Posts Tagged ‘travelling’

The dark side of being generous

July 2, 2020

It’s boys. Aged between, say, six and twelve they approach you on the street or call you when you’re passing by. Bright smiles, while they take a break from playing football or just bright smiles beaming straight at you.

“Toubab!” That would be me.

“Hello!” I say back to them, or him.

And more often than not, the next word out is…: “Argent.”

Money.

Sometimes it comes specified: the amounts demanded have ranged from 100 CFA (a mere fifteen eurocents) to fully one hundred times more than that. “Ten thousand francs.”  Eyes unblinking, smile still in place. We are in Ségou.

I have spoken about this in a previous blog and explained this behavior as the result of the extremely pernicious effects of colonialism and its sequel, international development aid. But individual behavior (to be very specific: individual white behavior) makes things worse, especially in places like Ségou, where I am at the moment, a city that used to thrive on tourism before international fear of jihadism and then the Corona crisis put a stop to it.

Now I have previously complained about being seen as a stupid loaded European but very seriously: being regarded as an ATM on two legs is a) annoying but insignificant and b) a symptom of something deeper.

This ‘deeper’ manifests itself in the domestic sphere in ways you only become aware of when you listen to stories like this, told by a friend here in Ségou. It goes like this.

“When Ségou was not yet overrun with tourists, I used to make a little extra money as a schoolboy shining shoes. This still happens today: you go to a place where clients are seated, you ask if they need their shoes polished and when you have done the work you return them and they give you 50 or 100 francs.

One day, one French tourist called me. Remember, there weren’t loads of them at the time so this was special. He was seated on the terrace of one of those posh hotels they have in Ségou. When I returned his shoes to him he gave me two thousand five hundred francs. I was over the moon! I ran home at high speed to tell my parents what had happened.

I showed my dad the money and what did he do? He hit me, saying that I had stolen it. Nobody gives such an idiotic amount to a shoe shine boy. We never managed to return the money since the man had disappeared and it’s stayed an issue for a long time. And I learned a lesson.”

I want you to reflect on this story, as I discussed it with my friend after he had finished his tale. First off, the amount given was indeed completely ridiculous and it did, rightly so, arouse suspicion. Second, while it most probably made the ‘generous’ tourist feel good about himself, it put life at my friend’s home on edge. Not just because the insane amount of money the young boy suddenly carried in his pocket, no. This works on another level, too.

Giving cash to people who are perceived ‘poor’ in places like Ségou or in many other parts of the continent where Africans come into contact with white lifeforms is principally not about the receiver. When you give money to a boy you perceive as poor, and especially when it is a large sum, it becomes all about you, the White Saviour.

And what’s more, as my friend stressed a few times while we discussed his story, it undermines parental authority at home, something that is taken very seriously here. Giving ten thousands francs to a kid, which has obviously happened because how on earth could that boy have come up with such an amount to ask of me…? Giving ten thousand francs instills in this young boy the idea that Mum and Dad don’t provide as well for me as this White Man or Woman could. The White Person is capable; my own parents are not, even though they put food on the table. Look, money! In my pocket.

In short, it reinforces once again the idea that Whites are superior and Africans should be grateful for whatever gets sent their way. In reinforces the racist mindset present through slavery and colonialism and perpetuated through the aid industry. We give – we feel good. They receive – we feel good.

All this is learned behavior and therefore it can be unlearned, on both sides. Whites with their Superiority Syndrome, Africans with their forced-upon-them Dependency Syndrome, especially egregious in tourist places like Ségou, which does indeed tend to get infested with mindless loaded do-gooders. Visitor, this is not about you. In fact, while you are here, nothing is.

OK. Here is how I ended one particular Ségou episode. I looked at the spokesman of the football team who had asked me for money, for some time. He looked back. Something dawned. He said: “Pardon.” We made our peace. Walking away, the realization came that he may have been apologizing to me in person. But far more importantly, he was, in fact, saying “sorry” to his parents.

The Corona Chronicles, Bamako

June 20, 2020

Part eight and end – open borders and dense crowds – 2

 

So the airport is supposed to re-open shortly. (Yes, for once I indulge in the maddeningly annoying habit to start a sentence with the completely redundant ‘so’… so there.) Earlier this month, the Transport Ministers of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) held a virtual video meeting, where they proposed to resume domestic air travel by the end of this month. Mind you, domestic other travel has been going on in the most spectacular fashion, at least here in Mali (in Senegal, inter-urban travel was banned until this week). On the way into Ségou, a two-and-a-half hour journey, I counted at least two dozen buses heading in the opposite direction. I was made to understand that these are all packed to the rafters with passengers. They will not bother departing with a half-empty bus. One old carcass on wheels had been hastily parked and was expeditiously shedding its passengers as black smoke enveloped the area of its right-hand-side back tyre. I also noticed the smashed wreckages of at least half a dozen FourWheelDrives that had been driven at high speed into trees and ditches. The elites’ travel habits differ slightly from those of ordinary folks but at least they get to respect the 1.5 or two metre barrier as they drive themselves to death.

