Monday, April 06, 2020

The Mosquito Principle

"As they say, mosquitos don't discriminate... We're all singing the West Nile Blues these days. Some call it globalization; I know it as the Mosquito Principle."

— extract from The Books of Nima

Honam mu nni nhanoa
(Humanity has no boundary)

— Akan proverb

Takes behaviour to get along.
Lots of behaviour to get along.
Do you really, really know that?
Social Living is the best

Do you know?
Social Living is the best

Burning Spear - Social Living

II. Insatiable Appetites

"...Some have insatiable appetites & are never satisfied (politics?)."

Donald Trump ostensibly complaining about the governors of certain states, but perhaps rather projecting his impulses onto others. (April 2 2020)

The U.S. allegedly snatched a planeload of 60 million Chinese-made medical masks that were initially intended for France, a French official said.

"A French order was bought out with cash by Americans on the tarmac, and the plane that was to fly to France took off for the U.S. instead".

Snatched from the tarmac. (April 2 2020)
Yinka Shonibare MBE at Brooklyn Museum

We need the masks. We don't want other people getting them.

— Donald Trump, April 3 2020


Insatiable Appetites


The German capital ordered 200,000 special FFP2 and FFP3 masks that are used to protect emergency staff and care workers from infection with coronavirus.

Andreas Geisel, Berlin's interior minister, confirmed that the consignment had been “confiscated” in Bangkok and never reached Berlin.

"We consider that an act of modern piracy," he said. "You don't treat your transatlantic partners like that."

US swoop sees 3M masks allegedly diverted from Berlin (April 3 2020)

Yinka Shonibare MBE at Brooklyn Museum

— Scenes from The Berlin Conference of 1894
Scramble for Africa by Yinka Shonibare at Brooklyn Museum (2005) - credit: DK

III. Manifest Destiny

cecil rhodes astride africa

From Cairo to Cape Town, The Rhodes Collosus (Punch 1892)

"I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives...

We know the size of the world we know the total extent. Africa is still lying ready for us it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race more of the best the most human, most honourable race the world possesses."

Confession of Faith by Cecil Rhodes (1877)



The Modern Traveller by Hilaire Belloc

Surely our simple duty here
Is both imperative and clear;
While they support us, we should lend
Our every effort to defend,
And from a higher point of view
To give the full direction due
To all the native races.
And I, throughout the expedition
Insisted upon

To give the full direction due to all the native races - the modern traveller

              this position.

The Modern Traveller by Hilaire Belloc (1898)

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

John Kenneth Galbraith (1963)

The modern Republican Party is the result of collusion between a movement to take U.S. jurisprudence to the pre-Depression era, and a movement to take culture back to the pre-Enlightenment era. It is doomed because the latter would like a theocratic state to regulate culture, and the former want to smoke dope and look at dirty pictures.

Maxspeak Maxim IX, Max Sawicky (2006)

IV. The Mosquito Principle (Redux)

"You don't make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline"

- Anthony Fauci on the novel coronavirus

Later: "There is no region in the country, in my mind, that's going to be exempt from an outbreak"


If you win mainly by convincing THEM that they are losers, and convincing them to give up fighting — and all of us, not just Trump, do this sort of adversarial reality distortion to a degree — what do you do when THEY is a virus? What do you do when there are no credible substitutes?

— taken from a discourse on our current global narrative collapse in Plot Economics

See also: You Can't Gaslight a Virus

In these days of insecticides and drained swamps, those of us who live in the rich, temperate world have become accustomed to the luxury of not thinking very much about mosquitoes and the risks they carry. But the insects are still killing more than eight hundred thousand people a year, primarily in Africa.

How Mosquitoes Changed Everything

Item: The exact origin, locations, and natural reservoir of the Ebola virus remain unknown. Current suspicions are founded on cynomolgous monkeys, civets or bats...

Dig: The pressure of marauding warlords roaming the bush has forced many to start eating animals that had previously been left alone in the bush.

Ebola and Marburg virus musings in Angola

Europe turned into a petri dish and travel from there impacted the world, with its most damaging effect in Africa and Latin America. “The colonial legacy lives in viral movements. I wasn’t surprised that Belgian travel preceded DRC’s first known case,”

Coronavirus Started in China, but Europe Became the Hub for Its Global Spread
Walking the pets

V. Pandemic Toli

Mosquitos don't discriminate

Previously: "You welcome the US to the fun of the Third World" - West Nile Blues

Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract
— The Financial Times editorial page ostensibly advocating for social insurance and a rebalancing of modern economies. A Road to Damascus moment. (April 4 2020)

The mitigation strategies have varied throughout humanity's long shared history with malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. There has been genetic adaptation (sickle cell disease), the observation that colder climates are less hospitable to mosquitos, quinine from the bark of a cinchona tree, good sanitation, (of late) artemesin, bed nets and an entire panoply of public health measures.

Only occasionally do we get a glimpse of the universality of the struggle (see the spread of Zika that threatened Rio's Olympics, outbreaks of chikungunya, Dengue fever and the like). That's when you'd read: "The mosquito is ubiquitous... You don’t need to travel to get the disease". Consider also the spread of West Nile Virus in California that resulted from Delinquent Mortgages and Neglected Swimming Pools in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Collateral damage of huhudious financial malpractice.

Rapacious vultures at the Berlin Conference by Yinka Shonibare

Still, to a large extent in the West, a sort of natural equilibrium has been established, even as we operate elsewhere under Mosquito Rules. Structurally, malaria and other mosquito-borne dieseases have been contained in the First World through strenuous public health efforts. In the third world, however, mosquitos remain a poverty tax.

Diseases like Ebola that jumped hosts and spread disastrously in repeated outbreaks in recent decades are thought to be confined, to the global, poorer south. The 3 years of Ebola epidemic that affected 10 countries and decimated 3 countries that could hardly afford it (recovering as they were from gruesome civil wars) didn't make a lasting impression. Similarly SARS and MERS were big scares in recent memory but, at length, they too were largely contained. The West was largely unscathed fron the calculus of contagion.


Hilaire Belloc had keen insight about the complacency in the face of a common enemy, and the almost liquidationist impulse that drives the Social Darwinist attitudes, and Empire writ large. Think about the past several months squandered in the face of clear and present danger. The following panel perhaps captures the insouciance, and the attempts to deny, or cage, the dangers of the predator. Call it the herd immunity strategy.
Lions attack the modern traveller - p.50
The Lion never will attack
A White, if he can get a Black
And there were such a lot of these
We could afford with perfect ease
To spare one here and there.

It made us more compact - and then -
It's right to spare one's fellow men.

