Protests across Africa: Different attention for different countries?

First published in Pambazuka News – Issue 519


cc Azls

Focusing on Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Gabon and Zimbabwe, Sokari Ekine provides a round-up of international and social media coverage of the multiple sites of sustained protests across Africa and considers the differences in media attention between each of them.

LIBYA

What began as a people’s uprising in Libya has since moved closer towards a civil war as soldiers of the Libyan army defect and some protestors take up arms against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, as shown in this graphic video (tweeted widely), with the Libyan army protecting protestors against pro-Gaddafi forces. @EnoughGaddafi tweets ‘Massive arrests being made in Tripoli, eyewitness from Jdeida prison says a lot of activists and injured are being held there’. One tweeter reminds us of the chaos and possible endangering of peoples lives by international media reports:

‘@bintlibya: @AlJazeera pls stop airing calls of ppl giving locations details of things that have yet 2 happen u are causing more harm than good #Libya’

Tens of thousands of mostly foreign nationals are fleeing the country and already there is a humanitarian crisis on the Tunisian border. The tweets from UNHCR stress the panic taking place:

‘@refugees: #UNHCR#IOM ask govs 2 suply masive financial + logistcal asets incl planes + boats: overcrwding at #Libya #Tunisia border worsens by hour’

‘@refugees: Shelter! Shelter! Shelter! Tens of thousands need shelter at the Tunisian border, as Tunisia opens its borders for all. #Libya

As Gaddafi finds new ways to attack Libyans, Libyans unleash their fury against his deployment of mercenaries from West and East Africa as migrant workers from south of the Sahara face increasing attacks and are prevented from leaving the country. Given the racism in Libya and low status of foreign black workers, it was only a matter of time before innocent people were attacked.

@melissafleming tweets an email she receives: ‘Email from Somali refugee in Tripoli: we are under attack by local people…our home was burnt down, 7 Somalis killed…’

Afrol News reports:

‘In Al-Bayda, the hunt-down and arbitrary arrest of sub-Saharan Africans goes on. Ms Wold also spoke to a group of Libyan youths, monitoring the streets in accordance with the city’s interim authorities – made up of civilians and defected army officers. The youths openly told her they were out, trying “to catch mercenaries to hand them over to authorities”.

‘Reports from other ”liberated” Libyan cities are similar. In Benghazi last week, citizens attacked and destroyed a building housing 36 citizens from Chad, Niger and Sudan. The Africans were accused of being “mercenaries” and subsequently arrested, local residents told Western journalists.

‘@elicopter_mid tweets Exp @northafrica: Massive number of #African workers stranded in #Libya. May be wrongly targeted, accused of helping Gaddafi. Looming…”

‘Exp @northafrica: #Touareg troops from Mali, Niger and other Sahel countries are said to be with Gaddafi for the financial support he…

‘@shababLibya writes “Breaking: it seems 70 cars have arrived near the town of ras lanuf to support a battalion to attack the city of Brega and regain airport…The cars reported to be full of Mercenaries with the intention of joining a battalion outside Ras Lanuf to head to Brega to regain #Libya”.’

The blog Bikyamasr reports of thousands of black African (still being called ‘Africans’ as opposed to seeing Libyans as Africans) workers trying to escape from Libya being denied entry on evacuation ships in the port of Benghazi. This is again confirmed by @Refugees:

Concerned large # of sub-Saharan #Africans being denied entry to #Tunisia frm#Libya#UNHCR in talks w/self-apntd volunters guardng border.


© New York Times

The language and subtext being used in some of the reports is cause for concern. In a video by Al Jazeera, ‘Immigrant workers under suspicion’, the US-based Frontlines of Revolution uses the headline ‘White Arab supremacy: Revolution or Moor black oppression?’ There is no doubt that there that racism is rife in Libya and that black foreign workers are being targeted, but language like this and lack of historical or political context only inflames the situation. The blog Jadaliyya provides a more reasoned analysis of what Professor Mahmood Mamdani calls the ‘perceived dichotomy between Arab and black Africans’ which is ‘false and relies on colonial-era tropes of settler and native’, and asks that we ‘consider the stakes of this conceptualization of a basic Arab-African or Arab-black antagonism–one that not only formulates these as mutually exclusive categories but also pins them against one another in the context of the Libyan revolution’.

