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Paris vs. Baga: What makes an atrocity newsworthy?

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Maya-Anaïs Yataghène under a Creative Commons Licence

The world was ‘shocked’ by the recent attacks in Paris, primarily directed at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which left 17 people dead. The exceptionally heavy levels of media coverage throughout the world, the spread of the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ message of solidarity, and the attendance of leaders from 40 countries at a rally in Paris make this abundantly clear.

Prominent publications outside France, including the BBC and the New York Times, have carried articles claiming that this attack signals a ‘new era of terrorism’.

Media coverage has been concentrated and emotive, offering every last detail of the attack itself, the perpetrators and the victims, the manhunt, and of the outpouring of grief and solidarity, as well as editorials, opinion and extensive analysis on the implications of the attacks in terms of the issue of terrorism and freedom of speech.

Newspapers carried headlines portraying the attacks as a ‘war on freedom’, and ‘barbaric’. The names, faces and profiles of the victims were shared with readers and viewers of the news throughout the world, from the US, to Japan and New Zealand.

An article in the Times of India criticized the city of Kolkata for the low turnout at a rally to express solidarity with the victims.

The response to these attacks, however, was in stark contrast to the relative silence that met another set of mass killings in early January – a series of massacres focused around the northeast Nigerian town of Baga, perpetrated by the rebel group Boko Haram.

After having overrun a military outpost in Baga, Boko Haram forces, attacking with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, began killing everyone in sight in and around the town, including children and the elderly.

The death toll at this stage is unclear. Initial estimates range from dozens to hundreds to as many as two thousand. But it is highly likely that this is the deadliest massacre ever perpetrated by Boko Haram.

Where is Baga in The New York Times?

Given the scale of the atrocity, the muted media response is troubling to say the least. The New York Times offered just one article on the matter, titled ‘Dozens said to die in Boko Haram attack’.

The newspaper appears to have made no attempt after this article to follow-up, to confirm whether the death toll was indeed dozens, hundreds or thousands, to discover any further details, or to offer any opinion or analysis.

The BBC published an online article in which a Nigerian archbishop criticized ‘the West’ for ignoring the Baga massacre, particularly offering the contrast of attention to the attacks in France, but at the time the BBC itself had published only three online articles on the Baga massacre.

Far from attempting to put names, faces and profiles on the victims, the media appeared uninterested in even counting them.

There has been very little in the way of expressions of concern from the public as a whole, or from political leaders outside the country. There have been no major public outpourings of solidarity and no ‘I am Baga’ slogans that have managed to go viral.

Given the lack of response by the media, it is highly likely that the events themselves are largely unknown to many beyond the region.

So what makes these two incidents so different? Why is one seen as heralding a ‘new era of terrorism’, and the other, not even deemed worthy of following up?

As in Paris, civilians in Baga were specifically targeted and shot. As in Paris, the killers identified themselves as defenders of Islam against Western actions and influences.

Indeed, the name Boko Haram roughly translates as ‘Western education is forbidden’, and the group has expressed its support for the Islamic State.

And while great care needs to be taken in using the term ‘terrorism’ (given the subjective political baggage it inevitably carries), the events in Baga, Nigeria, were as much acts of terrorism as were the attacks in Paris, France.

Both involved the deliberate use of violence against non-combatants to intimidate the general population with a view to achieving a political objective.

One major difference between the atrocities is clearly the fact that while the civilian victims in the Baga massacre were targeted en masse, the civilians targeted in the Paris massacre were primarily media personnel (albeit from a particular media publication).

This gave the attention to the Paris massacre the additional angle of the attempted intimidation of journalists. It must also be said, however, that this is a constant and global issue of concern.

Location, location, location

Threats by Boko Haram against journalists are part of the reason why the conflict has tended to attract little media coverage to begin with.

Throughout the world in 2014, a total of 96 media personnel were killed, seventeen of whom were killed in Syria.

