By ANVER VERSI
Africa bashing in the Western, particularly the British press is now in full swing. After the ‘reign of terror’ and ‘slaughter of millions’ in Zimbabwe, has come the ‘reign of terror’ and ‘slaughter of millions’ in Sierra Leone. British media interest in the first instance was because farms belonging to whites, many of whom hold British passports, were invaded by ex-combatants; British interest in the second instance was because a large contingent of British forces was sent to Sierra Leone ostensibly to evacuate UK and Commonwealth citizens.
We have no quarrel with British interests or what they have chosen to do with their armed forces. Our quarrel is with the one-eyed manner in which Africa is painted by the British media. The hyperbole, the exaggeration, the use of highly loaded terms such as ‘savagery’, ‘uncivilised’ and ‘barbaric’ are designed to suggest an unbridgeable cultural gap between the ‘civilised us’ and the ‘uncivilised them’.
Once this belief has taken root, it does not take long before the whole of Africa is tarred with the same brush. Even The Economist, which prides itself on knowledge-based reportage, could not resist the temptation. Africa Editor Richard Dowden, one of the very few Western journalists who has earned the respect of the African media, also fell prey to the prevailing mood in the British media. In his article provocatively titled ‘The hopeless continent’, he posits the theory that Africa is genetically inclined towards chaos. “Does Africa have some inherent character flaw that keeps it backward and incapable of development?” he asks. “Some think so,” he continues. “They believe Africa’s wars, corruption and tribalism are ‘just the way Africa is’, and that African societies are unable to sustain viable states. In the past, outsiders would have described Africa’s failures in racial terms. Some still do. They are wrong, but social and cultural factors cannot be discounted.”
Social and cultural factors cannot be discounted in any society. That is indeed the point we have been trying to make for a long time. You cannot turn Africa into a version of Europe by ignoring the social and cultural factors. The chickens will, and do come home to roost.
A new barbarism?
But it is ridiculous to suggest that Africa’s social and cultural factors incline it towards what American journalist, Robert Kaplan terms ‘the new barbarism’. War is an ugly business, whether people are maimed and killed by sophisticated, expensive weapons or by machetes and knives. For every limbless person in Sierra Leone, there are a thousand in Angola and Mozambique. Their injuries were caused by landmines manufactured in the West. Those who made the mines and sold them and those who provided the finance for the mines knew exactly what they were for. But this was not barbarism, this was business.
A year ago, we wrote an editorial asking for Foday Sankoh, the leader of the rebel RUF in Sierra Leone to be arrested and tried for crimes against humanity. We suggested the same for anybody, in Africa and elsewhere who overstepped the bounds of conflict against civilian populations.
Instead, the British government, in a disastrous attempt to find a speedy solution to the war, suggested that he be incorporated into the government of the day. Where was the British media then? Now that the whole international community is reaping the harvest of those bitter seeds, Africa is once again the scapegoat - now it is culturally inclined towards barbarity.
There is nothing cultural or genetic about the wars and conflicts in Africa or its lack of development. The causes of conflict are exactly the same as they have been in all societies - a breakdown of traditional institutions and the scramble for scarce resources. Countries undergoing this process in the former Soviet Union are termed ‘countries in transition’; in Africa they have ‘reverted to savagery’.
Perhaps British journalists, especially those like Richard Dowden who genuinely have the welfare of the continent at heart, should look into their own souls first before putting pen to paper. The phrase ‘heart of darkness’, (the title of Joseph Conrad’s novel) which is being used more and more frequently these days, does not, contrary to what many journalists seem to believe, refer to the continent. In the novel, the narrator discovers, just before he dies, that all the evil he saw was what he had conjured up inside himself and that he has been projecting it on Africa all along. The heart of darkness was, indeed, inside himself.
Before I end this editorial, I must refer to a brilliant performance on British television by Henry Olonga, one of the few black Zimbabwean cricketers currently on tour with the national side in England. With his fast bowling and spectacular fielding, he has already become a star. When he appeared as a guest on British television, he was remarkably articulate, humorous and confident. He then stood up and performed, perfectly, an Italian aria. The audience was stunned. What an ambassador for his country and his team! Henry Olonga and his team-mates represent to me the best of Zimbabwe - black and white united together for a common cause. That is the Zimbabwe we want to see. And, as long as the spirit which the Zimbabwe cricket team displays prevails, that is the Zimbabwe we will see, despite all the ravings and rantings of the British press.
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