No such concerns for everybody else. On Monday, the only day Ségou springs back to something resembling life, the market in the centre of town was heaving with people. Women and their merchandise were packed like sardines in the many covered motor taxis that crisscross this town; they seat about 6, sometimes 8. Fare: 100 CFA franc, 0.15 euro, perhaps a little extra for your wares. No taximan in his right mind leaves with a half-empty vehicle. With petrol well over one euro a litre, to do so is economic madness. And the same goes for the famous green Sotrama buses in Bamako, and the hundreds of buses that ply those long routes from the capital to Kayes (600 kilometres), Sikasso (400), Ségou (nearby) or even Gao (900 kilometres) – this last destination on a no-longer-existing road where you risk getting hi-jacked, robbed or even blown up.

One bus after it hit an IED between Sévaré and Gao. Photo credit not known, picture retrieved from the site djeliba24.com

The risk of contracting the dreaded virus is subject to the pragmatically calculated risk assessment we discussed earlier: either you sell your stuff and live another week – or you don’t and then it will be game over very soon. And as we saw earlier, too: there are no underlying health problems really; in Mali those supposedly underlying health issues tend to kill you on their own, without any help from COVID-19.

The ECOWAS ministers also discussed the issue of international and intercontinental travel. The idea is to gradually open the ECOWAS internal borders by July 15th at the latest. This means that the twin circus I described here will begin again: a smooth passage through the airport for the few, a rough, unfriendly and corrupt passage for everybody travelling by bus, this time augmented with Corona-related checks, which I predict to be user-friendly at the airports and add another layer of harrassment of the travelling public at the land borders, this time wearing white overcoats instead of uniforms.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita makes increasingly frequent television appearances, delivering speeches in complicated French nobody understands and designed to put across that famous line: I Feel Your Pain.

No You Bloody Don’t, is the riposte coming from meetings such as these.

Opposition rally in Ségou, June 19th. Pic: me.

A much bigger one happened on the same day, June 19th in Bamako. And as you can see, the virus fear has been completely overtaken, nay: overwhelmed, by rising public anger. About the education crisis – kids have not been to school for months because of a deep and bitter dispute between teachers unions and the govenment. About the all-pervasive corruption, large and small, with which people are absolutely fed up. And for some it is also about the recent parliamentary elections, another excercise in futility, which returned some to their seats and booted others away from their sinecures. In some circles the results are contested, while for most everyone else life goes on regardless. For those 99%, COVID-19 has been a most unwelcome distraction but one that has brought the existing cleavages in even sharper light than before. And that cleavage is where it has always been: between the haves and the have-nots. Foreign money often makes the difference.

No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when your position, your job, your sinecure, your income… is essentially assured by financial, political, diplomatic and/or business support from outside the country. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when you can sail through an airport and the journey from your capital to another capital in the ECOWAS region takes less time than for a bus with 70 passengers to leave a congested city. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when forking out 500 euros for a return ticket to Dakar or Abidjan makes no dent in your budget while for 95 out of 100 of your compatriots this constitutes their entire budget for most of the year. No, you don’t feel anybody’s pain when once again your health problems will be sorted after a quick trip to Paris, London, Lisbon, Rabat or Johannesburg, while others die on their way to hospital in a taxi or a handcart.

Caveats, execptions, all duly noted and accepted but we are talking general trends here. And we are trying to come to terms with the fact that for most Malians – and I’d wager most everyone else in this 350 million strong region – COVID-19 has not made any difference to their lives, had it not been for the official measures that often killed their business. (And before I forget: the formidable food business woman who went missing from our beloved depot when the curfew hit …is back, with her new daughter strapped to her back.)

Is it helpful that these new demonstrations are organised by a Wahab imam, the former head of the influential High Islamic Council, who has none-too-subtle presidential ambitions, ambitions that, I’m sorry to say, go strangely missing from most if not all all international media coverage? No, it is probably not. What is abundantly clear, though, is that ADEMA, the party and its associated military and civilian politicians, who came to symbolise the beginning of the democracy wave in 1991, have had a heavy hand in shaping the decay and the corruption that have become the sad lamented hallmarks of this once (and so blindly) hallowed example of a functioning democracy. I have been blogging my own mea culpa in this respect more than once. 

Ségou, June 19th. pic: me.

So as we leave Corona behind, we can re-concentrate minds to the underlying isues that don’t kill you instantly but slowly: glaring inequality being the most prominent among them. One of the things I have finally been able to do is to start reading Professor Mahmood Mamdani’s study of how colonialism continues to shape the most uncivil administrations across the continent, the ones that are sustained with foreign money. It’s the turn of Malians to be angry with their particular variety of administrative indifference. Mamdani’s book is entitled Citizen and Subject and I want to return to this key issue soon. For even though the book focusses on countries far removed from the Francophone West African experience, it will have many things to say that resonate here, too. Stay tuned.

