Africa Doesn’t Have An Image Problem; It Has A Reality Problem; Plus The Story of Rwanda’s ‘Small’ Money And How The World Doesn’t Owe Us Anything

Africa in the early 1940s (Gbaku)

‘I said to myself that he must be from a corrupt oil or mineral rich African country like Angola or Equatorial Guinea. The country, I said to myself, must also be a dictatorship. Diplomats from honest and democratic countries with a vibrant free press don’t wear $2,400 Clive Christian No.1 perfumes’

 Recently I was in Paris for a conference on “media after Wikileaks”. During my panel I said I and a couple of colleagues spent days locked away reading the US diplomatic cables leaked by the whistleblower site Wikileaks when we laid our hands on them – fairly early, by the way.

That what most readers all over the world who followed the sensational stories about torture in Afghanistan and Iraq; First Ladies with plastic surgeries gone so bad they couldn’t smile; and the world’s c

orrupt politicians derived from the cables might not have realised, is that these stories comprised only a tiny portion of the cables.I said that contrary to the impression created by the media, most of the leaked cables were about mundane stuff like traffic jams, baseball games in Japan, poor harvests in Africa, and so on. However, this ordinary material revealed more about how big powers use information, than the more dramatic political material. Then I said, in passing, that in the materials I read, the scandals and juicy political were perhaps no more than 10 per cent.It was time for questions. A short, bald, stocky man in a fine suit stood up. He introduced himself as a diplomat from Angola. I had noticed him when he walked in – late, of course.

He was wearing very expensive perfume. Because he smelt terribly good and pricy, quite a few people noticed, and gave him cryptic looks.

He sat directly in fron

t of me. I said to myself; “ he must be from a corrupt oil or mineral rich African country like Angola or Equatorial Guinea”. The country, I said to myself, must also be a dictatorship. Diplomats from honest and democratic countries with a vibrant free press don’t wear $2,000 Clive Christian No.1 perfumes.After about five minutes, he dosed off.

So, here he was nearly two hours later. He said I had just argued that African news comprises only 10 percent of western media coverage (I had said no such thing, I had referred to the proportion of US leaked cables that were gossipy). He then plunged into the old story of western media bias, and lambasted them for only portraying Africa as a primitive continent plagued by poverty, war, famine, and corruption. There were great things happening in Mother Africa, he proclaimed, and they deserved to be covered. The western media must end this conspiracy to keep Africa down.

An African sister in the back supported him, and amplified the injustices Africa suffers at the hands of western media.

Shongololo Equatorial Guinea

Shongololo Equatorial Guinea (Wikipedia)

When the good man said he was from Angola, I smiled. I had guessed right earlier in the morning. I took the generous view that he might have drifted and only vaguely heard my last remarks, so he didn’t figure that I was talking about Wikileaks. I politely replied, although I had sworn long ago never to get involved in this debate about “negative media coverage of Africa”.

Yes, the western media does often paint a negative picture of Africa. But they don’t owe us. Every media serves its own people, and a part of that is often about stereotyping others, in order to make your folks feel good about themselves.

I remember a Kampala newspaper two years ago writing that the Central Business District of Nairobi, Nairoberry it called the city, was so crime-riddled that the area Stanley Hotel Sarova (almost directly opposite my office window) is deserted by 5pm. The truth is that the area around The Stanley never closes, it is a 24-hour operation. In fact a report on the decline of crime in Nairobi since 2003 that was released later, found that Nairobi’s CBD had one of Africa’s lowest crime rates. Hard to believe, if one is still stuck to the image of Nairobi as Nairoberry.

Even more outrageous, a respectable Kenyan newspaper ran a story about nightlife in Kampala. It said that the only place with cold beer in Kampala was the third rate Tickles in the suburbs. The writer was biased, because Tickles is a Kenyan outfit. But the story passed into print. Not even an idiot would believe that The Sheraton, Serena Hotels, and all the fancy joints in Kampala didn’t have cold beer. It is also a fact that Ugandans drink more cold beer than Kenyans.

Enough said. This, in the media of countries that are next-door neighbours!

More seriously, then, one of the problems is that the countries that complain about very bad coverage by international media don’t allow a free press at home. Angola has one of the worst press freedom records in Africa, yet these corrupt mineral-rich dictatorships are the ones with the money to do an African Al Jazeera or China’s CCTV, but they can’t – except whine.

South Africa is rich, is a democracy, and can do an African Al Jazeera. However, it can’t because it is still trapped in post-apartheid petty-mindedness. For as long as black South Africans continue to compensate for the indignities of apartheid with a superior attitude toward other Africans, they will never develop a truly pan-African mindset or a continental broad

caster. That’s one reason the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) tried to play that role and failed.The biggest pan-African media player is South Africa’s MultiChoice, owned by the Naspers conglomerate. Naspers is owned by white South Africans. It seems having been the dominant and oppressor group for long, white South Africans have less of a hang up dealing with the rest of Africa than our black brothers and sisters.

In the 1980s when this debate about the western media’s lousy coverage of the Third World broke out, Qatar, which gave us Al Jazeera, was still a largely primitive dusty little nation. China was in the grip of old-style communism.

