African News

The Western Media and the Representations of African Conflicts

13 February 2007 at 03:27 | 2444 views

By Zubairu Wai, Vanguard Features Editor, Toronto.

There is not a single day that I turn on the TV or read the papers and do not feel attacked, mocked or put on the defensive because of what I read, see or hear about the African continent. As Paul Zeleza notes in Manufacturing African Studies and Crises, the continent remains perhaps as deeply misrepresented and misunderstood as it was at the beginning of the 19th century: “Each generation [in the West] produce[s] its Livingstones who rediscover[...] Africa through the prevailing [Western] epistemological fad.” True, Zeleza notes, “the stereotypes that structure discourses about Africa mutate, but each mutation carries with it past discursive genres, and the prevailing social rhetoric always sets Africa up against the current conceptions of Western Modernity.” Nowhere, in my view, is this representational and epistemological violence, more evident than in the discourses and representations of African conflicts.

Most of the news coverage of Africa in the Western press is negative, focusing overwhelmingly on crises and disasters: conflicts, wars, famine, disease, poverty, over-population, environmental degradation etc. But even in these instances, the stories reported are almost always deliberately exaggerated, excessively sensationalised, extremely biased, highly stylised, and unapologetically contemptuous and condescending. The power of the media is incredible. Journalists, reporters, film makers etc have succeeded in painting an almost permanent image of the depravity of the Africans in the minds of their audiences. Conflicts are sensationalised and over-dramatised, skewed and distorted. As an African living in the West, I am overburdened by these images and representations.

Sometimes I find it difficult to recognise the Africa that is talked about in the media, for surely what is usually represented is not the Africa I remember growing up in. The images that almost immediately spring to mind when one thinks of Africa in the West are fly-covered malnourished and emaciated children dying in the arms of their apathetic mothers, victims of extreme poverty, famine and war, dying HIV/AIDS victims, machete wielding rag-tag militias menacingly poised to kill at the slightest provocation, refugees fleeing chaos, breakdown of law and order, crime, unmitigated carnage, famine, and a jungle inhabited by wild animals and savages.

Western academics, journalists, media houses and policy makers have enormous powers in creating reality about Africa. But most of the time, they create the reality that they describe and want to intervene in. When Robert Kaplan wrote his Coming Anarchy article purporting to describe the condition and future of non-Western societies, detecting a coming anarchy in West Africa, he automatically became an expert widely quoted both in government and academic circles.

When in 1998 the British press started referring to the War in DR Congo as “Africa’s First World War,” it was later picked up by the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to describe that war. Similarly, some people still refer to Africa as “the hopeless continent”, after the vexatious article in The Economist magazine of May 2000. ‘Warlord’, a word first used by the British press to describe the Somali faction leader General Farrah Aidid, is now widely used to describe rebel leaders in Africa and elsewhere. The term itself carries a certain anachronistic primitivism.

Conflicts have become moments for the projection of certain stereotypical biases and perceptions. Almost always, beneath the sometimes sophisticated language employed to describe these wars are hidden racist veneers, crude reductionist over-simplifications, and prejudicial stereotypifications which only help to reify the notion of African depravity and backwardness. The common image of the continent espoused in these narratives is, in the words of Robert Kaplan, that of an “Africa of the Victorian atlas”, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which in the words of Chinua Achebe is “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Africa is “a cesspool of evil”, of primitivity, of savagery and of barbarity, where ‘warlords’ and their rag-tag militias are battling strong men in weak and unstable neo-patrimonial, shadowy and quasi-states, and in which corruption and political disorder are the rule rather than the exception.

Western commentators have tended to focus on the anomic quality of these wars, variously emphasising greed, deprivation, corruption, political disorder and tribalism. In a recent publication for example, David Keen, a British scholar, acknowledges this tendency: “The very words habitually used by journalists and the rest of us to describe extreme violence - ‘brutal’, ‘savage’, ‘evil’, ‘inhuman’ - tend, subtly or not so subtly, to take violence away from the sphere of the human or the comprehensible and to re-label it as something animal, demonic or ‘other.’ Writing on the Rwandan genocide in a book titled “The Graves are not Yet Full, Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa” Bill Berkeley begins on the following note: “This book is about evil. Its setting is Africa.” African conflicts for him are “a method in madness” which come about as a result of the ‘criminalisation’ of the state by tyrannical regimes.

