Posts Tagged ‘Timbuktu’

The circus came to town

August 21, 2018

We were crossing the river using what’s known here as The First Bridge and were looking at the water. What on earth was that, floating on the slow majestic flow of the Djoliba?

A portrait. On closer inspection it was a picture of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, or IBK, attached to two pinasses. Irresistible photo obviously.

‘Ah look! Boua dans l’eau!’ The image of Boua, the old one, an at times affectionate at times not-so-friendly term for the 73-years old Keïta, floating in the water had a few connotations that were probably unintended by the advertising agency that came up with the idea. The idea was to present IBK as the Messiah, hands and gaze tilted skywards. And so he appeared on thousands of billboards. Sure enough, this floating image should conjure up images of a Saviour walking on the water, even though the biblical connotation would probably be lost in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.

But my friend and colleague saw the image as a re-election campaign coming to an ignominious end, with Mali’s president ending up many miles downstream, lost in the Delta as the water made its way to the Atlantic.

That clearly did not happen.

Mali’s 2018 election, and especially the excessive amounts of boredom it engendered, has prompted another question: what’s the use of this circus? And that’s what I’d like to probe in this piece.

Elections are an industry. The costly campaigns, the expensive election material, the expensive logistics of getting it in place in a country many times the size of France with major security issues and a crumbling infrastructure. Twenty-four candidates took to traversing the country, holding rallies, paying for ads, making videos. And then there was the security apparatus, necessary to create (a semblance of) order and at the end the – now mandatory – accusations of unfair play, invariably launched by the losing side. Boua did it when he lost in 2002 and 2007, his main challenger Soumaïla Cissé does it now. The two final contenders are both every inch a product of the same system that has brought Mali its current and particularly odious cocktail of political rot.

And then we haven’t even mentioned the many journalists (including yours truly) covering the circus, the many pundits and experts and hacks and wonks pontificating about What This Means to Mali, West Africa, the Planet and the Universe.

Elections like these also attract a most curious cottage industry, brought to you by the international donor community that has decided to fund this circus. We have voter education campaigns. NGO activity goes into overdrive. And we have observers. Everybody and his cat and canary flies in, takes up space in expensive hotels, occupies rooms in conference centres for meetingsworkshopsmoremeetingsandconferences. There is some benefit to certain sectors of the economy. After all, folks eat in (expensive) restaurants, they drink in (expensive) bars, may buy a few (cheap) souvenirs, that sort of thing. If you called them luxury tourists you would not be far off the mark.

Press waiting in a Bamako voting station for the EU Observer Mission leader to arrive. This part of town is also where some Big Shots come to vote – hence the top heavy security. Compare and contrast with another voting station, later. Pic by Attino Doumbia.

In spite of their patchy knowledge of the country, its history, its political mores and particularities, observers are increasingly becoming the arbiters of these elections, even though they carefully avoid any judgement concerning the result. (The UN, operating a very costly and underwhelmingly successful mission in Mali has refrained from making any comments, still stung by its Côte d’Ivoire experience when they were called in to certify the elections and promptly accused by the losing side of backing Fraud/France/Uncle Fred. So they have smartened up a bit.)

Increasingly acting like royalty, the observer folks from the European Union, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States, the International Organisation of La Francophonie, Democracy Heaven, Free and Fair Paradise send a few handfuls of observers to the safe parts of the country. Their findings they then put into handy statements that get read out by that other ritualistic element, very much part of this circus: The Press Conference (see picture above). Strangely enough, this observer element appears to be entirely absent in what is in all probability the most epically corrupt political system in the world; I am of course referring to the United States.

OK, I’ll grant you this. There is one thing a West African and an American election do have in common: they are won or lost with money. In this neck of the woods, anything up to three euros will do the trick. If you’re a smart citizen, you take cash from all sides and still make your own decision.

Street where the losing candidate’s portrait adorned every lamppost…

You can send fifteen armies of observers into the country, this will not change. And hence you hear observers having conversations in their hotels, their bars, their restaurants, their lounges and wherever else about all sorts of things – except what they’re here for. Office gossip, the new car they’ve just bought, house prices in Generic Suburbia Somewhere, anything but the experience of having to watch weird elections in some place or other. This makes perfect sense. None of them know Mali, let alone understand it. And next week it’s Peru. Or Cambodia. Or Malawi. Like the swarms dispatched here by the aid industry, they have loyalty to the organisation that sends them, never to the countries that received them. Exceptions duly noted.

