Democracy teeters on the brink of obscurity in Cote d’Ivoire, a tropical West African nation rife with verdant cacao trees and, in recent months, bloodshed.

The conflict brewing there stems from a historically sought-after triumvirate — power, money and respect — which illegitimate president Laurent Gbagbo clamored to maintain before his arrest in the nation’s capital on April 11. After losing the country’s 2010 presidential election to Ivorian politician Alassane Ouattara, Gbagbo unleashed armed security forces on protestors decrying his leadership. In brutal retaliation, pro-Ouattara mobs combed cities like Duekoue, Blolequin and Guiglo, where the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) estimates thousands were killed and wounded. The country’s infighting spawned a protracted tug-of-war between Gbagbo’s supporters, Ouattara’s rebel forces and international democracy organizations.

The political instability in Cote d’Ivoire comes on the heels of massive uprisings in North African countries such as Yemen, Libya and Egypt, which prompted round-the-clock coverage on major American media outlets like CNN and MSNBC. In all these countries, hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed and thousands displaced due to violent public uproars. Yet, many foreign relations experts say the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire and other Sub-Saharan African countries garner a modest fraction of news coverage in Western media.

Determining why Western media maintains a love affair with specific African nations – and blatantly snubs others – unearths myriad socio-economic, political and even racial implications.

“There is a bias against Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program. “People have this mindset that it’s somehow less important than the rest of the world because it’s not a strategic priority for the United States. People here are obsessed with the Middle East…because of the strategic interests involved.”

With Libya exporting 1.3 million barrels of oil a day in 2010, according to the International Energy Agency, political stability in the country has global importance. But advocacy organizations are more concerned with human rights abuse and deaths of unarmed civilians in Libya, Cote d’Ivoire and Egypt, many of whom participated in peaceful protests against governmental regimes.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Ravina Shamdasini, at least 536 Ivoirians died as a result of armed conflict in April alone. Add in reported mass rapes and the IFRC-estimated exodus of more than 100,000 Ivoirians to neighboring countries, and it seems likely Cote d’Ivoire’s conflict would rank among top news stories worldwide.

But this has been untrue from a historical perspective, said Yvonne Captain, a professor of international affairs and an African Diaspora expert at The George Washington University.

“It’s certainly true that the francophone, Sub-Saharan African nations and other regions of the world where there are significant populations of people of African descent, receive less media attention,” Captain told the AFRO in an e-mail. “Race is probably a factor, but another big issue is the perception by the media and by many policy decision-makers that interacting with these regions offers no great advantages for the U.S. When you look at or read the coverage about what is happening in countries like Libya and Egypt, there is invariably some coverage of the oil situation and the question of the price of gasoline in this country. In contrast, not much mention is made of the loss of cocoa production in Ivory Coast. After all, our supply of cocoa has not dwindled.”

American reporters alone cannot bring global attention to Cote d’Ivoire’s political nightmare, however. With journalism evolving into a public-driven medium and news organizations worldwide making massive funding cuts, coverage of Cote d’Ivoire’s crisis situation may suffer as reporters lack financial backing.

“The problem with the media here in the U.S., and in general as well, is that they’ve had massive cutbacks. The first thing they cut back on is foreign news coverage, because it’s expensive to run a foreign bureau,” Downie said. “If they’re looking at international coverage, the first continent they’re probably cutting back on is Africa. They seem to think, wrongly, that there’s not so much interest out there in what goes on in Africa.

Also, it’s a very expensive continent to cover because of the communication difficulties, problems with infrastructure and difficulties traveling around.”

Thanks to the advent of social media, some Ivoirians and journalists have provided shocking first-person accounts of violence in the country to international audiences. But poverty prevents the vast majority of people living in Cote d’Ivoire from accessing sites like Twitter and Facebook, widely hailed as groundbreaking promotional and organizational tools in Egypt’s uprising three months ago.

According to statistics compiled by the Central Intelligence Agency, 967,300 Ivoirians had Internet access in 2009. However, more than 21 million people live in the small West African nation, indicating a disparity in Internet access.

Yet Black Americans, who comprise one of the largest user demographics on Twitter, have the technological means to champion African causes with grassroots activism, according to Captain.

“Black Americans should feel that they have a vested interest in what is happening in Ivory Coast and other countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Even before the African Union declared the Diaspora as the sixth region of Africa, it was important for us to feel connected to the continent. However, our knowledge of what goes on there on a regular basis is scanty at best,” Captain said.

“While there have always been some individuals in the Black community who have made it their business to remain on top of current events in Africa, the average Black U.S. citizen does not have Africa on her or his mind. This should change as we become more globally literate.”

 

Kristin Gray

AFRO Managing Editor