A Western Blind Spot? Ctd

A reader responds to the question of Western coverage of Boko Haram compared to Charlie Hebdo:

A blind spot? Not at all. Violence in places with strong traditions of law and order is news.  Violence in places where there is less of such a tradition is not. Francis Fukuyama in his seminal two-volume work reveals to us how hundreds of years of effort under favorable geographic and cultural circumstances are required even to hope for such traditions. There is nothing racist or materialist about the lack of coverage.  It is nothing more than human beings refusing to regard what can plainly be anticipated as news.

The Dish, which is a fairly representative gauge of Western media coverage, has produced about 25 posts on Boko Haram overall. CNN had the terrorist group in its top 10 list of most talked about stories of 2014. Regarding the most recent massacre, we posted two roundups that included pieces from the AP, WaPo, Time, TNR, New Yorker, Reuters, Bloomberg, BBC, Guardian, etc. – hardly a blind spot of Western media, though others will argue that coverage wasn’t quick enough. Matt Schiavenza is on the same page as our reader:

The main difference between France and Nigeria isn’t that the public and the media care about one and not the other. It is, rather, that one country has an effective government and the other does not.

The French may not be too fond of President Francois Hollande – his approval ratings last November had plunged to 12 percent – but he responded to his country’s twin terror attacks with decisiveness. Not so Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan. Since assuming the presidency in 2010, Jonathan has done little to contain Boko Haram. The group emerged in 2002 and has consolidated control over an area larger than West Virginia. And it’s gaining ground. Perversely, the seemingly routine nature of Nigeria’s violence may have diminished the perception of its newsworthiness.

Along those lines, Charlotte Alters adds:

The reports coming out of Baga are still sketchy, and there’s not yet an official death toll because Boko Haram still controls the area. The details of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were immediately available, and were accompanied by compelling video that quickly dominated every major news network. … More importantly, the attack in Paris was largely unprecedented (Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011, but nobody was hurt), while the massacre in Nigeria is part of a long string of Boko Haram attacks that some are even calling a “war“: the group killed over 10,000 people last year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, and 1.5 million have fled their homes since the insurgency started. Plus, the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack was a dramatic ambush of journalists may have added a layer of panic to the media coverage.

The latest on those “sketchy” reports:

Now, new satellite imagery obtained and released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) appears to confirm that considerable damage occurred in the towns of Baga and Doro Gowon in Borno state.

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The scale of the damage is remarkable. Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations at Amnesty International USA, says that the images and other evidence suggested that the death toll was “certainly 700, if not 2,000 or close to it.”

Meanwhile, a few more readers add personal perspective to both the coverage and coverage of the coverage:

In 1984, I was with a group of Canadian volunteers who came to teach English in Nigeria. We spent two weeks in Yola, then moved out to our postings in the state. Within two weeks after our departure, the central part of Yola (Jimeta) was in flames. There had been a conflict between police and a heretical Muslim sect called the Maitatsine. The crisis went on for days, and was only resolved, as we were told, after the army bombarded the central part of the city. The report was that 800 people had been killed.

Here’s the relevant part with respect to your story on Boko Haram: when the Canadian organisation contacted our families to reassure them that we were all right, it turned out that they didn’t know about the violence at all. 800 people (apparently) had died in Nigeria, and the Canadian media ran nothing about it.

Media silence on Boko Haram has only become an issue now because Western media were running stories on it in the first place, and then they died down. In 1984, the situation was worse and got no attention.

Another writes, “Try putting your son on a plane back to Nigeria”:

Thank you for bringing attention to Boko Haram, and specifically linking to Hilary Matfess’s piece. She’s got it exactly right. Boko Haram is not ISIS or Al Qaida fighting for a caliphate, exactly. Rather, it’s more like the rebelling army in a Civil War. And, if you ask an average Nigerian, it’s not so black and white as our media reports as to whom are the bad guys.

Boko Haram does this crazy shit because they’re nuts, don’t get me wrong. But Nigeria is the most corrupt country on the planet. Goodluck Jonathan sits on the top of the money pile, denying everything and doing nothing. The north has been marginalized politically and economically for way too long. Anyone who has been marginalized – going without clean water while politicians buy houses and art in Malibu – can tell you that when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.

