Archive for the Africa Category

Boston? Yes. Arusha? No thank you

Posted in Africa, media coverage, Tanzania, terrorism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 9 May, 2013 by Virgil

The bomb blast tore mercilessly and indiscriminately through the crowd, killing three innocent civilians and injuring scores more. Mayhem ensued, as the injured were rushed to hospital and the people struggled to understand why such a tragedy had befallen them. The gathering had been peaceful and the mood, celebratory. And this was not, after all, a place accustomed to such indiscriminate violence – the country had not experienced a bombing of this nature in more than ten years. Law enforcement agencies moved quickly and resolutely in response. Links with organized international terror groups were immediately suspected, and certain individuals of apparent Middle Eastern origin were singled out and tracked down.

No, this is not the story of the events that transpired at the 2013 Boston Marathon on 15 May. This is the story of a more recent bombing – one that occurred at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Arusha, Tanzania, on Sunday 5 May. At the inaugural mass held at the newly built church, which was being attended by the Vatican’s ambassador to Tanzania and other dignitaries, a bomb was allegedly thrown by an assailant on a motorcycle into the crowd that had gathered for the occasion. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the arrest of three Emirati, one Saudi, and four Tanzanian nationals attempting to cross the border into Kenya suggests that connections with international terrorist groups are being seriously suspected.

The Boston Marathon, which also left three people dead, and in which links with international terrorist groups were also initially suspected, sparked saturation coverage on a massive scale by the mass media, not only in the USA, but throughout the world. All subsequent developments were reported in a blow-by-blow manner, and even hints of what might appear to be a new twist or turn were also immediately released online, on the airwaves and in print, often with little concern for confirmation or fact-checking. The search for answers was vigorous and unwavering. Detailed backgrounds were sought and provided on the suspects and their origins, offering in-depth analysis and speculation covering all conceivable motives. At the same time, moving accounts of the pre-bombing hopes and aspirations of the victims and their families, and their courage in facing life after the tragedy, quickly filled the news.

The bombing in Tanzania, on the other hand, was met by media outlets around the globe with little more than a collective yawn. As of 9 May, the Boston Marathon bombing had been the subject, for example, of 249 articles made available on the BBC News website, exploring every possible angle of the bombing and its aftermath. On the same website, the bombing in Tanzania has been the subject of just two articles – both of which were released on the day after the bombing. No effort has been made to provide any portrayals of the victims – their backgrounds, hopes or aspirations. And the lack of any follow-up articles reveals little interest in clarifying or pursuing the circumstances behind the bombings, or the arrest of the suspects currently in custody, including their backgrounds, motives and possible international connections. This gaping discrepancy between the attention devoted to these two bombings is not at all limited to the BBC, but is largely representative of major media corporations throughout the world.

The similarities between these cases are clear. Unexpected explosion at a prestigious and peaceful gathering of innocent civilians? Check. Three dead and scores injured? Check. A stunned and grieving community? Check. Video footage available of the attack and its aftermath? Check. The fear of further attacks in similar situations (marathons and churches)? Check. The possibility of the involvement of foreign groups known to use terror as a means to achieve certain political ends? Check.

What makes them different? At the risk of belabouring the obvious, the prime difference is clearly in the value that the media attach to events that impact on the world’s economic, political and military ‘centre’ (predominantly white, Western, wealthy, powerful), and the ‘periphery’ (predominantly black, African, and impoverished). It is closely linked to the notion of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims. But to a degree it is also about the possession of military clout and the willingness to use it. Terrorist attacks directed at the USA have in the past been used as the pretext for massive bombing campaigns and invasions of other countries. There may have been a degree of anticipation regarding the possible global ramifications of a US government response (military or otherwise) had links to certain foreign organizations been discovered.

The stark difference in the coverage of these two incidents certainly serves to reaffirm and bring home something that should already be abundantly clear: the major ‘global threat’ as perceived by much of the world’s media is not so-called ‘terrorism’ per se. Nor is it the more specific variety of cross-border ‘terrorism’ that is seen as being linked to extremist Islamic groups. It would appear that the concept of ‘threat’ is dependent not on the nature or the scale of the act itself or on the actor responsible, but primarily on who (or where) the victims are. Which passport do they carry? Where are they based? And it is clear that in the eyes of the media at least, some victims are far more worthy than others.

The other conflict: Covering eastern DRC

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC, Israel-Palestine with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Never mind that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hosts the world’s deadliest conflict today, or that the current levels of violence are the worst seen there in the past five years. Whatever its status or state of affairs, the conflict, the country, and the region are going to struggle to attract any substantive levels of media coverage from the outside world.

