Africa: Stereotypes and Western Media Brownie Points

On Saturday, Angolans were expecting an official announcement from the ruling MPLA party (which has held power for 41 years) that President José Eduardo dos Santos would not be running in the 2017 elections. Word had already been leaked to the international media who duly reported this development to the world at large – and yet inside Angola there was still no official confirmation. Not a word from the ruling party, the President or the state-controlled media.

The Angola story was paired with that of the Gambian President, Yahya Jammeh, who formally conceded defeat in the presidential elections after 22 years in power. It was heralded as a strand of an emerging trend: one ailing African dictator, Dos Santos, peacefully deciding to leave office (after holding power for 37 year) while another, Jammeh, graciously accepted he has lost a democratic election. Subsequent events suggest the mainstream international media were far too gullible in accepting what seemed a very positive development coming out of Africa and disseminating it before official confirmation.

Recently, an Angolan junior high school student contacted me to pick my brains for an assignment about Western media coverage of Africa. The theme was predefined by his teacher, herself a Westerner, to examine whether Western media coverage is bad and biased in depicting Africa in negative terms.

As a media professional, my first point was that the teacher was mistaken in her generalizations of the media, the West and Africa: nowadays, African journalists and commentators contribute a significant portion of the reporting on African countries to news outlets in the West. I spoke of how to define good or bad journalism as a benchmark to judge coverage. And also how African leaders such as Dos Santos and Jammeh know how to manipulate the media when it suits them. Both received so much positive coverage for their announced departures, before showing their true colors. And yet, faced with a volte-face, the international media no longer showed the same interest.

I failed to convince the student. He preferred to follow his teacher’s script, for the promise of a high mark. Bad teacher, poor student, I thought.

What happened to make such mainstream media as Reuters, CNN, The New York Times, BBC, report the purported retirement of the Angolan dictator without any formal confirmation? Were they too blinded by the desire to earn some ‘brownie points’ by pushing a couple of good news stories out of Africa?

This is how the media were manipulated on the Angolan story. Some MPLA politburo members leaked the story to a well-known Angolan journalist, Gustavo Costa, who broke the news in the Portuguese weekly magazine, Expresso. That was the first source. Afterwards, an internal MPLA document was circulated on social media to “prove” the decision had been made.

Sadly, just as Yahya Jammeh can turn around and void the elections just days after he acknowledged he’d lost, then so can President Dos Santos tear up a document showing how members of his party’s politburo and central committee seemingly agreed to field a successor. In its live coverage of the MPLA central committee meeting, the state-run Radio Nacional de Angola (Angolan National Radio) made a single reference to the succession issue, then dropped all mention, as if this had been a mistake.

In Angola, the public mood was cynical. Hence, a third leak: the President had reportedly promised to solemnly announce the succession at the MPLA rally on December 10.

It was a sham. President Dos Santos did not even turn up for the rally. Over more than an hour, a rambling speech by his putative successor, MPLA Vice-President, General João Lourenço, gave a glimpse of a hardliner with no time for truth, democracy or common sense. For instance, he claimed that “the MPLA has brought nothing but good to these people [the Angolans].” Well, the country has the highest infant mortality rate in the world. How is that “good” for “these” people of Angola?

He parroted the stale propaganda of the past three decades, according to which the MPLA single-handedly ended Apartheid, thus insulting countless black South Africans who bravely fought against the scourge, endured great suffering, humiliation and torture, many of them paying the ultimate sacrifice.

Angola is in the midst of a major economic crisis, with hospitals lacking even the basics such as syringes. But General João Lourenço’s formula for resolving the crisis is to repurpose the Angolan Armed Forces top brass, who number in the hundreds, into “Generals for Development”. Not one word about good governance or opening up the economy to those outside the rentier elite.

General Lourenço’s message had a sub text: those who are not in the MPLA have no share in Angola. They can be excluded or repelled. For him, there is no difference between the party and the nation: the MPLA is Angola, Angola is the MPLA.

Having bitterly disappointed a nation waiting for confirmation of a peaceful transition, the very next day the President turned up at a football match with the face of a chess grandmaster who had made another unpredictable move.

Now, besides himself and a few select members of his coterie, no one has the faintest idea whether he is going or staying.

Was Saturday’s rally designed to showcase a brutish, even more tyrannical candidate, to demoralize MPLA supporters? Already the party’s inner circles are whispering that they would rather keep the old dictator than the apprentice.

The role of a good journalist, whether Western or African, should now be to step in and set the record straight. Is Dos Santos going or not? Should they not have the power to extract a formal answer? To help Angolans understand why the rest of the world appears so optimistic about Dos Santos’ departure.