9/11 …we shall not forget

by: Firouzeh Afsharnia

Another 9/11 anniversary has come and gone.   Flags were hoisted, solemn words of remembrance were uttered, pictures of the fallen were hung on virtual and real walls; and the words….”…we shall not forget” were heard over and over, even as the war on terror rages on and the White House makes a case for an imminent strike against Syria that could most certainly bring about willful death to others.

12 years have passed since the day the world grieved with us, held up candles in silent mourning across the globe and stood with us in solidarity, friend and foe alike, condemning the attacks as a crime against all humanity, against all that we hold dear, just and decent.   How did we transform such abundance of good will to a lecture on the importance of international law, merits of peaceful dialogue and a plea to “…return to the path of civilized settlement”  – by an autocratic, human rights usurping ex-KGB agent no less?

The past decades have been marked by periods of unspeakable violence.   Two world wars, genocides, protracted armed conflicts, man made and natural disasters have lead to unprecedented human devastation leaving us all with tales of human tragedy and injustice we shall not forget; and yet it seems we have done little but transform these events into more tragedy.

The first World War, the war to end all wars, ended in the defeat and humiliation of the Germans at the Versailles convention leading to the rise of nationalism and the Nazi mobilization which destroyed Europe and incinerated millions based on misguided principals of Aryan exceptionalism.

The allied armies emerged victorious over the evils of fascist tyranny only to install the Cold War order across Asia, Africa and Latin America, arming and funding client states which tortured and maimed their own citizens, waging proxy wars ostensibly to uphold “righteous” causes, though not before dropping two atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The fall of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, far from ushering in a new era of peace and cooperation, unleashed decades of repressed grievances and flooded the world with arms and ammunition, the majority of which were traded by the same guarantors of global peace who sit on the Security Council.

As the African continent grapples with hacked bodies, rape, massacre and death of millions from Mali and Sudan to the Congo, CAR and beyond, the Arab spring has turned to cold ashen winter, the budding promise of democracy chocked under the dictatorial armies of the past regimes and the ruthless fundamentalism which has emerged after decades of political and economic injustice and metastasized through the endless war on terror.

This week – as we marked the anniversary of 9/11 to commemorate the fallen, we are engaged in yet another open ended threat to bolster our credibility as if the past 12 years of heavy handed, expanded militarism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and beyond have not made it amply clear that the U.S. is credible in the single minded pursuit of its own brand of exceptionalism which lectures, demands and strikes at will all the while immunizing itself against accountability to International institutions like the ICC, as well as to its own citizens if they threaten to blow the whistle.

This week the main drivers of the attack on Syria – Israel, U.S.  hawks, and humanitarian interventionists alike, continue to make their case invoking human tragedies past and present …reminders of what we must not forget.

Israel will lobby through the powerful AIPAC, pushing for a strike while evoking images of gassed victims in the Holocaust, even as they hold millions of Palestinians under open-ended occupation in ghetto like existence, and work toward ever more crippling sanctions against 75 million Iranians.

Obama’s close circle of liberal advisors like Samantha Power and Susan Rice will push for intervention conjuring memories of the Rwandan genocide while they turn a blind eye to the current support of that same government for the looting and pillaging rebels in Eastern Congo.

The Rwandan state, a poster child for the interventionists and a symbol of what the world must not forget; having defeated the Hutu genociders, for its part has steadily taken up authoritarian measures, stripping human rights, repressing political opposition as enemies of state, sponsoring assassinations of dissidents abroad; and has enshrined “genocide denial” as a crime punishable by imprisonment.

This week pictures of the 1400 dead lying on the cold floor in Syria will be brandished in our living rooms reminding us of all that we must not forget, while images of those killed by drones, missiles and bombs in Afghanistan and Yemen are filtered out.

This week we continue to make our case, reliving the trauma of 9/11 to give us the mandate to pursue justice and national interests whenever and wherever, to create new traumas.

On this anniversary of 9/11, I mourn all those who died innocent and in vain, whether in Syria, New York, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Yemen, or in concentration camps across Europe, with the hopes that we finally stop living traumas of the past — instead focus on preventing new ones.

Playing Jazz in the Rainy Season: Stories from Africa!

cross-Uganda-DRC_21

The rains have finally come.

Loud.

Ferocious.

Torrential.

It startled me early this morning and practically threw me out of bed as it pounded against the windows; wailing through the seams of the sliding glass door; demanding to be let in.

It’s midnight now. The lights flicker across the river like murmurs of another world whispering — come to me.  Take off your shoes; leave your hair entangled from the night before and skip across the dark waters.  Come play with the happy children; hold my hand; let me look into your eyes. I will tell you everything.

Tord Gustavsen is playing on the stereo.   Jazz – that exquisite other worldly music that washes over me when I am covered with the dust of this potholed city – my very own secret passageway to a parallel universe where people sip vintage wine, keep their virtual wealth in their digital portfolios; debate the existential paradigms of life and death over pretty food and later ponder while savoring Italian espresso; why do they hack limbs in Africa?

Did you know that the skies are starless here? Opaque, unrelenting and sealed shut.  Not a shooting star. Not a glow of light. Not a breath of hope.  Just the moon at times rising up to take note of who was taken away in a wooden box earlier that day and tell the child witches sleeping in the cemetery on the Avenue of Independence to hush up before they are dragged away.

Smoke-filled heat choking by day.

Darkness gripping by night.

It’s the rainy season and the mist slowly descends on invisible lines of trapeze laying out warm, delicious beds for those elusive winged creatures. Wake up; they say in a muted buzz. Its time to multiply. Soon more will rise from newly hatched eggs to feast on the sun-scorched bodies of men, women and children whose bellies are half full of the same thing they had two days ago, black beans soaked up in dough. And that’s on a very good every other day.

They say God is Congolese.  But if this is his home, then surely he must have lost his keys.

Crystal drops from another world run unexpected up and down the piano, then holds to let the music breath; and I hold to listen through the colors of the open voicings. It has started to drizzle.  One. Two. Three. And suddenly the skies erupt like a madman and the flickering lights across the river drop into the mist and vanish in a blink. The heavens crack and a deluge is released breathless into the night; unleashing a mad rush upon the city, washing over the dust, washing over the disease, the cracked garbage strewn lives, washing away the enclave of squatters I see day after day in that eternally unfinished construction across the way; kicking over their rusted pots and those rags hanging in the gaping holes staring through the half mortared bricks in the exposed frames of their lives; washing away the gawkers, peddlers and the hangers-on sleeping in bundles; knocking over the phone card salesmen and the fixer uppers nodding off in their plastic chairs down on each street corner. This must be how the unwanted get recycled on this continent.

The sliding glass door to my balcony shimmers – then shakes violently; rumbling through the floor — a stern warning, a small reminder of my insignificance.

The music drowns in the steady drone of the deluge and a violent lash of lightening sends me cowering behind the kitchen counter for fear that the gods may shatter the glass and come for me. Thunder lashes again and again against the window and I am completely deafened to everything but its existence.

