Africa, Finally

In the face of the much-deserved media coverage of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, it was gratifying to see the Nobel Peace Prize committee acknowledge a sadly under-reported, but no less bloody nor intractable, arena of conflict: Africa. The Nobel committee awarded the prize earlier this month to Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head-of-state. They shared the award with Tawakul Karman of Yemen, a pro-democracy campaigner.

In bestowing the honor, the Nobel committee was clearly underscoring the role of women in promoting peace and democracy. The committee said the three received the award “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Indeed, the prize’s citation read: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.” But by choosing two -thirds of the honorees from Africa, the committee also shone a bright light on that continent’s oft-neglected conflicts, the world’s “other wars.”

Ms. Gbowee received the award for uniting Christian and Muslim women against the warlords of a civil conflagration that raged in Liberia for 14 years. She founded the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement in 2002, which began with women praying and singing in a fish market. Ms. Gbowee mobilized thousands of women in nonviolent protests that included a sex strike and the push for peace talks among the warring factions. These and other actions helped to end to the conflict in 2003, which led to the democratic election of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf in 2005.  For her part, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf is seen as having brought peace and stability to Liberia. She created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the mandate to  “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by investigating the civil upheavals, and secured forgiveness for billions of dollars of Liberian debt.

That the Liberian conflict dragged on for so long, and with such horrendous results, speaks to the world’s general indifference to Africa. I was in Liberia at the start of the first convulsion of the conflict, in 1989-90. I watched as two rival rebel groups hacked their way through the country, bent on overthrowing the dictatorial president, Samuel Kanyon Doe. The war turned into a tribal bloodbath: soldiers from differing tribes were decapitated and had their penises severed; innocent civilians were massacred. All this happened during the run-up to the first Gulf War. Thus, after their initial interest, members of the international press corps melted away, decamping to the sexier story in the Middle East. Yet the remarkable brutality in Liberia, the killing, rape, maiming and wanton destruction went on, in one form or another, until 2003. (And spilled over, most horrifically, into neighboring Sierra Leone.) After a while, the original aim of the conflict–the ousting of the president, the defense of the government, the primacy of the tribe–ceased to matter; only the killing counted. The killing became a sickness, a rottenness that infected everyone, destroying the stuff that holds a people together.

But the West has always maintained a certain lack of feeling about Africa. That callousness is perhaps best characterized by the attitude of a former foreign editor for one of the biggest newspapers in the U.S.  A friend of mine covered the continent in the 1980s for the paper and was among the first Western reporters to encounter the famine in 1983-84 that ravaged Ethiopia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. He tried desperately to interest the foreign editor in the story. Her response? “People are always starving to death in Africa. Where’s the news in that?” At a time when Western media organizations are closing their African bureaus or greatly reducing their presence on the continent because of budget constraints, this indifference only grows. Today there is a famine in Somalia that barely rates coverage. Conflicts continue in Sudan, Central African Republic and the Congo–where several million people are estimated to have died.

Where, indeed, is the news in all that?