Earlier this month, the NYT reported about mutinying soldiers in the Ivory Coast, sometimes styled as Côte d’Ivoire in a nod to the Francophile affect of the West African country’s first and longest-serving president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. While it’s understandable that some details might be misrepresented in rapid reporting during a developing crisis, the report is sadly mired in the vagueness and beside-the-pointism we’ve noted before in Africa reportage from the Grey Lady. Here’s how the article opened:
Angry soldiers took up arms in at least two cities in Ivory Coast on Friday in a demand for pay raises and other concessions, paralyzing commerce and street life, and terrifying citizens who still have memories of civil war.
Gunfire rang out early Friday across Bouaké, the second-largest city in this West African nation, amid news reports that soldiers had seized at least two police stations there. Bouaké was the crucible of a civil conflict that plagued the country from 2002 to 2011 and left thousands dead.
It’s a solid start, if a little melodramatic. After that last sentence about Bouaké, it might have been helpful to include a two-sentence summary of the Ivorian civil conflict and then briefly explain Bouaké’s significance in it. But NYT declines to include that useful context, and the piece plows on (For readers who want to know what’s really going on in Ivory Coast, we’ll provide the missing context later in this post):
Later in the morning, soldiers launched a similar mutiny in the city of Daloa, according to Yolande Kouame, who works for a financial institution there. She said that shots had been fired at about 10 a.m. and that soldiers had blocked entrances into town. There were news reports of a similar disturbance in the northern city of Korhogo.
In recent years, Ivory Coast has shed its violent past to become one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. It is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, and President Alassane Ouattara has invested in roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects that have lured back multinational corporations that fled during the conflict. The country celebrated its first peaceful presidential election in two decades when Mr. Outtara was re-elected in 2015.
At this point, the astute journalist might do a few things. She could revise the first sentence to drop the clichéd “violent past” phrase and substitute in its place a longer view of Ivorian history. In this view, the Ivorian violence of the 1990s-2000s represents a dramatic break from decades of peace and cocoa-fueled starting in the 1960s. Ivory Coast hasn’t always been a “war-torn” African stereotype; it was once a real success story, and in some quarters Ouattara’s presidency is viewed as something of a throwback to the “good old days” of Houphouët-Boigny. The astute reporter could also imply that the mutinying soldiers might feel “left behind” by the recent growth. Finally, she would not fail to spellcheck the president’s name in that last line—it’s “Ouattara,” not “Outtara.”
Instead, the writers of this piece next attempt a trick that might be familiar to anyone who’s sat in on a college seminar or attended a high school Model UN conference: they confidently spout interesting but irrelevant information.
But last year, militants stormed a popular strip of resorts and killed more than a dozen people, leaving bodies strewn across a beach. The North African affiliate of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the attack, one in a series to hit West African capitals. Ivory Coast is also struggling with a serious deforestation problem and has been evicting cocoa-farming squatters from its lush, protected forests.
This section highlights a main problem with the piece: Just because the Times hasn’t reported much on Ivory Coast lately does not mean that the first report on a developing situation must include a comprehensive “catch-up-on-Ivory-Coast” section. It’s just best to cut the extraneous material. The jihadi militant attacks have nothing to do with the mutineers. Same deal with the cocoa-farmer evictions and the deforestation problem. Would a report on striking workers in France also meander into a discussion on terror attacks and farm subsidies? Africa reporting should be held to the same standards of analysis we expect for the rest of the world.
The biggest problem with the piece is that it fails to answer the question readers will have at the back of their minds: Who are the mutineers?
An analysis from The World Weekly provides an answer to that question:
After years of conflict the Ivorian military remains an army divided. Nick Branson, senior researcher at the Africa Research Institute, told The World Weekly that it’s likely the Bouaké mutinies were instigated by former soldiers of the Forces Nouvelles (FN) rebel army.
Before their integration into the national army, the FN was headed by Guillaume Soro, who led a revolt against former President Laurent Gbagbo in the early 2000s. Since then he has served in a number of key roles, including as prime minister. Right now, he is president of the National Assembly.
The mutiny erupted on the day that elections for the presidency of the National Assembly were set to take place. Mr. Branson thinks this was no coincidence. The assembly president has traditionally been the “constitutional dauphin (or legal successor)” to the president. But the rules were changed with the adoption of a new constitution in October 2016.
Now, in the event of the president’s incapacitation it would be the vice president, not Mr. Soro, who would succeed him. This could allow President Ouattara – who has not committed to staying until the end of his mandate in 2020 – to arrange his own succession, bypassing Mr. Soro.
The rebellion from Mr. Soro’s allies can therefore be read as a show of force. By displaying their might on the streets of Côte d’Ivoire they were reminding the political establishment that they remain a force to be reckoned with even if their grip on political levers is slipping.
Now the fog begins to dissipate. These mutinying soldiers represent the remnants, perhaps more cohesive than previously understood, of the same Forces Nouvelles that helped to bring the current president to power after a disputed election in 2011. They’re Ouattara’s guys. In the language of American politics, they’re his base. They were operating out of Bouaké, a northern city that resented Ouattara’s predecessor and in the 2011 elections helped elect Ouattara president. And, in a plausible hypothesis, their uprising might also reflect some behind-the-scenes muscle-flexing by one of the president’s ambitious lieutenants, a potential successor who feels threatened by recent changes.
What’s happening in the Ivory Coast is a story of disappointment, ambition, calculated violence, and betrayal. It’s a drama. It should be told that way.
In more recent dispatches, the mutineers report that the Ouattara administration has agreed to enormous payments—of 12 million CFA francs, or about $20,000, per soldier—to quell the unrest. The soldiers who remained quiet and loyal during the initial days of the crisis were not included in this generous bribery scheme. Now they are understandably upset. The latest reports out of Ivory Coast suggest that some of these neglected soldiers may have launched copycat demonstrations to secure their own “mutiny checks.” If the NYT is still paying attention to Ivory Coast, here’s one suggestion for the next update: allude to the great children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” It has more explanatory power than some of their previous reporting.