While I have been very comfortable over the last five months in my tiny studio with its view of the Plateau and under the daily flightpath of ten million bats, it was doing me no good to spend so much time in such a restricted space. Shortly before my long business visit to India I found a new apartment with the help of the guardian of the block of flats in which I live. The apartment is in the next door building on the first floor, reasonably priced, large and airy, with a balcony, and safe. I just needed to find some furniture for it. On this, I made a flying start by buying the three piece suite, dining table, rug and chairs from the previous occupant for a song (well, more of a musical).
We are moving quickly towards the rainy season, which means that it rains a great deal, and while the temperature is lower than usual, it’s nevertheless around 30 degrees most of the time. Intermittent heavy rain featured when I decided to go to Bassam to get away from work for a while and spend the weekend in a cheap but clean and friendly hotel with a good novel next to a pool or beach. The pluvious weather meant that I spent most of it under cover, although it did not diminish the restorative impact of watching the waves crash repeatedly on the sand, while eating very fresh fish, drinking white wine, and trying to distinguish the line of the horizon between the grey sea and the grey sky. There was even a friendly Alsatian who hung out with me and improved the walk by the shore.
On the last weekend of the month, disaffected soldiers again started a mutiny at several barracks around the country, including the biggest one located less than a kilometre from where I live. The mutiny was organised and promoted by those who had supported and acted as the private army of the current President in the very violent civil war of six years ago. After his victory (he had, after all, won the election previous to the war) he promised to reward them for their efforts and asked them meanwhile to join the regular army, where they now form about one third of the total soldiery. Their grumbles have been getting louder as the unpaid years passed, and last January’s small mutiny was a first sign that they wanted the promise to be made good. Apparently the result was some money in instalments and more promises, but when the time came this month for the second instalment to be paid, none came. Hence the new mutiny, bigger and louder than the last, and affecting several barracks around the country. In Abidjan, there was repeated gunfire and machine gunfire from 6am to midnight, with some of the shots uncomfortably close to home. At one stage the barracks appeared to be on fire, but apparently this was just burning tires. Phew!
I joined many of my Bank colleagues to fly to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, India, for the Bank’s Annual General Meeting. Described by everyone to me beforehand as a time of huge stress for staff but especially those in the President’s Cabinet, I had an inkling of what to expect. I have never been to, let alone helped to organise, anything like it. Spread over six days, it was a cross between an old fashioned African wedding and a 1970s Labour Party Conference. The Annual Meetings (the plural is significant) featured boardroom shenanigans and rifts, high minded autos da fe, serious intellectual discussions in incense-filled rooms, and mass meetings promoting well-funded campaigns and better-funded vested interests. There are TV and internet interviews going on all over the place, a big commercial exhibition on the side, gallons of terrible coffee, massive banquets at lunch and dinner, waiters everywhere with savoury sweetmeats, whirling Dervishes (well, actually, no, but I kept expecting them to come), encumbered visits from political and business VIPs, many from India – the Prime Minister and three other Ministers visited and made long domestically focused speeches. The main hall of the Gandhi Conference Centre, close to the famous Gandhi Ashram from where the Salt Marches started, held 3000 people, resembled an aircraft hangar, and was frequently full to the gleaming steel rafters. There were videos, round tables and power-point demonstrations, leaflets handed out about everything from meetings of lawyers discussing climate change to the merits of the evening’s entertainment, thousands of security guards milling around, and earnest press conferences twice a day. An army of discontented taxis, convoy outriders and chauffeurs ronronned continuously outside each exit, disputing with each other over protocol, rights of way, TV access, and how to progress through huge traffic jams.
