Foreign correspondents and false notes

Two things I’ve learned about the popular press in the last few months: you don’t get to pick your own headline, and you don’t want anyone thinking that the inevitable picture of the guy with a machine gun is the author photo (not the one above, although strictly speaking, if his face is hidden, it might be hard to prove he’s not you). On the other hand, reporters writing in places like The Globe and Mail do get to write sentences in which they express astonishment at the presence of “mud huts,” goats and chickens on military bases, and at the sewage flowing in the roads of the garrison town of Kati. (Note to journalist: I really doubt that was raw sewage, but wuluwuluji. Ask someone.)

Local color and snide observations aside, anyone who can keep shining light on the intertwined dangers of an undisciplined army and the bugbear of ethnic militias—as the author of “the West’s Latest Afghanistan” does, and as Tamasin Ford and Bonnie Allen have done—is making a contribution.

So is it the editors who are ginning up and cashing in bad analogies at will? Who wants us to believe that Mali is like Afghanistan?

This is not a new trope: the BBC peddled the same comparison back in June; so did NPR two months later; PressTV, aka “the Iranian CNN,” also ran with it; and more recently, even Immanuel Wallerstein jumped on it as a headline for a blog post on his website. We’re told Mali is a –stan (Africanistan? Sahelistan?), but as Andrew Lebovich and I have argued, it really isn’t. Those who make the analogy almost uniformly leave out what Mali and Afghanistan might actually hold in common—narco-trafficking and the possibility for the countries of the global North to cock the place up completely—in favor of more superficial similarities, like the guys who show up where the author photo is expected to be. Others want to tell us Mali’s like Somalia, a comparison that makes even less sense, unless you’re Africom Commander General Carter Ham. But General Ham means the comparison militarily. In Somalia, the U.S. got Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda do the hard fighting, at heavy cost to them—including attacks on civilians back home—but at little cost to the U.S. Nice solution for the Americans, but a little less appealing to the African neighbors, one would think. The point is that weak analogies taken out of context don’t help our understanding, and when journalists resort to them they often cloud up what’s worthwhile in the reporting itself.

Take it from another angle. If Mali’s great musical tradition can help interest outsiders in the country’s plight, that’s a good thing. These are tense and troubled times for musicians as for everyone else. Writing in the Washington Post, Sudarsan Raghavan gets at that nicely. Still, it’s more than a little jarring to see Tinariwen—vocal supporters of the rebellion that spawned this disaster—presented in a slide show as simple victims. The writer doesn’t get to pick the photos, but they do shape our understanding. A little context, please?

As Raghavan shows, many of Mali’s musicians are in a terrible bind. Even those who aren’t living in fear in the North or exile in the South are suffering from the crisis. In Gao, musicians are hiding, and one of Mali’s great composers and instrumentalists told me the other day that even in Bamako many musicians are afraid to perform for fear of attacks. None have happened, but a recent story in the Malian press about tens of Islamists infiltrating Bamako stoked fears they might, along with a joke from a Malian wag about them joining the tens of thousands who live there already. Not funny at all is a series of kidnappings and arbitrary arrests carried out by the former junta. The arrest of two al Jazeera journalists provoked a justifiable reaction from the hard-working Mohamed Keita at the Committee to Protect Journalists, but soldiers have also hauled off prominent Malian business people in recent weeks. This has also got people on edge, and everything points to a long and grinding period of anxious waiting.

Foreign journalists—and yes, there are some good ones working in West Africa—would do well to get their heads around Mali’s crisis, because all signs are that it will be around for a while. More on that later. It looks like there’s plenty of time.

Comments

comments

Gregory Mann

Gregory Mann is Professor of History at Columbia University. He is author of two books, ' Native Sons' (2006) and From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel (2015).

2 Comments
  1. Mr. Mann is misreading my story, and probably other stories too. Nobody, aside from headline writers, is actually suggesting that Mali is the same as Afghanistan. Anyone can pick apart a long list of differences. The point of my story was simply that a Western military intervention in Mali would have as many obstacles and challenges as the failed intervention in Afghanistan. The analogy is not between Mali and Afghanistan as countries; the analogy is a comparison between the difficulty of fixing Mali with a military solution and the failed attempt to fix Afghanistan with a military solution. It’s an analogy between the US and NATO intervention in Afghanistan, and the planned intervention in Mali by a Western-supported military force, and showing the similar obstacles that both face. The interventions wouldn’t be identical, of course, but there are similarities in the potentially over-reaching goals and the vast challenges that would arise along the way.
    Rather than making the obvious point that Mali is different from Afghanistan, shouldn’t we try to learn from the failures of the past and see how they’re applicable to the future? Afghanistan is a very different country from Vietnam and Somalia, and any analogy between those countries could be attacked as “bad” or “weak”, but wouldn’t it have been helpful if policy-makers had noted the similar challenges of trying to “nation-build” or “wage a counter-insurgency campaign” in any of those three countries? Wouldn’t it have been helpful if those policy-makers had seen the similarities, rather than assuming that they are very different? Those who planned the intervention in Afghanistan could have learned a lot from the Somalia intervention of 1992-94 and the Vietnam intervention of the 1960s, if they chose to look for the similarities, rather than the differences.

  2. At the risk of exposing my ignorance about Mali I have two things to say about this article. 1) at the beginning I thought I was reading one of those satirical pieces that have been written by Binyavanga Wainaina regarding foreign correspondents/journalists in Africa (for reference see this http://www.habibasbookshelf.com/?p=109). 2) I agree with the author ‘s sentiment that Mali is not any of the countries that it is being compared with and I agree with the observation that the media does not provide context most of the times for its presentations thus skewing the message or at least what one would think was the intended message. From my perspective, the correspondents and their media outlets are not vested in communicating or providing context of these crises or situations going on but rather sensationalizing a story often to suit its viewership and that leaves the viewership with the usual “that poor poor forgotten continent”.
    http://www.habibasbookshelf.com

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