African Capitals Are Worlds Unto Themselves

African Capitals Are Worlds Unto Themselves

By Conor Godfrey

This weeks’ New Yorker featured a special on the last days of the Guinean Junta entitled The End of A West African Dictatorship.

I felt as if author John Lee Anderson used the dark surrealism of Heart of Darkness with the edgy absurdity of Clockwork Orange a l’ African to capture the disintegration of Captain Dadis Camara’s grip on power.

In Anderson’s account, Junta leaders conspiratorially vie for power inside the labyrinth of the Alpha Yaya military compound in Conakry, while brown-brown (½ cocaine ½ gun-powder) snorting soldiers patrol the streets in flat-beds fitted with 50. Caliber machine guns.

Implausible images of Junta leader Dadis Camara on horseback adorn this Orwellian landscape like a Guinean big brother modeled on a victorious Roman general.

Reading this nightmarish tale reminded me of the yawning disconnect between Conakry and Guinea, and more generally, between some African capitals and the countries they purport to represent.

How do you reconcile the tranquil Guinean interior with the horrors Anderson describes?

You cannot. They belong to totally different worlds.

Any villager arriving in Conakry, or Dakar, or Bamako, (the three West African capitals in which I’ve spent significant time) would notice certain differences between the capital and the interior immediately:

The prevalence of French, the partial electricity, the traffic, the multitudes of young people, the police and military presence, and the cell phone coverage would all make the capital a strange place for the average West African.

But the differences that create the deeper disconnect between rural and urban require a more discerning eye.

Capital Cities tend to contain large numbers of politicized young people.

These young people are often unemployed, more educated then their peers, and in constant contact with the outside world through the radio, television, and in contact with foreign NGO workers or tourists.

The presence of the State also becomes more noticeable and meddlesome.

Soldiers set up roadblocks, the haphazard enforcement of the rule of law burdens most while leaving the well-connected untouched, and state policies which are routinely ignored up country must be heeded for better or worse in the capital.

In The Berlin Conference Continues to Plague Africa 125 Years After the Fact, I talked about the artificiality of the African political map.

In the interior people, deal with this by ignoring rules issued from the capital, or the state government adapts to fit local realities.
(e.g. In my village, 90% of office holders came from families that held political power before the French colonial government nominally extended its writ to the sleepy village of Fataco.

Now those families have “official titles”, but nothing really changed.)

However in capital cities, the colonial powers grew deeper roots. Now their imposed system awkwardly competes for influence with more traditional levers of power like family, ethnic group, faith, etc…

I think these dynamics isolate capitals and those who live in them from the interior.

John Lee Anderson’s article describes a Guinea that most Guineans do not know or care exists; I wonder if the same is true for villagers in other parts of the continent.

Please feel free to comment!