The fact that the eight media personnel killed in Paris were killed in a single incident does of course make this case significant. But the 2009 killing of 32 media personnel in a single incident in Maguindanao, Philippines, along with a number of politicians (whom the journalists were accompanying) and other civilians, did not result in a fraction of the attention, coverage or outrage on a global scale that we see now.

Foreign news corporations did not categorize the incident as representing a ‘new era of terrorism’ or a ‘war on freedom’, and the attacks sparked little debate about the importance of protecting journalism from intimidation and the challenge to freedom of speech.

Hypothetically speaking, had the roles been reversed – had an attack on a satirical newspaper office in Nigeria resulted in 12 deaths, and had an attack on a town in France at the same time left hundreds dead – we could safely predict that the events in France would still have attracted the vast majority of the attention and the indignation, and that the threat of intimidation against journalism in Nigeria would simply not have been a major issue for debate.

The real reasons for the differences in the coverage are less related to what atrocities were perpetrated, and more related to where, and against whom, the atrocities were perpetrated.

Numerous studies (like this book and this journal article) have shown that the raw number of deaths from conflict, crimes and atrocities is unrelated to the quantity and intensity of media coverage that rises in response.

Factors such as the race and socioeconomic status of the victims, among others, have a much greater bearing on the levels of coverage an atrocity can attract.

It is a sad reality that, for news corporations in the West (including distant Australia and New Zealand) the perceived newsworthiness of black impoverished Africans is far less than that for white Europeans.

Having said this, access to the scene of the atrocities is undoubtedly also a major issue. Baga is a remote town in Nigeria, and is currently under the control of Boko Haram. For all of the advances in information and communication technology, as a general rule, reporters still have to be able to physically reach the place in question to collect footage, images and interviews, in order to reliably report on the situation.

But in the case of Baga, reporters can still reach the survivors who fled, and others displaced by the conflict. That they have not, on the whole, attempted to do so, is a reflection on the lack of perceived newsworthiness of the atrocity for other reasons.

And the minimal presence of Western reporters in Nigeria to begin with is also a reflection of the chronic lack of perceived newsworthiness regarding the region in a historical sense.

The fact that the massacre in Baga was not the first by Boko Haram, and that it took place in a conflict situation, must also be considered as a difference to the massacre in Paris. The newsworthiness of an atrocity tends to quickly decrease if it is a reoccurring one. But reoccurring conflict in Israel-Palestine under similar circumstances has never been a barrier to consistently heavy media coverage.

And the fact that the Baga massacre is the deadliest in the history of Boko Haram should give the media pause to reconsider its relative indifference.

Further recent atrocities, such as Boko Haram’s use of a girl as young as ten years old as a suicide bomber in a marketplace, in a different town in northeast Nigeria, should also carry a certain newsworthiness. If the coverage to date is any indication, it has not.

There is no question that the need to protect journalists from intimidation is an important and valid concern. It is crucial that we work towards realizing a world in which the pen is mightier than the sword, and in which the sword is not used in response to the pen.

But at the same time, we should also work towards realizing a world in which the pen is not so selective in whom it chooses to write about, particularly when so many lives are at stake.

This article first appeared here.

Clickbait and stereotypes: media coverage of the DR Congo

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In this era of disposable journalism, where news item turnover inevitably happens at a blinding pace, it is arguably easier than it once was to get away with lazy, misleading and/or irresponsible journalism.

On 31 October, Reuters released an article headlined ‘Congo crowd kills man, eats him after militant massacres: witnesses’. The killing was reported as being motivated by revenge for a series of attacks and massacres perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces and National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU) – the victim was apparently suspected of belonging to this rebel group.

The incident was described in just one-fifth (roughly 100 words) of the article, with a single reference stating that the victim’s corpse had allegedly been eaten, according to ‘witnesses’. The vast majority of the article (roughly 400 words), however, was not about this apparent killing. It instead detailed the recent movements (primarily political and military) related to the conflict between the ADF-NALU and the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The term clickbait – the misleading use of a provocative or sensationalist title aimed at enticing readers to click on a link – comes to mind, although the article does, in part, cover the actual event the headline mentions.