The parallel universe of those exquisite harmonies is light-years away; far, far in another time, another place where man is the master of his destiny and rules his world.  Even the illusion of control breeds hope I am told.

Here – in the heart of darkness – under the starless skies I am invisible and nature is the daily reminder that it holds all the cards.  Be silent and obey, it thunders.

You are nothing.

As much as man is dominant in that otherworldly plane, nature is the master here, reminding man of his insignificance every day; until finally — he knows it to be true.

When I leave I will cry and miss the rains.

Finally, I understand the quiet resignation in their eyes.

It has been a whole year.  And Africa is creeping inside me slowly … slowly… every day.


 

Gaza: A Fundamentalist’s Guide to Gravity

A few years ago I was traveling through Africa and found my self in a rickety cab. As I bounced up and down in the lumpy back seat, shifting spots to avoid the broken springs and whatever was festering in the exposed paddings, another passenger got in and sat in the front seat.  He was in a jovial mood and had just passed some sort of certification exam.  “I passed! I passed!” He declared.

First I thought it was a college exam, or some life changing professional achievement.   Turns out it was an HIV/AIDS test.   And if you know anything about Africa, you know the importance of such a test.  Conversation rolled from AIDS to lack of employment, poverty, state corruption, war; then the passenger sighed and said.

“You know, I really admire Ben.” The driver agreed.  “Oh yes. Ben. He is a great man.   We need somebody like him here in the Congo.”

I wondered who Ben was.  I had lived in the country for months, and not heard of anyone by that name.  “Sorry — Ben?  Who is Ben?”  I interjected from the back seat, shifting over the lumps and bumping my head violently on the ceiling as the cab cleared another pothole.

“Ben!  You don’t know Ben?  Madame!  He is very famous.  Il est Genial.”

“Ben what?  Who are you talking about?”

“Laden.”  Both men chimed. “Bin Laden!”

Amazing! Here I was in a Christian country.  The Moslem population in Congo is miniscule, and yet Bin Laden represented something of a hero – a symbol of resistance to a higher injustice.

I have traveled almost ten years in Africa.  On this continent, the narrative often goes like this:  Bin Laden was a hero, Ahmadinejad should be admired for standing up to the West, Ghaddafi will be remembered for the many mosques and schools he built; and the Palestinians – well, Palestinians are the very embodiment of suffering; the equivalent of Jungian archetypes for victims of all things unjust, unfair and hypocritical; the ultimate evidence that the lectures on human rights by the masters of the world, and all that talk of democracy are nonsense. Palestinians are the very essence of pain and resistance with whom anyone from any corner of space and time can relate to and stand with in solidarity.

In Africa, most people are only too familiar with hopelessness, lack of recourse, lies, oppression and co-opted systems in which they have no part. They are also familiar with the basic reality that desperate people beget desperate actions.  And when all other options fail, in the absolute vacuum of hope, the most radical elements will emerge to reinvent their own brand of justice to right all the wrongs that cannot find recourse in alternate forums.

This week as rockets fly overhead, the headlines on the 24 hour news cycles focus on the terrorist strikes at the urban centers of Israel. Newly elected Barack Obama who has evidently forgotten that he has nothing to fear from AIPAC anymore, releases his stale clichés on Israel’s “right to defense” even as he stands with his Nobel Prize counterpart and lectures the Burmese Junta on the rights of dignity and equality for all people.  The narrative in the U.S. focuses on “terror” in Israel and the 90% Israeli support for the attacks on Gaza.   Indeed the CNN poll shows that 57% of our own citizenry are in favor of the strikes, evidence of the complete disconnect from context at the confluence of selective reporting, ideology and middle class consumerism.

That the Jerusalem post has printed an op-ed to the effect that entire communities should be flattened in Gaza, left without water, electricity and basics has not triggered outrage in this country, nor has it made a dent in the absurd notion that Gaza has had self-determination since 2005. America’s mainstream stands with Israel.  Congress stands with AIPAC. And Operation Pillar of Defense plays out as a bad sequel to Operation Cast Lead – as if the obscenity of the title in itself is not an outrage.

The casualty figures at the bottom of the TV screen in fact tell the whole story.  Day 6 of the conflict. Gaza: 107 dead; Israel: 3 dead.

Israel maintains it is only pursuing “terrorists” and the rest are unfortunate collateral losses. They even go so far as to say that casualties are results of a deliberate Hamas strategy of employing civilians as human shields, thereby disassociating the reality of the cause of the militants from its fundamental connection to the perpetual anger of a humiliated people – one, an inevitable consequence of the other  — like gravity.

Mr. president – for all the talk of not wishing to lead from behind and being a force for good; for the $1.4 trillion spent to date in pursuit of jihadists; and for the thousands sacrificed in the fight for what has been summarily dismissed as mindless terrorism, how about walking the talk of justice and focusing on the oldest grievance in the Middle East.

How can you pretend to push for human rights by upholding a six-decade Cuba policy while washing your hands from the crushing Israeli blockade of Gaza.

How can you reconcile your crippling sanctions on Iran for possible breach of NPT commitments, while vetoing any measure that would condemn Israel’s continued occupation in violation of International law.

How can you rise up in defense of Libyans and Syrians while staying mum on the continued aggression against Palestinians.

How can you rationalize your national outrage responsible for waging two wars in pursuit of one man culpable of killing 2900 Americans in 9/11, without on some level understanding the outrage against decades of Palestinian humiliation, displacement and occupation and the need to avenge it.

How can you expect to further the cause for democracy and peace if you don’t play the part of the unbiased advocate for dignity for all people.

How do you expect to hold back the wave of anger against the U.S. and the creation of a new generation of activists every time you opt to read from the “unconditional support” script, brandish the lone veto on the Security Council and value the Israeli life over that of a Palestinian.

Gravity is a fact. Those who pretend to live in a void may never fully grasp its meaning. But they are no less susceptible to its effects.

Congo Elections: Where is my Vote ?

Election 2011

UDPS

“I can give you the final calendar this afternoon.  I can’t do it right now because it is in the SEP’s office and he is in Kinshasa.”
“Oh, so he will return this afternoon?”
“…Meme demain – could be tomorrow.”
“But you said I should come back this afternoon.”
“Yes, because he is not here. He is in Kinshasa…”

 *** *** ***

 

The head of the Independent Elections Commission and the President’s good friend finally made the announcement and it came as no surprise that Joseph Kabila was the winner of 2011 Presidential Elections of the Dem Rep of Congo.   Ex-pats and observers alike braced themselves for the wrath of Etienne Tshisekedi’s opposition party, UDPS, and those who could, left the country for the friendly warmth of South Africa and beyond.

 

 The last elections I participated in were in 2006.  At that time the international community was driving the process. A Washington PR firm had been retained to brand the young Joseph Kabila, and every step of the election process was being spoon fed and hand delivered for the Congolese who got to sit in the back seat, enjoy the scenery and democratize by osmosis.   Large Technicolor billboards of Kabila dwarfed the other 32 candidates. The bold captions read: “Artisan de la Paix” – Artisan of Peace – a fitting title for a newly emerging country after a decade of civil war.  