This sad reality reflects entrenched patterns in terms of the various factors that editors and producers use to help them decide what they think is newsworthy and what is not. These include race, socioeconomic status and perceived national/political interests. Being poor, black and outside the range of vital national interests of the world’s powerful countries certainly does not help. Central Africa’s chances of getting attention are not good at the ‘best’ of times.

So it doesn’t require much imagination to predict what will happen to media coverage when a major outbreak of violence in the DRC happens to coincide with a major outbreak of violence in a part of the world that is deemed as being exceptionally ‘important’.

Since mid-November, this is precisely what has happened. Unfortunately for the people of eastern DRC (though perhaps fortunately for those leading the offensive and their backers), the rebel (M23) assault on, and capture of, the major city of Goma, has coincided almost perfectly with the conflict over Gaza. This has effectively ruled out the possibility of any substantive media-led concern, indignation or interest regarding the fate of eastern DRC and its people.

Let us first let the figures speak for themselves. The following graph shows the levels of coverage in the New York Times (including both online and print) in the one week leading up to the fall of Goma to the rebels.

In this one-week period, the New York Times produced, in response to the escalating conflict in the DRC, 2,947 words in 5 articles (none of which were front-page stories or editorials). For Israel-Palestine, it produced 48,711 words in 60 articles, including 12 front-page stories and 3 editorials. In terms of word count, the conflict in Israel-Palestine attracted 17 times more coverage than did the conflict in the DRC.

And this yawning gap in coverage, this terribly disproportionate level of interest, certainly does not just apply to the New York Times. It is a trend that applies to the news media globally, both online and off.

Any incidence of conflict in Israel-Palestine is automatically newsworthy, for a number of reasons, most importantly elite political interest in powerful Western countries. It is clear that factors such as the death toll or level of humanitarian suffering are unlikely to feature in a major way in the decisions in response to foreign conflict made by policymakers in these countries. But it is shameful that these factors do not feature either in decisions made by media gatekeepers regarding newsworthiness.

Is it too much to ask that the decision-makers in media corporations tone down their deference to elite interests a little, shake off some of the urge to ignore the plight of those whose skin and/or passports are of a different colour from their own, and take a new and fresh look at the state of the world?

Just the bad news

Posted in Africa, conflict, Congo, DRC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 22 November, 2012 by Virgil

Reporting on Peace Operations in the DRC

No news is good news” – so goes an old adage. But it does not necessarily apply to the reporting of conflict in Africa by media corporations from beyond the continent, for no news does not necessarily mean an absence of bad news. It often simply means that the media corporations have decided that the events on the continent (both good and bad) are not worthy of reporting.

By the same token, if a recent study by the author is any indication, on the not-so-common occasions that issues related to conflict and peace in Africa are reported, it is indeed the ‘bad’ news that gets the coverage. The study in question involved measuring the coverage by the New York Times of peace operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the course of the thirteen years since it was established. The coverage was measured by a word count. The results can be seen in the figure below.

New York Times’ coverage of peace operations in the DRC (1999-2012) (click on graph to enlarge)

There was some coverage of the UN Mission in the Congo (MONUC) when it was established by the UN Security Council in 1999, and more in 2000, particularly as it encountered difficulties in deploying because of obstacles on the ground. But as conditions changed, allowing their deployment in full, and as the peacekeepers began fanning out across the country in early 2001, coverage virtually disappeared – good news simply wasn’t news.

It would be two years before the New York Times would show any interest in covering the peace operations in the DRC again. This time, massacres in the Ituri district led to the possibility (and realization) of intervention by a small French-led European Union force. A combination of the massacres and the deployment of Western troops in response got the attention of the newspaper, but not for long. The EU force would only stay for three months (MONUC would remain), but coverage lasted for little more than one month – the situation had calmed in the town in which the forces were deployed. This was as concentrated as coverage of peace operations in the DRC would ever get.

More bad news – a scandal involving sexual abuse perpetrated by some peacekeepers – attracted a reasonable degree of attention more than a year later. Between 2008 and 2010, peacekeepers’ failures to stop rebel advances, and their dubious collaboration with government troops accused of human rights abuses also was the object of some coverage, but not that much. Coverage has since flatlined.

Since peace operations began in the DRC, there is no question that there have been numerous negative occurrences worthy of reporting, but there have also been positive achievements made in helping keep a very fragile region from falling apart altogether. This also equally deserves our attention.

