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How Western Pundits Decide What Is Newsworthy in “Africa”

Western pundits and journalists sure are selective in choosing what does or does not count as newsworthy across the continent of Africa. Of course, Uganda is always a sure bet. Just look at all that international press “Kill the Gays” drums up every time it comes back before Parliament.

So, it was no surprise that, on Sunday, the Westerners-who-write-about-Ugandan-politics corner of twitter was all aflutter over news that Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s multi-decade autocrat-in-chief, had endorsed his wife, Janet Museveni, for the presidency for the, wait for it…2016 elections. This was a shock to many. For one, it is widely reported that their marriage is a political arrangement, not a close partnership. Not only this, but there is speculation that they are political rivals. What did it all mean?

There was a lot of speculation. Maybe their relationship is less vexed than we all thought. Several journalists who work in the region suggested that this makes her succession all but certain. Perhaps they negotiated a behind-the-scenes agreement that Museveni found agreeable. The President is a shrewd political manipulator, meaning that he often gets his way, and he will make sure that her succession ensures lifelong political influence for him. Others argued that Museveni has no intention of leaving office. If he really planned on leaving, he could find a much more loyal successor than his wife. This must be a cynical move intended to force Museveni’s growing pro-democracy opposition to either line up behind the First Lady or support the embattled President. Which narrative is it really?

This matters for a number of reasons. No one really sees Museveni as a competent ruler, but there is wide consensus that his wife would be exponentially worse. Museveni is a self-interested head-of-state who is rarely straightforward about anything. In the media, he defends national sovereignty when asked about the infamous “Kill the Gays” Bill. At the same time, it’s widely believed that he uses the Bill – and others – as a wedge to drum up political capital among elites when he needs it. Janet Museveni is, by contrast, a True Believer. She attended the anti-gay conference in Kampala that hosted many American fundamentalists – and that some believe motivated the Bill in the first place. The First Lady has been actively supporting the legislation since its inception.

Of course, it’s not clear that Museveni’s “announcement” – actually a casual name-drop among security personnel – constitutes a real endorsement, whether borne of cynical politics or spousal loyalty. It’s not even entirely certain that she was name-dropped at all. The report is based on anonymous sources.

At this juncture, we all need to take a deep breath. This election is four years away. Four. Even in the United States, with its years-long presidential campaigns, this would be premature speculation. There are other, more pressing elections happening right now on the continent. Lesotho, for instance, votes today. It’s unsurprising that this has garnered little attention. In fact, the country receives very little international media attention except in the form of poverty porn that stresses how horrible, destitute and AIDS-ridden Lesotho is. And as Zachary Rosen reports at Africa is a Country,

Lesotho politics has been far from mundane as of late. In February of this year, the Prime Minister of Lesotho, Pakalitha Mosisili, formed a new political party called the Democratic Congress (DC), taking most members of parliament with him. With the formation of this new party, Mosisili effectively broke away from the party he had led for 15 years, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). In his stead, former Minister of Communications, Mothetjoa Metsing, has taken the reins of the LCD. A third major party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), is another breakaway from the LCD led by veteran politician Tom Thabane….Further controversy was stoked when the DC party was accused of holding campaign materials owned by the LCD in 19 constituencies across the country… Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) responded with a one-week campaign ban for the DC in the 19 offending constituencies, an order that the DC party flat out ignored without consequence.

Plus, as Jacobs continues, there is real reason to be excited about the outcomes of these elections:

Despite the controversies, this year’s National Assembly contest has been marked by massive voter engagement with an especially strong showing for young and first time voters. Rallies, famo musicperformances and to a lesser extent, social media, have been used to generate support for parties and candidates. Key issues that affect the majority of Basotho include: employment, agricultural investment, union wage negotiations, access to education and labor mobility to and from South Africa. Because no party wants to resort to forming a coalition government with their rivals, competition for voters’ allegiance has been rather intense.

In other words, the Lesotho elections have all of the democratic fervor of the so-called “Arab Spring” that has so energized the Western press, and none of the media attention. Nor does Lesotho have much strategic value to countries trying to expand their military presence across the continent. Countries like, say, the United States. Not only is Lesotho not a Middle Eastern country; it’s also not an African country that the US cares about.

And what, precisely, does an African country need to draw the attention of Western governments and media? Well, Uganda is a good case in point. The country has nowhere near the military capabilities of neighbor, Kenya, but it is still a strategically important one for the US. First, there is the matter of the massive oil reserves, which some experts say rival those in Saudi Arabia. As the US tries to maintain its influence in the Middle East, it has vested interest in deepening its influence in other oil rich states willing to trade meaningful sovereignty for military aid and US interventionism. It may also be worth mentioning that Uganda receives more military aid from the US than any state other than Israel. Not bad for a very poor country with real military weaknesses and grand ambitions of major political influence on the continent.

Sure, the US public is a bit tired of warmongering all over the place, but we’re also easily manipulated by the media. If we’re told that this project is vital to bringing Joseph Kony (aka “the world’s worst human rights abuser”) to justice, it doesn’t take much to get us on board. This happens because we are not just ill-informed, but utterly naïve – even childlike – when it comes to analyzing the self-interested motivations of, well, almost all of what we call “foreign policy” or “diplomacy.” That, we’ve decided, is the realm of state leaders and academics.

The media establishment knows us pretty well. It knows that simplistic – sensationalized – stories sell in America. We’re not so great with nuance. This is why we were so sold on the idea, for example, that the Rwandan genocide was the result of “ancient ethnic hatreds” rather than geopolitical context. It’s also how we learned that failed state Somalia failed mainly because of its hordes of angry terrorists obsessed with killing Americans. And it’s how we came to learn that all African children have distended bellies and flies on their faces all day. It’s also how we learned from (the ever-obtuse) Nicholas Kristof that most African women suffer from “female genital mutilation” and that FGM poses the greatest threat to women on the entire continent. Pesky mundane things like, oh, malaria or poverty, aren’t likely to please audiences or play well as entertainment, even if they do kill more women every year. The fact that only a small percentage of African women, in a contained region of the continent, ever actually experience FGM doesn’t matter because facts and context never really matter to us when we talk about this perceived monolith we call “Africa.”

It’s not that US media didn’t realize there was a politically significant election happening today in Lesotho. It’s that Lesotho is too small and insignificant to warrant our attention, and in any case, a tiny country with a burgeoning civil society? That’s never going to sell in the United States. If our uncritical engagement with media is any indication, we’re not even particularly engaged with our own.

2 thoughts on “How Western Pundits Decide What Is Newsworthy in “Africa”

  1. Correction: the author of the words from (the outstanding) Africa is a Country on Lesotho is Zachary Rosen.

  2. I agree with the writer where he say that African dictators are gaming the American system. You just have to look at the peacekeeping operation in Somalia. Uganda and Burundi are the biggest participants in that operation, both US funded. But both these countries are failed states more or less. They are available to do what the west wants and for this reason they are accommodated.This may be a disservice to the American taxpayer.

    Where i disagree with the writer is where he says that the Rwandan genocide was NOT a product of historical hatreds. because it was. If today the English started killing the Germans among them it would be hard to say where their differences of the Second World war ended and the new atrocities began.
    African politics today is tribal; a deadly game of “its our time to eat”

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