So when Joseph Kabila took the eastern provinces by a landslide it did not surprise anyone.   His major rivals were Azaria Ruberwa and Jean Pierre Bemba – two warlords responsible for large scale massacres with the backing of Rwanda and Uganda.   I remember someone wrote “toka!” on Bemba’s face and voted Kabila.   It means — get lost! The vote was annulled because of the double marking yet it encapsulated the sentiment at the time.   Kabila had brought peace.  He had agreed to share power in a transition that included his adversaries. Who does that in Africa?   There was a lot of feel-good to go around and as the polling station drew to a close in the wee hours of the morning I looked around at the dozing witnesses and election agents, feeling happy to be sharing the night with my fellow Congolese at the birth of their new democracy.  

To be fair there have been some new roads, mostly to access mineral sites or in the center of town.   Kinshasa’s Blvd 30 June, marking the Day of Independence from the Belgians, and previously known as the dilapidated potholed stretch dividing the ex-pats from the locals is now sporting a brand new makeover with street lights, even traffic signs – digital!  Some new office buildings have also gone up to accommodate the influx of new players and of course a giant monument is going up commemorating the “5 Chantiers”.  However if you should venture out to any of the local quarters, it will be abundantly clear that outside of elite circles not much has changed for the ordinary Congolese. 

Campaigning for Kabila

Five years later the Congolese are running their own elections.  I went back as an observer to a distinctly different mood. Eastern Congo is as unruly as ever, exploitation of children, women and minerals is still a reality and the West has had to make room for China who has pledged billions in infrastructure projects and whose Africa policy can only be summed up as “don’t ask, don’t tell”.    This year’s elections were all about reconstruction and modernization. The new caption on the billboards read “5 Chantiers” – “Na Rais 100% Sur” – five infrastructure projects – with the President, a 100% sure.  The message was hammered close to 100% — 24/7 on public and private airwaves funded by state resources after the constitution was changed from a two tour to a single round plurality of votes handing Kabila the winning cards even before the games began.

The airport route to Grand Hotel Kinshasa is the same garbage infested stretch where hundreds of thousands of marginal lives claim their spots on piles of rubble and putrefying refuse eking out a few hundred francs against a grimy backdrop of crumbling structures.    In local neighborhoods, barefoot children, ragged and un-bathed, play in the trash, looking for something that could pass for a toy, and when the rains come, a deluge fills the potholes, swelling up in mud and sewage creating putrid lakes that float across the streets, nurturing mosquitoes and pests until the stagnant waters slowly subside leaving new formations of the old debris.

Across the country, most Congolese live from hand to mouth, civil servants go unpaid for years at a time, scarce employment is a function of ethnic ties, corruption and begging is a major source of livelihood, and the Congolese franc has sunk in a freefall – also 100% since 2006.        

Even before Elections, alliances of convenience were forged with Kabila’s PPRD party, and many of the over one hundred parties rallied around the president securing future posts and only presenting candidates at the legislative level.  Those with money and resources churned out caps and T-shirts and proceeded to pay off the destitute population to gain support and buy votes.   Three weeks into the campaign the exchange rate dropped from 930 to 750 due to the large demand for cash.    When the civic education bus rode through town, the population ran up to grab free brochures and the crowds practically mobbed the party official when he stepped into the crowd with a bagful of hats –  if it’s free we want it!

We watched kabila’s campaign across the country and marveled at how dirt poor people laid out flat, nose to the ground as he walked past. We spoke to villagers in the hinterlands of his home state and heard a chorus of 100% Rais, not quite sure what a “chantier” was.  Traditional chiefs gave out orders to their subjects to vote for the son of their province and opposition flags were torn down, their homes and businesses attacked and burnt in remote enclaves like Malemba-Nkulu and Manono.  The message was clear: Don’t even think of it!

candidat numero 3

The President is from the province of Katanga, Tshisekedi is from Kasai. For some, that is reason enough.

I asked a priest we stayed with in Kamina if there had been any “5 chantier” work in his town.  He is from the President’s tribe.

“None.   Not even half a chantier”  

“You think people would still vote Kabila?”

“Absolutely!  People here understand it was not their turn yet.   But now we have the Blvd 30 June in the capital.  That is something every Congolese can be proud of.” 

A Boulevard.  One thousand miles away.  Even as people live in darkness and go hungry.   But what of the hundreds of thousands not from the President’s tribe? Where they happy to go hungry knowing there is a brand new boulevard in the capital?

Patronage and exploitation were parallel drivers.    A flurry of sale of mining assets at a fraction of market value funded the campaign; over 18,000 candidates most with no background in politics vied for a lucrative 500 spots at the National Assembly as a fast track to wealth and status; and ordinary people awaited cash handouts or presented themselves for hire as party witnesses.
 
Within minutes of an interview it would be clear many parties were temporary instruments of elections or else satellite replicas to increase chances at legislative representation. Meanwhile, I wondered why the simplest items such as voting cardboard booths were imported from China instead of seen as a chance to create local jobs.  
The campaign rhetoric seemed short on issues.  Instead, candidates paid local and national celebrities to sing their praise while girls wiggled in the background and footage of the Boulevard 30 June played over and over. The 28th November date approached at an increasing speed while in Lumumbashi, the compilation center was just being built. No one seemed concerned.   The SEP – the Provincial Executive Secretary of the Election Commission in Katanga seemed to have wandered onto the project by accident. He had no answers to anything and watched TV most of the day.  His staff responded to every question with: d’ici deux, trois jours – soon..in a few days — and final calendars were apparent only after events took place.

Less than a week to go, the polling sites were assigned, but there was one problem.   Many of them did not exist.   We spent hours mapping our observation route walking in and out of primary schools with six or eight small rooms declared as thirty, forty, sometimes fifty stations.      We continued to make the rounds of the voting stations to see if the tents had arrived.  Nothing.   Instead we found hungry policemen posted at every site, unpaid and unfed for two days, waiting to guard the ballots which, come Sunday night had still not arrived.   

 

Police Waiting for the Ballots

“Madame – we are hungry.  Madame – give me some money.” I thought how easy it would be for anyone to buy a stack of ballots from any one of them at the dead of night — assuming there were any.  

“Pas de probleme;” the response of the Commission was ever so non-chalant.   “We will send them tents.  Or they can just go vote in a nearby site!”

Tents?! Where?   It was now two days before E-Day and not only half the stations were missing, the ballots were still sitting in the main warehouse, waiting for deployment into distant territories.  

“We are thinking of using either the South African military, or the United Nations or a commercial carrier.”   — Thinking?

waiting...waiting...in the sun

 E-Day was more like D-Day – as in Disaster!   The helicopters hired to assist in the deployment, once landed in DRC demanded payment, fuel and lodging before anything.   It was not clear who was responsible for that – after all it’s not like they can fill up at a local gas station and bill later. Then at three AM, Monday morning, two jeeps containing ballots were attacked and set ablaze by armed men.  

