Beyond the Acacia Tree: The Media and Boko Haram

by Tim Holmes

Like many British people, I can say with some confidence that I know next to nothing about Africa. I take no pride in this fact; it’s something I try at times to remedy; but a fact it remains. And it’s not difficult to work out why. I live in a country that refuses to take its historic—and ongoing—crimes against humanity seriously; whose media accord a tiny and dwindling portion of its coverage to the outside world; and whose parochial intellectual culture marginalises writers from the global south. On Saturdays, a friend and I used to play a game with the newspaper called ‘guess who’s on the cover of the Review section’. Would it be Martin Amis? Julian Barnes? Ian McEwan? More often than not, a guess for one of this tight-knit group of white, male, metropolitan intellectuals would turn out to be right.

Even when we take an active interest in Africa, we do so in the most stunningly patronising, stereotyped and ignorant ways. A breathtaking piece on the blog Africa Is A Country pointed out a fact we all know but no-one has ever mentioned: every book ‘about Africa’ (however tenuous that classification) has the same cover. A silhouetted acacia tree; the sun setting over the veld. An exoticised Western fantasy of Africa as arid wilderness, close to the elemental forces of nature. ‘In short’, the blog concludes,

the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.

Sometimes we turn this notional Africa into the passive, suffering object of Western beneficence. ‘Where nothing ever grows / No rain nor river flows’ as ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ put it—lines that deserve to be remembered as among the most crass and embarrassing ever written. And might be, if we noticed them, or even regarded them as a problem. In 2004, historian and then director of the World Development Movement Mark Curtis—who has cited Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o on the need to ‘decolonise the mind’—challenged the revival of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ for its inappropriate, stereotyped and simply false explanation of African poverty. For his pains, the Guardian portrayed him as a kind of oddball eccentric or crank. Try to set the record straight and you can be consigned to the margins of the margins.

Most of the time, though, we take no interest whatsoever—until a seemingly inexplicable, random outbreak of violence hits our screens, stripped of all context or explanation (even as the hugest, bloodiest ongoing conflicts are ignored). TV news is required to focus on what one ex-BBC journalist calls ‘the bang bang stuff’—a media environment in which, the Glasgow University Media Group notes, ugly views and assumptions about Africa are able to take root (to say nothing of Islam and the Middle East). We hear almost nothing of the Western strong-arming that keeps Africa in a state of under-development, the arms traders flooding the continent with weapons, the multinational companies propping up despotic regimes, the western complicity in horrific crimes. We hear plenty, though, about violence and corruption, particularly when attributable to the West’s enemies. Robert Mugabe is a household name. But who in Britain has even heard of Goodluck Jonathan?

It is in this context—what Paul Gilroy calls Britain’s profound culture of ignorance—that the news reaches us of the horrific violence and criminal kidnapping by Nigerian militants Boko Haram. The outpouring of collective empathy that followed was predictable and affecting – a concerted statement of moral solidarity across continents. Selective and naïve it may be, but it seems churlish to gainsay it.

Problems arise, though, when these well-meant, emotive expressions are co-opted by the ‘white saviour complex’—the notion that Western military power has the ability, the obligation, the right, and even the desire to redeem the world. The power in the Western (male) mind of the idea of liberating captive women from a monstrous evil probably needs no elaboration, and indeed echoes through colonial depictions of the outside world. The media has the obligation to dispel such delusions, the accretion of centuries of white supremacist indoctrination and ‘humanitarian’ imperialist mythology.

They haven’t, of course. Instead, popular ignorance finds an exact mirror in the popular press. Commentators bellow calls to take up the white man’s burden, with results about as absurd as Stewart Lee’s parody, post-9/11 George Bush: ‘We are gonna get them folks what done this’.

This is hardly an exaggeration. Consider the Telegraph’s macho man Dan Hodges. After mocking ineffective displays of moral outrage, Hodges adds, with eye-moistening Churchillian resolve:

Or should we actually go and get our girls. Send some big, rough men, with very big guns to say to Boko Haram: ‘We’ve come to take our girls back. And if you try to stop us, it’s the last thing you’ll ever do’.

‘Personally, I’m up for that. And I suspect if the world woke up tomorrow to discover we’d done precisely that, the world would cheer. The concerns about foreign adventurism, about putting ‘our boys’ in harm’s way, would be set aside if ‘our girls’ were reunited with their families.

Note how automatically the favoured outcome falls into our hero’s lap. The big men with big guns arrive, knock some heads together, and hey presto, the girls return. This isn’t political analysis—it’s the plot of Commando.

Portentous blowhard Tory MEP Daniel Hannan manages to sound even more ridiculous—a considerable achievement in the circumstances. In Afghanistan and Pakistan the costs of intervention were huge, he writes, but:

In the case of Nigeria, the utilitarian ledger is far more positive. Assuming a raid can be mounted—which I don’t know, obviously, but I’m guessing the question is being carefully weighed—we would give a great deal of happiness, not only to the stolen girls and their relatives, but to pretty much everyone else.

Things will go just fine, in other words, although I haven’t looked into it at all. In fact, the sum of Hannan’s knowledge of Nigeria seems derived from the Dummies’ Guide to Orientalism:

It’s a throwback to an altogether older world, a world of clan wars and cattle-raids, where women are seized as booty. Such a world, in fact, as existed in Arabia up to the time of the Prophet, and against which he preached.

