Posts Tagged ‘youth bulge’

What’s ailing Mali ?

July 14, 2020

You may have seen the images of Mali’s capital Bamako: the fires, the running battles and the extensive damage. It is an explosion that has been long in the making. Last Friday’s huge demonstration, the third of its kind against the government of president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, elected in 2018 during an exercise the vast majority of Malians considered completely irrelevant to their lives, descended into violence that has yet to end and, according to hospitals in the Malian capital, resulted in 11 deaths so far.

Yes, it was long in the making because the causes are so well-known. Top of the list : a security crisis that began well before 2012 with the fallout from NATO’s disastrously criminal ouster of the Libyan leader Muamar Ghadaffi without having an exit plan, an act that pulled the trigger of what happened next.

For years Ghadaffi had been the very nice friend of European heads of state, especially since he stuffed his arsenals with well over one billion euros worth of arms, made in Europe. When Ghadaffi was deposed, the many Tuareg officers in his army departed with the contents of those arsenals and arrived in their native Mali early 2012, where they started an ill-fated rebellion that was soon overtaken by jihadist forces that Algeria had earlier thrown across its border into the vast desert space of Mali’s north. There was nothing to stop them; Mali’s army has to make do with kit that often dates back to the time when it was an ally of the former Soviet Union…

That security crisis is still with us and has mixed freely and unpredictably with organised crime, banditry and self-defense, rendering the north and the centre of the country both ungoverned and volatile. The numerous high-profile international interventions (France, United Nations, the regional G5 Sahel Force) notch up a success or two here and there but are in no position to put an end to the problem. The army is a demoralised mess and prone to human rights abuses, like most of the other actors in this drama.

The deeply detested Karim Keita (you guessed right: the president’s son) presided over the Parliamentary Defence Committee while he took an army plane to celebrate his birthday in a decadent Spanish resort, an event he has since downplayed. However, the images of a drinking and cavorting top official sticks in the craw of the many who don’t know if they can pay for their next meal. His extremely arrogant attitude (just follow his Twitter feeds) is emblematic of an elite that came to power nearly thirty years ago in the wake of a popular uprising against the repressive dictatorship of General Moussa Traoré but has presided over the descent of this country into corruption of both finances and morals. Keita Junior’s belated departure from the prestigious parliamentary post changes nothing.

The majority of Malians have no access to safe drinking water, health care that doesn’t kill you, quality education, reliable electricity, decent roads and working drainage systems. None of this bothers the clans in power, issued from that 1991 “revolution”, because they have their own water and electricity, they send their kids to school in Europe and when they fall ill there’s a flight to take them to a first class clinic in Rabat, Geneva or Paris. The system works for them – and nobody else.

‘They have failed and they have failed us,’ is a refrain you hear a lot when speaking with Malians about the parlous state of their government. But from the perspective of the elites and their – mostly foreign – supporters the system is working precisely as it should. International aid from banks and donor countries keeps them in power, as do the revenues from Mali’s gold mines that do not even improve the lives of those who live next to them.

In short, the idea that the current crop of leaders, essentially unchanged since 1991, will bring positive change in any of these areas has long since been abandoned. Hence the near-complete lack of interest in elections and the mass turn to Allah. Inevitable Islam – yes I wrote this six years ago and the trend has only intensified. It was only a matter of time before someone would appear on the scene who would personify the Islamic alternative to a morally bankrupt polity.

His name: imam Mahmoud Dicko and please take some time to read Bruce Whitehouse’s excellent profile of the man here. His movement, the rather blandly named Coordination des Mouvements, Asociations et Sympathisants (CMAS) is his still-discreet-but-soon-overt political vehicle. A former Prime Minister, Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga, whose dismissal Dicko engineered called him “a hybrid”, a man of God playing politics.

But Dicko can marshall crowds tens of thousands strong, although he has been accused of paying the owners of Bamako’s ubiquitous Sotrama minibuses good money to ferry demonstrators into town, mirroring the practice of paying voters CFA2000 (just over three euros) for the promise to support such and such a politician. Whether or not these accusations have merit, the grievances are too numerous and too deep to dismiss these mass gatherings as simply rent-a-crowd.

Bamako, and if my sense of direction is anywhere near accurate, this is close to the Second Bridge, which demonstrators blocked off. Picture retrieved from the website of Anthropology professor Alain Bertho. Link here: https://berthoalain.com/

Last Friday’s was the third one. The pattern is always the same: mass open air prayer, long speeches denouncing the government, followed by nightfall and increasingly violent riots. This time, irate demonstrators attacked the building where the National Assembly (Mali’s parliament) exhibits its expensive futility and the national television ORTM, where the state broadcaster obediently broadcasts government propaganda. There was looting, fires were started, bridges across the Djoliba (Niger) River were blocked and then the embattled security forces took aim at the angry crowds with live ammunition. Deaths ensued.

