Trouble in the barracks

Bit of a sad day for Ivory Coast watchers yesterday with protests by soldiers throughout the country because of unpaid bonuses. The whole Ivorian crisis in 1999 started this way, so there’s a natural fear from déjà vu. Of course the country isn’t in the state of turmoil and stagnation it was in during the late 1990s, but still this is worrisome even if it’s unlikely to lead to protracted instability.

Firstly, it shows the remarkable incivility of the armed forces. The truth is that any country emerging from a protracted civil war is likely to have issues for many years with the armed forces. Four years on from the presidential elections, the disarmament process is yet to finish, and the armed forces are way beyond the numbers that would normally be needed, including a good number of powerful ex-rebels. The government made immediate concessions to diffuse the situation – we’ll see if this puts water on the fire or shows the army just how powerful a hand they hold.

The fact that the protests seem to have been widespread suggest that there was a real issue here, so there is clearly a felt grievance in the army. But it really seemed to come out of the blue. Other crises down the years have felt like they were ‘on the way’ – but even the most hostile anti-Ouattara papers had their gaze elsewhere, repeatedly claiming that events in The Hague were making the regime tremble, when in fact the trouble was closer to home. It serves to show that while the Ivorian elite dream that the country is now about fashion shows and start-ups, there’s also other stories in other places that are perhaps less attractive. Still, while the grievance seems widely felt in the military, it doesn’t seem related to wider unease; poverty is still worryingly persistent, but most people feel things are moving in the right direction, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, an important football match today so hopefully that can all help us take our minds of these things.

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Freetown and Abidjan

Almost four weeks in Freetown, so perhaps time for a few comparative thoughts. I won’t compare with my last place of residence, Dubai; I did spot ‘Freetown Mall’ here, but the only thing it has in common with Dubai Mall is the word ‘mall’.

A friend of mine used to have a photo of Abidjan’s Plateau district from the air on his computer, and he’d ask colleagues what city the photo showed. No-one guessed Abidjan, and in fact no-one thought the image was of an African city. I wouldn’t say you’d get the same reaction with photos of Freetown, but what is true is that like Abidjan, it is a city worth discovering because in a world of few undiscovered places, it is definitely worth putting on the map. There are plenty of cities I’ve never visited in the world – Barcelona, Rio, Moscow, Bangkok, Sydney, and yet I feel I know them from films, television, photos and literature. In a world that has become too familiar, African cities can still surprise. I already get the impression that this is normally a great city.

Like Abidjan, Freetown is on the coast, though the sea here is really part of the city’s landscape, in part because it is built on a bay, and secondly because of the steep hillsides that give incredible vistas. To an Ivorian, I would say it’s like Yopougon, built beside the sea like San Pedro, but on hills like Man. It’s not unusual here to have a stupendous view across the bay and ocean. I’ve only ventured out of the city once, but there are some amazing forested hills, deep ravines, and ocean views. Then there are the beaches and islands which are all to discover.

Some other comments compared with Abidjan. The French in Africa certainly did a good job of city planning – Baron Haussmann would have been proud. Freetown has small streets and clogs easily. But then again, it’s on a smaller scale (Abidjan’s population isn’t far off Sierra Leone’s) and has a stronger sense of history. Unlike the francophone cities’ Plateau commercial districts that grow ghostly at weekends, here the city centre feels much more lived in, and like old European cities has a stronger sense of being occupied for many centuries.

Rather different from Ivorian nostalgia, the pain is very raw here for the good times of just a few months back when the economy was growing a pace, development was perceptible and optimism was in the air. There seems to have been a real party spirit, with beach bars running till dawn. Ivorians are definitely a bit more ‘choco’ about celebrating too wildly. Spending time in Freetown, you also realise that Ivorians are a long way from being the continent’s most passionate football supporters. Here, Premiership football really does stop the city.

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Ivory Coast and Ebola

Ivorians take the threat of Ebola extremely seriously, and according to many predictions there’s a strong chance the country will soon register cases. A look at regional contagion maps shows a number cases in parts of Liberia along the shared border, while the very epicentre of the outbreak between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia is not far from western Ivory Coast. Just one case would have serious repercussions on the country’s image – as much for the fear factor as anything else.

