Book review: Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”

Book review

If you’ve ever written a book about Guinea-Bissau, you will know that popular interest in this remote little West African country is scant. Your oeuvre is unlikely to be spotted flying off the shelves of WHSmiths, even less likely to feature prominently on airport bookshops’ lists of Great Holiday Reads. The few journalists who write about the place trot out the old saw about no president having completed his term in office, and then move on to less somnolent parts of the continent.

But Guinea-Bissau, as a few eminent Africanists have noticed, provides an instructive example of how the survival into the post-colonial era of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s extractive political and economic institutions continues to impede Africa’s development half a century after independence. Among these Africanists is one of the most brilliant of them all, Patrick Chabal, whose Africa Works is an essential read for anyone trying to understand how and why so many of the continent’s Big Men have endured in power for so long. Chabal also wrote extensively on Guinea-Bissau, including a biography of one of the Big Men’s nemeses, Amílcar Cabral, who after leading his country to independence from Portugal would become another of Africa’s doomed figures of hope.

Patrick Chabal died before his final work could be completed. But ‘Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”’, co-edited with another Guinea-Bissau enthusiast Toby Green, is a worthy handing over of the baton (disclosure: Toby kindly reviewed and provided a blurb for my own, less academically rigorous book on the country). The book’s ten chapters, written by an assortment of academics from Guinea-Bissau, its diaspora and elsewhere, provide a thorough and clearly argued analysis of why the country remains one of the poorest in the world four decades after shrugging off the colonial yoke; of why it has been subjected to such venal leaders (most notoriously the thuggish Nino Vieira); and of how foreign meddling during and after colonialism contributed to the hollowing out of the institutions of government, exacerbated local ethnic and religious divides, and weakened this primarily agricultural society’s resilience. Continue reading

Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long: Continue reading

Can Empowered Cities Save Fragile States? My article on Lagos in the NYT

Lagos,_Nigeria_57991Nigeria is arguably the worst run of the world’s seven most populated countries. Despite earning hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue over the past decade, it is expected by 2015, by some calculations, to have the second-most destitute people in the world after India. But its largest city, Lagos, which until recently was known as one of the world’s most difficult cities to govern, seems to have turned a corner. As I argue in a recent article in the New York Times, one of the chief reasons for this better performance is the nature of incentives that elites and politicians face: Continue reading

The African Exodus: A View from the Ground

 busstation

Sunday’s El País carried a surprising article detailing the increase in immigration from Africa to Spain in the past two years.

Although Spain is in the midst of a debilitating economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of over 27%, the number of would-be migrants crossing the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco in the first quarter of 2013 has quadrupled compared with the corresponding period in 2012. Alarmingly, the proportion using inflatable rubber dinghies – the kind your kids play on at the beach – has risen from 15% to 90% in the past year. These dinghies are designed to be used by two people, but in the Strait they are often intercepted with up to ten on board (Spain’s coastguard has yet to hear of one that has completed the fourteen kilometre journey – the lucky ones are rescued before they sink). In Morocco, the market in these vessels is thriving – a 2-3 metre boat that can be had for €300 in the Spanish beach resorts will set you back over €600 in Tangiers.

This continued flow of migrants from Africa to Europe gives the lie to the “Africa Rising” story peddled by some Western media outlets of late. Although GDP is growing in many parts of the continent, most Africans see nothing of this. The millions who have migrated from villages to cities in search of a better life too often end up with nothing to do, and in their desperation are forced to look further afield, to Europe, for a way out of poverty (as the chief prosecutor in the Spanish port town of Algeciras noted, ‘many people would love to have our crisis’).

While researching my new book, The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries, which as well as analysing the great social upheavals the developing world is going through as it modernises is an attempt to give voice to the people experiencing these changes on the ground, I observed this frustration at first hand. The population of Bissau, the capital of the tiny West African nation of Guinea-Bissau which was the first stop on my trip, has quadrupled in the past thirty years. Whole villages in the interior have emptied out as the land has become too crowded to farm and the lure of modernity entices people to the cities. My wife Ebru and I spent a few weeks in one of Bissau’s poorest districts, where, as the excerpt below shows, urbanisation’s losers face a constant dilemma over whether they too should undertake the perilous journey to the West:

Since there is no power and the heat quickly rots anything perishable, Bissau’s residents must lay in a new supply of food each day. Every morning, therefore, we walk down the paved but potholed road that leads from our bairro to Bissau’s main market at Bandim. The market is a labyrinth, its narrow dark lanes winding between rickety wooden stalls whose tin roofs jut out threateningly at throat height. A press of brightly-dressed shoppers haggles noisily over tomatoes, onions, smoked fish and meat. The vendors know their customers – you can buy individual eggs, teabags, cigarettes, sugar lumps and chilli peppers; bread sellers will cut a baguette in half if that is all you can afford; potatoes are divided into groups of three, tomatoes into pyramids of four; matches are sold in bundles of ten, along with a piece of the striking surface torn from the box. In the days leading up to Christmas and New Year, which all Guineans celebrate regardless of their religious persuasion, the market is crowded and chaotic, but after the turn of the year, when all the money has been spent, it is empty and silent.