And what’s the popular response to all this? This:

This, you may believe it or not, was a polling station in one of Bamako’s most densely populated areas. In full view of this was an elaborate and very well attended wedding going on, a rather precise indication of peoples’ priorities. However, and this is absolutely crucial to understand: an elected head of state in countries thus “observed” derives a great deal of legitimacy from the statements by the likes of AU, ECOWAS, OIF and especially the EU, the world’s largest aid donor. Even if nobody shows up to actually give you that strangest of things…a popular mandate. This is a circus, conducted for the benefit of foreigners.

On a day in August, the Ministry of Territorial Administration (part of Mali’s bewildering election architecture, but that’s another story) declared Boua the definitive winner. When that pronouncement had been made, I found myself walking between the elegant ministerial complex known as the Cité administrative and a road system designed to decongest this part of the capital, which it sometimes manages to do. Speeding along a bridge came one of Bamako’s ubiquitous green minibuses, with music blaring from its loudspeakers. It was covered in campaign posters and playing one of those forgettable campaign songs, written for the occasion. A monotonous beat with a disembodied auto-tune non-voice (omnipresent and toe-curlingly awful) intoning endlessly ‘IBK…IBK…IBK…’. The initials of Boua. No-one was following the minibus. It sped in and out of sight on its own, ignored by all.

Well before the poll was over the posters were already fading from view. A roundabout in Kalaban Coura, Bamako, late July.

That lone minibus and this roundabout. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate the futility of it all. Much will be made of a 35% voter turnout. Democracy will be pronounced to have been consolidated. But in truth, the vast majority of Malians did not vote, realising the extent to which this entire circus is irrelevant to their lives. And this is happening in a country that gave the world a unique Magna Carta of its own, in the form of the 13thCentury Mandé Charter, or Kouroukan Fouga, an enumeration of the rights and duties of a citizen, part of the the world’s human intellectual heritage. Surely, with its millennium-old history, Mali can do better than maintaining an expensive political bubble based on a colonial model propped up by foreign money and symbolically re-constituted every five years in a ritual virtually nobody believes in?

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Mali. Again (conclusion)

August 19, 2016

One can dream.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

One can dream. One must dream.

Here’s to Mali.

Purity

July 3, 2016

Brexit on 23 June follows a trend across Europe, supposedly in response to the existence of an overweening and undemocratic European Union. (Very briefly: I do believe the EU suffers from hubris, I do believe the EU is in great danger of becoming a corporatist neoliberal venture for which it was never intended and of which the euro is the symbol. But I also believe that in spite of the urgent need to fundamentally reform the European Union the world is infinitely better off with one than without one.)

I want to go somewhere else with this piece. The trend across Europe and elsewhere in the western world is the arrival/re-appearance of nationalist and anti-migration movements. This is echoed in another trend, happening across the globe from West Africa to Southeast Asia.

One day before Brexit, the wonderful Pakistanti Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri was murdered by self-styled Islamic radicals in Karachi. Earlier this year the world witnessed the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (or ISIS), an act of vandalism rivalled by the blowing up of the Bamiyan statutes by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the vandalism perpetrated on Timbuktu by self-declared jihadist invaders in 2012.

What do they all have in common? I would argue: the idea of purity. Or, to put it better: nostalgia for purity, the illusion of purity. It never existed but they want it back.

The rhetoric is interchangeable. Prior to the referendum that returned the tragic Brexit vote, British nationalists talked about reducing immigration, taking back control from a monstrous – and what’s more: foreign – bureaucracy and return to the green and pleasant self-ruled lands of old times. Without too much interference from outside and even fewer migrants thank you very much. Elsewhere in Europe, extremist politicians talk about sovereignty, the need to curb immigration and to stop the EU. ‘I want my country back,’ is their rallying cry.

