It's Time to Change the Africa Narrative, 21 February 2015
Ashish Thakkar, Founder of the Mara Group and the Mara Foundation argues that the Western media has outdated and incorrect beliefs about Africa.
I recently watched the BBC documentary, “Rwanda: The Untold Story” which first aired on October 1st, 2014. For those of us who have lived through the 1994 genocide, the documentary is quite puzzling. As a lifelong fan of the BBC, I was shocked by what appeared to be a lack of objectivity and even accuracy in this documentary.
I was twelve years old when the Rwandan genocide began on April 7th, 1994. Along with hundreds of others, my parents, sisters and I sought refuge at the Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali — re-imagined in Hollywood’s fictionalized account Hotel Rwanda. Although two decades have passed, the memories are still vivid. The barbaric events that took place during those 100 days still haunt me: extremists aided by violent gangs of killers slaughtering their neighbors, friends, and family members, and taking almost a million innocent lives. This account of African history, like many others has been reworked and retold in such a way that the line between fact and fiction has become blurred.
It’s one thing to have Hollywood re-render a major global event to make its scope and story fit the big screen, but it is something entirely different when a credible Western media organization attempts to rewrite African history. In “Rwanda: The Untold Story” the BBC repeats statistics with no basis in reality when referring to the number of people killed, choosing to feature two obscure academics who claim that there were only 200,000 Tutsi victims during the months of chaos. In contrast, the United Nations, African Union, Oxfam, and the International Tribunal on Rwanda have provided vast evidence to support the widely accepted estimate of 800,000 Tutsi lives taken. Can you imagine a greater indignity to victims and survivors of the genocide than the revisionist elimination of their deaths?
This documentary leads me to question, in broader terms, Western media outlets’ approaches to journalism on the African continent. Though there has been greater interest in the continent over the past decade, it seems that simple and even crackpot theories about life in Africa are offered more than airtime — they are given centre stage. Another case in point is the initially outlandish reporting of the ongoing Ebola crisis. The sensationalist coverage of Ebola that many Western media outlets have conformed to is the idea of Africans as a monolithic block of dangerously diseased people. While it is important to focus on the immediate crisis, initial coverage of the outbreak completely ignored the stories of the brave African health workers risking their lives to save thousands of their fellow citizens. The likes of CNN even mislabeled the Republic of Niger, a country of 17 million people, as Nigeria, a country of 180 million people, on a map. This all points to the West’s tendency to view Africa as an undifferentiated mass of suffering rather than a complex and diverse environment learning how to tackle the global challenges of the 21st century.
The perception of Nigeria in the West is that of corruption, rising Islamic extremism, and money scams; but the picture painted is distorted. The reality is that with its GDP of $510 billion, Nigeria is now the largest economy in Africa and the 24th largest in the world. Nigeria clearly faces challenges, as do all countries during these tumultuous economic and political times, but it seems that rather than recognize the efforts Nigeria has made to deal with its complex problems, a number of media outlets have continued to push the old and tired narrative of Nigeria as a nation doomed to fail. Personally, I have been a firm believer in Nigeria since my first visit 18 years ago. The growth and excitement within the country is reflective of our people’s entrepreneurial drive and vision. I am confident Nigeria will work through its challenges and prove to skeptics that Africa is capable and ready to lead the way.
In previous years, perhaps we had no choice but to accept a certain level of ignorance and misrepresented media coverage of Africa but, today, audiences on the continent and beyond demand more nuance, intelligence and balance.
It is the job of the media to scrutinize and analyze, but the public interest is not served well when this responsibility is twisted to perpetuate sinister stereotypes and peddle myths. Imagine if the time and money wasted by the BBC on genocide revisionism had been directed instead at telling the many real “untold stories” of Rwanda: the flourishing local businesses and SMEs, the attractive FDI opportunities, the advancement of regional and international trade, the increased economic and political empowerment of women, and leading innovative technology solutions.
Do Rwandans, Nigerians, and Africans in general ask too much when we expect the BBC and other Western media to apply the same ethical standards of reporting on Africa as they do in their own countries? No one wants the news to present an unnecessarily positive view of the world — just to report both the positives and negatives with nuance; and to avoid the kind of reckless sensationalism that has characterized reporting on the continent in the past. It’s time to change the African narrative once and for all.