liberia develop and Pay! Your! Taxes!

Nicolas could not provide his papers. ‘Park the car,’ he was ordered. Now ordinarily, Liberian police officers bark orders and expect to be bribed. But this was a new officer. He came to us and apologized for the inconvenience ‘on behalf of the Liberian government’ but the rules said that if someone was driving around without papers, he was in breach of the law. Fair enough.

By now, a small crowd had gathered around the problem. Nicolas was by now awkwardly swivelling on his feet, pleading with the officer, who was not to be persuaded. Then another fellow marched into the scene and demanded to know what was happening. He would then inform his superiors, whoever they were. When told about Nicolas’ problem, he volunteered to take Nic’s car and drive us to our destination. ‘That would be ethically wrong,’ said the officer. We were beginning to like this man.

The to-ing and fro-ing went on for a while and by then we had decided that we would walk the short distance to our resting place and pay Nicolas when he’d solved his problem. The car would stay here, that much was sure and no matter how much we liked our increasingly agitated loose canon, we had other things to do than listening to an argument that was going nowhere. Mr Volunteer Driver then offered to take us in another car but since he had been disruptive and had not bothered to show an ID, we politely declined.

So on our way we went, leaving Nicolas to argue his case and the officer to stand his ground. No sooner had we turned the first corner or there they were. One grinning driver and the same earnest officer sitting next to him. ‘He has just shown me his papers,’ he said. ‘The man is a credible citizen of Liberia.’ We thanked him profusely, for his service but of course basically for his impeccable conduct. Liberia needs loads of people like him.

Into the car. Nicolas cannot stop grinning. ‘They were in my dashboard! I forgot!!!’ Christ, man, you put us through all this because your left hand has no idea about what your right hand is doing? ‘Yeah, man, they were there all the time! I forgot!’ Fine, Nic, just make sure you remember were you out your papers next time you take us on a ride. ‘So you have another job for me?’ Maybe, you loveable idiot, you, but not just now.

He took us to our destination and drove into the court. Reversed, and went out and only then did we see the slogan on the back of his car. Every car has one.

‘No food for lazy man.’


‘Allah is the greatest.’


‘Stomach takes no holiday.’

This one had us rolling about laughing because it summed Nicolas up better than this entire story. On the back of his car was written, in big red letters: God Knows Why.

photo: Martin Waalboer

Relentless Trends 2: surplus men and jobs

January 7, 2011

Last year, in March, we (that is: the intrepid and unbeatable journo team consisting of photographer Martin Waalboer and myself) walked into West Point, one of the worst slums in the Liberian capital Monrovia.

West Point, Monrovia. Photo: Martin Waalboer

The entrance is a small corridor – a fantastic spot for anyone who wants to rob visitors. Emerging at the other side and immediately two burly chaps walk up. Security, they say. Self-appointed, that much is clear. They would be “area boys” in Nigeria, “vigilantes” in other parts of the world. They will guarantee our safety and well-being whilst in West Point, they say, provided of course we stop by on the way out and pay them.

We march onto the beach, we pass a big pile of rotting fish, parked right next to the first iron hovels. Apparently, you can even get used to this without spending the entire day vomiting your bowels out. The smell is pervasive. We walk through a cloud of flies.

Into the labyrinth and the atmosphere is grim. We turn one of many corners and find ourselves in a small open space. There’s a small group of – you guessed it – young men, doing nothing. Well, they’re gambling, what else is there to do? Barely concealed aggression on our approach and of course immediate demands for cash. We move on before things get too heated. But you only have to talk to a few and look beyond the gangster pose – and you’ll soon find out what they really want.


The billboard is a pipedream - but at least these guys work... Photo: Martin Waalboer

Jobs will give them a station in life. But West Point, Monrovia, is the terminus. All ends here. Nowhere to go, except for the sea; nothing to do, except sit around. And most of all: absolutely nobody cares. It is a universal phenomenon: young men, at times individually but most definitely as a group are usually loathed, feared, sent packing, or totally ignored.

The inventor of the youth bulge, Gunnar Heinsohn, whom I mentioned yesterday, argues that for these and other surplus young men, there are basically three options: leave, crime and fight. In Africa, they do all three. Whatever the rhetoric emanating from small, aging, frazzled Fortress Europe, immigration will be with you for a very very long time. It does not matter if you channel it through the tiny and unusable pipelines of asylum procedures (virtually no-one from Africa leaves for political reasons); it does not matter how many ships you send to patrol the coast, how many electric fences you put up – you sent your guys overseas for centuries, now the rest is doing the same. Get used to it.