Only the alcohol sellers do a year-round trade. On a half-mile stretch of the paved road there are thirteen bars or liquor stores. They sell cheap Portuguese red wine, bottled lager, palm wine and cana, a strong rum made with cashew apples. Bissau has a drink problem. Its inhabitants’ love of alcohol is well-known throughout West Africa. Back in Senegal, a fellow passenger on one of our bush taxi rides had warned us that Guineans ‘like to drink and party but they don’t like to work.’ Later in our trip, on hearing we had spent time here, Sierra Leoneans would talk in awed tones of Guineans’ capacity for alcohol consumption. The liquor stores near our bairro are busy at all hours of the day and night. Christians and animists quaff openly, Muslims more discreetly.  Continue reading

No power? No computers? No smartphones? No problem. Blogging by blackboard in Liberia

How a Liberian uses low-tech to solve his community’s information deficit:

Many people in the West African city of Monrovia can’t afford to buy newspapers or electricity to access the internet, so Alfred J Sirleaf had to come up with a way to bring information cheaply to the people. He believes a well-informed people are the key to Liberia’s rebirth so he’s been providing valuable news every day on a huge blackboard in the centre of town. For local news, he relies on a team of volunteer reporters who come to him with stories, while for international events he goes to an internet cafe. Then, in the newsroom, a small wooden shed attached to the back of his blackboard, he updates The Daily Talk with chalk.

Via The New Zealand Herald

West Africa: piracy’s new frontier?

News is emerging that an oil tanker has been hijacked off the Nigerian coast. This appears to be part of a growing trend, and one that was predicted in these pages four years ago (even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle). Back in December 2008 I wrote of the attractions of West Africa as a venue for piracy, suggesting that its coast ‘has many of the elements that make Somalia a good spot for a bit of buccaneering – rank poverty, lots of underemployed young men, unstable governments, endemic corruption and favourable geography.’ If ships start going the long way round the Horn of Africa to avoid the East African coast, I added, ‘they might be in for a nasty surprise when they reach the opposite side of the continent.’

A few months later I posted this map published by the International Maritime Bureau, showing the global distribution of pirate attacks in the first part of 2009:

You need only compare this with the IMB’s latest 2012 map to see how rapidly the industry has expanded in West Africa:

The Enemy at the Gates

On a beach in Málaga the other day I asked a Senegalese handbag seller if the collapse of Spain’s economy, whose effect on business has made life increasingly difficult for the many African hawkers who work the sands of the Costa del Sol, had prompted him to consider returning to his native land. ‘No,’ he replied without hesitation. ‘Things are bad in Europe, but they are much worse in Africa. Unless you’re related to a government minister you can’t make a living there. People say Africa is improving, and there is a lot of money there, but only those in power see any of it. Everybody else is still poor.’

Bafflingly, the number of sub-Saharan Africans trying to breach Spain’s defences has mushroomed in the past few months. According to El País the number of migrants amassing at the border between Morocco and the Spanish North African enclave of Melilla has quadrupled this year from a rolling average of about 250 to 1,000. Only last week a group of 450 stormed the six-metre high fence that separates them from the country of their dreams; sixty made it through, and are now beginning the long struggle to find themselves a place in a rapidly shrinking economy.

Those who fail to make it over the fence either flee to the wooded hills overlooking the border or are arrested and taken in coaches to eastern Morocco, from where they begin again the gruelling slog towards Europe. Life in the border forests is hard. The Moroccan police, says El País, have stepped up their searches, rounding up hundreds of hopeful young migrants in recent weeks. Those who slip through the net, fearful of capture and the beatings that accompany every arrest, ‘no longer go down to the market in Beni Enzar at the end of the day to scavenge for scraps of food among the rubbish. Nor do they dare go to Farhana to beg for money and food, or to the springs for water…Survival has become very difficult.’

Spanish and Moroccan officials are perplexed by the sudden increase in numbers. Among the former are some who attribute it to deliberate laxity by the Moroccans, who they suspect of allowing more migrants to gather at the border in order to extract funds or some other political concessions from the Spanish government. Others ascribe the increase to the unrest in the Ivory Coast and Mali, and it appears that a large proportion of those camping out in the forests are from those two unstable nations and from impoverished Niger and Burkina Faso, which are struggling to deal with the fallout from their neighbours’ troubles.

Whatever the reasons, and despite the economic turmoil in Europe, the desperation of those who reach the border shows no signs of abating. ‘Even if it takes ten years and I have to live in this forest for those ten years,’ one Ivorian told El País, ‘I will make it into Melilla.’ A young Burkinabe, meanwhile, who has so far spent eight months sleeping under the trees and living on what he can find in rubbish bins, was equally vehement: ‘You say that Spain’s in crisis? That Europe’s in crisis? Africa’s worse than in crisis; it’s dead. My grandfather was poor. My father was poor. My mother was poor. I am poor. Whatever the crisis in Spain, I can’t imagine it can be any worse than what’s happening in my country.’