This is a guest post from Adam Steinfield, a Dakar-based journalist. Adam takes on important issues regarding the use of evidence in journalism. He argues that the New York Times has mischaracterized the role of ex-President Abdoulaye Wade on the Senegalese political scene, and proposes an alternative understanding of Wade’s role and status. – Alex
There have been numerous academic studies done on how the Western media cover Africa.* While reporting varies from nation to nation, there are some overlapping trends. Western journalists tend to cover Africa in a sensationalized manner. Atypical stories are chosen to represent Africa as a whole with the majority of coverage focusing on negative, crises-driven news. A recent example of this is the New York Times piece, “In Spirit and in Form, Ousted Titan Keeps a Hold Over Senegal,” which suggests that political corruption runs rampant in Sénégal and that their recent democratic transition of power was hollow.
The piece deals with the on-going presence of ex-President Abdoulaye Wade in Sénégalese politics. Wade was voted out of office in late March while trying to run for a controversial third term in a fairly heated election. Now Wade continues to make headlines as an outspoken figure on the political scene and the Times article posits that praising Sénégal for a peaceful transition of power may be a bit premature. Some sinister suggestions are made that Wade is actually still running things from behind the scenes.
From a journalistic standpoint, there is not much offered in the way of proof. Vague references to Wade’s autobiography and the fact that his press secretary continues to sign his releases “President” are the only sources offered in the first four paragraphs. By this point, the article has already made several assertions on Wade’s position in the power structure, as well as on Wade and his successor Macky Sall’s state of mind.
The article’s argument is centered around two main points. First, Wade remains front and center in the minds of the people. The article supports this by quoting newspaper headlines, claiming people still refer to him as “Master Wade” without providing any proof, and offering anecdotal evidence that he still enjoys the support of the influential and wealthy marabouts (Sénégalese religious figures).
The second point deals with money. Wade’s government acquired over 400 new cars while in office and allegedly distributed many of them in return for political fealty or favors. All of this occurred while Wade was President, but the implication is that Wade still possesses a great deal of resources that allow him to influence proceedings. The article also outlines President Sall’s response to this, which was to revive an anti-corruption agency to track down the vehicles and other misappropriated resources.
Most of the article’s concerns toward Wade are easily answered. Instead of unsupported suspicions of Wade secretly pulling the strings, one could simply look at his very legitimate role in the current political system. Wade is currently the Secretary-General of the Parti Démocratique Sénégalais, which happens to be the largest opposition party in the government at the moment. In most democratic countries the leader of the opposition receives a significant amount of press coverage and support from the citizenry. Wade’s resources and ties with the marabouts make him slightly more dangerous than the average opposition figure I suppose, but if all that alleged power couldn’t save him from a landslide loss in the election, I have trouble seeing what it will do for him now. Especially since the anti-corruption group appears to be making some headway.
None of this is to say that Wade has no more designs on power. The problem is that the article fails to provide any specific instance or evidence of Wade actually retaining or gaining newfound power since the election. The piece falls right into the same old coverage of Africa by playing up the negative while ignoring more positive stories. There is certainly a time and a place for stories on political corruption in Africa, and even in Sénégal specifically. However, due to the ubiquity of the frame of political corruption on the continent, journalists should make doubly sure the frame fits before applying it.
I do think the Times has made an effort to offer well-rounded reporting on Sénégal. For the most part their election coverage was even-handed and their recent piece on wrestling in Sénégal (laamb) offered an interesting look at an important part of Sénégalese culture. There are plenty of other stories to write about as well; from Dakar’s recent fashion week, to the battle between Sall’s government and foreign fishing industries over fishing licenses, or the regional initiative to build a “Great Green Wall” across the Sahel. This time though, the Times sensationalized Wade’s headline grabbing by suggesting the transition of power was null. In doing so, they fell into the same rote characterization of politics in Africa that journalists have been using for a long time.
* See, for example, Narinder Aggarwala, “Third World News Agency.” Paper presented at the conference on “The Third World and Press Freedom,” The Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, New York, May 12-13, 1977.