Wednesday, 16 February 2011

All Africa: Egypt, Tunisia & Gabon

All of this is Africa, and all the people born here are from Africa

By the time I'm done with this blog post I hope it doesn't read as a jumbled rant but I'm raging about so many issues all at the same time. First off I just want to say the media's full of sh!t. I don't swear often but this time I feel like it and I meant it. They're all full of sh!t. Even my beloved Al Jazeera and The Guardian. Why? Because they suck. There have been protests going on in Gabon since the 29th of January and up till now they've not picked up on the story, they've been busy with Middle East and North Africa coverage that the demonstrations in a small West Central African nation aren't worthy of media attention.

Julie Owono of Global Voices reports that this is the result of a long running dispute over the 2009 elections that Ali Bongo (son of Omar Bongo) is said to have won. Gabon's opposition leaders along with former presidential hopeful Andre Mba Obame then formed a breakaway government on January 26 and Mba Obame swore himself in as President of Gabon. Ministers were appointed to Mba Obame's cabinet, even though its unclear how the Minister of Foreign Affairs would take up the position as he is currently resident in France. Supporters of Mba Obame in the capital, Libreville marched to the UN offices and demanded that the UN recognize him as President. It has since emerged that the base of the unofficial government is in the the UNDP offices. On January 29, thousands of supporters marched in the streets of Libreville, but were violently crushed by the army. Fast forward to 10 February, students at the University of Omar Bongo added their voices to the dissent but for different reasons. Owono writes that:
"According to website La Voix du Peuple Gabonais (Voice of the Gabonese People LVDPG) [fr], an online newspaper managed by Gabonese living abroad, students were demonstrating [fr] because they have not received their 100 Euros (66,000 Central African Francs) monthly scholarship money since July 2010." 
The student grievances are also about the poor conditions at the university, police brutality against student demonstrators and they demand the 'reinstatement of three professors' who are aligned with the opposition. There's a protest scheduled for the 21st of February calling for Ali Bongo's departure (Ali Bongo Degage) and although SMS-es have been sent out to people, the authorities have in the past done a good job of ensuring the message does not spread across the country so there is a possibility that this march could be crushed too (as were those on 5 & 8 February). 

But all this political drama in less than a month and not one headline from a major news outlet? Would it help if it was known that during all this unrest, on 9 February, Nicolas Sarkozy sent birthday wishes to Ali Bongo? Or that one of the chants is 'Ben Ali Gone, Ali Ben Degage' making the clear connection to Tunisia? Isn't this also one of those social media uprisings and domino-effect revolutions that are oh-so trendy right now? The Gabonese have used Facebook, SMS, YouTube and Twitter just like the Egyptians, Algerians, Libyans and Bahrainis. So why have they been ignored? An unofficial government housing itself in a UNDP building is pretty significant one would think. Does Ban Ki Moon not give a hoot that the UN's premises are being occupied by potential revolutionaries? Even his standard 'we strongly condemn violence blah blah respect human rights blah blah blah' is needed, just say something! African Union, same ting! Maybe Gabon needs self-immolating martyrs so they can go mainstream and Anderson Cooper can be sent in to do coverage in the 'heart of Africa.' Or maybe Sarkozy should explain that when he says France supports Gabon in his birthday message to Bongo he actually means he'll send teargas and live ammunition, in the tradition of what Chirac and Mitterand used to do for daddy Bongo - that would get tongues wagging, wouldn't it? Or even better, a few people can burn themselves and the Muslim minority in Gabon can invent ties with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt then Al Jazeera will come running. Good, no?

Sadly this lack of attention isn't only from leading Western or Arab media, but leading African newspapers as well like South Africa's Mail and Guardian. Their coverage on South Africa is pretty good, but being the frustrated critical reader that I am living in this digital era of information-obesity where stories break by the minute, I find the Africa coverage very disappointing and even moreso when compared to other mainstream global media. If it's not a story on Kenya, the Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire or Zimbabwe it doesn't get coverage until AP (Associated Press), Reuters or the Guardian UK does a story on it. And if they don't copy n paste from AP and Reuters it probably won't get covered. I'm not surprised they've not covered it, but I'm irritated that they've missed out on an important story. Yet again. (Yes, their coverage of Wikileaks Africa cables hasn't been great. Its slanted towards Assange, the moral ethics of Wikileaks and the big stories, but very little analysis (!!!) or reportage on the Africa cables outside of the big gossip and corruption stories from the usual countries, yet Morocco, Djibouti, Mauritius, Madagascar and Diego Garcia were pretty important cables that got missed.)