Given the brevity of the description and the fact that the incident is substantiated only by unnamed and unspecified ‘witnesses’, one is tempted to question not only the dubious use of the headline, but also how well the facts were actually checked in this case.

The article gave no detail on the size of the ‘crowd’, how many people in that crowd were actually involved in the killing, in the burning or in the eating of the victim. This opens the article to all sorts of questions regarding its credibility. It is certainly clear that the article was rushed through the editing process – at one point, for example, the rebels are referred to as ADF-NAUL, rather than ADF-NALU.

The Reuters story was picked up by Yahoo!, and the response (at least on the US edition of the site) was overwhelming. In just 12 hours, the article had attracted 6,448 comments.

Glancing through these, one struggles to find a single comment that is even vaguely thoughtful, that attempts to seriously discuss the issues raised in the article, questions its validity, or addresses anything in the article apart from the alleged incident of cannibalism.

The vast majority of the comments would fit neatly into one (or more) of the following themes: pure racism (Africans/black people have not evolved, and cannibalism is something that they generally do); genocide (sealing off the entire continent and destroying it, or leaving it to its ‘fate’); colonial apologism (this is what happens when you take away white European leadership and give them independence); patronizing charity fatigue/resignation (you try to help these people, but this is what they go and do); and obscene attempts at humour (primarily related to cannibalism).

Other recent articles describing the same conflict, written by news agencies and picked up by Yahoo! (US edition), were, perhaps quite predictably, incomparable in terms of the readers’ response.

One article by AFP, for example, published two weeks earlier and describing a massacre of women and children in eastern DRC by the same rebel group, attracted just 10 comments in total – those comments were similarly themed to those mentioned above.

On the whole, the responses of Yahoo! readers to the mention of violence in Africa seem to be primarily based on knee-jerk racism and stereotyping at a grand continental level, and almost invariably include a degree of genocidal thoughts and apparent colonial nostalgia.

Add a brief mention of a single incident of cannibalism that may or may not have actually happened, and all this is confirmed and amplified with great vigour. While the article in question did go on to explain some of the issues associated with the conflict, in opening it played to the lowest common denominator, and this denominator turned out to be disturbingly low.

Racism is a product of ignorance, among other factors, and, given the chronic lack of information offered by the news media about Africa in general, the fact that ignorance prevails on such a large scale should not seem surprising.

The little information provided about the conflict in the DRC in particular, combined with its unparalleled scale, makes it the greatest stealth conflict in the world today. But it is more than just the lack of information – it is also about the lack of balance in the little information that is provided.

And this is not only an issue of balance between ‘bad news’ and ‘good news’ (something that is indeed lacking). Consideration must also be given to the balance between brief throwaway journalism (that tends to play to already entrenched stereotypes), and detailed, comprehensive and thoughtful journalism.

Horrible atrocities are a part of any armed conflict – indeed armed conflicts are by definition horrible atrocities. But as those in the journalism industry and academia calling for ‘conflict sensitive journalism’ and ‘peace journalism’ teach us, there is so much more to conflict than expressions of violence that needs to be told by the news media.

Armed conflict is a complex social phenomenon, and understanding it involves getting to know the root causes (including social, economic and political inequalities), the belligerents (including their motives and objectives), the suffering of its victims and efforts aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement, among many other aspects.

The news media rarely get this balance right, but they certainly tend to do a better job for conflicts that are not occurring in Africa than those that are.

I made three attempts to post a comment on the original Reuters article in question, raising the same concerns as those above. None were posted.

The comments were not offensive in any way, and the argument was entirely relevant to the content of the article – there could be no question that each was in line with the Reuters guidelines for comments.

On my third attempt, I even removed the link to the blog entry, to no avail. The only comment that was allowed through the ‘filters’ and that remained on the Reuters page at the time was an offensive attempt at humour on the issue of cannibalism.

In a further twist, as of 7 November, Reuters has now decided to entirely eliminate the comment function from its entire site, reasoning that debate on issues has moved to social media forums. An interesting development to say the least – certainly not a positive one.