Sufi music is abhorrent to the Taliban because it pollutes the otherwise pristine and sweet unspoilt sound of prayer. Monuments and tombstones and artefacts make the mind of the beholder stray from the correct path of a blemish free faith where no idolatry takes place.

It is the illusion of purity: an unspoilt people, an unspoilt faith, the pristine English village, the Khalifate. That dream of purity can only be fulfilled through destruction and vandalism. What is tainted and unclean must be removed. Whether it’s a monument, music or an institution like the European Union. Sacrifice is unavoidable, even if it means putting an entire economy or a future generation in jeopardy. Purity requires the use of a wrecking ball. Brexit and the blowing up of monuments are two sides of the same coin.

***

None of this is new. But it has become more virulent and more aggressive of late and moves to counter it have been shockingly inept. Why? I believe that this is in part because of the overwhelming victory of globalisation and its attendant ideology (neoliberalism) and in part because of the total collapse of the countervailing progressive movement.

The Thatcher/Reagan revolution informed by the unfettered free market ideology peddled by the likes of Milton Friedman has been successful beyond its wildest dreams. It has reversed virtually everything that an organised and united people’s force fought for during a century and a half. Unions everywhere, anti-colonial movements everywhere. Today, neoliberalism is continuing the business of taking us collectively back to the 19th century. States have been rolled back, utilities that provide life-saving basic services  (water for instance, health care) have been or are being privatised, structural adjustment programs have ravaged economies from Latin America to Asia via huge chunks of Africa – the list is long. The very welcome demise of the dictatorial and inept Soviet Union and its European satellite states in 1989 cemented the Thatcher/Reagan victory.

The progressive movement has struggled to find an answer to this free market steamroller. Instead, it has adopted most of the steamroller’s principles (the main one being that Greed Is Good) and has been looking for a visage, something to mask the fact that it may look progressive but is the exact opposite. The visage was already present in its ranks and was eagerly adopted as its faux progressive front. It’s called identity politics.

Starting with second wave feminism in the late 1960s it has since morphed into a multitude of movements that have their own navel and their own victimhood as their unique focal points. They have rendered the old and lofty principle of international solidarity obsolete. To mask this simple fact, Diversity was invented, which incorporates (and I use this word deliberately) an in-crowd of people who all look different but who mostly and basically think the same thoughts. Progressive it is not: this movement has attached itself eagerly to the globalisation agenda. And as I have argued earlier, it is precisely for this reason that it fails to counter resurgent European nationalists, religious extremists and the other purity seekers. 

***

Purity is the reaction globalisation has engendered. Races should not mix. People should not mix. Cultures should not mix. Musics should not mix. Countries should not mix and most certainly not be “overseen” by some supranational busybody. It is telling to see that extreme rightwing groups in the United States combine utter hatred for the United Nations (another international bogeyman) with a stunning lack of knowledge about the organisation. Donald Trump is their champion and, as if to illustrate my point, the other presidential candidate is a shell for corporate America with a ghastly track record as former Secretary of State. I live in a region that has to deal with the atrocious fallout of the criminally catastrophic decision to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi (someone they were previously more than happy to do business with), of which Hillary Clinton was an active and enthusiastic supporter.

Because of the Left’s astonishing incompetence in reviving the forces of solidarity that used to cut across all identity lines (race, sex, sexual orientation and everything else) both forces – globalisation and the purity movements – will continue to run amok and crash into each other. The have-nots have been divided by identity politics and will not stand together again. It is curiously ironic that the likes of Brexit are driven by another type of identity politics, a variety the faux progressives disapprove of: rural, working class or former working class and (dare we day it) mostly white, subject to a condescending sneering campaign by those in possession of the correct identity politics. This has backfired spectacularly.

Brexit is a tragic mistake. Purity, be it racial, ideological or religious is a dangerous illusion. The progressive movement is dead and its faux progressive identity politics driven replacement an abysmal failure. We need something new. Maybe it is already there, unable to stop the steamroller but at least attempting to slow it down. New bold citizen-led movements show a way forward, like the one that removed autocrat Blaise Compaoré, then resisted a coup attempt by his presidential guard, and a new one, aimed to get genetically manipulated cotton removed. All three in Burkina Faso. We could do with a lot more like these.