This was inevitable, for it’s not just widespread anger and frustration. The many large and impoverished neighbourhoods in Bamako are filled with disenfranchised, disenchanted young men, permanently bored witless. I have written about them before. This is the demographic permanently left out of the high-flying development discourse, the group that finds out pretty early on in life that nobody has any time for them and that they’re on their own. When they hear about a big anti-government demonstration, they do not hear political complaints; they hear an invitation to pick a fight and loot businesses. In short, they copy the behavior of the clans that rule them – but in a more direct manner. It’s mainly because of them that Bamako, over the weekend and even today, resembles a battlefield.

None of the actors present here has a workable solution. The president has offered the option of a Government of National Unity, which may or may not come about, as regional and international mediators fly in to put an end to the crisis. However, the international community is widely regarded as being in cahoots with this discredited regime. Besides, president Keita is very likely to hold on to power – whatever the scenario – until it is time to go in the manner approved by said international community: elections, which, once again, hardly anyone will bother to attend. Imam Dicko, if ever he declares his intention to run for the presidency and gets elected, is likely to turn the country into a state under de facto Islamic rule. The youths who now so enthusiastically follow him will not enjoy living in a land without music, videos, drinks and sex for very long…

And finally, there is doubt whether Mali can survive or whether it even exists as a unitary state. Parts of the north have been self-governing since 2012, a situation that angers many. Other parts of the north and the centre are steeped in anarchy and uncertainty, as criminals attack homes, businesses and buses and militias stalk the land while they murder, steal, rape and pillage. And that’s before we even get to talk about the regions that are supposed to be inalienably part of this vast land but where recent demonstrations have highlighted local grievances. In Kayes and Sikasso people took to the streets to protest against the terrible state of their roads and other basic services, even when their regions provide the gold (Kayes) and some of the food (Sikasso) that keeps Bamako on its feet. Another former Prime Minister, the relatively young and sharp-tongued Moussa Mara made this point in a public speech about two years ago when he said (and I paraphrase): everyone is looking at the north and the centre. Nobody is looking at places like Kayes and Sikasso where there is a groundswell of dissatisfaction at the lack of any tangible development.

The problem is not the north, or the centre, or any other region. The problem is Bamako and its aloof, self-serving elite. As the slow but probably unstoppable disintegration of Mali continues, the elite is currently being served notice. Is the situation insurrectional? I don’t think so: there’s widespread dissatisfaction but no revolutionary fervour. Could the army step in? Given the extremely unhappy memories of the last coup eight years ago this is unlikely. No: Mali will be very likely be muddling through, as it has done for quite a while now. Depressingly, there is at present little else on offer.

 

The last light out or the first light in?

December 29, 2019

There’s a bunch of things I could not do this year.

One of those things is happening as we speak: I should have been at the second round of Guinea Bissau’s presidential elections.

But I’m not, for a highly familiar reason: ambition outstripped means.

As Boxer (remember him?) would tell himself: “I must work harder.” This 21st Century version grumbles to himself: “Yeah – and stop faffing about on social media all the time if you please…………….”.

In 2020 I shall become rich.

One can dream…

I report from a region that may be entering its most crucial decade since the majority of its constituent countries gained their political independence, some two generations ago (Liberia excepted; it got there earlier). The challenges are legion. The ambitions to deal with them not always in evidence. And the means, the resources…?

We’re not getting the full picture.

A friend who visited Bamako recently was surprised at the number of new vehicles on the streets. Sure enough, the vast majority of ordinary citizens still have the choice between their motorbikes, armies of sturdy vintage Mercedes taxis (painted yellow) and the ubiquitous battered green Sotrama minibuses. All share the ambition to defy the laws of gravity – all lack the means. So they stick to defying the rules of the road instead: biking around town – with or without an engine – is akin to being in possession of a permanent death wish. (I had a few escapes this year, including the moment when out of nowhere a two-wheeled missile appeared, rocketing through a red light, missing me by an inch and – of course – very annoyed that I had had the very bad idea of being in his way. A simple short courteous nod of the head from both sides diffused the situation.)

It’s the Bamako way.

A Bamako sunset.

But yes – those new vehicles. There’s a surprisingly large number of them. Which seems to suggest that in spite of the many problems besetting this country, wealth continues to be accumulated. Bamako today feels a bit like Luanda in the 1990s: a bubble where folks can continue whatever it is they are doing – living, working, partying – unperturbed by what’s going on a few hours’ drive away. And what is going on, is horrifying. 

Death is stalking the land and nowhere more so than in the border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Who are its agents? What we read is: ‘terrorists’. Or ‘bandits’. They call themselves ‘fighters for the True Faith, or similar.

They are almost always young men. And the greatest risk is that they will come to regard their exploits in the same way those young former fighters I interviewed years ago, in Liberia. They often said that after the war they considered themselves unemployed.

Language matters a lot here. Sowing death and destructing, looting and pillaging was considered ‘work’; invading a defenceless village was equated to being on ‘a mission’ or ‘an operation’, in which the motto invariably was: Pay Yourself. I bring this up because I am hearing that the self-styled jihadists who are sowing death and destruction in three Sahel countries are getting paid for their ‘work’.

By whom?

That is what we all desperately would like to know.