At the time of writing, rebels have taken the city of Goma, and MONUC’s successor, the UN Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO) has, for a number of reasons, not resisted their final push into the city. We hope that the New York Times will not simply continue its tradition of reporting the bad news and little else. More importantly, we hope that further violence can be averted, leaving the newspaper with no more bad news to write about.

The death of Dag Hammarskjold

Posted in Africa, Congo, Zambia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 23 July, 2012 by Virgil

The Dag Hammarskjold crash site memorial. Photo by Rui Saraiva Faro

A few kilometres off the main road connecting the northern Zambian cities of Ndola and Kitwe, is a well-kept memorial marking the site where the plane carrying the then UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold crashed in 1961. His visit was a peace mission, aimed at brokering a ceasefire in the neighbouring Congo. Among the plaques marking the visits by various dignitaries who came to pay their respects, is one inscribed with the words “On the occasion of the visit of the UN Secretary General H.E. Mr. Kofi Annan, 7 July, 2001”.

But Kofi Annan was never there. The inscription neglects to mention the fact that the actual visit was made by a representative of the former UN Secretary General. In fact, no UN Secretary General has visited the crash site. The current Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, had his chance in February 2012 when he visited Zambia, but after addressing that country’s parliament in the capital, Lusaka, chose to go south to Zambia’s prime tourist destination, Victoria Falls, instead of going north to visit the crash site.

Clearly, UN Secretary Generals are exceptionally busy, and such a pilgrimage may well be considered unnecessary. But might there also lie somewhere a desire to avoid drawing attention to the uncomfortable possibility that the crash was not an accident, but an assassination? A British-run commission of inquiry concluded that the crash was caused by pilot error, but a UN inquiry did not rule out the possibility of foul play.

Suspicions that the plane was deliberately downed have certainly not gone away. A book released in 2011 (Susan Williams, Who Killed Hammarskjold?), included fresh evidence suggesting it highly likely that this was the case. And now, more than fifty years after the incident, it has been announced that a new inquiry is being established to attempt to determine the cause of the crash.

A host of evidence revealed to date casts serious doubts on the official account that the crash was an accident. Multiple witnesses saw a second plane in the sky at the time of the crash, and some claim to have seen one plane open fire on the other, but their testimony was ignored. A former US naval intelligence officer who was stationed at a radio listening post even recalled hearing a cockpit recording of what he concluded to be a running commentary of the attack.

Even the simple statement that Hammarskjold “died in a plane crash” cannot be used with certainty, because suspicions remain that he was in fact killed after the plane crashed. The head of UN military information in the Congo at the time, who saw Hammarskjold’s body (which oddly showed no signs of burns), noticed a round hole in his forehead that could have been a bullet hole. Official photographs of the body do not show such a hole, but a forensic expert determined that these photos had been doctored. Eyewitness accounts also tell of two Land Rovers speeding to, and later from, the crash site hours before it was officially ‘discovered’.

So if it was an assassination, who might have been responsible? Fingers tend to point in the direction of European industrialists in mineral-rich Katanga, with the deed being carried out by mercenaries under their employ. The conflict in the Congo was essentially about an attempt by the mineral-rich Katanga province to break away from the Congo, with the support of former colonial master, Belgium, other colonial powers and Western corporations, among others.

They were clearly willing to go to considerable lengths to minimize the impact that the independence of African countries would have on their economic and political control over Africa. Many also saw de facto white control over the economic powerhouse of Katanga as a bulwark against the rising tide of opposition to white rule in southern Africa. Hence the large contingent of mercenaries from Europe and white southern Africa in Katanga’s pro-secession army.

UN forces intervened (in an unusually aggressive manner) to prevent Katanga from breaking away, and needless to say, for the European industrialists in particular, this made Hammarskjold an enemy hated with a passion. While the UK and US officially supported the UN operation, it was believed that they were, behind the scenes, on the side of the industrialists.

Nor can the Cold War context be ignored. Indeed the conflict in the Congo was in many ways seen as a proxy war between the superpowers. Eight months prior to Dag Hammarskjold’s death, Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, in an operation directed by Belgium and assisted by the CIA. In his handling of the Congo crisis, Hammarskjold had managed to threaten the interests of both the US and the Soviets.

The new inquiry into the crash is not an official one. But the committee charged with its implementation does include a number of high-profile jurists. It will be up to one year before the committee makes its conclusions and submits them to the UN. The world (at least part of it) has waited fifty years for a definitive conclusion on the matter of the death of the former UN Secretary General. With the hope that this time, such a conclusion will be reached, it can wait one more.

