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‘Tribal’ Battlefield Congo?

‘Tribal’ Battlefield Congo?

A stream of articles on the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been published in mainstream media during the past 15 years. What stories are being told over and over again? What is missing? And what, in the end, do these stories mean for the people of the Congo? An analysis.


Congo Stories in Time Magazine and De Standaard (Part 1)

It is a well-observed phenomenon that the interest in Africa in the media waxes and wanes. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is no exception: sometimes the country is hot, sometimes it is not. But if the Congo does appear regularly in mainstream media, what is the bottom line of the stories told?

This series of three articles attempts to give an answer to this question by filtering out and analyzing the most frequently used keywords of large text corpora containing Western news about the Congo (therefore excluding book and film reviews, along with editorials). Two mainstream media which claim to strive for high journalistic standards were analyzed in particular: the American Time Magazine (66 articles) and the Belgian/Flemish daily De Standaard (263 articles).

Three main narratives in total were filtered out of the corpora. Two story lines, “Western peacemaking in the Congo” and “Time Machine Congo”, will be discussed in subsequent articles. The present article focuses at some length at the first narrative: Congo as an alleged ‘tribal’ battlefield.

Battlefield Congo

If you read an article about the Congo in De Standaard (short: DS) or Time Magazine (short: T), you are most likely going to read about war. More than half of the 100 most frequently used keywords of the time period 1995-2009 refer to military conflicts, of which “war/s” (T: 130, DS: 98), “fighting” (T: 60; DS: 127), and “conflict/s“ (T: 30, DS: 40) are merely some of the most obvious ones.

The fact that a highly bloody war rages in (Eastern) Congo explains the high amount of references only to some extent. Then, a comparison with a 1970-1980 Time Magazine corpus (a meager 11 articles in sum) shows that war journalism also dominated the headlines on Zaire in fairly stable times. Although calling the Congo conflict in the Seventies a “murky little war” (Apr. 25, 1977), this ‘little’ conflict nevertheless provided the main story line of the Congo in Time in that era. Parallel to the time period of 1995-2009, the majority of the most frequently used keywords in the Seventies refer to military conflicts, most noticeably “army/ies” (38), “war/s” (21), and “fighting” (19). Whether the war is “little” (as in the Seventies) or “big” (as in the Nineties), war stories remain the main Congo narrative, it seems.

Although the corpora of De Standaard and Time in the 1995-2009 corpus mention abundantly the executers of war – “army/ies”, “soldier/s”, “troop/s”, “forces” (e.g.T: 99, 75, 70, 70 instances respectively) – both media incessantly repeat the names of the ‘Africans’ who allegedly are pulling the strings in this battle: government “leader/s” (T: 92) such as “Mobutu” (DS: 221; T: 176) and “Kabila” on the one hand (DS: 284; T: 274) and “rebel/s” (DS: 408: T: 166) such as “Nkunda” (DS: 124; T: 93) on the other hand. President Mobutu versus Rebel leader Kabila, President Kabila versus rebel leader Nkunda. The conflict in the Congo is mostly depicted as a highly personalized battle for power between two ‘Africans’: a rebel and an official functionary. Framing the war in these terms, both media provide a cinematic and easily graspable dummy guide to the Congo Conflict for Western readers. As such, the representation of the Congo war is oversimplified in both Time and De Standaard.

Black-on-Black violence

The dummy guide to the Confo conflict and its focus on ‘celebrity’ war leaders also unveils the underlying principle which governs the conflict narratives: ‘tribal’ dispute. The corpora reveal never-ending hints at “Hutu/s” (T:75; DS: 96), “Tutsi/s” (T:75 ; DS: 50), “ethnic/ity” (T:26; DS: 24), and “tribe/s” (T: 21; DS: 29). This leads to continuing reference to the ‘celebrity’ agents of the war in terms of Black-on-Black violence. According to this ‘tribal’ narrative, “Kabila's Tutsi-led forces” liberated the Congo from Mobutu, whose forces initiated a “tribal pogrom” (T: May 12, 1997). Also according to this narrative, “Tutsi rebel leader” Nkunda (Nov. 27 2008) invaded Congo to fight against “remnant Rwandan Hutu militias” (T:Oct. 28, 2008) which can and could not be controlled by Kabila. It is also within this context that the high frequency of the keyword “Rwanda/n” (T: 179: DS: 466) should be interpreted, because the “war in Congo”, as a Time reporter writes, “took up where the one in Rwanda left off”. (Jan. 29, 2009). As a consequence, what is needed for peace in the Congo is “ethnic reconciliation", as the American actor Ben Affleck recently suggested in Time (Feb. 12, 2009). As such, wars in the Congo are predominantly framed as Black-on-Black violence, initiated by tribal incompatibility.

