Saturday, October 31, 2009

Contrasts--Kinshasa, Monrovia, and Abidjan

One of the things that I thought was most interesting about my short visits to all of these places was the different attitudes that locals had towards their countries' police and military forces. Since we hadn't been to any of these cities before, we always had someone drive us around town for a couple hours after checking into the hotel, just to get a feel for things.

Kinshasa is big, messy, bustling and crazy. The main artery, the Boulevard du 30 Juin (the day of independence from Belgium), has been completely torn up so it can be widened. In the process, the Chinese companies who are doing the work have removed all the decades old trees that I'm told used to line up the avenue (I had people almost crying when they told me about the trees, it's really awful, now there's just this sewage ditch on each side of the street, lovely).

Anyway, cops stand on platforms at intersections directing traffic and stopping white people in expensive looking cars. We asked the driver to take us down by the river, where some government buildings and embassies are. "No, we can't go there, there are too many military guys there," was the response. Ok, not that good, you have a problem if people are scared to come too close to government buildings. Over the next few days, we quickly found that taxi drivers would rather add 5-10 minutes to the trip in order to avoid getting too close to the Presidential palace...This is what happens when cops carry AKs--just like soldiers--and no one gets paid, or at least not paid enough. This is also what happens when soldiers are doing the jobs of police officers and when presidential guard units have complete impunity.

So, next stop Monrovia, where basically every permanent structure suffers from bullet holes. There's a lot of property disputes going on because seemingly sound structures (besides the bullet holes) lack roofs and windows and are not being used, despite the fact that there's a clear lack of housing/shop space/office space, you name it. Like in Kinshasa, there's construction everywhere.

On our little tour around the city, the driver pulls right into the driveway of the Ministry of the Interior. We're thinking "this guy is completely nuts." So we ask, "is it safe?" and get a puzzled frown in response, "Of course it's safe it's the ministry of the interior." And then you realize, there are no soldiers patrolling the streets, only unarmed police. They're directing traffic too but it seems they're harassing drivers a lot less. Not only that but it seems many of them actually do get paid. Now this creates another set of problems, which is that unarmed police have a hard time trying to respond to armed gangs...In short, people would like the cops to do more to address crime. Meanwhile, the military it seems is esconded into a big base for training. Signs on the gate and on the wall say "Barclay Training Center: Security Sector Reform for the Liberian People, from the American People."

Next stop Abidjan, which is different again because the buildings are largely intact (almost no bullet holes). The roads are paved, the traffic lights work and unless there's no one around, people actually abide by them. There are also bus lanes and nice highways along the laguna.

Here there are all sorts of police and military milling about, some almost unrecognizable because they're neighborhood cops and they just wear pants and a special kind of polo shirt that says "police municipale" in washed out capital letters in the back. The policing model is of course French. Here the gendarmes and military guys are armed again but not the municipal cops--these people are mostly seen talking to locals on the street, walking around the market. Here, ministries are surrounded by big fences and high walls and guarded by some kind of private guard company (yellow polo shirts, black pants, unarmed). These yellow shirt guys also stand guard at banks, supermarkets, and the nicer restaurants. Here, it seems military, police and gendarmerie patrol and sometimes set up "checkpoints" to steal money from hapless taxi drivers (small red corollas--they have meters!). So here again, we have the problem of unclear distinctions between police and military tasks.

All this to say, the reform needs for these countries are different and the way in which forces in country behave gives these cities a completely different feel.


  1. Sur ce blog, des images du boulevard avec puis sans les arbres... la légende dit "le passé fait place à la modernité"... on voit surtout les dégâts.
    You have to scroll down a little to get to the post devoted to the trees... there was no direct link

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Merci Philippe--it's sad. Those trees look like they were gorgeous and provided much needed shelter from the heat and sun.

  4. Those trees were indeed beautiful. Sad to hear they've disappeared, as they were one of the few nice features of Kin's urban architecture.

    As to the Presidential Palace - at least when I was there, it wasn't cops at the checkpoints, but Presidential Guard, who for all intents and purposes are the law (black uniform, red beret, rather than blue uniform and blue beret). Unless things have changed, even the armed police (as opposed to the traffic cops in bright yellow) in Kin were the poor cousins in the hierarchy of security forces.

  5. MK--the set up around the presidential palace was odd, I saw a little bit of everything, including guys the drivers said were presidential guard but they were wearing fatigues/green like the FARDC guys. We avoided the area so much, didn't get to see any checkpoints. Armed cops are still the poor cousins. The traffic cops just wear the yellow vest things now and I'm trying to remember if I saw any with weapons...

  6. Yikes, Lil, this is quite a report. Sad about the trees. Interesting.

  7. Ack, I meant: interesting report and sad about the trees...of course.

  8. Thanks Madhu! I had a good time and I learned a lot.