Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The men who would be president

with 2 comments

by apini

I guess I’m starting with an obligatory Egypt post: I’m ambivalent.  It’s a complicated, messy situation with lots of political, social and economic causes and even more potential outcomes.  I am cautious about revolutions because after all the adrenaline, after the excitement, who will really want to go back to life as usual?  And I’m cautious because I don’t really see how a military take over is any more democratic than Mubarak’s sham elections.

But this post isn’t really about Egypt.  It’s about Cote d’Ivoire.  It’s about another place where democracy had been thwarted by a power-hungry president.  Cote d’Ivoire’s elections were the first since the end of its civil war in 2004.  Significantly, they had already been postponed once in 2007, and then again a week before, finally, runoff voting actually began in November.  When the electorate’s decision was announced by the Electoral Commission in early December, Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down.  This despite the fact that his opponent, Alessane Ouattara, had what in most Western Democracies would be considered a mandate: 54% of the vote to Gbagbo’s 46%.

Since early December, there has been unrest in the country.  Supporters of both candidates have been involved in violence.  Gbagbo sent the military to surround the hotel where Ouattara and his staff are staying.  In the most recently reported developments, Gbagbo has banned UN radio in the country.

Okay, they’re not really a strategic ally in the same way as Egypt.  As the world’s largest producer of cocoa, though, they aren’t insignificant, particularly given the importance of rising food prices to the beginning of these “Middle Eastern” revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.  The BBC has not had any significant coverage of Cote d’Ivoire since the Egyptian crisis began.

So what does this mean?  Well, I have two takes on it: one pessimistic, and one more optimistic, in a pessimistic kind of way.

I suppose the reason I’m outraged by this coverage is that I see it as reflective of the West’s general long-standing attitude toward Africa.  Divisions are described as “tribal” and ancient and written off.   This is part of a wider problem of what I call “media path dependency,” but which Philip Curtin more lengthily (and elegantly) explains as Africa’s image problem in The Image of Africa. Journalists’ (and academics’, and politicians’, and civil servants’, and the publics’) shorthand for understanding and describing what is going on in other parts of the world seems to rely fairly heavily on understandings and descriptions that have remained almost entirely unchanged in meaning (if not in exact language used) since the nineteenth century.  So when writing about political change in the Middle East, the people are staging a revolution against ‘tyrants’; in Africa two sides are described ethnically and their leaders are portrayed as rival ‘Big Men’ or tribal leaders; and in Asia, people rarely rebel, but when they do, it’s against ‘technocrats’.   And so desire to write these stories follows these paths as well: the Middle East is about politics; Africa is about humanitarian intervention in times of tribal chaos; and Asia is about trade.  So unless mass killing starts to take place in Cote d’Ivoire, it’s too confusing a story.  And even if it does, it will only be ‘natural’ and then of course the aid will follow to help the victims.  Africa’s politics are not taken seriously, and neither are the legitimate, democratic demands made by African citizens.  A recent article in The New Yorker pointed out that even opposition leaders resort to shocking stunts in order to draw international attention to ‘developing humanitarian crises’ that in many cases are just political problems gone wrong.

However, there’s another way to think about this that might be more positive (though probably not).   That is, that the West has been messing with Africa’s politics for far too long.  And people who study Africa and know what little media coverage it gets, see themselves (ourselves) as championing the continent and bringing it to the world’s attention.  But does Africa always need our help?  Does Egypt even need our help?  Or are we just getting in the way?  The African Union seems to be taking the lead in Cote d’Ivoire, and maybe that’s not a bad thing (although they now seem to be supporting Gbagbo).  In a lot of situations, the UN and Western countries seem to think they have a moral responsibility to intervene in Africa, even when they don’t (see hand-wringing/excuse-making re: Somalia, Rwanda, DRC, Biafra).   But this isn’t new either: those who felt guilty about the slave trade kept trying to intervene on the slaves’ behalf throughout the 19th century, bringing Christianity, capitalism, and ‘civilization’ and ultimately, colonial rule.  Replace those with development aid, fair trade, and democracy and perhaps a lack of interest from interventionist governments like the US and UK starts to look like a refreshing break with the past.

Obviously this is a difficult position to take if you believe that democracy and liberalism are universally good.  But if you believe that, then I guess you should be outraged that Cote d’Ivoire’s struggle for democracy has been seen its priority fall as politicians and most media outlets turn their attention to the more technologically exciting revolution (popularly supported coup?) in Egypt.


Written by apini

February 14, 2011 at 12:37

2 Responses

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  1. always good to see kids in the US voice “ambivalence” about, you know…wanting mindfulness to prevail is one thing, even recommended, but to be “ambivalent” is pretty much inexcusable.


    February 14, 2011 at 13:59

  2. ambivalence: a state of having simultaneous, conflicting feelings toward a person or thing. i.e. I am pleased that Mubarak is gone; I am not pleased that the military has taken over.

    also, I’m not in the US.


    February 14, 2011 at 14:07

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