Posts Tagged ‘Ouagadougou’

Mali. Again (part three of five)

August 1, 2016

So, as we’re leaving that sweaty hall, what have we just learned? We have learned that protocol is vastly more important than content. And we have learned that emitting formulaic platitudes equals having something important to say.

Similar plagued many a jargon-laden talking session that the development community still insists on calling “workshop”. They were meeting and talking and kept meeting and talking some more, as the country started to fall apart around them. Journalists like myself were going along with the ride. Mali could not, should not, must not fail. Consider this another mea culpa, four years after I wrote the first one.

Today, in spite of another costly foreign intervention, Mali’s disintegration continues, to the surprise of nobody who has been paying attention. That is, everyone outside the development/diplomacy/intervention bubble. Those inside the bubble who are in the know (and they most certainly exist) know better than to speak out about it; it would be a career-ending move.

This is what’s going on. Read this important report about the latest developments…

https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/mali/central-mali-uprising-making

(This is a link to the English summary; the full report is in French and can be downloaded from the same site for free)

***

From the Burkina Faso side, the move south of hostilities comes as no surprise. After the atrocities visited on the centre of Ouagadougou on 15 January, everybody here knew that we had not seen the end of it. And indeed we haven’t. 

Burkinabè gendarmerie posts on the borders with Mali and Niger have been attacked in recent months, suggesting that the war in Mali continues to move south and continues to become regionalised. You can thank the foreign interventions for that, too, as has been argued, here. 

***

It is my fear that we are looking at an axis of crime and terrorism that involves three countries. Consider: the arrests, inside Mali, of two individuals believed to be associated with the 13 March attack on Grand Bassam, near Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire; some of you may remember that I was there when it happened. Consider: repeated assertions to the effect that the 4WheelDrive used in the Ouagadougou atrocity was spotted in Abidjan before the abomination perpetrated at Grand Bassam. Consider: the arrest of a Burkinabè jihadist sympathiser in Bamako – having him hanged in public was the mildest punishment the good people of Burkina Faso had in mind for this individual. Consider also: persistent uncertainty along the Burkina Faso-Mali border and persistent insecurity in Northern Côte d’Ivoire, where roadside robberies are frequent and where former rebels may be making common course with would-be jihadists and ordinary criminals. Add to this an immobile administration in Ouagadougou, a deeply unpopular government in Bamako and an intensely polarised Côte d’Ivoire and you are looking at a potential cocktail of epic proportions.

Compare and contrast with the output of Minusma…

A curious mix of impotence and insider information. News from a bubble, to which the Dutch government wants to keep contributing, in spite of face-palming experts and head-on-desk-banging specialists. Of course, the Dutch could be just a leetle beet more specific about what it is their special forces are actually doing out there – but on that score I advise you not to hold your breath. Like the mission itself, Dutch contributions to Minusma have virtually nothing at all to do with Mali.

***

I get the impression that the Dutch government is not particularly serious about informing its citizens what its personnel is doing in Mali. Neither is it particularly concerned about obtaining results. After all and in the same spirit, the Netherlands has been throwing development money at the Bamako elites for decades and the results have been, by and large, lamentably predictable. No, it’s the United Nations Security Council that matters and the prospect of a Dutch face around that Big Table, where missions like Minusma are conceived. Nobody there pays the ultimate price. That’s what African cannon fodder is for. The grandchildren of the old Tirailleurs Sénégalais today wear blue helmets.

The Façade – Part 2

May 17, 2016
Ébrié Lagoon and Pont Charles de Gaulle in front. To the left at the end of the bridge: Grand Hotel, where I took the previous picture. The white tower on the right is the newly refurbished and extremely expensive Hotel Ivoire.

Abidjan: Ébrié Lagoon and Pont de général De Gaulle (I kid you not) in front. To the far left: Grand Hotel, where I took the previous picture. The white tower on the right is part of the newly refurbished and extremely expensive Hotel Ivoire.

