Who Really Has the Right Journalistic Perspective on Africa?

By Ben Edokpayi/The Times Senior Contributing Editor

In the dying days of 2014  during the Nigerian presidential elections, and as I worked on a column for a Nigerian news magazine – Tell –  I had read an inflammatory dispatch by Reuters on the same elections. I paraphrased my thoughts essentially with:   “Here we go into another season of headlines by foreign news organizations that inflame, and do not correspond with the body of the story.”

For historical perspectives the Reuters article was titled: “Nigeria election tensions raise specter of break-up.”

The story or opinion piece by a correspondent, Tim Cocks seemed like a patchwork of political views and analysis from around the country indicating tension and frictions that usually precede political seasons anywhere in the world.

As a journalist myself, I think the writer or his copy-desk staff derailed by insinuating a “break-up” of Nigeria in their headlines. Because from what I observed as an election monitor between 2014 and 2015 the Nigerian people were indeed anxious for change in what the story correctly described as the most “divisive and closely fought election since the end of military rule in 1999.”

Nigeria like any other young nation faces unusual challenges but we all know that the world’s biggest and most important black nation country is not “waiting to explode” as a sub-heading in the Reuters story further implied.

In fact, minus the Boko Haram scourge in the northeast I think the parties in the 2015 and 2019 elections, which featured my former colleague, Professor Kingsley Moghalu, as one of the Presidential aspirants, coped well with the contentious issues.

In my humble opinion, the Reuters piece was inflammatory journalism at its best or worst, depending on what side of the argument you are on.

As a matter of fact, the issue of covering Africa in the right manner has been contentious matter, and probably deserves a UN-sponsored study.

And I think Reuters’ mea culpa followed in the form of an outreach in 2015 to be their Bureau Chief in Nigeria. In the apologetic missive sent to me Reuters said it wanted “ an experienced, highly motivated and resilient correspondent as Bureau Chief, Nigeria to oversee coverage of Africa’s most populous nation, its biggest oil producer and largest economy. The successful candidate, based in Lagos, must be fluent across the file – from the latest Boko Haram atrocity, to the impact on global energy markets of an oil spill in the Niger delta, to unorthodox attempts by the central bank to defend the currency. He or she must also have a proven track record of longer-format reporting and writing, including Special Reports. Experience working in hostile and difficult environments, dealing with serious security threats, uncooperative authorities, poor communications and patchy stringers also essential – as is a well-developed sense of humor.”

The job announcement also stated “For all Nigeria’s myriad problems and challenges, it can also be an immensely rewarding place: Nigerians are among the most optimistic, engaging and innovative people in Africa, adept at finding a solution to whatever life, the economy or the government throws at them. From architects of international 419 scams and Nobel prize-winning authors to internationally renowned musicians and mega-star Christian preachers, every Nigerian has a story to tell. Indeed I applied for the position and sent the required documents to Ed Cropley, then the acting sub-Saharan Africa bureau chief and Richard Mably the EMEA regional editor. However, I had to return to California in the summer of 2015 because of a family emergency.

On hindsight, it is noteworthy that Reuters, a British news organization, tried to fix a grave mistake by their copy desk.. Or maybe Mister Cocks was sending an alarm about a strange cock shipped from America to mar the Nigerian elections. Go figure! 

Covering the continent indeed presents some real challenges for which there are no easy answers. The first thing the western media has to realize is Africa is a continent with 54 countries that are uniquely different, and regional nuances that cannot be replicated from country to country, as you may have maybe in Europe.

Nanjala Nyabola, a Harvard Law School writer and political analyst, emphasized this in a recent piece for Al Jazeera.

When a foreign journalist enters a space in which he speaks the formal but only understands the informal, a great deal will necessarily be lost in translation. I believe that it is in this space that most of the mistakes occur when writing about Africa,” she wrote in a piece that was sparked by the slanted coverage by the west of a recent situation in Western Sudan.

Nyabola offered another interesting perspective to the challenge of reporting correctly on Africa when she wrote, “Sending people who speak only English or even Swahili to find people who also speak English or Swahili is always going to create a selection bias, and necessitates a process of translation within which the nuance of coded, non-verbal communication will be lost.”

The Boko Haram scourge triggered a passionate debate with some of my colleagues in America on how to correctly report on Africa.

The debate was sparked off by one of our colleagues in the US-based National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) who informed us after Boko Haram attacks early in January, 2014 that “there is a real hunger for information about what is happening in Nigeria right now, but what little we’re getting in the U.S. is confusing.” 

Tracie Powell, a John Knight Fellowship @ Stanford University, and our obviously concerned colleague in the US was insistent on Nigerian journalists taking the lead on this. But what she was not aware of at that time was the unique challenges local journalists faced, which Eyobong Ita, president of the US-based National Association of African Journalists (NAAJ) tried to convey in one of the exchanges.

“It is even more difficult to cover events in the northern part of the country because of the landscape, language and culture. Among the tools needed to do a good job trying to cover anything in most part of northern Nigeria is an indigenous Hausa language translator and a lot of cash to take care of accommodation, transportation and food. Remember, some of these affected communities may not have hotels and lodging could be miles away,” wrote Ita in one of the exchanges.

From my conclusions while we are quick to accuse the western media for not covering Africa right, the local media in Nigeria should also shoulder some blame too for allowing ethical and other logistical issues affect the way they report on pressing matters affecting the continent.

So what is the way forward?

For the media in Nigeria (I can’t speak for other African countries) there is need to be more daring and resourceful in the way we cover and report issues.

I remember with pride the era of investigative journalism that the late Dele Giwa and founding editors at the one-time Nigeria’s leading news journal, Newswatch turned into an art form. We braved everything including the weather and danger to get exclusive stories. Covering the Lake Nyos disaster in Cameroon is a good example for me; where I braved the elements (as well as getting lost in the forest) to get an exclusive report that was used by the foreign media, including the Voice of America’s Sonja Pace; filed from our hotel in Bamenda. The former managing editor of VOA confessed to me (after stopping halfway in our trek through the tropical rain forest) that that type of assignment was “not in her job description.” The inspiration that kept me and Conrad Akwu, my photographer going, was Giwa’s challenge that “if anybody can get this story for us, Ben will.”

And for the western media? I look to some instructive advice from my learned friend at Harvard who advises that “There is an easy way to resolve this of course: ask Africans what they think and have them tell their own stories, instead of co-opting them to undermine or reinforce existing narratives among the Western audience. But given the aforementioned racial hierarchy of knowledge in the Western public sphere, I doubt this will happen and we should all prepare ourselves for another bout of misunderstanding.”

With more than one billion people and the huge potentials that exist here, I think it’s about time for the western media to stop portraying almost every story that originates from Africa in a negative manner.