Today, CCTV is cleaning house in Africa. It set up in Nairobi, from where it will do an African current affairs and news broadcast, and raided local TV stations, leaving one of them of them on the brink of collapse. The word goes that when they invite journalists for an interview, they first give them a tour of their Nairobi offices and studios. By the time the tour is done, the journalists have said “YES”—because compared to what other, otherwise very good stations, offer in Kenya, the CCTV studio are from another planet. The Kenyan stations have either been unable, or are unwilling, to fight to keep their people.

And, of course, there is Al Jazeera now. It is setting up a Kiswahili Channel based out of Nairobi, and it too boldly trawls the media market, picking the best offering of talent at will.

Once, Africa had the Pan-Africa News Agency (PANA) to tell our side of the story to the world. The thing was run down. Some years ago, immediately after the Organisation of African Union (OAU) was buried and the supposedly more forward-looking African Union (AU) was formed to replace it, African leaders decided that enough was enough, and PAN

A should be boosted.At one of their summits, they discussed PANA, and countries pledged money to revamp it. Big rich nations like Nigeria, promised millions of dollars. The smallest pledge came from tiny Rwanda. If my memory serves me well, Rwanda promised something like $175,000. Kigali was seen as a joker and virtually mocked out of the room.

A year later, the only cheque that PANA had got was Rwanda’s $175,000. To this date, it is not clear whether any of the countries that promised millions, paid even a penny. Rwanda, in the end, had the last laugh. That is Africa for you.

However, the biggest reason I don’t have much time for all the griping about how the rest of the world covers Africa, comes from watching our own TV channels. In Uganda, the semi-state Bukedde TV, is hugely popular. Large crowds gather to watch its “news” programme — dedicated to rape, murder, beheading, witchcraft, and adultery.

In Kenya, you get endless minutes of politicians foaming at the mouth vilifying their opponents; witchcraft (you can’t run away from witchcraft, and in Nigeria it is a national staple of the media); killings over land; men mounting neighbour’s goats; suicide; murder, name it. For as long as this is the best our own TVs have to offer, I would rather watch CNN’s “Inside Africa”.

Richard Dowden, tackles   this Africa image problem in his wonderful book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”. He argues that Africa does not have an image problem. It has a reality prob lem. There is nothing wrong with the mirror. If we change the reality, that is what the mirror will show.

And so we go back to Angola…by way of Kenya. On March 11, there was a terrorist bomb attack at Machakos bus station in Nairobi. Three people were killed, and over 20 injured.

The government blamed Somalia’s Al Shabaab militants for the attack. However, Al Shabaab denied having a hand in the attack two days later.

Al-Jazeera Tour

Al-Jazeera Tour (Sugar Cubes)

CNN got itself in trouble with Kenyans over its coverage of the story. Other than calling it a “terrorist attack” or “bomb attack”, the American network painted the grenade blasts in Nairobi as “violence in Kenya”. The story gave the impression that the attack was a continuation of the 2008 post-election violence.

Kenyans took to Twitter in their hundreds to attack CNN’s silliness and inaccuracies.CNN correspondent in Kenya good old David McKenzie,  apologised and said CNN was taking down the video of the report.Not the big victory it would have been if CNN had given an institutional apology, but it was still a small sweet win. The lesson here is not that Africans’ complaints about bad

western coverage will only be better heard through action, not sobbing at seminars.Above all, though, we need to heed Ivana Trump’s call: “Don’t Get Mad. Get Even”. That’s partly what the Al Jazeeras of this world have done. In the past the Americans have been so incensed at Al Jazeera, they bombed the network’s offices in Afghanistan and Iraq.

However, if this had been Angola, there wouldn’t have been a successful Twitter campaign against CNN, because a year ago the iron-fisted government of Eduardo dos Santos, in a bid to crack down on a digital opposition campaign, cracked on IT use. It passed a law defining as terrorism any “electronic message” sent with the intent of endangering the function of the state institutions. The law had a chilling effect on social media use, and you don’t find the kind of freewheeling Twitter and Facebook use in Angola, that you do in Kenya, Nigeria, or South Africa.

Ultimately, we are our worst enemies.

© / twitter@cobbo3

23 comments on “Africa Doesn’t Have An Image Problem; It Has A Reality Problem; Plus The Story of Rwanda’s ‘Small’ Money And How The World Doesn’t Owe Us Anything

  1. activevoicelingua
    March 22, 2012 at 2:20 am #

    Thanks for you always incisive articles. I have always craved for engaging journalism and in my opinion, you can’t do this on the major newspaper. I think Africa is hungry for your type of writing. I am just wondering whether it is possible to extend this to print or to expand to have similar topics.

    You are my hero.

  2. Bilal Dadar
    March 22, 2012 at 7:34 am #


  3. fazil
    March 22, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    that cnn mentality abt africa,sikin,colour in da face we are going to erase on twitter

  4. mmnjug
    March 22, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    My take is that, if we can open our borders to all our African brothers and sisters……..that can change a lot. I doubt if there is a continent that has countries so closed up within their boundaries than Africa.