 

The next stop from the border on an increasingly impassable road is a nondescript town called Ouangolodougou, where we have a customs station. We are told to leave the bus and walk to a crossroads nearby. Regulars on this route have no qualms leaving most of their stuff behind, unsupervised. And sure enough, a mere ten minutes later the bus re-appears from behind the building where it had been parked and we all pile in again.

There is no way the entire contents of the holds could have been checked on whatever it was they were looking for.

‘Something has been arranged?’ I enquire innocently.

‘Sure.’

Common practice. Senegalese and Malian customs officers go through the contents of an incoming bus with a comb, taking all the sweet time in the world, because they are looking for things to steal. The Burkinabè, once again, less so but nothing has in my experience matched the seriousness, thoroughness and professionalism of the Senegalese drug police in Casamance, who check every outgoing bush taxi en route to Guinea Bissau meticulously. They look for drugs and do not lay a finger on your belongings.

Not so their colleagues in Côte d’Ivoire. Barely out of the ordinary customs station’s gate or the bus comes to a halt again. What on god’s green earth is it this time? Chaps in T-shirts (it is very hot) order the hold opened again and proceed to take luggage off the bus. Including, as I happen to see, my suitcase. By the time I am on my way to the scene, a package with cloth that I was requested by a neighbour to bring to a relative in Abidjan has been laid aside.

First of all, you do such a thing in the presence of the passenger. Had I not been seated on the same side as my luggage and decided to stay on board, that little package would have disappeared.

‘What’s the problem?’

‘Is this your luggage?’

‘Yes it is. What’s the problem?’

‘Have you declared this? Drug Police Officer asks me, pointing at the innocuous package.

He knows he’s bullshitting.

The whole bus knows he’s bullshitting.

I know he’s bullshitting.

Everybody knows he’s bullshitting.

The thing to do now is to ensure that he doesn’t lose face and I don’t lose my package to a taxpayer-funded thief.

‘That’s just a package that goes from one relative to another. Is there a problem with that? It’s a family thing.’ Safest route. Always invoke family; nothing is more sacred and held in more esteem than the extended family. Even religion doesn’t come close.

The prospect of easy loot is fading. Dozens of people are overhearing the conversation and the bus company’s luggage loader is nearby. He uses gentle persuasion.

‘Chef…’

Everybody knows that Drug Police Officer is the least and the last deserving of this title. But it is the correct and respectful term to use. He relents. Hilarity ensues when on entering the bus and out of earshot I declare that I have prevented a case of theft.

 

A little background to this madness in Part 3.

The Façade – Part 1

May 16, 2016

It has been a while, since my last rant. We’ll stay in Côte d’Ivoire; I have made a mini-series, based on my last trip there, which was rather eventful. Here goes. Let’s start with a picture.

Abidjan, Plateau. View from the Grand Hotel, completely refurbished.

Abidjan, Plateau. View from the Grand Hotel, completely refurbished.

‘Look there.’

‘Where?’

‘There. Behind the buidings. What do you see?’

We’re at the border, going into Côte d’Ivoire. I look behind the shacks that, as always, adorn the roadside at such places in this part of the world. Inside, the Ivorian immigration service is going about its usual business, which ostensibly is checking travel documents. That’s only part of the business. Until now, I have had little idea of the scale of their other business.

‘Cars,’ I reply to my Burkinabè interlocutor.

‘No – but look more closely. Notice anything unusual?’

Well after some 12 hours on the road from Ouagadougou and heaven knows how many still ahead to Abidjan it takes a while to adjust one’s eyes. But he helps me focus.

‘Yes, cars. But they’re all brand new!’

And now I see it too. These Toyota saloon cars look as if they have come straight from the assembly line. A Mercedes too, although that one looks second-hand, but in very good nick. My elderly neighbour presses on. ‘How did they get the money for those cars?’ Asking the question equals answering it.

There is an open sore that has hobbled all contacts between Ivorian “corps habillés” (i.e. anyone in a uniform) and the travelling public, especially if they come from Burkina Faso. The former extort money from the latter. Borders are perfect money traps. You’re in Nowhereland. You have a destination and you don’t want to be sent back. The passengers know this. The uniforms know this. So: you pay. Only on the Ivorian side, to be clear. I have yet to hear a story about Burkinabè officers doing similar and I have crossed many borders into Burkina Faso. You can still thank a young chap by the name of Captain Thomas Sankara for that.