 

Border crossings: same country, worlds apart

January 21, 2020

Dakar’s old Leopold Sedar Senghor airport was an indescribable mess with poor to non-existent information for the travelling public, even fewer facilities, swarms of mosquitoes and chairs that were clearly designed to cause maximum spinal damage to the largest number of passengers possible. It was upgraded earlier this century and the situation indoors improved markedly. It involved monitors with flight information you could actually read.

One thing remained firmly in place and that was the scene outside.

Upon putting your nose out the door you’d be accosted by an army of hustlers and touts, all wanting to put their hands on your money by selling you telephone cards you didn’t want, change money you didn’t need or offer discount prices for hotels you had no intention of staying in. By far the most persistent lot were the members of – arguably – West Africa’s most tenacious taxi racket.

Having attached his person to you with indissoluble glue, a tout would not let go until you were ‘safely’ deposited in one of the ubiquitous black-and-yellow French or Japanese contraptions waiting in a badly lit parking lot (many flights had and still have the inconvenient habit of arriving very late at night). Objective attained, the tout, the driver, the person overseeing the running order, the person manning the entry/exit of the parking lot and anybody else who thought it necessary to stick his oar in were going to discuss the amount for which they were going to fleece you. Of course, there was a way around the scam, which was to just keep walking away from the airport building, in spite of the ever more insistent utterances and gesticulations of the tout who was seeing his cash dispenser disappear, and post yourself OUTSIDE the airport gate at the next crossroad, where you could pick up taxis for the normal tariff. It would happen, on occasion, that a member of the aforementioned taxi mafia thus scorned would drive up and stalk you equally insistently but would eventually get the message after hearing for the eleventh time that you had no need for his vastly overpriced services. With the new airport, that’s all gone and, frankly, it’s not being missed.

The old airport. Now a strictly military zone.

These days, you arrive at a magnificent new facility, the Blaise Diagne International Airport. (There were rumours at one point that it would be named after Senegal’s third president who started the project, Abdoulaye Wade, but that did not happen.) Entry and exit are remarkably orderly. Immigration? Walk up to one of the squeaky clean counters, hand over your passport. You’ll be asked for your phone number, you then place your fingers on the EU-funded scanners (the officer will kindly help you if you don’t understand how it works) while looking into a small camera, your passport gets stamped and off you go to the luggage hall.

Outside, there a just a few taxis, which stands to reason because the thing has been built some 50 kilometres away from Dakar – and you only have to make it clear ONCE that you are taking the very reasonably priced airport bus for just under €10 and away they go. There are, would you believe it, working ATMs. I feel a pang of wistful longing for the rattling, coughing, wheezing conveyor belt that would spew out your luggage at the old airport, permanently indicating that it was five seconds from giving up the ghost for good – but this particular brand of nostalgia never lasts longer than, oh, three seconds. I am a heartless b*st*rd. Sue me.

The glittering new hall of Dakar’s new airport.

The new airport is an oasis of smooth efficiency. Even when it went massively over budget (bit like the Amsterdam North-South underground, which may be the most expensive piece of pipe ever laid in human history) it is well-ordered and, what’s more: it is smack in the right place, roughly the equal distance from Dakar, the seaside resort of Mbour and the railroad centre of Thiès. Moreover, it is an integrated part of a gigantic urban development area called Diamniadio, previously an unassuming hamlet where two trunk roads met. I hope to be able to delve into that at some point in the future. Here are some impressions, from behind a very dirty window. Public transport, hey…

Diamniadio, under construction

Diamniadio, with Senegal’s ‘Emergence’ logo prominently on the façade. 

Compare and contrast this with the two main border crossings with neighbouring Mali, located deep in deepest Senegal. They are Kidira (the northern crossing) and a hamlet somewhere behind Saraya (the southern crossing). Saraya is reached after a smooth ride from Senegal’s ‘capital of the East’, Tambacounda, using a brand new road all the way to the mining town of Kédougou, a good 200 kilometres south. This is followed by another stretch, shorter but in really poor nick and bordering on the catastrophic the closer you get to the border. Once across, things get marginally better. The road takes you straight to Kita, a mere hop from Bamako.

The road between Tambacounda and Kidira currently looks like this. Now, imagine nearly 200 kilometres of that… True, this is the rainy season but those potholes don’t go away when the rains stop. Nothing could be further from smooth efficiency here! When you travel by bus (as I frequently do) you will almost invariably end up at the border in the dead of night, thanks to the bus company’s time tables. This road takes you to the hub of Kayes, and from there it is another truly gruelling 600 kilometres to Bamako.

It does not really make much difference whether you take the slightly larger post at Kidira or the smaller (slightly less unpleasant) post after Saraya, the ritual is the same.

Everybody files out of the bus. Outside is a policeman who will collect identity cards, loose papers and even a passport or two from the 70-odd passengers on the bus. He takes his haul into a open space adjacent to a sparsely lit building – and disappears inside.