The blogger continues with some questions: ‘Are the men we see pictured here perpetrators of state-sponsored violence, are they victims of racism, or is it possible that both of these things may be true at the same time? Are they being attacked in retaliation or in the course of a battle, or are they taken for mercenaries simply on the basis of their skin color? Is this just one more instance of non-citizens falling victim to a conflict that is not their own?’

Nonetheless, the assault on black Africans is disturbing, not least because the uprisings in North Africa have been framed within an Arab/Middle East context, not just by Western media but more importantly by Al Jazeera, which itself has become part of the revolutionary story. This in itself further antagonises Arab—African/Arab—black tensions and also raises the monumental question as to who is an African and what do we mean by Africa. Pambazuka News editor Firoze Manji addresses this in a recent interview with Al Jazeera — could this possibly be a response to growing criticism of their framing the North African uprisings solely in an ‘Arab’ context?

‘Egypt is in Africa. We should not fool about with the attempts of the North to segregate the countries of North Africa from the rest of the continent … Their histories have been intertwined for millennia. Some Egyptians may not feel they are Africans, but that is neither here nor there. They are part of the heritage of the continent.’

Connected to this are questions raised by mainstream media, bloggers and tweeters as to whether other parts of the continent — the term used is ‘sub-Saharan Africa’ which in itself is a loaded descriptive — will rise up against oppressive regimes. Countries such as Gabon, Cameroon and Zimbabwe have been mentioned in this context.

COTE D’IVOIRE

A further point is which conflicts, revolutions and uprisings are being reported and how are they being framed. Last week Kenyan blogger Ory Okollah started a campaign with her tweet ‘On global media and African protests, “Why are Anderson Cooper and Nick Kristoff not in Côte d’Ivoire?”’ Others took up the call and began re-tweeting for media coverage outside of North Africa.

Côte d’Ivoire remains one of African stories hardly anyone is talking about, least of all Anderson Cooper who claimed he would respond by 28 February:

@andersoncooper: I have been following #ivorycoast closely and it deserves far more coverage. Monday will try to do something.

However, a week after Kenyan Pundit’s call, Côte d’Ivoire remains @philinthe: ‘The Story no one is Talking About http://su.pr/2vJpb2 #civ2010 #IvoryCoast @cnn@andersoncooper @nickkristof @nbcnightlynews @ariannahuff’.

African Newsbot again reminds us of the ‘other’ African crisis:

@africanNewsBot: Don’t Forget Africa’s Other Displacement Crisis, Says IOM: With more than 129,500 people no… http://bit.ly/fZ10Cd #africa #cotedivoire

Reports estimate as many as 70,000 Ivorian refugees fleeing into neighbouring Liberia. @scarlettlion based in Monroiva published photos of refugees arriving in the country [UNHCR protecting their photos – so much for creative commons]


© AllAfrica.com

@connectionivoir reports on fights and explosions in the capital as fighting between security forces and supporters of Alassane Ouattara and President Laurent Gbagbo. In the north of the country millions are without water and electricity. They point to the similarities between Gaddafi and Gbagbo. Both see themselves as Pan-Africanist socialist leaders but at the same time embrace capitalism and investment by Western corporations, stealing vast amounts of dollars from the people.

