"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

A Prince Among Paupers - Doing Good In An African Dump With Oil

The one nice thing about dumps with oil - poor, desperate, nasty countries ruled by despots but which sit on top of billions in natural resources - is the hotels, refuges from the filth, squalor, and dysfunction surrounding them. 

The Grand Hotel had been financed with a generous loan from the World Bank to help its client state to develop a hospitality infrastructure - a fanciful idea given that the country had been ruled by Antoine M'Dogo Sesi Kofu for three decades, had been picked clean by him and his cohorts leaving no legal tender to repay even the Bank's softest loan.  Yet Bank managers saw hope in recent elections signaling, they thought, a return to democracy, a peaceful transition to popular rule, and prosperity; and if there was a decent hotel to house investors who, seeing both electoral promise and economic opportunity, it would fill quickly to capacity. 


President Kofu, having been to France and America as diplomatic royalty, and having stayed at the very finest, most luxurious hotels in Paris and New York, knew that to join the league of developed nations, a five-star hotel would be a must.  He, a man with deep tribal roots, had not stayed in a hotel of any dimension or reputation until his first trip to Europe as a member of The African Youth League, a thinly-disguised brown shirt Fascist group with cadres in every West African country devoted to keep Africa black, native, and proud. 

Western nations had celebrated the group and saw it as the emergence of a corps of young leaders which would lead the continent out of the Dark Ages. They had not, however, vetted the organization to see beyond its benign patriotism to its radical core.  Anything with even a scintilla of hope passed muster.  Africa could simply not be consigned to failure, a collection of dysfunctional, crime-ridden, corrupt, ungovernable 'shit holes'; and success stories had to be found come what may. 

Such impossible idealism opened the floodgates to billions in foreign assistance.  The United States in particular was anxious to show black voters that they cared about their homeland, and would put it at the top of the list of international economic priorities.   

In so doing, billions were sluiced into the Swiss bank accounts of African dictators from north to south.  The leader of Ethiopia who misruled the country for years was the beneficiary of billions of dollars of US largesse. Idris Deby, the dictator of Chad, played the US and the World Bank for fools, duplicitously agreeing to a gas-for-reform agenda and then reneging completely, absorbing the billions of development money siphoned his way, leaving the citizens of his country without a red cent. 

President-for-Life Kagame of Rwanda, lionized because of his victory over the genocidal Hutus, but turned repressive dictator who muzzles all opposition, lies and distorts reports about his clandestine military operations and Stasi-like national police. Deby received $6bn in aid, Lansana Conte of Guinee received $11bn, Kagame $10bn, and Museveni of Uganda $31bn.                           

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President Kofu, then, was but one in a long line of African despots to be favored by Western financial assistance.  Looking at the countries around him and the vast treasures amassed by his fellow leaders, he knew that building a luxury hotel in the midst of abject poverty would be no stretch.  The funds would be there.  

Ground was broken, champagne drunk, foreign dignitaries invited to a show of tribal fanfare, bare-breasted women from the bush, rain dances; manioc, crickets, and jungle rat in a potpourri of native dishes for dinner; and gratuitous sex for everyone. 

Of course, nothing ever got built.  The Grand Hotel was a nice idea, and the President's real ambition was to actually build a five-star, Singapore-worthy hotel and make millions for himself, his minions, and his family.  There would be other opportunities to do both, but for the meantime, swelling his Zurich bank accounts was enough. 

Farnsworth (Farny) Lodge, international development consultant, frequent visitor to West Africa, and no stranger to the African way - corruption, dysfunction, filth, and misery - but salved whatever conscience remained after a number of years in the business and leading a good life while doing good, by saying that he tried.  No use crying over spilled milk, and the rancid, spoiled foul stuff was everywhere.  Do the best you can, enjoy the company, and return home in one piece. 

Haiti under the Duvalier family had been an idyll, an example that a repressive dictatorship was good for one thing at least - keeping the peace and keeping crime to a bare minimum.  Farny ate at the best French restaurants in Petionville and Kenscoff, partied till dawn in Carrefour, and walked the old port at sunset. 

African dictators had lost their taste for management.  It took vigilance, administration, and financial control to maintain and control the Tonton Macoute - patience which African big men did not have.  As long as the money rolled in for gas, oil, rare earths, and minerals; and as long as the presidential palace remained impregnable, why bother with the rest? 

So Farny had to make do, and some of the hotels he stayed in had been maintained and kept up as a matter of presidential pride and as watering hotels for important political cronies. Make do is only by comparison to the hotels of Asia, of course, where the term 'luxury hotel' has been redefined. The hotels of Jakarta, Manila, and Singapore are palaces, the most accommodating, pleasurable, complete packages anywhere.  The hotels of Kigali, Bamako, and Nairobi are grungy flop houses by comparison; but within the African context quite passable.

There are pools and lively bar scenes, massage parlors, and French wines; good room service, flowers and marble floors, and a doorman. 

Sometimes Farny went in for colonial funk - small hotels still run by French expatriates who decided to stay on after independence, still settled their accounts by hand, and were, as one Frenchman noted, like living in France fifty years ago in la France profonde; or river funk, like La Pirogue whose cabanas on the Niger River had a touch of the safari or Mungo Park adventurism. 

All in all, international development was a prince's game.  One lived well, ate well, and temporarily loosed from family, responsibility, and office, was as free as a bird. A touch of the exotic was enough of a prelude in the tropics for liaisons to come easily and often.  The nastiness of the African street and the malarial bush were put aside without a second thought.  Doing good was someone else's fanciful notion and nothing whatsoever to do with the pestilential, obstructionist, inherently corrupt 'beneficiaries' with whom one was supposed to do business. 

One thing about international foreign assistance - it has staying power.  Despite the fact that little of the money earmarked for 'the people' ever get past the presidential palace; and despite the fact that there is little infrastructure and even less competence to carry out notional projects even if the money got past Go, government after government, development bank after development bank keeps pouring in limitless funds. 

So, within such a system, why worry?  Development was a great ride and Farny would have it no other way. 

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