My role among others was to ensure that the President was well briefed in everything he did and said, and this was often difficult as he was recognisably the central character in the Annual Meetings and in constant demand from all those he came near to as he speed-walked from conference breakout room to main hall to Meeting Room 101. Over our five fourteen-hour days he displayed more energy than most other people around him. Much of this energy came from the simple fact of being the centre of attention – an historically proven and highly catalytic source. There were occasions when I was able to get out of either the hotel or the conference centre and have some time off, but these were rare. I sneaked out early on before the meetings started to buy a couple of ties, which I had forgotten to pack. Later in the week I managed it again one evening with a colleague to sample a biryani and a sweet lassi from a street café after wandering briefly around a faceless globalised shopping centre featuring all the dreary global brands that fill me with dread and despair. But Ahmedabad was, from the evidence only of travelling to and from the conference centre and the hotel, a town in the middle of well organised and speedy economic development. Like many other towns in the region, just a few decades ago it was sleepy, small, poor, unambitious and going nowhere. On my outing to buy the ties, I walked down a street that was teeming with evidence of enterprise at many different levels. There were buildings being built cheek by jowel with shiny skyscraper offices, small shops with canvas coverings, wandering sacred cows, people on scooters with trays of sweets and savoury snacks, taxis and tuk-tuks crazily cruising for business, waves of people crossing busy roads using the power of soldier ants on the march to stop the incessant traffic (there appear to be no traffic lights and no road bridges in the town). It seemed to me that this was exactly what successful economic development looks like. In front of me was a tableau of economic regeneration and of human lives visibly changing for the better. And no evidence of development aid anywhere. It was extraordinarily inspiring, and a consensus of many afterwards was that Africa had plenty to learn from India.
The Presidential delegation travelled directly from Ahmedabad to Rome, and then to Catania in Sicily on a local plane which left without my larger suitcase, which condemned me to spending the very formal weekend of the G7 Summit of Heads of State and Government without clothes back-up beyond the next day, as I had remembered the possibility of luggage loss and put one set of underclothes into my cabin bag. From Catania we were scooped up by security police in dark glasses and creased trousers who swerved and accelerated their cars in a keystone-cops convoy to Taormina, the town hosting the G7 meeting, an hour to the north. We were billeted in a very agreeable hotel overlooking the sea, with the mainland of Italy discernible in the haze of the powder blue distance, while the limousines waited in the street to answer our every beckon. The Summit took place in the centre of town, where the population had been in lockdown for the past month. With their long tails of anxious advisers and protectors, the stars of the Summit – Merkel, Macron, Trudeau, Trump, Abe, Gentiloni, and May (who left when hearing of the Manchester bomb) explored and circled the hotel/monastery venue like dogs looking for a comfortable place to sit. Each Government Head was supposed to make a short intervention together with similar interventions from heads of African countries and institutions. I happened to notice that Trump did not seem to use his headphones for any of the statements, most of which were not delivered in English.
My lack of clothes became a bit more serious after the first day, and so in the late afternoon, after visiting and inspecting an ancient and impressive Greek theatre above the town, no less than twelve police guards accompanied me into the shopping centre as I went to buy myself a shirt, socks and underpants. We were mob-handed in the search for my underwear, and it clearly appealed to the policemen’s sense of humour as we went in and out of shops looking for the said items, most of which were far too expensive for me, thus making me look both cheap and choosy in front of my entourage. I eventually found what I needed for smalls in Intimissimi (which I thought only sold delicate lacy knickers to beautiful young women – I had to be persuaded to enter by the police chief who knew differently), for socks in a regular sock shop, and for shirts at a menswear shop just next to the Bem Bar, a favourite of the local police and renowned for the quality of its Granita. The chief bought me one of these and showed me photos of his children (and I showed him photos of mine).
The next day, a Sunday, I managed a couple of hours on the beach and a swim in the Med before we were deedooing off in the serpentine convoy back to Catania and to Rome, where I was unexpectedly reunited with my suitcase and its contents. We stayed in a stuffy stuck-up hotel on the edge of the Parco de’ Medici and went to see several Italian ministers, all of whom spoke fluent and flawless English and made jokes about Brexit. We also visited the World Food Programme in Rome and I left the delegation to see my friend Fionnuala for a breathless cup of coffee before rejoining the delegation. On the following day we were in Paris visiting President Macron at the Elysee Palace. When I got back to Abidjan I slept for twelve hours before coming into work to help prepare the next visits and their speeches. The President was already on the case…
yours under cover