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CNN, Niger Delta and Western media portrayals of Africa (I)

This post first appeared in the print edition of my column in the Weekly Trust of February 24, 2007. By Farooq A. Kperogi Although I promise...

This post first appeared in the print edition of my column in the Weekly Trust of February 24, 2007.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Although I promised last week that I would start a series on the state of Black America in the spirit of the month of February, which African Americans have dubbed the “Black History Month,” I am compelled to change my topic because I feel an irresistible urge to share my thoughts on the ongoing controversy over CNN’s recent report on the Niger Delta.

However, I want to transcend the banalities that have enveloped the issue so far—such as our information minister’s ludicrous, almost infantile, hysteria and CNN’s insufferable condescension and haughtiness—and locate it within the larger context of the old but nevertheless enduringly relevant debate about the Western media’s compulsively predictable, xenophobic and all-too-familiar eagerness to portray Africa as the “heart of darkness,” as the handy proverb for superstition, backwardness and primitivism.

My inspiration for this week’s column actually sprouts from an ongoing debate and conversation I am having with a senior editor at CNN who is also my colleague in the doctoral program in communication here in Atlanta. At the end of one of our seminars during the week, the man walked up to me and asked of my opinion on what he called Jeff Koinage’s “wonderful report on the Niger Delta,” which is causing so much discomfort to the Nigerian government.

“It’s a tastelessly trashy piece of journalism, but an artfully staged performance,” I said calmly, knowing that I had stirred the hornet’s net.

“What!” he exclaimed.

“Jeff merely packaged for you guys what you expect him to do,” I said.

“That’s bullshit! What do you mean ‘what you guys expect him to do’”?

The otherwise amiable gentleman was getting all hot and worked up, but that did nothing to alter my emotional equilibrium. However, just when the conversation was getting animated, he realized that he had to leave for the CNN headquarters, which, by the way, is only a walking distance away from my department—one of the reasons my department prides itself on being a huge laboratory for media education.

Before he left, however, he adjured me to tell him why I thought the report was a grand simulation. I told him I had read the email correspondence between Koinage and MEND’s spokesperson, which showed that Koinage knew that he was not capturing the activities of the real MEND but of some mercenary ragtag and bobtail, and that the wild gyrations and exaggerated, even theatrical, show of militancy and bloodthirstiness of the people in the video are simply out of step with the image of a people who are angry.

After our brief encounter, the man appeared to have sobered up considerably. I am not sure about this, though, until we meet again to discuss the issue. I have an invitation to visit him in his office and to meet with other senior editors. When I do have the time to honor the invitation, I will report back to my readers here. But before he left, he looked at me calmly and said, “If we have proof that Jeff staged this report, he will be in trouble. Trust me.”

However, I am not one to put an African brother in trouble for doing his job, however crookedly he did it. At any rate, it is unlikely that a Western news organization will fire any reporter for filing a report that merely reinforces dominant caricatures of Africans in the Western imaginary, especially if such a report is only “sexed up” and not an outright fabrication.

As I will show later, the institution of deep-seated negrophobia (that is, the irrational fear of and aversion to people of African descent), which the Western media habitually perpetrate for various reasons, is more blameworthy than this poor Kenyan fellow who simply wants to survive by cleverly locating and appealing to the sentiments of his employers and viewers. But let’s leave that for a moment.

What evidence sustains my conviction that the report was all willful theater—or even a borderline fib? My first evidence is from the text of the email correspondence between Koinage and Jomo Gbomo, the spokesperson of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Nigeria Delta (MEND). The correspondence was leaked by MEND to a Nigerian Diaspora online news outlet called the Times of Nigeria. I think the correspondence is worth reproducing in full for the benefit of those who didn’t have the opportunity to read it. It is reproduced here unedited:

“From: "Koinange, Jeff" < >
To: "Jomo Gbomo"
Date: Mon, 22 Jan 2007 08:45:16 -0000
Subject: RE: CNN trip....
In that case, my Brother, I shall wait for your WORD and will only come when you are ready for us…..please try and make it soon as I’m getting a lot of pressure from my headquarters in Atlanta to come and do this story…..if it’s possible for us to come next week (the week of Jan 29th), that will be GREAT!!!!
Thanks for your candid reply and for your suggestions.
From: Jomo Gbomo [mailto:
Sent: 22 January 2007 08:42
To: Koinange, Jeff
Subject: Re: CNN trip....
Hi Jeff, do not waste your time with those criminals who are in touch with george esiri. They are representing a group called fndic in warri that has been misleading the nigerian government and oil companies into believing they have a relationship with us. They can arrange a few boys who will take you on stage trips through delta state alone. They do not represent mend or the people of the niger delta.
If youre satisfied with that, its fine by me. If not, kindly wait till i give you the green light to come down here. The nigerian government has been working through such traitors to infiltrate and destroy our group.
"Koinange, Jeff" < > wrote:
Hi Jomo,
I received a phone call from my good friend, George Esiri and he said he’d been contacted by your colleagues and told that CNN is been given the GREEN LIGHT to come into the Delta. I wanted to check with you first and make sure this is a legitimate ‘invitation’ from you and that your aware of it.
If this is the case, we’re like to come sometime this week…..possibly get to PHC or Warri by Friday and spend the weekend with your ‘boys’…..
Please let me know if this is possible and I look forward very much to meeting you and doing this VERY IMPORTANT story.

Notice that Koinage acknowledged, in this correspondence, that the group that initially gave him the “green light” is actually counterfeit. The MEND spokesperson even called the group a bunch of “criminals” who can only “ARRANGE a few boys who will take you on STAGE TRIPS through delta state alone” (my emphasis).

But because Koinage was “getting a lot of pressure from my headquarters in Atlanta to come and do this story,” he dispensed with the pesky MEND and preferred to “arrange” a “stage trip” with “criminals.” The result was the disreputably histrionic journalism that you saw on CNN. When Koinage was interviewed on CNN—at least on the domestic CNN here—he lied that he had no reason to believe that he wasn’t talking to the real MEND.

Perhaps, it is important that I make my position very clear lest my motives should be misconstrued. First, I am not holding brief for the Nigerian government—a thoroughly irresponsible and incompetent mob of savage thieves. Second, I am not in any way suggesting that the situation in the Niger Delta is not tragically lamentable enough to deserve global media attention, not because expatriate oil workers are now daily being kidnapped, but because the vast majority of the people in the Niger Delta vegetate in morally reprehensible penury in the midst of the stupendous wealth that the Nigerian state and its foreign accomplices extract from these hapless folks’ ancestral land.

I know this from experience. In 1999 when I worked for this paper as a reporter and later news editor, I wrote a cover story titled, “The Wretched of Nigeria,” which took me to the Niger Delta for about a week. In fact, I spent a day in Bane, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s natal village, and had a meeting with his dad, his relations and a number of other people in the village.

The despoliation, poverty, desperation and exploitation that I witnessed in the Niger Delta were simply beyond the resources of journalistic description, but I recounted my experiences nonetheless. Many readers of Weekly Trust still remember the cover story as one of the best that the paper ever did. Well, so much for self-congratulation!

But my point is that I have tremendous sympathy for the plight of the people of the Niger Delta, sympathy that is nourished by my experiential and vicarious familiarity with their pains, their anger and their hopes.

My concern, however, is the appropriation of the misery and legitimate wrath of the people of the Niger Delta to further a time-honored xenophobic Western media agenda against Africans.

This series continues next week

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