I make a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation. Say, everybody pays a thousand francs, or €1.52. Let’s say that there are 60 passengers in a bus, that’s 60,000 francs. Well over ninety euros. Multiply that by the number of buses passing through between Ouagadoudou and Abidjan (both directions), let’s be modest and say ten. That’s 600,000 francs. €914. Every. Single. Day.

Impressive, I thought – until I speak to one Burkinabè journeyman on the bus. He works in electricity and he tells me he is in great demand, constantly between Ouagadougou and Abidjan. I wonder why he bothers with the bus.

‘Did you have to pay?’

‘Sure. Everyone does. It’s their system.’

‘How much?’

‘Six thousand francs.’

What!??’

‘Yes. Six thousand. A lot of people pay five or even ten.’

He does not look terribly concerned; perhaps he has already calculated this into his cost/benefit analysis of the trip. But let’s multiply our €914 euros by a factor of three to five, just to keep our calculation on the conservative side. That amounts to anything between €2,700 and €4,500 these uniformed extortion artists rake in. Every. Single. Day. That is a truckload of money. Suddenly those brand new cars behind their offices started to make a lot more sense. And the scale of the problem becomes crystal clear.

The Economist newspaper once made a memorable journey on a beer truck through Cameroon and calculated the cost of roadside corruption to that country’s economy. I have not retained the exact figures and my current archive is a mess but the conclusion I remember is that it took a percentage point or two of GDP. It has also rendered transport through Côte d’Ivoire among the most expensive ventures in the world. This clearly is insane. It is also just the beginning of the problem, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Part 2 soon to come.

Veils and Guns – Part Two

February 4, 2016

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

 

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

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

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

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

Burkinabè press coverage of the events

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

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

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

https://www.zammagazine.com

Veils and Guns – Part One

January 29, 2016

Some impressions and thoughts in the wake of the attack.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two coming up shortly

Lines

December 30, 2015

IMG_0953

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

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

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

And danced.

IMG_1091

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

But still we listened, and we danced.

IMG_1090

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

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

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

IMG_0970

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

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

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

Small matter. It’ll all make sense later.

Office. Ouaga.

Office. Home. Ouaga.

Happy 2016 to you all.

Interruption

September 19, 2015

While I was preparing my series on the Central African Republic, an act of treachery was perpetrated in the country that I, for now at least, consider my home.

Burkina Faso. Or, to be more precise: Ouagadougou. Because the writ of this merry band (1,300 all told) of ex-president Blaise Compaoré’s personal guards, who have committed this coup d’état, does not extend beyond the confines of the capital. And because they do not even control the city in any meaningful way, they have resorted to terrorising the population. It’s what they have done for almost three decades. As a result, Ouagadougou has fallen: from one of West Africa’s most pleasant cities to one of its most dangerous and unpredictable.

Well done, putchists!

The people, however, are unlikely to be deterred.

I follow things very closely, thanks to the legions of Burkinabè who have taken to Twitter, Facebook and other social media to show the world the extent of this treasonous assault on their legitimate democratic aspirations.

Yes, mistakes have been made during the Transition. Nobody disputes that. And the transitional authorities must take a good look at themselves and ask if they had not bitten off more than they could chew. They should have prepared the country for elections and leave everything else in the hands of the next elected government. But nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies the hi-jacking of the Transition by an armed gang of 1,300 that belongs on History’s garbage truck.

Their actions, last Thursday, have merely postponed their removal. But before they go, things could turn messy and ugly.

There is now mediation going on. The only matter that should be under discussion is their departure. The African Union yesterday gave them 96 hours. They are unlikely to heed that deadline. But there are other things afoot. Town after town is falling squarely in the hands of the people. A general strike of unlimited duration has already been announced. It is likely to be heeded.