Of course, already Africans in general are being discriminated against around the world because of Ebola. One Ivorian friend in Dubai was held for more than an hour at the airport just because he’d come from Dakar, Senegal, which has had only one case (a Guinean) who since recovered. Another senior Ivorian couple were travelling on a tour bus in Dubai when they noticed that everyone was sitting as far from them as possible. They wondered what was going on when an Australian on the bus plucked up the courage to ask them: ‘Do you have Ebola?’ Unbelievable.

As one of West Africa’s key economies, the results of one case in Ivory Coast would be severe, not least to goals of double-digit growth. Of course the country now has had plenty of time to prepare – unlike the three principally affected countries, there’s no excuse for being caught on the back foot. Since I visited in April, it’s not been possible to eat bush meat, and now controls are in place at the airport (though I hear VIPs generally get excused the hand washing). Even salutations have changed and prayers at the mosque, so I hear.

Without wanting to be complacent, one would hope that the country is now in a good position to cope. Communication campaigns are underway, emergency procedures practicised, and guidelines issued. Privately, Ivory Coast’s web community have been playing their role to spread the word about the importance of washing hands. The government’s measures probably rank as the most severe in terms of shutting borders and banning flights from affected countries. The examples of Senegal and Nigeria are heartening that when Ebola arrives in more developed African states, things can be controlled. Let’s hope it never arrives.

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Finding a tie for the president

President Ouattara was in Dubai this week – not for the Lady Gaga concert, but rather for a West African monetary zone investment forum. There wasn’t the time for a general meeting with the Dubai Ivorian community, but there was a meeting with 20 or so Ivorian ‘cadres’ of which I was lucky enough to be counted among. We met the president in a hotel suite at the Jumeriah Beach hotel for about an hour; a rather formal affair with a speech from the (self-appointed) representative of the ‘Dubai Ivorian community association’ (for which the association earned $20,000), and then a decent pep talk from the president.

It had been a busy week and a busy day left me with 15 minutes to throw my suit on and get out of the door for the presidential meeting. At that point I discovered that I’d already sent all my ties back to the UK. I rushed out the door hoping to find a shop, but as I left the building I noticed the security guard had a rather nice blue tie. I asked if he had a spare I could borrow, and he said no. Ten metres out of the door, he came running after me and said his colleague might have a spare one, and so it came to pass that I wore the parking attendant’s tie to meet the president.

The president seemed pleased (and surprised) to see me, as did several ministers. Being a journalist really opens up access to high places. Funny that these guys used to be all trapped in the Golf hotel, and you could only visit them by helicopter.

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The world of English-language blogs on Ivory Coast is not a big one, so I was delighted to discover this new blog today: Attiekeland. Enjoy!

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The web

The World Wide Web was really well-named. Most days on social media feel like I’m trying to attach strands to all the content that’s out there to link it to my online world. It wasn’t like that in the beginning. In the embryonic stages in Abidjan everyone on Facebook added everyone else in Abidjan on Facebook. You felt it was manageable.

But the growth is exponential. Every few days I discover a new Ivorian blog, which goes immediately into my Feedly reader. Or I find new pages and new dynamic people doing things I never heard of. I’m pretty organised about this, though I realise 2013 was a bit of a lost year on social media for me. But I’m sure most people aren’t so thorough, which stresses me out a little. It means some people are doing cool things in Ivory Coast but they may never have heard of Edith Brou, JP Ehouman, Federic Tape, Diaby Mohamed, Akendewa, Fanta, Yehni etc. How can we work together and form a community when we’re generally not listening and following each other? My goodness, a lot of people just read blogs when they remember to visit because they haven’t worked out RSS and readers.

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If there’s one sector that’s buzzing at the moment in Abidjan, it’s contemporary art – so much so that some friends of mine have just started a hashtag dedicated to the scene –
#‎ArtBidjan. During my few days in Abidjan, there was a lot to see, with new exhibitions at the Rotunde in Plateau and at galleries in Cocody, including an entirely new gallery, Basquiat run by Ivorian artist Jacob Bleu.

On Thursday afternoon/evening (17 July) you could have caught the expo of top Ivorian artists at Cecile Fakhoury, at 6pm watched the film avant-premiere of 21 at the Maison des Architects, which is about 20 metres away, and then travelled to either the Donwahi, less than 1km away for a talk by Ivorian-Lebanese photographer Moustafa Cheaiteli, (and where there’s also a great display including new work by Joana Choumali), or travelled to the INSAAC for a William Tell play, or even (from memory), writer Veronique Tadjo at the Institut Goethe. All of this is roughly in a 1km radius in old Cocody.