In contrast to the ‘celebrity’ leaders of the war, the ones who suffer from the conflict are hardly named. Mostly, they are merely depicted in anonymous masses. “Dead” (T:40; DS:108) and “refugee/s” (T:81 DS: 60) are referred to in “hundred/s” (26 in T and 66 in DS) and “thousand/s” (34 and 41), turning the victims into a mute and faceless crowds. Mass body counts constitute a central aspect in almost each war report about the Congo, thus providing an ongoing litany of (mostly vague) death scores which spice up the headlines endlessly: “More than 100 dead in Eastern Congo” (DS: Oct. 11, 2007), “Almost 100 dead in the Congo” (DS: Feb. 3, 2007), “Dozens dead in fights in the Congo” (15 May 2006). In the end, the reader is left with an impression of the Congolese as abstract estimations rather than of real people of flesh and blood.

What does this ongoing focus on war, tribal conflict, and anonymous war victims mean? What is left out in these stories?

Dehumanising the Congolese

The fact that both De Standaard and Time focus mainly on military conflicts first of all means that these media transmit a very limited and incomplete picture of Congolese society. If political, economic, and social aspects of Congo’s society are systematically ignored in favour of mere sensational body counts and raw reports on acts of violence, no truthful and multileveled understanding can be transmitted about the Congo. The Congo equals war and its atrocities and that is it. The (complicated) political forces which shape a country are left out to great extent. Consequently, news reports on the Congo by De Standaard and Time tend to oversimplify the country to great extent.

Linking the Congo systematically to war is no doubt both one-sided and short-sighted, but hinting systematically at the roots of the war in ‘tribal’ terms is downright hurtful to the Congo and its people. By emphasizing and endlessly repeating that the war in Congo is motivated by ‘tribal’ forces, the subtext of the Congo conflict is one of primitivism, irrationality, cultural determinacy, and chaos. Within this framework of primitivism, it does not surprise that De Standaard hints more than once at issues which are, more often than not, rumours: stories of cannibalism (e.g. Jan. 9, 2003), narratives of witchcraft (e.g. Dec. 24, 2007) and so forth. As a result of this ‘tribal’ framing, Congo seems to be caught in an endless and unsolvable cycle of wars, horrors, and irrationalities.

Black-on-Black violence and tribalism “serve the purpose of dehumanising” conflicts, suggests the American media researcher Beverly Hawk in Africa’s Media Image (page 9), and this is certainly the case in the news reports about the Congo. The Congolese war sufferers, for instance, are hardly ever granted the right to speak in the news reports. They barely are focused upon as individual human beings with a history, with a psychology, with a life of their own. If they appear, they mostly do so anonymously in large and estimated numbers. It seems that the dignity of a precise number is not a dignity Time and De Standaard seem to accord regularly to the Congolese war victims. Whatever the reasons for this systematic imprecision, the effects of this are a profound dehumanisation and insubstantialization of the Congolese people: twenty more or twenty less, it is all the same, it suggests.

Framing the Congo in tribal terms is reducing the conflict to an ‘African’ problem. It leaves at least one of the agents off the hook which decisively affects the war: the West. The latter’s appearance in the media stories on the Congo will be discussed in part two of this series of articles.

Interesting and useful

Interesting and useful analysis. Since I read this is part one, I look forward to the next part.

het zou ook interessant zijn

het zou ook interessant zijn eens zo'n analyse te doen van de artikelen in indymedia...