Travelling in style

We achieved the record for a ‘sept places’ (seven-seater) the other day. This is considered the most luxurious form of transport in this part of West Africa. It consists of a Peugeot or Renault estate car slightly modified with an extra row of seats where the boot should be. It is designed to seat seven plus the driver.

If you are seated in the front or middle rows, it is fairly comfortable, provided of course that you don’t object to clouds of dust billowing in through the uncloseable windows, chickens pecking around your feet, or spray from the driver’s spittle occasionally flying in your face.

If you are seated in the back, however, it is less luxurious. You then have to choose either to bend your legs double in front of you so that they are folded tight against your chest (and these cars never stop during the journey, so your knees may be folded for seven hours straight, as mine were on our first sept places journey), or to put your legs on the floor and instead have your head rammed up hard against the metal ceiling. Shifting from one buttock to the other, moreover, to avoid contracting haemmorhoids from the rock-hard seats, is impossible – there is no room.

The middle row is only comfortable, of course, if the driver sticks to the 7-person limit. Often, however, he cannot resist the temptation to fit a few more in. Sometimes there are four people in a row designed to squeeze in three, turning the sept places into a neuf places. This is uncomfortable, but not the worst of all possible worlds.

The other day our driver allowed no less than 16 passengers (plus 3 chickens) into one of these cars. There were people standing up! They were leaning from the rear row over the middle row, where Ebru and I were seated with three others and the chickens. Astonishingly, nobody complained when we stopped to let in more passengers – when there are fourteen of you in a car designed for seven, after all, a couple more bodies doesn’t make that much difference.

The driver was not satisfied with our discomfort. He decided to make the journey even more challenging by giving us a demonstration of his driving skills. He seemed to have only recently passed (or bribed his way through) his driving test, for he looked extremely nervous. Sweat poured down his long hooked nose from under his white Muslim cap. He gripped the wheel tightly, and hunched over it to be closer to the road surface. Then, every time he reached down to change gear, he lost control and the car veered into the middle of the road. This behaviour provoked some complaints from the passengers; we were lucky the road was virtually deserted, so that when he regained control of the wheel we were still intact.

Near the end of the journey, a rotund, stern-looking woman passenger asks him to stop to let her out. “Where?” he asked. “At the mango tree.” The road is lined on both sides, as far as the eye can see, with mango trees. “Which one?” asks the hapless driver, gripping the wheel and staring intently ahead. “That one there, straight ahead,” the woman replies, tutting at the driver’s stupidity. He keeps driving, bemused, sweat pouring down his black robe, until she shouts, “This one! Stop!” We screech to a halt, and are down to a more comfortable 15 again…

On the web: the EU diplomatic service, reacting to terrorism, the state of liberalism, and fiscal cuts…

– Writing in E!Sharp magazine, David Charter examines some of the contentious debates surrounding the shaping of the new European External Action Service (EEAS). Jan Gaspers, meanwhile, suggests that the EEAS will mark the “real vanguard of a stronger EU in international affairs”, and given time could pose a significant challenge to national diplomacy.

– Bruce Schneier offers his take on the reaction to the attempted Christmas terror plot. “The problem”, Schneier argues, with the solutions being proposed (full-body scanners, passenger profiling, etc.):

“is that they’re only effective if we guess the plot correctly. Defending against a particular tactic or target makes sense if tactics and targets are few. But there are hundreds of tactics and millions of targets, so all these measures will do is force the terrorists to make a minor modification to their plot.”

[…]

“What we need is security that’s effective even if we can’t guess the next plot: intelligence, investigation and emergency response.”

– Elsewhere, Samuel Brittan, argues in favour of taking a “fresh look” at certain liberal values – “[h]owever difficult it is to define a liberal”, he suggests, “it is not hard to spot anti-liberals.” John Gray, meanwhile, explores the relationship between neoliberalism and state power, suggesting that “[t]he consequence of reshaping society on a market model has been to make the state omnipresent.”

– Finally, the FT’s Gillian Tett has an interesting piece on the potential social impact of fiscal cuts and the implications of this for bond markets and national standing over the next decade.

Adieu Guinea-Bissau

And so we move on from Guinea-Bissau. The journey to Ziguinchor in the Casamance region of Senegal passed without incident, although reports of the road from here to Gambia are less positive, with the separatist rebellion hotting up in recent months. Have decided to hole up here for a while to write – although Ziguinchor is surrounded by trouble, the town itself is well protected by army roadblocks and appears peaceful.

It was strange and slightly sad to leave Guinea-Bissau, a difficult, testing little country that somehow we’d grown to like. You can learn a lot about a place by leaving it. Although itself one of the world’s poorest nations, Senegal is affluent compared to Guinea-Bissau. It has buildings of two storeys. Some even have three, four floors! Its markets have piles of food rather than just scraps. There are factories, cash machines, bookshops! People in boats are made to wear life jackets. There are tourists, and the incessant hassle from hustlers that comes with them. Guinea-Bissau has none of these things.