Where is my name ?!

When dawn fell, many polls could not open. For many there were no ballots, not a single tent – worse — there were not enough polling stations, and many could not find their names on the voter’s list. As the sun rose up in the sky, the lines got longer, thousands of people tried to cram inside small compounds insisting they could not walk another 5 or 10 miles to a different site. Some polling agents locked themselves in refusing to face the angry crowds; others took off their uniforms and jumped the walls rather than risk being beaten up. Increasingly our car was targeted as the one with possible answers or solution to problems. At first we reasoned or tried to help, but as the crowds grew ever more furious, anger descended into violence and we fled just as they began stoning our car.

"Ballot already marked!!"

Tshisekedi supporters felt targeted.   Was this some sick strategy to discourage voter turnout?  No one from their party had been represented on the Election board.

Then another attack took place.  Unidentified commandos stormed a voting site, killed several and wounded others burning more ballots.  Text messages came in with facts and fiction as to who they were – secessionist groups; angry unpaid policemen; Gideon — the cannibal warlord’s body guard – or was it his cook!?  An EU observer texted these elections reminded him of a Monty Python episode; and I began humming the soundtrack to the movie Brazil. Could things get more surreal? 

The Day After the Rage...

Burnt Ballots

By the time all the ballots were distributed it was close to 5:00 pm Monday evening. Many were discouraged and returned home.   Polls closed eleven hours after they opened, which meant many stations did not even begin counting until 4:00 am the following morning.   By the time our station finished it was Tuesday night. The police had now been without food since the Friday before. They declared if they were to suffer yet another night, everyone else should too.  They would hold the polling agents locked up in the compound until the following morning when they were due to get paid and relieved of duty.  Only the two international observers could leave — an announcement which immediately created a flurry of pleas to get smuggled out in our jeep.  
 

Still Counting...

“I have not seen my children in three days now,” begged one woman. “I am going to lay down in the back of your jeep and you take me away with you.  Yes — you will do this for me.”    

“Yes.   I will do exactly that.”  I said to her.  I had no doubt in my mind that I would too – except that instead, we took off our observer hats and negotiated with the police chief: food for all — provided they let everyone go.

Observers were texting results from their respective stations.   Tshisekedi was doing well — ahead by a close or comfortable margin.  The opposition was making gains in spite of lack of access to media and resources.   By the following morning UDPS volunteer members were making their rounds in the city, writing down the final posted results outside the voting stations.  The mood was celebratory.  After 30 years of struggle, it seemed like they had a chance.      
 

In front of UDPS HQ

  *** *** ***

Rule number 1:  If you must hold elections in Africa, do not do so in the rainy season.

The compilation center did manage to be operational after all – well – sort of.   The SEP in his usual reactive self had not thought of the logistics of handling over 1,400 polling stations in such a small facility in the rainy season.  As yet another brilliant move the two attacked jeeps filled with the burnt ballots had been towed and left in the narrow driveway.  As the president of each polling station arrived, exhausted and hungry, they dumped the bag of ballots and certified results outside the entrance and went home to sleep.   It then rained furiously every night, others came and more bundles piled up.  Soon the front entry looked like a dumpster of mud and soiled bags and the intense foot traffic used them as walkways over to the compilation center at the back. The sight of distraught polling supervisors muttering to themselves and looking for their bags outside the compilation center became a regular scene.

 

Inside the center a convoluted process of tabulation was in progress. Curiously things had gone from total chaos to super controlled, highly focused and secretive. I walked in just as the president of the tabulation center was making an announcement that his agents were strictly forbidden to give out any information to the observers. Strange. Why invite observers – then proceed to block them? We hovered around playing passive aggressive with the supervisors and tried to get a glimpse of numbers being passed from the tables back to the transmission post whose agents would not even make eye contact. On occasion when we did get a glimpse, some of the numbers looked odd: Kabila at several hundred; Tshisekedi just a handful — with unusually high turnouts. The Commission began to release partial results. UDPS seemed puzzled. So were we. The results did not reflect what we had seen. Could we accidentally have picked a skewed sampling?

Then by pure chance a set of numbers caught the eyes of one of the observers as papers shuffled past the tabulation post. He quickly scribbled them down. This was the center which had been attacked, therefore the last one to close. Several observers had gone back to write down final results posted outside.  So had we. It seemed we all matched each other, but not with the compilation center. According to my notes, no station had more than 200 voters at that site, yet the final tabulated numbers reflected a range of 600-800 with Kabila scoring over 90%.  

  *** *** ***

PPRD boys

Grand Hotel Kinshasa was in a festive mood the night Kabila’s victory was announced. The Congolese elite wearing new outfits in colorful Kabila prints danced and drummed throughout the hotel corridors. Bottles of champagne chilled at the Atrium café and couples pranced about the hallways wrapped in yellow PPRD capes and Kabila scarves. A woman wearing way too much make up and jewelry darted forward to kiss me as I passed her in the hallway — probably wishing to thank the internationals for making all this possible.  Outside the hotel, adolescent boys wearing Kabila T-shirts and caps blowed vuvuselas and asked for money as hotel clients walked by.  Later, around midnight, the crowd fought over provided transport for a ride home.   

 

I left for Njili airport 6:00 AM, the following morning. Tens of thousands were making their long walks into town for another day’s livelihood and the stench of rotting garbage filled the air. Glimpses of the old rusted railroad flashed through the gaping holes of the crumbling walls running alongside the road.    Riot police mobilized under ravaged billboards of Joseph Kabila; and ripped up remains of what used to be “Rais Na 100%” curled up in the humidity.  
 

Kinshasa - less than 100%


It seems this part of town did not celebrate the night before. 
 

*** *** ***

Nos Freres: Les Kasaians

Kamina

 

If you ever should come to the Congo be sure and ask for a window seat for it is only then that you will appreciate the size of this immense country which spans over two time zones; and feel the disconnect between disparate population centers who have come to find themselves citizens of the same country by the simple fluke of a colonial pen.                                                     

 I finally gave up my “kiss me” hat for a bright blue Chinese made umbrella from the local market. I have realized in Africa it is the sun which is the ultimate tyrant. My follicles are burning and my hair is falling out. Soon I will need some of the same colorful extensions and polyester wigs that I see the African mammas wearing. I now understand the reason behind those giant head wraps.

 

Kamina, a city of 200,000, is the capital of Haut Lomami in Southeastern Congo. It is also the entry way from the Province of Kasai where the railway spills down from the north to the mining areas in southern Katanga bringing a steady migration of Kasaians from the time of the Belgians through the reign of Mobutu and up to today. This territory is also the heartland of the Luba people, birthplace of the current president and home to the grand chief of the ancient Luba empire. You would think any one of these reasons should be enough to give Kamina some importance – or at least the functioning basics. But you would be wrong. It is a dustbowl of dirt roads filled with grimy impoverished souls who live on subsistence farming and mostly go unemployed.