Hopefully the new hashtag should help us all keep track.

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Ivorian Tycoons

I’ve just finished reading the latest issue of ‘Tycoon’ magazine – Ivory Coast’s magazine for the business-minded elite from the Voodoo communications empire. It has an unmatched level of professionalism from the superb photos of Ivory Coast’s elite managers in sumptuous surroundings, to the thick glossy pages. Inside, you’ll see little talk of poverty, conflict and amateurish services – instead almost everyone featured is a success (though knowingly modestly so). Profiles include successful students just starting out (‘On the way’, ‘Tomorrow belongs to them’) to ‘Life of an entrepreneur’ rubrics. Many seem to follow a similar path – a good high school (a hint that there’s often a privileged background), Ivorian high education (INPHB and ENA feature strongly), then a top job for a few years, followed by a masters in the West and then another top job back home.

It’s all very seductive and mixed with adverts for luxury cars and mobile phone networks. In the West, there would be adverts for expensive watches and perfume as well, though apparently this advertising market isn’t well developed in Abidjan. As with other Voodoo publications, there is a fair bit of cross-promotion of the mother company and its other products (cf. since the Life Star nightclub opened, Voodoo’s lifestyle magazine ‘Life’ has hardly shown photos of another club).

In real life, some of these elite folks are very impressive. They can be dynamic, open and intelligent, and to a man/woman they are elegantly dressed. On the downside though, you can’t help feeling there’s a fair bit of bluffing as well. Many of these companies / government departments offer a very poor service, and there’s a fair bit of incompetence even at some of the highest levels – the buck stops with these managers. Arrogance and pride is an area that only a few, but far from all, manage to avoid. It’s hard to imagine the mocking comedy ‘The Office’ being filmed in this context. I’ve never heard it mentioned by Ivorians. Managers are not to be lampooned, but worshipped.

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Growing up in Ivory Coast

As I start to think more about parenthood with a new-born on the way, I’m increasingly attuned to the contrast between raising kids in the West and in Ivory Coast. The latter has its attractions – for instance, finding babysitters is not a problem parents worry about; as my wife says, you’ll have to fight to see your baby with all the people wanting to take care of her. The extra hands will certainly make a difference.

In another area though I have more concerns. I have some very intelligent young children among my Ivorian nieces and nephews, but they spend all day watching television, and their parents can give them very little attention sometimes. It’s extremely rare to see children reading books and playing with educational toys, even in well-endowed families. iPad educational games are of course rare. While there are clearly dangers in the often seen western extreme of rushing children from one educational activity to the next (violin lessons, soccer practice, art class, etc), there’s something wonderful about getting that type of ‘renaissance’ education. With the means and the right approach, Abidjan of course offers extra-curricular activities in easy reach. My concerns I guess are wider; on the plus side, Ivorian children are raised with good social skills (they play with everyone and warm quickly to adults, even strangers) but without the well-rounded education/hobbies.

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Customers are kings

There’s a stereotype about how we-don’t-care attitudes ruin state companies. In Ivory Coast, the change of government sadly doesn’t seem to have changed much at all (plus ca change…). Take an example from the last few weeks. I was interested in finding out more about new projects by the long-running state building company, Sicogi. So, I went to the website ( – btw, an extremely heavy website) and downloaded the latest brochure. The website seems to be up-to-date because it’s wishing me ‘Happy New Year 2014’ (note to self, check website on 1 January 2015 and post to FB if the banner hasn’t changed).

1. There was a project I was interested in, so I emailed the contact email provided ( I immediately received an error message from the domain: ‘email address unknown’. I took to Facebook to complain.

2. I happened to be in Abidjan for a few days, and there was a Sicogi billboard advert, this time with the contact email I sent them an email asking for information about their luxury developments in Cocody. No reply.

3. Then one of my contacts on Facebook wrote to me to say that he had a relative who worked for Sicogi, and provided me with their personal and work email addresses. I emailed and a day later I was sent a curt email (‘fichier ci-joint’ – ‘see attached’) with a PDF brochure that has a completely different set of projects to the ones on the site.

Now, I don’t think I really need to spell it out, but I will. You are in the construction sector seeking clients who are willing to invest up to $180,000 on one of your projects, and you provide old information on your website, faulty emails and curt responses to people possibly ready to send you their life-savings. L’emergence, ce n’est pas pour demain.

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