NHK and the missing continent

Posted in Africa, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , on 12 July, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Hiromitsu Morimoto (Hetgallery) under a CC Licence

It would appear that the Japanese news media has nothing to say about sub-Saharan Africa. And I mean that in the most literal sense. A study by the author of coverage by the national broadcaster’s (Nippon Hoso Kyokai – NHK) flagship news program, News Watch 9, for the first six months of 2012, revealed not a single news item about the various events that occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, Egypt was the only country on the entire continent to have been the object of coverage over this period.

Media corporations outside Africa have a long and inglorious history of paying scant attention to the continent, but the news media based in Japan seem to particularly ‘excel’ at it. Previous studies by the author have found, for example, that coverage of Africa by Western media corporations (such as BBC, the New York Times and Le Monde) tends to make up between six and nine percent of the time/space devoted to world news. Meanwhile, for Japanese media corporations like the Yomiuri Newspaper (Japan’s largest in terms of circulation), Africa is worth no more than three percent of the little space it allocates to world news.

One might, however, have expected more from NHK. Its budget is the largest of all the broadcasters in Japan, sustaining 29 bureaus throughout the world. Its News Watch 9 program is one full hour worth of news, with no commercial interruptions. And the news it presents is of the serious variety. Celebrity marriages and breakups, and the intriguing goings on in the world of boy/girl bands are generally not covered – something that sets it apart from the ‘infotainment’ often presented by commercial broadcasters.

But the news in Japan on the whole tends to be highly insular and inward looking, meaning that not only Africa, but also most of the rest of the world is largely left out. And NHK is no exception. Only nine percent of the News Watch 9 program was devoted to news about the world beyond Japan’s borders (compared, for example, to twenty percent devoted to sports news), and a quarter of that was concerned with issues associated with North Korea alone (its attempt to launch a ‘satellite’ in particular).

Japan does have one 24-hour news channel (NHK World) that broadcasts news about Japan and the world (or at least certain parts of it – primarily Asia), but it is broadcast in English to the rest of the world. Thus, it would appear that the national broadcaster expends more resources to disseminate Japanese perspectives about Japan and the world to the world, than it does to inform people in Japan about what is happening in the world.

Within Japan, if one has access to a broadcast satellite dish, one can watch a lengthy world news program presented by NHK that borrows news from foreign broadcasters, which is dubbed over in Japanese. This is arguably as ‘global’ as the news in Japan gets. News streams in from 23 news broadcasters around the globe – every continent and region of the world is represented, with the exception of Antarctica and Africa.

When questioned by the author as to why no African broadcasters were being utilized, a representative of NHK replied that unfortunately they could not cover all of the world, and that news about Africa was at times presented by broadcasters from other regions that do feature on the program – such as BBC and Al Jazeera.

Indeed, covering all of the world may not be feasible, but the reasoning behind the choice to entirely ignore news from just one of the world’s inhabited continents, one that happens to make up of one-quarter of the world’s countries and accounts for as much as 88 percent of conflict-related deaths in the post-Cold War world, remains extremely difficult to fathom.

NHK’s own newsgathering structure, of course, reflects similar priorities. Of its 29 overseas bureaus, only one is situated on the African continent – in Cairo, Egypt. But Cairo looks more to the Middle East than it does to Africa, and, considering that NHK has three other bureaus in the Middle East, Cairo seems an odd choice for a bureau supposedly responsible for covering Africa. Then again, if the coverage of Africa (or rather the lack thereof) by NHK news is any indication, it would appear that the Cairo bureau is not expected to cover Africa.

NHK, globalization is happening, and, for better or for worse, Africa is included. Please adjust accordingly.

Malaise in Madagascar

Posted in Africa with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 28 June, 2012 by Virgil

Gem mine in Madagascar. Photo by Benoit Balanca under a CC Licence

The eyes of the world seem to be fixed on Madagascar. Or should I say Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted? The animated comedy movie with lions, zebras and other assorted animals that talk, sing and dance, continues to sit atop the box office, dazzling audiences around the world. The world is not quite as bedazzled, on the other hand, by the goings on on the large island that sits to the south east of the African mainland, which also happens to be known as Madagascar. In fact, if the levels of media coverage are any indication, many might be surprised to learn that things are going on there at all.