Even in this era of Twitter and Facebook, it still seems logical that discussion and critique of articles produced by a news organization belong where the articles themselves can be read. I did, however, use Twitter to express my concern to the author of the article on his Twitter feed. No feedback was forthcoming.

Reuters and Yahoo! can do better than this and, judging by the disturbing array of comments posted in response to this article on Yahoo!, so can the casual observer of armed conflict and atrocities.

This article originally appeared on the Southern African Peace and Security Blog.

The battle for the news: Zimbabwe and beyond

Elections free and fair?

Another form of South Africa-based cross-border media? © Sokwanele

A ‘pirate’ television station has been set up in South Africa and is now broadcasting an alternative version of reality into Zimbabwe via satellite. The establishment of 1st TV, as the channel is called, came just 12 days before controversial elections in that country, and follows the cutting off of access via free-to-air decoders in Zimbabwe to South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) programmes.

In an environment in which the national broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), has a monopoly over the airwaves, and essentially acts as a cheerleader for the ruling ZANU-PF, such exiled media should certainly inject some fresh air onto the scene. The timing of the channel’s establishment, so close to the 31 July elections, clearly shows that influencing voters is high on its list of objectives (although it may seem to be arriving a little late in the game). The fact that 1st TV is being run by Morgan Tsvangirai’s former communications director (Andrew Chadwick) certainly serves to cement such an impression, although he claims that the channel is providing impartial and factual information for the public, and emphasizes that it is here to stay. The ZANU-PF and its representatives are, needless to say, unimpressed by the development, and are publicly vowing to do what they can to ‘cripple’ it.

Some reports have also suggested that the British government may be partially funding the endeavour, although neither the British Embassy nor the head of 1st TV have been willing to confirm or deny this report. What we can be sure of is that President Robert Mugabe remains a figure that the British government and the British media (among a long list of other entities in the Western world) love to hate with a passion, and they will have much to say about how these elections will be run and the results they ‘produce’. We will hear in explicit detail about how the elections are being rigged, and, among many other deficiencies in the democratic process (to put it mildly), the iron grip that Mugabe and the ZANU-PF hold over the media and the flow of information in general.

While repressive state control over the flow of information in Zimbabwe is certainly deserving of persistent and critical attention from abroad, the state of affairs in that country need to be kept in perspective – we should not forget that there are other countries on the continent where the situation is considerably worse. If the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2013 is to be believed, there are 13 African countries that are considered to be more repressive than Zimbabwe in controlling their media.

Of the 179 countries covered by the index, Eritrea is the country in the world with the least press freedom, falling below North Korea, Turkmenistan and Syria. Other African countries near the bottom of the list include Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti and Equatorial Guinea. Rwanda, which (until recently at least) has rarely attracted any criticism from the West, is not far behind them, ranked at number 161. As we move up the list, we find Egypt, Swaziland, Gambia, DR Congo, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Morocco (another close friend of the West), before reaching Zimbabwe, which is ranked at number 133.

Such rankings, of course, do not tell the whole story, and the Edward Snowden case has certainly reminded us that the threat against freedom of information posed by those with power is not just something that applies to those countries on the lower end of the list. The administration of Zimbabwe’s northern neighbour Zambia (which comes in at number 72 on the Press Freedom Index), led by Michael Sata, for example, has apparently been looking into the possibility of shutting down access in the country to Facebook and Twitter. This comes after finding that sites critical of his administration (Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports), which have been shut down by the government, are still disseminating their information through these social networks.

The old adage, ‘information is knowledge and knowledge is power’, serves as a source of fear for those who would jealously guard their power, but it should also serve as a source of encouragement for those of us with an interest in closing the gap between the haves and have-nots of power.

This piece was originally published on the South African Peace and Security blog. Cross-posted with permission of the author.