Not in the clear…

A host of theories have been launched on that now fully discredited system of deliberate misinformation, formerly known as the social media. Some believe it is France. Others think the source of misery must be located around the Gulf. The truth, if I may be so bold, is most likely a lot closer to home. While there may well have been an inflow of money into these arenas – from European powers that paid for the release of their citizens taken hostage in the desert and likely also from the Gulf – it looks as if these armed groups are increasingly capable to survive without outside assistance. You must understand that we are dealing with a much scaled-down economy here. In a non-urban setting, people survive on very little and there are sources of income available that can more than adequately cover the basic needs of a relatively small armed gang. Including arms and ammunition.

Artisanal gold mines can be exploited.

Protection money can be arranged with transporters, traders and other businesspeople – or politicians and even army brass.

And in addition:

The travelling public can be robbed.

Cattle can be stolen and sold.

Shops can be raided and their contents sold.

Property looted and sold.

Homes broken into; possessions sold.

Taken together, that’s a cool amount of loot to be taken and monetized. And if, as the fear is now, these gangs move south, into the much richer coastal states, the amount of stuff to be grabbed increases dramatically.

Big coastal cities…are they really heading there? Yes, say some experts, and you’d better be prepared.

This, to me, has little if anything to do with the adherence to an ideology, or a religion. What we are looking at here is a series of criminal enterprises that was triggered into acceleration by a previous criminal enterprise: the France – UK – US – NATO–engineered toppling of the consummate opportunist and geo-political survivor from Libya, Moamar Khadaffi. Read well: this act was not at the origin of the problems in the Sahel – Wahabist meddling in the region, for instance, goes back at least 60 years as does the economic, political and social marginalisation of the people living there – but it did something crucial: it provided the catalyst.

And what is the answer to the ensuing mayhem? This is where the question of ambition and wherewithal comes into play again. The money does not go where it is needed  – as anecdotally evidenced by those vehicles I mentioned earlier – and as far as the protagonists are concerned, this is perfectly fine. Irresponsible politicking takes precedence over serious counter-action. Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire are only the latest examples of this but the very same can be said of the three Sahel states.

It resembles the mood in Monrovia when a certain Charles Taylor took 150 men across the border from Côte d’Ivoire into Liberia at Buutuo on Christmas Eve 1989, and used the BBC Africa Service to announce to the world that his intention was to march onto the capital. Six months later he was there. Nobody was prepared. 25 years later, another threat, in the form of a disease, started in the remotest areas, far away from three capitals (Monrovia, Conakry, Freetown) and was not taken seriously in similar fashion until thousands were dead. Is history repeating itself, once again? Looks like it…

It’s begun. (Source: French ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Neither in the capitals nor in the capitals that support these capitals does there appear to be a sense of real urgency. Sure, there are the obligatory strong-worded declarations from the regional G5 Force Sahel. And there are similar declarations at UN meetings.

But doubling down on the military option has had limited and often questionable results. Twitter recently circulated imagery purporting to show dead ‘terrorists’. There were about a dozen bodies in the picture, taken in northern Burkina Faso. They were all young men, dressed in the same way you see young men dressed in many places across this region: simple (T) shirt, threadbare trousers, flip-flops. Were these the dreaded terrorists that the army had killed? I saw poor, marginalised (and now dead) youngsters who may have succumbed to the siren call of those selling the benefits of banditry with the snakeoil of religion.

Expensive foreign-owned drones will not persuade them to change their ways. Neither will expensive foreign-run operations like Barkhane. Nor will any of the plethora of hearts-and-minds programs. Seen in isolation, they are pointless. Seen in combination, they become an exercise in hypocrisy: you wish to change people’s minds by telling them to be nice? While bombing them to hell? That worked miracles in Afghanistan, did it not?

What will change minds in the villages and towns across this vast land is the tangible reality that their inhabitants have a stake in their country. They currently do not. For some, guns now provide a temporary purpose in life, as they did in the wars of the 1990s. But what is the ultimate aim, beyond survival? I don’t think there is one. Some of their leaders might be dreaming of a caliphate, while they actually create a Boulevard of Crime – just like Charles Taylor rebranded the extreme looting spree he initiated as ‘The Revolution’.

He’s looking on. On Avenida Francisco Mendes, central Bissau, close to the Parliament building and the country’s most expensive hotel.

Yes, it’s all stuff and nonsense. But absent anything else, especially a legit economic activity that will provide people with the means to have an orderly existence, the gun will have to do. You counter this problem by turning the Sahel into a zone that has economic viability without crime. And you use smart human intelligence to find the gang leaders and put them away – preferably for good.

True revolutions were led by people like Amilcar Cabral, whose thoughts have as much relevance today as they did half a century ago. And as I sit in this dust-filled office mourning my absence from the country he founded, where today’s election will decide the difference between stagnation and (some) hope to progress, I can but reflect on the extent to which those who followed in the footsteps of the early firebrands have squandered what was given to them. Let’s be clear: that squandering often happened with the active assistance of external powers: the two sides on the ‘Cold’ War and/or the former colonial powers. But ultimately, the blame must be laid where it belongs: at home, at the feet of those who did the squandering.

What is happening in the Sahel today simply confirms the dictum that you reap what you sow. Even better, paraphrased: this is what you reap when you don’t sow. The message emerging from the mayhem in the Sahel is squarely directed at the political elites.