If COVID-19 is the pandemic disease of the moment, the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is just a virus; it is not a parable or extended metaphor. Like the plasmodium falciparum, and the mosquito that transmits it through its bite, this coronavirus doesn't discriminate. Whether spread by symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers, it is no respector of princes or prime ministers. It is oblivious to all boundaries, navigating between its unknown primary host (bats?), its intermediate hosts (say that initial pangolin or civet in the Wuhan wild animal market or that tiger at the Bronx zoo), and the human prey that it afflicts with COVID-19. It merely reproduces, evolves, and occasionally mutates its RNA as it navigates between hosts.

The current flight to safety in this covidious depression may be to US bonds - that, after all, is the financial norm that befits the US having the world's reserve currency. The literal airplane flights, and the longer-term larger scramble, however, may now be to China. The evidence is already there: if that Cairo to Cape Town railway is indeed ever built, it will be financed by China's belt and road initiative. In just a few more weeks, Wuhan province may well prove to be safer than New Orleans and Catalonia. Just weeks ago, African elites were precipitously withdrawing their children from European boarding schools. Thousands of Chinese students are yearning to be repatriated from the US rather than take their chances, uninsured in America where bad faith actors keep beaches open against all sense.

Rapacious vultures at the Berlin Conference by Yinka Shonibare

We are all passengers on cruise ships (operated by soon-to-be bankrupt Princess Lines, flying their Liberian flags of convenience). The underpaid crew (essential workers with compromised immune systems) labor to find a port of respite working with creaking infrastructure, hollowed by austerity policies, offshoring and deferred maintenance. We pray that we are being piloted by sensible Captains (no Ahabs or Blighs). Some of us, however, have been dealt the mayor from Jaws preaching herd immunity and necessary sacrifice, hucksters touting quack remedies, or contrarian chancers with no naval experience save navel gazing.

We are all rather wishing we were being steered by no-nonsense Taiwanese or Singaporeans crisis managers. At this stage, locked down and self isolating in windowless interior cabins, we'd gladly accept plane shipments of personal protective equipment from China or South Korea. We worry and look askance at Italian or Spanish tourists, and especially the quiet Americans (quiet, perhaps, in dismay at the observed competence of their political leaders measured in the mounting, grim body count). Africans facing the pandemic would gladly substitute the gunboat diplomacy of yore for Asian supply chain competence, German engineering efficiency, and a Danish social safety net. Such is life in a state of narrative collapse this season of coronavirus. Our lifeboats are soap and running water, face masks, social distancing and, in extremis, ventilators. We can't breathe.

By all rights, solidarity should overcome rapacious hoarding or looting. There are tensions between the demands of capital, labour and now public health. If power is never given up willingly, it is clear the costs of the pandemic we are facing are human lives, thousands already, and perhaps millions of them. There is a marketplace of ideas and cooperation, human ingenuity, and the systematic application of science and operational excellence ought to be our guiding posts, acknowledging our common humanity

There is an emergency on planet earth. As far as coping strategies go in dealing with the Mosquito Principle, I suggest we revisit The Great Game, eschew the insatiable appetites of Manifest Destiny, and embrace Social Living.

Soundtrack for this note

I give you fifty songs on the theme starting out with Burning Spear's take. He had it right: Social Living is the best. I'm also quite fond of Amel Larrieux's injunction to "tap into your magic" and D'Angelo's ecological lament, 'Til it's done.

Bonus playlists:
  • Manifest Destiny (liner notes)
    A soundtrack of irony
  • Insatiable
    You can't go wrong between Prince and Omar
  • Contagious
    From Taja Sevelle's infectious pop confection, Love is Contagious, to The Isley Brothers and Chanté Moore's soap opera (the record's producer is currently muted and worried about the coronavirus in federal jails), and The Whispers' shiny 80s electro-funk.

And the band played on...

This note is part of the Things Fall Apart series under the banner of Social Living.

Previously: Ode to Betty Brown

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Monday, October 07, 2019

Ode to Betty Brown

She overheard the name in Waitrose as she picked up the groceries. Betty Brown. She liked it; she adopted it. It was as simple as that. Betty Brown. The name said something, and there was a nice sound about it. After the attacks, what we read in the obituaries were those other names, those legal names, those names that had been quickly discarded in that moment at the store. Well, Betty Brown was how some of us first came to know her. And she was named in Waitrose, next to the row of tinned tomatoes.

Names were important where she came from so this wasn't a light step. It is a brave Ghanaian woman that discards the protection of the names given at her outdooring. The new name was a touch of whimsy - like a Betty Blue or even a Betty Boop, and it fitted her laugh. Call it the reinvention aesthetic. And cathartic too. It was something to hold onto as the hard knocks kept coming, for, truth be told, there was much to forget in her past.

That whimsical name was the detail I returned to when she died on that Seventh of July, blown up on the Number 30 bus in Tavistock Square. And here I should pause a little and try to forget that awful day, for my aim is not for a lament, rather I need to conjure an ode.

Betty had an uproarious laugh, so infectious that you wanted to hear it all over again, and yet, try as you might, you could never photograph her wearing a smile. It was quite a puzzle how this elemental laugh would magically stop as the camera lens swung towards her face. It was uncanny, that unerring instinct for the approaching window onto the soul.

That aspect of her spirit was, thus, only experienced in the flesh - powerful and endearing at once, and guarded and resolute at the other. She was ever encouraging and optimistic to her friends and family - a source of a one-way flow of unrequited positivity. Try as one might, it was hard to be jaded in the presence of Betty Brown, her laughter and love overcame all obstacles.

A pause in our narrative, a return to that moment in that grocery store. We should contemplate a newborn woman, newly outdoored and newly named. Two musical words, Betty Brown, ringing in her ears as she voiced them in the air for the first time. Music, and magic too perhaps. Welcome magic, for she had entered at a low point, her employers having refused to return her passport. Your garden variety tale of abusive domestic servitude perhaps, the ordinary cruelties suffered by house girls. An announcer came up on the store intercom. "There's a special on cakes and pies, treat yourself to some ice cream too". Betty knew what to do: vanilla ice cream and some apple crumble to celebrate her name. She returned to the house, her spirit fortified. The Madam couldn't quite understand the aura of sunshine from someone she thought she had long since broken.

Months later, she overheard them in that same store, walking through the aisles speaking Ewe; her country people. She gambled, grabbed her opportunity, and accosted M and D. Haltingly, she explained her plight, conveying her desperation. It all came out quickly once she started speaking. Their concern was apparent as the words poured forth and her saga of woe unfolded. She'd never told her story before, not to anyone, not even to herself in the mirror and certainly never in this way.

