The New York Times’ Africa desk has seen better days. On Friday, reporters out of Paris and New Delhi wrote a shallow and even misleading story on the unfolding violence in the Republic of the Congo. The occasion for the coverage is the bloody aftermath of the country’s shambolic election in March that accorded septuagenarian President Denis Sassou-Nguesso a third consecutive term in office. The NYT reports:
On April 4, the day that final election results were released, shooting broke out in the southern districts of the capital, Brazzaville, which are considered to be opposition strongholds. Military barracks and checkpoints and two police stations were targeted in a gun battle that lasted nearly two days, according to the International Federation for Human Rights.
Human right groups have also reported that airstrikes and a ground offensive took place in Pool, another area known for harboring opposition figures, starting the next day.
The report is typical of how the press covers Africa. Everything is impersonal: shooting “broke out,” sites “were targeted,” and airstrikes and a ground offensive “took place.” Who are the actors? What motivates them?
Reading between the lines, it seems like the “opposition” initiated attacks after receiving news of disappointing election results, and the government—the only actor with air assets and uniformed ground forces at its disposal—retaliated. But the Times never says as much, so it’s hard to be sure.
Let’s read on:
The federal government has blamed a group called the “Ninjas,” former militiamen active during a civil war in the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, for the violence after the election. In particular, officials have blamed the former Ninja leader Frédéric Bintsamou, known as Pastor Ntumi, which means “the messenger” in Lari, a local language. In April, the government issued an arrest warrant for him in connection with the recent unrest. He denies any direct involvement in the shootout or violence in the Pool region.
Like most of the piece, this section is fine on reporting the bare facts, but fails to provide much analysis or context. First, there is no indication of the Ninjas’ motivation or support base. As it turns out, the Ninjas are a primarily Protestant insurgent group, much in the mold of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has operated in the neighboring Central African Republic. Second, the passage hints at Bintsamou’s significance, and even gives his nickname, but fails to actually explain who he is and why he matters. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to discover that Bintsamou is a Protestant pastor in a majority Protestant country (Sassou-Nguessou is Catholic) and that his supporters follow him with a messianic mentality that helps to explain the intensity of their support. Third, “Lari” is mentioned, but only as a language. In fact, Lari is both a language and an ethnic group, one long marginalized and largely excluded from plum government jobs. Moreover, there are a significant number of Lari Ninjas, as a report from the UK Home Office details.
Readers might also appreciate knowing the geography of the Pool region where the air strikes took place: Pool surrounds the country’s capital at Brazzaville. Small wonder then that the government is so concerned about what looks like the resumption of hostilities by a fanatical ethnoreligious group with a support base mere miles outside the capital.
The most concerning thing about this article is its failure to communicate the essential facts of Congo-Brazzaville’s internal politics. Again, the NYT:
Mr. Sassou-Nguesso first came to power in 1979 and governed for 13 years before losing an election in 1992. In 1997, he again assumed power after a civil war killed 10,000 people and displaced thousands more. He enjoys little popularity outside of the northern districts of Brazzaville and the remote northern region where he grew up. He was sworn into his new five-year term in April.
This passage raises more questions than it answers. Power didn’t just “come” to Sassou-Nguesso. He seized it in a coup and then regained the presidency after serving as the leading rebel general in a bloody civil war. Sassou-Nguesso has flimsy support outside of Brazzaville and his home region because his rule is staked on patronage networks that reward members of his own Mbochi ethnic group, which dominates the civil service as well as the officer corps of the military.
The NYT piece on Congo employs language that obscures more than it enlightens. The labels of “government” and “opposition” are not particularly helpful in a country where politics is characterized by ethnic and religious fault lines. The “government” is better understood as an Mbochi cabal that harnesses the country’s oil and timber wealth to enrich supporters and suppress rebellions by disempowered groups. The goal of a given “opposition” group—if examples from countries with similar dynamics are any guide—is usually less to create a fair society for all and more to ensure that the members of that group can protect themselves and receive the state’s spoils.
Cultural elites pride themselves on rising above the American public’s ignorance about the world, but if they take their cues from articles like this one (and they do), they won’t be any better informed than hoi polloi they so roundly scorn. This kind of hazy, fog-of-war reporting fails to deliver the kind of illuminating coverage readers deserve and need.