On a similar note, my son’s students are offspring of oil executives and corrupt politicians (they freely say that’s their parents’ job title), as well as Pakistanis who have survived their villages’ drone strikes by the US. A mix of students from such backgrounds gives you perspective. When he teaches Speech, for example, students are required to research, deconstruct, and present an important speech from someone they admire. You would expect the choices of most of the students, but some of them choose from Osama bin Laden. When your best friend or family was killed in a US drone strike, you don’t expect them to pick the Gettysburg Address.

A Misadventured, Piteous Overthrow Attempt

Few would shed few tears if Gambian dictator Yahya Jammeh, who recently signed a law criminalizing “aggravated homosexuality” and who once claimed to have discovered an herbal cure for AIDS, were to come to some bad end. However, the two Gambian-Americans who recently tried to pull off a coup in Banjul clearly didn’t think it through:

The men, Cherno Njie, 57, of Austin, and Papa Faal, 46, of Brooklyn Center, Minn., were part of a ring of approximately a dozen co-conspirators who agreed to participate in the coup, according to a criminal complaint. In an interview with the FBI, Faal admitted playing a role in the coup and identified Njie, a businessman, as one of the leaders and main financiers of the plot, the complaint alleges. Faal told the FBI that Njie intended to serve as the interim leader of the country after they deposed 49-year-old Yahya Jammeh, the president of Gambia. …

The group had originally planned to ambush the president’s convoy but instead decided to target the government State House in Banjul, the country’s capital. Split in two teams, the group descended on the State House, the complaint says, before encountering heavy fire and taking serious causalities. Some of the attackers were killed.

Pointing to fraying ties between Jammeh and his military, which have underlain many previous coup attempts, Maggie Dwyer isn’t surprised to see diaspora dissidents trying to bump off the strongman:

Despite the fate of past coup plotters in the Gambia, military personnel have continued to try to oust Jammeh. He has endured at least eight alleged coup attempts during his 20 years in office. Many of the accused plotters had served at the highest military positions, including Army Chief of Staff and Director of the National Intelligence Agency, suggesting divisions at the most senior levels. It should be noted that there is speculation as to whether some of the attempts were real or simply ways to purge members of the military. The ambiguity of these events is another cause of uncertainty and fear within the military. These tensions, divisions, and dissatisfaction within the Gambian military probably contributed to the most recent and past coup attempts against Jammeh.

Keating comments:

Coup plots against brutal West African dictators tend to attract a certain kind of overambitious adventurer. Most memorable was the misbegotten 2004 “wonga coup” attempt against Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, a tangled mess involving British and South African mercenaries and—allegedly—Margaret Thatcher’s son. Faal, at least according to his statements, appears to have been a bit more idealistic than the wonga plotters, motivated by concern over the dire state of affairs in his country, even if he didn’t really think through the consequences of what he was getting involved in.

In case you’re wondering, it’s legal in many cases for U.S. citizens to fight in another country’s war, but plotting aggression against a nation “with whom the United States is at peace” from U.S. soil is prohibited under the Neutrality Act, which dates back to George Washington’s presidency.

While Jammeh downplayed the coup attempt as a terrorist operation backed by foreign governments, he also reshuffled his cabinet and launched a crackdown on local dissidents in response:

“There have been massive arrests in Banjul and there’s a heavy security presence in the capital Banjul and around the presidential palace,” a Gambian journalist told DW. He spoke to DW on condition of anonymity and confirmed that both serving and former military personnel had been arrested and that security had been vamped up in the capital Banjul. He however said that life in the city was back to normal on Friday (02.01.2015). … Gilles Yabi, a researcher based in Dakar, warned that the attempted coup could result in the wider repression citizens in Guinea-Bissau. “There are fears the regime could take advantage of the situation by blaming people who had nothing to do with it.”

Ouagadoucoup d’Etat, Ctd

Burkina Faso’s military, which seized power after President Compaoré stepped down on Friday, is forming a transitional government and pledging not to cling to power. The announcement came after protesters had returned to the streets to demand a speedy restoration of civilian rule:

The army named Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Zida as the leader of a transitional government on Saturday. However, thousands of protesters gathered on Sunday in the capital Ouagadougou, demonstrating against the army. On Sunday evening, following a meeting with key opposition figures, a military spokesman said the army would put in place “a transition body… with all the components to be adopted by a broad consensus”. … It had been necessary to disperse protesters to “restore order”, the statement said, adding that one demonstrator outside the state TV station had died.

Overall, Ken Opalo predicts that Compaoré’s departure will be good for democracy, both in Burkina Faso and Africa writ large:

Although the outcome of this week’s turmoil in Burkina Faso was an extra-constitutional transfer of power, the events leading up to it were a reminder of the continued entrenchment of constitutional rule in much of Africa.

