Thinking through the American Media's Representation of West Africa
There is no doubt that many of the African continent's fifty-five nations face daunting challenges. At the end of March 2015, Nigeria elected a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year old former general and Moslem from the north of the country. Mr. Buhari will need to contend with Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group bent on establishing sharia law throughout the entire country (not just in the traditionally Muslim north). There are plenty of other tests that he will face: bringing the nation's ethnic groups together; cleaning up the Niger Delta region, which has been polluted by decades of oil extraction; addressing uneven infrastructure development; helping to alleviate poverty and lack of education; and fighting a system of patronage and corruption both within the government and the military.
No Africanist scholar or student of Africa would deny that Nigeria's tremendous potential as an economic leader is being compromised by these extreme challenges. It does need to be emphasized, however, that much of the American media's reporting on news events in Africa dramatically accentuates turmoil at the expense of progressive social achievement. Few Americans realize, for example, that Nigerian women work as attorneys, high-ranking government officials, business owners, and scholars. Few are aware that Nigeria has a very long tradition of valuing higher education and produces more postgraduates in a year than any other country in Africa (Achebe's university, the University of Ibadan, alone awards approximately 3,000 graduate degrees each year, according to Tunde Fatunde, writing in Nigeria's online newspaper The Sun).
Respected historians and critical theorists alike prefer to look at Africa's history according to the longue duree (over many centuries) rather than invoking specific events. The continent was subject to the trans-Atlantic slave trade for 450 years, which decimated entire regions, clans, and families. And, to this extraction of human beings from the continent, we must add the extraction of raw materials as well (see Patrick Bond, Looting Africa, 2013 and Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1981). Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) predicted that, after colonial domination had been superseded by independence, African leaders would merely replicate the oppressive tactics that they learned from their colonial rulers. To a large extent, Fanon's prediction has come true. Nigeria is a case in point. After independence was granted by Britain in 1960, the country struggled for decades with political instability caused by three major ethnic groups (the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the Hausa-Fulani) jockeying for political position, which resulted in numerous military coups and the 1966-1970 Nigerian Civil War.
What is often left out of this historical narrative is that Nigeria's borders were created during the Berlin Conference in 1884-85, in which the boundaries of countries on the continent were drawn by European powers, not by Africans themselves. Since the creation of Nigeria--a name coined by Lord Lugard's wife, meaning "a nation formed out of disparate peoples"--there has been a constant struggle to create political and social unity. Many have argued that a better solution would have been to create separate countries for each of the major ethnic groups. In such a case, the Nigerian Civil War in 1967-1970 would have been prevented.
But the American media rarely include information about the complex historical factors leading up to today's events. The result for us as readers and students of international affairs is that our line of vision is severely foreshortened, and oftentimes the information we receive sadly reinscribes a view of Nigeria, West Africa, and the continent itself as being regions in utter chaos, with the implication that it is solely the residents of these areas that are to blame. Think about it: if you don't know anything about the history leading up to contemporary events, you might be tempted to ascribe causality simply to the main actors in today's events.
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