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

The following first appeared in my Weekly Trust column of March 3, 2007. By Farooq A. Kperogi Over the last week, I continued my conversatio...

The following first appeared in my Weekly Trust column of March 3, 2007.

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Over the last week, I continued my conversation with my colleague. I forwarded to him the transcript of the email correspondence between CNN’s Jeff Koinage and MEND’s Jomo Gbomo. He was astonished. Or so it seemed to me.

Neither he nor any CNN editor had ever seen the correspondence before, even though it’s all over many Nigerian Internet discussion groups and Web sites. “This is interesting, Farooq,” he said. “It confirms the Nigerian government’s allegation that the report was staged.”

Unfortunately, I have read many Nigerian newspaper editorials defending the CNN report and dismissing our government’s objections to it. The consequences of imperialism on its victims can indeed be deep and complicated. Or how else does one explain the Guardian’s uncritical, even slavish, support for the CNN?

It is, of course, true that our information minister’s handling of the controversy was childish and gratuitously over-dramatic. It is also true that his protest was long on suspicions and short on evidence. But the government, and for that matter MEND, have a valid, unassailable claim that the report was not only “fraudulent” but purposively “staged” and deliberately “arranged” for effects.

Another top CNN editor confided in me that an African producer at the CNN headquarters here in Atlanta had had occasions in the past to charge that many of Koinage’s reports are often “staged.” He said they had taken the producer’s claim with a pinch of salt because Koinage cuts image of a decent, ethical, go-getting reporter. Now they have a reason to investigate him, he said.

However, my concern in this essay is not to hang Koinage for doing what his employers expect him to do anyway. I merely want to use this report to instantiate my point about the opinions and images that the Western media collectively cherish about Africa.

For instance, when the report was aired on the domestic CNN here, the anchorperson, Anderson Cooper, introduced it by saying, “CNN’s Jeff Koinage takes us to the heart of darkness.” I have no idea how the report was introduced on CNN International since I only have access to the domestic CNN, which is completely different from the international version.

The phrase “heart of darkness” has a lot of associative significance. It is a historically racist phrase that has been central in the discourses of Western negrophobia. As any student of African literature knows, the Heart of Darkness is a 1902 fictional representation of the Congo, and by extension Africa, by Joseph Conrad, an English novelist whom our own venerable Chinua Achebe famously described as a “bloody racist.”

Achebe’s inimitable Things Fall Apart was, by his own confession, a response to Conrad’s racist denigration of Africans in the Heart of Darkness and Joyce Carey’s equally condescending characterization of Africans in Mr. Johnson, another racist fictional work set in northern Nigeria.

I do not want to bore readers with the storyline of Conrad’s novel. It suffices to say, however, that Conrad deployed the motif of “darkness” to encapsulate his sense of the barbarism, backwardness and spiritual death of Africans whom he portrays as inhabiting a dreary, lifeless and colorless jungle in contradistinction to the “civilization” and spiritual light of Europe.

Since Achebe called global intellectual attention to the racist underpinnings of the phrase “heart of darkness,” most careful academics, journalists and public commentators don’t use it to refer to Africa lest they should be accused of racism.

But CNN’s Anderson Cooper, in 2007, called Nigeria the “heart of darkness” using Jeff Koinage’s tendentious report on the Niger Delta as a convenient cover. And no eyebrows were raised from the plethora of anti-racist and anti-defamation groups in America!

When I called the attention of a CNN editor to this, his only response was that he didn’t watch the domestic version of the report and could therefore offer no comment.

The truth is that the report fits perfectly well with the mental pictures Americans are made, even forced, to have of Africa. A report that was supposed to highlight the plight of Niger Deltans under the tyranny of oil companies and the Nigerian state became, in reality, an informational staple to feed the ever ravenous racist fantasies of Americans about Africa.

In the video, we see menacing, hooded “militants” dancing themselves to a state of “trance,” aiming their guns at poor kidnapped Pilipino oil workers, and insisting that they would only grant CNN an interview in the middle of the river for “spiritual” reasons—and such other racist banalities that are irrelevant to the core of the story.

And then you have naked children walking in fetid refuse dumps, and half-naked men in filthy, begrimed makeshift huts fishing on the bank of the river. We all know these are atypical scenes.

But the object of the report is not to highlight the desperate state of the Niger Delta, but to provide a journalistic endorsement (by an “African” journalist) that Africa is indeed (still) the “heart of darkness” where people are notoriously superstitious and backward; where people live in a state of nature, wear no clothes, live on trees or at best in mud houses, are untouched by the faintest sprinkle of “modernity”—and maybe in need of a white “savior.”

This caricature of Africa achieves two ends: it reminds white Americans how truly racially superior they are, and makes the Black American population feel so grateful that their ancestors were enslaved by white brutes and brought to America that demands for reparations for slavery not only seem unreasonable but also preposterous. And these calculations have worked perfectly over the years.

The image of Africa (Africa is, of course, invariably presented as if it were a country and not a continent made up of over 50 countries) as an uncharted mass of land dotted with naked or barely clothed savage cannibals is an enduring component of the popular fantasies of Africa in this country.

Because of the persistently, (I would add compulsively) negative (for want of a better word) portrayals of Africa, many Americans (and I imagine Europeans as well) have deep-seated and ice-cold disdain for our continent. The mention of Africa conjures up the image of a backward, primitive, starving, war-torn, disease-infested hellhole. Africa is now a byword for poverty, hunger, disease and everything that is objectionable.

My American friends have told me that as children each time they were scolded by their parents for wasting food, they were almost always reminded that, “there are people starving in Africa who need it.” It is still the case today.

As an undergraduate in mass communication, one of my intellectual interests was media and cultural imperialism. But my exposure to the literature on the portrayals of Africa in the Western media did not prepare me for what I have been witnessing since I’ve lived in this country.

My first shock came when one of my students in Louisiana—a Black student—asked me if we live in houses in Africa. Before I recovered from my disbelief, she said she asked the question because I—and most Africans she has met in the United States— didn’t fit the stereotypes of Africans she had seen on TV and in movies.

“You don’t look like a person who just started wearing clothes and living in houses in America,” she said. “I just want to know the truth about Africa.”

Several other Black people have asked me similar ignorant and bigoted questions. Being Black insulates the questioners from charges of racism or xenophobia. (It’s for the same reason that Koinage is such a perfect person to do the kinds of reports he does about Africa).

White people ask the same questions in less direct ways. But, in a sense, these people really have no option but to nurse these unflattering stereotypes about Africa. A lot them have never been to Africa. Their only experience of Africa is mediated by their national broadcast media, which perpetually show invidiously stereotypical portrayals of Africa for all kinds of reasons.

There is, for instance, a deliberate policy in the American media never to show our real homes and towns and cities in almost all their news reports. The visuals that accompany stories about Africa are usually library pictures of flyblown slums, makeshift huts of refugees in war-torn countries, and naked, starving children with sunken eyes, protruded stomachs and flies hovering around them.

Sometime early last year or so when the president of the World Bank visited Nigeria, I was hoping that, finally, the U.S. broadcast media would be forced to show Abuja in its beauty and splendor. I thought they would at least show the World Bank president and, in the process, show parts of Abuja. I was wrong.

The only visual that accompanied the story on the domestic CNN was that of President Obasanjo and the World Bank president inspecting local farms. The impression was created that the farms were Abuja and the bedraggled farmers in the background were Abuja residents.

Nobody whose sole knowledge of Africa is mediated only through these kinds of images will ever think there are houses in Africa—or that the people who live in Africa wear clothes.

This column will be concluded next week.

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