Posts Tagged ‘The Guardian’

Will they ever learn…?

August 14, 2021

These are the pitfalls of writing a wrapup of an entire continent in a single piece…. From yesterday’s Guardian, no less…

…in which the Sahel, a region twice the size of Germany, France and Spain combined is reduced to a single paragraph, where hardly anything is accurate. Here it is.


“In the Sahel, the economic impact of the pandemic has further weakened administrations that were already struggling to find resources for security forces, and has aggravated tensions between communities that have helped Islamic extremists make inroads in recent years. Across the region, as elsewhere on the continent, trade routes have been blocked, investments abandoned, and the flow of the remittances from overseas workers and the diaspora on which millions depend for everything from school fees to food has been significantly reduced. Overseas aid is also likely to be reduced. Local and national elections have been postponed due to the virus, raising tensions and causing instability.”

Oh dear, this is looking grim. It is almost universally…er, how do I put this politely…massively exaggerated? Not as close to the truth as it hopes to be? Distorted? Yup. All of the above. Let’s have a look, then.

One: the violence. The impact of the pandemic in the areas where the fighting is happening is…nil. Sure, there has been more police repression in the cities as a result of Covid measures being introduced but villages do not get attacked because there is a pandemic but because the State is absent. To the best of my knowledge, none of the major cities have seen terorist attacks since 2016, I’d say, with the last major one on the coast. And these tensions predate the pandemic by half a decade or longer. Besides, it is becoming clearer that a lot of what the villagers suffer is the result of ordinary banditry, nothing to do with Islamic extremism. Jihadists are absolutely a factor and a presence and they have an uncanny aptitude to home in, laser-like, onto existing tensions and exploiting them. Of that, there is no doubt but the impact and influence of ‘the fools of god’, as they are known here, must not be exaggerated. And it must certainly not be reduced to the only story to be told about the Sahel, as far too many media do.

Two: trade. Sure, the trade routes may have been hampered because the borders have been closed but they were never blocked. The coastal countries that closed their borders to the landlocked Sahel made it clear that this would not affect vital supplies like food and medicine. This is why there was never an empty shelve in any shop or supermarket. To see that you must go to Brexit Britain. Trade may have been reduced in some areas as it was made difficult for traders to transport their wares in person. But they took to using tried and tested smuggling routes to get their stuff from one place to another.

Three: have elections been postponed? Not to my knowledge… Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea (not in the Sahel, I agree) held highly controversial elections last year. Niger elected a new president and in Bukina Faso we wil not have elections because none have been scheduled. The two exeptions are Chad and Mali. This is because there were two coups (Mali) and a (mind you: just re-elected!!!) president was killed in battle and then replaced by his son (Chad), another well-established tradition although sometimes the son is so deeply detested that the people put a stop to it, as they did in Senegal in 2012 and arguably in Mali last year.

Investments, remittances and aid have indeed been significantly reduced. But this is the effect of measures taken in countries that have been much worse affected by the pandemic than has the continent of Africa, exceptions duly noted. And here also we must be precise. The issue of remittances will have had the largest impact by a country mile. Family members sending money back home keep entire towns alive and thriving, from Louga in Senegal to Kayes in Mali and the many villages across this vast region.

As for investments, one should be told where these were supposed to go, so we can assess the impact. For instance, a lot of investment in Mali and Burkina Faso goes into mining, which tends to have a detrimental effect on the environment and the surrounding communities, while the employment it creates is negligible. And regarding aid… Suffice here to repeat, once again, that were it to stop today hardly anyone here would notice, with the exception of the well-heeled but tiny middle class this industry has spawned. You would see a few fewer FourWheelDrives out on the streets and the roads but I am sure people will quickly find better things to do with their time than sit in endless workshops that cost the earth and achieve nothing.

In a famous TED talk, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – and The Guardian worships the ground she walks on – warned against what she termed “the single story”, gross simplifications of complex places and peoples. Perhaps the Guardian could heed her advice and stop pontificating about an entire continent in pieces like these, just like we are currently being spared the dreadful spectre of writers poducing 300 to 700 page bricks about this continent. And to the best of my knowledge this is only done to “Africa”. Why is that? Someone produce a 700-word paper on that, please.

A plea for accuracy – 5 and end

December 16, 2018

Here it is, then: the last instalment of my brief end-of-year reflection…

Yes, I can hear the objections, as in: what we are seeing today are all baby steps towards fascist rule. Let’s be clear about this: in the context of the ruin that was 1920s and 30s Europe, the rise of fascism was swift and ruthless. The defences were down and thus the disease could spread rapidly. While there are definitely signs of the disease present in today’s society, there are institutional and even personal defences in place to prevent it from taking over the body politic.

None of this means we should let down our democratic guard. But vigilance is helped enormously by proper analysis and this is in extremely short supply. Analysis is often replaced by emotion-charged muddled thinking, resulting in rants where institutional organisation (the separation of powers), civil society (media and trade unions) and the political process are mixed up and/or misrepresented; locate the opinion section in pretty much any edition of The Guardian for a sample. From this whirling maelstrom of confusion we are supposed to gain a sense of impending doom without being handed the tools to prevent it – but we get to acknowledge that we readers, like the author, are all on the (politically) correct side of history. Because Orange Man Bad. Or something.

These rants are symptomatic of Western society’s therapeutic tendencies. The comments under such articles frequently reinforce the belief that we’re seconds from Fascist End Times and Eternal Darkness is about to descend upon is, the next Hitler has arrived… Hyperbole has replaced clear-headed thinking. But this is not the 1930s and we are not in Germany or Italy. It is deeply depressing to have to point out this simple fact.

Fascism is not “a policy I disagree with”, neither is it “an elected leader who does not represent my preferences”. As long as those elected leaders can be removed – and there is zero evidence that this has become impossible – you may have elected leaders with unsavoury ideas and bad manners but you do not have a fascist in the house.  The idea that parliamentary democracy can be abolished overnight, Europe 1930s fashion, betrays a shocking lack of faith in well-established institutions: checks and balances, parliamentary control, an independent judiciary, separation of powers, strength of civil society, the lot.

Intellectual rigour is vital, especially when the open sewer known as social media leaks its effluvium every minute of the day and newspapers (supposedly of record) are all too frequently caught serving a false narrative. The Fourth Estate is most certainly in great need of some re-appraisal and must re-assess its position and especially its role as the broadcasting arm of some political party – or tendency. This has been a creeping and pernicious tendency. Remember Bush and Blair’s WMDs? A piece of utterly cynical fakery that ended the life of a British weapons expert with impeccable credentials, Dr David Kelly, by his own hand. Everyone went along for the dishonourable ride that ended up giving the world ISIS. And does anyone still think that removing Ghadaffi from power in Libya was the brilliant and necessary idea everyone told us it was? None of the main players in these pieces of disgusting geopolitical theatre has ever apologised, let alone been brought to justice. None of those players now crying “fascism” at every turn – and peddling the latest tale, this time tinged with bouts of hysterical Russophobia – have any lessons to teach us about morality or political integrity. Oh and just to be sure: neither does the other side. I am an equal opportunity curmudgeon.

It is useful to know who and what you are dealing with. To describe the enemy accurately makes tackling the problem easier. Resurgent groups that are recycling fascistic themes most decidedly are the enemy. They lie, they solve nothing and invariably end up making life miserable for everyone. But an attack with terminology that no longer has any meaning renders that struggle more difficult. ‘You keep using that word…’ If we stop mindlessly throwing it around, then I think this piece has served its purpose. An early and excellent 2019 to you all.