Experiences

Getting Lost At The EU-Africa Summit

It is easy to forget that Brussels is the second most powerful city in the world. The smell of frites fill the air, policemen stroll down the streets puffing on cigarettes and tourists huddle around a statue of a tiny, peeing boy. It is an unkempt, slightly disorganised town, not quite the capital city home to the European Union, NATO and, of course, the Belgian government. Then Obama arrived, closely followed by Chinese Premier Xi Jingpao. A week later around sixty Heads of State from both Europe and Africa follow suit.

Within a matter of days, Brussels exploded into a flurry of policemen and barricades. No longer could you park, unticketed, five meters from the Commission building. Snipers lined the buildings outside of the Council and helicopters patrolled the skies day and night.

It was for the Fourth EU-Africa Summit that I had managed to slip out of Oxfam for a couple of days under the guise of a journalist working for the Europhilic online paper CaféBabel to cover this event. My first summit as an amateur journalist would be one which would bring together a bizarre mix democrats, kings, polygamists and bureaucrats in the name of “People, Prosperity and Peace”. This was an opportunity for the populists to say something outlandish, for the political nobodies to huddle with the elites and, at the end, extol a new era as “a partnership of equals”.

History has entwined the two continents, but despite Europe being by far the largest donor of foreign aid, the Summit arrived at a time of tension. Migration and failed trade talks represent two of the key disputes, as well as the older issue of human rights emerging with new crackdowns on LGBT communities. The EU refused to invite a representative from neither Western Sahara nor Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, contributing to Robert Mugabe’s boycotting of the event.

In the jungle of photographers at the VIP entrance, the president of Niger briefly stopped for the camera’s to say “Europe doesn’t care about Africa”.

Expecting further anti-colonial sentiments and heated table-thumping I  headed for the press zone where hundreds of journalists from the global media frantically typed on their computers and consumed copious amounts of coffee. I felt entirely lost, out of my depth. It quickly became apparent to me that, unless you are from high-brow media, you were doomed to watch from the sidelines. Despite frantic requests for interviews with anyone from the King of Swaziland to the President of Latvia, CaféBabel held no swing with their press officers.

My image of stumbling across a story quickly disappeared; this was a job for the BBC or AFP, not a blog with a readership entirely disinterested by African development. Instead, I saw this as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about a continent I know little more about than a few well-constructed Oxfam sound bites.

With this is mind, I wondered across a press briefing from Madagascar. Now this is a country I know nothing about. As I waited for the conference to start, I looked up a few things. Madagascar: unstable political structure, President who resembles Kim Jong-Un, national language French. The last point was disconcerting for me, but I stayed put. In came the President to a room of around seven journalists, surrounded by a few officers, and delivered his speech in a language I could not speak. He looked happy, so I smiled at him, but the other journalists – primarily from African press – were frowning, scribbling frantically on their pads. It later transpired that he was desperately trying to convince us that “rule of law” was being restored in his country.

Outside of the sporadic press conferences, the leaders spent most of their time huddled round conference tables reading statements on issues as broad as trade deals to gay rights, climate change to migration. Naturally my press credentials didn’t allow me access to this room, so like most of the journalists we sat in the press briefing room watching it on a big screen (without translation and streamed online). I think in my mind I imagined walking shoulder-to-shoulder with the leaders, watching their discussions live; not on a TV next to a passed-out cameraman.

Disheartened, I went to a jargon-filled briefing on Europe’s imminent intervention in the Central African Republic; interesting, but uninspiring. I had no story, just a few quotes already broadcast and published online. With little to write about, I headed for the exit. But chance was on my side again as I stumbled in on another press conference; this time with Hollande and Merkel. It was genuinely exciting and the atmosphere was buzzing. It might be true that, for a first time journalist, a summit might not give much room for original thought, but as the two prominent heads of states entered the room, I realised that it didn’t matter. I was sitting in a room with some of media’s biggest European correspondents, watching the President of France and the Chancellor of Merkel deliver their vision on Africa’s future; it might not excite everyone, but it fascinated me.

 

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Commentary

Demystifying South Sudan

AidLeap published a great piece highlighting the attitudes and opinions of South Sudanese people facing an increasingly ominous looking crisis ostensibly about a tussle for power between former Vice President Minister Riek Machar and current President Salva Kiir.

Of course, the conflict also has an ethnic element to it as well as being linked to the ongoing problems the world’s youngest state has had with Sudan, from which it split in 2011. The spectre of the International Criminal Court also looms over the politics of the whole region, with both Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir and Machar himself operating under the threat of prosecution. And, as ever, the neighbouring East African states all have their roles to play – this is a region where pretty much all conflict crosses borders, either by design or by accident.

In short, it’s an extremely complicated and confused series of events leading to tragic consequences.

The most important story is how the people of South Sudan are coping , as AidLeap correctly identified. The report that their post mentions is fascinating, offering glimpses of conflict from the inside. Sure, the ethnic elements to the conflict are obvious but more is revealed. The conflation of the military and the political spheres; the use of political violence as an intimidation tactic leading into the 2015 elections; that the political will of key leaders actively combats democracy to enforce personal power. The responses of these 1200 respondents are nuanced and clear eyed, painting a picture of a crisis that can and does mean a lot of different, sometimes contradictory things*.

Sadly, this is rarely the story that we (as consumers of Western media) get presented. The news agenda tends to have focused, with depressing inevitability, on a) how this will Westerners in the country and b) the well worn clichés of African tribal conflict.

Clearly, these are major issues that I do not wish to denigrate. But there is an enormous amount of context missing from the majority of reports about this conflict. Why is that? Sure, a 2 minute broadcast update on a particular offensive doesn’t give a reporter or news organisation a lot of space to discuss the background in much detail. But long, in depth newspaper copy should be dealing with all these issues.

Even relatively good examples – like this New York Times article – deal with (some) of the other issues related to the conflict but uncomfortably package the whole crisis as to how it relates to US geopolitical interests, rather than, I don’t know, the actual problems that South Sudanese people are going through. Take a look at this quote from the piece. I don’t know about you, but including this quote instead of, say, an opinion from a South Sudanese person smacks of a disturbing lack of interest in real reporting:

“We can’t allow the carnage to go on; we can’t allow the capital to be overrun,” said Tom McDonald, who worked on Sudan issues as the American ambassador to Zimbabwe during the administration of Bill Clinton. “We have too much to lose; we’ve put too much into this.”

No wonder people get annoyed with Western reporting on these kinds of issues. (For the record, there are seven quotes in this piece, none from South Sudanese people, none from East African people).

Even worse, as highlighted by this recent Al Jazeera article, foreign reporting within African countries is largely sourced from Western media organisations. This sort of thing isn’t just making people in Europe or the USA take on skewed views of conflicts like the one in South Sudan, its messing with readers in neighbouring states. Hopefully, more people will turn away from shoddy coverage like this and turn to the blogosphere for real nuance.

Good sources

Three cheers for AidLeap!

Paan Luel Wel, a South Sudanese reporter whose blog gathers news focused on the country.

For Twitter users, I recommend James Copnall, a BBC South Sudan reporter.

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* Interesting as the report was, it was lacking a lot of detail about respondents and, crucially, direct quotes. Perhaps the authors at the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation has a more detailed version which I have not seen? Let me know if you find anything.

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