After those long years in Ghana, they had brought her to London when the boy needed medical care. First they wanted to discard her, then The Madam said they should keep her, but they wouldn't pay her or give her passport. This was the first time they had let her out in two weeks. She told everything - even the most humiliating details, the beatings, the forced labour, no holidays, the virtual slave thing and so forth. Saying the words out loud made her realize just how close she'd come to the abyss. She could see the mounting alarm in their eyes as she talked, but she carried on, the story had to be told. They listened, first warily, then concernedly, and then carefully as if all of this testimony should be committed to memory. Finally they asked her name. She laughed, "Call me Betty Brown, but I'm also known as [redacted]". She laughed again. It was the laugh and that melodious name that did it and drew them into her comfort suite.

"Pleased to meet you Sister Betty. God-willing we'll get through all this."
"Betty Brown. That's a powerful name."

They offered their help and she took the opportunity. They agreed to meet later, the family still needed her do the groceries, so she was sure she'd be able to get out. The shadows lifted.

And so, M and D were the ones who took her in. In the Hackney home, the dining room became her bedroom. Later she would insist that they let her rent a room, pay her way. Her story was whispered throughout the community and not just because it confirmed every prejudice we had against 'those Lebanese', 'those Saudis' and they way they treated us back home, and even here in London. K stepped in later to help with the confiscated passport, to give his customary legal advice, to give comfort above all.

So, she had come from nothing, had been the lowliest of servants, and had been brought even lower. That first morning when she woke up at 5am, she realized that all she had were the clothes she had on and the few belongings she had been able to smuggle out. Well, it was a temporary inconvenience; she simply got to work, cleaning and tidying up.

But she didn't dwell on the past. Rock bottom is always a matter of perspective and she always put the hard days behind her. Looking forward and disdaining pity, she simply wondered what the next day of work would be. And it was work that was her lot. She aimed to please. Self-esteem was not simply an afterthought, it was a never-thought. Throughout her life, she knew only work.

And there was violence undoubtedly, she had been treated most brutally by them, and had the scars to prove it, scars that were occasionally glimpsed in that matter-fact manner in which she moved her body. Some would have her be the woman who walked into doors. That was a facile characterization, after all a hard life is not all about violence. Her reality, as those closer to her knew, was rather life as the empress of the splendid season. She wasn't content to be a cautionary tale or an object of concern: she lived, she worked - that's all.

Poverty is always relative yet her hometown, Avenui-Awudome, was poor even in a poor part of a poor country. It was a spec of a hamlet, not quite a village like Taviefe. It wasn't even worthy of the prospect of an advance guard of the E.P. Church seeking out forlorn souls in the Volta Region. The tale is told of that boy from Awudome who managed to get a scholarship to Mawuli School, the first to even make it to secondary school in the environs and that was 1959. The family was so poor that the whole village had to take up a collection to buy him proper shoes so that he could walk to the school. Well, that older boy was the lucky one in the clan. By the time Betty came of age to go to secondary school, the options, and the goodwill, had long since dwindled. The money simply wasn't there. And so she began, or rather continued, that trajectory of burden that had been hers from birth. Sleep to work to sleep. Not that there was any choice, for there were other children coming up behind her.

As it turned out, farm work suited her, she never minded following Papa into the forest to their little plot. As the forest diminished, and the farms suffered, it became harder and harder to make do. The family's farm barely provided enough yams and cassava to eat, let alone sell. They had had to push in deeper into the thinning forest to eke out something to harvest. They ran through all the various vegetables they could think of; nothing seemed to work anymore. So she was loaned out to work in nearby villages and then sent to Ho.

Hard-working was the constant refrain about Betty on the construction sites. The cement blocks, she was able to carry without complaint. Fetching water and carrying had always come easily to her. When even work in Ho dwindled, it naturally followed that she should try her luck in Accra. She became a kayayei in the city. The slums of Nima were her proving ground. Sleeping rough, hustling, carrying and fighting ferociously for the slightest coin or banknote. She first found work carrying for the market women. And then it was construction sites again - less drama, although the physical toll was punishing. The years went by and she faithfully sent her contribution home for the younger ones - every cedi made a difference in Awudome. Eventually she was recommended to the Lebanese family as a housegirl for she had a way with cooking. On the streets, she was known for being able to manufacture a tasty dish from even the most wretched garden eggs or leaves of nkontomire.

Street girl to house girl; she'd taken care of the boy happily and cheerfully. When he fell ill after five years, she followed them from Accra to Riyadh, and then to London as they sought hospital treatment. It hurt that they took out their frustration on her as his health worsened for, certainly, no one cared for him, nor knew him, as well as she did. Perhaps it was jealousy too, for he loved her songs and stories and would only sleep at night if he knew she was close. One wonders if they even know what happened to her after they were done with her...

At length, she regularized her situation in London and even found love in the community. Her architect. Her man. Others would complain and suggest that he wasn't pulling his weight - after all there he was with his degrees working as a security guard, if indeed he could be found to work. She dismissed those concerns. It wasn't easy. She knew it wasn't easy to be an immigrant, to have your qualifications nullified for lack of a stamp in some passport, to be condescended to at best, and to face everyday invisibility. She was clear-eyed even as she heard the exasperation in friends' voices. "You're being taking advantage of. Do something for yourself, not for others". And that day at the outdooring, that long disappearance, stepping out to pick up drinks at the off-license. All those last straws. All that drama. All that hand wringing from the naysayers counted for naught. None of that mattered. She didn't make excuses. She loved. She saw the light in his soul. She kept the faith. She would work additional jobs to make it work.

And well, she did. She made it work. For almost 18 years, she would effectively be the sole breadwinner even as they raised themselves up from the margins. She raised the children in faith and moved mountains to spare them any taste of deprivation. She had finally brought something worthy into the world and would do anything for them. She loved unconditionally, she loved unreservedly, she loved wholly.

I can see her on that bus, that morning, catching her breath after the all-night shift at the cleaning job at University College. She was on her way to Shoreditch for that housing management college course - self improvement. Then that afternoon, she would pass by the African Development Agencies in Hackney to volunteer as was her wont - there were others coming up behind her, and they needed help, before yet another job that evening. I see Betty, stout and middle-aged, part of that immigrant unseen, a member of the tribe that gathers at the crack of dawn, those who clean with no benefits, those who give definition to that phrase, menial labour. Well she worked, she was a worker, she was a cleaner. She got on with it.

Later, I saw the picture of the children and her husband standing with the President. It must have been when he passed by their home in Essex after the attacks on his way back to Ghana, official solace in their hour of grief. Their red eyes were those of the walking wounded. It broke my heart. It breaks my heart. The absence of her flesh and blood, it was all too much. A grievous loss, a soul snatched away arbitrarily.

They took her body home to Ghana for the funeral. Thousands came to pay their respects, Ghanaians don't need prompting to attend funerals but who could resist that of their countrywoman who died in Babylon at the hands of Al Qaeda.

