Africa Through the Globe and Mail's Canadian (Corporate) Lens
An En Camino Media Alert
August 01, 2003
In the month of July, the Canadian media discovered Africa, as did much of the rest of the Western world's mainstream media. There were 28 articles on Africa over the first 18 days of July. Some of these articles tackled long-standing issues: AIDS in southern Africa, the civil war in the Congo, the civil war in Liberia, political conflict in Zimbabwe. Other aspects were not dealt with: privatizations and evictions in South Africa, IMF/World Bank restructuring throughout Africa over a period of decades that has devastated the public health infrastructure and aggravated every public health crisis, including AIDS, to a devastating degree.
In any case, the main reason for the increased coverage of Africa in the newspapers was simple: George W Bush, President of the United States, was making a visit to the region. It was this visit that led the journalists of corporate media outlets to discover problems and stories that had been present all along. But, as a look at the Globe and Mail's coverage shows, these journalists presented distorted and incomplete information in ways that are all-too serviceable to powerful interests in the West.
Of the 28 articles, one was about a stowaway on Bush's jet. Another was about Africa's first 'Reality TV' show. Of the articles dealing with substantive issues, however, there are two threads that can be discerned. The first is the concept of 'intervention'. In one way or another, over half of the articles in the Globe and Mail called for some sort of US intervention into African countries. Such calls could not be made without distorting or ignoring the real history of US interventions in Africa and elsewhere. The second thread is on the public health situation in Africa, specifically dealing with HIV/AIDS. The articles on this topic also avoided the responsibility of institutions like the IMF and World Bank in destroying the (precarious to begin with) public health infrastructures of Africa's countries.
The Globe and Mail on July 5 had 6 pictures of 'Fallen African Dictators' compiled by Christine Boyd, with captions explaining their history. One of these dictators was Mobutu Sese-Seko of the Congo. His caption read: "The former chief of staff took control of the Belgian Congo, and renamed it Zaire, in 1965. He robbed the treasury of billions of dollars before being overthrown in 1997. He died in Morocco in 1997." In fact, Mobutu "took control of the Belgian Congo" after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, a popular leader from whose assassination the Congo still has not recovered. There is considerable evidence, reviewed by William Blum in his book, "Killing Hope" (Common Courage Press, 1995) that the US was involved in the assassination:
"A 28 November CIA cable indicates that the Agency was involved in tracking down the charismatic Congo leader. The cable spoke of the CIA station working with the Congolese government to get the roads blocked and troops alerted to close a possible escape route of Lumuba's. The United States had also been involved in the takeover of government by Mobutu-whom author and CIA-confidant Andrew Tully described as having been 'discovered' by the CIA. Mobutu detained Lumumba until 17 January 1961 when he transferred his prisoner into the hands of Moise Tshombe of Katanga province, Lumumba's bitter enemy. Lumumba was assassinated the same day… In 1978, former CIA Africa specialist John Stockwell related in his book how a ranking Agency officer had told him of driving around with Lumumba's body in the trunk of his car, 'trying to decide what to do with it.' What he did do it has not yet been made public." (pg. 159)
In 1994/5, when the Rwandan genocide was underway, the United States prevented actions that could have stopped it. The mainstream media went along. Steve Shalom's 1996 Z Magazine article reviews some of this record (http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/april96shalom.htm):
"Some have argued that Clinton was here responding to public opinion, particularly after the debacle in Somalia. However, in April 1995 four out of five Americans believed the UN had a responsibility to intervene in conflicts marked by genocide. Despite the obfuscation by U.S. officials as to what was going on in Rwanda, a poll taken in June and July 1994, during the genocide, found that 61 percent would have favored U.S. participation in a "large" UN force to "occupy" Rwanda and "forcibly stop the killing."
