This is a blog post I was supposed to write some time ago… But somehow I couldn't find the time to do it last week. Now I sit comfortably in my chair in lovely Strasbourg (yes, it's plenary once again), watching the Christmas market under the snow outside (or almost) and I can remember those sunny and bright days I spent in Lomé, Togo, at the end of November…
It all started with the boss (aka Steve) popping up in my office, a little bit embarassed. "Well, Florent, I'm afraid some people will be jealous…" Our sister unit, "the press" as we call it, had no French speaking press officers to cover a Joint Parliamentary Assembly in Togo… So we were asked to help them, and as French editor I was the first to get the offer.
It was a bit unfair, I must admit, as I already went to Tunisia for another mission last July. Missions are something rare in our unit, and two missions abroad in the same year was stretching the limits.
It took me about half a second to weigh up the pros and cons… And to accept the mission, of course not out of personal interest but to fulfil my duties and stay loyal to my beloved institution.
First times are always something special
I had never been to "black" Africa before and the first thing I would say now that I'm back is that I would like to return there. The country, as I could see during the 5 days of work and the 2 free days I had at the end of the mission, is really poor but people are extremely friendly. Yes, if there is richness in Africa, it's definitely the people.
The natural comparison that comes to my mind is always the one with China, where I went for several long trips. Togo seemed much poorer. Lomé is the capital and main city but you do not see more than 10 buildings in the whole town that have more than five or six floors. Industry and business seem to be non-existent. The hospital we visited with a delegation of MEPs and African, Pacific and Caribbean (ACP) MPs was hosting a lot of… Chinese doctors and nurses. Many people were sleeping outside, along the roads. And unemployment hits -officially- above 30% of the population (it may be even higher in reality). With 60% of the population being under 25, it would be the "land of hopelessness" if people had no such a positive attitude…
I did not tell you yet what exactly I was doing there. So, here is the explanation. Elected representatives from the EU and the ACP countries meet twice a year, alternatively in Europe and in an ACP country, to discuss development. This has been decided in 2000, when both parties agreed in the Cotonou agreement on a stabile framework for their relations. The Joint Parliamentary Assembly, which gathers 78 MEPs and their counterparts from the 78 ACP countries, is a unique area of discussion for the representatives that control the governments' actions.
My job was the one of a press officer, as I said. I wrote press releases in French (another colleague took care of the English ones), something similar to what I do for La Une ("Headlines" page) maybe just a bit more factual and less free. I moderated the press conference and the press breakfast with the co-presidents of the Assembly, Louis Michel (Belgian MEP and former commissioner) and Assarid Ag imbarcaouane from Mali. And, last but not least, I was answering to journalists on the phone.
The first call I got was from a nice young lady that saw me during the press conference. She wanted to meet me – why not? But she could not come to the office. So she proposed to meet at my hotel at 8PM. Well… It sounded strange and not 100% professional… Following the advice of my experienced fellows from the Press unit, I asked whether it was about the Parliamentary Assembly or not. "Well, it's a bit about it and mainly about other stuff", was the answer. Gosh. I had to decline the "rendez-vous". I didn't know being a press officer was also about turning down this kind of requests. Damn, I was so naive, wasn't I?
A premature conclusion
This blog starts to be too long, so let's come to a quick conclusion, if you've not already left. I discovered a new continent and a new job. I liked being in contact with MEPs and journalists. I did not like very much the writing of the press releases since there is no creativity behind it. And I liked following the multicultural debates (yes, in such an Assembly multiculturalism takes another significance!) on the impact of public debt on development, on the fight against malaria, on the Arab Spring, on the situation in the Horn of Africa…
The political situation on the spot was also very sensitive. The country is in a democratic transition, with the actual president being the son of the dictator that held power for 38 years. There was a big debate about nine MPs that were "dismissed" for changing their political party. MEP Louis Michel was rather in favour of this decision, many journalists again – a very hot topic. The reasons behind are quite complex and I can't go into details but it generated some hostile press coverage and rather virile interventions during the press breakfast. Another challenge to master – really interesting from a professional and personal point of view. Yes, you get the feeling you're in the political business and not only watching it from the outside!
Yes, you get the feeling you're in the political business and not only watching it from the outside!
We also got the chance to be invited for dinner by the Togolese correspondent from Radio France Internationale, and we spent the whole evening discussing the political situation. It was a really enlightening debate that offered us to understand the situation much more in depth.
Get out and you'll see!
Getting out of the office, meeting new colleagues, working directly with MEPs, being on the spot and not hidden behind a screen is always worth it, being it abroad or not, being it in Africa or not. Now I'm waiting for the next opportunity and, as it won't come before a long time, I just hope other colleagues will have the same opportunity and share their experience with us…