But back to the subject of the role of new social media in protest. Yesterday at the New Statesman Laurie Penny wrote this: 
"The instant dissemination of camera and video footage and reportage from citizen journalists means that the truth can travel around the world before government propaganda gets its boots on."
To which I responded:
"But what happens when that truth gets ignored by mainstream media? Oppressive regimes will continue to oppress people so inasmuch as it's great that social media helps communicate a message if the influential people aren't listening then what? Can we really speak of 'social media revolutions' and even speedy dissemination of truth when it took over a month before mainstream media picked up on Tunisia? There have been anti-government protests in Gabon since 26 January, influenced in part by events in Tunisia, but there's been NO Anglophone media coverage, apart from Global Voices and the Daily Maverick (S.A). As with Tunisia, it's alternative outlets that have been leading on this story esp Global Voices, while the rest of mainstream media are still looking for different angles to reproduce the headline stories. If anything, the more popular something is the more coverage it gets and calling things 'social media revolution' is much nicer and more palatable for the masses than things like brutality, poverty and unemployment, so the truth of oppression spread through social media becomes masked again."
I don't know if Laurie Penny saw my post and even if she did, then what? Will she actually write about Gabon or more likely pass it onto on of her colleagues at the New Statesman more knowledgeable in African affairs? Yea, keep hope alive. Maybe the Guardian will keep their promise to follow up on my comment today about lack of Gabon coverage, but if they did it won't make them any less sh!t. They were late.
And despite the brilliance of my beloved Guardian and Al Jazeera, they've also been a bit disappointing because their analysts have had little to say about the very real impact of Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia and Algeria on Africa. The Arab uprisings have been looked at mainly from a pan-Arab and Arab-West perspective and yet these events have had a global impact. Citizen-State power relations aren't just shifting in these two spheres but on the Afrian Continent as a whole and in many other parts of the world too. Alongside the Graun & Al J, I've also watched and read the BBC, The Atlantic and NY Times and they all do the same thing. I'm not sure why this recent series of events has only been seen from a Arab-Middle East lens and not through a Arab-Africa lens as well. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan and Algeria are all Arab nations in Africa. But expert upon expert writing or talking to the media has looked at this from a Middle Eastern/North Africa/Arab perspective as though these protests would have no effect on the land below the Sahara. Or as though North African / Arab Africa, doesn't mean African or Africa (see map above). Pity the poor writers across the Continent who've enthusiastically written about this from an African perspective and pity the Gabonese who've found inspiration from 'the Arab World' but whose voices aren't being heard. Even more frightening though, is the five men who've been abducted in Zimbabwe for celebrating Mubarak's downfall, Zimbabwean state tv censorship of Egypt news and in Malawi, protesters against the recent fuel price hike were detained for several hours by the police because their demonstration was illegal and Bingu Mutharika warned Malawians not to copy Cairo. (But they're not listening) Mutharika, Mugabe, Mubarak, Gadaffi, Bongo were/are all strong men in Africa. Too bad everyone's busy reporting this as 'the Arab revolution' to also notice its many faces. The ripple effect of a rock thrown in a pool of fury doesn't flow one way, but in concentric patterns so that even those on the southern most tip of the continent will feel what is happening on its most northern tip. 

much thanks to Julie Owono, Ethan Zuckerman and many other silent bloggers for caring enough to write about this.

UPDATE: GABON: A 38 year old woman, mother of two and anti-Bongo protestor, Marie Mendome has died as a result of injuries from a police beating. She died on Sunday but the story's only started circulating in my spheres, today. Read about it here. How many more deaths will it take before this story gets a headline?


Anonymous said...

That was a bit harsh on Mail & Guardian, its a good paper. I had no idea there were protests in Gabon, some think Uganda is next but I doubt it. Do you think Gadaffi will go?

KonWomyn said...

They deserve it, its frustrating to read things in other papers which M & G really should be leading on. I think its a great paper that could do so much better online. Their IT capabilities and media center could and should be better for them to take a leading role in African media (which they should).

Gadaffi's very hard to break, but I'd like to think he will be broken. The horrific scale of deaths is *quite* distressing and with the media blackout and ruthless armed forces makes me think of Rwanda in some ways.

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