Boston? Yes. Arusha? No thank you


The bomb blast tore mercilessly and indiscriminately through the crowd, killing three innocent civilians and injuring scores more. Mayhem ensued, as the injured were rushed to hospital and the people struggled to understand why such a tragedy had befallen them. The gathering had been peaceful and the mood, celebratory. And this was not, after all, a place accustomed to such indiscriminate violence – the country had not experienced a bombing of this nature in more than ten years. Law enforcement agencies moved quickly and resolutely in response. Links with organized international terror groups were immediately suspected, and certain individuals of apparent Middle Eastern origin were singled out and tracked down.

No, this is not the story of the events that transpired at the 2013 Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013. This is the story of a more recent bombing – one that occurred at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Arusha, Tanzania, on Sunday 5 May. At the inaugural mass held at the newly built church, which was being attended by the Vatican's ambassador to Tanzania and other dignitaries, a bomb was allegedly thrown by an assailant on a motorcycle into the crowd that had gathered for the occasion. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the arrest of three Emirati, one Saudi, and four Tanzanian nationals attempting to cross the border into Kenya suggests that connections with international terrorist groups are being seriously suspected.

The Boston Marathon, which also left three people dead, and in which links with international terrorist groups were also initially suspected, sparked saturation coverage on a massive scale by the mass media, not only in the US, but throughout the world. All subsequent developments were reported in a blow-by-blow manner, and even hints of what might appear to be a new twist or turn were also immediately released online, on the airwaves and in print, often with little concern for confirmation or fact-checking. The search for answers was vigorous and unwavering. Detailed backgrounds were sought and provided on the suspects and their origins, offering in-depth analysis and speculation covering all conceivable motives. At the same time, moving accounts of the pre-bombing hopes and aspirations of the victims and their families, and their courage in facing life after the tragedy, quickly filled the news.

The bombing in Tanzania, on the other hand, was met by media outlets around the globe with little more than a collective yawn. As of 9 May, the Boston Marathon bombing had been the subject, for example, of 249 articles made available on the BBC News website, exploring every possible angle of the bombing and its aftermath. On the same website, the bombing in Tanzania has been the subject of just two articles – both of which were released on the day after the bombing. No effort has been made to provide any portrayals of the victims – their backgrounds, hopes or aspirations. And the lack of any follow-up articles reveals little interest in clarifying or pursuing the circumstances behind the bombings, or the arrest of the suspects currently in custody, including their backgrounds, motives and possible international connections. This gaping discrepancy between the attention devoted to these two bombings is not at all limited to the BBC, but is largely representative of major media corporations throughout the world.

The similarities between these cases are clear. Unexpected explosion at a prestigious and peaceful gathering of innocent civilians? Check. Three dead and scores injured? Check. A stunned and grieving community? Check. Video footage available of the attack and its aftermath? Check. The fear of further attacks in similar situations (marathons and churches)? Check. The possibility of the involvement of foreign groups known to use terror as a means to achieve certain political ends? Check.

What makes them different? At the risk of belabouring the obvious, the prime difference is clearly in the value that the media attach to events that impact on the world's economic, political and military ‘centre’ (predominantly white, Western, wealthy, powerful), and the ‘periphery’ (predominantly black, African, and impoverished). It is closely linked to the notion of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims. But to a degree it is also about the possession of military clout and the willingness to use it. Terrorist attacks directed at the US have in the past been used as the pretext for massive bombing campaigns and invasions of other countries. There may have been a degree of anticipation regarding the possible global ramifications of a US government response (military or otherwise) had links to certain foreign organizations been discovered.

The stark difference in the coverage of these two incidents certainly serves to reaffirm and bring home something that should already be abundantly clear: the major ‘global threat’ as perceived by much of the world’s media is not so-called 'terrorism' per se. Nor is it the more specific variety of cross-border ‘terrorism’ that is seen as being linked to extremist Islamic groups. It would appear that the concept of ‘threat’ is dependent not on the nature or the scale of the act itself or on the actor responsible, but primarily on who (or where) the victims are. Which passport do they carry? Where are they based? And it is clear that in the eyes of the media at least, some victims are far more worthy than others.

This post was originally published on the Southern African Peace and Security blog. Crosssposted with permission of the author.


