For much of last week, the most popular news out of Africa was about a white man, former Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, being in court for the killing of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in South Africa.
Meanwhile, the world media paid much less attention to the United Nations mediating a peace agreement for the Congo conflict, the exodus of 60,000 refugees from a conflict in the Central African Republic, the United States setting up a Predator drone base on the continent, French troops chasing Al Qaeda in Mali, or Egypt’s economy on the verge of collapse as it appeals for foreign loans.
Oh, and then there is the news about the International Criminal Court seeking to put on trial the possible winner of Kenya’s March 4 presidential election, Uhuru Kenyatta. He is wanted for crimes against humanity.
Africa’s worst woes – conflict, poverty, and poor governance – are receiving greater and greater attention from foreign governments, especially in aid and intervention. And yet, among voters in those giving countries, Africa receives little attention – except for sensational news such as the Pistorius murder trial. The severity of Africa’s basic needs are not at all equal to the exposure of those needs to the world.
The US military, for example, is considering a 15-fold increase in its troop levels in Africa, now about 5,000. But few Americans know about or understand the specific security concerns or other issues on the continent in recent years compared with past crises such as famines or the war in Darfur. And few take meaningful action to address them. The one big exception was the brief popularity last year of a viral video, “Kony 2012,” about the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The West has intervened again and again in Africa recently – Somalia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Libya, as well as in the hunt for Joseph Kony’s rebels – while also trying to build up the military forces of African nations and to coax them to intervene in regional conflicts to establish security. Often these efforts succeed or contain a problem. The West’s assistance, however, depends on the humanitarian mood in Europe, the US, and Canada. At a time of budget austerity in those countries and with fewer foreign news bureaus in Africa, Western governments have a difficult time finding a political constituency at home for their actions. In the US, the most popular item for spending cuts is foreign aid, which takes less than 1 percent of the budget.
As much as the West tries to implement the idea of “African solutions to African problems,” it still finds itself leading in the solutions, often with the assistance of the UN or private international groups. A good example was the French invasion of northern Mali in January to roll back a threat by Al Qaeda. Now the French want out, but their withdrawal depends on whether troops from nearby African countries can be trained and financed to take over the mission. The French people supported the invasion but don’t seem willing to support an extended stay.
An uprising last December by rebel groups in the Central African Republic has received very little world attention and yet the spillover of refugees into neighboring countries could lead to regional instability or humanitarian worries about their condition. If the Western leaders are inclined to intervene, will their people even know where the CAR is?
This disconnect between the world’s awareness of Africa and the need to respond to Africa’s problems needs attention itself. Western leaders, such as President Obama, must travel to the continent more often. News coverage must increase. African leaders need to engage the outside world more. Perhaps then news of a sensational killing in Africa won’t receive more attention than it should.