Although the recent passing of former South African President and icon of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, has received virtual wall-to wall coverage in the media, the fact remains that conflicts and problems throughout Africa are still underreported. Indeed, over the past six decades, there appears to have been vigorous media coverage of conflicts that have occurred throughout the Middle East. These range from Iraq to Libya. Converesly, deadly conflicts that have raged throughout Africa have not seemed to have attracted nearly as much deserved attention. It must be stated that that many more lives have been lost in conflicts relating to Africa than those that have taken place throughout the Middle East. It would now be beneficial to look at the history of these two regions over the last century.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Western powers were already making inroads in their influence of Middle Eastern territory. Egypt had become a protectorate of the United Kingdom; the Ottoman Empire had certainly begun to decline. It should be noted that the Ottoman Empire effectively controlled the Middle East for approximately four hundred years. At the same time, the numerous European powers had commenced their colonization of Africa in earnest. Britain was fighting the Boers in South Africa. The French Empire began to colonize large swathes of Central Africa, alongside the German Empire.
Noably, the Zionist movement had already laid its foundations in Ottoman Palestine, purchasing land for Jewish settlement and cementing institutions designed to ensure a future National Home for the Jews. By 1914, the stage was set for the major European powers to go to war against one another via pre-existing alliances. The Ottoman Empire, allied with the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires, faced the British Empire, united with the French and Tsarist Russia. Ultimately, the British and French defeated the Ottomans, Germans and French, leading to a disintegration of the vast Ottoman control of the Middle East.
This inevitably led to the breakdown of a centuries-old exisitng order. States that existed before would come into being. The British and French would carve up former Ottoman territory amongst one another, and and make contradictory promises to the Arabs and Jews regarding the question of who would control the region that encompasses Israel today.This conflict has still clearly not ended.
At this stage in history, a very valuable natural resource- oil- would be found throughout the Middle East.This would make the region of geopilitical and strategic interest, whereas Africa could not offer such a natural resource in such large quantities.
The post Seond World War era saw a disengagement of colonial interestsin Africa by Western Empires and indeed the eventual demise of these Empires. This appears to have solidified that lack of interest that has been shown by Western media outlets in comparison to Middle Eastern conflicts. For example, in 1956, Israel alongside Britain and France would lauch an attack against Egypt partly as a result of guerilla attacks that emanated from Egyptial territory into Israel. It became known as the ‘Suez Crisis’. The Suez Canal, of course is an important maritime pathway that links Asia and Europe, being constructed in the mid 19th century. The canal was nationalized by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the then Egyptial President and caused substantial irritation in British and French governement circles. The Israelis, British and French thus formed an alliance and intitiated the invasion of the Sinai, however due to American pressure, they subsequently withdrew.
At this same period of time, Sudan had newly become a sovereign state, gaining independence from Britain. Secterian concerns were taken with seemingly little foresight; severe friction ensued due to rival clans and ethnicities being molded into one state. Essentially, it pitted the mainly Arab northern Sudan against sub- saharan Christian and animist Southern Sudan. The northern half was considered to have gained more power and representation in government, ths serving as a catalyst to the first Sudanese civil war from 1955 to 1972, ending with the Addis Ababa Agreement. Throughout the duration of the conflict, approximately half a million lives were lost.
Peter Viggo Jakobsen, Associate Professor in the Department for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defense College, has noted that: ‘The media ignore most conficts most of the time.’ This would seem to imply that conflicts, particularly foreign conflicts with no strategic interest to the country in which a media outlet is based, struggle to interest the media.
Virgil Hawkins, is an Associate Professor at the Osak School of International Public Policy,Japan and an experienced NGO worker in the field in Africa. He has opined ‘Priority in coverage is clearly given to foreign situations in which a home country has a stake. As such, stories for which there is no home connection or angle may well be unlikely covered at all.’ The concept that conflicts are given media attention primarily when national interest is at stake is both serious and startling, as moral and humanitarian considerations are clearly not taken into account when deciding what news stories, in particular conflicts, are newsworty.
Another major conflict to ravage Africa has been that of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It has roots in Rwanda and the genocide that took place there in the 1990s. After an independence struggle in the 1960s from Belgium, regions throughout the territory fought one another. Joseph Mobutu subsequently seized power in 1965, crushing rebellions and eventually unifying the nation, renaming it Zaire.
Mobutu, however, used the DRC’s vast natural resources to his own benefit, plundering wealth for himself and inner circle. Inevitably, this behaviour allowed his precarious position in power to falter and Rwanda’s genocide hastened his downfall. After the Hutu government collapsed in Rwanda, an estimated two million Hutus are believed to have fled to the DRC, hoping to aviod any reprisals of the Tutsis of Rwanda. Indeed, the Tutsi governemnt of Rwanda, backed by Uganda, overtook Kinshasa (the DRC capital) and reverted Zaire to the DRC. Laurent Kabila was installed as president. He failed to expel the Hutu militias that fled to Congo, and Rwanda subsequently sent a force to oust him as President. Kabila then requested aid from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola. The next few years saw these countries fight a proxy war in the DRC. These events ultimately led to what is considered Africa’s deadlisest conlict. Five million people would perish from starvation and disease, in addition to the fighting that took place on Congolese land. The number of individuals that died was enormous.
It is doubtful that the conflicts that have occurred throughout the Middle East since the Second World War have caused as many deaths as this one African conflict alone-including the deadly Iraq war of the 2000s, which is arguably the deadliest conflict the Middle East has seen in modern times, with estimates of up to a million dead from the invasion and subsequent civil strife.
It goes without saying that all deaths that take place in conflicts are tragic and should always be averted. However, an underreporting of such deaths in Africa is defintely a cause for concern to those who really care about humanitarian issues.
Indeed, a poignant example of the gulf of coverage afforded to Middle Eastern conflicts compared to African ones can be seen in a dissertation that I wrote on the subject, revealing that the amount of articles published by the four major broadsheet newspapers in Britian (The Times, Independent, Telegraph and Guardian) regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were 33,561 compared to 11,346 articles relating to conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur (Source:ProQuest). A clear disparity in the volume of articles can be seen here.
There is a moral imperative that the media recognize the lack of coverage relative to the gravity of conflicts that have occurred throughout Africa and second, raise the awareness of the problems that have and are continuing to afflict this troubled region. It remains to be seen when this will happen.
Hawkins, V. (2008) Stealth Conflicts. How the World’s Worst Violence is Ignored. Ashgate Publishing Ltf
www.proquest.co.uk (data analysed in April 2013).