By Abdul Ghelleh
Mainstream Western media, specially the powerful commercial outlets, may be partly responsible for the wrong diagnosis of conflict in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world over the past half a century. Those who observe and are close to conflict areas in Africa and those who have firsthand experience of the initial developments of a conflict there, are being sidelined fairly quickly, without much effort by this huge machine that’s run mainly by Western journalists.
When an event develops in Africa – and sadly it’s often an unfortunate event, the Western narrative immediately takes the lead, and this narrative is always the predominant subject for discussion following the immediate aftershock of a violent conflict in Africa. No other voice would be allowed to be heard in order to get well informed opinions that could help properly diagnose the symptoms of a conflict, and to confront it head-on to bring it to a successful conclusion. In fact the excitement to feed Western governments and the global citizens with news – however raw that news may be – derails the efforts of local experts, potentially suitable mediators and hand-on academics to put their opinions forward.
For example, in the recent conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies among others started the debate for us as tribal in South Sudan and religious in the Central African Republic. In Kenya, the post elections standoff of March 2013, was labelled as “Kikuyus against the Luos” tensions. And in Ivory Coast, when Alassane Ouattara had clearly won the presidential election in 2010, his rival, Luarant Gbagbo, would not have any of it. Unrest soon followed and it was presented as ethnic violence. And to my surprise, even the Guardian, one of the most respected newspapers in the world, had this headline in April 2011: “Ivory Coast descends into chaos as ethnic violence leaves 800 dead”. In the London riots of the summer 2012, we were informed that the unrest was carried out by lawless hooligans. But we were also told that it was triggered by the shooting dead by the police of a young black man who was riding a taxi. Why can’t the whole story about African conflicts be told exactly as they happen? Why blast the African general populations as criminals?
To this day, global populations from the countries in and around the South China Sea to the Atlantic Caribbean Islands are being fed with similar frenzied and unsubstantiated, and sometimes conveniently doctored, stories of these tragic events. University students in Southampton, Seattle and Sydney boast with the international relations knowledge that they obtained from these news organizations to their peers at college tutorials without questioning the credibility and accuracy of such information. To them, these organisations are simply too powerful to be ignored.
But the fact is that almost all of Africa’s conflicts start with a short sighted and poorly thought-out political power struggle between rival African elites. Most had dealings with the West in the past and only a five minute phone call from the White House could be enough to prompt them to disband their militias, before battling it out and dragging their countries into the oblivion. Let me give you an example: Salva Kiir Mayardit, the South Sudanese president who enjoys a friendship with Washington, decided soon after his country’s independence from Khartoum to consolidate executive powers within his office, sidelining all those who fought alongside him during the struggle for independence.
Observers were aware all along that the relationship between Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, the vice president and Kiir has been frozen in time and was destined to evaporate in the near future, and this was even obvious to everyone as far back as during the negotiations for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Khartoum. Kiir suspected Machar of having leadership ambitions and that Machar was building his own power base well before the country gained independence from Khartoum. The Americans knew about this but decided not to take action, with Kiir apparently misinterpreting the inactions of the US as a green light for his reckless future plans. For the record, Kiir and Machar belong to the two largest tribes in South Sudan. Kiir is from the largest, the Dinka and Machar is from the second largest, the Nuer.
Things came to a head, however, when Salva Kiir sucked his entire cabinet including the vice president in July 2013. Surprisingly, he did this within little over two years of the country gaining its independence. This potential time bomb which clearly had all the hallmarks to terminate the existence of the world’s youngest nation-state was not largely reported in the Western mainstream media. A month later Kiir did the unthinkable: he single-handedly dissolved the parliament, literally telling the Members of Parliament “to roam the streets”. Juba, the capital of South Sudan, has effectively become Kiir’s own shop. Machar and his associates had no choice but to go underground in order to plot their next move.
A failure to share power among the South Sudanese leaders; a failure to steer their new country to stability and prosperity, triggered the political standoff and the on-going sporadic violence in the country. Nuer tribe did not simply take up arms against the Dinka tribe as we had all been led to believe. But Western journalists who are often fed by aid agencies including the UN with their initial field information conveniently jumped to the conclusion that the situation is simply tribal, a Dinka tribe against the Nuer, leaving the top individual perpetrators – Machar and Kiir – off the hook and unaccountable for their actions. Even the United States which spearheaded the efforts to bring about the creation of the world’s newest nation seemed to have gone along with this distorted narrative.
Of course, some Dinkas killed members of the Nuer tribe and vice versa, but that was not how the situation developed in the first place? Who has given the orders to kill to the civilian population and the militias? Who was arming them? What hand and/or responsibilities do Kiir and Machar should shoulder? These questions hardly arose during live television discussions at the height of the conflict, and certainly they were never put to paper by any of the Western media organisations. At least I am not aware of any publications that carried such a story. Were these poor innocent people killing each other before Salva Kiir sucked the entire cabinet or before he had dissolved the parliament? No, obviously they weren’t.