And then, for quite a while: nothing happens.

Then, the door opens. Out comes another policeman with a stack of identity cards. These are usually the first ones to go. Now you have to strain your ears because he will call out the names of the owners of these tiny documents. Once. Rarely twice. If you miss it, you’ll have to wait until the whole not terribly merry crowd has been called and reclaim your card.

Once your name has been called you saunter, walk or strut (in an unexaggerated manner if you please) to the officer holding your card. If you are NOT a national of the country you are now leaving, you will be taken indoors and made to pay. (The same applies for the control posts inside any country, frequently referred to as “petit boutiques” by the travellers.) And even though I am subjected to exactly the same mediaeval treatment, I don’t pay. To some, this is passport privilege and I would agree. To the travelling public at large, this is an egregious dereliction of duty by taxpayer-salaried officers who get away with this behaviour because hardly anyone is supervising them, even less reporting them. But it is happening. Raising a stink about it will empty your pockets even faster and you may end up in jail. These uniforms are lord and master here and they have ways to remind you of that simple basic fact.

Of course, this practice makes a complete mockery of the idea that we are somehow in a free travel zone, as declared every so often by the assembled heads of state when they meet. The gap between their air-conditioned rhetoric and the dusty realities on the ground is staggering.

If people could afford travelling like this, they would, at the drop of a hat. Would you believe it…I wrote this ten years ago!

This happens everywhere and if you think for a second that this is a uniquely West African phenomenon, think again. These are humiliation rituals and the argument always used is that ‘the other side’ (in this case: Mali) started stealing from travellers first. How on god’s green earth are you going to build a thriving commercial region of some 350 million people, let alone continent-wide unity if you turn every single border crossing into a bloody ordeal? And that’s before we get to the next stop: Customs. They will take their sweet time checking every single item on the bus if they haven’t been paid off by the chaps running the bus operation…

I can guarantee you that when you are travelling on a bus you will spend at least three hours at every single border crossing like this: waiting. This was during the day, on the Mali-Senegal border, whilst travelling into Senegal. Do not make the mistake of pointing your phone at either an official building (recognisable by the national flag) or an officer. You will get yourself into colossal amounts of trouble for nothing.

This is a picture I took a little while ago in the delightful city of Marrakech. In the cramped worldview of those to the right of the political spectrum, the name of this city has become synonymous with the supposed existence of a Treaty that Opens All European Borders.

No such Treaty exists. The Marrakech Compact is a non-binding agreement aimed at what the United Nations term ‘safe, orderly and regular migration’. Nothing about present-day migration is safe, orderly or regular and this is mainly because the European Union and individual European governments want it that way. There has never been a European Open Door policy; the entire EU policy is built around this central notion: keep as many of them out. As my colleague Linda Polman outlines in her meticulously researched book (review coming up shortly), European governments, like the EU, have standing policies designed to make life for migrants and refugee hell on earth.

Unlike the EU, which allows for free travel within its space and tries to keep everybody else away from the Eurotables that groan under the weight of affluence, West Africa must sort out its internal travel woes first. When the Marrakech Compact was voted in the United Nations General Assembly, all nations from the region voted in favour with the exception of two absentees, Guinea and Togo. More importantly, ECOWAS, the union of fifteen West African nations ranging from heavyweight Nigeria to minnows like Gambia, Benin and Togo and everything in between, has committed itself repeatedly to free travel in its huge five million square kilometre space, allowing its 350 million inhabitants the pleasure of moving from Dakar to Niamey and from Abuja to Conakry, hassle-free. On current evidence, and in spite of all the declarations about free travel and trade, these freedoms only exist if you are prepared to fork out ridiculous amounts of cash (when you own a transport business) and allow your pockets to be picked if you are a member of the travelling public. Not only is this grotesque, it also ensures that West African consumers pay far more for a piece of merchandise than is needed.

The Falémé River marks the border between Senegal and Mali

Sure, the view is great. Now, how about turning these bright visions and vistas into reality. Hello ECOWAS: this is 2020 calling…you’ve got work to do. Clean up the borders!!

Elections in Gondwana

September 7, 2019

Journeys by bus take long in this part of the world. Not just because of the hours wasted crossing borders – each border on average takes hours – but simply because of the distances. Bamako to Cotonou is doable but will take a few days, require visas for each country I traverse (three or four, depending on the route) and fingers crossed that the border crossings don’t take three or four hours each. (Travelling on smaller vehicles will also help.)

Invariably, during these long trips we are treated to video. Yes, these are modern buses (made in China, thank you very much) with airconditioning set to an ungodly 17-18 degrees Celsius or less and retractable television screens, usually two.

Yep, these are the ones. Pic from Africa Tours Trans Facebook page. Taken in Bamako, before the Independence Monument.

