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Ideas

Why Western Outrage At War In Europe Never Makes It To Africa

The way armed conflicts have been represented in fiction for decades could explain the racism that has been revealed in Western media coverage of the war in Ukraine compared to multiple conflicts over the years in Africa.

Picture of a woman holding a child

The Lost Girls of Sudan are refugees living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, about 90 miles south of the Sudan border.

Aïda N'Diaye*

Double standards. That is what is striking when we compare the political and media treatment of the war in Ukraine — and the massive exodus this conflict is creating — to the treatment (or non-treatment) of the multiple crises that have similarly affected African countries in recent decades.

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For example, think back to CBS News special correspondent Charlie D’Agata’s statement on Feb. 25: ”This is not a place […] like Iraq or Afghanistan […]. Kyiv is a relatively civilized city,” he said to underline what he found particularly shocking about the images shot in Ukraine.


The war would therefore be "abnormal" in the West and "normal" elsewhere.

No music on the battlefield

Let’s take a step back. How could the representation of the war have led the imagination to the point of saying something so astonishing?

In real life, no music accompanies bombings or the exodus of civilians

During Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech in front of the U.S. Congress on March 16, I was shocked to hear the music that accompanied the images of the destroyed city of Kharkiv to illustrate what Ukrainian civilians were going through on a daily basis.

As if we needed to use codes of fiction (sound and music) to see reality (the horrors of war). As if we were incapable of understanding what war really is when what we perceive in reality does not resemble enough the image that we have forged through fiction.

In real life, no music accompanies bombings or the exodus of civilians. However, the images of war seem more realistic and more touching when they resemble those we see at the cinema or on television, music included.

It was a strange turning point that underlines the complexity of the articulation between fiction and reality, as well as its importance in our perception of events.

Photo of some members of Yemeni government forces

Yemeni government army are seen in Harad District, Hajjah Province, northwestern Yemen

Mohammed Al-Wafi/Xinhua/Zuma

Different movie portrayals 

Not only do westerners not see, or do not want to see, the images of the war on the African continent, what they do see is often through the lens of fiction — often big, American productions. In these representations, war “over there” is essentially depicted as savage, barbaric, uncivilized, to the point where it will drive the participating Western soldier crazy.

Fiction revisits dominant stereotypes in reality — in this case, racist ones

He will often come back shattered, unable to readapt to society or a “civilized” life. The Russian enemy is often characterized by his intelligence, which he is associated with evil (this was the case recently in Black Widow or in the last James Bond movie).

Meanwhile, for the African man, evil is manifested through barbarism — for example in Beast of No Nation or in Black Hawk Down.

Dominant stereotypes 

When war is shown on the European continent, it is another image that takes shape, that of the “before,” that of the previous century or centuries. Westerners, therefore, have not built an image of war that is compatible with their current so-called “civilized” societies (that is another debate).

It is not a coincidence that Emmanuel Macron has used the word “war” to describe the COVID-19 pandemic: war, a real one, seemed unimaginable at the time…

So there is a vicious cycle between reality and fiction. Fiction revisits dominant stereotypes in reality — in this case, racist ones. In so doing, it acts on our perception of reality versus what really happens (here, the mobilization of Westerners in the face of war tragedy). Africans are the ones paying the price for these types of games.

*Aïda N'Diaye is a writer, teacher and philosopher

**This article was translated with permission from its author

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photo of Senegal President Macky Sall coming out of his airplane

President of Senegal Macky Sall arrives Monday at Andrews Air Force Base for the U.S.-Africa summit. Md., Dec. 12, 2022.

U.S. Air Force, Airman 1st Class Isabelle Churchill
Alex Hurst

-Analysis-

Some 100 of the most important political eyes in Africa aren’t turned towards the U.S. this week — they’re in the U.S. For the first time in eight years, the White House is hosting 49 African heads of state and leaders of government (and the Senegalese head of the African Union) for a U.S.-Africa summit. Not invited: any nation that has recently undergone a military putsch, or otherwise not in good standing with the African Union, like Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Sudan.

It’s only the second such summit, after Barack Obama held the inaugural one in 2014. For African nations, it’s a chance to push for trade agreements and international investment, as reports FinancialAfrik, as well as to showcase their most successful businesses. According to RFI, dominant in its coverage of West Africa, on the agenda are: fighting terrorism, climate change, food security, and a financial facility intended to facilitate African exports to the U.S.

These themes are recurrent in national coverage and official diplomatic communiqués, from the likes of Cameroon (whose communiqué pointedly notes the U.S.’s “lack of colonial history” in Africa), which is seeking to regain access to the the U.S. market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, to Madagascar, which as an island nation, is particularly concerned with climate change.

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But is the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and the accompanying nice talk all just cynical cover for what are, in fact, purely U.S. strategic interests in its wider global competition with China? That’s certainly the message from Chinese media — but also a point of view either echoed, or simply acknowledged as matter of fact, by African voices.

“No matter how many fancy words the U.S. uses, the country still sees Africa as an arena to serve its strategic goal of competing with China,” Liu Xin writes for China’s state-run Global Times.

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