Members of the newly-appointed government in the West African state of Burkina Faso. The country has undergone strikes and army mutinies over the last few weeks aimed at toppling Blaise Compaore., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Africa: Uprising in Burkina Faso - Why No Cameras?
5 May 2011
Commenting on the Western media's preference towards coverage of particular uprisings across North Africa, Tendai Marima asks 'what makes Burkina Faso's crisis so un-newsworthy that it is easily swept under the news pile?'
When most major international news networks finally caught up with the final climactic moments of the Tunisian revolution, it seemed as though, between racing to get last-minute flights to Tunis and playing catch-up with other news agencies that had been reporting on Tunisia since December, the world's major media players made a collective 'never again' resolution to never or try not to ignore any developing story again.
Having gotten over the failure to cover the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from day one, Algeria, Libya and Egypt all jostling to take centre stage in popular uprisings were brilliant opportunities for a media that had missed out to cover up. In the end, Egypt proved ripe for revolution and so for 18 days, in spite or in remembrance of 800 civilian casualties, the Egyptian people successfully toppled the Mubarak regime.
As hundreds of thousands gathered in communal points all over Egypt chanting down Mubarak, to a far lesser extent similar popular protests went down in Cameroon, Angola, Gabon and Burkina Faso. All of these received marginal coverage. Even Côte d'Ivoire was at one point was rightly dubbed 'the forgotten war'.
It did not fit the media template of a sexy, tech-savvy, populist revolution, as that which had been constructed of Egypt. Instead Côte d'Ivoire had the uncomfortable but familiar look and feel of a Rwanda genocide-lite. It was a messy, bloody struggle for power between rebel and patriot factions in a country most educated people outside of Africa would struggle to find on a map.
Côte d'Ivoire, the world's largest cocoa producer and native home of soccer stars Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou and Yaya Touré has the misfortune of being a country with little global influence and of lesser strategic importance than Egypt or Libya to the (mostly anglophone) countries that have historically determined which international news stories are to be prioritised.
And now that the French troops have assisted Alassane Ouattara in deposing the resistant Laurent Gbagbo from the presidency, most of the TV crews and cameras have gone. Field correspondents and NGOs continue to file dispatches of fighting in the streets of Abidjan and ongoing atrocities committed in the forests in the western side of the country, but the world's eyes have moved on. Not to Burkina Faso next door, but elsewhere, where more thrilling stories of revolution beckon.
But what makes Burkina Faso's crisis so un-newsworthy that it is easily swept under the news pile?
The beginnings of the crisis in the little West African nation parallel events in tiny Tunisia where it took an individual catalyst in a small town to set things off. On 20 February, in an industrial town called Koudougo, bigger than Sidi Bouzid, a student named Justin Zongo was taken into police custody after an alleged dispute with a female classmate.
A few days later, Zongo was pronounced dead and according to official police reports, the cause of death was meningitis. His family and friends rejected this and claimed Zongo's death was due to police brutality. This led to a series of protests by students in four towns, Koudougo, Koupéla, Pouytenga and Po, and they were met with violence by the police.
In an effort to contain the demonstrations, the government temporarily closed all schools and the national university. Although Compaoré pleaded for peace and national dialogue, a death toll of six protesters sent a different message to the student movement. The Africa Report states that the Association Nationale des Etudiants Burkinabé (ANEB)'s student representative, Mahamadou Fayama, the movement wanted to 'denounce the climate of terror that the police have created'.
The student chants of 'Blaise dégage' and 'Tunisia is in Koudougo', urging Compaoré to step down from 23-year rule, spread to junior army officers in the military barracks of Lamizana. On 22 March the courts ruled against five soldiers for assaulting a young designer whom they claimed had made sexual advances towards another soldier's wife.
Their disgruntled military colleagues took the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, and went on a rampage. Although the government tried to assuage the gun-toting military men by pardoning and releasing their counterparts, by the end of March the spirit of mutiny had gone viral. Scores of junior soldiers demanded their salaries, which as yet had been unpaid by the government. The mayor's home was vandalised; in some parts of the capital, market stalls and shops were looted and in the east of the country more soldiers joined the uprising as well as members of the Presidential Guard. Speaking to L'Evénement, a bi-weekly local paper, one soldier expressed a dejectedness at the heart of the mutiny which was likely felt by many soldiers:
'I just returned from Darfur. Our contingent has been deployed since no other country wanted to go, that is to say, 7 km from the Chadian border. This is the corridor for many rebels in both countries. We are the Burkinabe who have managed to secure the area. We have built in less than six months roads, bridges and schools. Everyone congratulated us for that. When we go, people applaud us. The UN congratulated us. That we came home and we do not care about us. First, they are our superiors that cut money from our mission. Following is a mayor [of Ouagadugou] who tells traders deal with us as "military thieves." You see that, it hurts.'
