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How (not) to write about African wars

And to round off our “Best of” World Policy blogs, we turn to a young African writer for a lesson in honest and accurate reportage. Western media has a knack for oversimplifying complex political realities in Africa, particularly in regards to its coverage of civil wars. André-Michel Essoungou proposes a three-step plan, which integrates local African voices into the journalism agenda, thereby providing a more accurate and nuanced understanding of local conflicts.

By André-Michel Essoungou

Even a seasoned follower of political affairs might be excused for struggling to make sense of the seemingly worsening vortex of ongoing armed conflicts. Chances are, given the recent war in Gaza, the promising but still fragile developments in Afghanistan, and the twinned and tragic mess Syria and Iraq has become, his analytic brain might be reasonably overwhelmed.

But, to be sure, in the daily media discourse, some of the complicated nuances of these events have been gaining attention, making their way into public debates and helping form policy positions and diplomatic or military options. In short, news and information consumers are treated to a varied diet in relation to the coverage of world conflicts— most of which, in recent years, have been internal civil wars.

The argument holds, however, only if African civil wars are removed from the list. As it appears, those belong to a different category. For African civil wars, if the dominant media discourse is to be believed, explanations are easy and definitive.

Generally, most serious reporters and commentators tell us African conflicts, from Rwanda to South Sudan, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Mali, are rooted in deep-seated hatred, and usually fought along ethnic and tribal lines. In an article dating from October 1998, The Economist mapped the argument: “Most of Africa’s wars are fought between a national army and guerrillas representing different regions or ethnic groups. The tactics are to deny resources to the other side. Food is stolen, towns looted and roads mined. Villages are often burned, the young men forced to become fighters, the women and children porters. Hearts, minds and welfare are rarely matters of concern. Thousands flee to seek survival in the bush or in camps supplied by aid agencies.”

To be fair, the caricature characterization of African wars is not a privilege exclusive to journalists. Scholars have long noted a similar pattern in the way African civil wars are described in major American media. In one case, after analyzing the coverage in six major US newspapers of the 1994 civil war and in Rwanda to the civil war in Bosnia– both comparable tragedies to a large extent–three American researchers noted that reports on Rwanda were often short on issues of war tactics, rich on the use of what they coined the “language of savagery, and ethnicity/tribalism.”

From the venerable New York Times to The Washington Post, African wars are often described using language that connotes uncivilized, primitive conflict, where actors are “bloodthirsty” villains conducting “orgies” of violence. Interestingly, researchers add, “Even when describing periods of high levels of carnage in Bosnia, the phraseology in stories has a substantially different tone, while the imagery largely lacks intimations of tribal primitivism or savagery.”

That African conflicts are portrayed as impossible to understand–or easily understandable–is also due, in no small part, to the remarkable absence of African voices in most news stories about the continent’s wars. In so many stories, depictions of victims abound. Sometimes a timely lament he or she may have voiced makes its way into an illustrative quote; rarely more.

As for the main actors, the putative villains, hardly can articulate why they have plunged their countries into wars. Nor are local intellectuals called upon for their perspective. Africa, it seems, is the only continent for which experts are usually Western and living abroad. This reliance on non-African sources in media coverage of African conflict is another persisting feature scholars have long noted. Since the continent’s wars seem to be beyond rational explanation, the logic goes, it follows that its people are probably incapable of understanding and explaining their tragedies.

The impact of this media discourse on African conflicts might seem innocuous, yet it plays a defining role in shaping policies, especially in countries active and or with influence in negotiating a way out of a number of African civil wars. “I feel that much contemporary scholarship and policy work discounts African wars as a weird special case. But they are not,” worryingly remarks Hugo Slim, a British scholar and policy adviser. Unfortunately, policy positions predicated on erroneous assumptions can hardly help efforts to solve any problem.

All these are certainly reasons enough to suggest modest but concrete proposals on improving the media discourse on African conflicts. Essentially, when writing on and covering African wars journalists and their editors should be cognizant of the following three items.

Firstly, make space for and take in ‘African voices’. As discussed already, media stories about African conflict are strikingly deaf to locals’ voices. When African voices appear, it is far too often as actors without ‘agency.’ In other words, they are always the aimless victims of a superior destiny. A useful first step could be to decide, as a reporter, to listen to and to include voices of African actors with agency in reporting. A good guide could be the writing of Ryszard Kapuściński, a much celebrated Polish reporter, whose articles on the continent received many praised but not much of a following.

Second, any reporter writing on African conflict could decide to refrain from using the animal or the tribal lexicon. War can be covered, to a large extent, with little to no reference to humans acting like animals or fighting each other because they are from different tribes. And as a guide on this effort, perhaps the writer and his editor could refer to this most enjoyable and short manual on Africa by Binyavanga Wainaina.

Lastly, much like reporters do when covering city hall or a shooting by the police in Ferguson, when covering African wars, why not show much more interest in local dynamics. Obviously no single conflict is easy to understand for outsiders, yet the point of reporting about events in foreign countries is not to fall back on clichés, but to inform about something different and yet understandable. Perhaps, in doing so, one might discover that, somehow, African wars are a most common tragedy too.

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André-Michel Essoungou is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC World Service and Radio France International. His postings include the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, and Africa’s Great Lakes region. He is also the author of two books, including one on the media coverage of African conflicts. He currently works for the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia]

 

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