For Greg Campbell in the book Blood Diamonds, Sierra Leone is “a writhing hive of killers, villains and wretched victims.” For Oliver Furley in the “Introduction” to the book Conflict in Africa, Africans simply have “the habits of conflicts,” while for Stephen Ellis Africa is a “Mask of Anarchy,” where conflicts echo historical traditional practices that extol cannibalism, secret societies and the worship of juju spirits, practices that have now been manipulated by and could be seen “in the practice of present day warlords.”

In the media, most of the stories reported almost always lack substance, fail to create a background and show very little understanding of the dynamics of the conflicts being reported. All that is focussed on are the gruesome details of the ‘realities’ of those conflicts. In fact, the typical media practice is to generalise and over-simplify. African conflicts are caused by factors like ‘tribalism’ which as a word carries the pejorative connotation that Africans are stuck in history, living in times reminiscent of the European dark ages, in ‘traditional’ pre-modern societies, where ‘tribal’ loyalties determine political affiliation.

A common image is that of a primitive society where primordial loyalties are deeply embedded in the psyche of the people. Bloody conflicts result because of this major factor. In fact, the discussion of African politics, conflicts or social organisations in the Western media are mostly negative: African politics is almost always a function of ‘tribalism’, ethnic rivalry, ‘regionalism’ clientism, despotism, tyranny, corruption, incompetence, neo-patrimonialism, etc. Similarly, the continent is usually homogenised and represented as an undifferentiated ‘country’. Extreme worse case scenarios are represented as representative of the entire continent.

Thus the experience of Sierra Leone or Somalia is presented as the experience of Botswana, Namibia, Senegal and Ghana. For example, on May 22, 2000, a CNN reporter interviewing a South African economist in the station’s morning news programme commented that “... the continent [Africa] seems to have fallen into complete anarchy.” Apart from being far from true, this uncritical comment represented Africa as a single undifferentiated country that is locked in chaos. This was not surprising: a week earlier, the British magazine The Economist in its May 13, 2000 edition had passed a brazen offensively racist indictment of the continent dubbing it “The Hopeless Continent!” The magazine produced a highly stylised account of events on the continent, relying on sensationalism and stereotypes in its uncalled for racist attack on the continent.

Painfully, it not only demonstrated a lack of understanding of the continent, but also exposed perhaps the true perceptions and deeply harboured beliefs in the West about Africa. In the story itself, the magazine asks, “What is it with Africa?” And then adds, “The continent is plagued with floods and famine, poverty, disease and state-sponsored thuggery. The West cannot solve these problems.” Then it continues, “... brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere - but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.” The last statement is striking and extremely offensive, but it did not come as a surprise to most Africans: it represented a typical Western understanding (or lack of it) about African phenomena.

The condemnation and huge outcry that greeted that publication from Africans and friends of Africa all over the world called for revisiting the subject. In the February 24, 2001 edition of the magazine, the issue was again revisited; this time it was dubbed “Africa’s Elusive Dawn”. The change of title was remarkably interesting, though its content remained the same. Instead of attempting a retraction of its damning racist attack, the magazine justified it, remaining unapologetically insistent. It wrote: “Seven or eight of its countries are convulsed by insurgencies, half a dozen more are involved in the war in Congo, several others suffer recurrent ethnic clashes, and another pair, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are licking their wounds after an old-fashioned, and very bloody, border war. Just as worrying, many of the countries that have escaped such fighting are floundering economically. Half of sub-Saharan Africa’s 600m people live on just 65 cents a day, and recently they have been getting poorer. Such facts prompted us last year to call Africa "the hopeless continent", and in doing so bring down brickbats galore on our heads.”

Accepting even for a moment that the image of the continent created by The Economist is accurate (it is not), one still wonders how it qualifies as a “hopeless” situation or continent. Conflicts in Africa are a lived ‘reality’ for a great many people and problems of poverty are pretty serious too; and only Africans desirous to over-glorify the essence of the continent would deny that ‘reality’. But it is precisely because of such problems that we should guard against making such ignorant and decidedly racist comments. Western complicity in reproducing those very “hopeless” conditions (as the Economist prefers to call them) all too frequently get lost in this discourses and the hapless African, as victim is blamed for their condition. But again does having problems equate to hopelessness? If anything, in my experience, hope for and the belief in a brighter future is what keeps the African spirit alive. In the same Africa that we have Somalia, Burundi or DR Congo for example, we have Ghana, Cameroon, Mali, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia etc.

