Inside Africa: News good enough to bury

I got an e-mail the other day from a friend at the New America Foundation, a Washington public policy institute, inviting me to participate in a panel on "whether the media can handle good news — whether it's on Iraq" or whatever.

By Roger Cohen (Globalist)

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Published: Sun 24 Aug 2008, 11:38 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

I accepted, although there's not much to discuss: The media are lousy at good news (a virtual oxymoron). In my lifetime, conditions have grown immeasurably better, freer and more prosperous for a majority of humanity, yet hand wringing about the miserable remains the reflex mode for most coverage of planet Earth.

Nowhere more so than in Africa, from which I'd just returned when the e-mail landed. During a short stay in Ghana, which will hold free elections in December, Vodafone had bought a majority stake in Ghana Telecom for $900 million (entering a fiercely competitive mobile phone market) and I'd heard much about 6 per cent annual growth, spreading broadband and new high-end cacao ventures.

Accra, the capital, is buzzing. Russian hedge funds are investing. New construction abounds. Technology enables people in the capital to text money transfers via mobile phone to poor relatives in the bush.

I don't think that picture is exceptional these days for Africa, where growth averaged close to 6 per cent last year and I sense a fundamental change in attitudes to governance, trade, the private sector and political accountability.

Sure, corruption is still rampant; Omar Bongo has been ruling Gabon for 41 years; Robert Mugabe wants to emulate Bongo, and a commodity boom has helped the numbers. But if averages meant anything, Africa would be a good-news story these days.

Not least because Africans care about democracy. They know tyranny too well to be tempted by the so-called new authoritarianism.

We've heard much, what with the Russian incursion into Georgia and China's Olympics, of authoritarianism resurgent. It sure doesn't look that way from Africa.

In fact, I don't buy the new authoritarianism, any more than I buy a new Cold War. Technology-driven opening, interconnection and sociability are the fundamental currents of our age.

But a new Cold War has a ring, as does agonising Africa. So the Africa debate is stuck with Darfur, AIDS, hunger, disease, violence. An alternative view would be that Africa is going to be the big success story of the next half century. Just watch its agriculture, which is about to boom.

As it happened, the e-mail was followed by one from my New York Times colleague Dexter Filkins, whose brilliant book on Iraq, The Forever War, will be published next month. Filkins had just arrived back in Baghdad after a long break.

"It's extraordinary," Filkins wrote, "a changed world. Not recognisable. I just went for a run in the park in front of the house, the dead, dying place that you probably remember. At sundown, there were no less than 3,000 Iraqis walking around."

I must have been distracted because I've not clocked that startling image of hope in all the words devoted to whether a "surge" in American troops and shift in their strategy brought decisive change over the past year.

But then the American Iraq debate has never really been about Iraqis. Most people with a strong opinion about the place never bothered to take a look at it. After all, seeing Iraq might raise too many questions or even provoke the thought that velvet ends to murderous despotism are the exception rather than the rule.

Yes, I remember that park. On my first Iraq visit in 2003, a kid smiled at me. By 2006, all smiles had vanished. In between, I'd watched the US military spend a lot of money landscaping the park. Only for it to become a "dead, dying place" that was a monument, like much else in Iraq, to bungled American effort.

Now, it seems, the tide has turned, at least enough for Iraqi families to meander down the Tigris. That's cause for unequivocal celebration.

While I was in Ghana, I read a paper called the Daily Graphic. One day, it had two ads on successive pages, the first about broadband Internet from a company called Care 4U becoming available in the central city of Sunyani, the second about the "high incidence of open defecation in Ghana."

"Most affordable! Feel the speed!" said the first ad. The second, from a Ghana sanitation monitoring agency, estimated that "more than four million people in Ghana defecate in the bush, open drains, water bodies, or fields" and suggested means to stop the practice.

Two images of an African nation — modernizing or primitive: I know which comforts the continent's stubborn stereotypes. Africa Ascendant is not yet a slogan that sells. It will be.

And, oh, by the way, the Cold War's over, dead, buried and unlamented. Europe is free and Georgia will be part of it.

Roger Cohen is an editor-at-large for The International Herald Tribune. Readers are invited to comment at his blog:

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