Thursday, January 24, 2008

A muder in Burkina Faso raises all kinds of difficult questions

Murder makes an interesting topic. It’s almost too late to pass of this as local news, but murder, murder always makes for an interesting topic. Queue ominous choral music. Allude to overtones of money, power and the universal need to better oneself. This also may be a story about race and the place foreigners occupy in West Africa. But at the bottom, I'll argue, this tale most likely concerns ideas about the rich impeding the economic growth of the poor.

It was nearly two weeks ago when the corpse of Idrissa Ouedraogo, a money changer who plied his trade in front of the airport, was found in his house. His friends and colleagues noted that had been with a Lebanese who had apparently wanted to change around $50,000.

Shortly after finding the body, the authorities discovered that the Lebanese and his driver had fled in his boss’ car for Cote d’Ivoire, which is where he lived eight months prior to moving to Ouagadougou. In fact, he had an Ivorian passport and an Ivorian wife with an eight month old baby. He apparently told border guards that he was borrowing his boss’ car to take his sick baby to a hospital in Abidjan, where he could get better treatment because of his Ivorian nationality.

As the news circulated through town, the small Lebanese community of roughly 800 held two overriding fears. First, they worried over the act of the new member of their community, who would not fare well if he was caught in Burkina Faso. Secondly, this class of merchants and businessmen who were part of a Diaspora long installed in West Africa feared for their safety and security of their businesses if the local population were to inflict retribution for the murder of their compatriot. Community and political leaders immediately relayed messages down to Lebanese in Abidjan as Burkinabé authorities relayed notices to Interpol.

This proved to be too late. The Lebanese escaped from Abidjan on a Royal Air Maroc flight, yet he was also missed by the authorities in Casablanca. By the time the law caught up with him, he had arrived in Beirut.

By decree of the government, the press didn’t publish much information regarding the crime, especially the name or origin of the perpetrator. Since the body was not found until Friday morning, the newspapers were out of the game until their Monday editions came out. The radio and television – where most people receive their news – were mostly silent on the matter. Of course, this may have helped fuel the rumor mill, wrote another blogger in Burkina.

Lebanese shopkeepers in Ouagadougou closed up their shops on Friday afternoon. Until Tuesday morning they remained shuttered.

Lessons from another murder
When the press came back online involving the crime early next week, their argument for silence was a healthy fear of retribution. It was not the first time a perceived rich and power business entity would feel the wrath of people who felt justice had been cheated. It was not much less than a year ago when another murder, or set of murders, shook Ouagadougou.

As I recall, two men called upon Modibo Maiga, main owner of Kundé bars, chain in Ouagadougou known for their loud music, dancing and all-night festivities, to purchase his truck. The two took the truck out for a test drive, and their friends never saw them again. A few days later, their bodies were found in a reservoir near the edge of town. They had been decapitated, and I believe their sex organs were removed. The city was shocked – not only because of the murders, but their brutality. I remember driving through town and trying to turn left as the funeral procession arrived. I must have waited 15 minutes before attempting to take another route.

Rumors flew that it was black magic that attracted so many people to the Kunde bars – not the more earth-bound system of cold beer, loud music and dance girls. To keep the bars full every day and night, Kunde’s owners had to pay their debts to the spirits through these ritual killings. As someone who has lived in Burkina Faso pointed out to me, black magic is common here, but it never appears to be a force of good. It is used to harm people.

The number, and anger, of these mourners soon grew. The subtext, of course, is money and power. The chain of bars have made Kunde’s owners rich and acquainted them with those in power. Most Ouagalais understand that this recipe means a pardon would be forthcoming for these crimes. The crowd that began gathering at the original Kunde bars had other plans. All told, more than half of the chains 33 bars were burnt down, but not before their interiors were looted. One Kunde employee was killed. A crowd then took revenge on the home of Modibo Maiga, lighting it on fire and blocking the fire trucks from arriving on the scene.

The leaders of the Kunde bar were taken into custody for what the police called “protection.” And a few days later, they appeared at a press conference exclaiming their innocence. They had been cleared by the police, and would now help the victims’ families properly mourn the dead. Even with the destruction of more than 20 of their bars. (Many reopened within the month; some never would.)

The idea of vigilante justice is nothing new to Burkina Faso. The press patted itself on the back with the knowledge they may have stopped groups rampaging through Lebanese stores over the murder of Idrissa. That’s because more so even than the owners of the Kunde, the Lebanese are seen by most as rich merchants and business owners. But they are also seen as being mostly foreign, which can translates into appearing above the law.

A history lesson
Since their arrival in West Africa at the tail end of the 19th century, it has been hard for the Lebanese to not be seen as being separate and above the law. The continent was under colonial rule then, and it was French authorities who re-routed Lebanese stopping in Marseilles on the way to immigrating to Brazil and the U.S. Some of the passengers did not have enough fare to reach the Western Hemisphere; others could not pass U.S. health tests. The French simply routed their boats to Dakar, by then the French capital of West Africa. These immigrants had left behind abject poverty in Lebanon, Michael Crowder in West Africa Under Colonial Rule explains, and decided that facing difficulties in West Africa made more sense than returning home empty handed.

