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Shine an Illuminating Light on Africa

From "hopeless" to "rising"

· Africa

America’s principal news generally presents an unilluminated view of African affairs. It’s time coverage of sub Saharan Africa provided fair, balanced and contextualized reporting.

I subscribe to The Washington Post. I open my front door every morning at about 7AM and eagerly pick up the day’s issue to read over breakfast. For the past three weeks, I have sought out articles in print focusing on democratic elections in West Africa, where I develop impact investment projects with consortia of micro U.S. businesses that have the know-how, processes and technologies that can be adapted to address growing needs and demands in varied industrial and consumer sectors.

There have been several articles and digest snippets published on Nigeria’s elections. But nothing at all in print about Senegal’s elections, held on February 24th. WHY?! Why is there nothing in Sunday’s or Monday’s or Tuesday’s The Washington Post edition about peaceful elections in Senegal?! Senegal is a major U.S. partner, a regional leader and a model for democratic stability, good governance and rule of law, good macroeconomics, a competitive business environment, and visionary yet pragmatic growth and development policies. And WHY is everything about Nigeria’s elections negative?

Let’s do an exercise in written discourse analysis of the articles published in the press and online. Bear with me. You’ll see why and how words matter A LOT. They can be totally misleading and even create a syndrome of “mistaken reflection in the mirror” for a nation.

The only coverage on Senegal’s elections by The Washington Post has been online. Let’s see what image that coverage projects (my underlining of key words):

  • February 8th: a post about how former President Abdoulaye Wade called for a boycott of the elections, accusing the current…ooops! Can’t access the content. After four tries, I still keep the message “Sorry, we can’t find what you are looking for”.
  • February 22nd: “Senegal’s President Macky Sall Seeks 2nd Term”. The article begins by pointing out how “Sall boasted he will win the first round, without a runoff vote, though some critics say the two biggest threats to his re-election were barred from running.” Glossing over how he’s done a lot for Senegal, the article focuses on his critics’ disappointments (duh! Are they going to laud him?), supposedly politically motivated moves by Sall and his supporters and how Sall has dug his own grave.
  • February 24th: “Senegal voters choose whether to give president another term” (implied: or not). Second paragraph: “This year’s vote also has been marked by allegations that the presidency had effectively blocked two prominent opposition politicians from taking part: Dakar’s former mayor and the son of the president Sall ousted from office in 2012.” (Note: the former mayor was jailed for misuse of public funds and the son of former president Wade served three years in jail for corruption). After covering several positive reviews of Sall’s policies and efforts during his first term, the article ends on this note: “He’s a thief, Macky Sall”, quoting 37-year old Karim Ba (whoever that is).
  • February 24th: “Senegal commission warns against early calls”, “to avoid making premature declarations about the outcome of Sunday’s vote” and that although “unofficial results show that Sall won in 13 of Senegal’s 14 regions”, top opposition candidates agreed that preliminary results indicate a second round should be held (i.e. suggesting illegitimate results) and the need to “show restraint in order to preserve the peace”. The article ends on a supposedly positive note: “Senegal has long been a democratic example in West Africa where coups and clinging to power used to be all too common in neighboring countries. European Union election observers reported no major irregularities by mid-day Sunday” (leaving it open to speculation o minor irregularities, which subliminally tie in to undemocratic behavior, despite Senegal being a democratic model in the region).

The New York Times coverage? A bit better in its online headlines, but not by much.

