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A critical look at the role of Western mainstream media

The Western media misdiagnoses the root causes of African conflicts and reduces them to tribalism and religion as in the respective case of South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The complexity that lead to conflict need to be reported on by the Western media

Mainstream Western media, specially the powerful commercial outlets, may be partly responsible for the wrong conflict diagnostics 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 first-hand experience of the initial developments of a conflict there are being side-lined 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 developing conflict, and to confront it head-on in order 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.


In the recent violent conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, for example, 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 after elections standoff of March 2013 was called the Kikuyus against the Luos tensions. Why do these media organisations always blast the general populations as criminals? And in Ivory Coast, when Alassane Outtara had clearly won the presidential election, his rival Laurent Gbagbo would not have any of it. Communal violence immediately followed. And to my surprise, even the Guardian, one of the most respected newspapers in the West, 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 told that it 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 be told about African conflicts exactly as they happen?

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. For them, these organisations are simply too powerful to be ignored.


Almost all of Africa’s conflicts start with a short sighted and poorly thought-out
power struggle between rival African political 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 country 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, side-lining 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 evident during the negotiations for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Khartoum. Kiir suspected Machar of having leadership ambitions and that he 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 line for his reckless future plans. Kiir and Machar belong to the two largest tribes in South Sudan. Kiir is from the largest, the Dinka tribe and Machar is from the second largest, the Nuer tribe.

Things came to a head, however, when Salva Kiir dismissed 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 and plot their next move.


A failure to share power among the South Sudanese leaders; the failure to steer their new country to stability and prosperity, triggered the ongoing political standoff and the sporadic violence in the country. The 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 powerful 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 narrative.


Of course Dinka tribe members 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 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 TV discussions at the height of the conflict, and certainly they were never put on paper by any of the Western media organisations; oh, 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 sacked the entire cabinet or before he 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 hotelier, Ali Mahdi Mohamed. 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 violently shook the foundations of the state, in those early days the responsibility rested with Siyad Barre’s refusal to step down and handover to an interim administration, 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 recent classic example. In the Kosovo conflict, after correctly diagnosing the symptoms there, NATO gathered all 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 hate-mongers; they do so only briefly when traditions are disturbed. When violent conflict takes place somewhere in Africa, if a wrong condition or foreign elements are not present on the ground, they have the courage and the resilience more often than not to bring that conflict to an end, all forgotten and forgiven. In Rwanda, despite the suspicions and the lack of political freedom, the Hutus and Tutsis were chit chatting and mingling together in bars and other places only few months after the genocide 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 most other African countries in the 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 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 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, preparation and execution of such violence. Moreover, the conflict was not originally – and perhaps 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, mainly Christian) responded in kind and chaos ensued everywhere.

The Muslim Imams in Bangui 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 multi-dimensional, with Chad and others in the region having their own national interests in the eventual outcome of the conflict. France’s involvement can’t be discounted either as reports, including some human rights organisations, suggesting 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 mistrust with the international community.

We, as observers of Africa, understand the work of Non-Governmental Organisations better than most other people. And we know that most NGOs deliberately falsify data from conflict zones, exaggerate actual facts on the ground and misinform donors in order to sustain their operations and to generate more funds from donor countries and organisation.


But 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 go deeper into the stories they are after. They need to take time and 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.

And 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 ... that you are dealing with a matter of life and death.

*Abdul Ghelleh



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