Thursday, September 19, 2013

Arik Air's Guide to Nigeria's Cities

In the wake of Air Nigeria's ignominious demise, Arik Air has taken up the mantle of flag carrier for Nigeria, and taken on West Africa's key Lagos-Accra-Monrovia route, which I flew a few months back.
Arik Air's in-flight magazine, Wings, has the usual economy class journalism, but I was delighted by the airline's back section feature, WingTips, which are visitor guides to cities it serves. These include not only the larger global destinations like Johannesburg, but also most of its domestic network, including Akure, Asaba, Gombe, Ilorin, Jos, Kaduna, Katsina, Owerri, Port Harcourt, Sokoto, Uye, Warri, Yola. Each profile has a section, Behold, which celebrates the city itself, followed by paragraphs on what to buy or what local markets the city has, and what or where to eat, and where to stay.
Brussels Airlines and Kenya Airways produce similar content for their in-flight glossies for spots as exotic as Lomé and Conakry, and of course Lonely Planet and other adventure guides have provided information on off-the-beaten-path African cities for decades. So perhaps I am looking at this from the perspective of a patronizing foreigner, but this glossy promotional series was pleasantly unexpected. I find it so warming and optimistic to find these tourist guides to these places, so little known and little visited by foreigners, and broadly speaking so infrequently appreciated or celebrated by just about everyone.
The only time any of these places make it into the international press is likely when there are fear-mongering stories about Nigeria's insecurity or imminent break-up. Rather than danger warnings, its nice to read celebratory recommendations suggesting travelers explore the country.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Newly-discovered blog: Naijanomics

Following from yesterday's post on the new Chatham House report on Nigeria's institutionalized oil theft, I just happened to discover, via Twitter, this excellent new blog on Nigerian economics, called Naijanomics, written by Chuba Ezekwesili. I've added it the blog roll (on the right-hand side of the page) and recommend checking it out. The post from today, on 'African Time' analyzed through game theory is pretty clever.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Nigeria's Stolen Oil

Sticking with Nigeria for another day, here's a few startling (or not so surprising) paragraphs:

Nigerian crude oil is being stolen on an industrial scale. Some of what is stolen is exported. Proceeds are laundered through world financial centres and used to buy assets in and outside Nigeria. In Nigeria, politicians, military officers, militants, oil industry personnel, oil traders and communities profit, as do organized criminal groups. The trade also supports other transnational organized crime in the Gulf of Guinea... 
Nigeria offers a strong enabling environment for the large-scale theft of crude oil. Corruption and fraud are rampant in the country’s oil sector. A dynamic, overcrowded political economy drives competition for looted resources. Poor governance has encouraged violent opportunism around oil and opened doors for organized crime. Because Nigeria is the world’s 13th largest oil producer – exports often topped two million barrels per day in 2012 – high rents are up for grabs. 

Those are from the opening passages of the Executive Summary of "Nigeria's Criminal Crude: International Option to Combat the Export of Stolen Oil" authored by Christina Katsouris and Aaron Sayne, and released this week by Chatham House. Free to download here. Eye-opening reading.

Planet Money Podcast on Nigeria's GDP

Speaking of Podcasts, which I am a bit addicted to, in addition to the Africa Today Podcast from the BBC, which comes out 5 days a week, I also subscribe to NPR's Planet Money podcast, which features short, digestive summaries of complex economic stories in the news.

Earlier this year, Planet Money has two episodes about Nigeria and Ghana's GDP calculations. One called, When a Poor Country Gets a Whole Lot Richer, which described the re-adjustment of Nigeria's GDP calculations, moving the baseline year up and accounting for whole sectors such as mobile telephony, resulting in a radically larger GDP figure. Earlier in the year, an episode covered both Ghana's 2010 GDP readjustment as well as emerging tech sectors contributing to Nigeria's GDP reckoning.

I definitely recommend listening to the whole episode via the link above, which is quite illustrative on how GDPs are calculated and informative generally on Nigeria's economic growth, but I also was amazed to hear the episode because I had written an email to Planet Money and recommended this topic for a show. Unfortunately, no love for me in the credits, but still.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Grand Bassam: Ready for Tourists?

While preparing the posts about Françafrique earlier this month, it seemed serendipitous to hear my good friend and excellent journalist Tamasin Ford, the BBC West Africa correspondent based in Abidjan, on the BBC Africa Today podcast, filing a report about Grand Bassam, Cote D'Ivoire's original capital city.

Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, tiny Grand Bassam is about an hour southeast of Abidjan, and was the first capital of the French colony has been more recently something of the Newport, Rhode Island of Ivory Coast. As Tamasin reports, it has received UNESCO World Heritage status, but hasn't yet seen an influx of tourists. Listen to Tamasin's report on her Soundcloud page.

I happened to visit Grand Bassam in April this year, while visiting Tamasin and her boyfriend in Abidjan. Upon arriving from the city, we first went to a decent beachfront hotel for lunch. The beach was busy and the hotel was lively, although I didn't see that many foreigners; the majority of people seemed to be West African.

The three of us strolled to find the Vieux Carré after lunch. It was a bit hard to find, as there were no street signs or maps, and few wayfinding aides for the interested visitor. We experienced one of those strange sensations when visiting a foreign city, that particular disorientation when you have no idea if you've found the center of town or if you're on the outskirts, looking for something else.

Like several other colonial historic districts that I've visited in West Africa, Grand Bassam in its current, dilapidated condition, offers the visitors a rare chance to get up close to the architecture in its on-reconstructed state. Its amazing to be able to walk in these old buildings without restriction, such as the old railway station, below:

However, the bigger aspect is also the more negative: I was disappointed not so much at the sorry condition of the historic buildings, but it was obvious that several had already disappeared, and even the better examples that still stood, there was no way of learning more about them, such as the case with the magnificent example at the top of this post. The old center was interrupted by new construction, as would be expected in an inhabited district; some was more "contextual than others." In the bones of some of the older structures, the possibility for a refurbished, tourist-oriented destination seemed possible: fixing up a few for restaurants, cafés and small guest houses. Certainly sufficient crowds were coming to the area, as the beaches just ten minutes away were full of weekenders.

I am not familiar with what expertise or assistance UNESCO provides its designates, or whether a master plan or other aide is coming Grand Bassam's way. But there is a lot of work to be done to capture the potential of this historic city as a place for visitors, and much like the historic architecture of Liberia, as time passes, less and less of the older buildings are left standing.

All photos ©2013 Mathew M. Jones

Saturday, September 14, 2013

When Swissair flew to Monrovia

The prominence of Swissair in the opening scenes of the remarkable Wealth of Liberia, which I posted about last, reminded me that some photos of Swissair and its ticket office have been posted to the Liberia 77 website.
As seen in the film, the Swissair ticket office was located in the heart of the city, at the corner of Broad and Randall Streets, in what then, remarkably as now, was called the Palm Hotel. These two photos are dated by the anonymous uploader as 1983 and 1984, which show the later Swissair paint job and a strikingly modern, glazed-wall storefront:

An interesting aside is a black and white press photo, posted earlier on Liberia 77, showing the large-pane glazing of the ticket office smashed during the April 1979 rice riots, below.
As the later color photos show, despite the vandalism Swissair stuck with Liberia, fixing their glass windows, and landing at RIA several times a week. Swissair flew a Zürich-Geneva-Monrovia weekly from April 4th 1965 to 1986, occasionally linking Abidjan or Dakar as well (see first day covers below). Swissair started with DC-8 jets, as the film shows, then employed DC-10 trijets beginning in 1977, until during the last years it used a widebody A310, as seen in this historic first-day service envelopes:

The year 1986 is the same fateful date during which Pan Am finally pulled out of Monrovia and ended its management of Robertsfield. Swissair itself met its demise suddenly in 2001, when its assets were seized by creditors. An interesting detail of this bankruptcy was that Swissair had taken over the Belgian carrier Sabena, which had never stopped flying to Liberia, and was quickly transformed into SN Brussels Airlines, now just Brussels Airlines, which still has more intercontinental seats out of RIA than any other single carrier, with 4 flights per week, and maintaining a large ticket office in the former Chase Manhattan Plaza, now formally known as the Episcopal Church Plaza at Randall and Ashmun, just a two-minute walk from the old Swissair office.

Although under administration, Swissair was similarly resurrected as Swiss International Air Lines, that new carrier does not serve West Africa at all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Wealth of Liberia

To-day, businessmen and investors from all parts of the world have discovered the commercial and industrial potential that is the Wealth of Liberia"

Big thanks to Twitter bud Chris Carnel for immediately alerting me to this YouTube posting from Pepperbird Studios: a restoration of a c.1974 newsreel on Liberia, released to Yor-El Francis of Pepperbird from the Tolbert family's private collection. 