  • February 19th: The Five Candidates Running in the Presidential Election” makes sure to point out that there have been “accusations that President Sall has an authoritarian streak”.
  • February 23rd: “Senegal’s President Tightens Grip on Power Ahead of Elections”. As voters go to the polls on Sunday, critics say Macky Sall has ... A train line will soon zip commuters from downtown to the new $575 ... A bridge that spans the Gambia River is drastically cutting travel time across Senegal and its ... In April 2018, provisions in Senegal's electoral code were amended to ...
  • February 24th: “Senegal PM says President Sall wonRe-election in the First Round”. Senegal's prime minister said President Macky Sall won the first round of an election (this personalizes the results as heresay) on Sunday with at least 57 percent of votes, even as the opposition… (sorry, I’m not subscribed, so can’t read more. But you get the gist).
  • February 24th: “Senegal President’s Camp Claims Re-election Victory but Opposition…”. Senegal President Macky Sall's team claimed he won re-election in the ... popular with youth, and Idrissa Seck, a third-time contender and former prime minister. ... some Senegalese question whether a high-speed train, new motorways…”
  • February 25th: “Senegal Election Commission Warns Against Early Calls”. Senegal's electoral commission on Monday urged presidential candidates and their supporters to avoid making premature declarations about …
  • February 26th: “Senegal President on Course for Strong Election Wind: Media, Sources…” (wind, as in naturally or artificially produced movement of air, rather than win, as in earning victory by effort) Senegalese President Macky Sall is on course for a strong election victory, according to preliminary results from Sunday's vote provided by ...

After the coverage on Senegal, the poster child of democracy in sub Saharan Africa, there are, of course, no surprises with the election coverage on Nigeria! All articles in The Washington Post have focused on terrorism, violence, and how the election delay shocked Nigerians. This obscures the plethora of positive things happening in the country, such as how a majority of public workers carry out their duties based on the letter and spirit of their job description, or how Nigerians show acts of kindness every day, everywhere, or how business opportunities abound and daily life is as calm as it is in the average American metropolis (By the way, four U.S cities are listed in the top 50 most violent cities in the world by the Business Insider; only two cities in Africa, both in South Africa, are included).

The Washington Post’s February 25 Digest snippet on how “Election violence kills dozens” and the February 23rd New York Times “Dozens dead in Nigeria as Election Results are Delayed” are but two of dozens of examples of the mainstream press negativity bias in relation to Africa. Muhammadu Buhari was declared a winner to lead a second term, after winning 19 of 36 states. The headline in the Post’s article February 27 article? “Buhari reelected leader of Nigeria amid unrest”, making sure to underline in the article’s opening paragraph that Buhari’s reelection was “marred by large-scale violence and delays” and that “the main opposition claimed to have evidence the vote was rigged”. Being rather (un)mindful, the journalist, Max Bearak, closes the article by reminding us of the country’s decades of military rule (before 1999) and how 76-year old Buhari’s, “undisclosed” illness calls into question whether he “has the requisite energy” to lead.

What about The New York Times? It’s article headline “Muhammadu Buhari Wins a Second Term as Nigeria’s President” is a bit more positive. But the article makes sure to state that “violence did punctuate the voting on Saturday”, that “turnout was low” and that “While Mr. Buhari failed to keep some of his early promises, especially in cracking down on terrorism, many voters still see the former general, who led the nation under military rule in the 1980s, as a strongman…”

Words DO matter. And they reflect the unexpressed biases of those who write and publish articles, reports and books. It really is very unfortunate that the mainstream American press reporting on sub Saharan Africa invariably focuses on: violence, kidnappings, terrorism, war, crackdowns, witch hunts, refugee camps, disease, political prisoners, slavery, the agony of illegal immigration, even dying baobab trees, battles over used clothing and danger pay for U.S. troops (just search these key words online and see what comes up in The Washington Post!).

Yes, violence, poverty, hunger, disease, and political miscreants and thugs abound in sub Saharan Africa, as they do here in America. We Americans can even sport election intimidation and fraud! But WHY is there nothing about Africa’s incredible growth story and business case, or the vibrant youth dividend driving innovation and entrepreneurship, or how the strides in women’s empowerment is moving mountains?

Yes, much work still needs to be done to realize Africa’s vast possibilities. But reporting needs to also focus on success stories like Senegal’s; they are shaping the continent’s future.

Yes, optimism must always be tempered with notes of caution. But Africa has already transformed from a “hopeless” to a “rising” continent.

The American press needs to set aside the dark mirror of yesteryear and start shining light into the darkness its reporters are stuck in….because sub Saharan Africa is fast becoming today’s economic, social and political powerhouse.

Stay tuned to more articles on how to understand Africa and harness your power to tap into the unparalleled opportunities the continent offers!

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, UpBoost LLC

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