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African Youth Struggle to Survive West Africa's 'De-Development'


A new term being used to describe economic realities in West Africa is de-development. Life in cities built on dried up post-colonial aid is becoming increasingly difficult amid growing insecurity, power outages, and soaring unemployment.

These young men, mostly in their twenties, are hustling for a few CFA Francs, parking cars, in Abidjan's financial district.

There were just a few of them a few years ago, but now a dozen run around every car. They point to a spot and hope that when the driver leaves, he or she will give them a tip.

Jacques Guigui says he was a student when his father died so he started parking cars to help take care of his brothers and sisters. He now has two children of his own.

He says it is better than stealing. He says he has no other options if he is to find money to feed his family.

The young men are now running away, as they have just spotted a special unit of the police, that they fear the most, known as CECOS.

There were efforts to institutionalize the work of freelance parking attendants, but like many other projects in Ivory Coast to legitimize the black market, it failed.

Guigui says he was once falsely accused of stealing money from a car and had to spend a month in jail. He says it is all very discouraging, when all he wants to do is work.

In another part of Abidjan, young men, in their teens, who all say they are apprentice mechanics, have set up a roadblock during rush hour, in front of a massive pothole. A few lined-up wheelbarrows filled with dirt prevent motorists from going through.

The young men say they are fixing the road, but all they do is try to stop cars and get a tip.

One of them says they often get insulted, especially by taxi drivers, but it is part of the territory. He says it is the only way he has found to feed himself.

In other parts of West Africa, these same tactics are used, but with even less policing than in Abidjan, some of the "pretend road fixers" use pieces of wood with protruding nails as their roadblocks. They refuse to pull these out from underneath a car's tires unless they are given money.

In Abidjan, vendors in traffic jams and at red lights are also proliferating at never before seen levels.

As the World Cup is approaching, anything with the colors of the Ivory Coast national team or in the shape of the team's mascot, the elephant, is being sold.

There is also the usual array of pirated DVDs, umbrellas, sunglasses, rugs, toys and the inevitable tissues. Unusual items, such as giant drill sets or juice mixers, pop in and out of fashion.

Many of the items are siphoned off ships at Abidjan's port in clandestine operations run by dock workers.

Here as well, there is no protection, and arbitrary policing.

Serge Zadi, who is selling boxers today, says he was once picked up by police, for no apparent reason, and put in jail for two days.

He got out after he paid a bribe of about $60.

He says life is hard but that he still prefers to do something other than stealing to get by.

This is not the case for all young men as criminality here is rising steadily. There are more and more reports of armed robbers attacking cars stuck in traffic. Attacks on poorly secured restaurants are frequent as well.

Gangs also extort money from company, shop and restaurant owners to prevent their businesses from being looted, as is often the case during political riots. Often these businessmen do not pay any regular taxes to the government, bringing their own dealings into shady areas of lawlessness.

Such are some of the realities of de-development.