Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Death of a Despot: Adieu Monsieur Bongo

So, Monsieur le President Omar Bongo du Gabon had the good grace to retire from life this week. Officially he died a day or two ago but a good webtrawl suggests otherwise. With every death in the old guard of African leaders, another piece of the golden independence era in African modern history gets lost. Despot or Political Saint, every one of them mattered in the way they shaped the political culture of their country...

...but what I really want to talk about is the loss of said golden independence era. Actually, the loss of style and consequence. When I was a kid, I spent a few years living across the river from Kinshasa. In Brazzaville, Francophilia was a way of life but there was also a very vibrant Afrocentric culture of style and opulence being driven by the courts of the local despots. Mobutu Sese Seko, Dennis Sassou Nguesso, Omar Bongo etc...these were men whose wives wore the very best Parisian shoes with the very best Kitenge couture, whose musical tastes made the careers of the greats like Franco and Madilu, whose personal foibles gave rise to very interesting fashions in some cases (leopard print accessories, anyone?). In a nutshell: awesome political culture/fashion history stuff.

Evidently that brief period of francophonie has had an interesting influence on my politics. Still, out of the manure of corruption, brutality and state failure grew these roses of modern African culture in music and fashion. The old guard didn't just pay lip service to Afrocentrism- they lived it. Back here in Paradise, we've had a slightly different trajectory which has delivered us now to a place where our Dear Leaders dress like bankers or bums depending on the crowd they are addressing.

If there is a hell, no doubt Mr. Bongo will have joined his dear wife and other cronies there. And Madilu and Franco, reunited at last, will serenade him down the red carpet.

No Documented Life Without Bribery?

Of course, it would be a close encounter of the state kind that would jolt me out of my recent blogging apathy. It is budget season, and time for my yearly appointment with the Tanzania Revenue Authority. Any seasoned Paradisan can read the signs of the oncoming tax season: an alarming increase in traffic policemen on the streets conducting spontaneous checks. What's the national budget got to do with traffic cops you ask?

Well. Our government is intensely lazy, uncreative and inefficient. It is also self-aware. Knowing that it cannot bother to raise internal revenue through the use of sophisticated, calibrated, far-reaching and sensible taxation schemes it settles for squeezing the bulk of it out of its captive taxable populations. This means amongst other things crazy high VAT, crazy heavy income tax for those of us in the formal sector, really crazy customs duties, and my favorite: insanely high fuel levies and road licence fees.

Canny Paradisans have been playing the Road Licence Renewal Game of Chance since the government decided that it was going to squeeze the stuffing out of motorists. It is played thus: beginning in June the Paradisan car owner must start to try and decipher which way the road licence fee wind will blow. Every year, the government either reduces or raises it, depending on its general mood, its need for easy cash, and its class politics. Last year the hike was huge, so everyone who had paid their licence Before Budget got to save money. But because we are all waiting to pay our licences sometime Before or After Budget, there is a window of time during which many of us are driving around with lapsed licenses...

...which in turn generates a feeding frenzy in the police force. Plain clothes and traffic cops alike spend pre-budget June catching all of us speculative fools who have let our insurance and road licences expire. They then fine the crap out of us and/or solicit bribes, exploiting yet another state-designed opportunity for corruption to flourish. To celebrate my first year as an independent car-owner, this year I decided to battle the red tape and get my faithful chariot registered in my name AND pay the road licence (mostly) voluntarily*.

I used every trick in the book: delegating to someone who is capable of dealing with government functionaries (not a skill to be sniffed at), semi-honest disclosure of my financial status (this is the TRA after all), and facilitation fees (also known as bakshish, bribery, petty corruption, etc). With the result that that I got a Taxpayer Identification Number and road licence within 24 hours. Hey, ya!

I should not be happy. Embracing the cynicism that is required to live effectively and efficiently in Paradise requires letting go of the idea that I can live 'clean' as a responsible citizen. But those are sweet and naive notions of civic life that have little place here. A government office is the one place where a Paradisan can go to be made to understand the basics of life: you don't matter, only your money and connections do. So, I admit, on any occasion when I manage to wrestle something from the sweaty grip of the state (a passport, a licence), it gives me a primal thrill, facilitation or no facilitation. Handbasket to hell? Why, yes, thank you.

* Okay. The truth is that I fear cops more than any other people in this land and will go to extraordinary lentghs not to give them cause to stop/arrest/incarcerate/bully/humiliate/abuse/perpetrate violence upon me.

A little birdie told me...

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