Shape Up or Ship Out.

This problem is far from over. Tackling it head-on means starting where the roots are. And since roots are local, they can be found in the red earth of this region. That’s where the search for a solution begins. If it is then found that there are local and/or foreign actors standing in the way – they must be told – and made – to leave.

Have an excellent (or at least a slightly less insane) 2020.

Orientations

March 22, 2019

This is a picture I took a few months ago in a Ségou hotel.

There’s a lot to see here.

The “motos” parked to the right are pretty much Mali’s standard urban mode of transport, topped (in Bamako at least) only by the ubiquitous green minibuses called “Sotrama”: relatively cheap and always packed. The buses have attracted an industry that now consists of drivers (of course), apprentices (for seat distribution and payment of fares) and an army of young men, some just boys, who dash dangerously across Bamako’s busy crossroads dodging cars, lorries, swarms of motos, cyclists and other Sotramas as they watch, eagle-eyed for potential passengers – and all this work for a tiny fee.

Move your regard from the motos to the door, and you will see two signs of the Castel beer brand. Castel is part of the empire of Pierre Castel, the 90-plus years old tipple tycoon, who runs his vast and mostly African empire from the company’s headquarters in Toulouse. Castel is part of a small but powerful bunch of (often family-based) French businesses that work in logistics (Bolloré), construction (Bouygues) mining (Orano) or sell mobile phone services like France Telecom, which owns the Orange brand. And that’s before we get to Total, the largest oil major on the continent.

Castel pretty much owns the Malian beer market, as it does in neighbouring Burkina Faso and much elsewhere in officially Francophone Africa. It has a real fight on his hands in large and relatively rich Côte d’Ivoire – with Heineken. Mali drinks beer in impressive quantities but this is often done at home. However, you can also find it in hotels, in those basic but friendly watering holes that are called “dépôt” and in many shops – even in most of the big supermarkets run by ostensibly pious Lebanese businessmen. Money talks and alcohol sells.

But things do grate at times. Look to the left of that door, across from the parked motos and you will find, gently sloping against a wooden cupboard, a prayer mat, an indispensable item in every Malian household. Of course, Islam forbids the use of alcohol but in real life you will find that the majority are definitely familiar with it. This is rarely a problem, since West Africa, which imported this religion from the Middle East gave it a uniquely tolerant, flexible and cosmopolitan swing. Mali is about 95% Muslim but – to give you just one other example – Malians resort to consulting a traditional seer at the least sign of trouble.

But there has been an intermittent culture war going on between the “flexible” and the “precise” interpretations of Islam,* which goes back centuries. It has been brought into sharp relief following an Arab oil money-fuelled construction wave that involved erecting scores of Wahabi mosques across the entire Sahel region and beyond. Wahabism is the state religion of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; its narrow-mindedness and its proselytising zeal are matched only by the televangelical priests from Texas who have been poisoning public debate in East and Southern Africa. Wahabist missionaries have been doing the same in West Africa.

*Dutch readers may recognise similar interpretation battles going on four centuries ago in the Lowlands’ Protestant Church between the “rekkelijken” and the “preciezen”

You’ll be hard pressed to find a Bamako street with no mosque

One of the most contentious issues in this public debate is about and around sexual orientation. Christian and Muslim fanatics have been hard at work to limit the societal space available to people who do not conform to their society’s mores, already conservative, since they prescribe that sex happens between and man and a woman and preferably with the objective to create offspring. Gays and lesbians and people who self-identify in still other ways have been threatened, harassed and beaten up in Uganda, Senegal, Cameroon and indeed Mali. Even murders have occurred. This is done in the name of religion and both USA and KSA-based ultra-conservative excruciatingly intolerant varieties have a lot to answer for in that respect. Sometimes the violence of intolerance is perpetrated in the name of what is referred to an “an authentic African culture”, which, in point of fact, used to have room aplenty for people who fell and/or felt outside the heterosexual norm – until colonial laws shut that space down. And, irony of ironies, sometimes violence is visited on gays and lesbians in the name of the anti-colonial (i.e. anti-Occidental) struggle. I have heard all three varieties.

Yes, this is a very muddled, very complex mix in which peoples’ personal lives clash with religion and its various interpretations, traditions new or invented, the colonial heritage and…the inheritors of that colonial heritage.

Have a look at the banner in that first picture. It’s hanging on the wall, left of the beer signs. It announces a workshop. One of the main sponsors is the Dutch government and the main content provider is the Rutgers Foundation, a well-respected organisation in The Netherlands, where it has done work in promoting knowledge about sex, and sexual and reproductive rights. The workshop is about how to integrate Complete Sexual Education into Mali’s school curriculums. (I’ll not go into Mali’s ongoing education crisis – that’s yet another story.) It has the endorsement of the Ministry of Education, which sends an envoy on a courtesy visit.

Complete Sexual Education. Pretty uncontroversial stuff, you’d say. After all, donor-organised workshops are a dime a dozen. No, far from it in fact.