My team mate and I are staying at an abbey run by a very short and very round abbot priest who rents out rooms for $15 a night – and this is the five star of the city. There is no running water and yours truly makes do with a bucket of cold water that is filled and placed at my door every day. The town is generally in the dark at night but the five star abbot motel has electricity, albeit intermittent and extremely feeble due to overload on the local power facilities – and this is not exactly considered an appliance heavy zone. The faint flicker is just enough to keep you from bumping into walls at night but you can forget about reading. S,omehow the old TV in the communal room where the priests eat works, and every day for hours on end they sit captivated in front of a continuous loop of ad campaigns for Joseph Kabila with the number 3 flashing in the corner – that’s candidat numero trois!

The highlight of the week is Sunday when the whole town dresses up to attend one of the astounding numbers of churches of all shapes and colors, to worship and sing songs. The abbot also dresses up in his finest, hops on his motorcycle and zips to his parish to orate on the wisdom of the almighty who must have surely had good reason to ignore his children in this part of the world. He says he is a Luba — a true Katangan, and has taken it upon himself to enlighten the two of us observers with regard to the hazards of disorderly migration and its eroding effects on society.

“Nos freres, les Kasaians. They are our brothers of course.”

“Of course.”

“But you can’t just have people streaming into your home, taking away jobs. It creates problems, unemployment, insecurities. You can hardly walk at night in the cities any more. People will steal your money”

“People?”

I told him I have lived in the U.S. for a long time and I have moved and changed states four times.

“Exactly!” the priest cuts me off. “So you know what I mean! Meme chez vous, I am sure they did not just let you move to California comme ca!”

“Uh, actually — I just packed up my bags and left Massachusetts; — new electricity bill, new driver’s license. That was that.”

“Ah oui?! How is that possible? You did not have to inform anyone?”

“Well… Yes actually. The local post office, so they would not throw out my old mail”.

*** *** ***

One Week Later – Breaking News:

“…Clashes in the city of Kamina – 600 kilometers Northeast of Lumumbashi during elections campaign. In the opposition neighborhoods where the Kasais live, at least a dozen homes were burnt, a woman was raped, many businesses were pillaged…” We called our friendly priest to get the skinny but he declined comment. He said it must have been a simple misunderstanding and hung up.

*** *** ***

Elections in Two Acts

Low Res_0149

What separates Congolese Elections from ours are two things:  Music and Machetes!   The first marks the enthusiastic opening of the electoral campaign and the other, well… that’s in case anything goes wrong.

Act I — Music: The first week of campaigning went off with an explosion of song and dance, hundreds of multi colored flags and more party acronyms than I or anyone else can keep track of. Posters were hung up daily by hopeful candidates only to be torn down by their adversaries the following day. The campaign strategy of choice is small and large motorized caravans blasting music twenty-four-seven on boom box mounted trucks filled with young, exuberant, often unemployed men.

The mayor was clearly exasperated when he received us. “What’s the matter with these people.  No coordination, no nothing …. on fait juste comme ca!  boooo baaaa boooo baaaa.”    

The candidates basically come in two varieties – those with Polos and those without Polos – that’s a T-shirt to us Anglophones.  The first group plasters the streets and media with cinemascope pictures and round the clock advertising.  They also pay their finest pop stars to sing their praise on their privately owned TV channels. The second group mostly peddles toilette paper size ads door to door, hauling their own party flag on a radio mounted motorcycle, screaming into a megaphone from town square to rally.  

The UDPS opposition party has the iconic Etienne Tshisekedi as their candidate — a 30 year veteran politician and career adversary of power since the time of Mobutu — and he apparently has the scars to prove it.  The bulk of his followers are the large population of Kassaians in various provinces, although he hopes to capitalize on Jean Pierre Bemba’s untimely detention at The Hague for crimes against humanity. JP came in second in 2006 Elections.  But that is a whole other story.

Within minutes of our arrival, the doorways, front yard and gate entrance of UDPS headquarters are jammed with members and partisans, spilling out into the pavement and the street, each brandishing a rectangular red card — chanting and singing.

  “What’s that?”  I ask a young man who shoves his card in my face.

“Carton Rouge! Carton Rouge!”   

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Madame!  Don’t you watch football?”

“No.”

“Bon!  It’s a red card! It means he is out of the game. Kabila must go!”

“Ah! You see….us women – we don’t know anything about soccer.”

Of the hundred and forty plus parties, most are aligned with the President and are only campaigning for legislative seats. To increase chances at representation, many have nominated additional candidates through parallel parties which will probably crash and burn after the elections are over. Meanwhile it’s the true Katangan identity that is hanging in the balance.  Who is real and who is fake – the topic which one week later brings us to Act II – Machetes:

We are walking in one of the poorer neighborhoods where the campaign caravan of UDPS clashed with knife and machete wielding youth of UNAFEC who claim to be guardians of the true Katangan identity.   One person is dead, another in coma and forty others injured.  The burnt and vandalized carcasses of three minibuses are still blocking the neighborhood.  The head of UNAFEC who calls himself the BABA – or “Father” of Katanga has said there are too many “mosquitoes” in his living room… Oh, to be so close to the Rwandan border and still take the names of insects in vain.

Today Lubakat men with grass skirts and painted faces are dancing in the streets. Our hotel is filling up with armed guards and the square is packing with polo wearing groups holding up flags and banners. President Kabila is coming to town and people are climbing walls and hanging from trees to see him.  Meanwhile Tshisekedi has not started campaigning. He has proclaimed himself President.  From South Africa.  His followers say he is just kidding but I wonder if his plane will even be cleared to land. 


On CNN, another Republican candidate in the U.S. is squirming out of a sexual scandal. <yawn> …. sounds like a rerun to me.

Midnight in DRC: Let the games begin…

Park Hotel Lumumbashi

DR Congo: Katanga – part of what is known as the copper belt of Africa containing the largest reserves on the continent.  This is also where the uranium for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki  bombs were sourced.  Further up, there is coltan and casseterite for those of you fixated on the cell phone story – and of course there is gold — that curiously useless, yet endlessly coveted shiny material which proves the basic two driving forces of human survival – fear and greed. If you further count its inexplicable wooing effects on the female species, you have covered the third instinct – sex.  

Ruashi Mines

Like the rest of Congo, Katanga is a mosaic of cultures, ethnicities and languages — forty three to be exact — excluding of course all the “foreigners.” And by that I don’t mean me.   I have my very own special designation: “Muzungu” – White; which means people point and call me out gratuitously on the street; and at every traffic light a policeman will stick his head inside the car, address me directly and ask me for money. Just because.

No. Here, the foreigners are from the next door province – the Kasai – once again a legacy left by the Belgian colonizers who brought them en masse to work in mining areas, gave them positions of privilege over the Katangans, notably the Luba, and created a schism which was later manipulated by Mobutu and others culminating on their wholesale persecution and expulsion in 1992.  They called them insects and asked the population to rise up – a creepy echo of what was to happen next door in Rwanda only two years later. 