Her blurry photo stares at me from the news websites. Smudged pixels that haunt me. It doesn't reveal much of her. She didn't have many photos of herself in any case, preferring to look outwards. That fugitive glimpse of her in the stories was fitting. Yes, that was Betty Brown, self-effacing even in her obituary. The words would reveal more about those who survived her than about her complicated story full of twisted turns. Well, her story deserves to be told, even if in these refracted fragments, a journey of pathos, ultimately distilled into tragedy.

Complaining was not her style. She put up with more setbacks than anyone this side of Job and that Count of Monte Christo fellow, and yet she gave new meaning to the term resilience. This is an elegy rather than a lament, for such thoughts never crossed her mind. This is an ode for a woman in full, a spirit heaven-sent.

I often think of Betty in those quiet moments in the autumn of life, when the cleaners walk by with their carts at the office - humming, when the nannies gather their charges in the park, back home with those street girls hustling in the Adabraka traffic instead of going to school. I hear her voice, her infectious patter, her tics, and her teasing manner, the way she always affected to be absent-minded to draw you in. And the laugh. The heart aches. I think of her, not as a stray or as a victim, but as a force of nature. Some of us stepped in when we could, worried about her, but we couldn't save her; it really wasn't up to us, rather she saved herself. And she stood strong. She fought, God knows she fought. And now she's gone.



This is the final part of a trilogy on Ghanaian connections to the London bombings of 2005, in this instance, the eponymous casualty. The first piece, Identity Theft, dealt with collateral damage on the periphery, an immigrant's stolen identity. The second note, Of No Fixed Abode, concerned the "fourth man": the fifth bomber.

An entry in the Things Fall Apart Series.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Brexit, a playlist

We don't have a Plan B by Redhead Kingpin
Stuck on you by Lionel Richie
Can't stand losing you by The Police
Looking at the front door by Main Source
Chaos and Disorder by Prince
Let's stay together by Al Green
I can't see myself leaving you by Aretha Franklin
Stay with me by El Debarge
Knockin' at the wrong door by The Rollers
Mistake by Fela Kuti

Bonus beats:

Weary by Amel Larrieux
Let's call the whole thing off by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Liner notes:

I was an early victim of Theresa May's 'hostile environment' immigration policy, and lost my notional residency in Her Majesty's lands some time ago, hence I'm quite ambivalent about the exhausting spectacle of self harm that the past three years of English politics have provided. True, the political sketch writers have been having a field day as everyone has done their worst - with the promise of more to come. Satire is a soothing balm for dysfunction, but to paraphrase Theresa May, dysfunction means dysfunction.

The closing track of this playlist, Mistake, recorded live at the Berlin Jazz Festival, was originally meant to be part of the appropriately named Zombie album (prescience about "the withdrawal agreement"?). As is typical for a Fela track, languorous horns float in and out atop the loping drums throughout, and it is only after 8 minutes that Fela gets to decrying colonial thinking.

Mistake you go make, people go laugh at you.
After they laugh at you, them go smile again

Still, he is quite optimistic in the end: "after mistakes... everything's all right". As for the rest of the tracks, they are self evident. Nominations for additions are welcome.


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Monday, March 11, 2019

Side by Side

A few juxtapositions briefly noted - part of an occasional series.

Novelistic Lives


novelistic lives
  • The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall
  • The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin
Another candidate on the same bookshelf was Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere.

House Readings


House readings
  • La vie de boy (Houseboy) by Ferdinand Oyono
  • Housegirl by Michael Donkoli
  • The Housemaid by Amma Darko
My favourite book on much the same theme is Empress of the Splendid Season by Oscar Hijuelos.

Office Tales


Office life, office politics, the organization man, managing humans, the bad child's book of beasts
  • Office life by Keith Waterhouse
  • Office Politics by Wilfrid Sheed
  • The Organization Man by William H Whyte, Jr
  • Managing Humans by Rands in Repose
  • The Bad Child's Book of Beasts by Hilaire Belloc
Belloc's inclusion turns these office tales into a survival guide.

Contrasting Fortunes

I grew up in a newsroom hence print newspapers retain their fascination for me. In this age of declining print journalism, I am still cheered that there are some stories whose impact is best dealt with in newsprint. The touch of a great editor melding words and images is a thing to behold.

apartheid legacies in Stellenbosch

Surprisingly, although it was part of the same story, it was not the front page display of last Sunday's New York Times that was vital to me, nor indeed the online version, A battle defined by Property Lines and Race. Rather it was the contrast between the images of those erecting a shack on page 12 and the relaxing tourists in the streets of Stellenbosch on 13 that silently made the poignant case. The complexities of the enduring legacies of apartheid were succinctly illustrated. Who gets to share in the wages of wine and spoils of the soil?

In the same vein, I had a strong sense that the Brexit referendum would go the way it did simply by reading the inside pages of the Daily Mail in January 2016, something that amounted to Tickling John Bull's Lizard Brain. There, skillful juxtaposition had a visceral impact even on a jaundiced reader.

The most effective juxtaposition I can remember was executed in the war context in the reporting of the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006. The accompanying article, In Beirut, an Abyss Between Elegance and Chaos, didn't need much more that the contrasting photos.

"One man struggles, while another relaxes", goes the refrain in Massive Attack's Hymn of the Big Wheel. This is the nature of The Great Game.

Colors - a playlist




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Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Legacies (Munhango to Kennebunkport)

My proudest bit of publishing was an alternate history centered on Angola that someone gifted me late one night. "Here's to bad men" was the takeaway of that fevered dossier, a strand of the story of what historians now brand the "lost decades" in Africa and elsewhere. Stories are always unfinished, and the late KB Mensah shared some photos of Jonas Savimbi from his BBC archives that would have fleshed out that script. Also illuminating was Chester Crocker’s High Noon in Southern Africa (thank goodness for vanity, and used book stores). Its title and duel framing was inadvertently revealing; the outlook of cowboy diplomacy hard to resist. We have occasion to revisit the legacies of these political actors. If the prevailing view from Kennebunkport was of a cold-blooded, Cold War, on the ground in Munhango and Cuito Cuanavale, however, there were warm bodies that bore the brunt of abstractions: domino theories, linkage and containment. Collateral damage aside, the rest of us bear witness.

Jonas Savimbi

Apparently enough time has passed since the death of Jonas Savimbi that we are now urged to take a more nuanced view of his legacy. The caricature that was memorialized in the video game, Call of Duty: Black Ops II while apt for a rogues gallery of pulp fiction is said to be too simplistic.

Jonas Savimbi crowd

His family even sued for defamation at the blunt portrayal:

A lawyer for Activision Blizzard, Etienne Kowalski, has rejected the claim, stating that the game represents Savimbi as a "good guy" – and that he is portrayed fairly, "for who he was... a character of Angolan history, a guerrilla chief who fought the MPLA".
Jonas Savimbi gun address

The case was dismissed. The legacy remains contested.