As the workshop went on, I watched from the nearby hotel terrace and saw men coming out of the conference venue and spending inordinately long amounts of time on their prayer mats. With hindsight I get the impression that those long sessions with the Supreme Being served to perhaps purge something from the system. For a myriad of reasons, homosexuality is regarded extremely negatively in Mali and indeed in many other parts of the continent, and frequently connected with the presence of foul, decadent, white, colonial men – in fact, when visiting Cameroon I was told various times that the current crop of unaccountable leaders running the country into the ground were all gay: they had been groomed before independence by the French to ensure that an invisible gay cabal of Freemasons would hold the reigns forever. This rabbit hole goes very deep indeed.

So, unwittingly, a well-meaning but culturally out of its depth Dutch NGO was fuelling something nobody was able to control before to long. Someone got wind of the Complete Sexual Education plan, it was then splashed all over the social media and then into the streets and the word was: “They” – it’s always “they” – have come to promote homosexuality. Never mind that your sexual orientation is something you are born with and cannot change; you can no more “promote” homosexuality among people than you can get a polar bear to eat mangoes.

Never mind any of that. The stream soon swelled and the “scandal” became unstoppable.

And at the end of it all, the plan was put in a drawer and forgotten.

The end?

Not quite…

Enter: Mahmoud Dicko, the Wahab president of Mali’s High Islamic Council and one of the most influential men in the country. On the second Sunday of February he managed to shut down most of Bamako and get a 60,000-strong crowd in the nation’s largest stadium, named March 26, after the day when a peoples’ uprising and the decisive military coup removed the strongman Moussa Traoré from power in 1991. Powerful symbolism that.

March 26 was the day “democracy” was supposed to have come to Mali. In its wake, a plethora of NGOs, the whole alphabet soup, moved in following a slew of eager donors wanting to spend money. Lots of it. Here was Mali, a new donor darling, fresh from the clutches of dictatorship, ripe for the picking and a welcome target for what can only be described as another mission civilisatrice. Yes! I know! Practitioners from the field will howl and bark and scream at this notion but for the sake of clarity we need to be brutally honest here.

The development effort is the orphan of decolonisation and it has to be regarded in this fashion. The “locals” have done so from the Year Dot. To them, aid is another foreign busybody coming in to teach them something they probably already know, except this time they are not armed with Berthier guns but laptops and don’t arrive on horseback but in air-conditioned FourWheelDrives. For the recipients, these differences are mere details. And now these same people are at it again, this time “promoting homosexuality”.

So what happens in the stadium? Imam Mahmoud Dicko marshalls all this resistance and resentment and calls for a law banning homosexuality. That goes down pretty well, as do his denunciations of corruption, nepotism and the rampant lack of security in large parts of the country. The rhetoric is compelling: the Malian government and its decadent Western backers dabble in the “promotion” of deviant sexualities while the country burns.

Bingo. That was the easy part. 

Dicko’s Achilles’ Heel, however, is that he does not remember where he should draw the line. So he overplays his hand and demands the resignation of the Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maïga. Now he’s gone too far. The trick is no longer working: you can denounce a distant and decadent government in thrall to the West and its sexual peculiarities (as most Malians see it) but as a religious leader you don’t get to play politics. Because there’s another thing Malians know about their imams and their helpers: they are as venal and corrupt as the people supposed to govern them. Murders have happened over business deals gone wrong in mosques and not so long ago a close aide of one Bamako imam was apprehended for producing arms without a license. Maïga had the easiest of tasks replying to Dicko, calling the stadium rally “theatrical” and referring to Dicko as “a hybrid person,” someone who plays religion and politics at the same time. Dicko 1, Maïga 1. A draw.

So – it there a takeaway from all this?

I doubt it. Except, perhaps, the things we already know or should know. Namely, that nothing on this continent is ever easy and that every “simple” solution from a peace-keeping mission to a development program will inevitably crash on the hard rocks of the daily realities and old customs whose existence is all-too-frequently denied. And that resentment about the descendants of former colonial rule (and being white sufficiently qualifies you for that), together with conservatism on the one hand and a despairing lack of perspective on the other, together with the condescending attitudes of those flying in to “study the natives and then improve them” will result in the development effort being seen as a resource, or something that must be thwarted – or a mere background annoyance.

The only thing that works is: come over, you’re always welcome, be quiet, listen and listen well and only then decide if you have anything to add to the society that is not yours in the first place to conduct your social experiments in. Not rolling out your program is an entirely legitimate choice.

 

A plea for accuracy – 2

December 6, 2018

Here’s part Two, then…

 

In this ruinous context, two ideologies vied for supremacy, both initially against the capitalism that had been the main cause of this violent catastrophe. But while one – Socialism – preached the wholesale smashing of the system through solidarity of the working classes, the other veered in the opposite direction and became Fascism, a reference not to solidarity but the exact opposite: circumscribed unity and power, intended to exclude. Its symbol became the tightly-knit bundle, fascis, in Latin, the language of Ancient Rome.

What, if anything, can we say about Fascism, looking at its behaviour while it straddled the political landscape of two European countries? Banning explains.