These actions of the Burkinabè people need outside support. If an international  blockade is needed, it needs to be enforced. I’m looking at you, President Ouattara and company: your country, Côte d’Ivoire, is key in this respect. In spite of the rumours that political and business friends of ex-president Compaoré have given large sums of money to the gang that kids itself in charge, a concerted national and international action would probably suffice to smoke them out.

1,300 troops against 17 million Burkinabè, minus the few who stand to gain by the death of the democratic dream, however flawed. But as Winston Churchill quipped: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones that have been tried. It is what the Burkinabè aspire to. A tiny group of fundamentally irrelevant politico-military hooligans will not stand in their way for very long.

Ouaga in a hurry

June 17, 2015

In Holland there is a saying, that, roughly – and badly – translated goes like this: ‘That one? Too funny. He’s got the laughs hanging off his arse.’ Or, as the case may be – and it is today – He is a She from Burkina Faso.

Roukiata Ouédraogo’s the name. Grew up in Burkina Faso, left for France, worked in fashion, theatre (combining both for a while) – and film. A while ago I had the great pleasure of seeing her in action, alone on stage at the French Institute (yes, they still have them) in Ouagadougou. The show is called Ouaga pressé, Ouaga in a hurry. First presented in 2012, this is a whirlwind tour – aka the life of a young woman growing up, going to school, getting about, dancing to lots of music and travelling (cue the inevitable and interminable negotiations between African women and any airline about the amount of excess luggage allowed).

Ouédraogo does not need many props, just a few suitcases, a box here and there. The lady is centre stage, in a red robe, draped around her generous physique, which she uses to great effect. After all, is her nickname not Petit Modèle…?

We follow her in the family home with the usual copious amounts of intrigue and backstabbing and then in Paris, where she visits the institution that to a lot of women is what the pub used to be for men: that extra living room when your own is getting too small. We are (of course!) in a salon de coiffure, or hairdressing saloon, where you can spend many hours immersed in gossip and self-indulgence. But then another visitor arrives, clearly not from Chateau Rouge, where – naturally – the saloon is located. Nope. This new client is white.

‘You lost here?’ the owner asks innocently.

Ah, no, the Frenchwoman wants something from the saloon. Which she gets, at a massively inflated price. We all have to live, right?

In another scene Roukiata takes us back to her school days when she manages to escape from home and her strict, education-obsessed father (there always have to be one, right?) and manages to get out on high heels and dressed to the nines, with a girlfriend, on a borrowed “moto”, those ubiquitous small Chinese motorbikes that convert most Burkinabè, gentle-spirited and quite relaxed most of the time, into instant kamikaze pilots.

En route, the two get stopped by the police who want to know who the owner is. Embarrassment follows plus a rather triumphant phonecall from one of the policemen, ready to convert the fine (made up and settled on the spot of course) into an order of two fine cold beers. The two make it to the great occasion on time: the school party.

Pic: artistebf.org

Pic: artistebf.org

On her way back, our young heroine needs a taxi, since Girlfriend has disappeared with a boyfriend and the “moto”. Not easy at this time of night. Taxis are scarce and crammed. One stops. With red robe undulating from one side to the other, Roukiata worms her way past the other passengers on the backseat.

‘Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me. Pardon.’

‘Keep your hands off Africa’s treasures!!’ (or words to that effect)

‘Pardon. Excuse me.’

‘Excuse me.’

Comedy gold.

But it’s not over yet. The driver has taken a liking to her and will bring her “a little black plastic bag”, which means: something to eat, wrapped in, indeed a small black plastic bag. She brushes him off but then has to face going back into the house…

Roukiata Ouédraogo is currently on tour in West Africa. Keep a lookout for Ouaga pressé. Definitely recommended.

White Saviours (part 1,753,535 and counting…)

December 22, 2014

Picture the scene. I am walking down the street as a young boy shoots out from between a few parked luxury cars. He looks at me, puts his thumb index and middle fingers together in a gesture that suggests eating and brings them to his mouth. To make sure that there is no equivocation.

He wants to eat. And he’s just found the perfect individual to pay for that: a lone white man walking down the street with a rucksack. The target is correct, has always been correct.

