To the barricades, James, and don’t spare the Porsches!

A few days after my previous post, residents of Dakar suburbs, Castors, Derklé and Liberté 06, took to the streets to protest against the prolonged and repeated electricity cuts. Actually, what pushed them over the edge was the distribution of double invoices from the electricity company, SENELEC. Yes, we give you no power and charge you twice for the privilege!

The next day, October 9, the riots hit Parcelles Assainies, Médina and Grand Yoff, where streets were barricaded with burning tyres and SENELEC offices were smashed to pieces. The general opinion among residents was sympathetic:

It serves them right. SENELEC has made us suffer too much. All our food has rotted away.
(Source: Sud Online)

The well-to-do neighbourhoods on the western coastline of the city have not yet taken to the streets — “Chauffeur, take me to the barricades … then pick me up at 11:30 for my pedicure.”

Nevertheless, the images of organized rioters was enough to provoke a reaction within the upper echelons of power, with the result today of a huge donation to SENELEC by the French Government and the World Bank.

Completely unsustainable, yet maybe just enough to keep the rioters off the streets until the weather cools down and the need for air conditioning declines, and in time for the start of the tourist season. After that, who knows?

For the record: electricity cut every day the last ten days from around 8 am till 4 pm. It came back on early today, at 13:30, so all in all it was a good day

… and I dint even hafta use ma AK *grin*

Update: power cut just before posting at midnight and is still off now at 11 am.

Managing discontent

The title of this post refers to C. Wright Mills’ unflattering description of the raison d’être of trades union leaders (learn more …). It’s a phrase that has stuck in my head since studying sociology A-level 22 years ago (OMFG!) — I ended the year quoting Prince Kropotkin on the ideal of anarchism as akin to pursuing the sun as it sinks ever out of reach beyond the horizon … oh happy days!

Now of course I have to pay my own electricity bills, which implies less idealism and more hard graft — hell yeah!

In Senegal, the quality of the electricity is very poor: it fluctuates in a most alarming way, sending our fan into a hyperbolic cyclone spin cycle or powering down to a mere whisper of a breeze. In the weirdest situation, the current falls to the point where only one socket works downstairs — from which I run an extension into the kitchen to power the fridge/freezer. Even more bizarrely, the upstairs power at these times is unaffected, allowing us to run two split air conditioners and all the lights we desire.

The quality and reliability of electricity is an issue that plagues many West African states (learn more (in French)). In short, the problem comes down to a lack of planning. The lack of investment in infrastructure for a period of many years means that the transmission is inefficient; yet more basic, the state does not have the foreign exchange to buy the fuel necessary for the power stations.

So what are the consequences? Instead of planning for a gradual upgrade of the electricity grid or preparing a realistic plan for generating foreign exchange, the managers of the electricity company, SENELEC, are forced to cut off sections of the population for several hours at a time in a sequence that has as much to do with psychology as with technical capacity. It would be fascinating to attend the meetings in which the non-provision of a basic service is planned out to carefully take into account the psychological cracking point of each neighbourhood. The question is not how the limited supply can be spread fairly, but how long a given population can be left in the dark before they take to the streets. To complicate matters further, the technicians and managers must make sure never to cut off any important member of the ruling government party, nor any leading member of the opposition, for that matter, for fear of providing motives for rallying anti-government support. And one final point: do not flip the switch during an important football match, or else the mob will come and pull you from your permanently air-conditioned office (read more …).

It’s a real casse-tête chinois, as they say in French, meaning a tortuously difficult puzzle. One wonders if it wouldn’t be easier to plan to avoid such a situation occurring in the first place; sadly that is one of the major shortcomings of life in Africa: the laissez-faire attitude to problem solving, where the problem will be ignored until it is too late to solve it without calling on resources that are also lacking as a result of poor planning. The short term, quick fix, half-arsed botch job is the norm here. Concrete is made from illegally mined beach sand that contains too much salt, which is then mixed with insufficient quantities of cement, to produce a porous wall that can literally be rubbed away with your hand. And our neighbours wonder why their basement is flooded every time it rains.

Curtis Mayfield’s curious line suddenly makes sense in this context:

Take nothing less,
Than the second best.
Move on up

Enfin, we come back to the word graft, used above to mean hard work, but now in its sense of bribery and corruption. What follows is an illustration of why the electricity supply is not working, and why it is not only due to a lack of government funds.