The specific experiences of these states and their circumstances cannot be homogenised and represented as the same. Homogenising all of them and dubbing them with the same label could only be out of prejudice or ignorance or intended for mischief. Even in war affected countries, hope is not a thing lost. I lived through the Sierra Leone civil war, and if there was anything which kept the spirit of the average person in the face of such difficulties, it was hope. An interesting aspect that gets lost in all of these stereotypical generalisations is the glossing over and neglect of the resilience of the African spirit. Stories of success and progress are almost completely neglected. The only time an African country makes it in the news is when a ‘crisis’ breaks out. Even then the reports are grossly exaggerated.

Jack Parson has referred to a New York Times Magazine article in October 2003, “describing a particularly repulsive practice ... [of] the use of cannibalism by rebels in northeastern Congo as a means to instil courage in their troops and fear in their enemies citing a personal story of a pygmy and United Nations sources for other instances of cannibalism.” The article itself, Parson adds, “locates this reality in a context of mystical belief associated with the breakdown of any kind of order and the descent back into primitive, atavistic, chaos. [The article] ... then concludes that despite a thin layer of people with education and a rational outlook, Africa "...is a continent suspended, trapped somewhere closer to the ancient than to the modern, a continent where so many visas lead to places that feel utterly lost, not only for their wretched poverty and cataclysmic civil wars and devastating histories of exploitation and neglect but also for the primitive understanding that may, along with the wretched and the cataclysmic and the devastating, allow for little in the way of modern development." This conclusion reaffirms the validity of the context used to select and analyze this “news” in the first place.”

These are the types of news that abound in the Western media about conflicts in Africa, news items that are meant to confirm preconceived biases and stereotypes. As Parson points out, “These realities of Africa reported in the news are selected and analyzed against the general background of what journalists and the informed public already know or think they know: Africa is backward. Its people and practices are primitive, harkening to a nearly prehistoric time and primordial instinct of violence and superstition. Its progress is charted not as two steps forward and one step back but by one step forward and two steps back. That’s the African reality. That’s the news.” These types of representational practices and the ‘knowledge’ they produce function in creating the reality that the average Westerner ‘knows’ about the continent.

Quite too often, such perceptions guide policy making, filter into academic discourses and get deeply ingrained in the psyche of the targeted audience. The practices are not limited to the cable news channels and print media alone, but are also reproduced through movies and pop culture. An audience exposed to such produced ‘knowledge’ then easily assumes what Edward Said, in Orientalism, calls “a textual attitude” that is the assumption that what one learns in a text could be literally applied to or is reality. Movies are especially strong in luring one into holding a textual attitude. Hollywood movies especially function in this way. With regards to African conflicts, these films function to reinforce the common knowledge perspective by producing sometimes highly contentious, inaccurate and sensational accounts about African conflicts. Movies like Black Hawk Down, Tears of the Sun, The Interpreter and most recently Blood Diamond all deal with African conflicts, told from the perspectives of the Westerner for a Western audience. They all paint the African as a savage and represent the conflicts as depraved and barbaric.

Though The Interpreter is better than the normal depictions and representations of Africa that is characteristic of Hollywood movies generally, it still carries those elements of the nasty representation of Africa and the fundamental misunderstanding of conflicts in the region. The first few minutes of the film sets the scene: decaying dead bodies apparently murdered in cold blood and left to rot in a dilapidated sports stadium, a child ‘combatant’ killing, unprovoked etc. This is characteristic of most Hollywood films depicting African conflicts: five minutes is usually enough to get a glimpse of what is to be expected. The Interpreter deals with war, violence, death, politics and to some extend race in an imaginary African country Motobo, (a bad Zimbabwe parody). The story is narrated from the perspective of a white African, Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), a translator at the United Nations, who herself has been part of the civil wars in her native Motobo and has contributed to the violence that has gripped that nation. She, and her brother, Simon Broome (Hugo Speer) killed at the beginning of the movie, are presented as victims of Edward Zuwani, a Mugabe-parody, presented as a cold blooded megalomaniac, insanely plotting his own staged-managed assassination for political capital.

