This might not be a topical area today given the global excitement around Obama and other developments in the continent. However, I have been hoping to put my thoughts on paper on African representations and interpretations in the media for some time now. The following are just thoughts and must be treated as such. The works that I have used to write this article are illustrative and not exhaustive. There are many more out there, some of which are more recent than the ones I have used. The same applies to scholars, journalists and media houses. The point I want to address is the way Africa is interpreted in different parts of the world through particularly constructed prisms. The power vested in scholars, journalists and the media in general has the propensity to propel Africa into development (making us think positively about Africa) or cause more reputational damage that exists to the image of the continent.
More often Africa is characterised and defined in binary terms, particularly in the Western media, but also increasingly by its own African media. The mantra “if it bleeds, it leads” is what drives many editors and journalists of various media houses. This binary approach though creates an intellectual conundrum not just for the readers, but also for the journalists and media outlets themselves. Although they should know better, scholars have also been at the heart of this representation of Africa, in particular, anthropologists and increasingly historians, some of who have shifted from areas such as history of politics to political history.
So what are the representations?
On one hand is an extreme pessimism of scholarly writings of people such as Robert Kaplan, who wrote for example in 1994 for the Atlantic Monthly about “The Coming Anarchy”. There are also journalistic accounts of horrors, diseases and skeletons, as typified by the Economist’s 2000 article of “The Dark Continent” and Time magazine’s “The African Crisis”. Both scholarly and journalistic accounts of Africa in this category see everything in negative and pessimistic terms. There is a somewhat conscious decision not to report on the positive developments.
For sure, many journalists take their cure from scholars under who they studied journalism, political economy, etc. It is therefore very important to know some of these scholarly writings in order to understand the worldview of these journalists. Two examples will suffice in these notes: one is Robert Kaplan writing about West Africa and the other is a 2007 publication by Paul Collier.
In his study of West Africa, Kaplan saw only an Armageddon awaiting the countries of the sub-region. Because of the prolonged economic crisis, widespread social fragmentation, including the big gap between the rich and the poor, the collapse of institutions, challenges of corruption, lack of public accountability, illegitimate governments (read bad governance), rising tensions in ethnicities, religion and identities, (in particular Islamic identity), etc, Kaplan concluded that these poised a threat to political and economic stability. In the absence of any mitigating factor and major intervention, the region was therefore headed for a major anarchy.
This worldview is also expounded by Paul Collier in his 2007 book: The Bottom Billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it. Writing eloquently, perhaps for G8, renowned economist and former director of research at the World Bank, Collier explained that the world’s bottom billion is primarily found in Africa and, if not rescued, will pull down developed nations into a “limbo”. In his view, Africa is the problem and, to avoid this catastrophe happening, some interventions need to be put in place. Top on his list is external military intervention, in particular the European rapid force. Collier’s language on Africa leaves a lot to be desired. For example, he uses terms like “traps, limbo countries, developing at a sedate pace, and countries are switching between one trap to another”. Listen to one of his classic sentences: “Even when free of traps, they (African countries) sit in limbo, going so slowly that they risk falling back into traps before they can reach a level of income that ensures safety …”
This is the respected professor who advises many African governments and directs the Centre for African Economies at Oxford. So what advice does he give to African governments? He says in the book that: “it was a mistake for the international system to permit economically unviable areas to become independent countries”. In his view some countries in Africa were not supposed to be.
On military intervention, he says: “I want to persuade you that external military intervention has an important place in helping the societies of the bottom billion …” He further says: “The risks for not intervening include consequences of civil war spilling over to the rich world in the form of diseases, terrorism and drugs … some citizens of the rich world are going to die as a result of the chaos in the bottom billion …” WOW. By the way, Collier believes that, for military intervention to be successful, it must be sustained for at least a decade.
Clearly Collier does not think that the problems he cites as African are actually global. It surprises a reader to hear a world respected economist saying: “I have a young son and, when he is older, I don’t want him exposed to the risks of being blown apart in London or shot in Bradford by some exile from Somalia or a failing state either. Nor do I want him exposed to the risk of disease.”
These are just but examples of scholarly and perhaps journalistic representations of Africa in very negative tones. There are many others of this nature. The main problem with this approach or interpretation is that it portrays Africa at the brink of explosion. No doubt there is truth in these writings, but such narratives make it very easy for critics to evade the truth and argue that these writers are racist and are thinly disguising their writings with an invitation for neo-colonisation. The other problem with this always-negative representation is that it assumes that events always follow a downward spiral. It is as if there are no progressive forces either in Africa or outside that want to reverse the trends. There are many such initiatives either from Africans themselves or from the international community.
On the other hand are wild optimisms of scholars such as Jean-Marie Cour and Brah Mahamana who conducted studies for the Club du Sahel and many media houses in Africa. Jean-Marie Cour and his associates argued that “the mobility of Africans and their energetic population has resulted in massive structural changes in the economy and society, including settlement patterns”. They further argued that the capacity of the people to quickly adapt to changing circumstances and in so doing improvise and innovate has been central to their efforts in improving their lives. They concluded that West Africa, for example, was poised for massive structural change and the outlook from a demo-economic perspective is not one that gives cause for negative concern given the record of flexibility and adaptability of the people. This is in sharp contrast to Kaplan’s analysis of the same region.
The main problem with this approach, however, is that it is built on one-sided confidence, which is associated with population growth, migration and exposure to world markets. But surely an argument can be made also that any failure to manage the socioeconomic and political stimuli that the population growth and flows trigger can be disastrous.
Journalists have also fallen into this trap and romanticised even the worst forms of atrocities. In the process they have missed the opportunity to critically build their societies. They have created an impression that all is well in Africa. The state-controlled media is guilty of this. We have seen these tendencies, for example, the state media in Zimbabwe, and some of the so-called Pan Africanist media that seek to justify the wrongs done in such areas as Durfur and Somalia. But of course this is not to say that there are no sections of the media that take advantage of the situations in Darfur and Zimbabwe to advance their own agendas in the West.
I hesitate to include in this category, internationally acclaimed journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s New News out of Africa: Uncovering Africa’s Renaissance. I hesitate to include Charlayne’s accounts here because the title of her book suggests that there was never any new news or developments in Africa till the emergence of the news that her book is based on. And yet, if facts be recounted, there has always been something positive and new coming from Africa as there have been negative developments or no improvements at all in some areas.
Having said this, though, Charlayne is probably one of very few international journalists who has tried to write with a balanced view although there are some tendencies in her book to turn negatives into positives. The danger with this approach is that it gives praise where it does not belong, for example, her description of Olusegun Obasanjo as a democrat is a dangerous characterisation that might be abused by dangerous elements in Africa. When I last met Charlayne in December 2007, she assured me that she was updating some parts of the book, including the section on Obasanjo.
So what was the purpose of my notes?
I wanted to offer a view that the true representation of Africa lies somewhere between the extreme pessimism of scholarly and journalistic accounts of people like Kaplan, Collier and media outlets like The Economist, Time magazine (BBC, CNN etc) and the wild optimism of Cour and associates, as well as some media houses in Africa, especially those controlled by the state. Africa’s true image lies somewhere between horror stories in Darfur, Zimbabwe, etc and the romanticised democratic consolidation stories in Botswana and South Africa. Indeed, it lies somewhere between the state media and the so- called independent media in Africa. You will not find a true representation and interpretation of Africa in any one set of writings, be it scholarly or journalistic. You will find it somewhere within and between the binaries.