14 May 2014

Africa: Guerrillas, Western Journalists and NGOs - 20 Years On, Another Genocide Looms in Africa


News reporting about South Sudan is fast becoming a farce, with international news outlets routinely misrepresenting the political crisis as ethnic conflicts. This contributes to local tensions and is sadly not a unique case across Africa.

Incredibly contrasting and equally disturbing media operations exist in South Sudan. I have recently worked in East Africa and closely observed the ways in which the media contributes and quickly spreads deadly communal violence in South Sudan and elsewhere on the continent. I have also investigated some large Western media organisations based in South Sudan, and their negative impacts on local efforts to help find immediate resolutions to the on-going conflict in the world's youngest nation-state.

The operations of the media in Africa, unfortunately, play an unhelpful role in the continent's governance and conflict resolution challenges. South Sudan in particular is one of the countries that have suffered huge setbacks as a result of underdeveloped local media networks, coupled with Western journalists' misdiagnosis of the current conflict there. In contrast (but not less harmful), South Sudanese politicians regularly influence the local press and broadcast media to settle personality-based political scorings to suit their ill fated agendas.

When it became clear to regional observers in early 2013 that President Kiir of South Sudan was trying to consolidate absolute power to his office after he sacked the vice president who came to power in his own right on a power sharing arrangement during the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Khartoum, the rest of world stayed silent. Kiir continued his misdeeds by single-handedly dissolving the parliament a few months later, ruling the country on a presidential decree with the support of his close cronies. This continued for close to a year without any Western leader - perhaps misled by the media - saying a word about the unfolding events which had the potential to further destabilise the already volatile East African region.

In another twist to what was seen as a ticking time-bomb, when Machar the vice president organised his militia and went underground to challenge president Kiir's authority, Western leaders did nothing to help defuse the situation and no single factual news bulletin was put out by the powerful Western media organisations, including Reuters and the Associated Press. In a further destabilising move, the major local press and radio outlets continued to toe the government line while few publications openly supported the opposition side. It was a tragedy in the making, and both local and international media played a key part.

After the government and the opposition armies led by the president and the VP respectively, engaged each other and entire villages were burned to the ground, with hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, Western journalist put the final nail in the coffin by unwittingly and/or deliberately calling the conflict 'ethnic'. This was not how it started, and though observers knew about it the storyline continues unchallenged to this day. See Reuter's Andrew Green and Phil Stewart writing about the conflict today at this link.

The local media carried on fuelling the violence by siding with differing warring factions. In fact the South Sudan based Western media has taken the lead in confusing the rest of the world by calling a conflict which had all the hallmarks of a power struggle between the two men an 'ethnic conflict'. And to this day, this narrative remains the official influence of Western leaders' policy towards South Sudan.

Furthermore, if you look closely at Africa's conflicts, you will find similar stories right across Africa's past and present misfortunes. The conflict in the Central African Republic, for example, is a classic recent case study. This conflict took place at about the same time as South Sudan's, and I watched the developing story from my vantage point in Nairobi with horror after Western journalists on the ground in the CAR called it 'religious' violence. Although communal conflict took shape weeks after the civil war got underway, the initial stand-off was not between the Christians and the Muslims.

In my observations of Africa's conflicts and contrary to what the media would have us believe, I have discovered that these conflicts never start with religious or ethnic dimensions. Rather, the largely tolerant and fine traditions of Africa's society are always disturbed first and foremost by the power hungry political elites. And the media - led by Western journalists - continuously misdiagnose the crucial moments of a dangerously simmering conflict.

While today's US efforts led by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, to pressure president Kiir to meet face-to-face with Machar in Addis Ababa is a positive development, further urgent follow up needs to take place to make sure that no more backtracking takes place.

The Non-Governmental Organisations also play a negative role in the political and social order in South Sudan. Had you watched the television pictures from South Sudan late last year, you would have noticed the manner in which the NGOs including the United Nations agencies had badly mishandled the situation there. The UN even publicly put up huge sign posts on the gates of one of its camps which read: 'Dinkas, move to the right; Nuers, keep to the left', effectively contributing to the tension and the hostile environment that was artificially taking place among the South Sudanese tribes.

In fact the Western journalists, perhaps under pressure from their editors back home, often file the first story told to them by NGO operatives simply because they believe that nothing can go wrong with a godlike humanitarian worker's version of events, stamping a question mark on their journalistic principles.

Different media platforms, consisting of conflicting and antagonism-based local outlets and non-indigenous and largely Western organisations, are hindering rather than helping the development of a competitive local political environment in South Sudan and the other conflict-ridden African states. These differing media institutions are wrongly used by both the local actors and policy makers in the West, significantly heightening tension and mistrust among the formerly peaceful tribes in South Sudan.


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