But they are. In 2009, amidst political upheaval on the island, 35 year old Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of the capital, Antananarivo (and before that, a radio DJ), took control of the country with the backing of the military and was declared President of the ‘High Transitional Authority’. His rise to power was swiftly condemned by most of the outside world as a coup d’etat. Madagascar was suspended from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (which also imposed targeted sanctions on the ‘government’), and the bulk of non-humanitarian aid coming from beyond the continent was cut off. For its own political and economic reasons, France, however, continues to back the de-facto administration.

It has been a long and eventful transition. Rajoelina promised presidential elections and promised not to stand as a candidate, but the elections did not happen, and he managed to push through a constitutional referendum that conveniently reduced the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35, making him eligible to stand. A group of disgruntled soldiers attempted a coup of their own in 2010, but the mutiny was put down.

The deposed president, Marc Ravalomanana, who went into exile in South Africa, was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. In 2011, an agreement signed by all the major political parties under the auspices of SADC established a road map for a unity government and elections. And although the same agreement guarantees the unconditional right to return for exiled political leaders, a unilateral attempt by Ravalomanana to do so ended in failure when the commercial flight he had boarded was refused permission to land.

But before becoming overly sympathetic to the plight of the deposed president, we might spare a thought for how things were in Madagascar before he was deposed. In March 2009, thousands of demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace to protest against was perceived as a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime. Presidential guards threw grenades and fired into the crowd and a massacre ensued leaving as many as 50 people dead.

And South Africa is unlikely to remain a safe haven for Ravalomanana for much longer. In 2012, a court in South Africa ruled that foreign nationals in that country who are accused of crimes against humanity must be investigated, and Ravalomanana would appear to fall under this category. For the time being, attempts at a return to political life may have to take a back seat to the realization of a reconciliation deal that includes a pardon for the crimes he has already been convicted of (in absentia) in Madagascar and immunity from further prosecution. Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have, in fact, agreed to a meeting, which will possibly take place at the end of June, although the agenda is unclear.

In spite of the endless political wrangling, life goes on for the people of Madagascar. But it is not the same as it was before. The country’s political crisis coincided with the global financial crisis, and the economy has taken a battering. Foreign investment and international demand for the country’s produce (not least vanilla, of which Madagascar is the world’s leading producer) have dropped. Levels of illegal logging and mining and the resulting environmental degradation, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. Poverty levels are rising and health indicators are falling. As the expression goes, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.

Madagascar 3 the movie had its happy ending. Hopefully the other Madagascar will too. And even if this is a little too much to hope for, an increase in the levels of attention from the outside world – some enhanced external scrutiny, engagement, and cajoling – will probably not hurt its chances of at least heading in the general direction of something happier.

(This article was originally posted on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog).

Ironing out Burkina Faso’s problems

Posted in Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 13 June, 2012 by Virgil

President Compaore. Photo by Damien Halleux Radermecker under a CC Licence

Burkina Faso’s parliament has just granted immunity from prosecution to President Blaise Compaore and all of the country’s other presidents since independence. Whatever threat there was of Compaore being held responsible for the assassination of his predecessor (and friend and colleague), Thomas Sankara, is now gone.

Thomas Sankara, who had himself risen to power through a coup d’etat in 1983 at the tender age of 33, was gunned down in 1987. The French secret service, the CIA, the government of neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, and/or then Liberian rebel Charles Taylor are believed to have been involved in the assassination plot, but as yet a definitive account does not exist. Western-friendly Compaore immediately assumed power and has been president of Burkina Faso ever since.

Sankara’s presidency lasted only four years, but what an eventful four years they were. The country was in a terrible state and he quickly set about making his revolutionary vision for the country a reality. He even changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means ‘the land of upright men’.

Sankara lamented what he saw as neocolonialism, not least in the dependency of the country on foreign aid – in his words “he who feeds you, controls you”. Focusing on the promotion of local consumption of local production, he achieved food self-sufficiency for the country within three years. Burkina Faso’s economy was (and to a large degree, still is) dominated by cotton. As part of his bid to promote local industry, Sankara required civil servants to wear traditional tunics made locally from local cotton.

Sankara’s revolution was far-reaching in other areas. He was the first African leader to openly recognize the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and made major (often record-breaking) inroads in areas such as women’s rights, child immunization, the reversal of desertification, land rights and infrastructure development. He halted the practice of the president’s portrait being displayed in public and private establishments throughout the country, reduced the salaries of government officials (himself included) and took away their Mercedes and first class travelling privileges. Sankara travelled in a Renault 5 and took a monthly salary of 450 USD.