Madagascar’s reality is no cartoon comedy


Transition to tyranny? Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes Andry Rajoelina as the President of the High Transitional Authority of Madagascar. Photo by Jeannot Ramambazafy under a CC Licence.

The eyes of the world seem to be fixed on Madagascar. Or should I say Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted? The animated comedy movie with lions, zebras and other assorted animals that talk, sing and dance, continues to sit atop the box office, dazzling audiences around the world.

The world is not quite as bedazzled, on the other hand, by recent events on the large island that sits to the south-east of the African mainland, which also happens to be known as Madagascar. In fact, if the levels of media coverage are any indication, many might be surprised to learn that things are going on there at all.

But they most certainly are. In 2009, amid political upheaval on the island, 35-year-old Andry Rajoelina, former mayor of Antananarivo, the capital, (and before that, a radio DJ), took control of the country with the backing of the military and was declared President of the ‘High Transitional Authority.’

His rise to power was swiftly condemned by most of the outside world as a coup d’etat. Madagascar was suspended from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (which also imposed targeted sanctions on the new ‘government’). The bulk of non-humanitarian aid coming from beyond the continent was also cut off. For its own political and economic reasons, France, however, continues to back the de facto administration.

It has been a long and eventful transition. Rajoelina promised presidential elections and promised not to stand as a candidate. But the elections did not happen. He managed to push through a constitutional referendum that conveniently reduced the minimum age for the president from 40 to 35, making him eligible to stand. A group of disgruntled soldiers attempted a coup of their own in 2010, but the mutiny was put down.

The deposed president, Marc Ravalomanana, who went into exile in South Africa, was sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment. An agreement signed by all the major political parties under the auspices of SADC established a road map for a unity government and elections. And although the same agreement guarantees the unconditional right to return for exiled political leaders, a unilateral attempt by Ravalomanana to do so ended in failure when the commercial flight he had boarded was refused permission to land.

But before becoming overly sympathetic to the plight of the deposed president, we might spare a thought for how things were in Madagascar before he was deposed. In March 2009, thousands of demonstrators gathered near the presidential palace to protest against what was perceived as a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime. Presidential guards threw grenades and fired into the crowd and a massacre ensued leaving as many as 50 people dead.

And South Africa is unlikely to remain a safe haven for Ravalomanana for much longer. In 2012, a court in South Africa ruled that foreign nationals in that country who are accused of crimes against humanity must be investigated, and Ravalomanana would appear to fall under this category.

For the time being, attempts at a return to political life may have to take a back seat to the realization of a reconciliation deal that includes a pardon for the crimes he has already been convicted of (in absentia) in Madagascar and immunity from further prosecution. Rajoelina and Ravalomanana have, in fact, agreed to a meeting, which will possibly take place at the end of June, although the agenda is unclear.

In spite of the endless political wrangling, life goes on for the people of Madagascar. But it is not the same as it was before. The country’s political crisis coincided with the global financial crisis, and the economy has taken a battering.

Foreign investment and international demand for the country’s produce (not least vanilla, of which Madagascar is the world's leading producer) have dropped. Levels of illegal logging and mining and the resulting environmental degradation, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. Poverty levels are rising and health indicators are falling. As the expression goes, when elephants fight the grass gets trampled.

Madagascar 3 had its happy ending. Hopefully the other Madagascar will too. And even if this is a little too much to hope for, an increase in the levels of attention from the outside world – some enhanced external scrutiny, engagement, and cajoling – will probably not hurt its chances of at least heading in the direction of something happier.

Camouflaging Burkina Faso’s past


Blaise Compaore with George Bush in 2008. US government subsidies have been blamed for crippling Burkina Faso's cotton industry. Photo by US Federal Government under a public domain licence.

Burkina Faso’s parliament has just granted immunity from prosecution to President Blaise Compaore and all of the country’s other presidents since independence. Whatever threat there was of Compaore being held responsible for the assassination of his predecessor (and ‘friend’ and colleague), Thomas Sankara, is now gone.