When we moved into our house on 1 April, I was advised to see Mr F. at SENELEC in order to facilitate the reconnection of power. I gave him 5,000 CFA ($11) and we were back on the grid within 24 hours rather than the typical 3 to 5 working days. Since then we have not received a single electricity bill. Before leaving on holiday in June, I went by the SENELEC offices and queried this situation. It appeared that we had not been put in the computer system, and therefore could not be billed. There was no sign of my contract, and Mr F. was absent that day and no one could follow his paper trail. Oh, I thought, no bills … tempting idea, until the day they catch up with you. We had had a similar experience with gas bills in Rome, where our anticipated usage was consistently underestimated for a whole year. When a meter reading was finally taken, we ended up with such a large bill that I had to pay it back in installments.

The SENELEC people reassured me that I could regularize my situation after I got back from holiday. So last week I went back, and saw Mr F. He did a quick estimate of our usage for the last six months and came up with a figure of over 500,000 CFA ($ lots). I was shocked, but Mr F. leaned forward conspiratorially and whispered, “Don’t worry. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Sure enough he called. (Actually he hung up before I answered because he was out of credit, so I had to call him back.) Here was the deal: Mr F. could arrange for my current meter reading to be entered in the computer as my initial reading of 1 April, thereby making six months’ worth of electricity vanish. The fee for this trick was plain simple: 300,000 CFA in an envelope.

But who ends up paying for the electricity we used? We do! — through the daily power outages due to the lack of money to pay for fuel. We were without power for 15 hours last night and today!

So no, as tempting as it might seem, I’m not playing that game. We’ll eat pasta for a month and pay for what we used. At least that way I know the money is going to the electricity provider in order to continue providing me with power, rather than straight in Mr F.’s pocket.

Maybe I’m as naive as I was 22 years ago.

Another don bites the dust

Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail,
In Spanish Town

Another shooting, another riot, another curfew in Spanish Town, Jamaica’s former capital city, situated some ten miles west of Kingston. The town exploded in violence again yesterday following the assassination of Andrew “Bun Man” Hope, leader of the One Order gang. The leader of rival gang, Donovan “Bulbie” Bennett of the Clansmen, was killed by police last October (see post).

Hope was shot in his car when it was attacked by several unknown assailants wearing khaki, reported the police. The immediate suspicion was that the police themselves were behind the assassination. This led to an angry mob blocking off the street, refusing to allow police near the body, and which then went on to loot and burn the old courthouse, next to where Hope was killed. The mob refused to let the fire brigade through to stop the blaze. The police eventually managed to force their way to the car and pushed the crowd back to allow a tow truck to remove the car with the body still inside. Subsequently the police tried to remove other roadblocks set up by angry residents, only for them to be rebuilt once the police moved on. Suspected One Order gang members ran through the streets firing into the air, forcing shops to pull down their shutters. Public transport withdrew services, thousands of commuters were stranded and a curfew was imposed from dusk to 8:00 am.

Amid these almost familiar events, one detail slipped by all except the Gleaner newspaper:

The police confirmed last night that Uriah Matthews, caretaker for the court’s premises, was shot several times and then thrown into the fire.

And the so-called angry residents still wail about the gang leader’s death, claiming he was a peaceful and generous community hero! No one’s even bothered about poor Uriah Matthews.

It’s a well known fact that gang leaders, or dons, have gained support from their local communities through their largesse. Remember scenes from The Godfather II, when Fanucci of The Black Hand strolls through the neighbourhood like a lord, only to be killed by the leader of the next generation of mobsters, Vito Corleone. Similarly in Jamaica, more than two-thirds of the country’s murders are related to rival gang turf wars or vendettas.

The difference in Jamaica is that, since the 1970s, gangs have been allied to one of the two political parties, either the People’s National Party (PNP) or the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP). The alliances manifested themselves in rallying neighbourhood block votes in return for varying degrees of immunity. Huge profits from drug trading and transiting in the 1980s and 1990s gave the gangs more financial power and independence from politicians. More recently, faced with rising public condemnation of criminal association, most politicians have tried to distance themselves from their gang connections. As an example in this evolution, two years ago, the previous leader of the One Order gang was killed in a car owned by his successor and victim of yesterday, Andrew Hope. Local representative, Olivia “Babsie” Grange, had acted as guarantor for Hope’s purchase of the car. Last October, both Hope and Grange narrowly avoided assassination when the car they were both in was sprayed with bullets in Spanish Town. Yet last week I read of Grange’s dedication to a peace initiative in her constituency.

So where’s the truth? Have the dons and politicos divorced over irreconcilable differences, or are they just on a break?

Perhaps the gangs need to re-brand themselves for their former client base:

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