So far none of Compaoré's pleas to restore order have worked and the mutiny's snowball effect continues to grow. There are reports that, despite the soldiers' lawlessness in some cities, the youths and some traders have united with revolting army officers. In Koudougo on 18 April, the youths are said to have set fire to the ruling party's local offices, while by contrast in the capital, market traders burnt several government buildings in retaliation for acts of vandalism by state troops. On 23 April it was reported that the soldiers upped their game and seized the southern town of Po, which is home to a state military school where Compaoré himself trained.
In a more hardened response, Compaoré has reacted to the military-led dissent by imposing a nationwide night-time curfew and firing the whole government, including the army chief.
Last week he appointed Burkina's ambassador to France, Luc Adolphe Tiao, as prime minister, while he doubled as president and minister of defence. True to dictator form, Compaoré, like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, has blamed foreign conspiratorial forces for the unrest and he has gotten rid of everyone else, except the problem, himself and his corrupt system.
Appointing himself minister of defence when he is already supreme chief commander of the armed forces adds another fancy title to his name and gives the impression he's a superhuman who can juggle three cabinet roles. But superhuman ability or not, a display of megalomaniac tendencies will not heal the rift between the army and the government, or quieten feelings of resentment among oppositional regiments.
If Compaoré's cosmetic changes and payouts to the soldiers prove unsatisfactory, now that the opposition and civil society have called for nationwide demonstrations on 30 April they would do well to join forces with the mutineers and instil some sense of order and discipline so that the ousting of Compaoré and not looting from civilians becomes every protester's goal. Such a union would ensure the movement reaches the critical mass needed to topple the regime.
But should Compaoré restore complete order, the eight weeks (and counting) of nationwide unrest will make it much harder for him to prevent his departure in the future should things escalate again. The continual playing out of mutiny and retaliation on state property signifies a loss of fear of repercussions for damaging state property and it also symbolises a loss of control and authority by the former army captain who has previously used the army to crush unrest like the food riots of 2008.
This dramatic story of Africa's top cotton producer is deserving of more attention, especially in the context of unrest on the African continent as a whole. All of the protests, from Cape to Cairo, with their own distinct set of local conditions, are linked to food security, economic instability and political dispossession - be it by ballot or dictatorship.
There is a widespread feeling of continental discontent, but international and national pundits are so busy putting out possible fires of revolt in 'sub-Saharan Africa' with their analyses that the Burkina uprising has gone by largely unnoticed, and yet in two months mutineering soldiers and youth have stirred up serious trouble for the Compaoré regime - and possibly regionally too. Should Compaoré fall, it will have a significant impact on the fledgling administration of his neighbouring ally, Alassane Ouattara in Côte d'Ivoire, which Compaoré played a key diplomatic role in ensuring.
In different ways, masses of people are mounting serious challenges to totalitarian hegemonies and the iniquity of global capital that may lead to a new political dispensation, in successful revolutions, and at the very least for all countries, uprisings, including unsuccessful ones, reshape the role of the citizen in a political landscape as an empowered figure.
At the level of the collective citizen, mass protests enable people to realise that together they, not their brutal governments, have the potential to become agents and actors of the political and social change they desire. The wider the gap grows between the globe's rich and poor due to increasing food prices or governments selling off land and water resources to Western corporates further impoverishing native people, the more likely popular unrest by an emboldened people will continue.
Some would be inclined to argue that Burkina Faso has been forgotten because the international media is biased towards representation of Africa south of the Sahara, and the ignoring or misrepresentation of the Rwanda genocide is the most cited example. But perhaps it is more complex than a simple Africa south of the Sahara bias; it's a bias against or in favour of certain African countries that has been constructed through namely, a country's geo-political and economic importance to the West and also through a history of colonial relations in which reader and viewer familiarity and association with former colonies is generated.
Even for alternative Western and non-Western newcomers to the game, there is pressure to compete with or take the lead over more established anglophone networks for essential and accurate coverage of one event over another. For example, because of its relation to America and France, the attempted return of a former leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, exiled in South Africa, to return to the Caribbean island of Haiti was more widely covered than the same attempt, a month before by another former leader, Marc Ravalomanana, exiled in South Africa to return to the tropical island of Madagascar, off the south-eastern coast of Africa.
Again, compare the near-instant coverage of the 12 April uprising in Swaziland with the delayed coverage of Burkina. With the headquarters of most major South African media in Johannesburg and the regional base of international media agencies like the BBC and CNN, coverage of Swaziland was guaranteed. Manzini, where the 12 April protests took place, is only four hours by road from Johannesburg. Swaziland is a former British colony and so there is a familiar narrative in the anglophone media of the British-educated King Mswati III, whose love of luxury cars, palaces and women is well-known.
With a harem of 13 (soon to be 14) wives 'Africa's last absolute monarch', as he's often described, presides over a tiny landlocked kingdom where political opposition is harshly repressed and the traditional divine right of kings is revered. Perhaps if French-speaking Burkina Faso had bare-breasted, grass-skirted women walking around in traditional dress like in Swaziland, the cameras may have raced over from Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. But seriously, if Ban Ki-moon, Jean Ping and Nicolas Sarkozy were genuinely interested in advancing humanitarian efforts towards peace and democracy in all of West Africa, they could have issued symbolically meaningful statements of condemnation to bring more attention to the protests in Burkina Faso while the struggle for Côte d'Ivoire raged on.