A couple of things happen here, in this little scene on a street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. First, it confirms my worst fears about dependency syndrome. This country has been infested with denizens from the aid industry for decade after depressing decade. Not only has it achieved depressingly little, it has inculcated in many minds that wherever white people are around there is free money available and this in spite of the fact that the aid industry has gone truly global with India, Brazil, South Africa, Japan, China, The Middle East and Angola joining in.

The principal business of the aid industry is spending money without a great deal of reflection on purpose and usefulness. The fact that it has also spawned a gigantic Monitoring and Evaluation business merely serves to illustrate the point. What this boy did was making an extremely rapid appraisal of what purpose the presence of an unknown but white stranger could serve for him. It is dependency syndrome writ large.

And it was ever thus. Colonial times arrived in these savannas in the form of the French Army and was swiftly followed by cultural repression, forced labour, commercial agriculture and of course the civilizing mission. After Independence, it merely changed mantle, creating a combination that I consider in fact even more pernicious. Colonialism and its attendant misery was something you could fight. But what on earth do you do with a development industry that carries a similar civilizing mission, consisting of benign condescension and colossal amounts of free and fungible money? How the hell do you fight that?

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

By Arlene Wandera, Dakar Biënnale 2014. Photo: me.

Aid was one of the pillars under the just-deposed regime of Blaise Compaoré and his clan. Whites played no part in this country’s self-liberation even though I have already seen claims that aid was a factor, admittedly tiny though, in advancing the revolution in Burkina Faso. These claims should be dismissed as the preposterous cant that they are.

Back to that street scene because there is something else happening here. The cars that hid the boy from my view until he came out and claimed money for his stomach, were all locally purchased. And expensive: big 4WDs of the kind that I will most certainly never own. Cycling remains my preferred way of moving around Ouagadougou, in part because I can afford it. Would it ever occur to this boy that the Africans who drive these luxury cars are all, to a man and a woman, an order of magnitude richer than I am?

I cannot tell. Our exchange was over in seconds. Perhaps he has been told by the owners of these luxury cars that he can get stuffed. But let us, for the sake of the argument, say that this idea would never enter his head – and I think this is plausible. What does this tell us about the mindset of a nation that has been aid dependent for five depressing decades at the very least? It means that the poor, like this boy, have simply given up on getting a better life through their own endeavours or the actions of their fellow citizens. Saviours can only be White. I cannot think of anything more pernicious: a nominally sovereign nation lives by the notion that it’s only The Outside that can save it. The Outside gives money, you can attempt to go there and you will have to forget that it was the same Outside that kept a kleptocratic regime in its place for 27 years. It is utterly debilitating.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

In Bissau. By Amilcar Cabral. Pic: me.

Still, the revolution arrived late October this year and it was broadcast live, on radio. I hope it will go on to achieve other things, chief among them the realisation that there is dignity to be had from relying on your own resources, brains, energy, intellect, economic power…in short, the death of the idea that (White) Outsiders can solve your problems. Once again: no whites were involved in this revolution, if anything they have stood squarely in its way. And who knows, a couple of years down the road, following the installation of a government that serves the people rather than itself and a few connected local and international friends, I can tell that boy where to find the government agency that helps people like him, who have fallen through the cracks. And what bliss if I can do that while walking down a street free of logo-bedecked luxury vehicles on their way to donor meetings, workshops, training sessions and other talking shops. Burkina Faso would look so much healthier as a result.

Well yes, I know, the IMF, the world’s schoolmarm of budget discipline has already rolled into town with yet another soon-to-be-forgotten bureaucrat lecturing the transitional government. The rest will doubtlessly follow: the UN alphabet soup, EU, the Dutch, the Brits, the Swedes and so on and so forth. Can I just dream for half a day before I get thoroughly depressed again?

Inevitable Islam

June 14, 2014

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

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

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

What is going on ?

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

Central Ouagadougou with the old Great Mosque

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

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

Development.

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

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

Bamako, Tour d'Afrique, from taxi

Bamako, Tour d’Afrique, from taxi

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

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

An abject, catastrophic failure.

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

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

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

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