Israel, he muses, could mount a raid without heavy civilian casualties, a fact that might surprise Lebanese or Palestinian readers. But such trifles will not stop this butch man of action. ‘I cringe’, he writes, ‘at the modern tendency to elevate presentation over policy, intention over outcome, the moralistic (saying the right thing) over the moral (doing it)’. Which raises the question: why aren’t you ‘doing it’, then, Dan? Pick up a Kalashnikov, pop over to Nigeria and violently resolve its security problems. There’s plenty would gladly pay your air fare.

The fact is that, as various authorities suggest, there is no military solution to the problem of Boko Haram, an assortment of groups with no centralised command structure that may well include criminal gangs. Its violence is widely seen as exploding out of a tinderbox of grievances in the North of the country—from deepening poverty, inequality, insecurity and declining human development to government corruption, lack of basic services and out-of-control abuses by Nigerian security forces. In this context, escalating the violence could easily make things worse: already, in fact, human rights groups and others warn that Western intervention may fuel further atrocities. Nigeria, then, seems to epitomise the increasingly familiar disruptions Paul Rogers describes in Losing Control: if non-state threats arise when more fundamental problems remain unaddressed or are allowed to worsen, conventional warfare becomes futile. Rogers calls this counterproductive strategy ‘liddism’—the desperate attempt to keep a lid on a seething cauldron of tensions as it bubbles and boils over.

But we’re not supposed to discuss, much less attempt to address, root causes of violent extremism, because that—as the Observer’s Nick Cohen writes, indeed never tires of writing—is to justify it (except, of course, when he does it). Rather than pursue rational inquiry, we are enjoined to adopt a fundamentalist theology, spouting zealous tirades against the forces of darkness.

If we do so, efforts to ‘decolonise the mind’ become futile. If the cause of crime is criminals—to cite Tory extremist Michael Howard (Cohen’s true intellectual forebear)—then only resort to force makes sense. Where does this leave us but surrounded by worsening violence, with military escalation presented as the answer to every problem? We are condemned to repeat an account in which Africans remain ‘Half-devil and half-child’: patronised or demonised, but never humanised; never really comprehended.

None of these authors, it is clear, has the faintest clue what they are talking about, not that this stops them pontificating at length. (Cohen even suggests the group named itself Boko Haram—a major clanger and entirely false.) But perhaps the belligerati manifest wider failings. Unreformed, our media will continue to project a vision of Africa stripped of context, the plaything of Western political agendas. Many of us expect better. But if we want it, we will have to demand it.

Tim Holmes is a writer and activist. He lives in mid-Wales, and tweets @timbird84.

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First published: 05 June, 2014

Category: Foreign policy, Media

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4 Comments on "Beyond the Acacia Tree: The Media and Boko Haram"

By Elly Darkin, on 11 June 2014 - 22:05 |

Whilst the media does absolutely strip Africa of context and frequently misrepresent it - is it simply enough to ‘expect better’ from the them?

Boko Haram is an excellent example of how the media’s presentation of an African issue is shallow and completely devoid of understanding. But when did the media become our only source of knowledge?
The notion that the media has failed us and we are therefore excused for knowing, as you say, next to nothing about Africa is flawed. It assumes that the only way we could possibly know anything about Africa is though the media. 

This is not true. Anyone with access to the internet can educate themselves to a reasonable degree. Not only through Wikipedia or BBC ‘country profiles’, which aren’t necessarily a bad starting point, but through reading academic pieces, in the The Journal of Modern African Studies for example, which anyone can access online. 
Therefore, the broader issue is why no one seems to care enough to do this. And the explanation probably lies in the fact that we live in a society where the selfish pursuit of self interest is encouraged. We are socialised not to care about the mysterious ‘other’. In this respect, the media’s inability to humanise Africa is a symptom, not a cause, of our society’s lack of desire to understand a world outside of our own.

Having said this, I really enjoyed the article and it’s analysis of the current state of our media and intellectual culture.  

By JamieSW, on 12 June 2014 - 15:13 |

Anyone with access to the internet can educate themselves to a reasonable degree.

There are a million important issues, and no one has the time to educate themselves about all of them. Most don’t have time to independently research any of them, at any rate not in depth, because of work, family and other commitments. This is why media reform is important.

By Elly Darkin, on 12 June 2014 - 16:01 |

Of course, and I agree that media reform is important. But I just don’t think it’s enough - there is a broader issue of public disinterest in Africa. So the start point should be educational reform, which would then hopefully lead naturally to media reform as it would have to cater for a more demanding public. 

By Tim H, on 21 June 2014 - 10:37 |

Yes, you make a good point Elly (though media reform remains vital, as Jamie rightly points out). I recall reading a study of public knowledge across different countries: the media system made a big difference, but the most important variable was interest and motivation to find out. Values are an important factor there. Nevertheless, the more salience the media gives to an area of the world, the more we come to regard it as important, and thus care about it spontaneously. So the two are bound to be linked. I also think a kind of despair or sense of impotence is a factor: why take an interest if you perceive that the situation never improves and you feel unable to change anything? Media narratives about Africa undoubtedly play a role in fuelling that kind of despair.

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