We should be careful, however, about being overly romantic about the Sankara years. He was impatient in achieving his vision, and did not tolerate opposition parties, unions or a free press. His authoritarian tendencies appeared to grow over the course of his rule, and this had serious implications for his domestic popularity. It was perhaps the example he set to the rest of the world, however, that was one of the greatest causes of his undoing.

Having deposed Sankara and having taken his place, Blaise Compaore set about reversing most of the policies of his predecessor, in what was known as la rectification’. He liberalized and privatized, and made Burkina Faso one of the first ‘beneficiaries’ of the debt relief and poverty reduction programs of the IMF and World Bank. Today it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Burkina Faso’s cotton industry has been crippled by massive US government subsidies for cotton farmers there that serve to suppress the global price of cotton to levels so low that growing cotton even in impoverished Burkina Faso is barely viable. Subsidies for US cotton farmers alone add up to triple the amount the US allocates in aid to the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa.

But Compaore seems to be doing quite well under the circumstances. The winds of change that blew through north Africa and the Middle East in 2011 also blew through Burkina Faso, with protests over rising prices and unemployment, and mutiny by parts of the armed forces, but Compaore appears (for now) to have weathered the storm. He is also thought to have amassed considerable personal wealth, and now, with the new blanket amnesty, can look forward to a comfortable and safe retirement.

There is, of course, always a chance that the amnesty will be overturned by future regimes, and he is not protected from arrest and prosecution outside of Burkina Faso. Thus, there remains the possibility that, for example, his long-term collaboration with convicted war criminal Charles Taylor could lead to international prosecution. Burkina Faso was a hub for the illicit trade in arms and diamonds that helped facilitate west Africa’s bloody conflicts in and beyond the 1990s, and his prosecution was considered at the time of Taylor’s indictment. But in the case of this Western-backed government, such a turn of events appears somewhat unlikely.

For those who’s sense of justice is offended by this chapter in Burkina Faso’s history and wish to show their solidarity, there is a wide variety of Thomas Sankara t-shirts available online. With no apparent irony, many of these garments made from 100 percent cotton are proudly advertised as being “Made in the USA”.

Buyers of these t-shirts can thus advertise their admiration for a leader who had his own image removed from public display, and who struggled to protect and nurture the local cotton industry vital to his country’s well-being and growth, through the display of his image printed on material made from the heavily subsidised cotton that continues to threaten the survival of that very industry.

Between the blanket amnesty and the t-shirts, Thomas Sankara must surely be turning in his grave.

Mauritius and the Chagos Islands

Posted in Africa, history with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 June, 2012 by Virgil

Live-fire training exercises by US sailors, Diego Garcia. Photo by Michael Thompson (US Pacific Fleet) under a CC Licence

The modern history of the Chagos islands is a thoroughly shameful one. This small archipelago, situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was originally part of what was then the self-governing British colony of Mauritius. Mauritius was convinced to sell these islands to the UK in 1965 under dubious circumstances: the sale was part of the independence negotiations (independence was achieved in 1968) and the prime minister of Mauritius who negotiated the deal was awarded a knighthood soon after the transfer.

The UK subsequently leased the largest island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the US (who wanted it for a military base) in exchange for a discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. In preparation for the construction of the military base, the UK then proceeded to ethnically cleanse the islands, forcibly removing the entire population and dropping them off unceremoniously in the Seychelles and what was left of Mauritius.

Diego Garcia became an important base for the US, particularly so in the 2000s, when it served as a hub from which long-range bombers attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. The base has been used by the CIA for so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights, and may also have served as a CIA black site prison. In 2010, the UK established a ‘marine protected area’ (the world’s largest) around the archipelago. According to US diplomatic cables made public courtesy of WikiLeaks, this move was specifically designed to prevent former residents from returning (survival for the inhabitants would be difficult if they were prevented from fishing). For the UK, this clever ‘solution’ looked good from any angle: not only would the possibility of return be taken off the table, but US military activities could continue, and ‘points’ for environmental concern could also be scored.

Isolated and unpopulated (or conveniently depopulated) islands are, of course, the ideal springboards from which to project military power in this day and age. There are none of the hassles associated with holding or running a colony, for example, and not only do they make sense in pure military terms (especially if one has long-range bombers), but they also preclude witness or interference by any pesky civilians, journalists or human rights organizations. In the case of populated islands, the consent of inhabitants can, to a degree, be bought, but opposition can still be politically and financially costly, as the US and its generally willing collaborator (the Japanese government) have found, for example, in the use of Okinawa for military bases.