Thomas Sankara, who had himself risen to power through a coup d'etat in 1983 at the tender age of 33, was gunned down in 1987. The French secret service, the CIA, the government of neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire, and then Liberian rebel Charles Taylor are believed to have been involved in the assassination plot, but as yet a definitive account does not exist. Western-friendly Compaore immediately assumed power and has been president of Burkina Faso ever since.

Sankara’s presidency lasted only four years, but what an eventful four years they were. The country was in a terrible state and he quickly set about making his revolutionary vision for the country a reality. He even changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, which means ‘the land of upright men’.

Sankara lamented what he saw as neocolonialism, not least in the dependency of the country on foreign aid – in his words ‘he who feeds you, controls you’. Focusing on the promotion of local consumption of local production, he achieved food self-sufficiency for the country within three years. Burkina Faso’s economy was (and to a large degree, still is) dominated by cotton. As part of his bid to promote local industry, Sankara required civil servants to wear traditional tunics made locally from local cotton.

Sankara's revolution was far-reaching in other areas. He was the first African leader to openly recognize the dangers of HIV and AIDS, and made major (often record-breaking) inroads in areas such as women’s rights, child immunization, the reversal of desertification, land rights and infrastructure development. He halted the practice of the president’s portrait being displayed in public and private establishments throughout the country, reduced the salaries of government officials (himself included) and took away their Mercedes’ and first class travelling privileges. Sankara travelled in a Renault 5 and took a monthly salary of $450.

We should be careful, however, about being overly romantic about the Sankara years. He was impatient in achieving his vision, and did not tolerate opposition parties, unions or a free press. His authoritarian tendencies appeared to grow over the course of his rule and this had serious implications for his domestic popularity. It was perhaps the example he set to the rest of the world, however, that was one of the greatest causes of his undoing.

Having deposed Sankara and having taken his place, Blaise Compaore set about reversing most of the policies of his predecessor, in what was known as ‘la rectification’. He liberalized and privatized, and made Burkina Faso one of the first ‘beneficiaries’ of the debt relief and poverty reduction programs of the IMF and World Bank. Today it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Burkina Faso’s cotton industry has been crippled by massive US government subsidies for cotton farmers that serve to suppress the global price of cotton to levels so low that growing cotton even in impoverished Burkina Faso is barely viable. Subsidies for US cotton farmers alone add up to triple the amount the US allocates in aid to the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa.

But Compaore seems to be doing quite well under the circumstances. The winds of change that blew through north Africa and the Middle East in 2011 also blew through Burkina Faso, with protests over rising prices and unemployment, and mutiny by parts of the armed forces, but Compaore appears (for now) to have weathered the storm. He is also thought to have amassed considerable personal wealth and now, with the new blanket amnesty, can look forward to a comfortable and safe retirement.

There is, of course, always a chance that the amnesty will be overturned by future regimes and he is not protected from arrest and prosecution outside of Burkina Faso. Thus, there remains the possibility that, for example, his long-term collaboration with convicted war criminal Charles Taylor could lead to international prosecution. Burkina Faso was a hub for the illicit trade in arms and diamonds that helped facilitate West Africa’s bloody conflicts in and beyond the 1990s, and his prosecution was considered at the time of Taylor's indictment. But in the case of this Western-backed government, such a turn of events appears somewhat unlikely.

For those whose sense of justice is offended by this chapter in Burkina Faso’s history and wish to show their solidarity, there is a wide variety of Thomas Sankara t-shirts available online. With no apparent irony, many of these garments made from 100 per cent cotton are proudly advertised as being ‘Made in the USA’.

Buyers of these t-shirts can thus advertise their admiration for a leader who had his own image removed from public display, and who struggled to protect and nurture the local cotton industry vital to his country’s well-being and growth, through the display of his image printed on material made from the heavily subsidised cotton that continues to threaten the survival of that very industry.

Between the blanket amnesty and the t-shirts, Thomas Sankara must surely be turning in his grave.

Virgil Hawkins is the author of Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence is Ignored and is currently an associate professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy (OSIPP), Osaka University, Japan and a research associate at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

This
blog originally appeared on Hawkins' website and is reproduced with his permission.