When the screens come down from the ceiling, expect to be treated to any of the following:

  1. Video clips by popular artists. These can range from excellent to appalling. But that’s alright, usually the music bounces along happily and the journey gets a little less boring.
  2. Concert clips by big names, ranging from Oumou Sangaré to Salif Keita and many many more, with a surprisingly large number of clips from the inimitable Afrikafestival in the Dutch village of Hertme, which has a YouTube channel. (I’m preparing a radio story about this festival, coming up shortly…)
  3. Long, meandering slow-moving films, in one of the many languages spoken here and usually revolving around some village intrigue or other. A lot of these come from Burkina Faso, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire or Guinea. You also have the Nollywood variety, faster-paced and in English, a language most passengers between Bamako, Abidjan, Ouagadougou, Niamey, Dakar and Lomé do not understand, a fact that bothers precisely nobody.
  4. Other stuff. Thankfully, there has been a marked decline in the formerly ubiquitous US World Wrestling Federation (or whatever it’s called) with it fake stage “wrestling matches”, just as there has been an equally welcome decline in the formerly ubiquitous presence of the inexplicably popular Céline Dion on the buses stereo systems, which tend to come on as soon as a clip/film/other thing ends.

We now get Nigerian pop (confusingly called Afrobeats but otherwise very welcome with its laid-back flair), coupé-décalé (noisy and chaotic, a reflection of the place and time it comes from), plenty of classics and a lot of the here-today-gone-tomorrow variety that gets mass-produced everywhere in the world with the added annoyance that people’s singing voices get mangled by some software that seems to be deliberately designed to piss off as many music lovers as possible…

And then, occasionally, there’s a surprise. On a recent trip I was treated to a film called Bienvenue au Gondwana.

This may ring a bell for some of you. If you listen to RFI (Radio France Internationale) in the morning on weekdays, which I do regularly, you are likely to come across the voice of Mamane, a humorist/satirist from Niger. This voice, I will readily admit, is an acquired taste. It does not work for me; on the contrary: I find his vocal mannerism hugely annoying. He is better on the stage where he has a bunch of pretty good routines.

His tales revolve around an African country he invented, Gondwana. It has been run since forever and will forever be run by a figure who is only known as Président-Fondateur. You don’t have to look very far for models – think Félix Houphouët-Boigny and his more-or-less benign autocracy in Côte d’Ivoire, or the rapacious reign of Zaïrean kleptocrat Mobutu or indeed the recently departed Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his fear-based rule. The Président-Fondateur is a combination of these elements – we get copious amounts of posters with his face on it plastered all over the capital and we get scenes with opposition members who have been locked up. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; like a Big Brother his presence hovers over the nation but his is also a disembodied presence. He communicates to his subjects through a television station that is required to relay his message verbatim. Such as the announcement of an election date.

Mamane populates Gondwana with a merry cast of other characters and the inspiration for his radio talks usually comes from current affairs: some useless conference somewhere, talk of some head of state or other planning to rule for the rest of his life, a doctored election, a protest movement, sports events, you name it. (Yes, I sometimes do make it to the end of his mannered speeches…)

Gondwana virtually begged for cinematographic treatment and this happened a few years ago. I don’t think the finished product made it to many cinemas, which I think is a shame, having seen it now. I sat up as the bus rumbled along, hoping that we would not be interrupted by another corrupt control post and hoping that the apprentice, who runs the entertainment program, would not decide that he was bored halfway through and switch to another program. My prayers were heard; neither happened and I settled in for what was to be quite interesting and satisfying. Here’s the trailer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUCacy3ooQU

 

Gondwana: The Movie, shot in Abidjan, Yamoussoukro and Paris, is a series of stories cleverly woven into each other. A French (of course) politician/lobbyist/businessman sends one of the younger employees in his company to Gondwana, to be part of a very hollow ritual: the international observer mission to a national election. The elderly Frenchman will also be part of the delegation, not to observe, mind you, but to get his Gondwanean counterpart to buy the asparagus that are grown in his  constituency back home. There are other members in the delegation, including an earnest looking white woman – the European Union has an endless supply of them – and one black man who on arrival is separated from the rest of the delegation by two very rude policemen who simply do not believe that he is, also, an observer. Mamane gently inserts a good jab about internalised racism here.

Cut to another scene: the pointless ritual known as The Press Conference. The delegation has met the government and they have decided on what set of platitudes to deliver to the hacks in the hall. This time though, it does not go entirely according to plan, as a young activist stands up and delivers a speech denouncing the farce about to unfold. She manages to make her point before being hauled away by security and beguile the young Frenchman who starts to suspect that something rotten may be happening in the state of Gondwana. The elderly Frenchman wants nothing of it. After all, he’s not here to observe this circus, he’s here to sell asparagus.

Our young Frenchman finds his way to the underground protest movement, where we see cameo performances of two artists with a long reputation for their outspokenness: Senegalese rap master Awadi and reggae’s uncompromising Tiken Jah Fakoly. Then the protest concert is violently broken up by the police. Our Frenchman gets temporarily lost, manages to get himself rescued and on arrival back at the très très chic hotel where the delegation is being housed (of course) he is berated by the slightly sinister duo that was hired to not only lead the delegation quite voluntarily up the garden path but also pay and/or intimidate opposition politicians into going along with the game of the Président-Fondateur.