The lease of the Chagos islands to the US expires in 2016, and any possible extension has to be agreed on by December 2014 (the lease allows for a 20-year extension). Crucially, the original terms of purchase of the Chagos islands allow for their return to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence purposes. If there is a time for negotiating a return of the islands to Mauritius, it is now. Indeed, the prime ministers of the UK and Mauritius are set to meet next week, and the issue of the Chagos islands is on the agenda.

Mauritius has expressed its intention to have the islands returned, but interestingly, has also made it clear that it does not intend to challenge the continuation of US military activities there. Clearly, allowing the base to remain in Diego Garcia would serve as a considerable financial incentive for the government of Mauritius. But how receptive will the UK be to a call by Mauritius for the return of the islands? Will their response reveal anything about possible plans in the West to bomb Iran? Diego Garcia would undoubtedly serve as one of the key military hubs in the case of any such catastrophe.

There are other deals in play. Mauritius has recently agreed to offer its territory and services for the prosecution and imprisoning of Somali pirates. Was this designed to improve their bargaining position for the return of the Chagos islands? To what degree will any such deals benefit the people of Mauritius and the former (forcibly evicted) inhabitants who wish to return to the Chagos islands (as opposed to a few people holding political power at the top)? Will the end result of all of this simply be a continuation of the same old systems under new management? This is a good time for some hard-hitting media scrutiny on this issue – in the UK, US and Mauritius.

Southern Africa in the New York Times

Posted in Africa, conflict, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 24 May, 2012 by Virgil

Photo by Francis Wu under a CC Licence

Africa – the continent that always seems to have to go that extra mile or so in a bid to convince the editors of media corporations that its news is worth printing, airing and/or uploading (more often than not, the editors remain unconvinced). This post is a brief overview of the quantity of coverage by the New York Times of the sixteen countries that make up southern Africa for the first quarter of 2012 (January to March).

The following is the number of words (and the percentage of the whole) devoted to news primarily focused on each of the countries of the region, in descending order.

South Africa:__9,247 words (56%)
D.R. Congo:___3,683 words (22%)
Mozambique:__1,219 words (7%)
Zimbabwe:____1,023 words (6%)
Madagascar:___963 words (6%)
Seychelles:____273 words (2%)
Malawi:______88 words (1%)
Angola:______0 words (0%)
Botswana:____0 words (0%)
Comoros_____ 0 words (0%)
Lesotho:_____0 words (0%)
Mauritius:____0 words (0%)
Namibia:_____0 words (0%)
Swaziland:____0 words (0%)
Tanzania:_____0 words (0%)
Zambia:______0 words (0%)
TOTAL:______16,496 words

News about the region’s major power, South Africa, accounts for more than half of the total quantity of coverage. Twelve articles cover a variety of topics, from the expulsion of the controversial ANC Youth Leader from the party, to the hospitalization of Nelson Mandela, to social issues associated with the informal economy. The five articles devoted to the D.R. Congo cover the armed conflict and instability in that country, and questions over the dubious election results from the previous year. Perhaps most worthy of note here though, is that not a single drop of ink was shed over the events in more than half (nine) of the countries in the region, including relatively large and powerful Angola and Tanzania.

From another perspective, how does the total of 16,496 words devoted to the region compare to the New York Times’ coverage other parts of world? Over the same period, Israel alone (one of the most consistently popular objects of media coverage) garnered 36,604 words – more than double the coverage for the entire region of southern Africa. That sounds fair, you might say. Israel is, after all, considering the possibility of bombing Iran, and violent armed conflict goes on in neighbouring Syria. On the other hand, the situation in the D.R. Congo, which attracted but a tenth of the coverage of Israel, is no small matter either. The country is the size of western Europe, and the simmering pockets of conflict, which are remnants of the deadliest conflict the world has seen in the past half-century, continue to serve as major security concerns to its many neighbours.

Let’s try another comparison. In January 2012, a cruise ship called the Costa Concordia ran aground off Italy killing some 32 people. Coverage of this single accident and its aftermath garnered 14,960 words in the New York Times, which is just slightly less than the total amount of coverage devoted to southern Africa. The incident was certainly a tragedy, but in terms of newsworthiness, did it deserve to rival the sum total of three-months worth of events in the entire southern African region, including the ongoing tragedy in the D.R. Congo? Certainly is worth a thought.

Arab Spring in slow motion?