Though the movie itself deals somehow with political struggle, that aspect of the story gets lost in the effort to demonise the African male and emphasise on his depravity. Similarly, we are forced to sympathise with Silvia and Simon (as victims) without giving us a similar glimpse of their role or complicity in the violence. At some point, because we are forced to sympathise with Silvia, Federal Agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) under whose protection Silvia is placed after she overhears the conversation of a planned assasination attempt on Zuwanie, becomes overbearing for doubting whether Silvia is a victim and for digging into her dangerous past, this is more so when we know that her life is under threat.

The most striking thing about the movie is the subtle but ominous hint about African terrorists on US soil: African conflicts would eventually spill over to the ’civilised’ western countries, in the form of terrorist attacks which would become a nightmare for these states. This is not surprising because the current Western discourses about conflicts in the South emphasise their anomic nature and the possibility of their being sites open to the exploitation of terrorists and transnational criminal gangs etc; which have direct implications for the security of the Northern countries.

That the movie touches on this prospect is important and leads to two possible outcomes: (a) it reinforces the dominant liberal discourse of spreading liberal peace to every corner of the globe, “Take up the White Man’s Burden/[Wage] The Savage Wars of Peace/ - Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease” (Rudyard Kipling, 1899); or (b) it calls for a fortress West, the kind of “stretch limo” in which Robert Kaplan wants the West to barricade itself, while the rest of the world inhabits a “rundown planet” (protect yourselves or these violent and conflictive Africans would export their ’tribal’ war to your cities). This placed within the context of the current global climate of the war on terror is disturbing: It renews fears of imperialism, of the kind that we are now seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Tears of the Sun” (Revolution Studios and Columbia Tri-Star, 2003; director: Antione Fuqua) is also a very racist movie, helping to reinforce Western perceptions about Africa. Here we see how the media produces the object of its discourse and intervention. The Nigeria described in the movie is a fictitious one, created for the sole purpose of the movie, and to reinforce the common knowledge perceptions about Africans, their conflicts and states in general. True, Nigeria does have intermittent outbreaks of communal violence, but none of the scenes described in the film vaguely resembles a Nigerian ‘reality’.

The movie deals with a rescue attempt by a group of U.S. Navy Seals led by Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) of US and other foreign nationals among whom was Dr. Lena Kendricks, (Monica Bellucci) a US national working in a clinic in the “jungle” and stuck in a Nigeria torn apart by a very brutal conflict and divided by ethnic hatred and strife. As the Nigerian ambassador to the US, A. Agada noted in a protest letter written to John Calley, Chairman and CEO Sony Pictures Entertainment, USA, on March 10, 2003, “The film and Sony webpage painted a very gloomy and dangerous perception of [Nigeria’s] environment, politics and society giving everyone the impression of a jungle inhabited only by savages.” The Nigeria presented here is gripped by violence and civil war in which there is wanton rape, unprovoked crime and carnage, mutilations and gruesome murders by machete wielding gangsters and child soldiers.

The movie is deliberately set up in order to reproduce what its producers believe the Western audience already knows about Africa, and they are unabashed in their racist comments and stereotypical innuendoes. For example, as Lt. Waters leaves the clinic in the “jungle” with Dr. Kendricks, a US citizen that he has come to rescue, the European priest says to him, “Go with God”; Waters replies “God already left Africa!”. These kinds of comments are also very common in Edward Zwick’s recently released “Blood Diamond” (staring Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Connely and Djimon Hounsou) a movie about the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

The practice of a Western “hero” saving Africans from themselves is an all too familiar image on the Western screen and “Tears of the Sun” does everything to reinforce this image. In spite of his racism, Waters becomes the hero at the end of the movie by disobeying strict orders, overstepping his command and risking his life to rescue a group of villagers in the “jungle” from marauding, machete wielding militias, killing and raping at will. By the end of the movie, the stature of the Western self type (civilised, brave, rational, compassionate etc) is represented as the binary opposite of that of the African (uncivilised and primitive, cowardly, irrational, mean and in some cases helpless and needing the redemptive power of the West).