Unlike the public, the mass media were urging that Rwanda be ignored. The New York Times editorialized that "the world has little choice but to stand aside and hope for the best" (April 23), Clinton "has rightly resisted" the call to expand UNAMIR (May 18), and deserves credit for his "prudence" (July 30). The New Republic in an editorial entitled "Why Not Rwanda?" acknowledged that genocide was going on, and that the catastrophe dwarfed that going on in Bosnia, but nevertheless considered it appropriate to do nothing more than provide humanitarian relief in Rwanda because Rwanda's "chaos may trigger a parallel disaster in its sister republic of Burundi, but nowhere else," while neutrality in the Balkans might encourage chaos in "strategically vital parts of the world.""
It is worth looking into what Shalom describes as 'the debacle in Somalia' in more detail, since the Globe and Mail also mentions Somalia. On July 4, the G & M featured an article by Marcus Gee called "George Bush, Save Liberia". Gee believes that "A forceful intervention in Liberia by the world's superpower would demonstrate that the United States is genuine when it says that it stands for human rights and democracy", but that "a Liberian intervention would also carry risks. Americans remember well what happened in Somalia a decade ago. The United States listened then, sending 25,000 troops to help end a deadly famine. They became the target of warlords and, after 18 soldiers were killed on day in Mogadishu, Washington made the decision to withdraw."
Gee doesn't mention that between 7-10,000 Somalis were killed in the same intervention-that, in other words, hundreds of Somalis were killed along with every American soldier. If the Globe and Mail's writers want to make the argument that the US should intervene because African lives count, shouldn't they be able to count African lives themselves?
If these brief sketches of the US role in Africa suggest anything, it is that the US intervenes for its own interests, and that its interventions, when they occur, tend to be extremely destructive. Gee's failure to understand this is unsurprising, but the Globe and Mail featured articles by more sensitive writers who were clearly far more knowledgeable about Liberia as well. Gerry Kaplan, a former CUSO volunteer, wrote a piece on the US role in Liberia for the G & M on July 8. Kaplan's article goes into the long US history in the country:
" In 1926, in return for generous considerations, they bestowed on the Firestone and Goodrich companies a 99-year lease for the world's largest rubber estate, which was duly protected by the might of the US navy. The US trained the Liberian army, which fought 23 brutal wars against local uprisings; the US intervened directly on the army's behalf in 9 of them. As with Latin America, many top officers of this thuggish military were trained in the US."
And more recent history:
"In 1980, a little-known, barely-educated sergeant named Samuel Doe, who had been trained by the American Green Berets, stormed the President's mansion, disemboweled the corrupt old head of state, turned the country into the preserve of his own small ethnic group, and was promptly embraced by the United States. Samuel Doe was dumb as a door, yet savvy enough to protect American interests as his predecessors had done-the Voice of America's propaganda transmitter, the US Navy's navigation system, the American embassy's Africa-wide intelligence-gathering capacities, the CIA's base for subverting Libya."
"A grateful America responded. Between 1980 and 1985, this brutal, tyrannical, destructive regime, routinely repressing and murdering any Liberian not a member of Doe's own ethnic group, received more than $1/2 billion from the US, more per capita than any other country in Africa. Many of the arms carried by those child soldiers we see on TV were a contribution from the United States. Doe was welcomed to the White House by Ronald Reagan, who announced how pleased he was to meet "Chairman Moe." In 1985, Reagan's chief African advisor hailed a farcical election as a " democratic experience that Liberia and its friends can use as a benchmark for future elections." Doe's successor, Charles Taylor, indicted for crimes against humanity, is another benchmark."
At the end of this display of understanding of the motives and effects of US intervention, Kaplan calls for-a US intervention! "George Bush should intervene not out of great humanitarian motives, but out of basic accountability. For damages knowingly incurred, his country owes Liberians compensation in full." This is no doubt true-the question is whether 'compensation' should come in the form of a US intervention, given the established pattern of such interventions.
Public Health, HIV/AIDS
In a 2002 Z Magazine Article, I reviewed some of the effects of Structural Adjustment Programs on African economies:
"Since the 1980s, Africa has suffered over 42 structural adjustment programs (SAPs). Structural adjustment typically features: privatization of public industries and services, deregulation of labor and environmental standards, the downsizing of public sector workforce and services-including health and education and subsidized food-a contraction of the essential public services in poor countries.