First, Fascism rejects parliamentary democracy. Even though it may come to power in a more or less democratic context, the minute it arrives, democracy gets tossed in the bin. Which brings us to the second key feature.

Fascism is not merely dictatorial, it is profoundly totalitarian. The locus of power is The Party. The Party dominates life and has a symbol of its power: The Leader. Loyalty and obedience to both are non-negotiable. Fascist parties in Italy and Germany maintained their own militias to suppress dissent, used secret police to terrorise the population. They had no hesitation to bring swift and extreme violence to bear on anyone perceived a threat. All of these were highly visible early on, while the parties aspired to grab power for themselves.

A gathering storm

Third, and as an extension of that violent totalitarian practice, Fascism has one way and only one way to resolve the problems it is supposed to address. The twin problems in Europe at the time were mass unemployment and widespread pauperisation in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. The solution was, inevitably, War. Italy and Germany created industries that gobbled up the jobless and spewed out war machines that were subsequently used in the areas considered ripe for conquest. And of course, you could get rid of your excess youth (young men, essentially) by sending them away in huge numbers and hoping – or making sure – most of them never came back. The machine was unstoppable until the rest of the world assembled an even greater force and took them on.

Central to fascist organisation is the State, which in this model serves the Party. Only the State can enforce discipline on an entire population, unleash terror on a massive scale, assemble an army and organise the nation’s economy around the war effort. And only the State is large enough to roll out the totalitarian program across all spheres of life, as demanded. The State made workers, soldiers, politicians, educators, media workers, trade unionists, lawyers and judges, even scientists and the clergy bow to the will of the Party. Those who refused found themselves locked up in a police cell, a torture centre, a concentration camp or simply disappeared, never to be seen again.

But where should they bow? What the hell is the idea?

That’s for the next installment.

Les Coxeurs

May 30, 2015

It must have been fifteen years ago, or thereabouts, when I first made contact with “les coxeurs”. Or more precisely: they made contact with me.

My taxi was approaching the sprawling bus station of Adjamé, the busy hub that connects Abidjan with other parts of the country. It being hot and humid, the windows were, of course, open. Perfect opportunity for a young guy to earn a few cents. He stood by the side of the road and spotted, hawk-eyed and unfailing, me and my luggage in the taxi. Made a beeline for the car and stuck his head as far in as possible.

First. And he is not going to let go. There are scores of young men – always young men – like him and the competition is merciless.

‘You’re going where’?

By this time you, the passenger, must have an answer prepared or have made good friends with the taxi driver so that you will find your bus station with a minimum of stress.

My destination was Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire’s slightly weird but extremely charming capital. And I knew the name of the company that was going to take me there. So the answer was simple: ‘Thank you very much. It’s all been arranged.’

Do not, under any circumstance, make the mistake of releasing any more information than that. Anything that goes beyond a simple, accurate but necessarily incomplete statement of fact is an open invitation for le coxeur to enter into a prolonged phase of negotiations, during which nothing you say will made the slightest blind bit of a difference because his only objective is to earn a few cents. From the conductor for bringing in a passenger. And from you because he will be carrying your luggage while still fending off the competition.

‘You’re going with them? No good. I know a better company.’

‘Is that your destination? I know the company that can take you there.’

‘No, it’s not that way. The buses to [insert destination] are over here.’

‘You want to take that bus? No but that one has already left. Come with me.’

The repertoire is inexhaustible, while you, the passenger, are not. Anyway, I made it to the terminus of the UTB, l’Union des Transporteurs de Bouaké, one of the largest and best in Côte d’Ivoire and having left les coxeurs behind I could now mentally prepare for the fourteen, fifteen, sixteen road blocks ahead that were sure to make this otherwise pleasant 300 kilometre trip a sheer hell of exhaustion and harassment by what’s known as corps habillés. Uniforms. A lot harder to shake off.

*

Today, as the population grows and the supply of work does not keep pace, les coxeurs are everywhere. I saw them at work in Bamako, where they, hawk-eyed and alert, observe taxis coming in from a major intersection. Their targets have to wait for traffic lights before they can make their turn towards the station and then they must wait for the endless stream of mopeds to end. Meanwhile, the young men beeline their way to you, at considerable risk to themselves because traffic is fast and brakes are rarely applied, even less so for pedestrians, et alone young men, who are, as we should know by now, disposable. [links here]

Most of them are in their Twenties. Badly dressed, wearing very old slippers (not helping when you do this kind of work) and barely literate. But they are fast and strong: speed and muscle, it’s all you need in this business.

Young, poverty-afflicted men, never figure in any state plan for “development”. They do not exist in the policies of the development industry that has been blighting this continent for more than half a century. So, at a very early age these young men learn an indelible lesson: you’re on your own. Fend for yourself. Which they do, efficiently and if necessary, ruthlessly. Here, as shouters and haulers of passengers, there as petty criminals, elsewhere as the easily recruited (money!) security detail of some politician or religious leader, yet somewhere else as passengers on a bus, a lorry or a boat to a place that will bring work, or, ultimately, with guns and knives in the gangs of criminals that devastated parts of West Africa in the 1990s and are currently wreaking havoc in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and elsewhere. The boundaries between these categories are thin. But the main actors all have the same thing in common: a relentless entrepreneurship, whether we like it or not. They never mattered to us; we do not matter to them.