Posted in activism, Africa, dictators with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 12 May, 2012 by Virgil

Vote counting in Chipata, Zambia. Photo by afromusing under a CC Licence

One night in February 2011, I happened to be walking past a bar in Lusaka, Zambia, when out staggered an inebriated man who I quickly recognized as a prominent politician belonging to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Zambia’s ruling party at the time. For some reason, he felt compelled to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger (me), and for some other reason, the conversation turned to international politics. Egypt’s iron-fisted ruler had just followed the example of his Tunisian counterpart and had reluctantly relinquished power. It was looking as though Bahrain (among other countries) would go the same way, although this popular uprising was soon to be crushed with the assistance of Saudi tanks.

The US government, after weeks of dithering, had recently switched sides in Egypt, coming out in support of the protesters, and against the dictatorship it had propped up for decades with generous military and political support. History (at least the Western version of it) now seemed to be on the side of the revolutionaries. But the Zambian politician was having none of it. The revolutionaries were “promoting chaos” and should all have been “locked up”. Now the Muslim Brotherhood was going to “unleash terror” on Egypt and on the region. “Responsible governments” around the world should not tolerate “such anarchy”.

It was clear that his anti-revolutionary zeal (as alcoholically enhanced as it was) was closely linked to an underlying fear of the implications of the so-called Arab Spring for his own administration’s grip on power in distant Zambia. The administration in Zambia, however, could hardly be considered a repressive dictatorship. It regularly held elections in a manner that allowed the opposition a respectable chunk of the votes, and it tolerated a private press that seemed to pride itself on going for the jugular of the government (with the editor only occasionally being arrested).

But nor was it a shining beacon of democratic practice. The ruling party had held power for twenty straight years. It had taken advantage of its position in power to mobilize state resources for the political benefit of the party; opposition parties were, for all intents and purposes, excluded from the state-owned media; and a variety of fraudulent tactics were allegedly employed to give them the boost they neededeach time at the polls. Despite economic growth fuelled by the rising price of copper (Zambia’s main export), frustration was clearly growing with the government’s prolonged rule. For a short period in the aftermath of elections in 2006, for example, protests became violent as opposition supporters claimed that opposition leader Michael Sata had been robbed of victory.

As it turns out, the fears of the Zambian politician that I had happened to meet were well-founded. To the surprise of some, the MMD was eventually unseated by Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) at elections held in September 2011. There were a few tense days as delays in announcing the results saw increasingly agitated groups of youth, suspecting that the electoral books were being cooked, come out onto the streets. But in the end the ruling party gracefully admitted defeat and the president packed his bags and left.

This was an election, not a revolution. Votes were held, votes were counted, a winner was declared, and the reigns of power were handed over – standard procedure in a democracy. But such a democratic relinquishing of power to the opposition remains something of a rarity in Africa. And if the unprecedented levels of celebration in the streets of Lusaka were any indication, it certainly seemed to feel like a revolution to many Zambians. One cannot help but wonder if the events in north Africa earlier that year contributed in some way to the movement that swept the ruling party from office.

The Arab Spring seems to have provided inspiration to many who oppose governments with dubious democratic credentials in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. And at the same time, rulers have been quick to recognize the dangers and take countermeasures. Demonstrations have been organized (and suppressed) in countries throughout the continent, including in places (such as Angola) where such demonstrations have, until recently, been largely unthinkable. But the democratic changes in sub-Saharan Africa were, of course, under way in many forms long before the Arab Spring erupted. Although often in little more than name, many sub-Saharan countries made the move from one-party states to multi-party ‘democracies’ in the 1990s. And despite numerous obstacles, in many cases, organized opposition to ruling parties have for years been gradually building up and chipping away at undemocratic institutions and practices.

Although the circumstances in sub-Saharan Africa are certainly very different from the those that led to the revolutions in north Africa, there are elements of what can perhaps be likened to a kind of Arab Spring in slow motion in much of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by small victories for democratic practice. The elections in Zambia in 2011 were perhaps one, just as the transfer of power following elections in Senegal in March this year could be considered another. In a slightly different sense, the eventual transfer of power in April this year (following some tense and unsure moments) to the vice-president of Malawi following the sudden death of the president, in accordance with the constitution, is perhaps another reassuring sign.

The road ahead is long. Many rulers and/or ruling parties in sub-Saharan Africa are still in the same place they have been for decades. And democracy involves far more than simply holding elections, even if those elections do result in the peaceful transfer of power. It is about developing and consolidating institutions and practices that are able to consistently hold politicians accountable to the people. And this requires something of both the politicians and the people that is much more long-term and much less glamorous than a revolution.

(This article was originally posted on the recently established Southern African Peace and Security Blog. It is just starting to take off but is well worth a visit).

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