Monrovia, Liberia, May 1996. Photo: gatsbye53 on Flickr

Crime and war are very much last resorts. Heinsohn cites Kenya and wonders why, given its burgeoning young male population, it took so long for the violence to break out. He says there was still that last piece of land to be parcelled out and when that was gone, violence became inevitable. He also cites Algeria, where before the brutal civil war in the 1990s women had up to 7 children. Now it’s less than two. That, he argues, is the only thing that has changed in Algeria.

Personally I think he’s rather short on other factors that may have influenced this drastic change but he does spin an interesting demographic yarn – even though it is incomplete. Yes, you can leave, you can get into crime or go to war. But you can also create jobs. And this they do: setting up “security” outfits, like the one in West Point; going into the transport business, like the “motortaxi” guys in the picture above; getting into trade (although this is limited as trade is very much a woman’s turf); becoming craftsmen…

Heinsohn does, however, have a point if you consider that yet another form of job creation can indeed be…crime. And from crime, especially violent crime, the step to war is not really such a leap. Remember the main slogan of those fighter boys (and indeed a few girls) during Liberia’s civil war? “Pay Yourself.” A few thousand have made a career out of it; some of them are currently heading to their next “pay yourself” operation: Côte d’Ivoire. Luckily, so far, Côte d’Ivoire has not leapt off the precipice.

Most countries do not go to Liberian extremes. But even in small, peaceful, lovely, religious Senegal, there may be a few worrying forms of job creation happening.

More about that, tomorrow.

Rethink this!

April 2, 2010

After indicating, the large bus swings to the left, right in front of the taxi but the driver’s having none of it. He works his car horn incessantly until we, the passengers, tell him to “take care and slow down”. The mid and tail section of the bus fly past the taxi bonnet with less than an inch to spare. “Plus de peur que du mal”, as they’re fond of saying here but this blog could have just as easily ended halfway the motorway between Patte d’Oie and Dakar Centre. Smashed between an unyielding bus, the crash barrier and the bloody mindedness of a taxi driver.

Here’s the thing. It’s frequently said that a country’s character can be gleaned from the way people drive but this needs a re-think.

Dakar’s roads are murder. Complete and dangerous anarchy. One reason I am not frequently going to Le Plateau is precisely because I don’t want to subject myself to yet another kamikaze driver who thinks nothing of overtaking an overloaded “car rapide” with a lorry ahead, then veers manically to another lane to avoid said lorry while answering a phonecall.

But go into any shop and politeness reigns supreme. You’d get on the wrong side of folks for not greeting them in the morning. However: once a Dakarois gets behind the wheel, he becomes a full-blooded anarchist with one message to the other road users: your job is to get the hell out of my way. And before you start: yes, the women are just as bad.

Monrovia, Liberia. In this massively overcrowded city the most common greeting in a shop is not the delightful “Asalaamu aleikoum”, as is the case in Dakar. You’re either met with compete stony indifference or with a “Whaddayawant?” barked at you. People are, in the main, pretty damn rude in Monrovia. But Tubman Boulevard, the main drag through a large part of the city is as busy as Dakar’s thoroughfares and a masterclass in decent driving. People don’t rush, give way and – something utterly unthinkable in Dakar – stop for crossing pedestrians.

So here it is: driving seems to be the exact opposite of a country’s (or, let’s be fair: a city’s) character. Surely, this cannot possibly be a reflection of residual foreign influence?

[Huge generalization alert!] America – Liberia’s creator – is brash, loud and crass but drives impeccably. France – Senegal’s former colonial power – indulges in the good life and good manners but drives appallingly badly.

But Liberia turns 163 this year and Senegal will be 50 this weekend. Surely these influences fall away at some point?

Well: there you have it. Just a few thoughts after another murderous morning on a Dakar highway.

Oh and by the way: there are decent taxi drivers around. I have his number.

Monrovia, Abidjan – or: how to manage an airport

March 28, 2010

The terminal building at Robertsfield International Airport was completely destroyed during Liberia’s civil war. Another structure, next to the main building (it may have served as the KLM terminal at one point when Royal Dutch were still flying there), was the only place in a somewhat useable state. With a few modifications, it has served as the main terminal building since the late 1990s.

All of Robertsfield International Airport (photo: Palomarfil on Flickr)

But, as I said, it is really small. So how do you channel an Airbus full of passengers (rich, used to having people at their beck and call, notoriously short-fused and always in a hurry to get the hell through all those obnoxious control and check points) from the entrance through to the departure lounge? The Liberian answer is simple and hugely effective: you slow them down.

First passport control at the entry gate of the terminal. Second passport control at the door, just before you enter the building proper. Third passport control at the airline’s Welcome Desk. Fourth passport control before Immigration; fifth by Immigration personnel. Sixth and seventh at the security gate. Take the passengers through one by one. Be nice, be friendly. It works miracles. No mutterings, quietly, slowly but efficiently, one hundred plus people were guided through the tiny space.