It is instructive that even as he plotted to violate the country’s constitution, Compaore resorted to institutional means to do so. He did not issue a decree or name himself president for life, but instead asked parliament to ratify the amendment to Article 37. This is an indication of the growing importance of institutions, even in non-democratic regimes. It is also a reminder to global democracy advocates that presidential elections alone do not make democracies, and that legislative elections also deserve attention. As the norm of institutionalized rule consolidates in Africa, legislatures will become the new arena of political contestation. This means that the manner in which legislatures are constituted and the rules that govern them will become just as important as whether presidential elections are free and fair.

Zachariah Mampilly insists that the Burkinabe uprising is part of a continent-wide trend that hasn’t gotten nearly as much press as it deserves:

We document more than 90 popular uprisings in more than 40 African states since 2005. By our measure, the heralded North African protests of 2011 represented not the first ripple of a wave, but rather its crest, with 26 African countries (including Burkina Faso) experiencing popular protests that year. Since then, protests have continued but have rarely generated the sort of attention devoted to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Why? Political change in the rest of Africa is often thought to result from violent conflict or external intervention. Africans themselves are presumed to be too rural, too ethnic or too poor for popular politics to lead to political transformation. Even today, as protests increasingly shake up ossified regimes and de facto one-party states, little attention is paid to the broader wave of protests unfolding across Africa and what it portends for the future of the continent.

He, too, is cautiously optimistic about the outcome:

The fact that the army has stepped in is not necessarily a harbinger of military rule. In many African protests, it is the military that can play a decisive role by intervening on behalf of the protesters, as was the case during the 1964 and 1985 protests in Sudan, in which junior officers stepped in against the regime to prevent what would probably have been bloody crackdowns. If progressive voices in the military can come to the fore and turn power quickly over to a civilian leader, there is hope.

World powers, particularly the US and France, are watching the situation closely:

In the last decade, Burkina Faso has become a central node in the new security apparatus that France and the U.S. are building, separately but in coordination, in the Sahel region, to combat jihadi movements and buttress their other interests. Ouagadougou is a base for U.S. drones as well as French special forces. As fluid as the current situation may be, nothing in the power struggle under way appears to threaten Burkina Faso’s fundamental alignment with France and the U.S., and both powers are likely actively working to shape an outcome they can work with.

In recent weeks, France had already signaled readiness to see Compaoré exit the scene (a letter from François Hollande promised Compaoré French support should he seek to exercise his talents in some international organization); reporter Nicolas Germain of France 24 told me today on Twitter that French diplomatic sources had commented to him that Burkina “unlike some countries, has a credible opposition.” As Germain commented: “that says everything.”

Ouagadoucoup d’Etat

Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaoré, stepped down today after 27 years in power, in the face of widespread protests – and the ablaze of parliament – against his plans to change the constitution and allow himself to run for yet another five-year term:

The announcement from Mr. Compaoré came on the fourth day of turmoil in Ouagadougou, the capital, as military commanders met behind closed doors and demonstrators urged them to oust the president. His departure was the culmination of 24 hours of frantic maneuvering. Mr. Compaoré declared martial law for a few hours on Thursday, then seemed to relent, offering negotiations on a transitional government and rescinding his martial law decree. …

Opposition to the president’s plans for another term had been building for weeks. Anger exploded Thursday as protesters stormed the Parliament building, bursting past police lines to prevent lawmakers from voting on a draft law that would have allowed Mr. Compaoré to run again next year. Thousands rampaged through Ouagadougou, burning the homes of presidential aides and relatives and looting state broadcasting facilities. Social media sites showed images of demonstrators toppling a statue of Mr. Compaoré.

Adam Taylor gauges whether Compaoré’s ouster “could ultimately be the spark for something bigger”, spreading to other African countries with long-entrenched autocrats:

“In Burkina Faso now it looks like citizens are making forceful demands for respect of democratic rules,” Pierre Englebert, a Professor of African Politics and Development at Pomona College explained in an e-mail. “That would be an unusual degree of political ownership. And it might well give hope to movements elsewhere, first of all in the Democratic Republic of Congo where things have also been coming to a boil.”