Lines

December 30, 2015

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

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

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

And danced.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small matter. It’ll all make sense later.

Office. Ouaga.

Office. Home. Ouaga.

Happy 2016 to you all.

Timbuktu

May 5, 2015

Thanks for your patience!

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

Time to revive it.

 

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

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

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

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

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

from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

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

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

 

from Mondoblog

from Mondoblog

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

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

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

from AlloCiné

from AlloCiné

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

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

 

Fighting the Void

January 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouagadougou, October 2014. Pic: koulouba.com

Ouagadougou, October 2014. Pic: koulouba.com

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

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

Life under occupation

February 26, 2014

One of the many things I was told by people who had been living under the foreign occupation of their land between March 2012 and January 2013 was this little gem from Timbuktu, the city where the invaders smashed up statuettes, broke down the mythical door of the Sidi Yahia Mosque and destroyed holy shrines that had been a feature of the City of 333 Saints. Yes, as one imam testified, Timbuktu was losing its soul to a bunch of halfwits who had brought the poison of the unforgivably poor interpretation of the Koran from the theological wasteland known as Wahabbism into a richly cultured city they did not understand. And what do simpletons do with things they do not understand? They smash them up. What do simpletons do with people they don’t understand? They kill them. Or hack off their hands and feet.

But what they clearly did not break was the people’s spirit. I was told this tale by a young and adventurous chap from Timbuktu, who I met in Burkina Faso. ‘You know how they banned music and smoking and drinking and whatnot? Well we ordered drinks by the crate from Mopti. How it got to us? As it always did, by pirogue. Yes, the river. Did they ever find out? Pfff, of course not, they had no idea how to enter or exit the city. You have to remember they were all foreigners. They knew nothing. To us, it’s home. They only thing they knew about was how to stone people and to smash things up. And they used drugs. How do I know that? Because I saw it…’ His disdain was palpable. Just one little snippet of life during occupation. He finally had to flee and even though Mali’s problems are far from over, he’s probably back by now.

Mali

January 12, 2013

The Guardian’s Comment Is Free page asks today whether its contributors agree with the French army coming in to help the Malian Army (more precisely: what’s left of it) to prevent the Islamist extremist invaders from moving into Central Mali.

Do you support France’s military intervention in Mali, was the question. Depressingly, the debate descended into familiar territory: Islam bashers who make no distinction between Muslims in general (most of whom have no truck with the rabid variety of their faith that has taken hold of Northern Mali) and the West bashers who see that declining part of the world as the Root Of All Evil. 

Since things appear to be moving a lot faster than previously thought, let me make just a few points…

First off: I admit to an element of sentimentality here. I have been to Mali a number of times, have held numerous interviews with some of its most prominent musicians and not even that long ago declared Bamako the musical capital of the world. That said, there are other considerations.

The current catastrophe taking place in Northern Mali is both old and new. First element: the Tamasheq (or Tuaregs). They have staged uprisings for almost one hundred years, first against French colonisers, then against successive Malian governments. The Tamasheq resent their marginalisation, the cutting up by artificial borders of the lands where they used to roam freely and they surely don’t want anyone interfering with their various businesses, which also include all manner of smuggling rackets.

Add to this the very recent fallout from the death of Libyan leader colonel Ghadaffi, in which France and the USA played a major role. Interestingly, that fallout did NOT manifest itself in Libya’s immediate neighbour Niger; somehow the many Tamasheq officers and soldiers in Ghadaffi’s army made it across either Niger or Algeria into Northern Mali were they staged their rebellion, in January 2012. Prime mover, at first: MNLA the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (or North Mali).

There is a lot of speculation about the riches underneath Malian soil that apparently informs France’s belated involvement. I would say that France’s involvement in Mali is late precisely because there is, as yet, not a great deal to be hauled from under the sand and the rocks. Contrast this with Niger, which exports huge quantities of uranium to France from its, mainly French-owned, mines. Lights out in homes across France is a far more compelling reason to get involved than a few disgruntled folks in another country.