The elder Bush in death will face similar contests despite the patrician image, New England privilege and attendant Yale legacy. Reputations need to be managed.

George Bush, Jonas Savimbi & Chester Crocker 1986

Chester Crocker looked on as Vice President George Bush met with Jonas Savimbi in the Oval Office in January 1986 to discuss the United States' continued assistance to UNITA in the Angolan civil war.

Item: Joseph Mobutu (a.k.a. Mobutu Sese Seko amongst other honorifics) was the most prized CIA asset in Africa from the 1960s until his death in 1997. He was a friend to every CIA director in his lifetime.

Dig: The Bush and Mobutu families spent vacations together.

The late Barbara Bush would recall in her memoir the visits with "President Mobutu, who wears a leopard skin hat and carries a tribal stick. He is very flamboyant, but charming."

Franco et le T.P. OK Jazz sing for Mobutu

High Noon in Southern Africa makes a quite long winded defense of US foreign policy, arguing that it was all in service of "making peace in a rough neigbourhood". Diplomats often have do such things: putting lipstick on a pig or, to mix metaphors, making palatable the unsavoury. Still Crocker doth protest too much. It was never about clean hands, it was naked self interest. Being on the wrong side of history, supporting apartheid, propping up dictators will always be thrown back at one's face.

Ronald Reagan and Chester Crocker

— Ronald Reagan and Chester Crocker at the Oval Office in November 1984 discussing the US policy to vigorously oppose sanctions on the South African apartheid regime.

While Ronald "Ray Gun" was the ostensible target of Gil Scott-Heron's classic 1981 track 'B' movie, there was also this observation:

'The screenplay will be adapted from the book called "Voodoo Economics" by George "Papa Doc" Bush.'

Prescient as always, our Gil, and then this:

... all of a sudden we have fallen prey to selective amnesia - remembering what we want to remember and forgetting what we choose to forget.'

Ah right, Papa Doc and the Tontons Macoutes that ruined Haiti. Lest we forget.

gil scott-heron ronald reagan and john wayne - b movie american nostalgia

Squalid murder for the left of us, flowers to the right.

We've since learned of Donald Rumsfeld's notions that informed Bush the Younger's catastrophic reign:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones

The obvious problem with the Rumsfeld taxonomy of knowledge is that it ignores the "unknown knowns", that is, the unconscious biases that underlie an issue. This willed blindspot is the working mechanism of selective amnesia. We are living in a moment where nostalgia is key and we're anesthetizing ourselves with transactional, cowboy politics.

There was a recent clarification which reminded me of the title of an episode of The Wire: moral midgetry.

America First!

The world is a very dangerous place!

... the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors

... maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

— Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia, November 2018

Arms sales (and preferably ours).

Jonas Savimbi angola tank

The B movie theory: manifest destiny revisited as farce. The politics of rehabilitation, reputation scrubbing, and legacies of blood and sin.

Soundtrack for this note

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Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Readings

In lieu of writing (checks to see the alarming length of time since I last clicked publish) as the parental cone of silence has enveloped those routines, I have managed to do some reading of late (and by reading I mean books, not the omnivorous web consumption that is our new normal) (and by books, I mean paperbacks - it's my practice to ensure that I am always behind the latest literary fashion). I've been pleasantly surprised that this past year's crop of books has nothing that should be best left unread, and indeed I recommend all of these. Herewith my year in books.

Readings 2018
  • Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

    An entertainment and a tour-de-force. The sheer bravado, humour and joy at work is remarkable. With every page, I grew ever more convinced that the future of the African novel is in good hands. Sidenote: it is so well crafted that it elicited the finest book review I've read in years. Apparently there's a good translation that manages to capture the frenetic energy and linguistic fireworks. There's a musical rhythm to the writing, classically one might call it a Greek chorus, but I would rather ascribe it to the the swirling multitudes of Papa Wemba. Taking a broader, pan-African view, I imagine a soundtrack by T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo. When paired with Alain Mabanckou's wonderful earlier Verre Cassé (with which it almost rhymes), it is clear that we have been gifted a great cultural movement: literary sapeurs of the two Congos.

  • Petit Piment by Alain Mabanckou

    The master is always more impressive when he writes in a personal mode. The focus on the young protagonists expands the range of the customary humour. Congo's Dickens is at work sketching journeys from the orphanage to gritty streets. Oliver Twist or Great Expectations.

  • Tales from Africa by K.P. Kojo

    Nii Ayikwei Parkes' second collection of children's stories was a nighttime favourite for the kids. Encore!

  • Les aubes écarlates by Léonora Miano

    A Cameroonian take on the child soldier narrative. Haunting stuff that made for gripping reading. I will nitpick the ending - although I later realized that I had missed the fact that this was the third novel in a series. I'm with the 99%.

  • The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

    Modern Britain is yet to come to terms with race and the probing essays in this collection broaden the perspective, lucid without being didactic, personal yet universal. I await the follow up on that deals with this side of the Atlantic.

  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

    Hey, Oprah recommended it and man did he deliver. Applause all around. There was a vibrant literary scene at Harvard just as the dot com boom got going. Kevin Young, the late Philippe Wamba, and others all had oblique takes our modern condition. Colson Whitehead remains one of the most original of that cohort.

  • Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

    Uganda sliced every which way. Read it. Savour it. Then read it again.

  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith

    A crowd pleaser from our greatest writer. Every detail works. Even this musical obsessive couldn't play gotcha. How's that, not even one anachronism; it isn't fair.

  • The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
  • Late era Barnes is no less ambitious than the young lion who gave us A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters. Pointillist precision on display.

  • Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

    A late pass as ever, I'm forever fascinated by what he omits in his published works while grateful for what we do get. Here's willing him back to the blogging front. As Abbey Lincoln sang: Throw it Away.

  • The Cartel by Don Winslow

    Epic in scope like its dark predecessor. The definitive take on the drug wars that are our ongoing predicament.

  • Les Contes d'Amadou Komba by Birago Diop

    I am savouring these modern Senegalese folktales with all their delicious twists. Having been brought up on Ananse stories and Arabian Nights, this is right up my alley. I treat myself to Diop's tasty morsels. He's my Peggy Appiah.