Perhaps the worst of these depictions of African conflicts is the 2001 blockbuster, “Black Hawk Down” (Director: Ridley Scott; Staring Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor; Revolution Studios, 2001) which deals with the botched US mission in Somalia, which developed into a fire fight between US forces aiming to capture General Farrah Aidid, and his men in October 1993. It represents a bad propaganda piece that demonises the Somali and heronises the US soldier, namely the Rangers and Delta Forces. The film opens with what is usually expected: Aidid’s men looting food aid from starving civilians, beating and cold bloodedly killing them in the process.

In this movie, history is completely bastardised and turned on its head. How the war got to where it was, and the complicity of the US in the Somali civil, and their mistake, as ‘peacekeepers’ in aggravating the situation by taking sides and placing a price on Aidid’s head all get lost. As Adekeye Adebajo notes, “No context is provided for viewers to understand why the Somalis are angry, and the film fails to note that, before the October 1993 incident, the Americans had killed many Somali civilians, euphemistically dismissed as ‘collateral damage,’ including a particularly horrendous attack on a house packed with respected clan elders in July 1993 which resulted in 50 deaths and 170 injuries.” Similarly, the unprovoked attack on Somali civilians, resulting in the death of thousands, shot in cold blood by US soldiers after the botched mission, as US troops prepared to leave Somalia is never mentioned. The Somali are presented as savages, and everything they do and say or do in the movie reinforces that perception.

The movie begins by proclaiming that it is based on “an actual event’, but reproduces a fictionalised version of that event and that has now become the “true” version, part of the knowledge of its audience. And because of the way it is produced, all that the Western, especially the American, audience remembers is the image of depraved Africans killing Americans who have come to help them. As Adekeye Adebajo notes, “no attempt is made to humanise Somalis and to show their suffering” at the hands of US soldiers; what we have is the total dehumanisation of the Somali and the heronising of the US soldier. As George Monbiot observes, “The Somalis in Black Hawk Down speak only to condemn themselves. They display no emotions other than greed and the lust for blood.

Their appearances are accompanied by a sinister [and harsh] Arab techno soundtrack, while the US forces are trailed by violins, oboes and lamenting vocals. The US troops display horrific wounds. They clutch photographs pf their loved ones and ask to be remembered to their parents or their children as they die. The Somalis drop like flies, killed cleanly. They are dispensable and unmourned.”

The important thing about this movie however, it’s not so much about its racist veneer (you find that in most Hollywood movies about Africa), but its demonstration of the direct linkages between the perceptions that movies create and decision making in policy circles. The movie in the first place was sponsored by the Pentagon, to help create a different public perception of its failed Somalia mission by transforming it into a heroic mission. That the US administration was unwilling to intervene in Liberia in 2003, despite repeated calls for them to do so given the historical links between the two countries, owed partly to Black Hawk Down.

During his during his reconfirmation hearing (reported in New York Times, July 25, 2003), General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed doubts about a possible US intervention in Liberia, saying that they wanted to avoid “an ominous precedent, the failed humanitarian mission to Somalia, which ended after the deaths of 18 troops in a vicious fire fight in Mogadishu in 1993.” Such perceptions inhibit political action and limits foreign policy choices when it comes to Africa because of strong public disapproval. Such are the representations which end up being digested and becoming general public perception and knowledge of African conflicts; such perceptions become internalised and reproduced as part of the public discourse, public and foreign policy.

One thing that needs to be clarified though is this: talking about the misrepresentation of Africa, I do not seek to deny some of the very serious problems that the people of the continent are grappling with. There are real problems of poverty, underdevelopment and conflicts. What is objectionable is the ignorance and unreflective arrogance of certain Western commentators and the stereotypical assumptions that inform their perceptions of Africa and its cultures. Too often, racism, stereotyping and misunderstood perceptions all get played into how these events are viewed, thereby blurring the distinction between fact and fiction, mere wishful thinking and ‘reality’. I do not regard the resort to stereotyping as an illustration of ignorance alone, but a projection of a certain consciousness that allows the West to continue seeing the African as an object of Western ridicule and amusement. Stereotyping, Ania Loomba points out, does not equate to “simple ignorance or lack of ‘real’ knowledge,” rather, it is a way of processing information which in turn functions to “perpetuate an artificial sense of difference between ‘self’ and ‘other’”.

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