Diego Garcia's shameful history continues

In the week David Cameron meets his Mauritian counterpart to discuss the Chagos Islands’ sovereignty, Virgil Hawkins sees suspicious motivations on both sides.


A satellite image of the largest Chagos Island, Diego Garcia, now home to a US military base.
Photo by NASA under a public domain license.

The modern history of the Chagos Islands is a thoroughly despicable one. This small archipelago, situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was originally part of what was then the self-governing British colony of Mauritius.

Mauritius was convinced to sell these islands to the UK in 1965 under dubious circumstances: the sale was part of the independence negotiations (independence was achieved in 1968) and the prime minister of Mauritius who negotiated the deal was awarded a knighthood soon after the transfer.

The UK subsequently leased the largest island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the US (who wanted it for a military base) partly in exchange for a discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. In preparation for the construction of the military base, the UK then proceeded to forcibly remove the islands inhabitants, dropping them off unceremoniously in the Seychelles and what was left of Mauritius.

Diego Garcia became an important base for the US, particularly so in the 2000s, when it served as a hub from which long-range bombers attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. The base has been used by the CIA for so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights, and may also have served as a CIA black site prison.

In 2010, the UK established a Marine Protected Area (the world’s largest) around the archipelago. According to US diplomatic cables made public courtesy of Wikileaks, this move was specifically designed to prevent former residents from returning (survival for the inhabitants would be difficult if they were prevented from fishing).

For the UK, this clever ‘solution’ looked good from any angle: not only would the possibility of return be taken off the table, but US military activities could continue, and ‘points’ for environmental concern could also be scored.

Isolated and unpopulated (or conveniently depopulated) islands are, of course, the ideal springboards from which to project military power in this day and age. There are none of the hassles associated with holding or running a colony, for example, and not only do they make sense in pure military terms (especially if one has long-range bombers), but they also preclude witness or interference by any pesky civilians, journalists or human rights organizations.

In the case of populated islands, the consent of inhabitants can, to a degree, be bought, but opposition can still be politically and financially costly, as the US and its generally willing collaborator (the Japanese government) have found, for example, in the use of Okinawa for military bases.


A former coconut plantation on Diego Garcia, out of use since 1970.
Photo by Steve Swayne under a CC Licence.

The lease of the Chagos Islands to the US expires in 2016, and any possible extension has to be agreed on by December 2014 (the lease allows for a 20-year extension). Crucially, the original terms of purchase of the Chagos Islands allow for their return to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence purposes. If there is a time for negotiating a return of the islands to Mauritius, it is now. Indeed, the prime ministers of the UK and Mauritius are set to meet this week, and the issue of the Chagos Islands is on the agenda.

Mauritius has expressed its intention to have the islands returned, but interestingly, has also made it clear that it does not intend to challenge the continuation of US military activities there. Clearly, allowing the base to remain in Diego Garcia would serve as a considerable financial incentive for the government of Mauritius.

But how receptive will the UK be to a call by Mauritius for the return of the islands? Will their response reveal anything about possible plans in the West to bomb Iran? Diego Garcia would undoubtedly serve as one of the key military hubs in the case of any such catastrophe.

There are other deals in play. Mauritius has recently agreed to offer its territory and services for the prosecution and imprisoning of Somali pirates. Was this designed to improve their bargaining position for the return of the Chagos Islands? To what degree will any such deals benefit the people of Mauritius and the former (forcibly evicted) inhabitants who wish to return to the Chagos Islands (as opposed to a few people holding political power at the top)?

Will the end result of all of this simply be a continuation of the same old systems under new management? This is a good time for some hard-hitting media scrutiny on this issue – in the UK, US and Mauritius.

Virgil Hawkins is the author of Stealth Conflicts: How the World's Worst Violence is Ignored and is currently an associate professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy (OSIPP), Osaka University, Japan and a research associate at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

This blog originally appeared on Hawkins' website and is reproduced with his permission.