*

At one of Bamako’s large roundabouts, the one that has the iconic Africa Tower in the middle, a bus was waiting to fill up. It took two hours. I know, because I was on it and we had left the station with barely ten passengers. Les coxeurs did their job; of course they do not limit themselves to bus stations, wherever there is a crowd waiting for transport – they’ll be there.

 

Fisticuffs broke out at the end of those hours. It was time to get paid. Driver and conductor were dishing out some notes. 500 francs. 80 cents. Unlikely to go to any of the young men individually. They will have to share. But lets be charitable and say that they were fighting over about 200 francs each, barely enough for a bowl of rice with nothing else. There may not be another opportunity today. Or maybe there will be. But you cannot be sure. You live another hour.

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.

Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo wins (1)

March 25, 2011

Time to tackle this one.

We have seen this before.

A republic holds presidential elections. Someone wins – someone else loses. If the opposition candidate loses, he’ll shout “fraud” and “rigged” but will, most likely, cut his losses, move on and try again. That’s the Cellou Dalein Diallo approach. He lost last year’s contest in Guinea, declared he was unhappy with the outcome but would accept it. He is busy readying his party for the upcoming legislative elections because he intends to fight the winner, Alpha Condé, from Parliament. (Next week, I will (finally!) be travelling through his home area and catch the prevailing mood.)

If the incumbent loses, there are various scenarios. Some, as in Ghana, Mali and Zambia accept their loss and move on. But there are others who want to perform, what one may term, “a Mugabe” on their countries. There are variations to this plan of action but in essence it means: do absolutely everything to stay in power. After all, you will be safe in the knowledge that at the end of the day, no-one will stop you.

Laurent Gbagbo and his clan are currently in the business of “doing a Mugabe” on their country, Côte d’Ivoire. The parallels are striking. Like its counterpart in Zimbabwe, the Gbagbo clan

…Sits atop a large and well-organised political machine (Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Popular Front) – Front Populaire Ivoirien, even the names are the same), whose express purpose it is…not to contest elections but to win them

…Has considerable popular support but this may not be enough to win elections every single time. After all, political sands do shift from time to time. So the clan…

…Participates in elections but has absolutely no intention of accepting the results if they go against it

…Has a war chest of considerable size, in case things do not go the way of the clan. This war chest permits them to pay those who are keeping them in power (see below). The war chest is filled through looting – principally their own country – and donations from friendly rulers with track records they can relate to and preferably a lot of oil money (Angola, Venezuela, Libya)

…Resorts to asset stripping and seizing profitable economic activity if the war chest shows sings of distress (banks and cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire; diamonds and the 51% indigenous (read: clan) business ownership rule in Zimbabwe)

…Has three essential pillars in place that allows the clan to stay put if it has run out of sufficient political support: propaganda, intimidation and violent repression.

1. State-owned media become relentless propaganda machines. In Zimbabwe, the Herald newspaper and theZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation) can be relied upon to obediently and dutifully copy the output emanating from the president’s office and/or the minister of information; in Côte d’Ivoire that role is played by the television signals and the website of RTI, Radiodiffusion et Télévision Ivoirienne). Invariably, some of the propaganda has xenophobic overtones: in Zimbabwe, the official fingers jab constantly at “The British” and occasionally Indians – in other words: everyone who does not look sufficiently African. In Côte d’Ivoire, the principal targets are the neighbours, mostly Burkinabé (portrayed as “mercenaries” or “rebels”) and sometimes the French. Pogroms are common.

Which brings us to number 2.

Green Bombers

2. Vigilante groups are turned loose on the streets. They have an unspoken but well-understood mandate to harass, brutalise and kill those who are perceived to be on the side of “the enemy” (Zimbabwe had its war veterans and its Green Bombers, young thugs trained (frequently against their will, by the way) to brutalise the people in special camps; Côte d’Ivoire relies on its Jeune Patriotes, led by Street general Charles Blé Goudé, who has recently enjoined the youths to join the army. This, incidentally, ties in very well with a mini-series I ran here, called “Relentless Trends”. It’s simply the latest version of how a society, any society, makes use of a surplus of young men that are idle and without a future: send them to war. And so, on to 3.

Jeune Patriote

3. The army (and if need be praetorian guards and other militias) are used to suppress any popular challenge to clan rule. These troops are there to kill. Unarmed civilians, real soldiers, it makes very little difference.

 

Anyone inside and outside the country who calls the clan on its behaviour will be called a stooge of the West, a spy, or member of a conspiracy at the behest of the former colonial power. This gives the vigilantes and repression forces the mandate to pursue and preferably kill the owners of the offending opinions. Some publicists who fancy themselves “intellectuals”, or worse, “journalists” are perfectly happy to justify extrajudicial killings and mass violence against unarmed civilians, as long as their right-on anti-imperialist credentials remain intact. Not infrequently they vent their considered opinions from the comfort and safety of homes located in these vile imperialist hellholes.

Alright, so what does all this have to do with the title of this piece? Simple – the method works. Would the other side be any better? Doubtful. More anon.

