Opinion: Media coverage of Ukraine shows it’s time to rethink what we know about Africa

Editor’s Note: Moky Makura is the executive director of Africa No Filter a group working to shift stereotypical and harmful narratives within and about Africa through storytelling and community building. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.


“It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” These were the words of Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, during a recent BBC interview about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It wasn’t so much what he said, it was more what was implied; that not all lives have equal value. And that idea – the belief that some races are superior to others – is a fundamental principle of racism. It’s alarming to me that Sakvarelidze was left unchallenged during his interview.

As a Black, African woman without the benefit of blue eyes or blonde hair, it’s been equally emotional to see the number of racist and ignorant comments in the coverage on Ukraine that have passed unchallenged by the interviewers and media platforms that have aired them. CBS, Aljazeera, France’s BFM TV and ITV have all reported the invasion in ways that illustrate deep bias, informed by a belief system that screams of an old-world, White-led, order.

ITV News correspondent Lucy Watson on ITV reporting back to the studio summed up the collective hypocrisy and underlying narrative that the Ukrainian war has exposed when she said: “The unthinkable has happened…this is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe!”

According to the narrative she believes, “unthinkable things” happen only in “third world nations” (now an outdated and derogatory term, someone should tell her), and that narrative is perpetuated by the type of stories she and many like her, have heard about the continent.

In Africa, it’s the stories of conflict in Ethiopia, insurgency in Mozambique, election violence in Uganda, and the recent coups in Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau. But it’s clear that far too many are not paying attention to them because the people in these stories are not rich or from the Global North.

It’s the reason why the ‘unthinkable things’ that happen in places like Africa are typically reported in terms of issues, numbers and trends – rather than the people, the emotions and the lives destroyed. In Africa our stories tend to offer simplistic analysis that lacks context and nuance, and prioritizes headline-grabbing proclamations, like this one from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres about an “an epidemic of coup d’états” in response to the six coups in five out of 54 African countries over an 18-month period.

These examples have shown us that global media is complicit in perpetuating racist narratives, by not encouraging diversity in its newsrooms and giving an unrestricted platform to reporters and influential spokespeople with implicit biases that are left unchallenged. But rather than dwelling on this, I want to share some of the facts that should make us all rethink the traditional and stereotypical ways we dismiss non-White, non-rich countries and their people.

The traditional world order is undergoing a dramatic shift, driven by Covid-19, China, Russia, and movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. The new world order is providing an opportunity for the world to rethink the little they know about the rest of the world.

By 2050, Nigeria will overtake the United States as the world’s third-most-populous country with a population of 400 million people. That’s one reason enough to pay attention. Africa’s population is growing rapidly and experts predict it will account for half the world’s people growth in the next two decades.

This means that more than a quarter of the world’s population will be on just one continent – Africa. The thought that the world will be overrun by Africans (no blue eyes or blonde hair here) will be an uncomfortable idea for some people, especially if they are unaware of the roughly 125,000 millionaires, 6,200 multimillionaires, 275 centimillionaires, and 22 billionaires that exist on the continent today.

Indeed, a report by the University of Southern California in 2019, highlighted how poorly Africa is depicted in the US. It also revealed that Americans seldom see mentions of Africa or Africans on TV entertainment shows or in the news.

When they do, the portrayals are often negative and stereotyped. According to the report, most mentions of Africa (43%) appeared on national or local news and tended to be ‘hard’ news stories which often fed the stereotype. After politics (32%), crime received the most mentions (16%), while business and the economy accounted for just 8% of news coverage.

Over 60 research papers, reports, books, academic journals that we analyzed from the year 2000 written on Africa in the media told us that poverty, conflict, corruption, disease and poor leadership were the five frames through which most stories are told about Africa.

This persistent portrayal of a single story is the reason why over the years, Africans have fought back with hashtags like #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou and #SomeoneTellCNN over a 2015 CNN report describing Kenya as a “hotbed of terror,” for which it later amended. And organizations like Africa No Filter, which set out to shift stereotypical narratives about Africa, were created. It’s the reason why the Twittersphere erupted recently when journalist Alan Macleod put together his greatest hits of racist coverage of the Ukraine invasion – thank you, Alan!

Contrary to what negative media portrayals might have you believe, Africa actually has some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. For example, to most of the world, Rwanda is synonymous with its 1994 genocide. But with an average GDP growth predicted of 6.7 between 2021-2025, it is in the top five of the fastest-growing economies alongside India. Rwanda has been able to attract foreign direct investment and is one of the easiest places to do business in Africa (after Mauritius) according to a World Bank index. This means Rwanda and countries like Seychelles, Mauritius, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Kenya are worth considering as potential destinations for investment, not just development dollars.

Don’t ignore the data that shows that there are more than 400 companies that earn annual revenues of $1 billion or more in Africa, or that the second fastest-growing tourism market in the world is right here in Africa.

It’s also unlikely that many in the Global North will know any of this because it doesn’t fit the narrative both have been fed about non-white, ‘third world countries.’

The fastest-growing developer community and tech start-up ecosystem in the world is in Africa. Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania are ranked in the top 20 Global Crypto Adoption Index. This means they have some of the highest grass-roots adoptions of cryptocurrencies in the world. In fact, Kenya has been ranked first in the world when it comes to peer-to-peer cryptocurrency transactions. Given all this digital activity, it is hardly surprising that Africa is one of the fastest-growing markets in terms of venture capital activities and financial technology.

Africa is also regarded as the world’s second-fastest-growing and profitable payments and banking market after Latin America, according to this McKinsey study.

The reality is that much of what is happening in Africa today is unexpected. For example, six countries; Namibia, Cape Verde, Ghana, South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Botswana have a higher Press Freedom Index rating than the USA, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But that doesn’t fit the persistent image of a broken continent where nothing works, and where its sad, dependent people lack agency to make a change. The truth is there is new dynamic energy and entrepreneurial spirit on the continent which is a story that is largely untold, and its evidenced by the low esteem with which those in the Global North hold us.

It’s a story that is hidden because its heroes are neither White, nor do they hail from ‘up there.’ But from the way the world is evolving, that’s not going to matter much anymore. Everyone, including the media covering the Ukraine invasion, should pay attention.






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