Similar to Swaziland, the slightest hint of a fallout between the opposition and Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party in Zimbabwe is guaranteed widespread coverage and analysis, whereas the political musical chairs currently being played in Burkina by Compaoré in order to quell mutiny is of little interest to many major international media organisations, including South Africa. To their credit, AP, the BBC, Bloomberg, France 24 and Reuters have consistently filed reports on Compaoré's crisis, but most of these are factual reports littered with the odd in-depth analysis or commentary from key figures or detailed first-hand accounts from ordinary citizens caught up in this political crisis. There are few photographs and little footage coming out of Burkina Faso, so it's difficult for one to get a visual sense of what is happening on the ground.
NOT JUST BURKINA
The Guardian's 2010 list of most tagged countries confirms to some extent that history of familiarity with a place guarantees coverage. Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe got tagged more times than the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Sudan. Possibly because of its hosting of the World Cup, South Africa had 547 tags, outranking earthquake-stricken Haiti, which had 436 tags. Egypt had 219, while Zimbabwe had 144 tags, and yet the DRC had a paltry 124 tags, Sudan had 122 and Somalia even less at 113. All three are among the most unstable African countries of 2010 and yet they ranked lower than the World Cup host South Africa. The war-stricken Congo is one of the world's suppliers of raw materials for mobile and computer technology and ironically constitutes just over a fifth of the 604 articles on Apple. This is not a criticism of the Guardian as the paper does provide some of the best and insightful international news coverage, but these tags are unfortunately a skewed quantitative reflection of coverage patterns and the consumerist nature of public interest.
Saying this with all flippancy intended, the formula is simple. Reports of anti-British and homophobic comments by the African dictator everyone loves to hate, and shark attacks in Sharm el-Sheik make catchy headlines. Never-ending sagas of jungle wars and mass rapes, unless involving powerful countries, do not. Or unless they're packaged as humanitarian causes fronted by celebrities and award-winning journalists like George Clooney and Nicholas Kristof. Their combined interest in the Save Darfur campaign, malaria awareness and referendum for north-south separation ensured Sudan received frequent coverage in the New York Times.
Unfortunately, no similar twin-set of movie star and scribe of Clooney's and Kristof's stature have permanently adopted the DR Congo or Somalia as their primary cause. Although one of the aims of international news is to appeal to as broad a global audience as possible, how broad is our interest and genuine our humanity as people if we suffer war and compassion fatigue towards stories on the DRC, Somalia and Sudan?
But now with all these revolutions and uprisings going on, places like the DR Congo are a distant tragedy. Despite the exceedingly valuable coverage of the uprisings by some news networks, there is an underlying sense of competition within the media to see who can land the best, exclusive interview or provide the most comprehensive coverage. In the face of such fierce competition, taking a few moments in between protest broadcasts to ask the world to remember the 5.4 million (and rising) Congolese dead since 1998 or to take a serious look at Compaoré's megalomanic scheming in Burkina Faso wouldn't be a suicidal gamble with the ratings. Events in Africa and the Middle East shouldn't be placed in competition with each other; what's happening in Nigeria, Syria or Libya can share the spotlight with many other untold or under-reported stories. It's a question of willingness to pluralise news stories and cover unfamiliar terrain.
Joy Dibenedetto, a broadcast executive and founder of alternative news site, Hum News, reports that in 2009 research conducted by Hum News found that there are 237 countries or territories in the world, and the world's largest news organisations report from only 121 countries or territories. Out of 237 global locations, 116 are not covered. If true, that's just under 50 per cent of the world's stories potentially out of mainstream media focus - almost 50 per cent. Allow that to sink in.
While there are very good reasons to be excited about how social media is changing the face of the news, what about those who can't tweet about a parallel rise in grain prices and local discontent in rural Kenya or text FrontlineSMS to say a 14 year old girl has been raped by a soldier in Poa, Burkina Faso, because such a platform for crisis mapping does not exist? And even if it did, would anybody take notice? As digital technology increasingly shapes the future of news, the non-mainstream stories from lesser-known countries off the social media network radar risk becoming further marginalised.
As necessary as it is to cover unfolding crises in this moment of popular uprisings, perhaps there is also a competition for dominance in coverage of the big revolution stories to present a more racy, more in-depth and more radical story than other media competitors. Perhaps also at this time, covering small protests elsewhere would disrupt and divert resources from the 'Arab World's 1848 moment' narrative being manufactured in the studios and newsrooms of television stations and newspapers as more and more people in the Middle East and North Africa courageously rise up against brutal dictatorships.
Apart from the many valid and not so valid political and commercial reasons for preferential coverage of some stories over others, its true that 'Africa needs an Al Jazeera of it is own' to tell the continent's forgotten stories. But in addition to that dream is a more crucial demand that can be sooner met, namely that existing international media genuinely commit itself to new ways of telling everyone's stories, all the time, rather than competing to duplicate or better the popular stories.
Tendai Marima is a blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research interests include African literature, feminist theory and contemporary black presence in Europe.