CAMEROON

Last week Cameroonians took to the streets in what has so far been a limited uprising immediately put down by the armed forces of President Paul Biya. Kah Walla, the founder of Cameroon O’Bosso (Cameroon lets go) was among the 300 protestors last week, many of whom were beaten, as shown in this YouTube video. She wrote about her experience here on Pambazuka News. Her diary of what happened is important because it speaks to the courage and determination of a small group of people, which is all it takes to start a revolution. She writes:

‘They wanted to stop us from protesting, we protested. We have a non-violent philosophy, which we maintained in the face of extreme violence. An incredible force of young Cameroonians. We started out almost 300 and ended up less than 50 but (being a) nugget has banished fear, for ourselves and for many other Cameroonians. The population did not join us in droves, but: not one person out of hundreds complained about the blocking on the road; If we ever doubted it, we now have extreme clarity on the absolute need for change and the absolute need for unwavering determination in bringing it about in our country.’ Six members of Cameroon O’Bosso have been arrested and remain in detention.

GABON

On 29 January thousands began protesting against the leadership of President Ali Bongo Ondimba, the son of former President Omar Bongo. Despite being faced with the brutal forces of the regime, the protests spread across Gabon. Again Gabonese protests have been off the radar as these tweets point out.

@cletusrayray: Is anyone listening? ‘Pambazuka – #Gabon: The forgotten protests, the blinkered media http://t.co/hrRJhiR’ #Egypt #Libya #Bahrain #Yemen’.

@eDipAtState explained one possible reason for this …. ‘Media won’t cover Cameroon/Gabon much. Protesters need to use Twitter/Facebook & send reports to AJE. #Gabon #Cameroon’.

I am sure global corporate media are aware of what is happening and it’s clear that choices are made on which conflicts and revolutions are covered. These choices need to be challenged as do other silences, such as the voices of women, of sexual minorities, refugees, landless people and migrants across the continent. EthanZuckerman points out in Pambazuka News the danger in selective reporting:

‘The danger of ignoring Gabon’s revolution isn’t just that opposition forces will be arrested or worse. It’s that we fail to understand the profound shifts underway across the world that change the nature of popular revolution. The wave of protests that swelled in Tunisia may not break just in the Arab world, but across a much larger swath of the planet … And as audiences around the world watch in wonder as Christian and Muslim protesters pray together in Tahrir Square, they wonder why struggles in Gabon can’t command at least a fraction of this attention.’

ZIMBABWE

On 23 February 45 social justice activists were arrested and charged with treason in Zimbabwe. The 45, which included International Socialist Organisation (ISO) coordinator Munyaradzi Gwisai, were accused of watching and discussing video footage of the Tunisian and Egyptian protests. Some of the activists have been ‘brutalised and tortured’ whilst in custody. On 28 February, 7 members of WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) and MOZA (Men of Zimbabwe Arise) were also arrested.


© www.sokwanele.com

Earlier in this post, I mentioned that there were questions around whether the uprisings in North Africa would spread to southern parts of the continent. In the case of Gabon there is no evidence to show the uprisings were influenced by those in Tunisia or Egypt. And although the 45 activists were meeting to discuss these, Zimbabweans have been in a state of revolt against the Mugabe regime even before the 2008 elections — see ‘Mapping Terror’ on the Sokwanele blog. Members of WOZA have demonstrated over and over again; their members have been beaten, arrested and tortured but still they continue to take to the streets. In 2010 83 of their members were detained for celebrating the International Peace Day.

The mistake the media and activists in the West make is to believe that the voice of revolution has to be highly vocal and visible to their world. On the contrary, there are thousands of activists and social justice movements from across Africa and the diaspora who are totally committed to achieving political and social change in their respective countries. It just takes a little effort and time to know what is happening.

Revolutions are a complex process of competing interests and multiple tensions. The period following the removal of Ben Ali and Mubarak in Tunisia and Egypt testify to this. The streets protests and their removal were not the beginning. Activists have in both countries have been working towards this moment for a long time. The revolutionary process will continue and may well move in contradictory directions. The reporting of revolutions — deciding which ones receive the most attention and how they are reported — add to the complexities at play. What I have tried to do in this article is to bring an additional perspective to the revolutionary forces in Africa. As informed citizens and if we are to see ourselves as part of the revolutionary process, then we need to try and grasp an understanding of the layers of narrative and actions which are taking place, not just across Africa but on a global level.

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