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Sunday, October 08, 2017

A Familiar Arc

I found myself working from home yesterday (on Saturday!) so I only managed to start watching the Ghana-Uganda world cup qualifier match in the 91st minute. I was shocked initially to find a scoreline of 0-0, I had fully expected to see Ghana with a comprehensive lead. After all, that was the only way in which the team could even hope advance to the world cup. Our destiny was in our hands, everyone knew that. Execution in this game, and a little bit of luck in the other group game was the forecast. I checked the game clock and, yes, it did read 90:32. We were in extra time with 3½ minutes to go. No time to wonder about whatever must have taken place in the previous 90 minutes. We do like making things difficult for us. Minnows though the Ugandans are in football, the same team did hold us to an ineffectual draw earlier. But wait, what was I seeing? It looked as if Uganda were the team doing all the pressing. Both teams needed a win in order to keep any chance alive.

Why do we make things so difficult for ourselves, I kept asking? But then at the back of my mind, I know that we have Accra Hearts of Oak's motto in mind: Never say die. Anything thing could happen. "We need the ball, we need the ball.", I implored YouTube as the clock kept ticking. Still the Ugandans controlled possession, pressing forward with the desperation I was rather expecting from the Black Stars. 91 minutes... 92 minutes... 93 minutes... And then with 25 seconds to go, Thomas Partey, our in-form striker from Athletico Madrid, somehow got the ball and took it on himself to give it the old try with a long shot on goal that bounced viciously, the ball rebounded off the Ugandan keeper and a Ghanaian player, I didn't catch, was first to react on the follow-on and tapped the ball sweetly, improbably, but definitely into the back of the goal. We scored!

And so I screamed.

I screamed.

I screamed.

I screamed with that abandon, that primal excitement of unabridged happiness. We've done it. Never say die. We did it. No one was around to witness my joy, but I did notice the squirrel outside my home office had stopped quizzically as I jumped around, nay, as I leaped and stormed out of the room.

"I can't believe it.... Hallelujah...." And so forth...

I thought to the last time, I had screamed so loud, incidentally also in the last minute of a Ghana match - against Uruguay, when first Stephen Appiah's left hand shot was parried on the goal line and then Mensah's header was batted back by Luiz Suarez's handball. Back then, I could taste the semi-finals and even the finals, we feared no one.

I run back into the room to see the celebrations. I could taste it, we needed Congo to not drop the ball against Egypt but we would do the business and surely defeat Egypt in our last match. And then the scene that greeted me was perplexing. The Ghanaian players were surrounding the referee. My heart dropped, a stolen victory. The commentators couldn't believe it and the replays were showing that the linesman had raised his flag for offside. Perfidy.

That was when I welcomed back that old friend of mine: the familiar arc of disappointment. Our close companion in the ongoing Ghanaian narrative. And how could it be otherwise I suppose? And I knew, all too well, the inevitable aftermath.

Our dream had ended. Talents that should undoubtedly be showcased on the greatest of world stages would have to be spectators. My allegiances for the next World Cup would have to be reassessed. True we were clearly robbed and yet, why where we ever in this position? Why months earlier had we drawn with these same opponents at home, at Baba Yara stadium? I know so many who couldn't even bear to watch this match because they feared this result. A draw or defeat when only victory would do. Oh well, I wallowed and reacquainted myself in the comforting contours of disappointment.

Hours later, I couldn't bear to read about the controversy or about whatever had transpired in the previous 90 minutes. I read talk about an earlier disallowed goal or the penalty that wasn't granted. Or the theory that that the referee had disallowed the goal not for the linesman's spurious offside call but, rather, had blown his whistle for full time as the ball was headed to goal but before it had crossed the line. I read people bringing up that we had a good case if we appealed. Remember that South Africa and Senegal would have to replay their qualifying match because of atrocious officiating that even got that (Ghanaian!) referee banned for life. And so forth... Now that Ghanaians have taken to the internet in droves, our infectious argumentativeness and conversational craziness is in full display on social media. I savoured the taste of disappointment, that ache at the back of my throat.

Ghanaians are good at recriminations. Scapegoating comes naturally to us, born of fragility and proximity to poverty. Our existence is oft-precarious, so, well, we excel at recriminations instead of getting on with things. Its not a pretty cultural trait and it comes out at the worst times in our culture, say at funerals. At its extreme, we even see lynching and mob justice on our streets.

It is tempting to read a lot in a football match or indeed any sport event. When things are going well for a community, sports can be the great signifier. Perhaps it is for the best that we can't dream about Russia 2018. Germany went back to the drawing books after repeated misfortune in past campaigns and now has a nigh-unbeatable team. One hopes we can move on, learn our lessons and get on with it. Still, our expectations have been reset since we emerged as a force in 2006. Who could forget the excitement of Ghana vrs USA, The African Nation and The American Dream. We almost made it in 2010, and even in 2014, we gave Germany their toughest match on their road to victory, unlucky as we were to be in the Group of Death. With a little luck everything could be very different. But there lies the way of our good friend disappointment.

Hours later, it would be about the panic about that horrible fire and explosions at Atomic junction. The calls from family, the worry about all those we know who might have been affected. Going forward, searches will no longer bring up uplifting images of Atomic Junction, nuclear power in an African suburb, rather we will be recalling our dearth of infrastructure, the mushroom clouds of burning gas and fuel, and the hopping fires amidst a surging mass of humanity. Our struggle with development and modernity remains fraught, safety a perennial afterthought in our race to catch up with the future. It is no consolation to the victims of this case, whenever we have close encounters with the abyss, we always thank the rain.

Postscript:

Egypt just beat Congo in the other match. The raised hopes turned out to be moot. Embrace me, my friend disappointment, come close to me.


Haste not in life

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Functional Defenestration

It’s almost been a Friedman unit since I published anything in this joint so, with due deference to that old standby public service pamphlet, What everyone should know about blog depression, and a head nod to Bertrand Russell's note In Praise of Idleness, here goes some throat-clearing toli.

I. Defanging Satire (or Editorial Genuflections in the Internet Age)


Defanging satire in the age of the internet (New Yorker edition)

A highly paid editor at The New Yorker is now intervening to neuter the bite of Andy Borowitz's normally savage satire. The first injury came a few months ago with the retitling of the column and RSS feed from "The Borowitz Report" to "Satire from The Borowitz Report" as if to say “we must protect you from being a moron in a hurry”. Then the lasting, almost fatal, wound was the recent move to change the contents of the feed summary, which used to be the first few sentences of the article, to instead actively bash you over the head with a spoiler warning that each article is "a satirical report". Apparently the reader needs to be informed upfront that they are about to read a humorous article and protected from the dire possibility of being spoofed.

In other words, even for the most potent source of written content (and the New Yorker proclaims itself to have "the best writing anywhere"), it now of paramount importance to maintain its listing as a Google News "source" (and now with Facebook's Zuckerberg apparently faking concern about clickbait and fake news and the like, the audience needs to be coddled). The bean counters (and search engine optimizers) have run the numbers and, on the evidence, it is clear that telegraphing an article's intentions, and blunting its impact is worth the downside risk and what, I rather think, is grievous damage to art.