Except for the very dead and departed Mobutu, many from the same generation are still around to animate the political narrative of next month’s Elections in Congo.  Eleven candidates are running.   Etienne Tshisekedi, a Kasaian, is the heavy weight presidential contender and long time political veteran since the time of Mobutu when he was jailed and tortured. Along with nine others, he will be facing off President Joseph Kabila, himself an ethnic Luba and the proverbial son of Katanga, which is considered to be his natural fiefdom. There are also over 18,000 candidates running for 500 seats in the National Assembly from 147 political parties — how is that for a vibrant democracy?!

 

It is a few minutes past midnight and the Election campaign has officially kicked off.   There is commotion outside my window and I can already see groups of young men hoisted up on their cars and climbing walls to hang the posters of their favorite candidates.  In a few hours the city will be covered with hundreds of names and faces.  I have rented a room in an old colonial hotel facing the main town square.   An open air jeep with disco lights, ghetto amps and doctored headlights is zooming through the empty square blaring dance music and yelling political slogans on the megaphone. Vote for my guy! Vote for my guy! 

 

I quickly throw on my observer shirt, take my camera and run downstairs to join the half-drunk clusters of youth climbing whatever they can. Their excitement is palpable. They instantly pull me amidst them, shake my hand, twirl me around to read the writing on my shirt and pose for me.  They point to the pictures and say he is the one.  He is the best. This time — this one will remember us when he gets to Kinshasa.  You’ll see. 

 

Rebels in the Mist

Salon de Coiffeur

I am in Kalemie. Its hot like an oven. I picked up a hat on the street only to realize at the last minute, it says “Kiss Me!”. I have to check the code of conduct I signed and see if I am violating any observer rules. Adalbert is our driver – a skinny little guy with a big grin who clunks us around in his boss’s car for $50 a day of which he keeps 5 – and this is the city rate. If we leave town we need a 4X4 and the price shoots up to $150. That’s actually cheap. The muzungu rate starts at $250 per day courtesy of the sad state of the roads and lack of other options.

The town is in the northern part of the province besides the beautiful Lake Tanganyika. Somewhere else this coast might have been dotted with bars and restaurants – maybe even a resort or two. Here, the local “super” market is a 3X6 with a dusty counter piled up with powdered milk, sugary drinks and cheap biscuits from the Emirates; and the closest to a café is the dilapidated “Hotel du Midi” with plastic chairs serving beer. Like the rest of Congo, this place must have seen better days before the war but there are still hints of colonial charm with its fading remains in the backdrop. There is even a mid-century rusty train sitting at the edge of town which has probably not moved since the Belgians left.


Today, besides the endless sprawl of basic staples and used consumables, every other sign along the main road reads either: Pharmacy, Hairdresser, Vodacom; or else its a guy sitting under an umbrella with his feet propped up on a wooden box piled with stacks of decomposing Congolese bills. These days the road is also dotted with an alphabet soup of political parties and fly-by-night local NGOs hoping to make a few bucks by offering “support” services to their favorite candidate. The pharmacies have names of god, Christ and his extended family; the political parties are titled Democracy, Progress, Liberation and other such fictional concepts. The most credible are the hairdressers and money changers. At least their objectives are clear.

Salon de Coiffeur


Pharmacie

The dust and the pollution are suffocating. Hundreds of motorcycle taxis race up and down kicking up a reddish storm as they try to avoid the deep trenches on either side of the road. And when the Colonel roars through town in his three jeep open cortege like some kind of celebrity, everything gets lost in a blur leaving only two options: keep the window down and inhale it all, or roll the window up and bake nice and toasty!

“C’est colonel Igwe.” Adalbert beams with childish adoration as the uniformed man in the cocked beret standing up in the first jeep makes victory signs and zooms past almost knocking us over. “En tout cas on est tres contentes” — What is it with Africans and their love affair with Big Men?!

Apparently the Colonel has been reassigned by popular demand after a series of armed banditries in broad daylight, a couple even at the bank disbursing salaries of the U.N. personnel – now that’s what I call going too far. They said there were police and soldiers nearby but they watched and drank beer. That’s Eastern Congo for you — national currency: Impunity.

Elections are barely 6 weeks away but honestly just making it to a polling sites will be a challenge considering the state of the roads and the credit roll of the armed groups — among them war lords who eat their victim’s body parts, Mai Mai rebels who think water makes them invincible, and ex-genociders from Rwanda still at large – some now apparently with registration cards – add to that — Gold, Coltan and Casseterite – Karibu Elections indeed!

I hope the superstar colonel has a plan.

Soldiers

Ivory Coast: Sovereignty and the Price of Chocolate

IMG_0872

A shorter post this time – New Year present to my friend Ahmed who travels regularly from Alexandria, Virginia to Alexandria, Egypt; if only to confirm the obvious realities of globalization and to prove Thomas Friedman’s assertion that the world is indeed flat and crowded, even if not so hot this particular December.

It has been almost a month since the elections in Ivory Coast produced not one – but two presidents – one sworn in ceremoniously, wrapped in a regal sash, gushing in front of cameras at the presidential palace – the other hunkered down at the Golf Hotel where he took the wise precaution to retreat days before the election, just in case his adversary was to get any bright ideas. The French press is calling the latter, President of the Republic of the Golf Hotel on account of not been able to emerge since the results were declared that first week of December. The only thing standing between him and the army are 800 U.N. peacekeepers; each force behind their respective barricades allowing no one in or out, leaving no choice but to airlift food and provisions, not to mention a healthy supply of chocolate for the crepe stand in the lobby of the hotel where the grounds have been transformed into makeshift ministries and cabinet offices.

As incumbent President Gbagbo clings to power in Abidjan with the help of the army and state media, President elect Ouattara continues to consolidate his gains in the international community. The U.S and the French were among the first to recognize him followed by the European Union, the United Nations and the West African economic block – ECOWAS. The IMF and World Bank have withdrawn support and the EU has placed travel restrictions as well as targeted sanctions on Mr. Gbagbo and close circle hoping to make a dent perhaps by denying his two wives and entourage their regular shopping sprees in the left bank boutiques of Paris. Just last week as a final show of no confidence the General Assembly voted 192-0 recognizing Mr. Ouattara as the rightful head of the Ivorian state and sent the resident ambassadorial mission of Mr. Gbagbo packing. They left in a huff, taking all the computer and office equipment as consolation prize. Things can be so simple when states have fields of cocoa instead of oil.

Looking for other means of practical resistance, the West African Central Bank has ceded control of the state funds to Mr. Ouattara in an effort to choke the life line of President Gbagbo who will soon be running on fumes if he does not play ball – preferably in someone else’s country. It will be interesting to see how loyal his ethnically stacked army will be once he runs out of money. History is full of lessons on the urgent merits of keeping armed young men well paid and well fed.

In further attempts to isolate Mr. Gbagbo, the African Union has suspended his membership and regional allies are now considering use of “legitimate force” to remove him. That sounds a lot like military intervention to me.

