The dry season’s dust has again settled on Conakry’s streets, aside from a few marks of ashes and rubble on the sides of the main avenues, everything seems to be back to the bustling normal. Just about ten days ago, things looked quite different in the Guinean capital. On February 20th, a nation-wide general strike in the education sector culminated in violent demonstrations, which took the government by surprise. Seven people were shot dead by state forces, thirty were injured and a dozen arrested, numerous vehicles were burnt, and a gas station and a police commissariat were pillaged. Though Conakry has experienced plenty of similar events during the past decade, there are a number of reasons not to write this off as simply another instance of urban violence. Continue reading
CategoryEmerging African middle class
In an earlier blog post, Mats Utas discussed the emerging Liberian middle class.[i] I found this text both refreshing and intriguing, and was asked to offer a written response to it. I hope it succeeds in developing some of the original concepts in equally refreshing and intriguing ways.
In his essay, Utas held the sport utility vehicle (SUV) as the perfect symbol of the emerging Liberian middleclass. I completely agree with this comparison (although I would say that this middle class has already emerged). Firstly, the SUV is larger than the yellow commercial taxis that those who don’t own cars need to primarily rely on. The SUV thus not only gives status, but is safer in the dangerous traffic of Liberia. Simultaneously it is important to note that SUVs are still typically cheaper than the jeeps favored by most expatriates and the elites who can afford them – thus the middle. Secondly, as they are typically equipped with larger wheels and four-wheel drive, they are much more reliable when faced with the bad infrastructure of most roads in and especially outside Monrovia. One should remember that some of the emerging “posh” areas are not easily accessible by yellow taxis: there is neither regular service there, nor would the road conditions make reaching some areas easy. Lacking infrastructure thus reinforces the separation between the have’s and the haven-not’s. Continue reading
He looks very frustrated behind the steering wheel of his SUV. He is making his way over the sandy road; crisscrossing between the people walking from the beach. There are many close escapes as his car skids in great speed and nearly out of control. Indeed when he reaches the junction he has angered enough people. Traffic is now blocking his way forward and as he tries to make his way around yet another car he must slow down. He is very intoxicated. Maybe he has been fighting his girlfriend? He is forced out of his car. An argument starts and within soon he starts to fight. A bottle cracks on his head and the situation looks ugly. The air is tense. It is in the late afternoon and a national holiday. The whole area is packed with people. Down the road riot police has just entered an area where the beach hotel holds a show. Young people are feverously trying to jump the fence and there is a scrimmage on the inside. The commander of the riot police tells me he will clear the area so we can enter in safety. There is still tension hanging in the Liberian air, but it is a different kind than during the years of civil strife. Liberia has moved on.
Mainstream European media portrays Angola as a country characterized by extraordinary economic growth, widespread corruption, a questionable democracy, a state totally dominated by the ruling MPLA party and glaring inequalities between the poor and the rich. This is a valid picture, but there are other stories to be told. If I compare the capital city of Luanda of today with the Luanda I used to know when I worked here more than twenty years ago, the first thing that comes to my mind is the absence of watchful soldiers and heavy military vehicles. Since 2002 peace has been stable. This means that mothers do not have to worry about their 16 years old sons being sent to the frontier. It also means that millions of persons no longer flee across the country to Luanda. Instead citizens of Luanda take the opportunity to visit relatives in other provinces, and goods and commodities circulate more easily. World Bank statistics indicate that in 1992, one of the worst years of the war, life expectancy at birth in Angola was as low as 41 years. Since then this figure has increased by 25% to 51 years in 2012. There are still enormous problems in the health and education sectors, but the peace in itself has brought a better life to many people after more than three decades years of war. An important reason behind the stability of the peace is the government’s direct access to natural resources, primarily in the form of oil and diamonds, which has made it possible for them to buy the loyalty of former rebel soldiers and their officers. Low ranking former UNITA rebels have been given income opportunities, sometimes as guards in private security companies, and in comparison with their past as UNITA soldiers, most of them live better today. Former UNITA generals have been afforded with a slice of the country’s wealth, for instance in the form of concessions to diamond mines, and they have been incorporated into the national army. Another important reason behind the stability is that the MPLA government has been wise enough to avoid publicly humiliating the defeated UNITA militaries. Instead, the MPLA rhetoric has focused on the party’s capacity to bring peace to the people.
Finally I got the chance to see Jens Assur’s photo exhibition Africa is a Great Country at Liljewalchs in Stockholm. There have been a lot of discussions concerning the provocative Africa-is-a-country title and this has partly overshadowed the content. Is the title ironic or not? Colleagues of mine have already discussed this at NAI Forum. Assur himself states, in his introductory text to the exhibition, that it is meant as an irony directed towards Swedes who still talks about travels to “Africa” – as a monolith – and doesn’t break the continent down into the 50 + countries it contains of. But he doesn’t clarify why he pairs “great” with Africa as a country. Is that also an irony? That is probably not his intention; yet it comes out as a not a very thought through title. Or maybe it is; maybe it has been one of the few ways to lure an audience to an otherwise rather dull exhibition?