Up until a few months ago, the feed summary would have been the following (a pithy defenestration of age-old hypocrisy)

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) — The pornography industry has likely suffered permanent damage as a result of its unfortunate association with the Texas senator Ted Cruz, industry sources said on Tuesday.

It is soul-deadening to contemplate the considerable effort expended to actively sabotage noble hatchet jobs.

The only concession to art is that the editor didn't additionally prepend "Satire" to article titles as I noticed smaller publications starting to do routinely 12 or so years when Google News started being a dominant source of web traffic.

And here Dear Reader, as I wrote the foregoing sentence and began winding up to a thoroughgoing rant, I realized that I had been down this path before. Indeed I left a community (Blogcritics) back when its writing guidelines started to ask that writers explicitly tag their work and the site started messing with titles. The injunction then was that we needed to telegraph and prefix "Satire" to titles '(if you "make things up" or "bend the truth" notably to make a point, or for comedic effect)'.

Searching through the archives, I even found a cri de cœur written on the topic, Husbanding the Blogcritics Commons, a jeremiad-in-vain as it soon became a case of This Boring Headline Is Written for Google.

It is a disappointing development a decade later, that ostensibly powerful media outlets have thoroughly succumbed, even as one cannot deny their economic logic, pace Buzzfeed. And yet I remain a maximalist on the issue.

The story, I suppose, is about capitalism in the internet age. Per Jeff Hammerbacher by way of Allen Ginsberg, it is a case of "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads". Per contra, we could harken back to Slim Charles's folk wisdom from The Wire: "Game's the same, just got more fierce."

The existential question posed is how do we weigh the competing demands of popularity (as expressed by the Google News imperative) against whimsy (as expressed in satire). Sacrificing whimsy at the altar of attention is not a price worth paying, and I am yet to be convinced otherwise. Needless to say, I dissent.

II. Attention Mongering

Apropos attention, for a good decade, say right up to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and much to my consternation, a note I had hastily written On the importance of biting satire was regularly the top search result on Google about satire. It has since found its proper obscurity, but my unexpected Googlejuice in the interim meant that the occasional student writing a term paper on “why satire matters”, “significance of satire”, “importance of satire” etc. would start mining this blog.

The early web was a great equalizer, one in which my rants occasionally trumped the combined insights of Jonathan Swift, Will Self and the like, hell even the encyclopedic Wikipedia was lagging in the Anglophone internet. Even as Jon Stewart and company started a revival of the satiric tradition in America, the clicks kept coming my way.

I don't know if I ultimately managed to convince 15 readers of the paramount importance of savage satire as opposed to the milder form that Americans favor, but I feel my ultimate insight is worth restating:

I like my satire savage. It should be vicious, biting and deeply heartfelt. The targets should feel a sharp wound. The whimsical and comic artefacts of the best satirists are side-benefits; their purpose is really to serve as social barometers and canaries in the mineshafts of our communities.

III. On Satire

Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world, and that that so few are offended with it. But, if it should happen otherwise, the danger is not great; and I have learned from long experience never to apprehend mischief from those understandings I have been able to provoke: for anger and fury, though they add strength to the sinews of the body, yet are found to relax those of the mind, and to render all its efforts feeble and impotent.

Jonathan Swift - The Battle of the Books
Satire is an art form that thrives best on a certain instability and tension in its creator. The satirist is always holding him or herself between two poles of great attraction. On the one side there is the flight into outright cynicism, anomie and amorality; on the other there is the equal and countervailing pressure towards objective truth, religion and morality.

Will Self - Junk Mail
[Will] Self sees himself paradoxically both as a moral satirist and as a social rebel who is more interested in shocking his middle-class readers than in reforming them. "What excites me," he has said, "is to disturb the reader's fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable"

— Gillian Glover, as quoted in Brian Finney's The Sweet Smell of Excess: Will Self’s Fiction, Bataille and Transgression.
Of all the gifts of the pen perhaps the most fraught with danger is that which resolves itself into satire. It is indeed difficult to distinguish between cynicism and satire, perhaps the former is born of disappointment perhaps the latter is born of humour. Let it remain so and it cannot be called debased, let it become cold and let it die.

— Patrick Braybrooke writing on Hilaire Belloc as Essayist in Some Thoughts On Hilaire Belloc

Instability fundamentally disturbs markets which is why even the threat of boycotts so unmans even the most cynical modern corporations. The reverse of the coin however is that whimsy, that most valuable human concern, and its close counterpart satire thrive as disturbances to the mundanity of life. Reconciling whimsy in all its messiness to the demands of hard-nosed capitalism remains a struggle and yet struggle we must. For better or worse, we must humanize capitalism.

IV. Orphaned Thoughts

I once spent forty minutes on a subway sitting opposite a group of engineers and salespeople that worked at Functional Fenestration. They were attending a conference in Oakland about window hardware and automation, of all things. I was fascinated with their technical argot, the intricacies of the actuators, track and carriage systems and door automation that they were discussing. I marveled at the engineering arcana, and the fact that the windows and doors that we take for granted could have such complexity. Their deconstruction of the merits of some of their competitor's offerings and their strategizing about how to market the new feature of whatever widget they had just come up with (a slide handler if I remember correctly) drew me in. The intensity of the back and forth between the marketers and the technical folks reminded me of a comedy of manners of sorts, office politics writ large. Hypnotized as I was by the language and the context, I immediately imagined a novel or short story, something in the vein of Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist and the title came unbidden, Functional Defenestration.

Most ideas are destined to be half-formed and ultimately, I never got beyond the few pages scribbled in my Moleskine, a meditation about a man unmoored by capitalism. The first sentence remains:

Man, it was hard to compete against those guys at Functional Fenestration, they were intense.
Run with it.

Soundtrack for this note

A playlist for those tilting at windmills.

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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An African Leader Bestiary

"When you are surrounded by vultures, try not to die", goes the Ivorian proverb, a touchstone for many post-colonial Africans. Changing the perspective somewhat in light of the unnatural longevity of Africa's leaders, I've been pondering the survival tactics of these scavenging creatures that have been our omnipresent companions. Cast yourself back to the middle of one of those lost decades in Africa and consider a magazine cover from 1984 featuring a representative trio of the time: Biya, Buhari and Rawlings. These names are still in the news thirty years on, but their paths have diverged. Most have stayed true to authoritarian form - albeit pretending to shed skin on occasion, and yet some have been reformed. Mitterrand, Thatcher, Gorbachev and Reagan have passed on but their African contemporaries have endured. What accounts for this tenacity? If the initial frame was the good, the bad and the ugly, something more elemental proved a better fit. Consider the following as fragments of an African leader bestiary of sorts.

talking drums 1984-05-28 Cameroon executions Biya - Buhari - Ghana's PDC-WDCs Rawlings

Conversion Narratives

Muhammadu Buhari is the exemplar of reform and reinvention. In his early career, he was an unabashed coup maker, repeatedly stopping Nigeria's nascent though imperfect democratic experiment in its tracks (1966, 1975). A severe military man, he came out of the shadows as head-of-state leading the December 1983 coup that ended the Second Republic. His mantras, such as they were then, were all about cleaning house, stopping Shehu Shagari and company's corruption (although the military proved in practice to be the most vicious and corrupt actors in the country's history), and most notably, a War against Indiscipline. He would be later be memorably satirized by Fela (who he imprisoned) as a Beast of no Nation.

