January 20, 2001

Some countries don't work

Posted in Sunday Business Post ·
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The soldier’s eyes were as yellow as egg yolks — probably as a result of too many illnesses, particularly malaria, which is endemic on the Ivory Coast. His gun, and those of the rest of the company, were very real.

We gave him $20. He waved at his mates and our car passed through the checkpoint. We drove on into the half-lit city via shanty towns teeming with pigs and children playing in open sewers. We continued up a pot-holed highway that was lined on either side with hundreds of teenage prostitutes touting for business at $1 a pop.

We passed the immense coastal inlet where at ebb tide dead rats and rusting machinery are visible. The stench in the city is overwhelming.

This is Abidjan, the Ivory Coast’s de facto capital. Apparently, it is the jewel of West Africa, a city referred to as the Paris of Africa.

Ivory Coast is the richest country in West Africa, yet it is hardly a country in the proper sense of the word. For a country to exist, we would expect a functioning government at least. Here government means some electricity at night and the army keeping the peace by day in the centre of town. Once darkness falls, the army cedes huge areas of the shanty towns to local gangs and mobsters.

The government gave up trying to rule the interior years ago. There is no tax collection framework. There is no state system for health or education. The population is exploding. Drug trafficking is rife. The situation is volatile.

The country’s international airport employs private security because the army is too busy touching the handful of foreign visitors for a score here and there. Over 70 per cent of the population live in shanty towns on the outskirts of cities and towns. It is reckoned that close to 80 per cent of the people are illiterate.

Downtown, amid the crumbling French colonial architecture, restaurants have gun-wielding guards who walk you the 15 feet or so between your car and the entrance. This is reassuring; the Italian ambassador was killed by gunfire when robbers invaded an Abidjan restaurant.

When I visited in 1998, university students in the city caught bandits who had been plaguing their dorms and executed them by hanging tyres around their necks which they then set on fire. Ivorian policemen, afraid to intervene, stood by and watched the `necklacings’. The mob rules.

Every time I left the hotel, groups of young men with restless, scanning eyes surrounded my taxi, putting their hands all over the windows, demanding `tips’ for carrying my luggage. Everywhere, there are similar young men, hordes of them.

In the main, these youngsters come from the north of the country. An African friend told me that the widespread practice of polygamy means that many of the youngsters have a mother in one part of the country and a father in another. As more and more people move off the land to the cities, the ties of these families loosen.

Just as quickly the hardwood forests are being felled. In the Ivory Coast, the proportion of land covered by forests has fallen from 38 per cent in 1970 to 8 per cent today. The deforestation causes soil erosion, leading to flooding and more mosquitoes. Virtually everyone in the West African interior has some form of malaria.

With problems like these and the evident implosion of central government — where even the currency is printed in France — you have to question whether these West African countries are countries in a meaningful sense. A quick look at the map indicates that describing these places as countries or nations is a bit overblown.

In West Africa, population density increases as you move south away from the Sahara. Yet the borders erected by European colonialists are vertical.

The countries are, therefore, at cross purposes with the demography and topography of the nations. Satellite photos illustrate the same reality: the entire stretch of coast from Abidjan eastward to Lagos in Nigeria is one burgeoning megalopolis. This should be one horizontal country, rather than the five (the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria) into which it is currently divided.

Not only do the physical borders make little sense, but the states are equally meaningless. Ravaged by disease and a lack of law, they are imploding. In many parts of the interior, the local private militia is the state. With the population exploding and environmental degradation continuing on a monumental scale, the future for these millions of people looks very bleak.

Despite all this evidence, the West has decided to be blind to these realities, preferring to regard Africa through the highly optimistic post-colonial kaleidoscope of the 1960s independence movements.

We look on African countries as poor versions of ourselves. Our working assumption still seems to be that, if we help these countries with assistance and trade and bestow legitimacy on their ineffective and dysfunctional governments, they will achieve our standards of living. This is absolute nonsense, yet the charade continues.

For example, this weekend former president Mary Robinson is in town in her capacity as High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations. Few have a problem with a human rights brief, but in the context of the UN it is a bit odd, because the basic working model of the UN does not stand up to scrutiny.

If nations that comprise the United Nations are not functioning, let alone united, what is the point of the institution other than to ignore reality and envelope global politics in a shroud of wishful thinking? In reality, the world is split not between right-wing and left-wing countries, but between virtual, notional countries and actual, functional nations.