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Is the Western media perception of Africa racist?

August 16, 2023 at 1:47 pm

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the Mandela Washington Fellowship Summit for Young African Leaders in Washington, DC, August 2, 2023 [SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images]

Racism goes beyond the use of certain words or discrimination in everyday life. It is also about political perceptions, intellectual depictions and collective relationships.

Consider, for example, the way that Africa is currently being portrayed in the news. From a political viewpoint, Africa is seen as a singular entity, but not in a positive way, as in a united continent.

Mainstream Western media coverage of the US-Africa Summit held in Washington last December presented all of Africa as poor and desperate. The continent, we gleaned from the headlines, was willing to pawn its political position on the Russia-NATO conflict in exchange for money and food. 

“Biden tells African leaders US is ‘all in’ on the continent,” an Associated Press headline announced on 15 December. The phrase “all in” is used in poker when someone is willing to risk it all; it was cited many times in the US and Western media.

The US president offered Washington’s unconditional commitment “to supporting every aspect of Africa’s growth,” reported AP. But “growth” had little to do with Biden’s offerings. He merely tried to outbid Russia’s support for Africa so that the latter would adopt an anti-Moscow stance. He failed. 

READ: Africa cannot turn page on colonialism except through independence of Western Sahara

When a Russia-Africa Summit took place on 27-28 July, the US-Western media lashed out, presenting Africans as political vagabonds yet again, while belittling the strategic value of such a meeting for both Russia and African countries. A CNN headline began with “Isolated Putin…” while a Reuters headline read “Putin promises African leaders free grain”.

Very little mention was made of African leaders spending a lot of time discussing a possible role in looking for a peaceful resolution to the horrific war underway in Ukraine. Indeed, several of them articulated a sincere political discourse, rejecting imperialism, neo-colonialism and military interventions.

Moreover, there was little media discussion that Africa, like Europe, is entitled to negotiate a stronger political position in world affairs. Instead, the coverage seemed to centre around the Black Sea Grains Initiative brokered in July last year, insinuating that Russia is threatening food security in an already impoverished continent.

This, however, was hardly the case. In a speech at the Economic Forum in Vladivostok last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that, of the 87 grain-loaded ships, only 60,000 tons out of two million reached the UN World Food Programme. Although Putin’s overall figures were contested, the UN’s Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) said in a statement published by Euronews that, “Putin is correct to say only a small amount has been shipped under the World Food Programme.”

Even though Western countries have been the largest recipients of grain shipped through the Black Sea, no mainstream media has made it a mission to depict Europeans as starving populations or worse. Europe is hardly presented as greedy either. Indeed, the blame is never attributed to Europe and its colonialism, weapons and political meddling. The finger of blame is always readily pointed elsewhere.

This headline in The Conversation is a good illustration: “Putin offers unconvincing giveaways in a desperate bid to make up for killing the Ukraine grain deal”. Such bias is astonishing.

The truth is that African leaders were not looking for “giveaways”, but were hoping to negotiate a stronger geopolitical position in a vastly changing global political map. Just like everybody else.

Whether Putin’s “bid” in Africa was “desperate” or not, it matters little. The bias, however, becomes clear when the alleged Russian desperation is compared with the outcome of last year’s US-Africa summit. Biden’s “bid” was presented as an attempt at building bridges and creating opportunities for future cooperation. All, of course, in the name of democracy and human rights.

The misrepresentation of Africa can also be viewed independently of the Russia-Ukraine war. Take, for example, the way that Western media dealt with the Niger military coup last month.

Niger is one of the Sahel countries in Africa, nations that have all been colonised by France. Decades after these countries gained nominal independence, Paris has continued to exert strong political influence and economic control. This is called neo-colonialism, and it ensures that the mineral wealth of former colonies continues to be exploited by former colonial states. It is a fact that Niger’s wealth of uranium ore has helped fuel more than a quarter of nuclear power stations in the EU, and much of those in France.

A decade ago, France returned to the Sahel region as a military force, in the name of fighting jihadists. Nevertheless, the violence got worse, forcing African Sahel countries to rebel, starting with the Central African Republic, then Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and now Niger.

Little of that context features in the coverage of the coup by the Western media. Instead, like Mali and the others, Niger is depicted as another Russian lackey in Africa.

READ: EU plans to channel more funds to Western Africa to prevent migration

Hence, the CNN headline on 2 August: “A Niger coup leader meets with Wagner-allied junta in Mali”. The broadcaster leaves no room for the possibility that African leaders might have agendas, or political will, of their own.

The West’s problematic relationship with Africa is complex, rooted in colonialism, economic exploitation and outright racism. Africans are good “allies” when they toe the Western line, and hungry, easily manipulated and illegitimate regimes when they reject the conditions imposed on them by the West.

It is time to rethink and confront this demeaning perception. Africa, like all other political spaces, is a complicated and conflicted region, deserving of deep understanding and appreciation, beyond the self-serving agendas of a few neo-colonial Western countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.