Every once in a while a vintage film or photo surfaces which embodies this blog better than a thousand word post. This grainy, colorful, 22-minute archival gem seems tailor-made for this blog, starting off with a Swissair DC-8 landing at Robertsfield, and from there launching right into a sightseeing tour of the landmark buildings of central Monrovia, most of them barely 10 years old at the time. It almost recalls this blog's Architectural Tour of third of a century later. 

Monrovia reflected in a graceful cultural heritage, but a city, as modern as To-day... Buildings steeped in the traditions of Liberia's rich history...Building reflecting the country's promise of a rich future. As with the imposing Executive Mansion, home of the country's president, William R. Tolbert...Buildings that reflect the civic dignity of the city, its commerce and industry... For the well-being of its people, the JF Kennedy Memorial Hospital..The renown Ducor Intercontinental Hotel also looks out to one of the islands first sighted by those early settlers, 150 years ago.

Its a glowing overview of the Camelot that was Late Classic Liberia wonder-story, the High-Tolbertian boom of Rally Time, raw commodity exporting, rapid industrialization, all narrated in an infallibly clipped mid-Atlantic accent, blaring trumpets heralding the excitement of an economy on the move in between the frenetic reporting. Act One is made up of several minutes of luscious street scenes of bustling mid-1970s Monrovia, looking spotless and state-of-the-art: leafy Broad Street lined with fine-looking buildings, all recognizable today.

There's current no information about who the customers for the film-making were, but presumably this was a governmental commission, although the Tolbert family's now-somewhat infamous Mesurado Group of Companies features more than prominently throughout the feature, almost to the point where the film becomes indistinguishable as a promotion of the conglomerate or of the country itself. In those days, as in other times, investing in the Liberian economy meant investing in, or at least closely alongside, prominent and elite families. 

That contentious issue aside, the film spends a good deal of time noting many of the government programs aimed at assisting the general population, in skills training, employment and the advancement of agriculture through higher education twinned with research and development. Tobacco, processed crepe and latex rubber, cocoa, coffee and timber seem to pour out of the Liberian hinterlands and through the humming, orderly ports of Buchanan, Greenville, Harper, and of course the Freeport. It's undeniably impressive. 

There are also some delightful scenes of Swissair's glass-fronted ticket office in the Palm Hotel, at the corner of Broad and Randall Streets, as well as the busy Air Liberia office, whose location was presumably on Broad Street as well, but this is a new one for me. Later in the film, the Wings of the Pepperbird are shown linking the bustling port of Buchanan and to the industrial hive of Mount Nimba to Spriggs Payne.

The entire film is quite astonishing. In its economic overview, a sequence of scenes breeze through factories and finishing lines for cigarettes and soap, paint and packaged seafood, window frames and wood products, none of which exist 39 year later. Only Cemenco is recognizeable, although the legacy of Parker Paint and others live on in place names. Likewise lost to war and history are the refining capacity of the Liberia Petroleum Refining Company. 

 Outside of the industrial zones, the Agricultural educational farms decentralized in Virginia, Lofa, and Grand Bassa, as well as the Liberia Feed Mill Company, provide a quasi-statal architecture of agricultural advancement, with a goal of not only building export volumes, but becoming self-sufficient in rice production. The Liberia Produce Marketing Corporation, like so many of these ventures, has since ceased to exist. Even these structures and facilities have disappeared. 

In contrast, the gleaming towers of commerce, culture and industry are all recognizable, standing today either as shabby shadows of their former selves, albeit serving the exact same purpose as they did originally (the Masonic Temple, Chase Manhattan Plaza, Centennial Pavilion, the Executive Pavilion, the Executive Mansion, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance, Monrovia City Hall, JFK Hospital) or standing as shameful shells of once-boastful monuments, like the E.J. Roye Building and the Ducor Hotel. 

Indeed, the early shot of businessmen arriving at Robertsfield almost exactly matches the picture on RIA's Wikipedia page: the airport's facility is the same building today as it was in those days. 

The entire feature is an amazing gem for Liberiophiles and history buffs. It's entirely preciously-rare footage of Liberia's golden era, from the sunny scenes of the new Gardnersville and Amical Cabral housing estate to the incredible breadth of Liberia's industrial facilities. Of course, the film is painfully bittersweet, as it speaks of the Wealth of the Future and Progress, barely five years before President Tolbert was assassinated in the Executive Mansion, the opening violence in a horror which erased every inch of Liberia's progress, much of which, astoundingly, has yet to return. 

Tweets by @moved2monrovia