Some of my African friends shake their heads in disgust and say “pitoyable!” — lamenting the crisis as yet another example of Big Man politics, typical of the sad state of democracy on a continent that has given us the likes of Taylor, Bashir, Bongo and Mobutu. Others – echoing the nationalist refrains of Mr. Gbagbo are denouncing the impasse as yet another proof of foreign meddling in what they see as a sovereign matter. The U.N., the French and all the rest of them should get out, they say — Ivorian solutions for Ivorian problems. How convenient in this case, to be the ones picking and choosing who is a true Ivorian? Moreover; what exactly is it to be “sovereign” if not upheld by peer member states, or mandated by your citizens, half of whom were disqualified in this case.

All this talk of intervention raises the question: in an increasingly global and interdependent world where actions have far reaching consequences often implicating those who had no part in the decisions with enormous financial and social burden, and where world bodies are tasked to pick up the pieces, is the sovereign nation destined to become a relic of the past, to be relegated to text books along with medieval walled cities and moat floating feudal states?

For the world’s largest cocoa producer, accounting for 40% of global supply, if you think that the price of chocolate is the only thing to consider, think again.

In the past month UNHCR has logged almost 20,000 refugees, mostly women and children fleeing the crisis to neighboring Liberia – itself a fragile state newly emerging from conflict and struggling to consolidate its peace dividends. Youth militia loyal to Gbagbo are mobilizing and if the nightly raids, abductions and torture in the opposition neighborhoods of Abidjan are any indication, the country could relapse into large scale violence with considerable human and economic costs spilling into the whole region which relies on this country’s commercial port. Fear of a $30 million interest default has already made the international bond markets jittery.

The last century witnessed the creation of global institutions — the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, the World Trade Organization and the many UN agencies; all supra-national institutions with global mandates, yet subject to sovereign whims of national or personal interests. Consequently — Omar Bashir remains free in spite of the ICC indictments; the West Bank is fast becoming an Israeli colony in spite of the ICJ rulings; the West continues to push for agricultural subsidies that favor their own to the detriment of the poorer nations; and the U.N. in spite of the billions it spends in peacekeeping remains handcuffed by the narrow mandate it is given after the big five settle on the lowest common denominator on the security council.

And yet the stakes are higher than ever as the world is shrinking tighter. Forget the price of chocolate and consider the global financial Tsunami unleashed by the Sub Prime defaults and financial deregulation in the U.S – events that may not have come to pass had international institutions had a vote in the matter.

Better yet — Bush Junior may not have been given a carte blanche, averting two disastrous terms and two costly wars that effectively defeated the empire better than Bin Laden could have ever in his wildest dreams imagined. Palestinians might have had their state long ago; Bashir, Blair and Cheney would be behind bars and eastern Congo would have been taken into receivership by international trustees long ago under the principles of Responsibility to Protect.

So, as the world connects tighter in a knot, sovereignty may be the last sacred cow offered at the altar of the juggernaut of globalization once it is clear that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. In the meantime – as we witness our first test case in challenging sovereign identity in Ivory Coast — for now we may have to settle for cheese instead of chocolate.

Cote D’Ivoire 2010: a tale of two presidents

Gbagbo!

Three continents, two connections and one day later I finally land at the Abidjan International Airport as an International Observer for the second round of presidential elections between the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and opposition leader Alessane Ouattara – elections designed to end the decade long civil unrest which effectively split the country over questions of ethnic identity and voting rights. That’s the short version.

The chaos and humidity feels instantly liberating in spite of the disorienting cross continental shifts in time zones and culture. Bold campaign ads run along the sweeping bridges connecting this sprawling coastal city once known as the Paris of Africa, highlighting the political stakes.

A large billboard of a woman in her thirties with a troubled face and only one arm comes into view over and over again as we round the beautiful lagoon and the lush vegetation that sets off the modern skyline in the distance. It says she is a war victim and the caption reads: “Between my baby and my arm, I chose my baby. For Peace I choose Gbagbo” – somewhat manipulative but I get the point.

Ouattara is an economist and ex-Africa Director of the IMF, rallying under a Houphouëtist alliance to evoke the post-independence days of plenty under President Houphouët-Boigny. His main liability is to be born to a Burkinabe mother therefore of questionable Ivorian identity; a point conveniently manipulated by political adversaries to infuse mistrust and create alliances where tribal networks often take the place of democratic institutions and ethnic cleavages are exploited for mobility.

Mathias, my Observation team mate is also from Burkina Faso — laid back, familiar and completely unperturbed by time and protocol, appearing and disappearing as he pleases, making calls in the middle of meetings where the sandal wearing attendees talk over the continuous ring of their own mobiles and calmly ignore the squeaky doors that keep opening and closing.

He chit chats freely and flirts randomly as a matter of sport. He says all Burkinabe’s are like that. Friendly. For the most part it generates a few giggles from the ladies and brings an easy flow to our otherwise rigorous and packed schedule. I wonder if his nationality could pose a problem considering his country is viewed by some as a French proxy supporting Ouattara.

A few nights before the elections I watched a televised debate between the two candidates moderated by a character best described as a cross between Felix the Cat and Larry King in terms of his unusually large head on a small upper body. The incumbent desperately struggled to distance himself from the last decade of violence and economic hardships promising new beginnings; a transformation of national industry of largely cocoa and coffee production, combined with a strong focus on social programs.

Ouattara in contrast presented himself as a modern man; one who is running on a liberal platform bolstered by massive help from the IMF and increased foreign investment. One does not need to be an expert to pick the candidate of choice for the West, but Gbagbo passed up the opportunity to point out his counterpart as a potential agent for further debt and possible foreign influence, instead focusing on Ouatarra’s part in the conflict. Remarkably, the Larry King character resisted any attempt to sensationalize, showing more elegance than his American counterpart — a reminder that the commercial synergies of news and entertainment have yet to be discovered in Africa.

The pre-elections atmosphere is one of intense mistrust, at times bordering on paranoia. Stories circulate that the pens provided at the polling stations are rigged with disappearing ink, effacing the votes for your candidate. How the pen determines where the voter crosses seems irrelevant. After all, Africa is the land of myth and magic where fetishes are omnipresent, ancient tribal chiefs are more important than corporations who would bank roll their favorite candidates; and rebels and machetes are part of the political process.
As we interview the officials at the Local Commission about the elaborate cross check procedures for the final results, the lady president of the center arrives breathless in her long ruffled skirt, whisks us away into her private office and informs us she is being chased by opposition partisans.

“They blocked me at the airport,” she lays out all three of her cells phones, takes out a white handkerchief and delicately dabs the sweat around her neck and chocolate décolleté; “They confiscated the staff salaries I had in the pouch and threatened me with bodily harm.”
“They. who?” Asks Mathias.
“They! The militants. The youth!” Her gold bracelets jingle as she talks.
“How many were they?” I scribble away.
“Beaucoup. Beaucoup.”
“A lot?! Like how many? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She waves away the heat and a couple of mosquitoes. “A lot!” She says with a definitive nod.
“Liar!” Mathias mumbles under his breath as we leave. “What was she doing at the airport with all that money anyway?”

