The continent from another planet By William Bowles

3 August 2003

Have you noticed that events in Africa are reported in a contextual vacuum? And predictably, coverage in the press has been nothing short of scandalous. Either, it’s ‘warlords,’ ‘corruption,’ ‘tribalism,’ ‘humanitarian crisis,’ ‘failed state,’ or some combination of the above. As far as Western media coverage is concerned, Africa has no history that’s of any relevance to contemporary events aside that is, from some form of ‘self-inflicted failure,’ that is intrinsic to the ‘African mind.’

It’s only the obviously blatant hypocrisy of the West that finally got them to ‘take note’ of Liberia and toss a few headlines our way. Yet what will taking note of Liberia amount to? Yet more ‘Balkanisation’ Africa style? But we can be assured that economic exploitation will continue unabated as it did for example, in Angola throughout the entire conflagration from 1975 onwards, the oil fields protected by gangs of Western mercenaries, who ensured the uninterrupted flow of oil to feed the insatiable appetites of the freeways of the Western economies, while the US and Apartheid South Africa armed the conflict to counter ‘Soviet influence’ through its ‘proxy,’ Cuba.

And in the context of the overall state of the ‘dark’ continent, Liberia, with a population of around 2.5 million, is small potatoes for the West to take care of, so how come there is so much dilly-dallying? The press likes to continue putting out the story of the Somalia experience, where the Imperium, we are told, got a ‘bloody nose,’ and thus, is reluctant to get ‘bogged down’ in another interminable conflict ‘Africa style.’

The overall result has been to create an impression of a continent constantly on the edge of a catastrophe. Africa might as well be on another planet as far as the West is concerned. ‘Intervention’ is confined to ‘rescue’ operations, where the continent has constantly to be ‘saved from itself.’

From the excrable ‘Live Aid’ to ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the form of the supply of surplus Western food or the multi-national business of ‘aid’ that ultimately undermines entire economies and cultures, the victim status is maintained into an endless future of dependency.

Meanwhile, sucking the continent dry of of its vast storehouse of natural resources continues unabated, aided by advances in technology that make it possible to continue production in the midst of all but the most destructive of circumstances.

Today’s Independent on Sunday for example (03/08/03) has only one story on Liberia, buried away on page 18 that contains the following disinformation:

“Many Republicans feel the US is already thinly stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, while black Americans are calling for a muscular intervention.”

We are not told who the black Americans are, but it’s assumed that it’s those who have access to the media that represent the opinions of all black Americans. And what does the use of the term “muscular intervention” to describe how black Americans supposedly feel, tell us about the ingrained attitudes of the Independent’s Liberian reporter ‘on the scene’, Declan Walsh?

Or the following outrageous comment that creates the impression that West Africa is one big war zone:

“The Sierra Leoneans are among thousands of young gunmen who roam [W]est Africa in search of war, the product of Mr Taylor’s meddling in foreign conflicts.”

Not enough “big atrocities?”

The BBC for example, describes the “sudden interest” in Liberia as “What makes the fight in Liberia so fascinating?” (Broadcasting House, Radio 4, 03/08/03.) Fascinating? A strange choice of words to describe the tragedy. Another reporter on the same programme, when asked why the sudden interest says “It’s the sheer drama of the story.” Asked why no interest until now, another journalist tells us it’s because “There’s been no one big atrocity that stands out.” ‘News,” we are told, is what they are looking for.

A Reuters journalist tells us that the “reason” for the breakdown is that along with many other African countries, “It’s a state that has failed,” (we’re not told how or why) and that the various “[ethnic] groups don’t sit comfortably together,” although he does admit that increasing poverty has something to do with it. A representative of Medicins sans Frontieres tells us that there’s “too much unknown to explain,” and “a lot of catching up” to do. Human Rights Watch says it’s all the “amateur dictators” in Africa that are to blame (as opposed to the professional ones we have in Europe?).

Africa is too complicated

So essentially then, the story of Africa is too complicated for us to understand (perhaps it’s because of all those weird rituals that Africans have) and aside from the occasional “big atrocity”, Africa has, for the past 100 years or so, held no interest for us.

So aside from these racist and patronising comments, there is absolutely no analysis of what will happen after the ECOWAS force arrives and somehow separate the combatants (or “drugged up militia forces” as the Independent describes them). Are they also expected to rebuild a state that has been systematically destroyed over the past decades by foreign, that is, US, meddling? Contrast the coverage of Liberia with the acres expended on Yugoslavia, as it too, was systematically dismembered by foreign intervention, only in the case of Yugoslavia, it was NATO, not ‘drugged up militia” that did the dismembering.

Yet the increasing destabilisation of the poor countries through the economic policies of the West has created a dilemma. Unlimited occupation/recolonisation aka Iraq, is not an option open to the Imperium. Unlike empires of yore, compliance/complicity of a comprador class can no longer be guaranteed. Recolonisation on a global scale is clearly not an option. Obviously there are priorities that dictate where and when to assign available (military) resources and Liberia is not at the top of the list, if it’s on the list at all.

Yet media coverage reflects these concerns and at the same time, reveals the interlocked nature of the controlling political and economic classes, as the media spotlight swings from one situation to another. Who and why these decisions are made, is central to the understanding of the priorities, insofar as where they want the public to focus its gaze at any given time.

The spotlight only shifted to Liberia in large measure because the dominant culture was only too aware that to ignore it would create contradictions that its citizens might find odd, given the Imperium’s insistence on human rights and freedom etc, in other parts of the world.

But are we to simply remain passive onlookers, swayed by this and that, as the media moguls manipulate our concerns? Yet it is a reality in an age where the ‘news’ is a commodity to be passively consumed, even if on occasion, events in the real world that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with, intrude on the orderly consumption of the ‘news’. Our compassion and concern have to be directed into ‘safe’ areas, such as ‘humanitarian assistance’ else they run the risk of unleashing forces they cannot control.

And it is here that we see the relationship between form and content revealed. The two must forever be kept apart. No connection must be made between history and events as it is lived and experienced by the subject of the corporate gaze, and us the consumer, of lives that we are led to believe, that are not comparable to our own.

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