But that equation has changed dramatically, thanks to the arrival of Islamist extremists. There are three groups. Ançar Dine is one of them and the only Tamasheq group among these extremists. It is run by a veteran opportunist, Iyad ag Ghali, who led another Tamasheq rebellion, in the 1990s. Ançar Dine is related, by family ties, to the secular rebellion of the MNLA. When their chef feels there’s more to be had from an alliance with either the Malian state or anyone else, he’ll change tack. But for now, he sticks with the extremists, as witnessed by Ançar Dine’s criminal complicity in the destruction of Timbuktu.

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The other groups, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) are foreign-backed, foreign-financed foreign invaders. Some are remnants from the Armed Islamic Group that took part in the Algerian civil war in the 1990s; others come from even further afield. They are financed by Middle East oil money and claim to support Salafism, an incurably backward interpretation of the Koran, utterly alien to the much more cosmopolitan West African version of the faith. They are ultraviolent, intolerant and dangerous – and they need to be stopped. That is the other clash at the heart of the problem.

Third element, the vacuum at the heart of political power in Mali’s capital. Ever since an overambitious army captain, Amadou Haya Sanogo, staged his coup in March 2012 Mali’s political legitimacy has ceased to exist. The army has collapsed and the mostly foreign takeover of the North (an event Sanogo claimed his actions were supposed to prevent) has become fait accompli. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries.

A lot of criticism can be levelled at deposed president Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT), while he was being lionized as a paragon for democracy and, er, development. The praise-singing sent me to sleep too…

There was widespread corruption, ATT was being soft on the invaders, allowing drug rackets to flourish – and indeed: he was accused of wanting to engineer an illegal third term. But the place where you settle these things is at the ballot box. An intelligent intervention in the North (and this emphatically means keeping the US military out of this) also depends on the green light coming from a legitimate government in Bamako, which currently does not exist.

So here’s the conundrum. The world will, for now, have to make do with whatever Sanogo decides. In spite of claims to the contrary he still is very much in charge of political events in Bamako; he clearly has political ambitions of his own and his continued presence does not help matters one bit. But the North cannot wait until Bamako has sorted out its political mess; the risk of having a foreign-run statelet run by fanatical terrorists as a fixed presence in the heart of the Sahara is much too great a threat – to West Africa, or indeed further afield.

Mali’s army cannot do the job. It needs help, preferably from its neighbours. There is a little bit of that but clearly not enough. So, what’s left? French intervention, I’m afraid, with all the historical connotations that entails but the North, its many people (Arab, Songhai, Peul, Tamasheq et cetera), its cultures, its long-standing traditions of tolerance, its music – in short: its way of life need to be rescued from the hands, the pickaxes, the guns and the closed minds of these barbarians.

So, do I support the French action in Mali? Reluctantly: yes.

Calling spades

July 11, 2012

Journalists. We’re supposed to be objective, reporting the facts to the best of our knowledge, let all sides have their say on a particular matter. And all this is right and proper on almost all occasions.

Today, this is not such an occasion. A city I love is being wilfully destroyed. I am, of course, referring to the cultural annihilation being perpetrated on the city and the people of Timbuktu.

I have seen all manner of labels being used to describe the perpetrators of this crime. “radical Islamists”, “salafists”, “fundamentalists”, they call themselves Ançar Dine, which supposedly means “keepers of the faith”. All fine and good if you – and they – want to pussyfoot around the issue.

It’s time to call them what they are. They are criminal scum. Muslims the world over have been calling the criminal acts of these destroyers by their proper name: barbaric. Which is exactly right. Criminal scum have launched a direct attack on Islam.

There is little consolation for the peoples who over centuries of work, trade, religious observance, scholarship and art made Timbuktu what it was. Timbuktu the Mysterious. The City of 333 Saints. The only small consolation is the knowledge about the fate of the destroyers of its shrines, its history, its religion, its peoples, music, art and soul.

For when their joyless and brainless non-lives under an undeserved sun come to and end, a special place in Hell will be reserved for these criminals.

A line has been crossed in Timbuktu. We, in the civilised world, of which Timbuktu was (and remains) a uniquely powerful symbol can do little more than wring our hands. But the least we can do is start calling the assassins of this city, its history, its soul, its core, by their proper names.