Outside Robertsfield terminal (photo: Windsorca 313 on Flickr)

If they ever complete a new one, they should keep this system in place.

On to Abidjan with a tiny bit of trepidation: 22 hours to spare and no visa. The lady at the Ivorian Embassy in Monrovia was hugely disinterested in the unusual problem of wanting a transit visa for less than 24 hours. Like almost all consular staff, she should take a leaf out of the service rendered at arrival in Abidjan. Praises can’t be high enough.

First: a swing past the medical controls and on to the transfer counter. There, we meet Ibrahim. He listens to our problem, blows away the inevitable interloper who adds only noise to the conversation and guides us on. Does the airport have sleeping facilities?

Of course it does.

Can we get or luggage?

Of course you can, just give me the luggage tags, get up to the first floor where there is Le Makoré – and I’ll be coming back with your luggage.

Restaurant Le Makoré, Abidjan airport (photo by me. Much better pic coming up shortly)

Off to Le Makoré. The waiter in chief also runs the rooms. There are six of them, they have a noise-free airco (for obvious reasons the windows cannot be opened), hot and cold running water, beds, table, chair – basic but adequate. It’s CFA35,000 (€53 for two) – a bargain anywhere in Abidjan, et alone the airport.

After room inspection, it’s back to the restaurant. Ibrahim returns with the luggage.

Next question: can we eat here?

Of course you can but be quick, kitchen will close in a few minutes. Round 9pm, we’re having a fine Ivorian chicken and rice dish, called “poulet kédjénou”.

Le Makoré, Abidjan Airport (photo: Martin Waalboer)

Ibrahim’s going home, his working day is done. We’re having a drink and head for bed. Thank you Abidjan Airport.

Abidjan Airport overnight facility (photo Martin Waalboer)

Ibrahim’s back the next day to help us in our exchanges with the Air Mali manager, whose idea of service it is to cancel a flight, tell no-one about it and then insist that passengers who really need to be home on the day they planned to be…buy another ticket with another airline. ‘You will be reimbursed after arrival’.

Pull the other one, mate.

It takes two hours of virtually incessant calls on Ibrahim’s cell phone (“Can you not pay for a new ticket?” No. “It’s very very difficult.” You screw up, you are duty-bound to get us on another flight. “I’m working on it.” Fine, let me know when you’re ready. “Can you come to the Kenya Airways check-in immediately?” We’re on our way). But early afternoon we’re on board KQ and after an eventless flight and an interesting landing (a bump and a slight swagger across the runway) we’re in Dakar, seven hours before schedule and ready for work. Ibrahim’s mighty pleased when we call him from Dakar. Mission accomplished.

As far as we’re concerned, Air Mali can cancel its flights any day. And just in case you’d miss it: you can never repeat enough that there definitely is room for this advert: “wanted – efficient, reliable, low-cost, no-frills carrier for West Africa. Profits guaranteed.”

(Back soon with more on Liberia, music (as promised) and a temporary goodbye…)

Liberia: two cities

March 16, 2010

The capital: Monrovia. Big. Massive. Loud. Very loud: a cacaphony of car horns, engines, sirens, radios, arguments, shouts: “I say my man I beg you!” Loudspeakers blaring American music clog the ears. Noise pollution. Air pollution. Overcrowded. A fierce and merciless daily struggle for a place on one of the clapped-out taxis on Tubman Boulevard, the main drag. Expensive, for everyone. Did I mention loud? I think I did.

But it’s the seat of government, it’s heaven for thousands of petty traders, it’s the heavily air-conditioned headquarters of the United Nations Mission In Liberia (UNMIL, the peacekeeping operation now in its 7th year), it’s where the Chinese are building roads, apartments, restaurants and offices, it’s where you get your business done. And then leave.

Harper. At the southeastern tip of the country. Quaint, quiet – a lot quieter than the capital. Clean air, beaches, a fishing village, beautiful architecture you can still see through the destruction and looting and burning that happened here between 1990 and 2003. One locally run restaurant – great food and a lot cheaper than in the capital. Three small places to stay – very basic but at one-sixth of the Monrovia rate. One employer: the local rubber company. Two banks, a few tea shops, some trade, a small market.

Potential aplenty – but no takers. Where are the investors? You can set up an ace centre for water recreation in the port area, there’s a lagoon that shouts out for tourists and seaside restaurants, But for now, there are few jobs and even fewer when UNMIL closes as they inevitably will. Roads are bad, the only fast connection is by air (expensive!) so equally inevitably, people leave when they can. For the capital. And if need be (this is a true story): they walk from here to there.