Oh and thank Heavens, or rather, Mamane: our Frenchyoungster and the extremely pretty activist do not fall in love; he clearly is besotted but she has her own love life, thank you very much.

Our young French would-be hero gets a little dressing-down from his minders. (Pic from the film review on the website 20minutes.fr)

Most of the characters remain fairly one-dimensional but together they give us Mamane’s mildly cynical view of how elections are run in a depressingly large number of countries; there is growing doubt, and in my mind correctly so, about the merits of the multi-party democracy formula that was essentially rammed down everybody’s throat when the Cold War ended and the West discovered the merits of “democracy” in its former colonies. Mali is an excellent example of this. The film also adds a few more examples of what I have previously called “white lifeforms” on the African continent. Because yes of course, the Frenchman gets to sell his blooming asparagus and of course the election-farce returns Président-Fondateur to power for another term. If you have a chance, go and watch it: a light-hearted look at a serious matter.

The Façade – Part 5 and end

May 23, 2016
A slightlycloser look at thew Henro Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned.

A slightly closer look at the new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge across the Ébrié Lagoon, the third in the city. Bridges Numbers 4 and 5 are reportedly being planned. Photo taken from the conference room of the Grand Hotel.

 

I will forever be thrilled by arrival in Abidjan, a metropolis I have come to adore over the years. It’s fast, it’s dynamic and it’s getting bigger, better and busier. At least, on the outside: more roads, more shopping malls, more high-rise office blocks, more flyovers, more luxury boutiques and fancy restaurants. But none of this can hide the staggering difference in standards of living that blight this giant city. You get a good hard reminder of that once you arrive in Abidjan’s main bus station – Adjamé.

Or at least: what’s left of it. It is just after 11pm when we pull into a section of town that looks as if some shacks have been dumped there from a great height. Where are all the old-fashioned, loud but rather well-organised garages that used to line the road here?

Gone.

In its place, a sinister new order, of which I become dimly aware once out of the gate of the enclosure that is home to the hangar where the bus has been parked. The building must sit right on top of a sewer; the stench is everywhere. As I approach the gate, I am told not to talk to anyone, except taxi drivers. The latter announce themselves either seated behind the wheel of their – invariably orange-coloured – Toyotas or pointing at their vehicles. It has been raining and there is no paved road; the “street” in front of the badly lit hangar is muddy, wet and slippery. I get accosted by a tall man as my luggage disappears in the direction of one taxi. Big head, unkempt hair, needs money. I give him my small change, a move that I will come to regret a little later.

‘Don’t use too many words here,’ says the elderly driver, as he tells me to get into the car. Only the most basic of exchanges will suffice. Another man needs a ride. Urgent negotiations ensue as the atmosphere  turns a shade or two darker. My taximan wants to know if I object to someone joining us. Of course not. An elderly gentleman gets in the taxi and we advance, retreat, advance, retreat in a maze of other taxis, saloon cars, buses, lorries, parked haphazardly (or so it seems) in the increasingly menacing darkness. Apart from the engine, there is no noise outside.

The driver, whose name is Moussa, appears to know where he is going while I feel we continue to move ever deeper into this otherworldly labyrinth. A few lone lamps; little islands of light in the otherwise impenetrable darkness.

‘Have you got some small change?’ he suddenly asks.

Damn! No. That’s with the beggar boy at the hangar.

‘I’m afraid I just gave away my last pocket money,’ I answer back when out of nowhere a fierce looking young man appears, armed with a large piece of wood and a mad glint in his eye. He guards an improvised barrier and wants 100 francs. 15 cents. He brandishes his weapon.

Moussa rummages around in his dashboard compartment while I look at the man with the club. It’s as long as his calve and as thick as a grown man’s thigh. If he weren’t lolling about on his feet, as I begin to notice, he would be able to do some serious damage.

Moussa manages to find 100 francs and I pass it on to our self-appointed guard. He lifts the rudimentary wooden barrier and we’re out.

‘What if you don’t pay?’ Moussa doesn’t even bother to answer the question.

‘There’s many of them. They have come here since the government cleaned out another part of town. They all use drugs. They form gangs. And now that the authorities have destroyed the bus station they’re all over this place.’ I will find out later that this particular gang guards all the entrances and exits of this bizarre transport maze and apparently make enough to finance their drug habits.

Adjamé’s former bus terminus is, for now at least, the place where the people go that the government does not want you to see. The homeless. The insane. The drug users. The drug pushers. And that’s not even mentioning the lads they call les microbes, violent young criminals like their colleagues in the North of the country. They have established a reign of terror in Abobo, another one of Abidjan’s sprawling suburbs. How many of them have been active participants in Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict? Hard to tell but their existence is a major problem, primarily for Ivorians themselves. After all: visitors rarely see beyond the façade; they don’t go there.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

Abidjan Plateau, the Façade in all its glory. Picture taken from behind the open air theatre at Treichville, accross the lagoon. The structure in front is the roof of that theatre.

