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