Notably, Vital Kamerhe, leader of Congo’s Union pour la Nation Congolaise, has tweeted a message of solidarity for Burkina Faso’s protesters, saying they are in the “same struggle.” And while many analysts are hesitant to make the comparison, some Burkinabè protesters have likened the protest to the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. … Either way, the comparison with the Arab Spring might not be a good thing: Like the protests in the Arab world, even if Burkina Faso’s protests end up being successful in their immediate aim, they may also carry with them a lot of risks and uncertainty.

Paul Melly’s analysis, written before Compaoré stepped down, focused on the possibility that other African leaders might try to relax their own term limits, even though such schemes have not always worked out well for those who tried them:

In Niger, a third term bid by former president Mamadou Tandja provoked his removal by the army in 2010, followed by a transition to new elections. In Senegal, President Abdoulaye Wade did manage to change the rules, only to be punished by the voters with crushing defeat in the subsequent election in 2012. However, political culture in central Africa and the Great Lakes is rather different and authoritarian traditions are still influential in some countries. Few would bet against [Rwanda’s Paul] Kagame or Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassou-Nguesso successfully pushing through a rule change to open their way to further terms of office. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza and Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo might also be tempted to follow suit – although for them it could be a higher risk exercise, governing countries with vocal civil society and state machines of limited establishment power.

Ebolanomics

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Kim Yi Dionne and Laura Seay discuss how Ebola panic – coupled with ignorance of geography – is doing economic damage to African countries thousands of miles away from the outbreak:

Estimates of the economic damage to be caused by Ebola are as high as $33 billion. Whatever the ultimate cost, everyone agrees that Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia’s economies will be deeply and negatively impacted. Much of that damage is likely unavoidable because people in heavily affected countries engage in “aversion behavior” — or taking actions driven by fear alone (e.g., employees not going to work for fear of being exposed to Ebola).

But this Ebola outbreak is wreaking havoc on African economies beyond the three most heavily affected by Ebola, and that damage is completely avoidable.

The East and Southern African safari industry provides a good example. Bookings for safaris there — including for the famed Great Migration in Kenya and Tanzania — have plummeted due to the Ebola outbreak. In a survey of 500 safari tour operators, SafariBookings.com found a majority of respondents had a decrease in bookings and an increase in cancellations. These actions are based in fear, not reality. We are faced with risk every day, and would be better suited to understand our relative risks if we appreciated where in the world some places are.

Ylan Q. Mui zooms in on Liberia, where the epidemic threatens to turn back the clock on the economic progress the country has made in recent years:

With critical public works projects in limbo and businesses struggling, the virus is threatening Liberia’s chance to escape generations of poverty and join Africa’s rising prosperity. “Liberia was moving,” said Estrada Bernard, chairman of the International Bank in Liberia and the Liberian president’s brother-in-law. “The whole thing hinges upon how well we can get this virus under control.” The best-case scenario compiled by the World Bank predicts Liberia’s economic growth will still plunge by more than half this year. Rubber, one of the nation’s biggest exports, is expected to fall 20 percent this year. Gold and diamond mining have also dropped off. Beer production plunged 30 percent during the first quarter.

And that’s not to mention the human toll of the virus in a country that currently has 2.3 million fewer boxes of sterile examination gloves than it needs. Worse still, Abby Haglage reports, thousands of children have been orphaned in the epidemic:

Of the more than 8,000 people infected with Ebola in West Africa, an estimated 20 percent of them are under the age of 18. Without solid health or proper nutrition, the chances of recovery in this demographic are even lower than for the epidemic at large. “Three out of four of children infected with Ebola in West Africa are dying—that’s a 75 percent mortality rate,” says [Save The Children president and CEO Carolyn] Miles. “These kids are already malnourished, they’re not in the best of health. They’re just not able to survive this.”

Those that do survive, or are lucky enough to have escaped infection, meet a shadowy future. According to data from UNICEF, upwards of 3,700 children have lost one or both parents to Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia thus far. Miles, who met with four different groups of orphans in Liberia on her visit, suspects the number is much higher. “I think there are thousands we don’t even know about,” she says.

“Africa Is Where The Future Is”

by Dish Staff

And that’s what Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry believes is missing from most analyses of China’s involvement in the continent:

For sure, China’s drive into Africa is mainly motivated by natural resources. But this is merely the catalyst of a broader phenomenon, which is really driven by the frustration of so many Chinese with the unbearably stifling and corrupt Chinese system.