The pretty façade of Abidjan – that is the picture the current government would like you to retain. This is relatively easy when you get your visa electronically through a company run by one of the president’s business friends, get whisked around the town in a luxury car – I have seen stretch limousines cruise here, the ultimate sign of decadence and stupendous self-indulgence – and sleep in one of the luxury hotels dotted around town.

The leading clan loves its glitz and its glamour. Last March, the Children for Africa Gala Dinner (for the charity of the same name run by Côte d’Ivoire’s First Lady) and the African CEO Forum were star-studded events with celebrities, high profile politicians, captains of industry, diplomats – all present in numbers. A few dead people on the beach, as occurred on March 13, will not change the mood: Chinese, Turkish and increasingly also American and British businesspeople are joining the Ivorians, the French and the Lebanese already there. They all share Abidjan’s absolute obsession with making money. But the powder kegs are there for all to see, of one bothers to look: the deprivation, the corruption, the failed (and some would argue not even attempted) national reconciliation, the failure to punish the criminals on the winning side for crimes committed during the 2010-2011 conflict, the blatant inequality. That façade can easily be smashed up again if these things are not addressed instead of being swept under a thick red carpet for the happy few.

There are many mad guys with giant clubs. There are at least two politicians (one in a jail in The Hague; another in Yamoussoukro and one step away from the presidency) with proven track records of turning random men with clubs into militias, decked out with better kit and something resembling an ideology. Sweeping mad men with clubs up from one place and dumping them in another, as current government policy seems to be, does not make them go away. In all likelihood, they get ever madder. And get bigger clubs.

The Façade – Part 4

May 21, 2016
Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. The line you see on the left is the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country's second president, still active in politics.

Another view from the green-tinted ADB Tower. The Mosquée du Plateau in the front; the large suburbs of Marcory and Koumassi are in the background on the other side of the Ébrié Lagoon. Accross the Lagoon on the left: the brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge, named after the country’s second president, still active in politics.

 

‘All phones off! All of them! Anyone who does not understand French? I will repeat it again. All phones off. You will be checked as we continue. No phone use until Bouaké. Does everybody understand? Phones off until Bouaké!!’ The gendarme walks down the aisle of the bus and wants to see all the phones.

The reason? I ask him.

Security. Or the lack thereof, rather. Bouaké is a mere 300 kilometres away, a trip that will take us seven hours because of the utterly pathetic state of the road. There are so many potholes it looks like the thing has been bombed. Perfect ambush territory and apparently there are still plenty of bandits about. A common practice is for accomplices on the bus to tell them where the rich pickings are; hence the phone ban. Only when you are in uniform can you loot with impunity in Côte d’Ivoire. But who are these bandits?

They are another part of the fallout of Côte d’Ivoire’s political turmoil. The military aftermath of the “post-electoral crisis” of 2010 – 2011 has been and continues to be utterly shambolic. A huge number of things that should have happened to Côte d’Ivoire’s fragmented, haphazardly composed and notoriously ill-disciplined military, has failed to materialise. The government, the United Nation’s inadequate mission (does it have any others these days?), international donors – all can take the blame for the fiasco.

What should have happened is this. Between 2002 and 2011 there were two armies in Côte d’Ivoire. There was a government army under the command of the then president Laurent Gbagbo and there was Soro’s Forces nouvelles (Fn) we discussed in the previous instalment. After the 2010 presidential contest that pitted the incumbent Gbagbo against candidate and eventual winner Alassane Ouattara, the Fn aligned itself with the latter for complicated personal and political reasons. This upset the military balance between the two (the whole story is infinitely more complex but that is for another time).

These were by no means the only armed groups around. There were pro-Gbagbo militias, the com’zones in the North had their private armies. Then you had the remains of a Gbagbo-supported gang (called MODEL) that invaded south-eastern Liberia to remove president Charles Taylor. There were also the traditional hunters (known as “dozos”) and a host of freelancers, mercenaries and “young volunteers” from Burkina Faso, Guinea, Liberia, South Africa and heaven knows where else. The point is that all these groups and gangs and militias and mercenaries should have been properly disarmed. Following that, a national army, with a clear recruitment structure and hierarchy should have been established. This has not happened. Especially worrying is the fact that there remains a sizeable chunk of arms outside state control and there are of course people who know where to find them – and how to use them.

The bandits in the North could have been from any of the above categories but it stands to reason that they used to belong to Soro and the com’zones. (Soro and the Com’Zones – is there a band name in there somewhere? Anyway, moving on…)

Accounts of the numerous attacks against private vehicles, minibuses or indeed bigger ones like this bus we’re traveling on, have pointed at the military-style operations these criminals employ to get their loot. And that’s why the phones are off until Bouaké, testimony to the monumental failure of the government to sort out its military.