"In Zaire (formerly the Congo), for example, in 1984, an SAP led to 80,000 health and education workers being cut from government payrolls. It is difficult to calculate the ripple effects of such a move-in lost incomes for whole families, in the losses of the services those workers provided, in the loss of the spending they would have done, in the weakening of the organizations that were left without them. In 1985, Ghana employed 1,782 doctors. In 1992, it employed 965.
"The SAPs have not led to the reduction of Africa's debt, whose principal has been paid back many times over. Debt service takes an appalling share of income countries need to keep their people alive, and it also forces countries to keep their economies oriented to production of exports to earn foreign exchange. For every aid dollar received by Africa in 1993, three dollars left Africa in debt service; four-fifths of Uganda's export earnings go to debt service. Between 1990-1993, African countries spent $13.4 billion in debt service-4 times what they spent on health. That Africa produces cash crops for export and imports food is not good for its own food security, but it is good for Western agribusiness, which gets a market in Africa at the expense of land reform and the alleviation of hunger there."
The SAPs, along with the military interventions, were the gifts of the West towards Africa after independence. Before independence was the era of colonialism, in which Africa's economies and infrastructures were destroyed and then rebuilt to facilitate the shipment of its raw materials to Europe. Before colonialism was the era of slavery, in which Africa's social structures were undermined and destroyed by the slave trade and the economic and social devastation that slavery brought. For this record, it is certainly true that the West owes Africa 'compensation in full'. But the G & M's coverage does not provide this crucial historical background.
In a July 16 editorial, for example, the G & M said that it would take a concerted African effort to tackle corruption, improve health services and infrastructure, to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis. But the diversion of resources to debt service and the role of SAPs in undermining that infrastructure went unmentioned. Victor Malarek reported on the scale of the health crisis in Africa, citing a UN report of 22 million Africans killed by AIDS and 13 million orphaned. But this article, too, lacked an analysis of the role of SAPs. An understanding of history could have helped David Malone write a better article on July 2. His piece, called 'Africa's Vicious Circle', described a cycle where increased conflict led to less investment, aid, and reform, which in turn leads to increased conflict. But the 'cycle' is an inheritance of centuries of slavery, colonialism, and malicious 'intervention' that continuous to the present without ever having been stopped, let alone reversed by reparations.
Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets call for more intervention and obscure the real interests motivating Bush's visit and attention to Africa. The current US regime is more oil-minded than most, and oil is just one corporate interest at stake in Africa, as Suraya Dadoo reports:
"In May 2001, the Bush administration released its report for national energy policy. The administration's plan called for a major diversification of American oil supplies away from the politically volatile Persian Gulf to "friendlier" Sub-Saharan Africa - in particular the Gulf of Guinea expanse. The arc from the Ivory Coast in the northwest to the western coast of South Africa in the south contains proven deposits, mostly offshore, amounting to 20-30 billion barrels. West Africa already supplies about 12% of US crude oil imports, and America's National Intelligence Council predicts that this share will rise to 25% by 2015."
As July ended, the Liberia story continued to reach the headlines, but the rest of Africa faded back into relative invisibility. Africans have not been served well by being simultaneously ignored and plundered by the West. But when the mainstream media chooses to 'cover' Africa, as the Globe and Mail did during Bush's visit, the results are still of more service to elites in the West than to the people in Africa-or, indeed, to anyone who relies on the mainstream media to get a reasonable picture of the world.
Write to Christine Boyd: email@example.com
Write to Marcus Gee: firstname.lastname@example.org
Write to Victor Malarek: email@example.com
Write to David Malone: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ask them why they do not include more historical context, and ask them why key information on the actual role of the West has not been presented in articles calling for more intervention of the West into Africa. As emotional as these issues are, En Camino requests that you please be non-abusive in your letters.