In fact, the opposite happened. Their fortunes quickly took off. Unlike European merchants in West Africa, Lebanese were willing to live at a level even below local standards. The Lebanese were content with living with lower profit margins, which allowed them to sell their wares at prices below their competitors. They hired family members, paying them little and keeping overhead low. They returned most profits to the business. Learning African languages were not above them. Nor was haggling. What truly set them apart was credit. Through other Lebanese family members, one could get credit to set themselves up in business.

Their numbers quickly grew. In French West Africa, a census counted 28 Lebanese in 1897; three years later, there were 276. At the end of the twentieth century’s first decade, 1,100 Lebanese were counted. By the end of the 1920s, Lebanese virtually ran all the retail and middleman trade throughout much of West Africa. Africans were relegated to traditional trades, like kola nuts, cattle and dried fish. Otherwise they merely became producers in their own economy. Europeans moved on to the large import-export houses and some colonial set asides.

By independence, Lebanese traders and businessmen were firmly established everywhere in West Africa. I know a Lebanese man born 40 years ago in Dakar whose father, he tells me, opened the first candy factory in West Africa. He makes soap in Burkina and plastic bags in Cote d’Ivoire. Who knows what his sons will do. If they want, they’ll have access to a pool of credit much deeper than 99 out of 100 entrepreneurial Africans. This lack of credit is perceived as the major stumbling block for Africans to expand their business ventures. As Crowder points out, the difference in credit is not only due to perceived and real riches of Lebanese, but also to nuances of African culture. “The African was bound by his extended family so that profits which would be ploughed back by the Lebanese to his business would have to be spent on a cousin, a wedding, a funeral, a baptismal ceremony.”

In the mind of some Africans, the Lebanese now held the position vacated by former European colonial masters. Instead of running political lives as the Europeans did, the Lebanese controlled the commercial and economic lives of Africans. They also hired Africans, and as this blogger points out, they are seen as being very strict. In some communities this lead to hostility. This could stem from the impotence Africans feel in the face of this growing economic power.

At least to one observer this power meant Lebanese were in cahoots with often corrupt African leaders, who understood how tied Lebanese businesses interests were to the rest of the region. As a side note, a Burkinabé friend says he has a bet with his friends, asking them to call him when they spot a Lebanese in a local gas station. He’s convinced the Lebanese are surreptitiously importing gas into the country without paying import duties – in full knowledge of those in power – depriving the state of much needed financial resources and providing cheaper gas for their people.

From Lansana Gberie in A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone:

For well over a century in West Africa the Lebanese have failed (or rather refused) to integrate into their host societies, concentrating almost wholly on trading. A large number of the more successful continued to maintain close ties to the politics of the Middle East, a reality that only compounds their image in much of West Africa as exploitative and corrupt. Lacking serious local political ties, the Lebanese in West Africa have over the decades since independence shown no scruples about working with unsavory political and other groups as long as money can be made. It is therefore not surprising a number of key Lebanese figures in the region were implicated in the ‘conflict’ diamond trade with the RUF.

Back to Ouagadougou
The reason for Lebanese closing their businesses were two fold: to keep the crowds from attacking their employees and their stock; and to show proper respect for the dead. When shops reopened Tuesday, Lebanese owners unfailingly told the press how they unquestionably closed their doors for the weekend, at a time when they did their best business, citing their “enormous” loss to profits. The leader of the Lebanese community quickly pointed out that the killer was not a real member of the Burkinabé Lebanese community; rather, he was portrayed as being merely a somebody who came up here a few months ago from Cote d’Ivoire to help manage a shop. For its part, the Lebanese Consul will pay the victim’s family $225 a month for five years. They have also engaged the services of two lawyers, one for the prosecution and one for the defense, for the capital trial, which will take place in Beirut because the two countries don’t share an extradition treaty. (Even if they did, the Consul candidly admitted that it was doubtful the government of Lebanon would extradite a “compatriot”) Two members of the victim’s family will also travel to witness the travel

As the press duly noted, not as much as a harsh word was spoken towards a Lebanese in the days after the murder. Not to their faces at least. Some observers have detected a grumbling undercurrent, not only against Lebanese but towards all foreigners who appear to live above the law. I’ll argue that economics plays a much larger role than any xenophobia creeping into Burkinabé culture.

The economic differences between foreigners and locals are apparent with anyone with working eyes. Should it be this drastic, however? Burkina Faso is staring down the barrel of nearly seven years of economic growth. More than the Lebanese and a few connected locals should be profiting from this. Yet people aren’t. Even as huge mansions go up and fancy BMWs and Mercedes 4x4s start to clog the streets.

Of course, finding a pathway to economic growth isn’t the responsibility of the Lebanese. The next time a splashy murder like this comes about, however, they may have wished their Burkinabé partners in government did a little more for the common person.

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