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.