Make you hear this one / War against indiscipline, eei
Na Nigerian government, eei / Dem dey talk eei
"My people are useless, my people are senseless, my people are indisciplined".
talking drums 1984-01-09 coup in Nigeria Africa's day of shame
The tumult that the grim-faced military put the country through under Buhari is not remembered with fondness by anyone, even if what followed (Babangida, Abacha) was perhaps more catastrophic in economic terms. These stronger, and more venal, predators stepped into his opening and overthrew him in short order in 1985. This was a rather friendly palace coup - a disagreement among wolves as it were, and he wasn't liquidated. Licking his wounds and withdrawing from the fore of Nigerian political life, Buhari was able to craft a second life. There has been reform and, with the passage of time, and three attempts (in 2003, 2007 and 2011), Nigerian democratic hopes, long disappointed in the intervening three decades, were pinned on him and his party in the 2015 presidential elections. There was no one Road to Damascus moment, but rather a pragmatic adjustment to multi-party democracy, the man calls himself a "converted democrat". The Nigerian political machine has accommodated him as much as he has accommodated the system. Given how large Nigeria looms in African fortunes, one prays for success of this experiment.

Blood

J.J. Rawlings had his two coups and 18 years in power in Ghana, ostensibly shedding his military uniform after a decade in 1992, and handing over to himself in a couple of shrewdly rigged elections to bring in the millennium. Dictator-no-more was the story although the authoritarian instincts persisted during the 1990s even in his civilian guise. The thin reed of political relevance that he stands on these days is making the occasional unreflective pronouncement about the probity of others, all the time hoping that no one confronts him about the bloodshed he amnestied his regime for. Surely the best indicators about Rawlings' enduring legacy were the 16,878 votes cast for his wife in the recent 2016 presidential elections. A full 0.16% of the electorate still paid obeisance to unbounded vanity. By and large, Rawlings as a phenomenon is healthily ignored. Still, as befits spent, but still viable, carrion, there will always be the occasional discarded carcass of the Ghanaian body politic that he can feast on.

talking drums 1984-06-25 why Ghana is not stable - Nigerian journalist's trial Rotimi

His progeny, the NDC, had another bite at power, feeding at the trough of pork barrel politics for the past 8 years. But looting and purely transactional deal-making can't stand for long in a country as politically sophisticated as Ghana. For a cabal that originally proclaimed populism if not socialism as their ideological markers to be revealed as a pack of common traders, if not mediocre, wannabe oligarchs, ought to be humbling. That is, of course, only possible if they were capable of shame and the jury is still out on that. The real sadness about Ghanaian politics is that a healthy opposition is needed for democracy to thrive.

Sin

And so we come to Paul Biya... What can one say? Well Monsieur Biya is having the last laugh - all at the expense of the Cameroonian people. It has been the most charmed life for the past 42 years, living most of the year in luxury villas in France, Geneva, Brussels and the like. Where some American presidents could golf their way while bombing others, insouciance a l'Africaine is really a quite rarified thing. Like Omar Bongo, he didn't have to take up arms to remain Prime Minister or President. He wasn't a strongman per se, but one-party systems have their own logic. It has rather been the shrewd exercise of patronage politics and cronyism, his modus operandi is to buy everyone off and compromise everyone. He skillfully adapted to the veneer of elections and multi-party democracy that became obligatory with the donors after the changing winds of Africa 1989. If five years of Biya was already enough in 1987, what could one say now, thirty odd years later?

west africa 1987-11-09 5 years of Biya Cameroon Nigeria election momentum Sierra Leone economic saboteur

To his credit, the Biya brand of autocratic rule hasn't caused as many direct deaths as others on the continent, but there has been quite severe collateral damage to the Cameroonian soul. Cronyism causes pervasive decay and long periods of decay corrupt everything in sight. We all vie to see how obsequious one can be, bowing down cravenly to gain favour with the old man. A quarter century ago, everyone was asking whether Biya could survive the transition to multi-party democracy? He laughed then and is laughing now. We have long stopped asking that question, instead articles marvel at his longevity as we wait him out

The danger, of course, is that a hollowed state could well be his legacy and, as with Bokassa and Bozizé in the Central African Republic, Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d'Ivoire, and especially Mobutu in Congo, we may still be picking up the pieces long after he is gone. Boko Haram, for example, may not be bought off as easily as recalcitrant French politicians. Sectarian and economic grievances long suppressed are fertile ground for opportunistic mischief. All it will take for Anglophone Cameroon, to take a recent troubling example, to explode is the rhetoric of the right populist. We have seen in our neighbourhood what a few bloody minded people willing to do their worst can do. The recent examples are not pretty.

For too long the original sin in African politics was our colonial legacy and the external meddling. We can no longer blame Francafrique. Paul Biya's generational mismanagement proves that we were never innocent, indeed it is all sin.

west africa 1991-10-14-20 Cameroon Can Biya survive Nigeria Babangida at the UN

Further Reading

  • En Attendant Le Vote Des Betes Sauvages by Ahmadou Kourouma

    The definitive anthropological study of the bestiary of Africa rogues that have led the continent astray. The English translation is fine, we are all waiting for the wild animals to vote.

  • A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

    There are no winners in the African Game of Thrones

  • Farting Presidents and other poems by Tope Omoniyi
    A lovely chapbook full of quotable witticisms
    or who does not know
    that rotten eggs and doublespeak
    are recipes for the broth of chopped justice
    logs in the eye or a nation?
    and well-deserved anger
    And I wonder endlessly how the hell
    Chicken generals figured they could run a nation
    from their DIY book of trash
  • A Goodbye to Arms by Kwesi Brew

    Where the green khaki struts and grinds
    its marijuana terror into unarmed hearts,
    They come as men-at-arms
    Badged as justice, grim of face.
    And then at last, dissembling cloak removed.
    A pack of common traders stained in violence

    Wresting bread out the mouths of babies
    only to give it back to them at a price
    so kind are they who betray us.

    from Return of No Return

Soundtrack to this note

sundry beasts
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