Another official says he has information from a very credible source that one agent in every voting station has been bribed one thousand dollars a day to change the results.

“Who is this source?”
“Well. Madame. I can not say.” He leans back in his plastic chair and smiles cryptically, revealing the yellow buildup of years of bad hygiene around the margins of his teeth that matches the color of the sunflowers on his shirt. “But he is very reliable.”
“Ah oui?” Asks Mathias

Anticipation steadily builds. Candidates and their respective spokesmen issue press releases pretending a veneer of calm, each magnanimously promising to uphold the final results, more likely signaling how the other should behave when he loses. Meanwhile, Mr. Ouatarra and entourage have taken over one wing at my hotel. He startles me as he says “bonsoir Madame,” and passes by in the hallway, then disappears among the guards and the blue helmets. Like any high class hotel de luxe in Africa, The Golf doubles as an opposition hideout and evacuation center on account of its convenient location by the lagoon and coveted helipad. After all, last time there was political unrest Mr. Outattara’s house was burnt down.

One more thing. As a last minute tactic, Mr. Gbagbo declares a curfew in spite of the pleas of the U.N., who rightly insists it would further complicate the logistics. Many wonder whether this is an attempt to short circuit the turnout since the security instruments who would enforce the curfew are also Gbagbo loyalists. What is certain is that the combination of transportation challenges, mistrust and the elaborate manual tabulations means only one thing – delays.

Predictably, on Election Day polls open late. Mathias and I walk past the long lines of voters growing under the large canopies of the avocado trees outside a primary school turned polling station. We sit staring at the sealed box of ballots which is to be opened only in front of the party representatives. They finally arrive after 45 minutes. “Curfew. Taxi problems;” they say sheepishly and squeeze behind their tiny wooden desks.

The polling finally starts: Stickers — registration list – ballots — signature — indelible ink – stamp – all ok.

As the sun rises up in the sky to smolder and burn off the shadows throughout the day, the steady stream of voters mark their candidate of choice in the cardboard isolation booth that stands in a corner. Many come prepared with their own pens and find their suspicions confirmed when Mathias repeatedly tries to talk them into using the “official” ones in the stations. “He is only teasing.” I would smile and say.

As we randomly pick stations, observe the day and mark the scores, we appreciate the depth of the economic crisis in the neglected residential neighborhoods and feel the frustration of those who want to put the last ten years behind them and to once again shine as the star of West Africa. We discuss nuances of identity; listen to the indignant few who claim they have identified neighbors of “questionable” origin and counter with stories of our own to demonstrate that identities do not have to be static if you keep an open mind and extend justice throughout society. At the end, it is the umbrella of the economic system that needs to include and align the interests. Regardless of who wins, it is incumbent upon him to hold out his hand to the vanquished, who must in turn negotiate the limits of his love for his country.

As the polls finally close and the ballot box seals are cut, a heavy set woman in long flowy purple-wear is chosen at our station to read the results. The observers, representatives and agents all take their places as she opens each ballot, patiently reading and holding up the name for all to see. A young girl marks the results in plain view on the blackboard. I don’t see how the supposed undercover agent we were tipped off about by the “credible” informant, could possibly earn his $1,000 keep. If the party representatives moved up any further in their chairs, they would surely keel over.

Gbagbo Laurent……Gbagbo Laurent…..Alessane Ouattara….The girl at the blackboard makes neat little rows of squares and strikes them through in batches of five.

Gbagbo Laurent…..A cell phone ring with a festive African beat breaks the intensity of the room. The purple lady puts down the ballot and waddles over calmly, reaching into her purse.

“Aaaah?”

The various agents, all four party representatives and the two of us hold our positions and wait in silence. What sounds like a single gunshot in the distance momentarily distracts us. We all throw a quizzical glance at each other, shrug and once again fix our gazes back on the lady who is still on the phone.

“I will be late,” she says. “No, I can’t. I am counting votes now.”
She hangs up and waddles back unhurried. No excuses. No sign of impatience from anyone. She picks up where she left off.

Gbagbo Laurent…..more squares continue to fill the rows underneath the two names before the same party music once again breaks our concentration. This time the chief of the bureau gets up and brings over the happy bag. The lady opens it and reaches in elbow deep to produce the bouncing contraption.

“Alo!”
Once again everyone freezes like an old children’s game.
This time she switches into dialect but I understand the word pommes-de-terre; something about potatoes.

“….and the charcoal is where it always is – look in the green basket.”
“You’ve made us all hungry now,” says Mathias as she hangs up.

Everything is relative and urgencies take on a different form depending on the context. Maybe we, in the West could use a little serving of “pomme-de-terre” here and there within our serious institutions.

The little squares rapidly fill up on Gbagbo’s side of the blackboard. But this is Abidjan — the loyalists’ stronghold. The North is sure to be a different story judging by the first round, why else would they need to send reinforcements to “secure” the area.

The lobby at the Golf Hotel is filling up by the hour. All flights have been cancelled and the curfew continues. The results should have been declared, first by last night – then by this morning and now planned again for later release at midnight no doubt for maximum control. Gbagbo is already contesting the results calling foul play in some of the regions and earlier this morning one of his supporters snatched the ballot results in plain view of the cameras as the officials prepared to make an announcement.

A large man is twirling a carved wooden figurine with tresses that swing back and forth every time he rolls it between his palms. He says it is to awaken the powers.

Mr. Ouattara’s spokesman sits at the adjacent table. As one of the main figures of the party walks into the lobby, he is swallowed whole by a circle of journalists and cameras who scramble for a statement. I make my way over and squeeze through.

“I proclaim Mr. Ouattara, the President of the Republic of Ivory Coast.” He says the results leave no doubt. Mr. Gbagbo is contesting the results of four regions in the North, “These regions went to Mr. Ouattara on the first round. We have worked ten years for this moment. It is time for Mr. Gbagbo to leave.”

Gbagbo!

This morning I wake up to two sets of official results.

Independent Electoral Commission:
Gbagbo – 45.9%
Outattara – 54.10%

Constitutional Council:
Gbagbo – 51.45%
Ouattara – 48.55%

Gbagbo is refusing to concede. The head of the Constitutional Council, close to Gbagbo and contrary to the results of the Independent Elections Commission has sided with him, voiding the polls from all the contentious regions in the north. They say it is good to have friends in high places. Gendarmes have broken into the opposition’s headquarters and killed some of the members. Angry riots are breaking out.

As the international community, Obama and Sarkozy extend their congratulations to Ouattara, Gbagbo is asking the United Nations to leave and denounces foreign intrigue behind the support for his rival.

Both men are sworn in as Presidents. So much for reconciliation.

Power is intoxicating – painful to relinquish. For all the patriotic sermons that politicians deliver for public consumption whether in Washington, Tehran or Abidjan, love of country is a worthless currency stamped with the face of its people, bartered and manipulated for a far more tangible asset.

Hold off on making those travel arrangements for the Paris of Africa. The shining star is having electrical problems.