In Mogadishu, Somalia in the early 1990s, the civil war there was seen by Western media as tribal (between rival Hawiye clans) while in fact the inter-communal violence was brought to a head by power struggle between general Aideed and the businessman, Ali Mahdi Mohamed. After Siyad Barre vacated the state house, they both claimed the presidency and called on their followers to defend themselves, paving the way for all hell to get loose. And historically when Somalia first descended into anarchy all over the country, and intermittent violence shook the foundations of the state, in those early days the responsibility rested with Siyad Barre’s refusal to step down and hand over power to an interim administration like the civil society’s “Manifesto Group”. Although rebels themselves wanted power based on their clan allegiance, it was their inability to share power among themselves and not only by pure clan violence which later brought the country to its knees.
Western Media gets disastrously wrong when conflict happens anywhere outside of its hemisphere, and more often than not they get it wrong in Asia and Africa in particular. Western media and political elites understand better the conflicts that take place in an area where they are literate politically, economically and culturally. The former Yugoslavia is a classic example. In the Kosovo conflict, after correctly diagnosing the symptoms there, NATO gathered all of its available resources and decided to bomb Serbia into submission in 1999. That conflict quickly subsided and eventually disappeared from radar.
Africans are not traditionally hateful society; they do so only briefly when that very tradition is disturbed. When violent conflict takes place somewhere in Africa, and if a wrong condition or dubious foreign elements are not present on the ground, they have the courage and the resilience to bring that conflict to an end, all forgotten and forgiven. In Rwanda, despite the suspicions and the lack of political freedom that hang over the country in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, the Hutus and Tutsis were chit chatting and mingling together in bars and other places only few months after the mass killings ended in 1994.
In the Central African Republic, contrary to what Western media reports suggested, religious hatred was not what had fractured the social cohesion of its peace loving citizens. Like almost all of the other African countries south of the Sahara, religious tolerance in the C.A.R had been deeply-rooted in its local tradition and culture. In the C.A.R, it’s not uncommon to hear that a Muslim, a Christian and an Animist can be found within the same extended family; and if you dig it deeper, it’s not that difficult to come across a brother and a sister who belong to different religions. After hearing such a story, I personally investigated it while in Uganda in 2010. After few days of searching I met Johnson and Hussein who followed Christian and Islam respectively. They were half brothers.
The near all out civil war in the C.A.R was almost entirely perpetrated by power hungry elites, both Christian and Muslim. The innocent civilian population – Muslim and Christian – had no hand at all in the planning, preparations and the execution of such violence. Moreover, the conflict was not originally – and quite frankly to this day – organised along the lines of religion. It simply got out of hand in the subsequent unrest that followed the overthrow of the government. When the Seleka rebels (mainly Muslim) who were largely organised by protesting members of the opposition, overthrew the government, the Balakas (anti-machete, Christian) responded in kind and chaos ensued everywhere.
The Muslim Imams in Bangui, the capital of C.A.R, categorically denied that the conflict had anything to do with religion. And in a powerful show of support for his Muslim counterparts, Cyriaque Gbate Doumalo, the secretary-general of the Catholic bishops’ conference, told the Catholic Sentinel: “we and other faith leaders have repeatedly urged the international press and peacekeeping forces not to present the violence this way”.
The conflict in C.A.R is multidimensional, with Chad and others in the region having their own political interests in the eventual outcome. France’s involvement can’t be discounted either as reports, including some human rights organisations, suggest that French troops who were in collaboration with Chad had initially disarmed Muslim militias, enabling the Balakas to kill Seleka member’s families in retaliatory attacks, significantly increasing the mistrust with the international community.
Meanwhile, the observers of Africa understand the work of the Non-Governmental Organisations better than most other people. And I am particularly familiar with the NGOs that work in Africa. In a research I conducted in Africa last year into the activities of some NGOs I discovered that most of these NGOs deliberately falsify data from conflict zones, exaggerate actual facts on the ground and misinform donors and the press in order to generate more funds which would enable them to sustain their destructive operations. Mind you, I have great respect for NGOs such as Oxfam, Mercy Corps, Save the Children, WorldVision, Medecins San Frontieres and Partners in Health, just to name a few.
Unless Western media organisations and individual journalists who go to Africa are working along similar lines to that of some mafia style NGOs while departing from their journalistic principles, they need to dig deeper into the stories they are after. They need to take time to understand thoroughly the symptoms of the conflict in which they are reporting from, well before filing their stories in order not to mislead everyone including themselves.
Finally, my advice to any prospective journalist who wishes to work in Africa: if you go alone with your adrenaline rush or the pressure from your editors who are working in their air-conditioned offices thousands of miles away … you should always remember, always … that you are dealing with a matter of life and death.
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