Most amazingly of all, Senegal has electricity. You press a switch and a light comes on! Wonder of wonders! Fans turn instead of lying still. There are streetlights, so you don’t need a torch to pick your way through the potholes at night. Food is stored in refrigerators. Guinea-Bissau, whose lights went out in 2003, has none of these things.

But I’d take Guinea-Bissau over Senegal any day. The people are friendly but not overfriendly. Foreigners are left in peace. There is solidarity among Guineans, too – despite its poverty, there are far fewer beggars there than in Senegal, and far fewer people yearn to make the dangerous trip to Europe. Guineans who are in trouble can turn to family and friends for food and shelter, and they are ridiculously generous even to wealthy strangers like us. And despite its governments’ venality, the country is at peace, and its people have hope for the future.

I myself am less optimistic than many Guineans. The drug trade (of which more later), an over-reliance on cash crops, an over-hasty rush to the cities, and the clash of generations are likely to put a brake on the country’s development, while it may not always remain unaffected by the instability of the region as a whole. On the next stage of my journey, I will find out how it compares with Sierra Leone, and then Burkina Faso. It should be an interesting ride.

Guess which is the sole UK non-profit on Iran’s blacklist?

December was a veritable smorgasbord of top 10s of the decade, top 100 foreign policy intellectuals and what have you, but now that the new year is underway, it’s clear that there’s really only one list to be seen on: the Iranian government’s new blacklist of  60 external organisations that it’s banned its citzens from being in touch with.

Some of the organisations on the list are just as you’d expect: the Open Society Institute, Freedom House, or Human Rights Watch.  Most of the big US think tanks are there, too: Brookings, Aspen, the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Enterprise Institute. The New America Foundation’s call for a grand bargain with Iran has pissed them off so much that they put it on the list twice.

But only one UK non-profit organisation has made the cut – step forward and take a bow, Wilton Park!

Full list here.

Between a rock and a hard place

The next stage of our journey presents a dilemma. We have to get from Guinea-Bissau, where we are now, to Sierra Leone.

The overland route would be by far the most attractive option, but the violence in Guinea-Conakry, which lies between our starting point and our destination, rules it out. There is a very long overland route which bypasses Guinea, but which takes you through Liberia and Ivory Coast which, like Guinea-Conakry, are both on the UK Foreign Office’s blacklist of places to avoid (being on this list invalidates travel insurance, so if you fall ill or get shot or blown up, you will be skint as well as dead). There are no flights from Guinea-Bissau, so that leaves flying from Gambia or Dakar, Senegal as the only options (and you take your chances with West African airlines).

To get to Gambia or Dakar, however, is not easy. You either have to go by land through the Basse Casamance region of Senegal, where there has been a low-level but dangerous rebellion for years and where a 9-year-old girl was murdered by bandits a week ago and where gunfights between rebels and soldiers are common. Or you have to endure a gruelling two-day road journey east through Guinea-Bissau, up into Senegal and around Gambia to Dakar. We have done this journey once, and the idea of doing it again makes me suicidal. It too is not without risks, for the roads are atrocious and littered with overturned or burnt out vehicles.

So there is no easy option. The road up through Casamance is also on the FCO’s blacklist, although if we can make it the 18km to Ziguinchor tomorrow we can then ask in town whether it is safe to go overland up to Gambia. If it’s not safe, we can go by boat to Dakar (safeish if the boat doesn’t sink, as it did a few years ago). We have decided on the latter course, which means 18km of danger – approximately half an hour. Ziguinchor itself is quite calm and well guarded by police.

I will post again when we get to Ziguinchor. I have been reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life, where he got caught up and regularly fired on in the Angolan war of independence, as reassurance. This would have been a cakewalk for him.

The best news on climate change for months. Maybe.

And now for the good news on climate change. 

First, an excerpt from the New York Times yesterday.  We join Bono, a contributing columnist at the Times, as he’s setting out a list of 10 ideas that might make the next 10 years “more interesting, healthy or civil” – ideas which “have little in common with one another except that I am seized by each, and moved by its potential to change our world.” Here’s number 3:

In the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, it was no surprise that developing countries objected to taking their feet off the pedal of their own carbon-paced growth; after all, they played little part in building the congested eight-lane highway of a problem that the world faces now.

One smart suggestion I’ve heard, sort of a riff on cap-and-trade, is that each person has an equal right to pollute and that there might somehow be a way to monetize this. By this accounting, your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change (like drought), educate her kids and send them to university. (Trust in capitalism — we’ll find a way.) As a mild green, I like the idea, though it’s controversial in militant, khaki-green quarters. And yes, real economists would prefer to tax carbon at the source, but so far the political will is not there. If it were me, I’d close the deal before the rising nations want it backdated.

Bono just endorsed contraction and convergence – a big deal, for three reasons. Continue reading

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