From a slow-growth West myopically hypnotized by China’s largely meaningless growth figures (and a bizarre envy of authoritarianism), we don’t actually see China for what it is, which is a very unhealthy society. The limitation on births. The ruthless and ineffective education system, which now no longer provides the jobs it promised. The omnipresent corruption and inflation. The stifling (literally) pollution. No wonder everyone who can is running for the exits.

For Chinese who cannot find advancement or fulfillment in a tottering system, Africa is actually enticing. Chinese are more at home than Westerners in cultures where clientelism (understood non-judgementally as a system where networks of interpersonal reciprocal relations are very important) is more important than legalism, and in Africa they can find a world where opportunities are more available for the taking for the driven and hard-working who are shut-out of the best networks in China. And, of course, we cannot discount the fact that most of the Chinese doing business in Africa are men coming from a country with an increasing shortage of women to a continent where there is not. It is this social phenomenon which is driving China’s scramble for Africa, more than “neo-colonialism” or a mere geopolitical grab for oil and soybean fields.

Looking East From Africa

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President Obama is hosting 51 current and former African leaders in Washington this week for a grand summit on revitalizing American engagement on the continent. Reviewing Obama’s mixed record on this issue, Jay Newton-Small sees the summit as an attempt to make good on some of the expectations he raised early in his presidency. But like most issues in international politics these days, it’s also about China:

As the U.S. is pivoting to Asia, Asia is pivoting to Africa. China’s investments in Africa surpassed those of the U.S. in 2010 and are now five times as big—$15 billion to U.S.’s $3 billion. China’s investment in the raw-resource laden continent is expected to reach as high as $400 billion over the next half century. While, Obama says “the more the merrier,” as he told The Economist, “my advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine, to the port to Shanghai.”

To that end, Obama has a distinctly American message for African leaders. He has seized upon the conference to underline the power of democracy for emerging nations. It is not by accident that he invited so many former African leaders: a message to Africa’s many aging dictators that it’s okay to step aside and give someone else a chance. Obama has proven that he isn’t Africa’s savior, and there’s only so much he can do.

Max Nisen assesses how our aid, trade, and investment in Africa measure up to China’s:

Evaluating just how much China’s businesses and government have invested in Africa is tough, especially given the opacity of Chinese government dealings. Though the US still leads in UNCTAD’s tallies of direct investments in Africa, that’s declining. One study estimated that China invested as much as $75 billion in unrecorded projects alone from 2000 to 2011. That would boost the figures below from China dramatically:

China’s FDI has grown at about 53% a year since 2001, compared to 14% for the US. Less than 1% of US FDI investment goes to Africa, and $14 billion won’t do much to change that. By contrast, China invests 3.4% of its worldwide FDI stock in Africa. Its massive investments in infrastructure dwarf US efforts. Since China surpassed the US in 2009 to become the continent’s biggest trading partner, the gap has only grown. Last year, the US had about $85 billion in bilateral trade with Africa; China reported more than double that with $210 billion.

Stephen Mihm looks to history to explain why the US isn’t as robustly invested in Africa as it is in other parts of the world:

By the early 20th century, the U.S. had managed to get a foothold in places such as South Africa, but in general, its trade paled compared with that of Britain. Moreover, it was lopsided. Americans, in other words, didn’t actually buy a whole lot from Africa. The continent was instead viewed simply as a dumping ground for U.S. products. In 1901, for instance, goods from Africa constituted a mere 1.2 percent of total U.S. imports. That figure barely budged in the succeeding years.

And actual direct investment in Africa was negligible, with the exception of Firestone’s investment in rubber plants in Liberia before the outbreak of World War II. Africa, when it appeared on the radar of U.S. businessmen, was a place to sell, not a place to make long-term investments. That job fell to imperial powers such as Britain, which had little interest in, say, setting up a competing manufacturing power in a colony.

Gordon Adams explores the US-Africa relationship from a security standpoint:

The money, equipment, training, counseling, intelligence, and operating support the United States provides in Africa will only be reinforcing the militaries as institutions in their countries. These militaries already have, at best, a mixed history of corruption, political domination, and seizure of power. And U.S. military investments provide these militaries with additional arms and operational training, making it even more difficult for civilian governments to restrain the military’s assertion of political power.

This deeper issue is a central one in Africa, and the one payoff of all the U.S. investment that we should put above all others — above development, above social services, above stronger security forces — is the issue of “governance.” Governance is what this summit should be about, above all else. Supporting governance in Africa might be discussed this week, but it is a goal only weakly reflected in U.S. assistance programs in Africa.

(Chart via The Economist)