The region were are traversing is also becoming a fall-back position for new Malian self-declared jihadist forces. And mind you, at this time we were completely unaware bullets would be raining on a beach outside Abidjan just a few days later.

The gendarme was a pleasant enough fellow and he told me, on arrival at Bouaké, that he wished the situation were better but all he could do was to prevent anything bad from happening, whilst being fully aware that he’d be the first to take a bullet for the passengers’ safety. I thanked him for his work. Bouaké itself was a good surprise: alive and in much better shape now than during our last visit, six years ago. The rest of the trip, from there to the capital Yamoussoukro and the economic hub Abidjan was a breeze. On a brand new six-lane road. With the phones on.

 

Last installment about Abidjan itself, coming soon.

The Façade – Part 3

May 18, 2016
Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul's Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

Abidjan, Plateau, from behind the green tinted windows of the entirely refurbished Africa Development Bank headquarters. The white structure in the middle belongs to the St. Paul’s Cathedral, built in the first half of the 1980s.

 

Between 2002 and 2011 the North of Côte d’Ivoire was the playground of a group that grandiosely called itself Forces nouvelles (Fn). Their political leader at the time was Guillaume Soro, a young and extremely wily political operator who in perfect tandem with his old brother friend and now enemy Charles Blé Goudé turned the country’s student union (known as FESCI) into a violent militia and went on to expand this model across the rest of the country.

When Fn ran the North it had a single business model: loot. Nobody made his own money doing something productive. The region was carved out into zones, over which presided military commanders. They became known as com’zones. When I visited the area in early 2010, with photographer Martin Waalboer, we got our first glimpse of the Fn when they, cap in hand, walked through the train we were travelling on, asking for money. The second impression was that of Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire’s second city, largely lifeless, half boarded-up and in possession of a non-functioning economy. It did yield a ridiculously cheap rented car, though.

The third impression was that of arrogant indifference among the ground troops about the presence of two foreign journalists in their main fief, only matched by the indignant paranoia of their media chief who we finally got on the phone with the assistance of some local United Nations staff and who only wanted to know how long we had been there. Wise enough, we had decided not to do any work until the Fn chief of the media had barked a few orders down his mobile phone, whereupon our Fn media accreditation appeared pronto from a room at their Bouaké headquarters. Matters were, of course, not helped by the fact that we showed up shortly after another bout of violent rioting, which had rattled the leadership.

The fourth impression was that of fleecing. Anybody unlucky enough to have to live, work or travel in the areas the Fn controlled had their pockets picked. Sure enough, the chaps manning the roadblock on leaving Bouaké were in a good mood (and in stitches when, after passing the roadblock, we returned a few minutes later to tell them we had forgotten to buy petrol) – but pay them we did. As did everybody else. And the fifth impression was the desolate stagnation in which the entire region found itself, nowhere clearer than in another major town, Katiola, where the holes in the road were bigger than a regiment of SUVs and the public buildings appeared to be in varying states of decay. A strange state of affairs for a movement that claimed to have taken over this part of the country because it felt the “Northerners” had been systematically marginalised. If anything, the infrastructure that had been put in place in the first few decades of the country’s independence was decaying fast under their writ.

Between Blé Goudé and Soro, the latter has turned out (so far) the smartest operator. He is currently the president of the country’s Parliament while Blé Goudé, a key ally of former president Laurent Gbagbo, sits in a jail in Scheveningen awaiting the continuation of his trial at the International Criminal Court, for  alleged human rights abuses. Soro, meanwhile, could be heading for the highest post in the land, as early as 2020.

He is also the king of the next place we pass on our trip: Ferkessédougou. This town is doing rather nicely for itself thanks to the generous patronage from their illustrious son who has, according to reports, already had a conference centre set up with his name on it. No doubt he has helped himself to some nice real estate in the process. But at least in “Ferké” as the place is commonly known, there is some evidence of the reversal of the calamitous damage the Fn and its com’zones have caused in the region.

 

But what’s worse – they’re still around. Part 4 shortly.

 

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.

A perceptive 2015

December 26, 2014

het spookbos

One afternoon last May, I took this picture from the veranda of the charming hotel I was staying in Joal-Fadiouth, a few hour’s south of my former home, Dakar.

Looking at it on my laptop a few weeks later I was astonished. Surely, those trees were not there?

Evidently, they were. My memory was playing tricks or – more probably – I had not been watching properly. I toyed with the idea of calling the image “The Phantom Forest” but that wold be unjust to the baobab trees who have been there for centuries. (Not that they’d care much…)

And now I am in Ouagadougou, where a lot has been happening recently as the rest of the world was busing looking elsewhere – or couldn’t be bothered to look – or was in fact watching things but chose to ignore what was happening in front of its nose.

Reality, like those trees, does not care. My job is in essence to look, to look again, to look harder and then ask the inevitable question: ‘Have I missed anything?’

The answer is equally inevitable: ‘Yes, you most probably have.’

Here’s to a perceptive 2015.