I was recently sent an article published by the UK’s Mail Online with the eye-catching headline: “Brutal Central African dictator who rules his country with an iron-fist and ‘skins enemies alive and eats their testicles’”.
At first I thought it was a bad joke. But it wasn’t. I was shocked that a mainstream news organisation in a developed country could use such an unbalanced, ill-informed and prejudiced headline in its reporting of an African country – in this case, Equatorial Guinea. I thought the United Kingdom, where I have many friends and enjoy visiting, had progressed beyond racism but clearly many of its institutions, including the Daily Mail website, are struggling to update their view of the world, much as the African country in the article is struggling to transition to democracy.
During my years at the UN and as minister of foreign affairs for Somaliland, I regularly faced the challenges of transitioning African states and the constant need for better governance. It is a sad reality of my continent but understandable as it pulls itself along this new road. Africa was given democracy before the foreign ink drawing out our borders had dried. In short, the desire for democracy in its broadest forms was created in a vacuum. The institutions of state necessary to drive, foster and protect democracy were not yet formed. Democracy in African states today is still in relative infancy. The international community understands this and needs patience with it.
It is fair for the Mail Online to call for more democracy in Equatorial Guinea. That’s what the international community, the people of Equatorial Guinea and indeed all African governments, want. At no point does the Mail Online contain a response from the President’s office to these allegations as it should do for balanced and non-prejudiced reporting.
A state must progress according to its circumstances and culture if the foundations are to last and democracy is to flourish. I am not being an apologist for African leaders, or President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in particular, but my point is that while progress needs accelerating, we must approach the issue with a sound, informed understanding and be willing to hold out our hands to help a country along the path to democracy.
In my opinion, western media reporting of African governments is often ignorant over facts and coloured by a post-colonial view of the region, bordering on racism.
The Mail Online report’s main source is Severo Moto, who it describes as a rival. It does not tell the reader that Moto is accused of breaking international law in supporting and fomenting a failed coup in 2004, organised by British financiers and involving Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
President Obiang is not alone in being targeted in this way. Sooner or later most African presidents come in for this kind of treatment, often by journalists who still seem to think of Africa as a continent populated by savages. They fail to understand the challenges facing Africa’s modern leaders, who have worked to leave this kind of nonsense behind in the interests of creating lasting legacies for their people.
I first visited Equatorial Guinea in the early 1990s when the UN building was little more than a temporary hut surrounded by lush rainforests and accessed by dirt roads. On my return years later, I saw dual carriageways, office buildings, sprawling public housing and something else – young couples and friends laughing and drinking in the bars around the streets of the capital, Malabo. Not the picture of a repressed, terrified and disadvantaged society the Mail Online would have us believe.
Such progress in the evolution of Equatorial Guinea was evident, regardless of shortcomings in the democratisation of the state. On the latter the president needs to be as industrious as he was in building infrastructure. He should be open and welcome to ideas and those who come with a genuine desire to help progress. I left optimistic that at least the path to democracy could now travel on super highways rather than dirt tracks.
What disturbs me and my fellow Africans most is the inherent prejudice with which the continent is judged. Relying on a biased source, news articles such as the Mail Online’s serve to propagate old racial stereotyping. The newspaper should apologise not only to the president, but to all Africans.
Mohamed Yonis is a Somaliland diplomat and the country’s former minister of foreign affairs.
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