Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Africa - the simple version

How many countries are in Africa? The answer is somewhere in the mid-50s, depending on whether you count Mauritius and Madagascar and the like, but to the newsmedia, so far as I can tell, the correct answer is about three. Because that's about as many as can be covered at any given time. Since Sudan is always one of them -- largely at the insistence of Save Darfur and its ilk -- that leaves two open slots for newsworthiness. At the moment, those slots are filled by Zimbabwe -- courtesy of the longest election recount ever that did not take place in Florida -- and Somalia. Think about it: when is the last time you heard any significant coverage about an African crisis that wasn't directly related to those three countries? I'll tell you when: Kenya, back at the start of this year, when Somalia was under Ethiopia's thumb and temporarily out of the news before the UN humanitarian agencies started reminding us again that it is the worst place on earth.

Part of it is that the media assumes the readership can't handle more than 3 African crises at a time, but part of it is that WE can't. I am fully complicit in this of course. Whenever the French Ambassador starts talking about Cote d'Ivoire, I immediately know to skip the comment in my transcript. Not only do I assume my editors and my paper's readership know nothing about this issue... I don't know anything about it either! Does this mean Cote d'Ivoire is unimportant? Not to the Ivorians and their regional neighbors, certainly. But only so many African countries can get consistent press coverage, and long-simmering crises like that one don't make the cut. And the only time anyone ever hears about the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- you know, the one that has killed more people than any war since World War II -- is when a UN peacekeeper gets busted for sexual abuse or gun-running. Or when some Kinshasa sorcerers start engaging in penis theft.

So how many African countries are there? About 3. It's just not always the same 3.

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