 

Relentless Trends – 4 (some more brief thoughts)

January 20, 2011

What would the observer of demographic trends I cited in a previous post have to say about this? In spite of Gunnar Heinsohn’s statement that the birth rate in North Africa has decreased dramatically, UN Population Fund statistics cited in Jeune Afrique this week (the paper edition) say that in the Maghreb about one-third of the people are under 18. Median age of the population: between 26 and 29. So: what do they do?

They leave. They say “there is nothing for us here”. (I remember reading a report about young men hanging around the streets of Algiers, capital of Algeria, whose catch-all phrase was: “Rien à signaler”. Nothing to see. And worse: nothing to do.)

They revolt in Algeria – again.

AND! They throw out a deeply corrupt and deeply unpopular government in Tunisia. One can always hope they get something better.

These events seem to confirm the idea that demographics tell an important part of the story – but not all of it. But yes, demographics play a role and these events in the Maghreb do not take anything away from the main premise, which is this: a society with a surplus of idle young men is a society heading for trouble.

The folks who run these societies have the same options their European colleagues had between the 16th and 19th century. Create work for them. Get rid of them (which basically means: send them abroad or send them to war – and here is one late but particularly egregious example from Europe. Or prepare to be hung drawn and quartered…

One thing is certain: studiously ignoring them is most decidedly not an option. That is very much a post-war Western response, witness for instance the total absence of this demographic from the groups “targeted” by the aid industry (and I will have more to say about that in a future post…). Nor is sticking one’s head in the sand, which this regime appears to be doing

Is history really that repetitive? Seems so. Or as Vonnegut wrote in his epic “Slaughterhouse Five”: so it goes.

Relentless Trends – 3. What have we got here…?

January 9, 2011

The Mourides are Senegal’s most influential religious brotherhood, founded late 19th century in the holy city of Touba, by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a cleric whose teachings were strongly anti-colonial. The French sent him into exile for his troubles.

The Grand Mosque of the holy city of Touba

Today, the Mourides have become a business empire that encompasses international banking, wholesale, retail, petrol products and transport, to name a few. There are other brotherhoods as well but they none are as influential as this one. This also applies to politics. They have the ear of government.

Baye Fall before the Grand Mosque. Photo from anonimundo blog

The Baye Fall were established by Ibrahima Fall, with the explicit permission of Amadou Bamba. These were their values in the beginning: be non-materialistic, hard-working, pious – and musical. Cheikh Ndiguel Lô, for those versed into music, is a good example: a quirky, very laid-back man and a fine musician. He is Baye Fall. So is Carlou D, formerly of Positive Black Soul, who starred in the Sahel Opera a few years ago and last year released a truly wonderful album called Muzikr (a play on words, incidentally: zikr is the religious chanting you can hear all over Senegal).

Carlou D in fine form at the 2010 Hertme Afrikafestival. (photo: Bram Posthumus)

If you hear a zikr on the street, accompanied with the trademark clang of money in a calabash – that’s a Baye Fall. It’s an old ritual: religious folks giving some of their piety and spirituality in exchange for victuals. It  is practiced in India, Europe – and Senegal. But it seems that there is a tendency among some that makes a mockery of that old practice.

Picture this scene. A car moves slowly into the street. Zikr reverberates from two giant megaphones, attached to the roof. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Then they move in: large strides, robes aflow and clanging calabashes. They fan out across the street, stop cars – if the drivers don’t stop they pursue them; they move up to people and no longer ask for money – they pretty much demand it. Simple tradespeople, shopkeepers, children, mothers, they really cannot miss a hundred francs but awkwardly give in. Ten minutes on, the invasion has passed.

Something  jars between the original mission and this temporary takeover of a whole street.

 

Baye Fall in Saint Louis, September 2009. (Photo from gosong.)

 

Every September, thousands of Baye Fall occupy the centre of Saint Louis, and not all inhabitants are happy with this: they consider it an invasion. Ostensibly, the march on Saint Louis is in memory of a minor historical event (a religious leader refused to show sufficient deference to a French governor) but the real reason is simple: they do it because they can.

Now – let’s return to those demographic statistics: Senegal is overwhelmingly young and urbanising fast. If one subscribes – even only in part – to the youth bulge theory, a few uneasy questions must begin to be asked. Is this one of the many ways in which essentially redundant men create a niche for themselves, in a society that has no room for them? Then it’s a case of tough luck: if your environment constantly reminds you that you’re on your own, then said environment must not complain if you create your own…

And that opens the next set of questions. Does the state, or more to the point, do the religious leaders in this land have an opinion about this? And if they do: do they condone this kind of behaviour? How many steps away from not just demanding money but simply no longer taking “no” for an answer? And short of sending them packing, what other solutions may there be for the excess young male population?

Answers NOT on a postcard. There are no quick fixes. The West is very unlikely to have any answers to a problem that has ceased to exist, even in its collective memory.

Relentless Trends 2: surplus men and jobs

January 7, 2011

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

West Point, Monrovia. Photo: Martin Waalboer

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

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

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

Jobs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about that, tomorrow.