    If we can’t start there, even the trade blocs will have problems….!!

    • George Nalugala (@geonal)
      March 22, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

      mmnjug, There is a problem with opening borders to just about anyone. You see, our African people are still on the climb of civilization. Some of the wrong things that happen, are learning-curve mistakes, some just due to ignorance. And we are ever excited by new, strange things and people. We kill ourselves with guns and bombs, we wear $2500 perfumes, when the President of France or USA does not… We are like a child that has seen TV for the very first time – uncontrollably excited. Closed borders are useful under such circumstances, otherwise we get the Armenian Artur Brother-types coming in here and becoming our ‘heroes’, even marrying off the national flowers!

      • mmnjug
        March 23, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

        The economic and personal benefits of open borders far much outweigh the fears you are raising.

        I still stand for open borders…free movement of people and capitals.

      • KenT
        March 27, 2012 at 9:20 am #

        Quick question, what do those borders actually mean? and why do we defend that illusion called an African border? do you know how and why they got to be created? and why do you defend them? Bytw I hear that Kenyan goat needs a visa to go into Tanzania and also during the Masai mara migrations the reason that there is a huge herd is because of the Visa delay at the Namanga border

        A wise man has been reported as saying that, “The problem with the African man, is not merely the white man, but the ignorance of the African man on the African man. If only Africans could take some time and learn their real history”.

        Movement should be free

  5. Moses Amone
    March 22, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    CO, I think you forgot to mention Ghana and Uganda in the final lap of the 25 Kilometer race you just set. I will be quick to mention though that Kaguta’s son is trying to hew that in Uganda as much as he can! Kudos

  6. Daniel Ongera Nyairo
    March 22, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    Is it so expensive to start a PANAFRICAN media house?But again,to most African leaders media is unnecessary evil.By the way,CNN through Inside Africa by Eric Bernet seems to have decided to portray Africa in a positive light

  7. Emmanuel Pacoto
    March 23, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Great article, African leaders create the negative image that is beamed in the Western Media. Look at Wade in Senegal, he had to figit with the law to remain in office, Museveni did the same thing in Uganda, an ailing 86 year old Mugabe is heading the same road. Look at the corruption these governments preside over, look at the media oppression. The Western media does not have to make up stories, they just have to report what is happening as they see it. They retain the right to choose what stories will help sell their companies. If writing about corruption in Uganda will help them sell more copies and corruption is ture to be prevailing in Uganda, so be it.

  8. Akaliza Gara
    March 25, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    “Rwanda, in the end, had the last laugh. That is Africa for you.” … or as I like to see it, that is Rwanda for you. Very interesting article.

  9. NSsera
    March 26, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

    Could this argument apply to most of the businesses African. Probably we could look at the successful media houses as excellent business models.

  10. Simon Gould
    March 30, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

    This old aged vilification of the Western media’s so called “conspiracy to keep Africa down” by only reporting negative news is becoming seriously stale. (Probably a bit like that Angolan diplomat’s expensive perfume after a few hours!!). Sure, certain outfits like CNN and Sky regularly make a mess of things when trying to keep their domestic audiences interested in Africa, but I wonder how all those African reporters who now work for the BBC World Service must feel when they too find themselves inadvertently classified as part of the “biased Western media”? As a matter of fact, the BBC in particular has now become so politically correct in its attempts at trying to give a more balanced view of African current affairs that it often borders on the mundane!!

  11. Kirimi Nelson Mburugu
    March 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    This is a great article for us to realise that we are our own problem we have to make our stories but as long as we have to watch mexican soaps and Nigerian witchcraft movies…. yes am better off watching boomerang with my son!

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      April 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

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  15. Edgar mwanguhya
    April 2, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    Coo,I knew u were good,didn’t think u were this much as this was a chance read for me,it has amazed to u ndugu

  16. IanKatusiime
    August 26, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    This is a good article. But we need to clear some things here. There is a misconception that the nightly Bukedde news is perhaps the most popular programme in Uganda. But the thing is that there are so many more popular programmes on other stations that Ugandans always “react” to on social media platforms. eg Andrew Mwenda’s NewsNight if that can be any metric for “popularity”.

    Then in as much as the Bukedde news is popular, it is also fact that a significant number of people don’t even watch Bukedde at all. I personally do not even watch Bukedde at all, that is not meant to take away anything from its mass appeal.

    True our media is filled with a number of inaccurate and grossly exaggerated stories. But this is not typically
    African or to say that it is something for which we should take a kicking. Media world make errors and often take a beating for it. CNN is criticised by Americans themselves for a variety of reasons including inaccuracies, factual errors, stereotyping or even “shallow and pointless stories”. So is the NYTimes, Washington Post, Guardian, Telegraph.

    Besides it is not like American media do not showcase ‘blonde’ shows. I surely do not need to point out the plethora of reality shows that have cult followings across the US and the globe.

    Recently there was a major scandal when a Rolling Stone writer fabricated a story about a rape incident on a university campus, something that caused humongous controversy.

    I admit as a continent, and more precisely as Uganda we have a lot of cleaning up to do but the mess on our hands is not typically African.



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